The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Washington Capitals return to the ice on Tuesday night with a visit to Madison Square Garden for a date with the New York Rangers. It promises to be one of those “irresistible force meets immovable object” contests, but not in the way you might think. With the Caps bringing Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dylan Strome, Conor Sheary, and more to this matchup, you would think the “irresistible force” is the Caps. And with the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, Igor Shesterkin, in goal for the Rangers, they might be viewed as the “immovable object.”
Well, no, not exactly. Since Thanksgiving, the Caps have had a productive offense, averaging 3.53 goals per game, tenth in the league in scoring offense. But it is their defense that has shined, allowing only 2.20 goals per game, third in the league in scoring defense.
On the other side, the Rangers have had a good scoring defense, allowing only 2.71 goals per game, tied for eighth in the league in scoring defense since Thanksgiving, but they have wreaked havoc on opposing goaltenders, averaging 3.71 goals per game, sixth in the league in scoring offense.
That scoring offense has been led in goals by Chris Kreider with seven. Last season, Kreider posted his first career 50-goal season, finishing the season with 52 goals and obliterating his previous career high of 28 goals with the Rangers in 2016-2017. But whereas last season was jump started with 16 goals in his first 21 games, this season started slowly for Kreider, who had only four goals in his first 13 games, a respectable 25-goal pace, but less than half of last year’s output. Kreider has awakened from his early season slumber, though. He has 12 goals in his last 22 games, a 45-goal pace.
The odd part about Kreider’s recent goal scoring has been how loosely tied it has been to success. The Rangers are 3-3-0 in the last six games in which he scored at least one goal and just 6-4-0 in the ten games he scored goals over his 22-game goal scoring run. It is not even that his overall points scoring has been all that influential on wins, although the Rangers’ record in those games is better than if Kreider is considered only for his goals scored. In 21 games this season in which he had at least one point, New York is 11-6-4. Ice time is also an issue, which is not surprising given that the Rangers depend on his production. Only three times in 13 instances of Kreider skating at least 20 minutes this season did the Rangers win (3-6-4). Kreider comes into this game with two goals in his last five games, both in a 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh on December 20th, the Rangers’ only loss in their last nine games He is 9-6-15, even, in 35 career games against the Caps.
The Rangers have had 1,011 players skate for them in their 96 seasons in the NHL. None have recorded more points per game than Artemi Panarin – 1.31 in 221 games, far more than second-place Jaromir Jagr (1.15 points per game in 277 games with the Rangers). He is one of only four players in Rangers history to record two seasons with 95 or more points (95 in 2019-2020 and 96 points last season). Jagr, Mark Messier, and Rod Gilbert are the others. Over his four seasons with the Rangers, only three players in the league have more points than the 290 he recorded Connor McDavid (391), Leon Draisaitl (360), and Auston Matthews (291).
So why, while he is respected as a superior talent, is Panarin not in the conversation all that often among elite point producers in the NHL? It is an odd situation. It cannot be his goal scoring, which has been quite consistent over his eight-year career. For instance, in his previous stops with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Columbus Blue Jackets – two seasons with Chicago and two with Columbus – he posted 116 goals in 322 games, a 30-goal pace per 82 games. In four seasons with the Rangers, Panarin has 80 goals in 221 games, a 30-goal pace per 82 games. However, he has never led the team in goals over an entire season (he is tied for fourth this season with nine goals in 35 games), but he has led the team in points in each of his three seasons preceding this one and leads this year’s club with 41 points in 35 games. He has had his ups and downs this season, though. He was 5-11-16 in his first ten games, but then he went 21 games with but one goal (he did have 19 assists). He has come out of that slump, going 3-3-6, plus-2, in is last four games entering this contest. Panarin is 10-16-26, plus-8, in 24 career games against Washington.
Adam Fox has led a blessed life, and a cursed one, since he arrived with the New York Rangers in 2019-2020. His was a career that started modestly, a third-round (66th overall) pick by the Calgary Flames in the 2016 Entry Draft, the 18th defensemen picked in that draft (and, it might interest Caps fans to know, later than Lucas Johansen (28th overall) and former Capital Dennis Chowloski (20th by Detroit)). He would later be traded to Carolina (with Micheal Ferland and Dougie Hamilton for Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm) and then to the Rangers in April 2019 for a second-round draft pick in 2019 and a third-round draft pick in 2020. In his 2019-2020 rookie season, with the Rangers, Fox dressed for 70 games and finished 8-34-42, plus-22, tied for second among rookie defensemen in goals, third in assists, third in points, and first in plus-minus rating. He finished fourth in the Calder Trophy voting that year for top rookie, third among rookie defensemen. Fox followed that up with a 5-42-47, plus-19 in 55 games of the COVID-shortened 2020-2021 season and won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman. He was the next new thing in offensive defensemen.
Or maybe not. One of the defensemen finishing ahead of Fox in the Calder Trophy voting in 2019-2020, the Calder Trophy winner, in fact, was a youngster in Colorado – Cale Makar – a defenseman with the stick handling skills of a top end forward and well-defined hockey sense. It is Makar, who is as close to a human highlight reel as one will find at the position, who has become the next big thing among offensive defensemen, despite similar statistics over his four seasons (55=154-209, plus-80, in 210 game) to those of Fox (31-167-198, plus-72, in 238 games). What makes Fox’ numbers noteworthy is how quickly he has climbed up the all-time lists for the Rangers. Among the 319 defensemen to play for New York in franchise history, he ranks 22nd in goals (31), 16th in assists (167), 16th in points (198), tenth n power play points (82), and tied for ninth in game-winning goals (nine), despite ranking only 40th in games played (238). In 14 career games against the Caps, Fox is 1-10-11, plus-12.The Rangers have not been a dominating team on home ice this season. Their 8-6-4 record is tied for 13th place in points earned on home ice (20, with four other team), and their .556 points percentage ranks 19th in the league.
2. Scoring on home ice has been an issue for the Rangers. Their 3.00 goals per game at MSG is the 22nd-ranked scoring offense in the league on home ice.
3. Scoring defense has been less than impressive, too. New York has allowed 3.11 goals per game on home ice, tied for 17th in the league in scoring defense.
4. Scoring first matters in the NHL, especially on home ice, but here the Rangers have come up short by league standards. They are 6-2-2 in the ten games in which they scored first, their .600 winning percentage tied for 22nd in the league.
5. If this is a one-goal contest, it could spell bad news for the Rangers. New York is 2-2-4 in one-goal decisions on home ice this season, their .250 wining percentage tied for 29th in the league.The Caps are 12-3-1 since November 23rd, tied for the league lead in wins over that span, second in points earned (25), and fifth in points percentage (.781).
2. The penalty kill has been very efficient for the Caps over that 16-game span, their 84.1 percent penalty kill rate ranking third in the league.
3. Over those 16 games, the Caps recorded 33.7 shots on goal per game (sixth in the league), allowed 28.4 shots per game (fourth-fewest), and their plus-5.3 shot differential per game ranks third ovr that span.
4. The eight wins by three or more goals among the 12 wins in their 16-game run are tops in the league.
5. In the 16-game run, the Caps trailed after two periods only three times, going 1-2-0 in those contests.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
New York: Igor Shesterkin
It is not 2021-2022 anymore. Last season, Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin finished sixth in wins (36), first among 65 goalies with at least 1,000 minutes in goals against average (2.07), first in save percentage (.935), third in shutouts (six), first in even strength save percentage (.935; minimum: ten games played), and fifth in number of games allowing two or fewer goals (31, minimum: 50 minutes played per game). He won 29 of 32 first-place votes for the Vezina Trophy to win going away (154 votes to 53 for Jacob Markstrom) and won 24 first-place votes for the Hart Trophy as league most valuable player, the only goaltender to earn any votes.
This season, things have been different. Of 63 goalies to date to log at least 500 minutes, Shesterkin ranks ninth in goals against average (2.44), 15th in save percentage (.916), tied for 14th in shutouts (one), 20th in even strength save percentage (.924; minimum: five games played), and tied for seventh in games allowing two or fewer goals (11; minimum: 50 minutes per game).
It isn’t that Shesterkin has played badly, just that this season has put into stark relief just how special – and perhaps unique – his 2021-2022 season was. He has been rather consistent this season – 6-2-2, 2.58, .910, with one shutout in his first ten games; 4-2-2, 2.61, .916 in his next eight games. But now, he is ramping up his game. He is 7-1-0 in his last eight games with a 2.11 goals against average and a .923 save percentage. Over that span is second among all goalies in wins (the Caps’ Charlie Lindgren has eight), tenth in goals against (minimum: 200 minutes), and 12th in save percentage. Shesterkin is 4-1-0, 2.22, .935 in five career games against the Caps.
Washington: Dylan Strome
One has to think, and Caps fans have to hope, that there is an eruption about to take place in the name of Dylan Strome. In his first 18 games this season with the Caps, he posted five goals on 33 shots, a 15.2 shooting percentage. With 13 points overall, he was on a pace for a 23-36-59 season. He looked like a steal with a one-year/$3.5 million “show me” contract. He was showing folks that an extension was merited. But over his last 18 games he is 1-11-12, his lone goal coming on 29 shots (3.4 shooting percentage), although the goal was the game-winner in a 4-1 win over Philadelphia on December 7th.
The Caps have not really missed his drop in output, going 12-4-2 in those 18 games. But what sticks out in his production over those 18 games is that he is 1-8-9 in ten road games, tied for third in points for Caps on the road over that stretch. He has not had a home or road weighted level of performance this season. His splits are very balanced – 3-9-12, minus-4, in 17 home games, 3-10-13, minus-5, n 19 road games. But hose minus levels are a issue. His minus-7 goal differential at even strength overall is worst on the team this season, and in only two of his last eight games was he a plus player in this category. It matter. Strome has been on ice for at least one even strength goal against in 18 games this season, and the Caps are 7-8-3 in those games. On the other hand, the Caps are 9-5-1 in the 18 games in which he was on ice for an even strength goal scored by Washington.
There is also a bordering on the bizarre fact about his ice time. In 13 games in which Strome skated 17 or more minutes, the Caps are 4-7-2. They are 15-6-2 in 23 games in which he skated less than 17 minutes. It has been an odd season for the seven-year vet in some ways, although on balance he gives evidence of being productive center for years to come. The goal scoring drought seems more hiccup than chronic malady, but Caps fans would no doubt like to see those goals flowing freely once more to give balance to that on-ice goal differential. Strome is 1-4-5, minus-3, in five career games against the Rangers.
In the end…
On November 22nd, the Caps were 7-10-3, seventh in the Metropolitan Division and 13th in the Eastern Conference standings. In five weeks, the Caps climbed into the second wild-card spot, and with a win over the Rangers in regulation in this contest would jump into the first wild-card spot and could, with a Pittsburgh Penguins regulation loss to the New York Islanders, jump into third place in the Metropolitan Division. The Caps are in the thick of it now, and they need to stand on the gas pedal as the year comes to a close. There would be no better place to do this than in New York on Tuesday night.
Capitals 3 – Rangers 2