Wednesday, March 16, 2022

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 62: Capitals at Blue Jackets, March 17th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

After treating fans to a milestone, some extra hockey, and a freestyle competition that seemed as if it might go on forever – all in one game -- the Washington Capitals head back on the road on St. Patrick’s Day to face the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena.

The Caps will take a six-game points streak (5-0-1) into their contest with Columbus, while the Blue Jackets will be playing in the back half of a back-to-back set of games after visiting the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday night.

Since defeating the Caps, 5-4, to open February, Columbus has been very much an up-and-down team with the sort of performance one might expect of a club whose last remaining flicker of hope for a playoff spot is all but extinguished.  Columbus will be trying to post their third streak of three or more wins since the beginning of February when Washington visits.  The Blue Jackets have a 10-5-2 record since February 1st wrapped around those winning streaks, but it would appear too little, too late, with Columbus sitting 13 points behind the Caps for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference with 22 games to play as of Wednesday morning.

Over those 17 games, Columbus has demonstrated an ability to score, averaging 3.65 goals per game over that stretch, seventh in the league.  Their scoring has been done it with depth, especially among the defensemen. In those 17 games, six of the nine defensemen to dress for Columbus have goals, and all of them have at least one point.  Zach Werenski leads the defense over that span in goals (four), assists (eight), points (12), plus-minus rating (plus-3), shots on goal (49), has one of the two power play goals for the defense (Adam Boqvist has the other), leads in power play points (three), and he has the only game-winning goal for the defense.  He posted these numbers while missing four of the 17 games due to an upper-body injury.

Despite this being only his sixth NHL season, Werenski is ranked highly among a number of all-time statistics for Columbus defensemen.  He is fifth among Blue Jacket defensemen in games played in team history (389), first in goals (75), second in assists (151), first in points (226), 13th in plus-minus rating (plus-4), first in power play goals (18), first in power play points (75), second in overtime goals (five), tied for first in game-winning goals (12), first in shots on goal (1,005), sixth in minutes played (9,036), eighth in blocked shots (443), second in takeaways (175), first in first goals of games (13), tied for first in empty net goals (two), and second in empty net points (eight).  Werenski has been on an extended run of production leading up to tonight’s game against Ottaway, going 4-11-15, plus-3, in his last 16 games.  He is 2-4-6, minus-3, in 17 career game against the Caps.

Of 24 skaters to dress for Columbus over these last 17 games, 20 have goals. Jakub Voracek has only two of them, but he has 13 assists to go along with them, most of any of the Blue Jackets over those games. Voracek has never been an elite goal scorer, but not for lack of talent in that area.  He does have six 20-goal seasons in 13 seasons before this one.  But this season, in the first year of his second tour with the team that originally drafted him (seventh overall in the 2007 Entry Draft), his shooting efficiency has been mysteriously poor.  His 2.9 percent shooting (three goals on 104 shots) is the worst of his career by a significant margin (5.2 percent with Philadelphia in 2015-2016).  If there is a silver lining here, and it is most like a sliver than a lining, it is that while he had one goal on 80 shots (1.3 percent) in his first 42 games, he is 2-for-24 (8.3 percent) in his last 15 games.

But goal scoring isn’t where Voracek’s contributions have been most felt.  Assists are his thing.  He has 40 assists overall, which is tied for 22nd in the league, but 30 of those helpers are primary assists, which is tied for fifth in the league.  His assist production is not out of the ordinary, either.  Since he arrived in the NHL in 2012-2013, his 436 assists rank sixth overall, and his 265 primary assists rank fifth.  Despite playing in only 298 games as a Blue Jacket in his career (26th in team history), he ranks 11th in total assists (135) and seventh in primary assists (88).  Among 96 players to have skated in at least 100 games for the franchise, Voracek ranks sixth in total assists per game (0.45) and third in primary assists per game (0.30).  Listed as day-to-day with a knee injury, he is 15-24-39, minus-2, in 50 career games against Washington.

While Columbus has been able to put the puck in the net over their 10-5-2 run, they have not been able to keep pucks out of their own net, allowing 3.65 goals per game over that stretch, equaling the 3.65 goal per game they scored.  While not all of a team’s problems with scoring defense is the fault of goaltending, it remains that Columbus’ goaltenders have poor numbers over this stretch.  Three goalies have started games over this 17-game stretch – Elvis Merzlikins (12), J-F Berube (four), and Joonas Korpisalo (one). Only twice did any of them allow fewer than three goals, both by Merzlikins, one goal on 31 shots in a 2-1 win over Montreal on February 12th and two goals on 38 shots in a 3-2 Gimmick win on March 11th.  Opponents posted four or more goals nine times in the 17 games, seven times by Merzlikins and once each by Berube and Korpisalo.   

As a group, their combined save percentage over this stretch is .899, Berube being the best of the trio at .924, but he has not appeared in a game since February 25th.  And it is not as if the Merzlikins/Korpisalo pair is in a slump.  Over the full season, among the 51 goalies logging at least 1,000 minutes, Merzlikins ranks 48th in goals against average (3.44) and 38th in save percentage (.902), while Korpisalo ranks last in that group in goals against average (.395) and save percentage (.885).  Merzlikins is 1-0-0, 4.00, .879 in his only career appearance against the Caps, while Korpisalo is 3-1-1, 1.74, .945, with one shutout in six career appearances against Washington.

1.  In their 10-5-2 run, Columbus has six one-goal wins, tied for second most in the league since February 1st.

2.  Columbus’ goal differential be period has been almost exactly break-even – minus-1 in the first periods of games and even in both the second and third periods of games.

3.  The 871 shot attempts at 5-on-5 allowed over those 17 games is fifth-most in the league, their minus-151 shot attempts differential at fives is third-worst in the league, and their 45.3 percent shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 is third-worst in the league.

4.  The Blue Jackets have allowed 45 goals at 5-on-5 over this 17-game span, fifth-most in the league.

5.  In the second game of back-to-back sets this season, no team has a worse scoring defense than the Blue Jackets (4.56 goals allowed per game).

1.  Washington has played three straight games that went into extra time (2-0-1), their longest such streak of the season and longest since they played in four straight extra time games in Games 3-6 last season (1-0-3).

2. Tuesday’s 4-3 Gimmick win was the 144rd game in team history that went to the freestyle competition (tied for 20th-most all-time).  The eight rounds they went with the Islanders was the eighth-longest session in team history and longest since they set a team record with a 20-round Gimmick in a 2-1 loss to Florida on December 16, 2014.  It was the third-longest Gimmick that ended in a win in team history.

3.  The Caps have the third-best scoring defense in road games this season (2.63 goals allowed per game).

4.  Washington scored first in 22 road games so far this season, most in the league; they have 14 wins when scoring first in road games this season, tied for second-most in the league (Boston: 15).

5.  Although the Caps have trailed first in only eight of 22 road games this season, their 4-2-2 record when doing so is second-best in the league by winning percentage (.500; Los Angeles: 9-5-3/.529).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Columbus: Patrik Laine

When Patrik Laine posted 138 goals in 305 games over his first four seasons with the Winnipeg Jets, tied for seventh-most I the league over that span, he was perhaps the most recent (at the time) entry in the sweepstakes to replace Alex Ovechkin as the league’s most prolific goal scorer (note: Ovechkin led the league with 181 goals in 313 games over those four seasons).  But then, things took a turn.  Laine played in the season opener for Winnipeg in 2020-2021, posting a pair of goals, including the overtime game winner, in a 4-3 win over Calgary.  But a few days later he suffered an injury in practice, and then, confirming trade rumors that had been swirling around him, he was dealt to Columbus with Jack Roslovic to Columbus for a third-round draft pick in 2022 and Pierre-Luc Dubois.  Laine posted only ten goals in 45 games and had a hideous minus-29 rating to boot. 

This season, Laine had to contend with a 19-game absence due to a strained oblique muscle, but he still has 23 goals in 41 games, an impressive goal scoring pace, his 0.56 goals per game ranking ninth among players appearing in at least 40 games. He has goals in 17 games this season, and Columbus is 14-2-1 in those games.  It is part of a larger trend of engagement associated with Blue Jacket success; Columbus is 12-1-2 when Laine posted at least four shots on goal.  He does have an odd aspect to his home and road splits, though.  In 17 road games he has 12 goals on 43 shots, a 27.9 shooting percentage.  But on home ice, he is just 11 for 75, a 14.7 shooting percentage.  Still a fine efficiency mark, but not as impressive as his work on the road in this area.  Laine is 3-1-4, minus-9, in nine career games against the Capitals.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

One of the defining aspects of Nicklas Backstrom’s game is his consistency – from year to year, from game to game, and it seems from shift to shift.  When he had his season debut delayed as a result of rehabilitating a hip injury, it might be expected that his consistency might suffer as he rounded himself back into game shape.  From a performance standpoint, that has not been entirely the case so far this season.  Break the 28 games he has played so far into thirds. In his first nine games, he went 2-6-8, plus-3, shooting 8.7 percent, and averaging 17:42 in ice time.  In his next nine games he went 2-4-6, minus-2, shooting 15.4 percent, averaging 18:08 per game.  In his last ten games he is 1-5-6, minus-4, shooting 7.7 percent, averaging 17:41 in ice time. 

He has slowed down a bit in his personal production, but while the Caps went 5-3-1 in his first nine games and 4-5-1 in his next nine games, the Caps are 6-3-1 in his last ten games and riding a six-game points streak (5-0-1).  But there is an odd disconnect between his performance and the team’s so far.  In 16 games in which Backstrom has points, the Caps are just 7-7-4, while they are 8-4-0 in the 12 games in which he did not record a point.  He also has an odd home-road split in his 28 games to date.  In 14 road games, Backstrom is 3-8-11, plus-3, shooting 12.0 percent, and averaging 17:17 in ice time per game.  However, in 14 games on home ice he is 2-7-9, minus-6, shooting 8.3 percent and averaging 18:22 in ice time per game.  Backstrom is 8-20-28, minus-9, in 37 career games against Columbus.

In the end…

Although Columbus won its last two games on home ice, their home record over the last three months has been generally unremarkable (8-9-3).  It is a team with less and less to play for with each passing game, and a team as leaky as this should be vulnerable to a team that has scored 24 goals in its last six games and four or more in five of them.  If the Caps can strike early, it could end the competitive portion of this game early.

Capitals 5 – Blue Jackets 2