Wednesday, October 12, 2022

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 2: Capitals at Maple Leafs. October 13

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

No sooner did the season start on Wednesday night against Boston than the Caps had to turn around, hop on a plane, and head to Toronto for the Maple Leafs’ season opener on Thursday night.  Toronto will also be playing the back half of a back-to-back set of games, having visited the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday night.

The Leafs looked to be on their way to eliminating the Tampa Bay Lightning in last spring’s first round of the playoffs, taking a 3-2 lead in games and a 3-2 lead into the third period of Game 6 in Tampa.  But the Lightning scored mid-way through the third period and then scored 18 minutes into overtime to tie the series, winning the first-round matchup with a 2-1 win in Game 7.  Another disappointment for the Leafs, whose fans have known little else since they last won a Stanley Cup in 1967.  Theirs is now the longest drought without a Cup in the league at 54 seasons and counting.

Perhaps this year will break the string.  To do so, they might need Auston Matthews to repeat, or at least approach, his 60-goal campaign of a year ago.  Matthews is the league leader in goals scored since he arrived in Toronto in 2016-2017, his 259 goals being four more than Washington’s Alex Ovechkin.  In just six seasons and 407 games with Toronto, Matthews already ranks ninth all-time in goals scored for the storied franchise.  With 41 goals, a number that seems likely to be surpassed if he is healthy, he would become just the fifth player in franchise history to reach the 300-goal mark.  And, he needs only 43 points to become the 12th player in team history to reach 500 points.  But as scary to opponents as the season he is coming off is, his goal scoring tear did not start there.  He had 20 goals over his last 22 games of the 2020-2021 season, giving him 80 goals over his last 95 games overall, a 69-goal pace per 82 games.  To put that in perspective, only nine players in the history of the NHL have had at least one season with at least 69 goals, none since Mario Lemieux had 69 goals (in just 70 games) in 1995-1996.  Matthews is 5-10-15, plus-6, in 13 career games against Washington.

Toronto is nicked up on the blue line with Jordie Benn nursing a groin injury and Timothy Liljegren out following hernia surgery.  Forward John Tavares is recovering from a strained oblique but could be available on Thursday against the Caps.

1.  The Maple Leafs were a difficult team to play against at Scotiabank Arena last season, tied for the third-best record on home ice (31-8-2, a .780 points percentage, tied with Minnesota), sixth-best scoring offense (3.73 goals per game), and the seventh-best scoring defense on home ice (2.59 goals allowed per game).

2.  Toronto had the league’s best home power play last season (30.8 percent), but they were just 22nd in power play chances per game on home ice (2.93).  By allowing only one shorthanded goal against while on a man advantage, the Maple Leafs had the best power play goal differential in the league at home (plus-36).

3.  On the other side of special teams on home ice, Toronto had the third-best penalty kill (86.8 percent) and were tied for 12th-fewest shorthanded situations per game (2.59, with St. Louis).  Only Los Angeles had more shorthanded goals scored on home ice (eight) than the Leafs (seven, tied with Florida).  Their minus-7 goal differential when shorthanded was best in the league.

4.  Toronto scored first in less than 50 percent of their home games (19 times in 41 games), but their .947 winning percentage when doing so (18-1-0) was best in the league.

5.  The Maple Leafs had a knack for winning games close at home, going 12-0-2 in one-goal games, their .857 winning percentage tied for second-best in the league (with Minnesota) trailing only Florida (12-1-0/.923).  They were one of four teams that did not lose a one-goal game in regulation on home ice (Minnesota, Detroit, and Seattle were the others).

1.  Opening the season with back-to-back games is not unheard of in Caps history, they opened the 2020-2021 season with a back-to-back games in Buffalo against the Sabres, sweeping the set by 6-4 and 2-1 scores.  But that was a special case, a season with an abbreviated schedule due to COVID.  It was a schedule in which teams played consecutive games against opponents for the duration of the 56-game season.  But even with that, the Caps did open a full season with back-to-back games recently, opening the 2018-2019 season with back-to-back games against Boston (a 7-0 win) and at Pittsburgh (a 7-6 overtime loss).

2.  Of 34 players who dressed for road games for the Caps last season, only six did not record a goal, and only one of that group – Matt Irwin (no goals in eight road games) – is on the Opening Night roster.

3.  The Caps were undefeated on the road last season in two-goal games (8-0), and they were above .500 in winning percentage in decisions by three or more goals (9-5/.643), but they were under .500 in one-goal decisions (8-5-6/.421).

4.  Only three teams had more power play chances on the road per game last season than the Caps (3.12) – Montreal (3.24), Colorado (3.17), and Tampa Bay (3.15).  However, the Caps finished 20th in power play efficiency (18.0 percent).  Washington tied New Jersey for the eighth-fewest shorthanded situations faced on the road last season (2.78), but they were 16th in penalty killing (78.1 percent).

5.  The Caps closed games with a rush on the road last season, scoring 54 goals (tied for third with Tampa Bay) and allowing just 38 (sixth fewest).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Toronto: Ilya Samsonov

The promise of a first round/22nd overall draft pick for the Washington Capitals in 2015 will have to be realized in another city. Ilya Samsonov ran out of chances to take the number one goaltending job with the Caps by the throat last season and was not re-signed by the Caps upon the expiration of his one-year/$2.0 million deal last spring.  Samsonov signed a one-year/$1.8 million “show me” contract by Toronto as an unrestricted free agent last July and is likely to share duties with Matt Murray in the Maple Leaf goal this season. 

Things started in promising fashion for Samsonov, who went 9-0-1, 2.27, .918 in his first 11 appearances (one no-decision). At the time, he was tied for eighth in the league in wins, tenth in goals against (of 37 goalies with at least 500 minutes), and 17th in that group in save percentage.  Then they went south.  After that start, Samsonov went 14-12-4, 3.28, .889.  Over that period he was tied for 26th in wins, 30th in goals against average (or 37 goalies with at least 1,500 minutes), and 36th in that group in save percentage.  When he went 1-3, 2.97, .912 in the opening round loss to Florida in the playoffs, the team’s patience with him ran out.  Had the Caps not been in a “win-now” mode to take advantage of any remaining opening in their competitive window, they might have give Samsonov more time, but given the urgency the team places on winning now, they decided to cut ties.

So now he goes to perhaps the hottest crucible in all of the NHL – Toronto.  And with the Maple Leafs considered by many to be on a short list of Stanley Cup contenders, he will be subjected to considerable scrutiny as the season unfolds.  For what it is worth, he posted a .905 save percentage in the preseason.  That is better than the .888 save percentage Petr Mrazek posted in 20 games as a backup in Toronto last season, but it falls short of the .914 save percentage that Jack Campbell put up before moving on to Edmonton in the off-season.  He could benefit by being teamed with a veteran (Matt Murray) which was not a luxury he enjoyed last season when he was paired with Vitek Vanecek (who also moved on from the Caps to the New Jersey Devils).  This would be Samsonov’s first career appearance against the Capitals.

Washington: John Carlson

Roman Josi, Cale Makar, and John Carlson.  If you answer in the form of a question, the correct response is “What defensemen posted at least 35 points and were at least plus-10 on the road last season?  Carlson was the only one to do it while playing in at least 40 road games.  Carlson has been an effective offensive defenseman over his career.  Since entering the NHL in 2009-2010 he ranks tenth in goals scored on the road (59), second in assists (232), third in points (291), seventh in plus-minus rating (plus-43), tied for fourth in even strength goals (44), second in even strength points (184), tied for 23rd in power play goals (14), fifth in power play points (105), and third in on-ice even strength goal differential (plus-59).

Carlson had a remarkably balanced 2021-2022 season in terms of his home/road split, going 9-27-36 in 38 home games and 8-27-35 in 40 road games.  In the 25 road games in which he recorded at least one goal, the Caps were 6-2-0, and they were 18-3-4 in the 25 road games in which he recorded at least one point.  One of the more amazing facts about Carlson’s road record last season is that in 40 games he took only three minor penalties.  There was also the ice time factor.  The Caps lost only one game in regulation on the road in which Carlson skated at least 25 minutes, posting a 10-1-3 record, and only once in 40 road games did he log fewer than 20 minutes (19:57 in a 7-2 win over Columbus on March 17th).

Carlson has already established himself as the leader or close to it in several career statistics among defensemen for the Caps.  He is second in total games played with 887 going into the new season (Calle Johansson: 983), third in goals (132), first in assists (461, 100 more than Johansson), first in point (593), third in plus-minus rating (plus-100), sixth in power play goals (37), second in power play points (217), first in game-winning goals (27), first in shots on goal (2,053), and he has more shootout goals (three) than the combined total of other Caps defensemen (two).  Two of them were game-deciding goals, the only two recorded by a Caps defenseman.  Carlson, who has points in 18 of the 34 career games he played against Toronto overall, is 6-24-30, plus-7 against the Leafs in his career.

In the end…

It might not be fair to call this a “benchmark” game with the Caps as nicked up as they are. But it will be interesting to see how the Caps deal with the back half o back-to-back set of games on the road and who might be able to step up to fill in the holes in the Caps lineup and how well they can make their former teammate in goal pay for any inconsistencies of lack of focus that remain in his game of the sort that doomed his chances to become the Caps’ number one netminder.

Capitals 5 – Maple Leafs 4