Friday, March 04, 2022

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 57: Kraken at Capitals, March 5th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals, coming off a 4-0 dismantling of the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night, return to the Capital One Arena ice sheet to host the Seattle Kraken on Saturday evening.  The win for the Caps was their first win on home ice since they beat the Ottawa Senators, 3-2 in overtime, back on January 22nd, breaking a six-game home losing streak, and their first win in regulation on home ice since December 29th, when they beat the Nashville Predators, 5-3.

The Kraken make their first visit to Washington in team history having snapped a seven-game losing streak of their own (0-6-1) with a 4-3 win over Nashville on Wednesday.  But that was at home.  On the road, Seattle has had issues.  Their record away from Climate Pledge Arena is 7-17-2, worst in the league in points earned (16) and in points percentage (.308).  Their 2.42 goals per game on the road rank 28th in the league in scoring offense, while the 3.27 goals allowed per game rank 22nd in scoring defense.

Seattle will come into this game without its leading goal scorer, who is on injured reserve with an upper body injury.  And that leading goal scorer is a bit surprising.  In six seasons before this one, Jared McCann scored a total of 66 goals in 353 games with a high of 19 in 78 games in 2018-2019.  This season, in just 48 games, he has a team-high and career best 21 goals. Seven of them have come on power plays, matching a career high he set in 43 games with Pittsburgh last season.   

Assuming he returns to the lineup in the near future, McCann also seems a virtual lock to post a career high in points, his 33 points to date being only two short of the 35 he posted in 78 games in 2018-2019 split between Florida and Pittsburgh and matched with 35 points in 2019-2020 with the Penguins.  What he also seems destined to do as far as career numbers are concerned is post a career-worst in plus-minus, his minus-21 to date being 15 points worse than the minus-6 he recorded in 69 games with Vancouver in 2015-2016.  His home-road splits have been consistent, 10 of his 21 goals scored in 26 games on home ice and 11 in 22 games on the road.  That tracks with his shooting efficiency – 16.1 percent at home and 16.2 percent on the road.  McCann comes into this game with a fine run of late on the road, going 6-5-11, minus-1, in his last 11 road games.  He is 4-6-10, plus-2, in 16 career games against the Caps.

With McCann on the shelf, the go-to goal scorer might be Jordan Eberle, who is second on the club with 15 goals.  Eberle has been an uncommonly consistent goal scorer over his career.   In 12 seasons he has never recorded fewer than 16 goals, which he did three times, all of them in seasons in which he skated in fewer than 50 games.  His goals per 60 minutes over 12 seasons to date are in a tight zone between 0.9 and 1.2 goals, with the exception of 2011-2012, when he averaged 1.5 goals per 60 minutes in 78 games with Edmonton.  With Brandon Tanev on injured reserve, Eberle goes into this game tied for the team lead in game-winning goals (two; Tanev has three).  Odd Eberle Fact… over his last 13 games, Eberle has faithfully alternated games with points and games without them.  If the pattern holds, he will not record a point in this game, his posting an assist in Seattle’s win on Wednesday against Nashville.  Weird Eberle Fact 2… Eberle is not known as a physical player, and when he is, by credited hits standards, the Kraken have been awful.  Seattle is 3-19-0 when Eberle was credited with at least one hit.  Weird Eberle Fact 3… in 12 games in which Eberle skated less than 17 minutes, the Kraken are 10-2-0.  Eberle is 5-7-12, minus-8, in 30 career games against Washington.

Marcus Johansson was drafted by the Caps in 2009 (24th overall) and spent seven seasons with the club and playing in 502 games.  Then, in July 2017, he was traded to the New Jersey Devils for a 2018 second-round draft pick and a 2018 third-round draft pick.  It started a long and winding road for Johansson who, having been signed by Seattle in August 2021 as a free agent, is with his fifth team in the last five seasons (New Jersey, Boston, Buffalo, and Minnesota, in addition to the Kraken), playing in a total of 227 games in that span.  It is that game total that is of interest.  In those five seasons, Johansson did not dress for more than 60 games in any of them. 

Even with two abbreviated seasons in that mix, and with his 44 games played this season out of 56 on the Kraken scheduled to date not assuring him of a 60-plus game season, it is a reflection of a considerable history of injuries. Since leaving the Caps after the 2016-2017 season, Johansson has had, in order, a lower body injury (one game missed), a concussion (13 games), a bruised ankle (four games), another concussion (35 games), illness (one game), a lower body injury (one game), an upper body injury (ten games), a lung injury (ten games), illness (two games), an upper body injury (seven games), illness (one game), an upper body injury (one game), COVID (two games), an upper body injury (16 games), another upper body injury (two games), fractured arm (four games), COVID (no games), lower body injury (11 games), and an undisclosed injury that caused him to miss one game.  Not that his presence in the Seattle lineup has made much of a difference.  The Kraken are 12-28-4 with Johansson in the lineup and 5-6-1 in his absence.  They are 2-4-1 when he recorded a goal, 10-24-4 when he did not.  And, the Kraken are 4-10-2 when he recorded a point, 8-18-2 when he did not.  Johansson is 2-4-6, minus-3, in eight career games against the Capitals.

1.  Adam Larsson is the only Seattle player with an overtime goal this season.

2.  Seattle has only six instances from five players this season of game with at least three points.  Jaden Schwartz is the only Kraken to have two (by way of comparison, the Caps have had 19 instances among eight players, Alex Ovechkin matching Seattle’s team total of six).

3.  Seattle is a low-event team on the road.  They are the only team to average fewer than 30 shots on goal (27.7) and fewer than 30 shots allowed (28.3) on the road.  The are the only team in the league to have recorded fewer than 1,100 shot attempts at 5-on-5 on the road (1,082) and fewer than 1,100 shot attempts allowed (1,090).

4.  The Kraken avoid the penalty box on the road.  The 2.35 shorthanded situations face per game are fewest in the league in road games.

5.  Seattle has only three one-goal wins on the road this season.  Only the New York Islanders and St. Louis Blues have fewer (one apiece).

1.  Since January 28th, the Caps’ power play is 11-for-41, 26.8 percent, the fifth-best power play in the league over that span.  They have power play goals in nine of the 12 games played over that period, but they are just 5-4-0 in those games.

2.  Over than same span of games, the Caps’ 3.42 power play chances per game are fourth-highest in the league; their plus-9 goal differential (power play goals scored less shorthanded goals allowed) is tied for third-best in the league.

3.  In 29 home games this season, the Caps are 4-4-5 in one-goal games, their .308 winning percentage ranking 29th in the league.

4.  The 1,346 shot attempts at 5-on-5 on home ice by the Caps are fifth-highest in the league.

5.  Washington is 8-1-2 when leading games after two periods at home, but their .727 winning percentage ranks 30th in the league.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Seattle: Philipp Grubauer

Yes, Philipp Grubauer is backstopping a first-year expansion team.  Yes, goalies in that position often have a rough time of it (the Vegas Golden Knights and Marc-Andre Fleury notwithstanding).  But Grubauer is having an especially rough go of it this season.  Of 57 goalies with at least 750 minutes played, he ranks 54th in save percentage (.888), 43rd in goals against average (3.17), and last among 51 goalies to dress for at least 15 games in even strength save percentage (.888).  That 3.17 goals against average is a career worst in eight seasons in which he appeared in more than two games and by more than half a goal per game (2.64 GAA in 2018-2019 with Colorado).  That .888 save percentage is also a career worst, and by almost 30 points from his previous worst in those eight seasons (.916 in 2019-2020 with the Avalanche). 

Grubauer had an excellent stretch back in late October and early November when he stopped 87 of 93 shots (.935) and allowed two or fewer goals in all of them.  But since then, in 32 games, only twice did he allow two or fewer goals in consecutive games.  His has not been a case of being blown out of games, but more of a slow, consistent bleed off.  He has not allowed more than five goals in any game this season, but 11 times in 27 games he allowed four or five.  It is not as if Grubauer has had unique problems in goal for the Kraken – all three goalies to dress for Seattle have save percentages under .900 overall and goals against averages over 3.15.  But it is unusual to see Grubauer struggle in such fashion, given his career with the (much better, of course) Caps.  Grubauer is 2-1-1, 2.78, .920 in his career against the Caps.

Washington: Vitek Vanecek

There is hot, and there is Vitek Vanecek.  Don’t look now, but since January 15th, among 59 goalies logging at least 200 minutes, Vanecek is second in the league in goals against average (1.55) and second in save percentage (.946).  Boston’s Jeremy Swayman leads in both categories (1.39/.952).  He is tied with Jacob Markstrom and Darcy Kuemper for the league lead in shutouts over that span (three).  His .953 save percentage at even strength ranks second (again, to Swayman) among 53 goalies dressing for at least five games in that period.  That he is just 5-3-0 over that span seems almost criminal.  And if anything, he has improved on that profile in recent games, posting a .963 save percentage in his last six appearances and not allowing as many as two goals only once while posting a pair of shutouts.  And yes, he’s just 3-2-0 (one no-decision) in those six games. If you are looking at his home record, Vanecek stopped 80 of 82 shots in his last three games at Capital One (.976 save percentage).

Vanecek has spent most of this season often toiling with weak offensive support in front of him.  In 26 games overall, he has a goals against average of 2.26 (sixth among 57 goalies with at least 750 minutes played) and a save percentage of .920 (11th in that group), but his win-loss record is 11-7-5.  His goal support of 2.99 per game ranks 26th among those 57 goalies.  Only 12 times in those 26 games was his goals for average over 3.00.  If he gets the start, this will be Vanecek’s first career appearance against the Kraken.

In the end…

After an inspiring and dominating win over Carolina, the best team in the Eastern Conference, it would be a shame, not to mention extremely frustrating to waste that fine effort with a loss to one of the league’s worst teams (30th in points percentage).  But the Caps have done a decent job among bottom feeders this season, something a veteran team should be good at as a “taking care of business” matter.  Look for the Caps to build on their win on Thursday as they get their top lineup (well, most of it) back into the swing of things and look to avenge the 5-2 loss to the Kraken in Seattle back in November.

Capitals 5 – Kraken 2

Alex and Artemi

There are games, and there is life.  We try to separate the two, often using the former to take our minds off the latter.  But sometimes, they intersect, often for those who participate in those games at the highest level.  And this brings us to two hockey players, both sons of Russia, both among the best in their profession, and both caught up with the war in Ukraine and the man who is responsible for the death and destruction taking place in that country.

Alex Ovechkin is, by any measure, among the best hockey players ever to lace up skates.  From the time he was drafted as a number one overall pick in 2004, he has been adored by Caps fans and, grudgingly at times, respected by fans and media from other cities.  But lurking under the surface has been his support for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, whose history as a common, brutal, corrupt thug posing as a head of state is long and well known. 

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, though, the history of his support has bubbled to the surface, multiple media outlets reminding people of this photo taken with Putin after Russia won the 2014 world championship and that serves as his featured photo on his Instagram site. 

And there is also, if less well-known, his establishment of PutinTeam in 2017, ostensibly a non-political a social movement but one that was supported by the Kremlin on its creation.  And, given the object of its support, it would be almost impossible to conclude that there was not a significant political dimension conveying support in its activity.

With the hostilities in Ukraine escalating with Putin ordering Russian "peacekeepers" into Ukraine on February 21st, Ovechkin declined to comment on events, but he broke that silence on February 25th after a team practice.  His remarks had the appearance of trying to walk a fine line between support for and criticism of Putin.  He called Putin (not by name) “his president,” but literally in the next sentence he pointed out that he was “not in politics.”  Noting that he had family back in Russia, the message he appeared to be an attempt to convey that he wanted hostilities to end, although notably without naming the party responsible for starting them or his relationship to him.  His remarks had a certain anodyne quality to them, but they could also be described as tentative, weak, and an effort to avoid controversy. 

It was a performance not well received, and the fallout in its aftermath has been swift and widespread.  He has lost support from commercial partners, such as CCM hockey, which will no longer use Ovechkin and “other Russian players” in its global marketing campaigns, and MassMutual, which pulled its famously hilarious advertisement featuring Ovechkin and teammate Nicklas Backstrom.  Media personalities have been severe in their response.  Damien Cox of the Toronto Star and Larry Brooks of the New York Post are representative of the media reaction.

No doubt Ovechkin will pay a personal price for this (his commercial contract with CCM is reported to be worth $500,000 per year plus a percentage of sales in Russia for the partnership), but such concerns pale next to the price Ukrainians are paying these days as victims of a madman who thinks little of using civilians as targets in his misbegotten war.

And that brings us to Artemi Panarin, the New York Ranger forward who also can claim to be one of the best players of his generation in the NHL.  But on January 21, 2021, Panarin took to Instagram to support Putin rival Alexei Navalny, the post featuring the message “Freedom for Navalny.”  Before that, in 2019, Panarin noted in an interview (I highly recommend watching the entire interview) that “[Putin] can no longer distinguish between right and wrong…I don't like the lawlessness.” 

In February 2021, Russia sought retribution in the form of an accusation by a former coach that Panarin assaulted an 18-year-old woman in Latvia in 2011, knocking her to the floor and accused Panarin of escaping justice through use of a bribe.  The charge was baseless, but Panarin had to take a leave of absence from the Rangers in the wake of the charges nevertheless, and it served as an object lesson in the intimidation tactics Russia would use to enforce discipline among those who wandered off the reservation of Putin worship.

Fast forward to the last few days.  Panarin took down his pro-Navalny message on Instagram and took his Instagram account private.  He does not impress me as the sort to run from a fight (Caps fans may insert their Tom Wilson joke here), so it does beg the question of what is up behind the scenes that hockey fans and, for that matter, hockey media will never know.  It is easy to criticize Ovechkin for his overt support for Putin, and in fact, however indiscreet he might have been as a twenty-something engaging in hero worship for a political leader, he is 36 years old and cannot be blind to what is transpiring and who is the cause of it in Ukraine.  But I can’t know – and neither can you – what pressure he is under, as the most famous Russian-born athlete in North America, that escapes the light of media scrutiny.

Panarin’s case is perhaps more complex, and least in terms of what information exists in the light of day.  That interview linked above was a master class in guts to criticize Putin in no uncertain terms.  He eventually paid a personal price for his rebellious actions, albeit temporary and not of the same magnitude of Ukrainians suffering at the hands of Putin.  That he would retreat now behind a social media wall hints at the possibility of dark forces that might be trying to intimidate Russian athletes (and perhaps celebrities more generally) into support for Putin or at least silence.  It is worth noting that of 41 Russian players in the NHL, two (Ovechkin and Calgary Flames defenseman Nikita Zadorov) have  expressed opinions on Putin and the war in Ukraine, and both in rather non-committal terms.  To this you can add Panarin's past expressions of opinion on Putin.  And if you think the celebrity of Ovechkin or, to a lesser extent, Panarin or Zadorov would shield them from punishment – for them or their families – by the Putin regime, I think you are engaging in naivete. 

Going forward, with respect to Ovechkin, I have seen more than a few Caps fans express disappointment, if not outrage, at Ovechkin’s lack of full-throated opposition to the actions of Putin.  And I wonder, will these same fans, who thrilled at his talent and achievement on the ice before turning on him on this issue, will return to cheering him as he pushes forward in breaking NHL records, including (eventually) Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goal scoring record.  For those who would, there is more than a whiff of hypocrisy.  I wish Ovechkin was firmer in his press conference on this issue last week, that he, as the face of Russia in the NHL, would express more outrage at the actions of his president, but I cannot stand in his shoes.  I wonder what it was that prompted Panarin to take to the background on this matter, but I can’t stand in his shoes, either. 

When games intersect with life for professional athletes, it is all too often with bad results.  Ovechkin and Panarin, while they have spent years living and working in the United States, might not be comfortable emulating the American tradition of free debate and criticisms of their government, especially given the recent history under Putin’s Russia.  Ovechkin, who is in a uniquely difficult situation among NHL players and is under a great deal of pressure, might be deserving of a measure of restraint from fans and media as this sad story of the war in Ukraine plays out.  But please, Alex… take that Instagram avatar picture down.