The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Washington Capitals return to Capital One Arena for the first time since February 13 when they close out February against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Caps will be looking to climb out of a hole of recent despair. Hoping to get a spark on the road after losing five in a row on home ice, the Caps split a four-game road trip, losing the last two contests and blunting any momentum they might have been generating on the road. Meanwhile, the Leafs have come back from a 2-4-1 stretch to win their last two games, including a 10-7 mauling of the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday.
Toronto is a highly skilled offensive team. The fourth-best scoring offense in the league (3.65 goals per game) boasts seven players with at least ten goals and 18 with at least ten points. They are led in both categories by Auston Matthews (37-31-68), the league’s top goal scorer and perhaps latest contestant to topple Alex Ovechkin from his perch as the league’s most dangerous goal scorer. Matthews has been a consistent producer in his six seasons in the league, topping 30 goals in each season (40 or more three times) and 60 points in each season (more than 70 twice). He seems assured of posting his fourth 40-goal season (he has 37) and his third 70-plus points season (he has 68) and could accomplish both feats in this game. His 236 goals over his six NHL seasons to date rank second to Ovechkin (237) in 27 fewer games than the Caps’ star. This season, his nine multi-goal games rank second in the league, trailing only Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl, and only the New York Rangers’ Chris Kreider has goals in more games (27), than Matthews (26, tied with Winnipeg’s Kyle Connor). And when he scores, the Leafs win, going 19-4-3 in those 26 games in which he has goals. Matthews is on a three-game goal scoring streak going into this game, each of them a multi-point game as well (4-5-9, plus-9, overall). He is 5-6-11, plus-3, in ten career games against Washington.
One of the key factors in the Maple Leafs’ prolific offense is the contribution they get from the defense. Six of the 11 defensemen to dress for Toronto this season have at least ten points, led by Morgan Rielly (6-37-43). Rielly is in his ninth season in the league and has developed into one of its most dangerous offensive weapons from the blue line. His career started solidly in this regard, posting more than 25 points in each of his first four seasons, although he also had dismal results in his plus-minus rating, which was a combined minus-66 to go with his 25 goals and 119 points in 312 games. Since then, though, his offensive production has exploded. In 312 games over five seasons since (yes, the same number of games), including this one, Rielly is 40-189-229, plus-46. Those 229 points rank fifth among all defensemen over the last five seasons, and his goal scoring has been timely, 11 of his 40 goals being game-winners. Rielly is in, what is for him, a bit of a slump, going without a point over his last three games, tying his longest such streak of the season, which he has had on five occasions. Rielly is 1-11-12, minus-3, in 20 career games against the Caps.
Goaltending has been something of an issue for Toronto for years. Since the 2004-2005 lockout, 18 Maple Leaf goalies have logged at least 500 minutes, and only one – Curtis McElhinney – had a save percentage over .920 (.925 in 32 games and 1,737 minutes). The number one goalie for the moment – Jack Campbell – is second on that list with a .918 save percentage in 66 games and 3,818 minutes of play. Campbell is in his seventh NHL season and with his third NHL team since being taken with the tenth overall pick of the 2010 Entry Draft by the Dallas Stars (he also has a stint with the Los Angeles Kings Stars on his resume). In 38 games this season, he has set a career high for games played (38), wins (23), and shutouts (four). He does have quite a difference in his home and road performance, though, going 14-4-1, 2.07, .929, with three shutouts on home ice, but 9-4-3, 3.08, .906, with one shutout on the road. He has struggled mightily in stopping pucks lately, despite a decent win-loss record. In his last 11 games he is 5-3-1 (two no-decisions), 3.92, .869. Campbell is 0-1-0, 3.11, .857 in one appearance against the Caps in his career.
1. Toronto leads the league in faceoff winning percentage (56.3 percent).
2. Only Florida has more first period goals scored (68) than the Maple Leafs (62).
3. The Leafs lead the league in shorthanded goals scored (eight) and are second in power play goals scored (42).
4. Toronto and Colorado are the only teams in the league with winning percentages over .600 in one, two, and three goal decisions (Toronto is 13-3-4 in one goal games/.692; 5-3 in two-goal games/.625; and 16-8 in three-goal decisions/.667).
5. The Maple Leafs can be sloppy with the puck. Their 9.98 giveaways per 60 minutes are fourth-most in the league.
1. The Caps are reasonably protective of the puck, their 6.81 giveaways per 60 minutes being seventh-best in the league.
2. Washington’s 3.23 penalties taken per 60 minutes are third-fewest in the league; only four teams have taken fewer major penalties than the Caps (seven).
3. The 44 goals allowed by the Capitals in the third periods of games are fourth-fewest in the league.
4. Washington has six shorthanded goals this season, tied for fifth-most in the league. Five different players have scored shorthanded, Evgeny Kuznetsov the only one with two.
5. The Caps have 26 game winning goals this season; Dmitry Orlov and Tom Wilson have combined for almost a third of them with four apiece.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Toronto: Mitch Marner
Mitch Marner might not be the “enigmatic” player that Evgeny Kuznetsov has been from time to time as a Capital, but he has been something of a curiosity. A player of considerable offensive skill, he has yet to post a 30-goal season and has topped 70 points just once. That is changing. His 98-point outlier season in 2018-2019 gave ample evidence of what Marner is capable of, and it was the first of four seasons, including this one, in which he averaged more than a point per game. Over those four seasons, Marner has averaged 1.18 points per game, 12th in the league over that span, just behind teammate Auston Matthews’ 1.20 points per game for the team lead. And, for an “offensive” player he has both a respectable plus-minus rating (plus-66 over the last four years, tied for 14th in the league), and he eats minutes to the tune of 21:00 per game over that period (almost a minute more than Matthews’ 20:19). And when Marner scores, it is a virtual lock that Toronto wins, going 14-1-0 in the 15 games in which he has goals and 23-2-1 in he 26 games in which he has points. Nevertheless, he seems to operate largely in the shadow of Matthews and his dominating goal scoring. Marner is 15-18-33, plus-12, in his last 17 games, including four goals and two assists in the Leafs’ 10-7 win over Detroit on Saturday. He became the 17th player in Toronto history to record at least one game with six or more points and the first since Mats Sundin went 4-2-6 in a 6-5 overtime win over Florida on April 11, 2006. Marner is 3-4-7, minus-6, in 11 career games against the Capitals.
Washington: Connor McMichael
A native of Ajax, Ontario, just east of Toronto, one might expect that Connor McMichael’s first game against the Maple Leafs will be memorable, whatever the outcome for the team or for the player personally. McMichael has had a decent season in his rookie class, tied for 16th among rookie forwards in goals (seven), tied for 15th in assists, and 16th in points (15). Those rankings might be a bit higher had he averaged more than the 10:24 in ice time per game he logged so far this season, 46th among 67 rookie forwards appearing in at least ten games. He has settled into a rather ordinary pattern, though. If you look at his ten-game splits, he went 2-3-5, even, with 11;30 in average ice time in his first ten games. He followed that up with 0-2-2, minus-2/12:12 per game over his next ten games, followed that up with 2-0-2, plus-1/9:51 per game in his 21-30 game split; 1-2-3, minus-1/8:55 per game in games 31-40; and is 2-1-3, plus-1/9:28 in games 41-49 on his ledger this season. While it might seem unusual for a 25th overall draft pick to get as little exposure as McMichael has had in his rookie season, consider that while he is 7-8-15, minus-1, in 49 games overall; Phillip Tomasino, taken by Nashville with the pick preceding McMichael, is 7-10-17, minus-5, averaging 11:21 in ice time 47 games in this, his rookie season. The odd part of McMichael’s production is how weak a relationship it bears to wins and losses, where one might expect secondary scoring supplements offensive efforts in a way that translates to win. The Caps are just 3-2-2 in the seven games in which McMichael has goals, 7-4-2 when he recorded at least one point. This will be his first appearance against Toronto.
In the end…
The Caps are in a rut, and this might not be a team against whom it will be easy to escape. Toronto can light up a team with goals in bunches across its roster. They are something of a throwback, a team out of the 1980’s that is capable of winning games in wild, shoot-‘em-up, back and forth contests, and that is just not the way the Caps are built. That makes this a game of wills and ability to dictate pace and style, something the Caps have struggled to do for quite some time.
Capitals 5 – Maple Leafs 4