The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Washington Capitals return home on Saturday night to complete their back-to-back set of games, hosting the New Jersey Devils. For theses teams, this game will close the season series, each team winning one game of the series to date, the Caps opening the three-game season series with a 4-1 win in New Jersey on October 21st, and the Devils returning the favor in Washington on January 2nd with a 4-3 overtime win.
That win in January was the third win in a three-game winning streak for the Devils, arguably the high point of their season. They quickly fell on hard times after that win and stayed there, their 10-21-0 record since then being worst in the league in points earned (20) and points percentage (.323). Offense has not been a serious issue for the Devils during their 31-game slide, their 3.23 goals per game ranking 12th in the league over that span. The problem has been a defense that has allowed 3.77 goals per game, the 29th-ranked scoring defense over that stretch.
You might say that the deterioration of the Devils’ scoring defense corresponds with losing goalie Mackenzie Blackwood to a heel injury shortly after the win against the Caps. However, he had ben playing poorly since the end of November, going 5-8-1, 3.58, 877 over a 15-game stretch before leaving the lineup, the poor results perhaps a product of the heel problem. Three goalies have played since then – Nico Daws, Jon Gillies, and Akira Schmid – but the Devils seem to have settled on Daws, and perhaps not just in Blackwood’s absence, the Devils are said to have shopped Blackwood at the trading deadline.
Whether Daws is the next goalie of the future for the Devils is a question for another day, but he is struggling somewhat in the present. Since Blackwood left the lineup, he is 6-7-0, 3.06, .903, an improvement over Blackwood’s pre-absence performance but still 37th of 53 goalies with at least 400 minutes over that span and 33rd in save percentage. His even strength save percentage (.913) ranks 26t of 43 goalies playing in at least 10 games over that stretch, nestled between Philipp Grubauer and Sergei Bobrovsky in that category. It is understandable that Daws would have middle-of-the-road numbers at best with a young tram with a poor record, and to that add that he is a 21-year old rookie who happens to be the only goalie in his draft class (2020, third-round, 84th overall) to have played in an NHL game to date. His home/road splits are mirror images of one another. He is 6-1-0, 2.41, .917, with two no-decisions in nine games at home, but he is 1-6-0, 3.90, .883 in seven games on the road. This would be his first career appearance against the Caps.
New Jersey’s team defense has been a shared mess, if even strength goals on and off ice among the individuals is an indicator. Of 27 skaters to dress since the Devils beat the Caps to start the new year, only three skaters are not minus players in even strength goal differential, and forward Jesper Bratt is the only player in positive territory (plus-2). If not for his having a career season, there is no telling how much worse this season might be going for the Devils. In four NHL seasons before this one, Bratt’s career high in goals was 16 in 60 games in 2019-2020; he had a career high of 25 assists in 51 games in 2018-2019, and his career best in points was 35 points in 74 games as a rookie in 2017-2018.
So far this season, in 59 games, Bratt has eclipsed his career highs I all three categories, going 21-42-63. His home/road splits are rather consistent, going 10-23-33, plus-6, in 30 games on home ice with a 13.2 shooting percentage, while on the road he is 11-19-30, minus-4, in 29 games with a 12.6 shooting percentage. And Bratt is a player with promise, based on his early career numbers. At age 23 with 290 games played for the franchise, he is third all-time in points among those Devils with fewer than 300 games played and age 23 or younger (193), trailing only Petry Sykora (221) and Brendan Shanahan (214). He has improved his production over time this season. Over his last 30 games only once did he go consecutive games without a point and is 13-26-39, plus-1, over that span. Bratt is 3-2-5, minus-1, in 19 career games against the Capitals.
Nine rookie skaters have dressed for the Devils so far this season, and the leader in games and scoring in that group is center Dawson Mercer. While it seems unlikely he will get a lot of attention in the Calder Trophy voting for the league’s top rookie this season, he ranks highly among rookies in a number of offensive categories – tied for third in games played (64), tied for fourth in goals (16), tied for eighth in assists (20), tied for sixth in points (36), tied for fourth in even strength goals (13), sixth in even strength points (29), and he is one of six rookies with a shorthanded goal. Mercer is also fourth among rookie forwards in blocked shots (29) and is second in takeaways (43). And on a team that struggles as much as New Jersey, he if tied for third among rookies in even strength goals for on-ice (50). Not that he has avoided the defensive trouble that have plagued the Devils; he has been on ice for the third-most even strength goals among all rookies (53). As one might expect of a rookie, though, his home/road splits are, well, split. In 32 games on home ice, Mercer is 11-13-24, plus-11. But on the road, in 32 games, he is 5-7-12, minus-15. He is just 1-1-2, minus-5, in his last seven road games, all which were losses for the Devils. Mercer is 0-1-1, minus-3, in two career games against Washington.
1. The Devils are tied for last, with Montreal, in scoring defense on the road this season (4.00 goals allowed per game).
2. New Jersey’s road power play lacks power; they rank 31st in the league at 13.2 percent.
3. If the Devils do one thing well on the road, it is score early. Their 36 first period goals in road games rank third-most in the league. Unfortunately, they seem to give it all back in the second periods of road games. The 50 middle period goals allowed is most in the league.
4. No team in the league has fewer wins in road games when scoring first than the Devils (five), and their .357 winning percentage when scoring first (5-8-1) is last in the league.
5. The Devils are the only team in the league with winning percentages under .300 in one-goal games -- .273 in one-goal decisions (3-6-2), .286 in two-goal decisions (2-5), and .214 in decisions of three or more goals (3-11).
1. Washington has the fourth-worst winning percentage in one-goal decisions on home ice (.333/5-5-5).
2. The Caps 15-13-5 record in 33 home games to date is their third-worst winning percentage (.530) in 17 seasons since the 2004-2005 lockout.
3. The Capitals scoring defense on home ice (3.00 goals allowed per game) is the fourth-worst since the 2004-2005 lockout.
4. Washington’s net penalty kill on home ice after shorthanded goals for are accounted for (89.9 percent) is their best since the 2004-2005 lockout.
5. The Caps have allowed only 27.8 shots per game on home ice this season, third-fewest since the 2004-2005 lockout.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
New Jersey: P.K. Subban
At 32 years of age, defenseman P.K. Subban, the elder statesmen among the New Jersey skaters, is not the force he was in Montreal, the team with which he began his NHL career and for which he played seven seasons, or that he was in Nashville, for that matter, a city in which he spent three seasons. Now in his third season with the Devils, Subban has yet to hit the 30-point mark, something he did in each of his nine full seasons before arriving in Newark. His 21 points in 61 games so far this season is his high-water mark to date with the Devils. He has yet to produce a power play goal after 11 straight seasons in which he had at least two In fact, he has yet to produce a power play point so far this season. But then again, he is averaging only 42 seconds per game in power play ice time, compared to Dougie Hamilton, who leads the defense with 2:28 in power play ice time per game. Still, it is the lowest average power play ice time of his career by more than a minute per game (2:02 per game with the Devils last season). He is not getting much time killing penalties, either, his 51 seconds per game being the third-lowest average ice time on the penalty kill of his career.
The lack of work on special teams has left Subban with the lowest total average ice time of his career at 18:49 per game, the first season in which he averaged less than 20 minutes per game. He has gone 15 games without hitting the 20-minute mark, the last time he did it being back on February 13th in a 4-2 loss to Pittsburgh (20:25). In 39 career games against the Caps, Subban is 1-11-12, minus-13.
Washington: Evgeny Kuznetsov
After a couple of disappointing seasons of offensive production, one might call Evgeny Kuznetsov “The Happy Warrior” these days. He is a point-per-game player (1.02 points per game) for the first time since his career year in 2017-2018, when he averaged 1.05 points per game. His 22 goals in 62 games is his first 20-plus goal season since he had 21 in 76 games in 2018-2019. His eight power play goals is tied for a career high set in 2018-2019. And, he has been more assertive shooting the puck, his 2.71 shots per game being a career high. He even has two shorthanded goals this season, equaling his total over the previous two seasons combined and doubling his career total, and he has posted two shorthanded assists, the first shorthanded helpers of his career.
Kuznetsov’s production has been rewarded with more ice time, his 20:47 per game being the first time in his career he averaged more than 20 minutes per game, and his 23.7 shifts per game being almost three more per game than his previous career high (20.8 shifts per game in 2020-2021). Much of that increase is the product of the shorthanded ice time he has logged, his 1:06 per game being a career high by almost a full minute per game (0:13 per game in 2018-2019). The increase in shorthanded ice time has not come at the expense of the other side of special teams, his 3:44 in power play ice time per game being a career high. Kuznetsov has been especially productive on home ice, where he is 13-23-36, plus-3, and with all four of his game-winning goals this season in 32 games at Capital One Arena. If Kuznetsov records at least one point against Buffalo this evening, he would go into Saturday’s game against New Jersey on an 11-game points streak. He currently stands at ten straight (7-6-13, plus-1). He is 10-19-29, plus-13, in 34 career games against New Jersey.
In the end…
This is supposed to be the start of a weekend that is friendly to the Caps in terms of opponent. Buffalo might have a weak overall record for the season, but they have played well lately and should not be underestimated. As for the Devils, the air went out of their balloon weeks ago, and they come into their game with the Caps on a seven-game losing streak on the road and just 5-20-0 over their last 25 road games. Even with this being the back half of a back-to-back set of games, this is a game the Caps should not lose.
Capitals 5 – Devils 2