Monday, November 14, 2022

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 18: Capitals at Panthers, November 15

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals wrap up their trip to Florida on Tuesday night when they visit the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Florida.  The Caps will be hoping for a better result than the egg they laid at Amalie Arena in Tampa in a 6-3 loss to the Lightning on Sunday night.

Florida comes into this contest having a season similar to that of the Caps in that they cannot seem to establish any winning momentum.  They won consecutive games on the road to start the season, but since then they are 6-6-1 and have consecutive wins only once in that span, wins over Anaheim and Carolina last week before losing their last contest, a 4-2 loss to Edmonton on Saturday.

It is quite a difference that a year has made for the Panthers, who were 10-2-3 at the 15-game mark last season.  One problem the Panthers have had is in putting pucks in the net.  Not that their 3.13 goals per game is bad, although as the 15th ranked scoring offense, they are mediocre.  It is that the scoring offense is down by more than half a goal per game from last season through 15 games (3.73, ranked second at the time).

When looking for reasons the scoring offense is down, one might start with the performance of Matthew Tkachuk so far this season.  Last year, Tkachuk posted a career-high 42 goals in 82 games with Calgary.  And then he was traded.  Last July, Tkachuk was sent to Florida with a fourth-round draft pick in 2025 for a first-round draft pick in 2025 (subject to lottery results), Jonathan Huberdeau, Cole Schwindt and MacKenzie Weegar.  He immediately signed an eight-year/$76.0 million contract with the Panthers.   Whether he is struggling under the weight of that contract or getting used to a new city, Tkachuk is off to a bit of an uneven start.  He has 17 points in 13 games to date, which is excellent.  However, embedded in that scoring line are five goals on 68 shots, a 7.4 shooting percentage that is the lowest of his career to date (he was at 9.2 percent as a rookie with Calgary in 2016-2017).  His production is not the problem, but it has been a bit uneven.

Those shots on goal for Tkachuk are a matter deserving attention.  Tkachuk is averaging 5.23 shots on goal per game, more than two shots on goal per game than his previous career high (3.09 last year with the Flames).  Is he assuming too much of a burden to produce and being indiscriminate in his shot selection?  His assist rate (0.92 per game, highest of his career) would suggest otherwise; he is not being a puck hog in the purest sense.  His overall production has been consistent, a good sign for the Panthers.  He has points in ten of 13 games, and he already has five multi-point games.  His reputation of orneriness has accompanied him to Florida, with whom he has 30 penalty minutes in 13 games and has been charged with at least one penalty in six of 13 games to date.  Tkachuk is 1-4-5, even, in nine career games against Washington.

When one things of defensemen among the Panthers, one immediately focuses on Aaron Ekblad, but he has been limited to four games so far this season, having sustained a groin injury in Boston on October 17th for which he was placed on long-term injured reserve (he was just reactivated and played on Saturday in the loss to Edmonton).  With Ekblad’s availability limited, has anyone stepped up on the blue line?  Brandon Montour has.  Playing for his third NHL franchise (Anaheim and Buffalo being the others), the seven-year veteran is building off a solid 2021-2022 season in which he was 11-26-37, plus-15, in 81 games for the Panthers.  So far this season, Montour leads the defense in goals (four), assists (11), and points (15).  Those 15 points almost equal the combined output of the other seven Panther defensemen to dress this season (18).  Montour has two of the three game-winning goals by Florida defensemen, and his 26:12 in ice time per game leads the team and ranks third among the league’s defensemen overall.  He is averaging 4:56 in power play ice time per game, which leads all NHL defensemen. Montour has three three-point games in his last seven contests.  Oddly enough, those happen to be the only games over that span in which he recorded any points – October 29th vs Ottawa (1-2-3), November 6th at Anaheim (1-3-4), and November 9th vs Carolina (0-3-3).  Montour is 1-2-3, minu-s9, in 17 career games against the Capitals.

With Sergei Bobrovsky off to a slow start (3-4-1, 3.29, ,897), Spencer Knight is making a case, at least for the moment, to be the Panthers’ number one goalie.  He goes into Tuesday’s contest with a 5-2-0, 2.31, .922 record with one shutout in seven appearances.  It is not as if his performance should be a surprise.  The 21-year old was the first goaltender taken (13th overall) in the 2019 Entry Draft after going 15-1-0, 2.21, .903, with one shutout for the US National Under-18 Team and being ranked as the top North American goaltender by the Central Scouting Bureau. 

Knight went on to play two seasons with Boston College in Hockey East, posting a 39-12-3, 2.05, .931 record with eight shutouts.  In the second of those seasons at BC, he made his NHL debut with the Panthers upon the completion of his collegiate season, winning all four decisions he had while posting a 2.32 GAA and a .919 save percentage.  He split time between Florida and the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL last season, going 19-9-3, 2.79, .908 with two shutouts in 32 games for the Panthers.  And now, seven games into this season, he seems poised to fulfill his considerable promise as a goaltender in the NHL.  Even the losses in his 5-2 record to date have been more a case of lack of goal scoring support than poor performance on his part.  He stopped 18 of 20 shots in a 3-1 loss to Arizona on November 1st, and he stopped 28 of 31 shots in the 4-2 loss to Edmonton in Florida’s last contest.  Knight has faced the Caps twice in his career to date, losing his only decision with a 5.59 GAA and .861 save percentage.

1.  Of 22 skaters to dress for the Panthers this season, 17 have at least one goal and 19 have at least one point.

2.  In ten seasons before this one, former Capitals defenseman Radko Gudas never averaged as many as 20 minutes per game.  This year is different; he is currently averaging a career high 20:39 in ice time per game.

3.  If Florida beats the Caps, it will be the 56th win in their all-time series against Washington, tying the number of regulation losses they have against the Caps in their all-time series.

4.  Things happen in the third periods of Panther games.  Florida is one of five teams to have scored and allowed at least 20 goals in the third periods of games this season (22 for, 20 against) – Buffalo, Arizona, Vancouver, and the New York Rangers are the other teams.

5.  the Panthers are one of four teams to have scored fewer than ten power play goals (nine) and not yet score a shorthanded goal – San Jose, St. Louis, and Nashville are the others.

1.  The Caps rank 28th in the league in scoring offense on the road (2.38 goals per game).

2.  The Caps have allowed four goals at 6-on-5 on the road this season, tied with Nashville for most in the league.

3.  Washington scored first in three of eight road games played, but their record is just 1-2-0.

4.  The Caps’ .313 points percentage on the road ranks 28th in the league.

5.  Washington’s road power play (12.5 percent) ranks 29th in the league, although they are getting 4.00 chances per game, sixth-best in the league.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Florida: The Brothers Staal

While Jordan Staal is skating in his 11th season with the Carolina Hurricanes, the other brothers of the Staal family in the NHL are playing for the Florida Panthers these days.  Defenseman Marc Staal spent his first 13 seasons with the New York Rangers before playing for two seasons with the Detroit Red Wings.  Last July, he signed a one-year contract with the Panther paying him $750,000.  At age 35, it would not be unreasonable to think it could be his last NHL contract, and going out with a contender after two seasons with a struggling Red Wings team would not be the worst way to wrap up a distinguished career.  Staal is currently ninth among active defensemen in games played (1,034).  Never a particularly prolific offensive player (he has never recorded ten goals or 30 points in a season), he is an excellent example of a defensive defenseman who lends a stabilizing influence to his team.  However, this season his offense has dried up to the point of being virtually non-existent (one assist in 15 games), which might explain in part his career low 17:09 minutes of ice time per game.  Staal logged at least 20 minutes in four of his first six games this season, but he topped that total only once in nine games since (20:58 in the Panthers’ loss to Edmonton last Saturday).  He is 1-10-11, minus-1, in 45 career games against the Caps.

Eric Staal is on what looks like the last lap of what seems likely to be a Hall of Fame career.  But the end has not been entirely pleasant to watch.  Eric went 19-28-47, minus-9, with the Minnesota Wild in 2019-2020, the last time he recorded double digits in either goals or assists.  He followed that up with five goals and 13 points in 2020-2021 playing for Buffalo and Montreal.  That looked like the end when Staal, an unrestricted free agent after the 2020-2021 season, remained unsigned for the 2021-2022 season, although he did agree to a professional try-out contract with the Iowa Wild of the AHL in January 2022.  He lasted four games with the Wild, going 2-3-5, but he was released from his tryout contract at that point.  Last July, he was tendered a professional tryout contract with the Panthers, and he was subsequently signed to a one-year/$750,000 deal last month.  It is hard to see how he will extend his career, based on his performance to date.  He does not yet have a point in eight games and has not yet logged as many as 13 minutes in any game this season, four times skating less than ten minutes.  Eric is 32-44-76, minus-4, in 85 career games against the Capitals, more games against one team than he has against any other opponent.

Washington: Lars Eller

Lars Eller’s career has taken an odd turn in recent years.  When you score the Stanley Cup-clinching goal, as he did in Game 5 of the 2018 Cup final against the Vegas Golden Knights, you buy a lot of goodwill.  Yet there seems to be an attitude among some Caps fans that Eller has been a disappointment since.  In five seasons since his Cup-winning heroics, he has 53 goals and 136 points in 283 games, a 15-24-39, even, scoring pace per 82 games.  Compare that with the 18-20-38, minus-6, scoring line he posted in the Cup winning 2017-2018 regular season.  Eller had at least 30 points in three of the last four seasons preceding this one and posted at least 13 goals three times, including 16 in the abbreviated 2019-2020 season (69 games). 

Part of the problem might be his consistency.  He’s been a “teens” goal scorer his whole career (seven times in the last 11 seasons posting 13-19 goals), and he has been a reliable 30-40 point player.  That didn’t change with a Cup winning goal; he had a postseason to remember in 2018 (7-11-18, plus-6, with three of his four career postseason game-winning goals, including the Cup-clincher), but that is not really the player he has been, and one might interpret his regular season performance since the Cup-winning season as “mediocre.”  But there is also the matter of age and contract for Eller.  He would turn 34 years of age if the Caps extend their season past a first playoff round (May 8th), and his five-year/$17.5 million contract expires at the end of this season.  Connor McMichael has not yet demonstrated he is ready to assume Eller’s role as primarily a third-line center who can fill in on other lines in a pinch, but that is not to say that youngsters are not pushing for a roster spot (Aliaksei Protas seems to be a bit ahead of schedule in his development, for example).  But if Eller is to go at the end of this season, he is not going quietly.  He is 3-4-7, plus-2, in 17 games, a 14-19-33, plus-10 scoring line per 82 games.  He might have to at least sustain that pace for the Caps to challenge for a playoff spot in the spring.  Eller is 7-12-19, plus-9, in 35 career games against Florida.

In the end…

The Caps might not have the depth on their current roster to build and sustain winning momentum.  There are just too many pieces missing.  But that also puts a premium on avoiding losing streaks.  And while the Caps are treading water at 7-8-2 overall, they have only one streak this season with consecutive losses after they opened the season with a pair of defeats (an 0-2-2 losing streak to close October and open November).  Extending that trend of avoiding losing streaks is essential to keeping playoff hopes alive, even if you think it is still early.

Capitals 3 – Panthers 2