Tuesday, October 11, 2022

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Opening Night: Bruins at Capitals. October 12

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Another National Hockey League season is upon us, and the fan bases of 32 franchises all harbor some measure of hope that their team will find a way to hoist the Stanley Cup eigth months from now.  For the Washington Capitals, the season begins at Capital One Arena when the Boston Bruins visit on Wednesday.  The Caps and Bruins are similar teams in similar situations – veteran teams whose best days might be in the rearview mirror, but who still have a chance to reach the postseason and do some damage.  Getting there for either team will be a challenge with each trying to fill holes in their respective lineups due to injuries to key pieces.  

The Caps will start the season with three important players on injured reserve – Nicklas Backstrom, whose entire regular season is uncertain after hip surgery; Tom Wilson, who is rehabilitating a surgically repaired knee and could be back in the lineup sometime in mid-to-late November; and Carl Hagelin, who is recovering from an eye injury.  Defenseman Alex Alexeyev is rehabilitating his shoulder after offseason surgery as well.

Boston has important players of their own unavailable to start the season.  Defenseman Charlie McAvoy underwent a left shoulder arthroscopic stabilization procedure with a recovery time of about six months and is expected back in the late-November/early-December timeframe.  Fellow defensemen Mike Reilly and Matt Grzelcyk also had off-season surgeries.  While Reilly appears to be ready to start the season, Grzelcyk might not be available until Thanksgiving.  And as if that was not enough, uber-pest forward Brad Marchand had procedures performed on not one, but both hips last May and might not be available until, yes, Thanksgiving.  Taylor Hall is battling an upper-body injury suffered last week, and his prognosis has been all over the place, going from minor to week-to-week to day-to-day.  At the moment, it looks as if he will play.

1.  Last season, the Bruins won 51 games, the 11th time they won 50 or more games in their history, more than any other NHL franchise.

2.  The biggest change for the Bruins heading into this season is behind their bench, where Jim Montgomery takes over for Bruce Cassidy, relieved of his duties following last season after a 51-win season (but losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round of the playoffs) who is now behind the Vegas Golden Knights bench.  Montgomery, who was a center for parts of six seasons with five teams in the NHL, will be on his second tour behind an NHL bench, having coached the Dallas Stars for a season and a half, going 61-43-10 in the regular season and 7-6 in the playoffs).

3.  It will be interesting to see how Boston’s offense fares in the opener.  Last season, they struggled to score on the road, averaging 2.50 goals per game, tied for 24th with Nashville in road scoring offense.

4.  On the other hand, it was hard for teams to dent the Boston defense and goaltenders when the Bruins came to visit.  Boston was second in the league in scoring defense in road games (2.32 goals allowed per game and was tied for third-fewest shots allowed per game on the road (28.3, with the New York Rangers).

5.  The Caps’ power play could get an early workout.  Boston averaged 4.13 penalties per 60 minutes in road games last season, third-most in the league, and they were shorthanded 3.21 times per road game, seventh-most in the league.

1.  The last time that the Caps hosted the Boston Bruins on Opening Night of an NHL season – the only time, in fact, they hosted the B’s on Opening Night in team history – the Capitals raised the banner for their 2018 Stanley Cup championship.  They then went on to maul the Bruins, 7-0.  This will be the fourth time that these two teams met on Opening Night, the Caps splitting a pair of decisions in Boston, losing by a 4-3 margin in 1987 and beating the Bruins, 4-1, in 2009.

2.  Washington won only 19 games on home ice last season, the fewest they won over a full NHL schedule since they won 17 games at home in the 2006-2007 season.

3.  The Caps’ 19.5 percent power play last season at home was their worst over a full home schedule since they were 18.7 percent in 2022-2012.

4.  Giving up goals early was a problem on home ice last season.  The 39 goals allowed in the first periods of home games were the most allowed by the Caps at home since they allowed 42 first period goals at home in 2001-2002.

5.  Washington won 15 of 24 games in which they scored first on home ice last season, a .625 winning percentage.  It was their worst winning percentage in a full season’s worth of home games in which they scored first since winning 12 of 21 games in 2006-2007 (.571).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Boston: Patrice Bergeron

Boston has an aging group of forwards, especially among key players.  Patrice Bergeron (37), David Krejci (36), Nick Foligno (35), Brad Marchand (34), Craig Smith (33), and Taylor Hall (31) are among those on the far side of 30 years of age.  For Bergeron, who signed a one-year/$5.0 million contract in August heavily weighted with performance bonuses that could among to half the value of his contract, the 2022-2023 season might be his farewell tour. 

Bergeron might be the most consistently productive two-way forward of his generation, having posted six 30-goal seasons, eight seasons with more than 60 points, and with five Selke Trophies as the league’s top defensive forward, becoming the all-time leader in Selkes won with his selection last season as the league’s top defensive forward.  Although he comes into this season as the oldest and longest-tenured Bruin on the roster, it is not as if his production has fallen off a cliff.  He had 25 goals in 73 games last season and posted that eighth 60-point season (65) with a plus-26 rating, his fifth straight season with a better than plus-20 rating.  In 59 career regular season games against the Caps, Bergeron is 17-32-49, plus-1.

Washington: Darcy Kuemper

When the Caps drafted Vitek Vanecek with the 39th overall pick in the 2014 Entry Draft, the fourth goaltender taken in that draft, they saw something that set him ahead of Ilya Sorokin (taken 78th overall by the New York Islanders) and Igor Shesterkin (taken 118th overall by the New York Rangers).  When the Washington Capitals drafted Ilya Samsonov with the 22nd overall pick in the 2015 Entry Draft, they were probably seeing him as the eventual successor to Braden Holtby as the number one goaltender.  Sorokin and Shesterkin are the goalies for the now and the future for their respective teams, while Vanecek and Samsonov have moved on to other teams (New Jersey and Toronto, respectively).  That leaves the goaltending duties in the hands of Darcy Kuemper, a former sixth-round (161st overall) draft pick of the Minnesota Wild in 2009.  While Kuemper does not have the draft pedigree of any of the four goalies mentioned, he does have something none of those goalies have – a Stanley Cup, won with the Colorado Avalanche last spring. 

As we noted in our preview of Kuemper

“Kuemper has to be included on any list of underrated goalies in the NHL.  For instance, did you know that his career 2.48 goals against average is better than that of Andrej Vasilevskiy (2.50).  That his .918 career save percentage since he entered the league in 2012-2013 is better than those of Sergei Bobrovsky (.917), Carey Price (.917), Marc-Andre Fleury (.916), and Henrik Lundqvist (.916) over the same span?  That his 25 shutouts in 282 starts over that span are more than Lundqvist (21 in 409 starts) or Ryan Miller (16 in 319 starts).  His .923 save percentage at even strength among goalies appearing in at least 200 games over that span is better than Fleury (.922), and his .880 save percentage against opponents’ power plays is better than Bobrovsky (.878), Vasilevskiy (.878), and Price (.870).”

It would be just fine if he were to continue being underrated, so long as he keeps posing solid numbers in goal.  In seven career games against Boston, Kuemper is 1-6-0, 3.03, .894.

In the end…

These are teams with similar profiles and similar issues as the season begins.  They could be circling one another all season, and by the time they meet to close their three-game season series in the penultimate game of the regular season for both teams, they could end up fighting for a wild-card spot in the postseason, which places a premium on games in which one team earns points at the direct expense of the other.  It might be the first of 82 games for the Caps, but do not underestimate its importance.

Capitals 4 – Bruins 3