The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
Hallowe’en has turned into “Groundhog Day” for the Washington Capitals, who lost on October 31st to set them on a path to a 1-3-2 record over their last six games. They will try to reverse the curse when they face the Tampa Bay Lightning for a home-and-home set of games Friday in Washington and on Sunday in Tampa.
The Lightning started slowly, going 1-3-0 in their first four games. But starting with a come-from-behind 3-2 overtime win over the Florida Panthers on October 21st, the Lightning are 6-2-1 in their last nine contests.
Tampa Bay’s regained momentum coincides with a change in fortunes for Nikita Kucherov, who leads the Lightning in goals (six), assists (ten), and points (16) over their nine-game run. That follows a less dominating start in which he went 0-5-5, minus-3, over those first four games when the Lightning were posting just one win. Kucherov had a six-game goal streak ended in his last outing, a 3-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers last Tuesday. Kucherov has been uncommonly consistent in putting up points generally, however. In 13 games to date, he was held without a point only once, that in a 5-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on October 14th.
Kucherov is one of those players whose “attention quotient” does not seem to match his performance. For a four-time all-star team member (twice on the first team), three-time All Star Game participant, Hart Trophy, Pearson Trophy, and Ross Trophy winner, he does not seem to get the same level of attention on a regular basis that others deemed “elite” seem to get. Since entering the league in 2013-2014, he is tied for 12th in goals scored 252, with Tyler Seguin), 17th in assists (385), 11th in points (637), seventh in plus-minus rating (plus-135), 21st in power play goals (68), eighth in power play points (223), and tied for 24th in game winning goals (40). He has never recorded fewer than 25 goals in a full NHL season (he had nine in 52 games as a rookie in 2013-2014), and he has never had fewer than 65 points in any full season (18 in 52 games in his rookie year). In 22 career games against the Caps, Kucherov is 13-11-24, plus-4.
Victor Hedman is the defenseman with the numbers (seventh in goals among active defensemen (135), sixth in points (612)), the awards (Norris, Smythe, multiple all star team selections), and the attention. But don’t lose track of Mikhail Sergachev. The seven-year veteran has become a consistent and productive presence on the Lightning blue line since entering the league in 2016-2017 as a former ninth-overall draft pick of the Lightning in the 2016 Entry Draft. Since assuming full-time duties with Tampa Bay in 2017-2018, he recorded 30 or more points in each of five seasons entering this one. In this season, Sergachev is leading the Lightning defense in goals (two), assists (eight, tied with Hedman), and points (ten), and he is second in average ice time (23:43, to Hedman’s 24:33). He has been economical with the puck, recording 11 takeaways while be charged with only eight giveaways. He is second on the team in shorthanded ice time per game (2:50, to Erik Cernak’s 3:34), and he is second in power play ice time (2:32, second to Hedman’s 3:47). His season to date is another one that mirrors the team’s. Sergachev was just 0-2-2, minus-4, in the Lightning’s 1-3-0 start, but he is 2-6-8, plus-4, over the nine-game, 6-2-1 run for Tampa Bay. In 12 career games against Washington, Sergachev is 2-4-5, minus-3.
Goaltenders are a strange breed that is difficult to predict in terms of performance from year to year. Like relief pitchers in baseball, they could be unsolvable for stretches, and then…poof. They can’t get out of their own way. While Andrej Vasilevskiy’s career has not gone “poof,” he is not having the sort of start that his recent performance would have suggested he have. In six seasons before this one, he appeared in fewer than 50 games only once (42 games in the COVID-shortened 2020-2021 season), and in 325 games overall posted a record of 211-86-23, 2.49, .920, with 26 shutouts. The 325 games were second among all goalies over that period, his 211 wins were 25 more than Sergei Bobrovsky, his 2.49 goals against average was 11th among goalies with at least 2,000 minutes played over the period (a rounding error below tenth-ranked Darcy Kuemper, for you Caps fans), his .920 save percentage ranked sixth in that group (a rounding error ahead of Kuemper), and his 26 shutouts were tied for second. He was four times a Vezina Trophy finalist, winning in 2018-2019. There were also those three straight trips to the Stanley Cup final, winning twice, and winning the Smythe Trophy in 2021 as the most valuable player in the postseason.
Vasilevskiy’s start this season has not been as impressive. His 2.90 goals against average to date is the worst of his nine-year career and is 23rd of 45 goalies with at least 250 minutes played. His .910 save percentage ranks 21st in that group, and he is looking for his first shutout of the season. He is also just 4-4-1 in his win-loss record and had save percentages under .900 in four of his last five games. His trouble has not been in giving up bunches of goals in individual games as much as it has been consistently below his performance standard. Although he has not allowed more than four goals in any single game and allowed four only once, in seven of his nine appearances to date he allowed three or more goals, including three in each of his last four games. Vasilveskiy is 6-7-1, 3.40, .903 in 14 career games against the Caps.Tampa Bay has been mediocre on both sides of the puck so far – 14th in scoring offense (3.23 goals per game) and 16th in scoring defense (3.08 goals allowed per game).
2. The Lightning’s middling performance has extended to special teams – 22.2 percent on the power play (16th in the league) and 78.7 percent on penalty kills (15th).
3. Shots taken and allowed extend the iffy performance to date for Tampa Bay – 31.2 shots per game (17th) and 31.8 shots allowed per game (17th).
4. The Lighting have not been able to generate or sustain momentum on a period to period basis. They are plus-2 in goal differential in first periods of games, minus-2 in second periods, and they are plus-1 in third periods of games.
5. Margins have not seemed to matter to the Lightning so far – 3-2-1 in one-goal games, 3-2 in two-goal games, and 1-1 in games decided by three or more goals.The absences of scoring forwards, and now offensive defenseman John Carlson for the last six games, has taken a toll on Washington’s scoring offense. At 2.73 goals per game, their scoring offense ranks 27th in the league.
2. Scoring defense has not made up the deficiencies in scoring. The Caps are allowing 3.00 goals per game, 15th in scoring defense in the league.
3. Washington’s power play, while not among the league leaders, could be worse, given Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, and John Carlson spending time injured. The Caps’ 25.0 percent power play is tied with Toronto for ninth in the league.
4. The Caps are tenth in the league in penalty killing (82.2 percent), making them one of three teams (Boston and Dallas being the others) to have top-ten teams on both sides of special teams.
5. Washington needs to do a better job of holding leads once they take them. Their 3-3-1 record when scoring first is 23rd in the league in winning percentage (.429).
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Tampa Bay: Vladislav Namestnikov
From the “You Can’t Go Home Again” file, we have center Vladislav Namestnikov. Back in 2001, he was a first round (27th overall) draft pick of the Lightning. He arrived in the NHL in 2013-2014, getting four games of experience before assuming a greater role thereafter. He spent parts of five seasons with the Lightning, going 53-70-123, plus-24, in 263 games before he was traded with a first round draft pick in 2018, a conditional second round draft pick in 2019, Libor Hajek, and Brett Howden to the New York Rangers for Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller. That trade set Namestnikov off on a five-season, five team tour with stops in New York with the Rangers, the Ottawa Senators, Colorado Avalanche, Detroit Red Wings, and Dallas Stars. Last July, Namestnikov returned to the team that drafted him, signing a one-year/$2.5 million contract that will leave him an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season.
It has not been a happy return for the ten-year veteran, or at least not a productive one. Through 13 games overall, Namestnikov is 0-3-3, minus-6, and not even the turnaround in fortunes for the Lightning over their last nine games has not made a difference. He has not shared in the good fortune, failing to register a point and posting a minus-6 rating (worst on the team; he was a “plus” player only once in 13 games) over those nine games. He is the only one of 14 skaters to play in all nine games without recording a point. Namestnikov is 2-3-5, minus-2, in 19 career games against the Caps.
Washington: Martin Fehervary
Players who have good rookie seasons often fall into what is called a “sophomore slump,” a drop in performance numbers that can persist over a full season (or more). Martin Fehervary had a good rookie season overall for the Washington Capitals in 2021-2022. Among rookie defensemen last season, Fehervary finished third in games played (79), first in goals (eight), tied for sixth in points (17), second in plus-minus rating (plus-15), first in even strength goals (seven), tied for second in game-winning goals (two), eighth in ice time per game (19:39), first in hits (251), third in hits per 60 minutes (9.69; minimum: 40 games), sixth in blocked shots (117), eighth in blocked shots per 60 minutes (4.53; minimum: 40 games), tied for tenth in takeaways (14), and third in even strength goal differential on ice (plus-12).
However, his was a season last year that started superbly and ended as if the air was being slowly let out of the balloon. In his last 33 games he was 5-3-8, minus-3, and distressingly had a minus-4 goal differential on ice at even strength. His start this season has been sluggish, going 0-1-1, minus-1, while averaging 20:35 in ice time per game over 15 games. Add the two together – his finish last season and his start this season – and Fehervary is 5-4-9, minus-4, while averaging 20:09 in ice time per game. While the physical dimension to his game has not suffered (10.91 hits per 60 minutes over those 48 games), these are not the numbers of a first pair defenseman, and they explain why the Fehervary-John Carlson pairing was split up before Carlson was injured (he missed the last six games for the Caps). Fehervary goes into the weekend set against Tampa looking to end an 11-game streak without a point. He is 1-0-1, plus-1, in three career games against Tampa Bay.
In the end…
The home-and-home set of games for the Caps are merely the most recent installments in a schedule that will be a challenge over the next four weeks. After the two games against the Lightning, the Caps go to Florida and St. Louis before hosting Colorado, the surprising Philadelphia Flyers, and Calgary, before going on a six-game road trip that extends into early December. It will help if the Caps could take advantage of a less remarkable Lightning team than we are used to seeing to regain some momentum as the schedule gets harder.
Friday: Capitals 4 – Lightning 3
Sunday: Capitals 3 – Lightning 2