The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
That's right, woodchuck-chuckers - it's...GROUNDHOG DAY! The Washington Capitals open the February home schedule with a matchup against the Edmonton Oilers at Capital One Arena. The Caps will be playing the back half of a back-to-back set of games that opened in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. The Caps have struggled on home ice of late, going 3-6-1 in their last ten home contests, only one of the wins coming in regulation (5-3 over Nashville on December 29th). Edmonton comes into this game on a five-game points streak (4-0-1), although their recent road record (2-3-3) leaves something to be desired.
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are the leads in the buddy movie that is the Edmonton offense these days, but their dominance comes at the expense of balance. McDavid, with 59 points (second on the team to Draisaitl’s 61 points), has almost doubled the point output of the third-ranked Edmonton skater, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. RNH was the middle pick in a three-year run of number one overall draft picks by the Oilers from 2010 through 2012 (Taylor Hall was the first of them in 2010, Nail Yakupov the last in 2012). Now in his 11th season with the Oilers, he has taken his place among the highest ranked skaters in several categories on the all-time franchise list. With 690 games played, he needs only five more to pass Charlie Huddy to jump into the top-ten in Oiler history. He ranks ninth in goals scored (189), 11th in assists (319), and tenth in points (508). His 50 power play goals rank ninth in team history, and his 183 power play points rank tenth. He has four overtime goals in his career with Edmonton (sixth) and 24 game-winning goals (tied for 11th). He is one of nine Oilers to have been credited with 500 or more hits (512/ninth), he has 373 blocked shots (11th) and 471 takeaways (first). This season, his overall scoring is respectable (30 points in 34 games) but has a lack of balance. RNH has only four goals on 79 shots on goal, the 5.1 shooting percentage being the worst of his career to date. He is 3-8-11, even, in his last 15 games, but although his shooting percentage has picked up a bit in that span, the 8.8 shooting percentage still lags compared to his career to date (11.6 percent). Nugent-Hopkins is 4-9-13, minus-6, in 14 career games against the Caps.
Darnell Nurse has been a minutes-eater from the blue line this season, ranking second among all defensemen in time on ice per game (26:33), almost a minute more than his previous high for a season (25:38 last season with the Oilers). In fact, since 2017-2018, only six defensemen have logged more total minutes than Nurse, and only Brent Burns has more minutes played at even strength. Not that he is an absentee on special teams. This season, he ranks second among Oiler defensemen in ice time per game on both the power play (1:16 per game) and the penalty kill (2:29). He is even the go-to defenseman in overtime, logging almost four times as many minutes in the extra session (22:20) than the second-ranked defenseman (Duncan Keith – 6:01). On offense, Nurse has done most of his damage on the road in his career, posting a scoring line of 33-65-98, plus-10, in 220 road games while going 16-62-78, plus-13, in 220 home games. He comes into Wednesday night’s game against the Caps on a four-game points streak (1-3-4). Nurse is 1-0-1, plus-4, in seven career games against Washington.
Goaltending has been an issue with the Oilers this season, and with good reason. The Oilers have employed three goalies – Mikko Koskinen, Stuart Skinner, and Mike Smith – who have combined for a 3.16 goals against average and a .902 save percentage. It has not been a matter of heavy shot burdens, the 32.0 shots per 60 minutes faced by Oiler goalies ranking in the middle of the pack in shots allowed. The problems seem to have focused on Mikko Koskinen, who is the number one goalie for the Oilers at the moment. The troubles bubbled over recently, and like the Capitals, the position might be the single most important issue to be addressed as the trading deadline approaches.
Koskinen came to the NHL as the first goalie selected in the 2009 Entry Draft (by the New York Islanders), but the NHL portion of his career has been a struggle for him ever since. He broke into the NHL in the 2010-2011 season, playing four games with the Islanders. But then, he returned to his native Finland, signing with KalPa Kuopio in November 2011 and then the Espoo Blues in April 2013. He also took a turn in the KHL, playing for Sibir Novosibirsk and SKA Saint Petersburg. He returned to the NHL in May 2018, signing as a free agent with the Oilers. He logged 55 games in his first year with Edmonton (25-21-6, 2.93, .906, with four shutouts) but appeared in only 64 games over the next two seasons (31-26-3, 2.92, .910, one shutout). He has been wildly streaky this season on a win-loss basis, going 12-2-0, 2.82, .914 in his first 14 appearances. He followed that up with a rough stretch, going 0-6-1, 4.28, .855 over his next seven appearances. He has bounced back some, going 3-0-1, 2.37, .926 in his last four games heading into Wednesday’s game in Washington. Koskinen is 1-0-0, 2.95, .893 in his only previous appearance against Washington.
1. Edmonton has the third-best power play on the road this season (28.0 percent).
2. Perhaps playing into the Caps’ strength – 5-on-5 play – the Oilers rank 26th in the league in 5-on-5 save percentage on the road (.909). And since the Oilers’ 50:20 5-on-5 ice time per road game ranks third in the league, there could be ample time for the Caps to take advantage of this Oiler weakness.
3. Blocking shots is not the Oilers’ thing. Their 10.86 blocked shots per 60 minutes in road games ranks last in the league.
4. Edmonton’s shot attempts for percentage in road games (53.2 percent) ranks third in the league.
5. The Oilers find themselves behind the eight-ball early in road games. Only four times in 21 road games did they score first, but they did finish with a win in each circumstance.
1. Washington is 5-11-1 (one tie) in 18 games played on Groundhog Day.
2. The Caps have never won a game in regulation on home ice on Groundhog Day (1-7-0), their only win being a 6-5 overtime win over the Detroit Red Wings on February 2, 2014. Alex Ovechkin scored the game-winner on a power play 2:37 into the extra period.
3. The Caps played one Groundhog Day game at a neutral site, beating the Philadelphia Flyers, 5-2, at Richfield Coliseum in Cleveland, OH, on Groundhog Day 1994.
4. The Caps have been lit up on home ice by opponents on Groundhog Day, being outscored in eight games, 4.13 goals allowed per game to 2.50 goals scored per game.
5. Pittsburgh has been the Caps’ most frequent opponent on Groundhog Day, posting a 0-2-1 record against the Pens. This will be the Caps’ first meeting against Edmonton on Groundhog Day.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Edmonton: Evan Bouchard
The Oilers have dressed 11 defensemen this season, five of them having reached double digits in points. Evan Bouchard leads the defense in goals scored (nine), is tied for the lead in assists (15), and leads in total points (24). He is second in plus-minus rating (plus-5) and in average ice time (21:34 per gsme). Bouchard was the tenth overall pick and fourth defenseman selected in the 2018 Entry Draft. He saw limited action in his first two seasons with the Oilers (3-3-6, minus-7, in 21 total games) but has taken a leading role with this year’s club. Bouchard has been consistent in his home-road production to date, going 5-7-12 in 20 games at home and 4-18-12 in 21 road games. That disparity in plus-minus rating (plus-3 at home, minus-8 on the road) does look odd, despite the fact that the Oilers are 12-8-0 (24 points) at home and 10-8-3 (23 points) on the road. As one might expect from a defenseman, his scoring matters for the Oilers, who are 6-2-0 in games in which he scored a goal and 14-3-1 in games in which he recorded at least one point. He comes into this game with points in four of his last five games overall (3-2-5, plus-4). Bouchard is 1-0-1, minus-1, in his only appearance against the Caps to date.
Washington: Evgeny Kuznetsov
That is “All-Star Evgeny Kuznetsov,” Caps fans. Kuznetsov was named to the Metropolitan Division roster, replacing injured New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox. He is not merely a fill-in. In 42 games so far this season, he has bested last year’s totals in goals (13 to nine), assists (30 to 20), points (43 to 29), plus-minus (plus-11 to plus-7), power play goals (two to one), power play points (14 to eight), and even faceoff winning percentage, and area that has been a challenge (43.0 to 41.4). And keep in mind, those numbers from last year came in 41 games, just one fewer than he has played so far this season. His scoring per game compares favorably with his 2017-2018 career year, in goals (0.31 per game compared to 0.34 in 2017-2018), assists (0.71 in both seasons), and points (1.02/1.05). His 11 multi-point games this season trail only Alex Ovechkin (17), and he has four games with at least three points (all on home ice) versus none last season and half way to the eight he posted in that 2017-2018 career year. Speaking of home ice, Kuznetsov has been a force at Capital One Arena this season, going 9-19-28, plus-9, in 23 home games to date. He has at least one point in 16 of 23 home games, the Caps with a 10-3-3 record in those games. Kuznetsov is 5-3-8, plus-1, in 11 career games against the Oilers.
In the end...
This will be a game of pace and opposing visions of it as a means to success. Although the Caps have played with more pace and vitality lately, the Oilers thrive on a fast-paced, up-and-down the ice style of play. To the extent the Caps can dictate pace, it will loom large as a factor in who comes away with the “W.” Guess who we think will win that battle.
Capitals 5 – Oilers 4