The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Washington Capitals have not had a lot of games against Metropolitan Division – only nine games out of 43 games played to date (6-2-1) – but the Caps return to division wars this week and wrap up a season series in the process when they play the Philadelphia Flyers in a home-and-home set of games Wednesday in Philadelphia and Saturday in Washington.
The Caps have the league’s best record since November 23rd at 16-4-3 and are one of only two teams to be top-five in both scoring offense (3.70 goals per game/fourth) and scoring defense (2.22 goals allowed per game/second), Toronto being the other.
On the other side, the Flyers are 9-10-3 over the same period, tied for 22nd in the league in points over that span. But Philadelphia is showing signs of being better lately. After struggling in the run-up to the Christmas break with a 2-5-2 record, the Flyers are 5-1-0 since Christmas. Only once in those six games did they score fewer than five goals, and only twice did they allow more than two.
Center Travis Koniecny has set the pace in scoring for the Flyers in their recent run. Over the last six games he is 6-5-11, plus-7. His six goals are tied for fifth in the league over that stretch, while his 11 points are tied with Kevin Fiala for most in the league. Perhaps Konecny is finally settling in to being the top-notch scorer the Flyers might have envisioned when they took him as the 24th overall pick in the 2015 Entry Draft. It has not been that Knoecny has been a poor performer; in fact, he has been consistent. After posting 11 goals in 70 games as a rookie in 2016-2017, he recorded three consecutive 24-goal seasons. However, his production dipped to 27 goals in 129 games over the next two seasons coming into the 2022-2023 campaign.
But Konecny came out of the starting gate hot this season and has not let up. Not even missing six games to an upper-body injury in late November has been able to slow him down. Only once in 35 games played has he gone consecutive games without a point, and he has at least one point in 28 of those 35 games. He also has goals in 18 of those 35 games, over which the Flyers are 10-6-2. The question regarding his scoring is whether his 18.9 shooting percentage to date (16th among 353 skaters with at least 50 shots on goal) is sustainable. While he had a respectable 12.1 percent shooting mark over five seasons entering this one, a correction might be in order. In 28 career games against the Caps, Konecny is 6-5-11, minus-7.
Is in his second tour with the Flyers. In June 2019, he was traded to the Flyers by the San Jose Sharks for a second-round draft pick in 2019 and a third-round draft pick in 2020. He was traded to the New York Rangers in March 2022 for 1 2023 third-round draft pick, but he returned to the Flyer fold when he signed a one-year/$1.0 million contract as a free agent last July. Braun has never been much of an offensive defenseman. In 791 games over 12 seasons for three teams coming into this season, he had 34 goals and 197 points. If one thing sticks out among the “numbers” about Braun, it is that he is, by far, the oldest of the eight defensemen to dress for the Flyers this season (he will be 36 in February), more than six years older than Nick Seeler.
Given his profile, one would expect that Braun would be the veteran anchor of a defensive squad where half the members are age 26 or younger. But he has played in only 33 of 41 games this season, only one since December 22nd. The problem lies in part with the fact that the Flyers just have not done well with Braun in the lineup, going 12-14-7 in the 33 games in which he dressed (4-4-0 in games in which he was absent). It has not helped his or the Flyers’ cause that through 33 games played he is still looking for his first point of the season. He is on a 37-game streak without a point dating back to last season. In 29 career games against the Caps, Braun in 0-7-7, plus-6.
If there has been a surprise this season for the Flyers, it might be rookie winger Noah Cates. The first surprise is that Cates – a fifth round (117th overall) pick of the 2017 Entry Draft and the seventh player drafted by the Flyers in that draft – has appeared in every game to date. No rookie through Monday’s games has appeared in more games. There is also the fact that Cates is tied for eighth in points by a rookie in the league to date (17) and is tied for eighth in plus-minus rating (plus-4). Only Seattle’s Matty Beniers has more game-wining goals (three) than Cates (two, tied with six other rookies), and he leads all rookie forwards in ice time per game (17:45).
We are approaching the time of the season when some rookies who carry a significant workload hit a wall. That has not yet happened with Cates, who is 2-6-8, plus-3, over his last 11 games. His contributions are consistent with the results of a secondary-scoring player. He has goals in five games to date, and the Flyers are 4-0-1 in those contests; the Flyers are 7-4-1 in the 12 games in which he has points. In the ten games in which he logged at least 19 minutes, the Flyers are 5-1-4. With respect to his ice times, there are those occasions in which a rookie might slump and give the head coach cause to sit him or reduce his minutes. The former has not happened, and as to the latter, Cates has not skated less than 14:43 in any game this season, only about three minutes under his average this season. Cates is 0-0-0, minus-3, in three career games against the Caps.Philadelphia’s net power play on home ice (accounting for shorthanded goals scored by opponents) is the fourth-worst on home ice in the league (12.1 percent). It is slight better, efficiency-wise, on the road at 12.7 percent, but it ranks 31st in the league.
2. Only Montreal has scored first in fewer games on home ice (three) than the Flyers (five), who are just 2-3-0 in the limited instances they did so (.400 winning percentage/31st in the league). They are also frustrated in this area on the road – 3-3-2/.375 (29th in winning percentage).
3. If the Flyers can get a lead after 40 minutes on home ice, they will like their chances. They are 7-0-0 on home ice when leading after two periods. Even on the road they have been successful, just not frequent in getting those 40-minute leads (4-0-1 in 22 road games).
4. The Flyers have been digging early holes on home ice. They have a minus-8 goal differential in first periods on home ice, fifth-worst in the league. That is worse than their goal-differential in first periods on the road (minus-2).
5. No team has more losses by three or more goals on home ice than the Flyes (nine in 19 home games).Washington has not been an especially prolific scoring team on home ice, their 3.32 goals per game ranking 14th in the league in home scoring offense. They have averaged fewer goals per game on the road (3.11) but rank 11th in road scoring offense.
2. The Caps have been very good at home holding down opponents’ scoring, the 2.59 goals allowed per game at home ranking sixth in the league in scoring defense. They have been almost as good on the road, the 2.81 goals allowed per game ranking eighth in road scoring defense.
3. Only 28 first period goals have been scored by the Caps and opponents in 22 games at Capital One Arena this season, split evenly at 14 apiece. The Caps have a minus-4 goal differential in first period goals in 21 road games (15 for, 19 against).
4. Only Pittsburgh has allowed more overtime goals on home ice (four) than the Caps (three, tied with three other teams).
5. The Caps are on of three teams that have trailed first at least ten times on home ice with a winning percentage of at least .500 (5-4-1/.500). Winnipeg and Toronto are the others.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Philadelphia: Samuel Ersson
It was supposed to be Carter Hart’s net. And for the most part this season, it has been. Hart has taken 28 of the 41 starts by Flyer goaltenders to date. But his 11-12-6, 2.97, .908, is not what the team might be expecting, even for a club that is still struggling to achieve competitive status with other playoff contenders. Perhaps a victim of circumstance (the Dlyers’ overall struggles) or his own shortcomings, he has not been the answer many thought he could be when he burst upon the scene with a rookie season good enough for him to finish ninth in Calder Trophy voting and a sophomore season that was an improvement over his rookie year (24-13-3, 2.42, .914, one shutout). Over his next two seasons he was 22-35-12, 3.34, .895, with two shutouts.
But Hart was injured in a December 23rd game against Carolina, leaving the net to Felix Sandstrom, or it would have but for Sandstrom missing time to illness. It is in that context that Samuel Ersson is an intriguing character. Ersson was called up from the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the AHL on December 21st to fill in for Sanderson and was pressed into duty when Hart was injured. He completed that game Hart started against Carolina and allowed five goals on 30 shots in 47 minutes in a 6-5 loss (he did not earn the decision). But since then, Ersson has been impressive, allowing three goals on 28 shots to San Jose, two in 25 shots against Los Angeles, one on 29 shots against Anaheim, and most recently a 28-save shutout in a 4-0 win against Buffalo – all wins, and all on the road. In his short time with the big club, he is 4-0-0, 2.30, .924, that save percentage tops among all rookie goalies playing at least 100 minutes. It was not as if any of this was expected. With the Phantoms, Ersson was 9-8-1, 2.72, .910, his goals against average ranking 25th among qualifying goalies and his save percentage ranking 19th. One might say that the Flyers have credible alternatives to the goaltending position, but it looks from a distance like one that remains – as it seems to have been for decades – in flux. Ersson has never faced the Caps.
Washington: T.J. Oshie
T.J. Oshie is not the offensive producer he has been in the past. At his current rate of point production, he will finish 2022-2023 with the only season of his 15-year career not averaging more than half a point per game (he has 13 points in 26 games/0.50 points per game). He will finish the season with his second consecutive year with less than 0.30 goals per game, something he has not done since 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, his final two seasons with the St Louis Blues. His 12.5 shooting percentage is his lowest since 2014-2015, his last year with the Blues, when he shot 11.7 percent. His 16:42 in ice time per game is his lowest since his rookie year in 2008-2009 (16:35 per game). And while neither a center nor a player with a heavy faceoff load, he does take a lot of draws for a winger, yet his 37.7 winning percentage is the worst of his career.
And yet, the Caps win when he is on the ice. In 26 games this season in which he played, the Caps are 16-8-2; they are 7-6-4 in the 17 games he missed. It is not as if this an unusual or isolated phenomenon. Since coming to the Caps in July 2015, the Caps are 299-132-52 in games in which he dressed (a 110-point pace per 82 games) and 98-58-21 (a 101-point pace per 82 games) in games he missed. The consistency of the relationship between his being on ice and Caps success looks like a reflection of the limitation of numbers – top line or more sophisticated statistics – to capture his impact on outcomes. Oshie’s absences this season, twice missing time to what appeared to be non-contact injuries, have denied him much of an opportunity to establish and scoring momentum. In 26 games he has three streaks of three or more games without a point, and he does not have an assist on his resume since November 25th, a streak of 15 games and counting. What has been particularly curious about his season to date is an inability to score at home. He has two goals on 30 shots (6.7 percent) in 12 games on home ice so far this season, even though he is averaging about a minute more in home ice time per game (17:11) than on the road (16:17). Oshie is 12-12-24, plus-1, in 39 career games against Philadelphia.
In the end…
With as little game action as the Caps will have this week, it is an opportunity to get some practice in and put those lessons to work to play with structure and focus. The Flyers are a feisty and familiar enough foe to get and hold the Caps’ attention, so taking the opponent for granted should – that is “should” – not be an issue. It will be difficult to gain much, if any ground in the standings with just the two games against the Flyers on the slate, but that makes these two games important to maintain and solidify their place in the playoff mix.
Wednesday: Capitals 4 – Flyers 2
Saturday: Capitals 5 – Flyers 2