Monday, April 25, 2022

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Games 80/81: Capitals vs. Islanders, April 26th/28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals begin their last week of the regular season with a home-and-home set of games against the New York Islanders on Tuesday and Thursday.  This is the only home-and-home that the Caps will play in the regular season, while for the Islanders it will be their fourth home-and-home this season, sweeping a pair of games against the Philadelphia Flyers by 4-1 and 4-3 (in a Gimmick) scores on January 17/18, sweeping a pair of contests against the Columbus Blue Jackets by 4-3 and 5-2 margins on March 29/31, and then splitting a pair against the Pittsburgh Penguins, winning in a Gimmick by a 5-4 score and dropping a 6-3 decision on April 12/14.

To say this season has been disappointing for the Islanders is an understatement.  This was a team that was expected to be competitive in the Metropolitan Division.  For example, nine of the 16 panelists at predicted a division title for the Isles, six pegged them as Eastern Conference champions, and two picked them to win the Cup. 

That dream became a nightmare in short order.  The Islanders played their first 13 games on the road as the finishing touches were applied to their new facility, UBS Arena.  Their 5-6-2 record in those games was not lethal, but coming home would be.  They opened their new palace with a five-game home stand and lost all of them (0-4-1).  It set off a 3-6-4 run (2-5-3 at home) that left them 8-12-6 through 26 games, almost a third of their season.  They dragged themselves up with a 6-1-0 run (the lone loss being to the Caps) to close the old year and begin 2022, but they then sank into also-ran status with a 6-10-2 stretch that left them 20-23-8 and in sixth place in the Metropolitan Division.  Since then, the Isles are 15-11-2, the tenth-best record in the league over that stretch, but the Isles dug themselves far too deep to challenge for a playoff spot.  They were eliminated on April 17th when they lost to Toronto, 4-2, a loss that started a five-game skid that they are bringing to Washington (0-4-1).

If there is any optimism to be had over the Islanders’ 15-11-2 run since March 5th, it is in their core players (well, most of them, but we’ll get to that) playing like core players.  Over those 28 games, Brock Nelson has 17 goals, a total that has allowed him to obliterate his personal best for a season.  His 36 goals to date far eclipse the 26 he had in the 2015-2016 and 2019-2020 seasons and to top the 200-goal mark for his career (he has 204).  If anything, Nelson has been a beacon of consistency in a season of ups and downs.  In his first ten games he had seven goals, three in his next ten, four in his third ten-game segment, five in his next ten games, eight in his next ten, six in his sixth ten-game block, and three in his last ten games, 36 goals in 70 games overall. 

That goal scoring has not had enough support to make it meaningful in terms of making the Islanders that much more competitive, the team going 15-8-4 in the 27 games in which he has goals.  Even his points contributions reflect a considerable burden on Nelson to produce.  New York is 12-3-1 when Nelson had a multi-point game, but even in games in which he had one point, the team did not perform all that well, going 8-10-4 in 22 games.  Then there is the ice time.  In 23 games in which Nelson logged at least 18:42 in ice time, the team is 6-11-6.  And there is offensive engagement.  Nelson recorded three or more shots on goal in 33 games, but the team is just 14-15-4 in those games.  Nelson is 11-10-21, minus-4, in 38 career games against Washington.

Anders Lee is the other Islander posting double-digits in goals over the 15-11-2 run (12).  Over his ten year career, Lee is the leading goal scorer for the Islanders (210, six more than Nelson).  Lee has been a very consistent goal scorer for the club.  His 26 goals this year marks the sixth season in the last eight in which he posted at least 20 goals, and he might have had a seventh had he not sustained a knee injury last year that cut his season short after posting 12 goals in 27 games.  His production has allowed him to climb to high rankings in club history.  His next goal will tie him with Derek King for tenth place on the all-time franchise list, and he ranks 18th all-time in points for the Islanders (363), six short of Stefan Persson and Kyle Okposo for the 16th spot.  He already ranks in the top ten in career power play goals for the Isles, sitting in ninth place with 61 goals.  He needs three power play points to become the 22nd player in team history to reach the 100-point mark on power plays, and h ranks tenth on the Islanders’ all-time list in game-winning goals (33).

Lee, like the rest of the team, got off to somewhat of a slow start this season, going 4-0-4, minus-3, in his first 15 games, but he lit up the scoreboard with six goals in his next eight games.  That was followed by a prolonged slowdown over which he went just 4-4-8, minus-10, over a 23-game span.  He broke out of that slump with a six-game goal streak over which he went 9-1-10, plus-5, including a hat trick in a 6-0 win over Columbus on March 10th. It was his first NHL hat trick.  He has since gone rather dormant, at least in goal scoring, going 3-10-13, minus-6, over his last 21 games.  It has been quite a streaky season for Lee to date.  He is 9-5-14, minus-9, in 30 career games against the Capitals.

The 2014 Entry Draft produced quite a crop of goaltenders – Thatcher Demko, Alex Nedeljkovic, the Caps’ own Vitek Vanecek, Elvis Merzlikins, Ville Husso, Igor Shesterkin, and the Islanders’ Ilya Sorokin.  Of the ten goalies in that class to have appeared in at least one NHL game, only Shesterkin has a better goals against average (2.29) than Sorokin (2.32), and only Shesterkin has a better save percentage (.929 to .924).  Sorokin leads his class in career shutouts (ten).  And all this despite his ranking just sixth among those ten goalies in games played (72) and minutes logged (4,224).

This season, consistency has been Sorokin’s calling card.  Among 50 goalies to start at least 25 games, only Shesterkin has a higher percentage of games with a save percentage of .900 or better (76.5 percent/39 of 52 starts) than Sorokin (72.0 percent.36 of 50 starts).  Only three times this season has ne gone consecutive games with save percentages under .900.  Only twice over his last 16 appearances did he fall short of .900, posting a record of 9-6-1, 2.24, .936, with three shutouts.  He has struggled some with heavy shot volumes, though, but in an odd way.  In 19 games in which he faced at least 35 shots, his underlying numbers have been superb – a 2.70 goals against average, a .932 save percentage, and two shutouts.  But his win-loss record is just 8-9-2.  At the other end, when facing 25 or fewer shots, Sorokin is 7-3-1, 1.98, .913, with three shutouts.  He has faced more than 35 shots in each of his last four outings, stopping 146 of 157 shots overall (.930 save percentage), but going just 1-2-1 in those games. In two career appearances against the Caps, he is 0-2-0, 3.56, .889.

1.  The Islanders have scored 47 goals in the third periods of games on home ice (tied for 12th in the league) but only 33 on the road (tied for 25th).

2.  New York does poorly in one goal decisions regardless of venue.  They are 6-6-5 in one-goal decisions at home, their .353 winning percentage tied for 26th in the league.  On the road, they are 5-3-5 in one-goal decisions, their .385 winning percentage ranking 25th.

3.  At the other end, the Islanders do have ten wins by three or more goals at home, but their winning percentage (.588/10-7) is tied for 16th in the league.  On the road, they have eight wins by three or more goals, but their winning percentage (.400/8-12) is tied for 18th.

4.  New York has scored first more often on the road (24 of 40 games) than they have at home (19 in 43 games).  Their record at home scoring first (13-4-2/.684/18th) is better than that which they have on the road (15-5-4/.625/21st).

5.  Good luck beating the Islanders on their ice if they take a lead into the third period.  They are one of five teams in the league with a perfect record (13-0-0) when leading at home after two periods. On the road is a different story.  While they still have a good record (13-2-2), their winning percentage (.765) is tied for 24th in the league.

1.  Washington has just 15 wins n regulation time on home ice, tied for 19th-most in the league.  On the road, they have 20 wins in regulation time, tied for fourth-most in the league.

2.  The Caps are much more productive on offense on the road (3.54 goals per game/fourth in the league) than they have been at home (3.20/14th).

3.  Washington’s penalty kill has been, as one might expect, more efficient at home (84.4 percent/sixth in the league) than it has been on the road (79.4 percent/11th).

4.  The Capitals have been stingy allowing shots on goal on home ice – 27.8 per game (fourth-fewest in the league).  On the road, they have allowed 30.3 shots per game (seventh-fewest).

5.  Washington has been dominant on the road in one respect.  They are 9-4 in games decided by three or more goals, their .692 winning percentage tied for second in the league with Florida.  At home, they are 7-6 in games decided by three or more goals, their .538 winning percentage ranking 20th.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Islanders: Mathew Barzal

When on his game, Mathew Barzal is an electrifying player – fast, shifty, skilled.  This season, though, the power has been off much of the time, and it is not a one-off phenomenon.  He is a player who has not thrived under Barry Trotz.  Barzal was a first-team member of the league’s All-Rookie Team and its Calder Trophy winner as top rookie in 2017-2018 of a 22-63-85, plus-1 season.  He had five power play goals and 27 power play points.  He shot 12.9 percent in that rookie season.

Barzal has not matched any of those numbers since Trotz took over behind the bench, despite his ice time per game in all four seasons exceeding that which he recorded in his rookie year.  In four seasons since he was rookie-of-the-year, he has not hit the 20-goal mark, and won’t this season with 15 goals and three games left on the Islanders’ schedule.  He has not hit the 50-assist mark after posting 63 in his rookie year.  With 62 points being his high-water mark over the last four seasons, he has not come close to his rookie total of 85.  He has not matched the 12.9 shooting percentage efficiency he posted as a rookie.  Barzal has a total of just nine power play goals over the last four seasons and has not posted as many as 20 power play points in any of those seasons.  Is this Trotz holding Barzal back or something bigger?  He does rank second on the club in points this season (54, to Brock Nelson’s 58), and he does rank second on the team in power play points (17, to Noah Dobson’s 19).  He is getting his share of shots in this scheme, his 155 shots on goal ranking third on the team.  But he has been inefficient as a shooter, his 9.7 shooting percentage ranking seventh among 15 skaters with at least 75 shots for the Islanders this season.  And, his minus-16 rating is worst among the 31 skaters to dress for the Isles this season, and no skater has been on ice for more shorthanded goals against (five).  Barzal finds himself in a curious situation, a gifted player whose gifts are not being displayed as much as one might have expected based on his rookie season.  He is 5-12-17, minus-6, in 23 career games against Washington.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

On Monday, Nicklas Backstrom was announced as the Capitals’ nominee for the Masterton Trophy, an award for the player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game.”  It is for his comeback from hip surgery and his coming back despite having missed the first 28 games of the season and 34 games this season overall.  Despite his rehabilitation to start the season and his late start, he is tied for seventh on the team in points (31), fifth in points per game (0.69, a rounding factor less than Tom Wilson for fourth), and fourth in power play points (14).  What he has not been, yet, is efficient shooting the puck, his 9.1 shooting percentage being the second-worst of his career to date (8.9 percent in 2010-2011).

One reason for his diminished production so far is perhaps that his ice time is being managed carefully.  His 17:29 in ice time per game is the second lowest of his career by almost a full minute (18:16 in 2016-2017) and only the third season in his career in which he averaged fewer than 19 minutes per game.  Despite his diminished exposure, his production has been meaningful, the Caps going 15-7-3 in the 25 games in which he has points, but there is that exposure.  The Caps are just 3-6-1 in games in which Backstrom skated at least 19 minutes, but they are 9-0-0 when he skated less than 16 minutes.  It is also worth noting that in those nine games he was a combined 2-7-9, plus-5, an indicator of the management of his time as his load was reduced in winning – and productive – efforts.  Backstrom is 12-44-56, plus-13, in 57 career games against the Islanders.

In the end…

With Alex Ovechkin on the shelf at the moment with an “upper body injury,” the Caps will be short their top goal scorer and point getter.  This might not mean quite as much against a grinding, zone to zone team like the Islanders where goals are at a premium.  These could be games in which the grinders are at least as important as the skilled personnel.  With three games left, the object of the exercise is two-fold.  One, get/remain healthy.  Two, play the “right” way within the system.  That, despite the Caps controlling their own destiny with respect to playoff seeding, is more important than where the Caps finish in the standings.  The Islanders will test the latter of these considerations with their own grinding style of play.

Tuesday: Capitals 3 – Islanders 1

Thursday: Capitals 3 – Islanders 2