Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 6: Capitals at Oilers, October 22nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals take their 3-0-2 record on the road this week, their first stop being in Edmonton to take on the Oilers on Wednesday night. These are teams on different ends of the success spectrum at the moment. The Caps’ fast start is their best since starting the season 7-0-0 in 2011-2012 (Bruce Boudreau’s last season as Capitals head coach). The Oilers’ 1-4-0 start looks an awful lot like their start last season (1-6-1 in their first seven games), their start in 2012-2013 (4-4-3 in their first 11 games), their start in 2011-2012 (2-2-2 in their first six games), their start in 2010-2011 (2-4-2 in their first eight games), and so on, and so on.

For Edmonton, winning has been an infrequent indulgence in recent years. They have not reached the post-season since losing in the Stanley Cup final to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. In their last five seasons and five games into this one they have an aggregate record of 133-202-47. On an 82-game basis, that works out to 29-43-10. That is how, since 2007, a team gets seven top-ten picks in the space of eight drafts, three in succession being first overall draft picks (2010-2012).

This edition of the Oilers, even with the three first overall draft picks – Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov – in the lineup, has had trouble scoring goals. Hall accounts for four of the 14 goals scored by Edmonton in five games. Yakupov and Nugent-Hopkins have one apiece; the other 19 skaters accounting for the other eight goals.

There are two faces that Caps fans will recognize. Matt Hendricks and Boyd Gordon were faithful foot soldiers for the Caps and play similar roles for the Oilers. Neither is expected to generate much offense, their games being more of feisty grittiness (Hendricks) and responsible steadiness (Gordon). One thing Caps fans might have expected is for Hendricks to employ the “paralyzer” trick shot he used to such effectiveness in Washington with similar results in Edmonton. The Oilers have participated in just one shootout so far, Hendricks not being called upon to join in. He took only one turn in the apres-hockey portion of the game in 33 games with the Oilers last season.

At the other end of the rink the results have been, well, less than hoped for. Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth each have goals against averaged north of 3.50 and save percentages south of .900. And, it is not as if the defense in front of them has shined. Plus-minus has limited utility on an individual basis, but when seven of eight defensemen are in “minus” territory (Martin Marincin is “even” in two games), it says something unkind. They’re not too good. And this is with a group that includes a free agent they sought (Mark Fayne), a quasi-free agent (Nikita Nikitin, whose rights were traded to Edmonton from Columbus for the right to negotiate a contract), and another of those top-ten draft picks (Darnell Nurse). For Oiler fans who clung to the hope of what so many high-end draft picks might bring, the last few years have been bitter medicine. Here is how the teams compare in their numbers to date this season:

-- One thing Edmonton has going for it is consistency. The benefit here for Caps fans is that some of that consistency is not kind to the Oilers. So far, Edmonton has a goal differential of minus-3 in the first period of games, minus-3 in the second period, and minus-6 in the third period. They have been outscored overall, 26-14, in six games.

-- The odd thing about that goal differential is that the Oilers have recorded 179 shots on goal and have allowed 179 shots on goal. What that means is that while the Oilers shooting percentage is fair to poor (7.8 percent), their save percentage is ghastly (.864). That’s a team overall PDO of 942. Hard to win games like that.

-- It’s bad enough to fall behind early in games often. It’s worse when you can’t win on those rare occasions when you do get ahead early. In six games the Oilers have scored first twice. They won neither game. They are one of three teams who have scored first in at least one game (Arizona has yet to do so) not to have won. Edmonton is 0-1-1, Philadelphia and Carolina both are 0-0-1. Geez, even Buffalo won the only game in which they scored first.

-- Only the Winnipeg Jets have fewer power play opportunities per game in the early going 2.80 per game) than the Oilers (2.83 per game). You might think that allowing only 3.50 power play chances a game (tied for 11th fewest) would help, but there is that 76.2 percent penalty killing to deal with.

-- Edmonton is still trying to settle on a lineup that works. They have dressed 22 skaters in six games. Only Boston (24) and the New York Rangers (23) have dressed more.

-- What a difference a year makes in terms of starts for the Capitals. Last year the Caps were 1-4-0 in their first five games and had to come back from three goals down to win in a shootout for their lone win. They were outscored, 20-12, and had a penalty kill of just 78.9 percent. Through five games this season the Caps are 3-0-2, outscored their opponents by an 18-9 margin, and have a penalty kill of 90.0 percent.

-- Starting well has been a theme for the Caps. They scored the first goal in four of their first five games and took a lead into the first intermission three times (tied once). The Caps are the last team in the Eastern Conference without a loss in regulation time and one of only three in the league going into Tuesday’s games (Nashville and Chicago are the others).

-- Seventeen of the 20 skaters to dress for the Caps have points through five games. Defenseman Nate Schmidt is the only player to have appeared in more than two of those games without recording a point (but he is a plus-3, tied for second on the team).

-- Of 23 goalies thus far appearing in four or more games (going into Thursday’s games), Braden Holtby is one of five with a goals-against average under 2.00 (1.85) and a save percentage above .930 (.932). Jimmy Howard (1.72/.934), Pekka Rinne (1.22/.948), Jonathan Quick (1.86/.951) and Frederik Andersen (1.38/.950) are the others.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Edmonton: Taylor Hall

It seems like a long time ago that Taylor Hall was drafted first overall by the Edmonton Oilers. It was only just in 2010 that it took place, though. Four years since his selection, his skill is not in question. He is third in his draft class in goals (96, one behind both Tyler Seguin and Jeff Skinner), first in total points (231, 18 more than Seguin and 46 more than Skinner). He was the first of three consecutive number one overall draft picks for the Oilers (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov being those next in line) and one of six straight top ten draft picks (and counting). By virtue of being the longest tenured in this chain (Marcus Paajaarvi, drafted 10th overall in 2009, is no longer with the Oilers), Hall is almost by default the go-to guy for ensuring success. He has not disappointed early. His four goals and six points lead the team, but unfortunately he has not led it very far, either early this season or over his four previous seasons with the club. At 22 (he will turn 23 in early November) the clock is not yet ticking on his career, but he is one of a collection of very skilled young forwards who have been unable to translate that skill into wins on the ice. He has faced the Caps only twice with a scoring line of 1-0-1, minus-3).

Washington: Jason Chimera

It’s back home for Jason Chimera, a native of Edmonton, who happened to be drafted by his hometown team in 1997 (5th round/121st overall). He played in four seasons with the Oilers, appearing in 130 games before he was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes in June 2004 in one of the busiest, if least consequential deals in recent history (Chimera and a third round pick for a second and a third round pick in 2004; of the three draft picks moved, only one yielded a player who appeared in an NHL game: Liam Reddox).  Of more recent relevance, Chimera, with one goal in five games, is getting off to roughly the same start he had last season (one goal in his first nine games), and the start he had in 2012-2013 (one goal in his first 40 games), and the start he had in 2010-2011 (three goals in his first 35 games). He is not the fastest of starters. Part of it is shooting; he has only nine shots on goal in five games. It’s early, of course, which means this is not a cause for worry, but it would be nice to see him breakout against the hometown team. In 20 career games against the Oilers, Chimera is 3-7-10, plus-4.

In the end…

Going west is always an issue, it seems, for the Capitals. Last spring’s successful California trip is the exception. The Caps are 2-8-0 in their last ten trips to Edmonton, although they have won two of their last three contests at Rexall Place. The Oilers won their first game of the season on Monday, a 3-2 win over highly-regarded Tampa Bay, so they cannot be overlooked as the feckless group that went 0-4-1 in their first five games and that was outscored, 24-11.

Ben Scrivens has been sharp in goal in his last two outings, allowing only three goals on 53 shots (.943 save percentage) while splitting two decisions. What he has not had is much experience against the Caps, and not very effective experience, either. In two career appearances against Washington he allowed seven goals on 63 shots (.889 save percentage) in 119 minutes, splitting his two decisions. For the Caps, who going into Thursday’s games have the third best scoring offense in the league, it will be a matter of reminding Scrivens and the Oilers that their defense has been often as bleak as their winters. The Caps have not scored more than four goals in Edmonton since taking a 6-5 decision on October 23, 1991. We’re thinking it’s about time.

Capitals 5 – Oilers 2

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 2

Week 2 for the Washington Capitals looked a lot like Week 1 – extra time, trick shot competitions, and… Corsi!  It made for a good week overall.

Record: 2-0-1

The best that can be said about Week 2 was that it was a solid effort – a come-from-behind charge from twice being down three goals to earn a standings point against the San Jose Sharks, a dominating 6-2 win over previously undefeated the New Jersey Devils, and a gritty 2-1 Gimmick win over the Florida Panthers.  On the other hand, there were the two trick shot competitions.  Not earning regulation/overtime wins is a spillover from last season when the Caps had the fourth lowest percentage of wins coming in regulation time or overtime (73.7).  The Caps have one (oops..make that two) ROW among their three wins to date, but then again, they have not lost a game in regulation time, either, the only team in the East not to have done so over the first two weeks of the season.

Offense: 4.00/game (season: 3.40/game; rank: T-4th)

Nine different players shared in the 12 goals scored for the week, Alex Ovechkin leading the team with three.  The story, though, might have been Marcus Johansson.  He was the other Caps with a multi-goal week, notching two in the three games of Week 2.  The work project for Johansson to begin this season was to shoot more.  He has done just that.  The six shots he recorded for the week made it 11 in five games.  Last season he did not record his 11th shot on goal for the season until his 12th game.

Sixteen players shared in the point scoring for the week, led by the “middle aged” guns.  Alex Ovechkin (3-1-4), Mike Green (1-3-4), and Nicklas Backstrom (1-2-3) led the way, along with Troy Brouwer (1-2-3).  Backstrom went into the last game of the week needing one point in what was his 500th career game to reach the 500-point plateau.  He came up short, but he has (one hopes) many years ahead of him to build a career point-a-game resume.

Defense: 2.67/game (season: 1.80/game; rank: T-6th)

The numbers of note here are: 23, 28, 21.  Those were the shots on goal against the Caps for the week.  It made five straight games in which the Caps allowed fewer than 30 shots on goal.  Factor in that the Caps have played in three 65-minute games, and they are allowing only 23.8 shots per 60 minutes.  Last year the Caps did not have their fifth game with fewer than 30 shots until Game 33.  The last time that the Caps had five consecutive games allowing fewer than 30 shots on goal was December 15-26, 2011, when the Caps limited Winnipeg, Colorado, Nashville, New Jersey, and Buffalo to a total of 126 shots.

The low shot volumes against was a reflection of very good overall possession numbers for the week.  The Caps had a 54.30 percent Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 for the week (numbers from war-on-ice.com). 

Goaltending: 2.53 GAA / .889 SV (season: 1.71 GAA / .928 SV / 1 SO)

It was not a particularly efficient week in net for the Caps (.889 save percentage).  The problem was the first period.  In three games Braden Holtby and Justin Peters were a combined 23-for-28 in saves in the opening frame (.821).  After that they were fine (41-for-44; .932 save percentage), but that was a matter of damage control.  The silver lining there is that while Holtby and Peters went a combined 17-for-22 on saves in the first period in the first two games of the week (.773 save percentage), Peters stopped all six shots he faced against Florida to end the week.

Power Play: 3-11 / 27.3 percent (season: 25.0 percent; rank: T-9th)

It was a good week that would have been even better, perhaps, but for lack of opportunity.  That would mean the Florida game to end the week.  The Caps had only two power plays against the Panthers, one of them lasting all of seven seconds.  Thus, it is not surprising that Washington took an oh-fer on the man advantage in that game and did not register a shot on goal.

In the first two games of the week the Capitals dominated on their man advantage.  A 3-for-9 record (33.3 percent) was the result of pounding San Jose and New Jersey with 17 shots in 13:51 of total power play time.  Alex Ovechkin had eight of those 17 shots, so neither the Sharks nor the Devils were taking away his personal space.  What the Caps got, though, was support.  Marcus Johansson scored on his only power play shot of the week; Andre Burakovsky was 1-for2.  

Penalty Killing: 9-11 / 81.8 percent (season:90.0 percent; rank: 5th)

The penalty killers had a bit of a confounding week.  On the one hand, 9-for-11 is not an especially impressive mark.  Then again, allowing two goals on only 13 shots in 19:53 of shorthanded ice time is.  The two goals were scored from almost precisely the same spot at the same end of the ice in the same circumstances.  Against San Jose a Matt Nieto shot from the right point got through traffic, and goalie Braden Holtby made the initial save.  However, he could not cover the loose puck, and the Caps could not clear it.  Defenseman Matt Irwin pounced on the loose puck on the weak side to Holtby’s right and scored before anyone could defend him.  Against Florida it was Dylan Olson firing from above the right wing faceoff circle.  This time it was Justin Peters making the initial save but failing to cover the loose puck.  It made its way to the right of Peters where Brad Boyes pinched in on the weak side to bury it.

On both occasions a Caps defenseman – John Carlson against San Jose, Brooks Orpik against Florida – were occupied trying to keep an opponent at the top of the crease to the goalie’s left from getting a whack at the puck, leaving that weak side area down low open to a player pinching in. 

Even Strength Goals For/Goals Against: 9-6 / plus-3 (season 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 1.71; rank: 7th)

If the Caps needed to change one thing in terms of results this season, it was to turn around their 5-on-5 performance from last season.  At 5-on-5 in 2013-2014 the Caps scored 139 goals at 5-on-5 and allowed 155, a ratio of 0.90:1.  In Week 2, the Caps were 9-6 to the good, a ratio of 1.50:1 and making them 12 up and seven down for the season (1.71:1).  That was the product of outshooting opponents by a 75-56 margin for the week at even strength.  Of those 75 shots, 22 of them came off the sticks of Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, and Eric Fehr.  That line was often the Caps’ best last season, and they are picking up where they left off.

Faceoffs: 105-for-197 / 53.3 percent (season: 48.9 percent; rank: 18th)

It was a good week overall but perhaps a bit misleading.  The Caps won more than 53 percent of total draws taken, but that was skewed by a 41-for-63 (65.1 performance) against Florida to end the week.  The Caps were underwater against San Jose (49.2 percent) and New Jersey (46.4 percent.  What the Caps were able to do consistently was to win in the offensive zone.  They were over 50 percent in all three games – 55.0 percent against San Jose, 55.2 percent against New Jersey, and 56.0 percent against Florida.  It was not as impressive in the defensive end, a 66.7 percent mark against Florida offset by going 43.8 percent against the Sharks and 40.0 percent against the Devils.

It was the rookies who struggled in the circle for the week.  Evgeny Kuznetsov was 13-for-28 ((46.4 percent), while Andre Burakovsky was 10-for-23 (43.5 percent).   At the other end, Nicklas Backstrom was 57.7 percent on a 30-for-52 effort, while Troy Brower was 13-for-20 and 65.0 percent.

Goals by Period:

Cold starts and hot finishes.  The Caps allowed five of the eight goals allowed in Week 2 in the first period of their three games.  They scored five of their own in the third period of those games.  It was in the second period that the week might have been defined, though.  Falling behind in the San Jose game by a 3-0 score in the first period and being held to a 2-2 tie by the Devils after 40 minutes in their contest in the middle game of the week, the Caps outscored the Sharks, 3-1, and the Devils, 1-0, in the second periods of those games. 

In the end…

It is hard to argue with results, and a 2-0-1 week is never going to be a bad thing.  There were bumps along the way – the first period against San Jose, the manner in which the power play goals were allowed among them – but the Caps are tied in standings points with the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators for second place in the Eastern Conference, just two points behind the Montreal Canadiens with a game in hand.  

It is a good start to the season for the Caps, quite an improvement on the 1-4-0 five-game start of last season that put the Caps squarely in a hole that they seemed to spend the rest of the season trying to climb out of.  It is just the thing they needed as they head west to take on Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver in Week 3.

A TWO-point night -- Game 5: Capitals 2 - Panthers 1 (OT/Gimmick)

The Washington Capitals did three times in The Gimmick what they could do only once in the hockey portion of their contest against the Florida Panthers.  Score goals, that is.  The Caps rode trick shots by Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alex Ovechkin, plus goalie Justin Peters’ 20-save effort to a 2-1 decision over the Panthers.

For a more detailed review of the night’s events, head on over to Japers’ Rink for our recap.

Other stuff…

-- Hey, guess what.  The Caps won a game in which they scored fewer than three goals.  That broke an 0-26-7 string of 33 games in which they failed to do so.  Their last win when scoring fewer than three goals in a game came on April 4, 2013, when they beat the New York Islanders in a Gimmick, 2-1.  The Caps’ last such win in regulation came on March 11, 2012, when they beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, 2-0.  We're still waiting for one of those.

-- Another night, another trick shot competition.  This one makes three in five games this season and 24 in 87 games over the past two seasons.  The Caps are 12-12 in those contests.

-- The win makes the Caps 10-0-1 in their last 11 contests against the Panthers, outscoring Florida by a 42-21 margin.  The Caps have not lost at home to the Panthers since December 9, 2010, when they were shutout by a 3-0 score.  The Caps have won nine straight against Florida at Verizon Center.

-- Last season the Caps held teams under 30 shots a game only 21 times in 82 contests.  Their longest streak of such games was three in late January.  They have five straight games allowing fewer than 30 shots to start this season.  The last time the Caps pieced together a streak of five games allowing fewer than 30 shots was in late December 2011 when the put the clamps on Winnipeg, Colorado, Nashville, New Jersey, and Buffalo, going 2-2-1 in the process.

-- The Eric Fehr/Jason Chimera/Joel Ward line had a goal and two assists, eight shots on goal, 11 shot attempts, five hits, two blocked shots, and won 11 of 19 draws. 

-- Matt Niskanen had more than two more even strength ice time (23:02) than the next Capitals (Brooks Orpik – 21:39). 

In the end…

A record of 3-0-2 might not sound like much, but you bank points where and when you can, especially with a trip out west next week on the schedule.  This might have been the dastardly “trap game,” the one where the good guys suffer an unexpected loss against a weaker opponent after a good stretch of play against stiff competition.  The Caps last year might have fallen victim to that scenario, but this team has a look of being sounder in their own end.  Defense is as often a matter of will as it is of skill, and if the Caps bring that sort of will power to the rink every night, they can avoid these “traps” and the bleeding away of standings points they might need next spring.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 5: Panthers at Capitals, October 18th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals wrap up their three-game home stand on Saturday night when the face the Florida Panthers at Verizon Center. The Caps go into the contest as one of only two teams in the Eastern Conference – the New York Islanders being the other one – without having yet endured a loss in regulation time (2-0-2).

Both the Capitals and the Panthers finished the 2013-2014 regular season on the outside looking in at the playoffs. For the Capitals it was their first time missing the post-season since 2006-2007, ending a string of six straight appearances. For the Panthers, missing the playoffs is a state of being.  Only once over the past 13 seasons have they reached the post-season, only four times in the 20 year history of the franchise.  Florida has not won a playoff series since they won the Eastern Conference final on their way to their only Stanley Cup final appearance, in 1996.

This year’s edition of the Panthers will likely have to deal with another round of meager expectations.  Last season’s squad ranked in the bottom three of almost every meaningful team statistic. That is a team with entirely too many holes to fill in one off season to manage a significant climb up the standings.  And it is not even a case of the Panthers icing a team with a lot of young prospects.  They are the eighth oldest team in the league, and ten of the 19 skaters they have dressed have passed the age of 30.

As one might expect, the Panthers have stumbled out of the gate.  They played the Tampa Bay Lightning close in the season opener, losing a 3-2 overtime decision.  However, they have only one goal scored in their last two games, a 5-1 loss to the New Jersey Devils and a 1-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators.  They have only two goals from forwards (Derek MacKenzie and Jonathan Huberdeau), and only three forwards with points (Scottie Upshall being the third).  As a team they are shooting 3.8 percent on 3-for-80 shooting.  This is a team that appears to have a bleak future in the short term at the very least.

Here is how the teams compare in their numbers from last season.

1.  No team in the NHL last season had a leading goal scorer with fewer goals than Brad Boyes had for the Panthers (21).  No team had a leading point scorer with fewer points than the 38 Nick Bjugstad had for the Panthers last season.  How bad was it?  There were 26 defensemen with more points than the Panthers’ leading scorer.

2.  The Panthers were 29th in goal differential in the first period of games last season (minus-39), 30th in goal differential in the second period of games (minus-34).  They won the third period (plus-1). Small victories.

3.  In an 82-game season, the Panthers played in 25 games in which they lost by three or more goals.  See a pattern here?

4.  The Panthers’ road power play was past anemic, it was exsanguinated.  Their 7.0 percent on the power play was the lowest dating back more than 15 years.  Since the 2004-2005 lockout only one other team finished below 10.0 percent (St. Louis – 9.2 percent in 2006-2007).

5.  The strange part of the Panthers’ 2013-2014 season is that they were not irreparably inept in terms of possession.  Their Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (50.36) ranked 15th; their Fenwick-for percentage at 5-on-5 (49.88) ranked 18th (war-on-ice.com).

1.  Going into Friday’s games the Capitals had the second best overall goal differential per game (+2.00); Minnesota was the only team with a better one (+4.00).

2.  The Caps’ special teams index (121.1; power play plus penalty killing percentage) ranks third, behind  Tampa Bay (123.9) and Arizona (127.3).

3.  The Caps have scored 16 goals through four games.  Last season they did not score their 16th goal of the season until Game 6, the last goal in a 4-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers. 

4.  The Caps lead the league in blocked shots going into Friday’s games (58).   It wouldn’t be possible without the four blocked shots by Alex Ovechkin.  We kid, but last year he had 22 total in 78 games.

5.  Four teams have two wins of three of more goals.  The Caps are one of them along with Minnesota, San Jose, and Los Angeles.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Florida: Aaron Ekblad

Aaron Ekblad was taken first overall in the entry draft held last June.  He is not being eased into a role with the Panthers.  The defenseman out of Windsor, Ontario, is averaging almost 22 minutes a game over his first three NHL contests and got almost 24 minutes of ice time in his last outing against Ottawa.  He has been on ice for only two of the nine goals allowed by the Panthers thus far.  He leads all rookie defensemen in average ice time (it’s early; there are only ten rookie defensemen who have dressed so far this season).  There is a bright future there, but even a bright star on a dark night can shine just so much light.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

By now all Caps fans know that Nicklas Backstrom goes into this game with 499 points scored in 499 career regular season games.  Only three other natives of Sweden had careers of playing in 500 or more games, recording 500 or more points, and averaging at least 1.00 points per game: Mats Sundin (1,349 points in 1,346 games), Peter Forsberg (885 points in 708 games), and Kent Nilsson (686 points in 553 games).  In 36 career games against Florida he is 9-32-41, including three goals and three assists last season in three games against the Panthers.

In the end…

Let’s face it, on paper this game isn’t close.  A three-goal win would seem like a nail-biter.  On paper.  As Caps fans know, depressingly so, games are not played on paper, and this team can play down to an opponent’s level with the best of them.  That said, the Caps got through their four-game opening stretch as good or better than one might have expected under a new coaching regime.  And, they look like a team that has done it the right way, improving on their possession numbers, holding shots down, getting balanced scoring while the stars shine.  Florida's situation is complicated by their having to play in Buffalo on Friday night, meaning a late arrival in Washington for the Saturday night game.  What you see on paper you will see on the ice.

Capitals 6 – Panthers 2

A TWO-point night -- Game 4: Capitals 6 - Devils 2

The Washington Capitals won their first home contest of the season on Thursday night as they rode a three-goal third period to break open a tight game and win going away, 6-2, over the previously undefeated New Jersey Devils at Verizon Center.

The scoring started in the first minute of the contest when the Devils’ Andy Greene tried to keep a loose puck from sliding out of the offensive zone.  His attempted keep-in was blocked by Troy Brouwer who recovered the puck and headed up the right wing.  Entering the Devils’ zone, Brouwer fired a shot at goalie Cory Schneider, who turned the puck aside, but right into the path of Alex Ovechkin stepping into the high slot.  Ovechkin collected the puck, cut across the middle, and wristed the puck past Schneider for his fifth goal of the season 34 seconds into the game.

That was how the score remained until Damon Severson tied it for the Devils at the 10:15 mark of the period.  Less than a minute later, though, Chris Brown untied it.  Brown fought through a check from defenseman Eric Gelinas along the right wing boards and fired a slap shot from the far edge of the right wing circle that flew past Schneider’s blocker to make it 2-1.

Severson tied the game a second time for the Devils at the 16:36 mark of the first period, but that would be the extent of the Devils’ scoring.  In the seventh minute of the second period the Caps took the lead for good.   Marcus Johansson started and finished the tie-breaking play.  Circling out from the left wing corner in the offensive zone, Johansson sent the puck down the boards to Brooks Laich.  Johansson continued his momentum into the middle of the ice where Laich found him with a backhand pass.  From the high slot Johansson took the Laich feed and wristed the puck past Schneider to give the Caps a 3-2 lead.

That would be the extent of the scoring in the second period.  The third period was all Capitals. Nicklas Backstrom started it less than a minute into the period jest by getting in the way.  He started it by digging the puck off the left wing wall where Alex Ovechkin picked it up.  Ovechkin fed Troy Brouwer, who relayed the puck to Matt Niskanen at the blue line.  Niskanen wristed the puck at the net, but on the way through it hit Backstrom and changed direction, eluding Schneider on the glove side to give the Caps a 4-2 lead.

Less than three minutes later, Joel Ward scored unassisted when he picked up a loose puck at the Capitals’ blue line, skated through center ice and fired a shot that went wide to the left of Schneider.  The puck caromed loudly off the end boards and caught Schneider napping.  The puck hit Schneider and settled into the back of the net for a 5-2 lead, ending Schneider’s evening in favor of Scott Clemmensen.

Andre Burakovsky’s wrist shot on a power play at 8:55 beat Clemmensen and ended the scoring for the evening, giving the Caps their final 6-2 margin.

Other stuff…

-- The six goals scored against the Devils was the most scored by the Caps in the series between the two teams since they beat New Jersey, 7-2, on October 9, 2010.

-- Going into the game the Devils had outscored opponents 5-0 in the first period of their first three games, allowing no goals on a total of 30 shots.  The Caps scored twice on eight shots in the first period. The Devils scored first in each of their three games.  That streak ended 34 seconds into this game on Ovechkin’s goal.

-- Last season, Alex Ovechkin had five goals in his first four games.  This season, five goals in his first four games.

-- Brooks Orpik had two assists, his first points as a Capital and his first multi-point game since October 28th of last season when he had three assists in a 3-1 Pittsburgh Penguins win over the Carolina Hurricanes.  Matt Niskanen had his first two points as a Capital, too, recording two assists.  Score one for the free agency signings.

-- The six goals were scored by six different players, and 12 different players shared in the points; 15 players were plus-1.

-- The Caps recorded a power play in their third straight game, making them 5-for-13  (38.5 percent) over those three games.

-- The Devils had 28 shots on goal.  Damon Severson, our “player to ponder” in the prognosto, had eight of them and both Devils goals.

-- Anybody have Nate Schmidt leading the Caps in even strength ice time (15:55)?  Anybody?  At the other end, only Andre Burakovsky did not record at least ten minutes of even strength ice time for the Caps (9:18).

-- The Caps (2-0-2) are now one of two teams in the Eastern Conference not to have lost a game in regulation time.  The New York Islanders (3-0-1) are the other.

-- Marcus Johansson’s goal was his first game-winner since getting the game-winner in a 6-2 win over the New York Islanders last November 5th.

-- Mike Green might be down on the list of notables in this game, but he had a solid line tonight… two assists, seven shot attempts (led the team), two takeaways, and four blocked shots in 19:24 of ice time.  He is second on the team in points (5) and second in plus-minus (plus-3).

In the end…

That’s the way it’s done.  Good opponent on a roll, get on them early, don’t let them get a lot of momentum, stand on their throats down the stretch.  The Caps got balanced scoring, solid defense, and timely saves from goalie Braden Holtby.  The Caps have now outscored opponents 15-7 over their last three games.  Their 5-on-5 goals ratio is 1.57, their special teams index of 121.1 (summing their 27.8 percent power play and 93.3 percent penalty kill) is third in the league, their 26.0 shots allowed per game is seventh-lowest in the league, and team goaltending is working to a .923 save percentage.  It hard to argue with the results so far, and this against some stiff opposition to start the season.  Just the set up the team needs as they close out their home stand on Saturday against the Florida Panthers before heading to the Canadian west next week.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

A Non-Hockey Interlude: The Peerless' Guide to the Days of the Week

What are the best and worst days of the week, and all the days in-between?  Well, glad you asked.  Your old pal Uncle Peerless has the answer...

Monday… Lots of folks think this is the worst day of the week, but look, you know what you are getting here.  Yeah, yeah.  First day after the weekend, back to work, pay the mortgage.  But it is what it is, and you know it’s coming.  Besides, you still have that minty aftertaste of the weekend that just passed.

Tuesday… Hands down, this is the worst day of the week.  That minty aftertaste of the weekend has been replaced by the foul stench of the Monday just concluded, and you didn’t get all the work done that backed up over the weekend anyway.  Plus, you can’t see the peaceful shore of the weekend ahead; it’s still over the horizon of…

Wednesday… “Hump Day.”  Better than Tuesday (or Monday, for that matter) because now the shore is in view.  You can detect the faint scent of barbecue and beer, hear the softest shouts at the ball park or hear the gentlest rustle of the leaves on the tree in the backyard.

Thursday… Things are looking up.  You can see the waves gently lapping at the weekend shore ahead.  You are starting to make plans, and they have nothing to do with answering e-mails, writing reports, or meeting with bosses. 

Friday… You’re almost there, but no, it’s not the best day of the week.  You still have some unfinished work to do before you go home for the weekend.  It hangs over you for half of your waking day; you try to rush so you can go to happy hour or just get home and get ready for…

Saturday… The best day of the week.  Work is a receding memory, and you don’t have any of the anxiety about next week.  You can sleep late, relax, get in a round of golf, play touch football, go to the movies, have a picnic.  The world is your oyster.

Sunday… Sure, you can sleep late, but there is that low rumble of thunder off on the horizon that signals a new work week starting tomorrow.  You can read the Sunday paper, have a dinner with family, watch football.  But by late afternoon, somewhere, deep in the recesses of your brain, a persistent voice is starting to warn you…don’t be late for the bus tomorrow, you have an important meeting and have e-mails to answer.  And it all starts anew.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 4: Devils at Capitals, October 16th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals try for the third time to win their first home game of the season on Thursday night when they host the New Jersey Devils at Verizon Center.  This game presents an interesting symmetry.  The Caps have not yet won at home (0-0-2), the Devils have not yet lost on the road (3-0-0).  The last time that the Devils won their first three road games was in 2009-2010 when they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers before knocking off the Capitals in a Gimmick.  It was the start of a nine-game road winning streak to start the season.

This edition of the Devils shows some early season punch.  Thirteen goals in four games ranks New Jersey third in the NHL in scoring offense.  Not that they have abandoned their signature defense for a run-and-gun attack.  Their 2.00 goals allowed per game in the early going is tied for sixth in scoring defense, and they have allowed just one goal in each of their last two games, both wins in Florida against the Panthers and the Lightning.

The Devils have done the right things.  They score first (true in all three games), they take a lead to the locker room (four leads in six intermissions; they have never trailed at a break), they close fast (four third period goals), they win the even strength battles (outscoring teams 10-3 at evens).  They have “lost” only one period of hockey this season, the second period in their opener against the Philadelphia Flyers when the Flyers scored three to the Devils’ two.  The Devils won, 6-4, on the heels of a 3-1 final period.

We take special note here of the ageless wonder, Jaromir Jagr.  Here is an amazing fact that Caps fans might uniquely appreciate.  Since Jagr was traded from the Caps to the New York Rangers in Janauary 2004, he has played in 477 games and has a scoring line of 183-292-475, plus-86.  That’s a career most guys would be thrilled to have, and he’s done it having passed the prime of his career. And, while he ranks only 76th all-time in games played after the age of 35 (285, and counting), he is 34th in points (229, and counting; tied, curiously enough, with former teammate Mario Lemieux.    If you are not impressed with that, consider that he missed three full seasons after age 35 playing in the KHL and missed another half season in the 2012-2013 lockout.  He is eighth all-time in points recorded after reaching age 40 (104, and counting). 

Here is how the teams compare in their numbers from last season:

1.  Mike Cammalleri has four goals for the Devils in the early going.  No other player has more than one, but there are nine other “ones,” which is why the Devils are third in scoring offense in this early part of the season.

2.  Jordin Tootoo signed a one-year, league minimum contract with the Devils on October 7th.  He’s not there to score or play a lot of minutes.  In his last 33 games he is 1-4-5 and has played more than ten minutes in a game just three times.

3.  The Devils have used just 18 skaters so far this season, the minimum complement.  Only two of them are as bad as “even” on the plus-minus meter: Martin Havlat and Bryce Salvador. 

4.  The Detroit Red Wings have long been regarded as “Team Geriatric” as one of, if not the oldest team in the league.  No more.  The Devils are the only team in the NHL with an average age over 30 and more than three years older than the league average.  Thirteen of the 18 skaters they have skated are older than 30.

5.  As of games through Tuesday the Devils faced the second-most shorthanded situations in the league – 17, one fewer than the Montreal Canadiens.  Only three teams had more power play opportunities (12).  As a gross measure of the effectiveness of their special teams, the Devils are third in special teams time differential with minus-7:30 (lower numbers are better).

1.  The Last time that the Capitals went their first three home games without a win was in the three games to open the 1984-1985 season.  That season, the Caps lost their home opener to the New York Islanders in overtime, 8-7.  Then they were shutout by the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-0, and lost to the Quebec Nordiques, 4-2.  It was part of a seven-game losing streak to start the season.  They finished that season with a 48-27-5 record.

2.  Of 20 skaters taking the ice for the Caps so far this season, only five are on the minus-side of the ledger.  Given their responsibilities, they are five players one hopes do not spend much time there: Joel Ward (minus-1), Brooks Laich (minus-2), Brooks Orpik (minus-2), Jason Chimera (minus-2), and John Carlson (minus-3).

3.  Andre Burakovsky has scored four points, has three shots on goal, ranks second in rookie scoring, and has a power play goal.  Partridge in a pear tree, extra.

4.  The Caps have two of the top seven rookies in scoring: Burakovsky (1-3-4) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (0-2-2) and three of the top 15 (add in Liam O’Brien’s assist).  Only Columbus has as many rookies in the top-20 (which means “the only 20 rookies who have points”).  Yeah, it’s early.

5.  From the “Let’s Give the Fans a Show” file… the Caps have gone to extra time in 37 of their last 102 games, 26 of them were Gimmicks.  That’s a lot of hockey.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New Jersey: Damon Severson

Where once the likes of Scott Stevens, Scott Niederrmayer, and Ken Daneyko roamed for the New Jersey Devils, so today does Damon Severson.  “Who is Damon Severson,” you ask?  He is a rookie defenseman for New Jersey who has been fast-tracked to the NHL.  Drafted in the second round (60th overall) in 2012, young Mr. Severson followed that up with two more seasons with the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League (with a couple of games in Albany of the AHL thrown in), then was in the Devils’ lineup to start the 2014-2015 season.  In three games thus far he has averaged 19:03 in ice time and has a goal (the only one so far scored by a Devils defenseman) and an assist.

Washington: Brooks Orpik

Brooks Orpik has been on ice for five goals against in three games so far, all of them in the Caps’ 6-5 Gimmick loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night.  Consider that last season Orpik was 75th in total minutes played and tied for 41st in most goals against/on-ice.  Sounds not-so-good.  But he was right in the middle in plus-minus/on-ice per 60 minutes last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins (108th of 197 defensemen appearing in at least 40 games).  Three games is not a trend, given that he was a middle-of-the-pack player last season in his plus-minus.  It is something to watch, though, and whether the defensive pairs are shaken up to improve the 5-on-5 performance.

In the end…

Is New Jersey a good team playing well, or merely a team playing well?  The new guys – Mike Cammalleri and Martin Havlat – have made their contributions.  They have combined for five of the Devils’ 13 goals so far, each of them with a game-winner.  Cory Schneider has been solid in his last two starts, even if his GAA (2.00) and save percentage (.937) are probably past a sustainably high level.  Nevertheless, this is a team against which the Caps will have to contend for a playoff spot in the tight Metropolitan Division.  The Caps are still in the Barry Trotz Beginner Class phase of their season’s development and still have four points in three games (a 109 point pace).  The Devils are always a tough team to play against, and the Caps will have to wade through a lot of obstacles to get their chances.  It is another good early season test.

Capitals 3 – Devils 1

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A ONE-point night -- Game 3: Sharks 6 - Capitals 5 (OT/Gimmick)

Goalie save percentages are like baseball pitcher earned run averages.  A pitcher can be humming along with an ERA under 2.00, but then he gets shelled for half a dozen runs in a couple of innings, and that ERA balloons.

So it was for Braden Holtby and his save percentage as the Washington Capitals remained winless at home to open the 2014-2015 season, dropping a 6-5 Gimmick decision to the San Jose Sharks last evening.

The Caps fell behind early as Holtby allowed three goals on seven shots in less than ten minutes, defenseman Matt Irwin solving Holtby twice to open the game, then John Scott finding the back of the net and ending Holtby’s evening five minutes after Irwin’s second goal.

Marcus Johansson got the Capitals on the board in the third minute of the second period, taking a pass from Alex Ovechkin at the doorstep and flicking it past goalie Antti Miemi just as he was being decked by defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

Joe Pavelski restored the three-goal San Jose lead at 5:27 of the period, but Mike Green got the Caps going again barely a minute later when he circled out around the left wing faceoff circle and threw a wrist shot at the net.  The floating puck sailed past a Liam O’Brien screen and past Niemi to get the Caps back within two goals.

Just 34 seconds later the Caps halved that lead.  As Alex Ovechkin sliced to the middle of the ice from the left wing wall, Eric Fehr’s centering pass was deadened by Nicklas Backstrom as if to set the puck on a tee.  Ovechkin picked it up and snapped a wrist shot past Niemi’s blocker to make it 4-3.

San Jose extended their lead in the second minute of the third period on a Tommy Wingels goal, and that lead held up for the next 12 minutes.  Then, with Brent Burns off for a tripping penalty, Ovechkin netted his second goal of the game.  He misfired on a one-timer from the left wing faceoff dot, but seconds later the puck came back to his stick on a cross-ice feed from Backstrom.  Ovechkin took measure of his position and fired another wrist shot, beating Niemi on the short side to make it 5-4.

Just 76 seconds later, the score was tied.  Troy Brouwer took a pass from Mike Green at the San Jose blue line, spun around Irwin, circled unimpeded to the top of the crease and beat Niemi to tie the game with 4:35 to play in regulation.

That would do it for the scoring in the hockey portion of the evening.  Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Eric Fehr failed in their trick shot attempts, while Joe Pavelski found the net over goalie Justin Peters’ glove to give the Sharks the 6-5 decision.

Other stuff…

-- Braden Holtby’s goals against average jumped from 0.48 to 1.78, and his save percentage dropped from .981 to .933.  Niemi’s went from 0.00, 1.000 to 2.40, .926.  That’s what happens after an iffy outing for a goalie early in the season.

-- Matt Irwin and John Scott, the scorers of the first three Shark goals, had a combined ten career goals in 336 career games coming into this contest.  For Scott it was his third goal in 237 career games and on his first shot of his first game of the 2014-2015 season.  Whoop-dee-freakin’-doo.

-- Alex Ovechkin has four goals in three games.  Steven Stamkos had a hat trick the other night.  Neither leads the league in goals.  Hi, Rick Nash (6).

-- Back to Braden… If it’s early in the season, it must mean an early exit for Holtby.  Last night, in Game 3, he took a seat just 9:34 into the game after giving up three goals on seven shots.  Last season it was in Game 2, departing after giving up three goals on 11 shots in 5-4 Gimmick win over the Calgary Flames.  In 2011-2012 it was in his fifth game of the season (ok, it was in late March), leaving after allowing three goals on 18 shots in 22:31 in a 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres.  Get it out of the way early, kid.

-- Ovechkin plus-minus watch… after three games last season he was minus-1.  He is “even” this morning after three games.  Is he buying in yet?

-- Andre Burakovsky had an assist on Troy Brouwer’s game-tying goal in the third period.  That’s three games and counting for points (1-3-4).  He’s tied for second in rookie scoring (with some kid in Nashville) behind the Los Angeles Kings’ Tanner Pearson (4-2-6).

-- Rough night for John Carlson… He was on ice for all five Sharks goals, which means…

-- Rough night for Brooks Orpik… He was on ice for all five Sharks goals.  I think I saw him out there when Pavelski started in on his shootout attempt.

-- Well, at least the Caps out-Corsi’ed the Sharks overall (71-56 in shot attempts).  Like we said somewhere else, analytics are fickle when you look at them on a game-by-game basis.

-- Alex Ovechkin led the Caps in hits with five.  That is not news.  Nicklas Backstrom and… wait for it… Marcus Johansson were next with four apiece.  I expected that to be above the Ebola update on CNN this morning.

In the end…

In an 82-game season, bad nights happen.  You want them to be few and far between, but they happen.  The Caps scratched and clawed back for a point on a night when, frankly, they stunk.  There is something in that.  That’s the silver lining.  The think that folks are going to have to watch out for is the Carlson-Orpik pair.  Being on ice for five goals as a pair might be viewed as part of the “getting to know you” phase of guys who are teammates for the first time.  But the eHarmony phase had better not last too long, or goalies are going to have a rough time.

On the other side, nine goals scored  in two games against good defensive teams is a good takeaway.  So is four power play goals on their last seven power play chances.  They are going to need that against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, a team that has allowed only six goals in three games, two in their last two contests.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 3: Sharks at Capitals, October 14th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

After a quick trip to Beantown to sample the chowder and whoop the Boston Bruins last Saturday, the Washington Capitals return to home ice on Tuesday to meet the San Jose Sharks at Verizon Center.

The Capitals return to the friendly confines with a 1-0-1 record, a modest start in the eyes of some, but it is their best two-game start since 2011-2012.  And while it is only a two game start, revel in the fact, Caps fans, that in the all-important “plus-minus” statistic (see: “what matters for some players and not others”), no Capital – not even Alex Ovechkin – is a minus player.  None, nada.

The same could be said of their opponent.  And on top of that, the Sharks have yet to allow a goal so far.  Two games, two shutouts.  There was one for Antti Niemi on 34 shots in a 4-0 over the Los Angeles Kings and one for Alex Stalock in a 30-save gem in a 3-0 win over the Winnipeg Jets.

That goaltending duel for the Sharks might be something to watch as the season unfolds.  Niemi slipped some last season, seeing his goals against average climb from 2.16 in 2012-2013 to 2.39 last season and his save percentage dropping from .924 to .923.  Niemi was 20th among 28 goalies playing in at least 40 games in even-strength save percentage (.919), down from third in 2012-2013 (.930).

On the other hand, there is Stalock.  He has only 28 games under his belt, but he carries a career 1.78 goals against average and a .934 save percentage in those games.  Last season he was 12-5-2, .932, 1.87 with two shutouts in 24 appearances.  That is not necessarily an expected (or even a sustainable) result.  Stalock was a fourth-round draft pick of the Sharks in 2005 and had, for the most part, an unspectactular minor league apprenticeship (145 regular season AHL games, 78-53-10, 2.60, .909).

Here is how the two teams compared in their final numbers from last season:

1.  It’s early, but San Jose has been putting it to teams early.  Of the seven goals they scored in two games, three have come in the first period, four in the second.  And in both games they scored goals before six minutes were gone, one against Los Angeles (5:43 into the game), two against Winnipeg (3:22, 5:12).

2.  Balance, balance.  San Jose has only employed the minimum 18 skaters so far, five of them sharing in the seven goals (Patrick Marleau and Tommy Wingels with two apiece), 12 of them sharing in the points (Marleau leading with four), and 17 of them recording at least one shot on goal).

3.  No team allowed fewer power play goals than did the Sharks last season (33).  The trick was not to go shorthanded.  No team faced fewer shorthanded situations than did San Jose (219, 13 fewer than the New York Rangers).

4.  San Jose, at least last season, could beat you close and could beat you big.  They were the only team in the NHL to finish in the top-five in one-goal (4th), two-goal (4th), and three-or-more-goal (5th) winning percentage.

5.  San Jose was a superior possession team last season, but they under-performed their possession metrics.  The Sharks finished fifth in Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 (53.53 percent) and third in Fenwick percentage (54.44 percent), but they were only eighth in team goal percentage (53.31 percent).  

1.  OK, so it’s two games, but 26.5 shots against per game?  After two games last season the Caps had allowed 36.5 shots per game. 

2.  More from the “it’s early” file… Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov are among 18 rookies who have recorded points so far.  Only Columbus, with three rookies getting points (Michael Chaput, Alexander Wennberg, and Marko Dano) have more.

3.  So far, only defenseman Matt Niskanen is averaging as many as 50 seconds per shift.  Last season, 12 Caps finished the season averaging at least 50 seconds per shift, let by Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green, who averaged 57 seconds each.  This season Ovechkin is averaging 47 seconds, Green is averaging 44 seconds.

4.  The Caps have one win in regulation time against San Jose at home since February 1999, a 4-1 win at Verizon Center on October 15, 2009.  The Caps are 1-7-2 at home against the Sharks over that span.

5.  Only six Capitals currently on the roster have scored goals against San Jose.  Alex Ovechkin has five of them; Nicklas Backstrom, Chris Brown, Eric Fehr, Dmitry Orlov (currently on injured reserve), and Joel Ward have one apiece.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

San Jose:  Joe Thornton

He is 35 years old, was stripped of his captaincy last August and selected one of four alternate captains, has one point in two games so far, is averaging the second lowest amount of ice time in his career (17:02).  But it’s early.  Still, it seems a bit odd the way a guy on the first year of a three-year/$20.5 million contract would be used.  It is not as if his production was dropping off the table.  Over the past four seasons he has averaged 0.88, 0.94, 0.83, and 0.93 points per game.  His cumulative 0.90 points per game over those four seasons ranks 22nd among all players appearing in each of those four seasons and appearing in at least 150 games.  Is he being slowly eased out?  Against Washington he is 12-24-36 in 37 career games.

Washington: Mike Green

Mike Green has never scored a goal against the Sharks.  Okay, that’s only five games worth of career history.  Still, San Jose is one of only five teams, all in the Western Conference, against which Green has never scored a goal (Chicago, Dallas, Nashville, and Phoenix being the others).  He scored in his personal opener against Boston on Saturday, but he also had only two goals in his last 20 games to finish last season.  In that opener against Boston, Green was fifth among defensemen in even-strength ice time, third in power play ice time (he scored his goal), and fifth in shorthanded ice time.  It would be understandable if Green was brought along slowly after recuperating from an injury in pre-season that extended into the first week of the season.  With the Caps’ defensive depth, it will be interesting to see where Green falls on the depth chart in the weeks ahead.  He is 0-1-1 in five games against the Sharks.

In the end…

The season opening string of tough opponents continues.  And while the Caps finally slayed the dragon that lurked in SAP Center for more than 20 years, denying the Caps a win since October 1993 until they won there last March, the Caps still have a grim home record against this team to address.  On win in ten games over more than 15 years is not the stuff to scare a visitor such as the Sharks.  But the Caps looked effective, if not efficient (based on possession numbers), in their shutout of Boston on Saturday.  The first goal the Caps score will be the first scored against San Jose this season, the Sharks being one of two teams remaining not having allowed a goal.  But San Jose has a formidable offense to go with that unblemished scoring defense.  The challenges have gotten progressively stiffer for the Caps to open the season.  Think of it as an opportunity to measure themselves against the best.

Capitals 3 – Sharks 2

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 1

We return with our weekly feature, “That Was The Week That Was,” a look back at the Washington Capitals over the past seven days.  Week 1 was a new start for the Caps – a couple of rookies standing out and an old coach turned “rookie” getting his first win as the Capitals’ bench boss.

Record: 1-0-1

The Capitals got no break from the schedule makers to start the 2014-2015 season.  Their first four games are against the Montreal Canadiens, the Boston Bruins, the San Jose Sharks, and the New Jersey Devils.  The first three of those teams on the schedule reached the post season in 2013-2014 and had a combined regular season record of 151-69-26.  The Devils are thought to be much improved and have scored 11 goals in their first two games.

The Caps navigated their first two games of that stretch in decent fashion, the inability to hold a lead in the third period against the Canadiens in a 2-1 Gimmick loss being the blemish on the week.  From a distance, though, getting three points against two of the Atlantic Division powerhouses can be thought of as a good week.  The win over the Bruins was especially satisfying, give the respective prognostications for the two clubs, but was not entirely unexpected.  The 4-0 win over the Bruins made the Caps 6-3-0 in their last nine visits to Boston and 5-1-0 in their last six decisions against the Bruins overall.

Offense: 2.50/game (season: 2.50 / T-18th)

The Caps started well against the Canadiens, recording seven shots on goal in the first 6:43, the last of them being Andre Burakovsky’s first NHL goal.  The Caps continued peppering goalie Carey Price (oops...Dustin Tokasrski... thank you, readers), putting 11 shots on net in the first 9:47.  That would be it for the Caps, though, their energy to start the home opener perhaps have dissipated.  Over the last 50:13 of regulation time and five minutes of overtime the Caps recorded only 19 shots on goal, none of them finding the back of the net.

Against Boston the Caps were more effective on the scoreboard, but the fickle finger of fate was particularly fickle with respect to the outputs.  Washington managed only 21 shots on goal against the Bruins, only 15 of them at even strength.  Part of that might be score effect – the Caps had only three even strength shots in the third period of a game they led, 3-0, after 40 minutes.

Although the week was not particularly explosive on the offensive side, it was balanced.  Four players shared in the five goals (Alex Ovechkin getting two against Boston), nine players shared in a total of 14 points.  Andre Burakovsky led the week in the latter with three points on his first NHL goal and a pair of assists.

Defense: 0.50/game (season: 0.50 / 3rd)

Two games is about as small a sample size as you get, but giving up a total of 53 shots on goal for the week (26.5/game, ninth fewest) against a couple of talented teams has to be considered a good thing. And, the Caps avoided the bane of their existence on defense last season – allowing a goal within two minutes of scoring one of their own.  On the other hand, allowing 58 shot attempts to the Bruins in the second game of the week while getting only 38 of their own had the sense of playing with fire.

The defensive pairs are a concern in that they are all new.  Jack Hillen/Mike Green (Green missed the opener against Montreal) and Nate Schmidt, Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen, John Carlson and Brooks Orpik are in that getting-to-know-you period, and at times it showed.  That third pair – Carlson and Orpik – was especially noteworthy and not in the best way.  All six defensemen had positive Corsi plus-minus at 5-on-5 against Montreal, but the picture looked very different against Boston.  The Carlson/Orpik pair was steamrolled at even strength as far as the possession numbers were concerned.  Both had double-digit minus numbers in both Corsi and Fenwick plus-minus.

Goaltending: 0.48 GAA / .981 SV / 1 shutout

Braden Holtby served early notice that goaltending will not be a weakness for the Caps.  Unencumbered by a coaching philosophy that was contrary to his nature, as was employed for large parts of last season, Holtby shined coming out of the gate.  He was good against Montreal, better against Boston. His 29-save effort against the Bruins featured a number of top-notch saves, including big ones after two bad Caps turnovers that left Bruins with point-blank opportunities from the slot.

Even the one goal he allowed for the week – a third-period tally by Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec – was a shot through a maze of bodies that might have been deflected on its way through.  There were no soft spots in Holtby’s game in Week 1.  Well, except for that whole Gimmick thing.  Holtby allowed three goals in five rounds of the trick shot competition.  It was reminiscent of last season in which among 29 goalies facing at least 20 shots in the Gimmick, Holtby was 17th in save percentage (.679).

Power Play: 2-9 / 22.2 percent (season: 22.2 percent /  rank: T-12th)

It was a case of the old reliables doing the damage.  Alex Ovechkin, who did not have a power play shot on goal against Montreal as the Caps went 0-for-5, had two shots on the man advantage against Boston, scoring on one of them.  Then there was Mike Green, who missed the opener against the Canadiens and who finds himself as the second option on the point on the power play depth chart (under John Carlson), potting a goal on his only shot in the Caps’ 4-0 win over Boston.

It was a tale of two games with respect to power play efficiency.  Washington managed only four shots on goal in 6:56 of power play time against Montreal, two of those shots coming from outside by defensemen (Matt Niskanen, John Carlson).  Against Boston, the Caps were sharper – six shots on goal in 4:43 of power play time, four of those shots coming from forwards, two of them by Ovechkin, who recorded one of the two power play goals against the Canadiens.  Mike Green got the other one when he was left alone on the weak side of the power play formation.  Evgeny Kuznetsov found him for the score, fellow rookie Andre Burakovsky getting the other assist.  It is a new day on the power play.

Penalty Killing: 9-9 / 100.0 percent (season: 100.0 percent / rank: T-1st)

Last season, Montreal did not have an especially potent power play (17.2 percent, tied for 19th).  Boston had one, though (21.7 percent, third in the league).  Either way, 9-for-9 is a good week.  Being good meant being efficient.  The Caps allowed the Canadiens only six shots on goal on five power plays in 6:56 of power play time.  Against Boston those numbers were five shots on four power plays in eight minutes of power play time.  Of the 11 shots Holtby faced on the opponent’s power play for the week seven of them came from defensemen.  Neither Montreal nor Boston was able to get much in the way of close-in opportunities, at least in terms of being able to get shots on goal from that area of the zone.

This is where the Carlson/Orpik pair performed much better.  In 14:56 of total opposition ice time on the power play for the week, John Carlson logged 10:00, Orpik logged 8:27, by far the most shorthanded ice time of any Caps defensemen.   On the other hand, all seven defensemen who saw action this week got some penalty killing work, even if Nate Schmidt (0:36) and Mike Green (0:24) got only a taste of it (every other defenseman recorded at least one minute of shorthanded ice time).

Even Strength Goals For/Goals Against: 3-1 / plus-2 (season: 3-1; 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio rank: 4th)

If one thing contributed to the Caps’ misfortune more than any other from a performance standpoint last season it was their ratio of goals scored to goals allowed at 5-on-5.  Their 0.90:1 ratio ranked 23rd in the league, their 155 goals allowed at 5-on-5 ranked tied for 19th.  Starting off with a 3-1 margin in Week 1 is getting off on the right foot.  And, small samples notwithstanding, the Caps got an even strength goal from each of the top three forward lines: Alex Ovechkin, Andre Burakovsky, and Joel Ward getting them for the first, second, and third lines, respectively.

Faceoffs:  53-for-126 / 42.1 percent (season: 42.1 percent / rank: 30th)

Faceoffs were a case of getting off on the wrong foot.  Whether one things faceoffs are important or not, ranking 30th in the league in anything is not a good thing.  And, it was not a case of being particularly poor in any one zone.  If anything, the Caps were worse in the offensive zone (40.8 percent) and defensive zone (40.5 percent) than they were in the neutral zone (45.7 percent). 

Nicklas Backstrom took the largest share of draws and was respectable overall (50.0 percent on 40 faceoffs), and Troy Brouwer won seven of 11 draws.  After that it gets bad very quickly.  The rooies Kuznetsov (6-for-13) and Burakovsky (4-for-19) had it rough.  So, too, did Brooks Laich (8-for-25).  Hopefully, that’s just rust.

Goals by Period:

Two games, goals scored in every period overall, three first period goals.  That’s the good part.  That third period goal allowed against Montreal is the smudge on the shine in this area for the week.  What the Caps avoided, to their credit, was the soul-crushing goal in the last two minutes of a period.  They scored two of those of their own – an Alex Ovechkin goal with 1:21 left in the first period of the 4-0 win over Boston and a goal by Joel Ward with 1:14 left in that contest, although by that time the game was all but wrapped up.

In the end…

All in all, not a bad week.  Two games against quality opponents, three of four points earned.  When one considers that the Caps were starting a true rookie in his first NHL action as center on the second line (and having him score a goal to boot) and missing top defenseman Mike Green for the opener, the week looked even better.  Individually, players who have to perform – Alex Ovechkin (two goals), Nicklas Backstrom (two assists), and Braden Holtby (one goal on 53 shots faced) – did just that.  Throw in the contributions of Burakovsky (three points) and Kuznetsov (one assist, and might have had another until the last goal in the Bruins game was changed from John Carlson to Joel Ward), and it was a good start to the season.