Sunday, May 01, 2016

Capitals vs. Penguins: Takeaways and Throwaways from Game 2


It was never going to be easy, and the Washington Capitals found that out in Game 2 of their playoff series against the Washington Capitals on Saturday night.  It was not the relatively open-offense contest of Game 1, but it was another one-goal game settled by the thinnest of margins.  The low score did not mean the game lacked for takeaways and throwaways.

Takeaways…
  • The penalty killers were superb, from the goaltender out.  The Penguins were awarded five power plays and managed nine shots in the ten minutes they skated with the man advantage.  Braden Holtby turned all of them away, making the Caps 30-for-31 on the penalty kill in the post season, best in the league (96.8 percent).
  • Matt Niskanen has been a gritty beast in the first two games.  In Game 2 he had three shots on goal, five hits, and two blocked shots, giving him four shots on goal, eight hits, and six blocked shots in the two games.
  • Nicklas Backstom was 18-for-20 in faceoffs in Game 2.  The only two draws he lost were the opening faceoff in the second period to Sidney Crosby and a defensive zone draw to Nick Bonino 12 minutes into the third period.
  • Not sure which side to put this on, but because he scored the Caps’ only goal, we’ll put it here.  Marcus Johansson gets the Whitman’s Sampler score sheet award for all the “1’s” on it – one goal, one point, minus-1, one shot on goal, one missed shot, one shot blocked, one hit, one giveaway, one takeaway.
  • Braden Holtby was outstanding once more, stopping 33 of 35 shots (75 of 80 for the series).  He leads all goalies in goals against average (1.24) and save percentage (.957) in the postseason (minimum: 200 minutes).

Throwaways…
  • The Caps split their two games on home ice.  In the post-2004-2005 lockout era, they are 1-2 in series when splitting their first two games at home, losing to Philadelphia in 2008 and to the New York Rangers in 2015, beating the New York Islanders last season.
  • Jay Beagle had an uncharacteristically tough time in the circle in Game 2, winning only six of 18 draws (only three of 12 against Crosby).
  • Five power plays allowed are too many to allow, even if you do have a Vezina-caliber goaltender backing things up.  It was the fourth time in the postseason that the Penguins had five or more power plays and the first time they failed to score at least one power play goal.  It is a proposition the Caps do not want to test frequently.
  • John Carlson had one of those “on the one hand…on the other hand” games.  He had five shots on goal, five hits, and a pair of blocked shots, but he got lost in a no-man’s land tracking Nick Bonino as the latter carried the puck along the wall behind the Caps’ net.  Carl Hagelin filled in to the space Carlson vacated and took a pass from Bonino for a point-blank shot that gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead.  Then, in the third period he was just a split second late getting in Evgeni Malkin’s face at the right wing wall, giving Malkin just enough of an opening to throw the puck in front where Eric Fehr finished the play on a redirect for the game-winning goal.
  • Andre Burakovsky might not get as little as 9:59 in ice time again in this series, but he is going to have to do better with the ice time he gets.  His score sheet was almost blank, a shot on goal and a giveaway the only marks on it.

In the end…

The curious part of the series so far is how little impact the big stars have had.  Sidney Crosby is without a point in two games and is a minus-3.  Alex Ovechkin has an assist, but he has been blanked on seven shots on goal.  It has been T.J. Oshie (a hat trick in Game 1) versus the foot soldiers for the Penguins (Fehr and Hagelin in Game 2).  Pittsburgh has been closer to imposing its will on the Caps than the Caps have on the Penguins (Pittsburgh has a Corsi-for of 54.7 percent; numbers from war-on-ice.com), and that is something the Caps are going to have to solve as the teams head to Pittsburgh for Games 3 and 4.

Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Friday, April 29, 2016

Capitals vs. Penguins: Takeaways and Throwaways from Game 1


Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins is in the books.  And what a game it was.  You really don’t want to throw any of it away; you just want to watch it a few times to get some richer context and more nuances with each viewing.  But this is the space in which we do have those takeaways and throwaways, so let’s get to them.

Takeaways…

  • When the Caps scored first in this game, it was a good sign.  Recall that the Caps had the best winning percentage in the league when scoring first in games during the regular season (.895/34-2-2).  They came into Game 1 with a 3-0-0 record in playoff games this season when scoring first.  Winning their fourth such game was a healthy sign, if for no other reason that the business-like approach in the regular season has (at least for one game into the second round) carried over into the postseason.
  • Andre Burakovsky recorded his first point of this postseason, his first playoff point since recording a pair of goals in Game 4 of last season’s second round series against the New York Rangers.  Breaking the nine-game streak without a point is, Caps fans hope, a turning point.  Pittsburgh does not pose the physically punishing obstacles that Philadelphia did in Round 1, and if Burakovsky finds this pace and style more to his liking, it should give some depth to the Caps’ offense.
  • Hits are something of an arbitrary statistic.  It is defined as an instance in which a player initiates contact with an opponent so as to result in the puck carrier losing possession of the puck (it does not require a change in possession).  It sounds simple, but it’s like the strike zone in baseball.  Every umpire has a different one, and every official scorer sees “hits” with different sets of eyes.  All that nonsense aside, the 43-29 edge the Caps had in hits does reflect what appears to be part of the plan, to use their superior size to burden the Penguins physically.  Of the 18 skaters for Pittsburgh, 15 of them absorbed at least one hit (Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, and Sidney Crosby were spared).  Of the 43 hits, 21 were inflicted on defensemen, Kris Letang taking the most of that group and of the team as well (six).  This probably had little influence on the results of Game 1, but the accumulation of hits in Games 2, 3, and so on, could have an effect.
  • Jason Chimera recorded an assist, but perhaps as important, he had four shots on goal.  Remember that he failed to register a single shot on goal over the last four games of the first round series against the Flyers and had only two shots in all (both in Game 2, in which he scored his only goal of the postseason).  Getting him into the scoring mix is something that the Caps enjoyed in the regular season, and they need to see him doing the same in this round.
  • Braden Holtby has spent a lot of his postseason career tending goal in some bad luck.  Oh sure, he is now the career leader in playoff game wins for the Caps (21, passing Olaf Kolzig last night), but consider this.  Last night was the first time in 20 postseason games played at the Verizon Center in which Holtby allowed more than two goals in a game and won.  That’s right.  It was the sixth time in his postseason career in which Holtby allowed three or more goals and the first time he won.  And he did it matching the second-highest number shots he ever faced in a home playoff game (45).  Only in the triple-overtime 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 3 of the 2012 Eastern Conference semi-finals did he face more (49).

Throwaways…

  • Andre Burakovsky was moved off the second line in favor of Marcus Johansson again, but it didn’t cure whatever it is that ails that second line.  Johansson, Justin Williams, and Evgeny Kuznetsov combined for three shots on goal (all by Williams), six shot attempts (four by Williams, two by Johansson), won just five of 14 faceoffs (all of them taken by Kuznetsov), and all of them had a Corsi-differential at 5-on-5 of minus-10 or worse.
  • We like the physical edge Tom Wilson brings to the game, but he is getting right up against that edge where it can be a liability.  He did manage to pull Evgeni Malkin off the ice with him on coincidental minor penalties in the second period, which is an exchange the Caps would happily take.  But the hit on Conor Sheary was, depending on which team’s colors you wear, a hockey play gone bad (if you wear red) or dirty (if you wear black and Vegas gold).  It’s not so much the hit on Sheary, per se, as much as it is an indication that Wilson is getting outside of his game somewhat.  It is a fine line between getting under a team’s skin and just running around.  It is something he is still learning.
  • Dmitry Orlov is in a bad place right now with decision-making.  It’s got to be hard on the coaches to know what to do with him, because he is a talented young defenseman.  But his almost getting it right in defending Nick Bonino on a rush (right up until he tried to poke the puck away from Bonino, allowing the Penguin to walk around him when Orlov missed) is the sort of mistake that can be catastrophic in close or low scoring games.  That the Penguins scored on that play – neither Caps defenseman being near the scoring play because Orlov and Nate Schmidt got tangled up – might have been overshadowed by the T.J. Oshie hat trick and the win, but it cannot be ignored.
  • The 45 shots on goal recorded by Pittsburgh is the second highest number of shots on goal by the Pens against the Caps in the postseason history of this rivalry, topped only by the 65 shots on goal Pittsburgh recorded in Game 4 of their series in 1996 when the Pens won, 3-2, in the fourth overtime.  That is way too many shots allowed, even if you want to argue Braden Holtby had good looks at most of them.  It tied the highest number of shots on goal recorded by a Pens team this year, set back on December 14th…against the Caps (a 4-1 Washington win).
  • We said in the prognosto that the Caps do not want to get into a track meet with this team.  Well, they did, and it might have been lucky they were not burned in Game 1.  The Caps allowed 66 shot attempts by the Penguins at 5-on-5, the most allowed by the Caps in any game this season.  That they had 63 of their own (tied for seventh most this season) mitigates this to a point, but matching Pittsburgh attempt for attempt, especially at high volumes, might not be the way to beat this team over a seven game series.

In the end…

The only thing that matters now is winning.  Whether is it pounding the puck and winning the Corsi battle, getting a wink from the hockey gods, or sunspots, winning is the bottom line on a one line balance sheet.  And the Caps have one win.  Trouble is, winning the first one is hardly new to the Caps over the history of this postseason rivalry, and the Pens are neither very successful in Game 1’s or in playoff overtimes in their recent history.  It suggest that the Caps are going to have to find a higher level of performance to get to “four” before the Penguins in this series.  There were some good signs on that score in Game 1, but there are some serious issues (second line, third defensive pair) that need to be addressed and improved as the teams go to Game 2.

Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images

Washington Capitals Win in Overtime...It Sure Looked Like a Goal

How close do two teams have to play to go to overtime tied, then have the game settled on a goal on which the puck crawled (or not, depending on your point of view) over the goal line?  Looking at the NHL Situation Room video on the overtime goal scored by T.J. Oshie on goalie Matt Murray, it sure looked as if it was a good goal...


Look at where the puck is resting at what appears to be the deepest point at which it entered the goal (it is partially obscured by the shaft of Murray's stick, near the post)...


Not conclusive enough?...How about this (with the goal line enhanced)?...


It sure looks as if the entire puck has crossed the entire line.  But hey, your eyes might tell you something else.

And this was just Game 1.  Hang on tight.  It's going to be a crazy ride.

Washington Capitals Recap -- Penguins at Capitals, Game 1: Capitals 4 - Penguins 3 (OT)

If Game 1 of the playoff series between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins is an indicator of what the rest of the series will be like, it will be one for the ages. The Caps took a lead then fell behind, dominated then were dominated. But in the end, they prevailed in overtime, taking Game 1 in the first extra session, 4-3.

T.J. Oshie was the hero for the Caps, recording a hat trick, including the game-winner in overtime. It was Andre Burakovsky who got the Caps started, however. He started the play by muffling a pass from Evgeni Malkin in the Caps’ zone and starting the puck the other way. Taking a pass from Jason Chimera to start the ensuing rush, he carried the puck down the right side into the Penguins’ zone. At the top of the right wing circle he fed Chimera skating down the middle. Chimera’s shot was stopped by goalie Matt Murray, but Burakovsky followed up and batted the loose puck into the empty net past Murray at the 10:13 mark.

That goal held up until mid-way in the second period when the Pens struck twice in short order. Ben Lovejoy followed up a shot by Nick Bonino, sneaking it past the right pad of goalie Braden Holtby at the 10:40 mark to tie the game. Then, Evgeni Malkin struck just 57 seconds later on a superb backhand shot that he lifted over the right shoulder of Holtby to make it 2-1, Penguins, 11:37 into the period.

The Penguin lead lasted just 33 seconds, though. T.J. Oshie gladly accepted a giveaway by defenseman Olli Maatta just inside the Caps’ blue line and headed the other way. Skating in on Murray, Oshie snapped a shot over the goalie’s left shoulder and under the crossbar to tie the game 12:10 into the period.

Oshie gave the Caps the lead early in the third period, the product of another turnover by the Pens at the Caps’ blue line. This time it was Alex Ovechkin collecting the loose puck and racing down the left side. His shot from the left wing circle was blocked by defenseman Trevor Daley, but the puck came back to Ovechkin. He spied Oshie cutting down the middle and fed him for a backhand shot that slid under the right pad of Murray to make it 3-2, 3:23 into the third period.

Pittsburgh tied the game mid-way through the period, taking advantage of some misfortune on the Caps’ part. The Penguins moved the puck around the wall from Phil Kessel to Carl Hagelin behind the Caps’ net. Hagelin fed Nick Bonino cutting to the net. Bonino one-timed the puck, the shot ticking off the stick of defenseman Nate Schmidt and past Braden Holtby to make it 3-3 at the 8:42 mark.

That would be all the scoring in regulation. Overtime was hardly a passive affair, the teams exchanging a healthy volume of shots. It was the Caps’ eighth shot of the extra period that would decide the contest, and not without some controversy. Trevor Daley tried to backhand the puck up the wall at the players bench, but had his attempt intercepted by Oshie in the neutral zone. Oshie skated into the Penguin zone diagonally across the ice, then circled around the Pittsburgh net. His wrap-around shot appeared to beat Murray’s right pad to the post and sneak over the line, and it was signaled thus by the referee as a good goal. The play went to video review, where it was upheld, Oshie’s hat trick goal being the game-winner at the 9:33 mark, giving the Caps the 4-3 win and a 1-0 lead in the series.

Other stuff…

-- Team defense was occasionally an adventure for the Caps in this game. The goal scored by Ben Lovejoy might have been the most obvious example. With Nick Bonino entering the Caps’ zone with the puck at the start of the play, Nate Schmidt and Dmitry Orlov bumped into one another, allowing Bonino to step around them and take an unimpeded path to the net. His initial shot was stopped by Braden Holtby, but Lovejoy was there for the follow-up with neither defenseman in sight.

-- This is the eighth time in nine meetings against the Penguins in Caps franchise history that the Caps won Game 1 of the series.  They are 1-7 in their previous eight series in which they won Game 1, their only win coming in their only series win against the Pens in franchise history, beating Pittsburgh, four games to two, in 1994.

-- Jay Beagle was a force of nature in this game, in a figurative sense.  He exhibited an uncommon force of gravity with respect to sticks, getting one caught in his visor (giving him the look of a unicorn drawn by Salvador Dali) and another caught in his skate.  He still managed to record six hits, block two shots, and win 12 of 19 faceoffs.

-- Speaking of hits, Tom Wilson had six, but the long term effects of his effort might not be reflected in that column of the score sheet.  He endeared himself to Penguin fans for his on-the-edge takedown of Conor Sheary (that Pens fans, no doubt, will consider a kneeing penalty that wasn’t called) and goading Evgeni Malkin into an embellishment penalty.  Wilson took a coincidental cross-checking penalty on the play, but that is an exchange the Caps will take.

-- In the “game within a game,” strength versus strength favored the Caps in this contest.  The top line for the Caps (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie) were on-ice for three goals for, while the top line for Pittsburgh (Sheary, Sidney Crosby, and Patric Hornqvist) was on ice for the same three goals against.

-- In the “game within a game, part two,” Crosby was held without a point, had one shot on goal, but did win 19 of 28 faceoffs.  Ovechkin recorded an assist, had four shots on goals, and was credited with seven hits.

-- Every one of the 18 Pittsburgh skaters, except for Olli Maatta, recorded at least one shot on goal.

-- Braden Holtby allowed more than two goals in a game for the first time since he allowed four on 28 shots in a 4-3 Game 6 loss to the New York Rangers in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal.  In the next seven playoff games he played leading up to last night, he was 4-3, 0.98, .964, with two shutouts.  Only in that context could a .933 save percentage (42 saves on 45 shots) last night even hint at an “off” night.

-- Brooks Orpik returned to action last night and logged 25:58 in ice time.  He was one of four defensemen to get more than 25 minutes on the night.  Why?  Nate Schmidt finished with 12:13 in ice time, and Dmitry Orlov finished with a total of 5:44, getting only one shift after the second period, none in the last 27:25 of the game.

-- The Penguins edged the Caps in 5-on-5 shots attempts, 66-63 (51.2 percent Corsi-for).  They also had the edge in total scoring chances (29-24) and in high-danger scoring chances (10-9).  It was fueled largely by a dominant second period in which the Pens out-attempted the Caps at 5-on-5, 27-13.  The scoring chances were also heavily tilted to the Pens, 16-4 overall and 6-0 in high-danger scoring chances (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

In the end…

Don’t get cocky, Caps fans (as if you could, given this team’s history).  The Penguins have a bad recent history in Game 1’s and in playoff overtime.  The loss was Pittsburgh’s eighth straight loss in overtime of a playoff game.  The last time they won one, it was Brooks Orpik delivering the game-winner to eliminate the New York Islanders in 2013.  It was also the seventh straight time the Penguins lost Game 1 when playing on the road.  And we won’t linger on the matter of the Pens and Capitals and Game 1’s and their utter lack of influence on the final series results.

Still, the Caps played well.  One could argue that they could play better, two of the goals coming from breakdowns that allowed Penguins far too much open space in the middle of the ice to dart to the net.  Then again, another goal was off a Capital, but that’s hockey. 

The Caps got what they so sorely lacked in previous playoff games, especially against this opponent – someone to have a big game who is not named “Ovechkin.”  T.J. Oshie stepped up in a big way in this game, scoring in a variety of styles – off the rush, in close, using speed around the net.  It is that next dimension of skill that makes this Caps team as formidable as it is.   But that is hardly a collection of slugs and shrinking violets they are facing, too.  Game 1 is done.  Put it away, and get ready for Game 2.  Count on the Pens being ready.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: Eastern Conference Semifinal, Capitals vs. Penguins


The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

With the Philadelphia Flyers now in the rear-view mirror, the Washington Capitals will focus their attention on a familiar menace in the Eastern Conference semifinals – the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Both the Caps and Penguins dispatched fellow Metropolitan Division foes in Round 1, the Penguins sending the New York Rangers into the off-season in five games.  It is a series that has familiar history about it, just not recent history.  It should make for an interesting prognosto…

Washington Capitals (56-18-8) 
vs. 
Pittsburgh Penguins (48-26-8)

If you looked at the high-end optics of their respective series, you might conclude that the Pittsburgh Penguins had a much easier time of it defeating the New York Rangers in Round 1 than the Washington Capitals had in ousting the Philadelphia Flyers.  Ah, but appearances can be deceiving.  What is not deceiving is…

History

If of the days of the week Wednesday is “hump day,” then its equivalent in the Stanley Cup playoffs is the second round.  “Hump Round,” if you will.  The first round has the novelty of a new playoff season and the attendant excitement that goes with it.  The third round has the anticipatory factor of the Stanley Cup final if you win.  And the Stanley Cup final…well, what explanation is needed?

The second round, though, is a slog.  The blush of a new playoff season is gone, and you are really too far away from the final for thinking about who your opponent might be or whether you might win.  For the Washington Capitals, “hump round” has an entirely different connotation. This is the 12th time in franchise history that the Caps reached the second round of the postseason.  In their previous 11 appearances they lost nine times.  Four of those nine series losses came in seven games, including three of the last four second round series played by the Caps.  Two of those nine losses came to the franchise they will face this time around, the Penguins.

The second round is that slog where the hopes of Capital Nation have gone to die, but…

History, Part 2

The second round is a place that the Penguins have not frequented often since their Stanley Cup win in 2009, at least not as often as a perennial pick to be on a short list of Stanley Cup contenders might like.  This is the fourth time in the past seven seasons that the Penguins advanced to the second round.  Only once did they pass this point, beating the Ottawa Senators in five games in the 2013 conference semis.  But the mutual frustration of the second round does not end here.  There is also the matter of…

History, Part 3

Coaching.  This is Barry Trotz’ 17 season behind an NHL bench as head coach, his ninth trip to the postseason.  Three times in his previous eight appearances his teams reached the second round of the playoffs, the last three times his teams reached the postseason, in fact (two with the Nashville Predators, one with the Caps).  He has never taken a team past this point.  But hey, this was the first season a Trotz-led team won a divisional title, so there is that, if you are hanging your hat on a new historical narrative.

As for the other side, this is Mike Sullivan’s second trip to the postseason in his head coaching career.  His 2004 Boston Bruins were eliminated in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens in seven games after taking a 3-1 lead in games.  The oddity is that this is the first time Sullivan has reached the second round as either a coach or a player (six times as a player his teams were eliminated in the first round, once as a Boston Bruins in the 1998 playoffs to the Caps in Washington’s march to their only Stanley Cup final).

The coaches are not what give this series its historical flavor, though.  It is…

History, Part 4

The rivalry.  “Rivalry,” if you consider it being one being dominated by the other.  Until the teams met for the first time in the postseason in 1991, the Caps had already been tormented in the playoffs by the New York Islanders, New York Rangers, and Philadelphia Flyers, all of whom beat the Caps in one or more series as a lower seed.  But nothing prepared Capitals Nation for what would unfold starting in 1991.  In eight postseason series since then, ending in 2009, the Penguins faced the Caps eight times, winning seven of those series, four times after falling behind by two games, three times in seven games, each of them after falling behind by two games, twice after falling behind three games to one.   When facing elimination, the Penguins have an all-time record of 8-1 against Washington.

But that was then, and this is now, and that brings us to…

History, Part V

The teams played five times this past regular season.  Pittsburgh won three times, the Caps won twice.  Here is the tale of the tape:


You can pretty much throw this out, there being a fair number of “on the one hand…on the other” examples here…
  • On the one hand, the Pens won the season series, if you look at it from their perspective (wins and losses).  On the other, the Caps split the season series if you look at it from theirs (a standings point perspective).
  • On the one hand, the Pens won the season series, but the Caps won the series counting only those games for which Mike Sullivan was behind the Penguin bench (2-1-1).  And on another hand (three hands?)…the Pens split with the Caps with Sullivan behind their bench (2-2 on a win/loss basis).
  • On the one hand, the Caps won two games in which their Corsi-for at 5-on-5 was under 50 percent.  On the other hand, they lost two games when they were over 50 percent.
  • On the one hand, the Caps have held the Penguins’ power play in check.  On the other hand, their own power play has been similarly ineffective.

We think you get the point.  But let’s get to the here and now, and that means…

Know Your Enemy by Knowing His Enemy

The Caps played the Flyers in Round 1, while the Penguins played the Rangers.  The Caps took six games to subdue the Flyers, while the Pens finished off the Rangers in five.  The Rangers finished ahead of the Flyers, but were eliminated sooner.  Ergo, the Penguins are better…right?  Well, not so fast.

The Rangers finished only three points behind Pittsburgh in the final regular season standings, but their last 25 games tell a less flattering story.  The Rangers finished with a respectable 14-8-3 record in their last 25 games (a 102-point pace, roughly that over their entire 101-point season).  However, they split 16 decisions against teams that would qualify for the playoffs (three of the eight losses coming in overtime).  Further, their goals for/goals against was a combined plus-1.

And, it gets worse.  Their special teams were uneven, the power play finishing those last 25 games with a fine 20.9 percent conversion rate, but the penalty kill just at 81.4 percent.  Possession was the killer, though, and was the biggest vulnerability the Rangers had.  Over their last 25 games the Blueshirts were out-shot, 816-658, a whopping minus-6.3 negative differential per game. 

The shot attempts were no better.  New York was out-attempted at 5-on-5 over their last 25 games by an average of 8.5 attempts a game, registering a Corsi-for of just 45.3 percent (numbers from war-on-ice.com).  To give you an idea of just how bad that is, only one team in the league finished with a worse Corsi-for than that over the entire season (Colorado: 44.2 percent).

Facing a team that built a late-season record on something of a mirage, given the record against a higher quality of competition and their abysmal possession numbers, but Penguins should have feasted.  And they did, as the five-game series win in which they outscored the Rangers, 21-10, attests.

But it was not as if Pittsburgh dominated in the underlying numbers in that series, either.  Once, in a 3-1 Game 3 win, did the Penguins muster a Corsi-for at 5-on-5 overall above 50 percent.  Three times in the series there were under 45 percent, and they finished the series with a Corsi-for overall of 45.3 percent.  Their score-adjusted value was slightly better (47.7 percent), but it is still the fifth-worst ranking of 16 teams in the first round.

Compare this to who the Caps faced in the first round.  The Flyers became the “it” team that a number of pundits picked to give the Caps a rough time, if not win the series outright.  And why not?  Philadelphia finished 16-9 in their last 25 games (three losses in extra time, two of them in a Gimmick), 9-4 against teams that would reach the postseason (one of the losses in a Gimmick).  They had a plus-12 goal differential overall in those games (not counting shootouts).  Both their power play (20.2 percent) and penalty kill (86.9 percent) were good.

Their shots and possession numbers were very good as well.  The Flyers out-shot their opponents overall over their final 25 games by an average of 32.7 to 27.7 per game.  They out-attempted opponents at 5-on-5 by a 49.2 – 44.2 margin per game, a Corsi-for overall of 52.7 percent.

So, how did that work out for the Flyers against the Caps in Round 1?  The Caps out-shot the Flyers, 31.0 – 25.8 per game.  They out-attempted them at 5-on-5 by a 46.8 to 40.5 margin per game, their 53.6 percent Corsi-for being fifth-best among the 16 teams in the first round, and if anything their score-adjusted Corsi-for was better – 54.3 percent, third-best among the 16 teams in the first round.  More important, they outscored the Flyers, 14-6, one of the Philadelphia goals being an empty netter.  The Caps actually scored a higher percentage of the total goals in their first-round series (70.0 percent) than Pittsburgh did in its (67.7 percent).

Still, history is history, and the big thing about history is…

Narrative

Sid versus Ovi.  The Kid versus the Great 8.  Crosby versus Ovechkin.  Somewhere in there, there will be 19 other players dressing on any given night for each team, but the early narrative will be centered on the two top players. 

Sidney Crosby has re-asserted himself as, if not clearly the best player on the planet, then on a very short list.  He finished the regular season tied for seventh in goals scored (36), and he has not had a season with more goals scored since his only 50-goal season (51 in 2009-2010).  And, he had 85 points, good for third in the league.  If there was an odd feature about his season, though, it is that for which he gets most of his praise – playmaking.  On a per-game basis, Crosby had the worst season of his career in assists (0.61 per game).  And, there might be a warning in that.  In that 2009-2010 season, Crosby took matters into his own hands much more often (those 51 goals were 12 more than in any other season), but his Penguins only lasted two rounds.  Sure, that might be a stretch, but this season the Penguins were 22-3-2 in the 27 games in which he scored a goal, 26-23-6 in games in which he did not.  This is a Penguin team that depends on his goal-scoring as a feature of their success.

On the other side is Alex Ovechkin.  Fifty-goal season…again.  That makes seven times in ten full seasons he reached that threshold (not counting the abbreviated 2012-2013 season in which his 32 goals in 48 games was a 55-goal pace).  However, like that minus-35 season he had a couple of years back that made him the only player since the league began recording plus-minus as a statistic (1967-1968) to finish a season with at least 50 goals and a minus-35 or worse, Ovechkin finished this season as the only player in NHL history to record at least 50 goals and have as few as the 21 assists with which he finished the season.  He is the only player in league history to finish a full regular season with at least 50 goals and fewer than 30 assists three times.  However, the Caps are not as dependent on Ovechkin’s “other” skill (in this case, “playmaking”) as the Penguins seem to be on Crosby’s.  Sure, the Caps were 15-2-1 when Ovechkin recorded an assist this season, but they were 41-16-7 when he didn’t, too.

Ovechkin and Crosby were conventionally productive in unconventional ways, which means that others have to be heard from, starting with…

Best Supporting Actors

Nicklas Backstrom finally got some of the recognition that eluded him up to this season.  He was named to the mid-season All-Star Game, his first career appearance.  Some might say the honor was overdue, but understated production has been Backstrom’s hallmark since he came into the league.  Whether or not one subscribes to the notion that his numbers are a product of Alex Ovechkin’s ability to finish (chicken…egg…tomato…to-mah-to), he is among the finest set-up men of this era.  Since he came into the league in the 2007-2008 season, only two players have more assists than the 477 recorded by Backstrom – Henrik Sedin (518) and Joe Thornton (515).  The three are much closer on an assists-per-game basis, Backstrom with 0.73 to Thornton’s 0.74 and Sedin’s 0.76 (Crosby leads all players with 0.83 per game). 

That said, there is a blemish on Backstrom’s history – the postseason.  In his first three postseasons with the Caps, Backstrom went 12-18-30, plus-13, in 28 games.  Then, for reasons mysterious, his production dried up in the playoffs.  In four postseasons leading to this year, he was just 6-15-21, minus-3, in 43 games.  Coming into this postseason, getting a more productive Backstrom seemed to be on a short list of to-do items for the Caps to make a deep run.  He got off to a good start in that regard with two goals (including the series-clincher) and five assists in six games while going plus-2.  In that sense his performance aligned better with his career production.  His personal Corsi-for overall at 5-on-5 this postseason (52.3) is eight years and counting in which he has been over 50 percent.

On the other side is Evgeni Malkin.  He might have more attention paid him by fans and the media than Nicklas Backstrom, but not much, really.  He has won the big trophies – Calder (top rookie), Ross (top scorer), Pearson (outstanding player), and Hart (most valuable player) over the course of his career, and of course, the big prizes, the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy (postseason most valuable player).  But he is, and always will be, so long as Sidney Crosby plays in Pittsburgh, the best supporting actor in that production.

Malkin would no doubt rank higher on the performance metrics – goals, assists, points, plus minus (both in total and per game) – but for one nagging thing.  His ability to stay in the lineup has been a question mark for some seasons now.  Since appearing in all 82 games of the 2008-2009 season, Malkin has appeared in as many as 75 games just once (75 in 2011-2012) and has missed 77 of 294 games over the past four seasons.  His ability to remain healthy (he missed ten games to a lower body injury in February and another 15 to an upper body injury in late March and April) is going to be essential for the Penguins to advance.  The reason lies in his performance in the post season over the years.  He is 44-74-118, plus-6, in 105 career playoff games, and in six of his nine postseasons (including this one to date: 2-5-7 in four games) he has been a better than a point-per-game player.

But as good as the leading men and best supporting actors are, these teams also have…

Depth

If there is a similarity in these teams, it is in their next-level production among the forward lines.  For the Caps, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky, Marcus Johansson, and Justin Williams went a combined 102-162-264, plus-74.  On the other side, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist, Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen, and Carl Hagelin went 91-118-209, plus-76.  While that difference between the groups seems large, it might be narrowed somewhat by the fact that Hagelin played in only 37 games (with 27 points) after acquired from Anaheim in trade last January.

In the playoffs so far, the Penguins’ depth has been a bit more productive, their five players going 9-6-15, plus-2; while the Caps’ quintet is 3-10-13, minus-3.  And, both teams have suffered from lack of expected production from portions of their respective groups.

For the Caps, Kuznetsov and Burakovsky were largely neutralized in the first round series against Philadelphia, combining for a single point (a goal by Kuznetsov in Game 3.  And Justin Williams was slow out of the gate, recording a pair of assists and a team-worst minus-4. 

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, did not need production from Hagelin and Kunitz, which is a good thing, because they didn’t get it.  Those two combined for a single point (a goal by Hagelin in Game 5 against the Rangers).  Kessel had something of an odd series in the opening round.  While he did finish with three goals and six points, all of his goals and two of his three assists came on power plays.

You could say that both teams’ next level forward had good seasons but somewhat uneven postseasons to date, which brings us to…

Defense

At the offensive end, it is the superb production of Kris Letang for the Penguins (16-51-67, plus-9, in 71 regular season games) versus the comparative balance of the Caps with three defensemen – John Carlson (39), Matt Niskanen (32), and Dmitry Orlov (29) – with more points than the Pens’ second-ranked defenseman (Trevor Daley with 22 points in 53 games) – and Karl Alzner right behind with 21 points. 

The postseason scoring from the blue line has followed a similar pattern for the Penguins, with Letang leading the way with five points and with the only goal from a defenseman so far (in Game 3 against the Rangers).  The Caps’ pattern among the defensemen are somewhat similar – Carlson with six point in six games and all three goals by Caps’ defensemen, two points apiece from Niskanen and Alzner. 

Each team would like to shake a defenseman loose from slow starts thus far.  For the Pens, Olli Maatta did not record a point in five games, despite getting the third-highest amount of ice time (18:27 per game).  Maatta still has not returned to the productive level of his 2013-2014 rookie season (9-20-29, plus-8, in 78 games), perhaps a product of the health and injury issues he endured in the 2014-2015 season, but he was 6-13-19, plus-27, in 67 games in the regular season. 

For Washington, getting some more offense from Dmitry Orlov would be nice, but this comes with a caveat.  So far, Orlov has one point (an assist) in six games. But he has yet to be on ice for a goal scored against the Caps this post season, the only defenseman playing three or more games so far who can say that.  That sort of trade-off is one that the Caps might cheerfully take in this series.

But as good as the defensemen will have to play – at both ends of the ice – this series might come down to…

Goaltending

Imagine a goaltender in your organization who, in his first 97 regular season and playoff games as a pro, went 61-26-5, 1.86, .935, with 19 shutouts.  And that the other goalie in the series is the leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top netminder.

The former is Matt Murray, who has been something of a revelation for the Penguins in his brief tour through the organization at the AHL and NHL level.  He would not be in the position of starting this series against the Capitals absent a concussion suffered by Marc-Andre Fleury on March 31st against Nashville, his second of the season (he suffered on against Los Angeles on December 11th).  leury is still experiencing intermittent symptoms, and his return to the ice remains uncertain.

That will leave the netminding duties to Murray for the foreseeable future.  But this might not be as dire as one might normally think in this setting.  While Braden Holtby and Philadelphia’s Michal Neuvirth were engaged in a 180-foot version of “can you top this” goaltending feats of wonder (finishing second and first, respectively, in goals against average and save percentage in the first round), Murray was doing just fine, finishing his first round body of work fourth in goals against average (1.33) and save percentage (.955).

If Caps fans think Murray’s lack of experience is a minus, consider that Holtby had only 21 games of regular season experience with the Caps before he was thrust into a starting role in 2012 after injuries shelved both Caps goalies – Tomas Vokoun and Neuvirth (Murray has 13 games of regular season experience at this level).  And Holtby finished that postseason with a 1.95 GAA and a .935 save percentage in 14 games.

What Caps fans might be hoping for here is not that Murray channels the younger Holtby, but perhaps the younger Semyon Varlamov.  Caps fans might recall that Varlamov had just six games of regular season experience in 2008-2009 when he relieved Jose Theodore early in the first round series against the New York Rangers.  Varlamov was spectacular in that first round, going 4-2, 1.17, .952, with two shutouts.  It was the second round – against the Penguins – that did him in.  Under a relentless barrage of pressure, Varlamov went 3-4 with a goals against average of 3.74, a save percentage of .898, and was relieved early in the second period of the deciding Game 7 after allowing four goals on 18 shots in a 6-2 Caps loss.

At the other end, Braden Holtby has been next to impenetrable in the postseason for some time now.   Over his last 17 postseason games, he is 10-7, 1.32, .954, with three shutouts.  In 11 of those 17 games he allowed one or no goals.  Over the span of Capitals history, 18 goalies have appeared in postseason games.  Holtby is second on that list in career postseason goals against average (1.76), and the goalie ahead of him (Bob Mason: 1.75) appeared in just four games for the Caps.  His save percentage of .940 stands alone at the top of the franchise list, and his four shutouts ranks second to Olaf Kolzig (six).  In the modern era of hockey (post 1967-1968 expansion), Holtby is the only goaltender in teh NHL to have appeared in at least 25 postseason games, post a goals against average under 1.80 (1.76), and record a save percentage of better than .930 (.940).

But when all is said and done about the usual suspects…

Is there an “X-Factor” for either team?

For the Capitals, we keep coming back to Mike Richards.  He has more points against the Penguins over the course of his career (32 in 47 games) than he does against any other team, except the New York Islanders (36 in 46 games).  He did not have a point in six games against the Flyers in the first round and is without a point in his last 11 games overall.  But his role here might be of the sort that does not show up in the box score, or in the more sophisticated analytics, either.  He is going to be a part of the penalty killing rotation that will have to be effective for the Caps to have a better chance of victory.  He is third among forwards in hits so far in the postseason, and his ability to antagonize could be a factor in preventing the Penguins from generating momentum.  There are a lot of points at which Richards can be a factor in this series, and he is sufficiently versatile player to make his presence felt at any of them.

On the Pittsburgh side, it might be an old familiar face.  Eric Fehr has not had as productive a year as he or Pens fans might have hoped for this season.  His eight goals in 55 games is his least productive year in goal scoring since he had just two in 35 games for the Winnipeg Jets in 2011-2012.  But half of those goals this past regular season came shorthanded.  If the Caps power play is going to be productive, it had better be disciplined, too.  Fehr can make them pay at the other end of the ice.  And, he has already done something in this postseason that he never accomplished as a Capital in 37 postseason games with the club.  His goal to open the scoring in a 5-0 Game 4 win over the Rangers was his first career playoff game-winning goal.

In the end…

You will not have to look far to find a pundit picking the Pens to prevail over the Caps in this series, if not to win the Cup outright.  In a way, their season looks a bit like their 2009 run to the Cup.  Fire a coach at mid-season who stifled the creativity of the club, bring in a new coach who prefers the up-tempo style, make a sustained run up the standings.  That’s nice as far as it goes, and in fact, in one important area this team might be even better than that 2009 club.  Over the entire season, that 2009 club was not an especially good possession club (48.4 percent score-adjusted Corsi-for at 5-on-5), while this one is (53.0 percent).

But that series with the Rangers still sticks in our minds.  The Pens faced a club that was a shell of its former self, one that stumbled to the finish line of the regular season and was never a very good possession team over any significant stretch of it.  Still, the Pens came out on the short end of the possession numbers, and they were under 50 percent in scoring chances generated at 5-on-5 (45.5 percent).  Sure, five games…small sample.  But you have the information you have, and in some respects it is revealing.

What it reveals is that the Caps do not want to get into a track meet with this team.  It would seem the Pens would be happy to trade chances in an up and down game and take advantage of their significant level of skill.  Pittsburgh did have a 53.4 percent edge over the Rangers in high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5 (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

Both teams have special teams indexes (power play plus penalty killing percentages) over 125, the Pens at 128.2, the Caps at 125.4.  But those percentage are not those on which this series might turn.  There is one number that jumps off the page with respect to the Caps: 4.8.  That is their team shooting percentage at 5-on-5 so far in the postseason.  Only the Flyers (2.6) and the New York Islanders (4.3) are worse.  The Caps have too much depth of skill for that to continue indefinitely. 

Between the difference in quality of their opponents in the first round (given their respective late-season performance), the more battle-tested goalie in the postseason, the improving possession numbers (and conversely the mysterious difficulty the Pens had with the Rangers in that regard), this should be an entertaining series, but one in which the Caps will ultimately go where they have gone just twice before in franchise history – the conference finals.

Capitals in 6

hoto: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Monday, April 25, 2016

Capitals vs. Flyers: Takeaways and Throwaways from Game 6


The first four wins are now in the bank for the Washington Capitals.  The Caps survived the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Philadelphia Flyers, scratching out a 1-0 win in Game 6 to win the series, four games to two. For a game with so little scoring, there was considerable drama and momentum shifts toward one or the other team.  In such a contest, there might be some takeaways and some throwaways at the end of it.

Takeaways…

  • If one had to point to a single factor that influenced the results in Game 5 and the series, it would be penalty killing.  The Caps faced a full two minutes of 3-on-5 shorthanded ice time in the second period of Game 6 with the contest still scoreless.  The Flyers managed three shots, scoring on none of them.  For the series, the Flyers had 3:07 in 5-on-3 power play ice time and had only those three shots on goal in Game 6.  All in all, the Flyers had 37:09 in power play ice time for the series (fourth highest through Sunday’s games), and all they had to show for it was one goal on 30 shots.  The Caps were both efficient (0.81 shots per minute allowed) and effective (95.8 percent penalty kill).
  • Nicklas Backstrom had, if not things to prove, then perhaps some responsibilities to fulfill in terms of his offensive production.  Backstrom had the game-winning, series-clinching goal for the Caps in Game 6,  With that, the Caps won each game in which Backstrom recorded at least one point (2-5-7 overall). It is early in the playoff season, but at the moment Backstrom is averaging more than a point per game for the first time since he had nine points in seven games (5-4-9) in the Cap’s first round loss to the Montreal Canadiens in 2010.
  • Alex Ovechkin had six shots on goal and 13 shot attempts in Game 6.  He did not record a goal, but it was not for lack of effort (or at least repetition).  Ovechkin finished the series leading the league in shots on goal overall (29 to Marian Hossa’s 28) and his 71 total shot attempts is far and away tops in the league (Jonathan Huberdeau has 52).  Ovechkin has not gone into a shell on offense.
  • Braden Holtby is quietly building a reputation as a postseason monster in goal.  In his last 17 games through Geme 6 on Sunday, he is 10-7, 1.32, .954, with three shutouts.  In 11 of those 17 games he allowed one or no goals.
  • Washington won the possession battle with the Flyers in Game 6 (50.6 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5) and dominated as the series wore on.  Over Games 4-6, the Caps had a 5-on-5 Corsi-for of 62.6 percent).

Throwaways…
  • The nominal second line of Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams went without a point in Game 6, had just four shots on goal, and were in fact split up with Marcus Johansson moving up a line and Burakovsky moving down one.  For the series, the Burakvosky-Kuznetsov-Williams trip combined to go 1-2-3, minus-6, with 40 shots on goal.  None of them had a point after Game 3 of the series.  If that production does not improve, it will spell trouble for the Caps in Round 2.
  • The power play that went 8-for-17 in Games 1-3 went 0-for-10 in Games 4-6, including 0-for-5 in Game 6.  It was not as if the Caps didn’t get looks on the power play in Game 6; they got five of their nine shots on goal from Ovechkin, two from Williams, and one each from Johansson and John Carlson.  The nine shots on goal on the power play in Game 6 was more than the total power play shots on goal they had in Games 4 and 5 combined (six).  Nevertheless, are the Caps that 8-for-17 power play that opened the series, or the one that went 0-for-15 to end the regular season and 0-for-10 in the last three games of this series.
  • In the prognosto for this series, we said…
“Faceoffs are generally considered one of those mundane tasks that do not have much of an effect on games…until you lose a critical one.  Like the one the Caps lost that led directly to the game-winning, series-clinching overtime goal in last year’s playoff series against the New York Rangers.  [Jay] Beagle and Mike Richards led Caps forwards still with the team in shorthanded ice time.  Beagle taking draws in his own end on the Flyer power play is a responsibility that should not be held as insignificant in this series.”
In Game 6, the Caps took only five shorthanded faceoffs, all of them in the defensive zone, and lost three of them.  Although it was a one-draw margin, it was the third time in the series they finished under 50 percent in faceoffs taken while shorthanded.  They won all three games (Games 1, 2, and 6).
  • PDO-my…  The Caps were 1-for-15 shooting at 5-on-5 in Game 6 (6.7 percent), and Braden Holtby stopped all nine shots he faced at 5-on-5 (100.0 percent), for a PDO of 106.7 (sum of shooting and save percentages).  It was the fourth time in the series that the Caps had a PDO over 100.0, all of them wins.  They lost both games in which their PDO was under 100.0 at 5-on-5 (numbers from war-on-ice.com).  Duh.
  • When the Caps went to the Stanley Cup final in 1998, two of their three winning series were settled in six games, both on the road (in Boston and in Buffalo), both by one goal, both in overtime.  This one was settled in six games, on the road, and in regulation time.  Think of it as progress.  Or just an historical quirk.

In the end…

What was remarkable about Game 6 was the utterly pedestrian nature of it in one sense.  It resembled so many games the Caps played in the first two thirds of the season. Stifle a team, get a lead, suffocate the life out of them, Holtby.  Don’t forget, the Caps won 27 of 41 one-goal games in the regular season, the best winning percentage in the league (.659).  And low scoring games have not been all that unkind to the Caps. Including Game 6, the Caps are 14-15 in games in which they score only one or two goals this season (shootout decisions not included), a respectable record.

Overall, the 4-2 final margin in games does not paint an accurate picture of how this series unfolded.  They had a 53.6 percent Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (fifth in the league through Sunday), 54.3 percent in score-adjusted Corsi-for (third of 16 teams). The Caps held the Flyers to six goals overall, only three of them at 5-on-5 (one power play, one empty net, one 4-on-4).  Braden Holtby had the third-best 5-on-5 save percentage of any goalie in the league (.974; minimum: 50 5-on-5 minutes).

The other side of that is the resilience of the Flyers to have the ice tilted in their direction for so much of the series, for having to contend with that "hot goalie" that so often haunted the Caps, and still make a series of it.  Remember, this is a team that was breaking in a new head coach in Dave Hakstol and one that was not generally thought of as quite playoff-ready when the season began.  One could sense the fans in Philadelphia recognized this as the game ended, as Wells Fargo Center erupted in cheers for their team that battled so hard in this series.

That the Caps were extended to six games is almost entirely a product of the fine play of Michal Neuvirth in goal for the Flyers.  But this time, the Caps did not lose to a hot goalie, they won in spite of facing one.  In that sense, this team really does look different than its predecessors.

Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Washington Capitals Recap -- Capitals at Flyers, Game 6: Capitals 1 - Flyers 0

One was enough.

The Washington Capitals got a goal from Nicklas Backstrom mid-way through the second period of Game 6 in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers, and goalie Braden Holtby made it stand up as the Caps eliminated the Flyers, four games to two, with a 1-0 win in Philadelphia on Sunday afternoon.

The game’s lone scoring play started in unremarkable fashion with John Carlson controlling the puck behind his own net, circling out, and walling off Chris VandeVelde form the puck as he started up ice.  Clear of VandeVelde, Carlson moved the puck up to Alex Ovechkin just outside the Flyer blue line.  Ovechkin muscled his way past Radko Gudas and cut to the middle, where he found Marcus Johansson cutting down the middle.  Johansson settled the puck, froze goalie Michal Neuvirth, and then slid the puck off to Backstrom on the right wing.  Backstrom one-timed the puck high over Neuvirth’s glove and into the back of the net for what would be the only goal of the contest.

Other stuff…

-- Braden Holtby started and ended the series with shutouts.  It was the first time a Capitals goaltender pitched two or more shutouts in a single series since Semyon Varlamov recorded a pair of shutouts in Games 3 and 5 (both by 4-0 scores) in the Caps’ first-round series against the New York Rangers in 2009.

-- The goal by Nicklas Backstrom was his fourth game-winning postseason goal.  Since he came into the league in 2007-2008, only Alex Ovechkin and Jason Chimera have more game-winners for the Caps (six apiece).

-- The shutout was the first time the Caps clinched a series with a shutout win since they beat the Ottawa Senators, 3-0, in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semi-final series in 1998.  It was the first time in franchise history that the Caps clinched a series on the road with a shutout.

-- It’s nice to have your goalie locked in, but the Caps were playing with fire late.  The Flyers recorded the last seven shots on goal of the game, and the Caps did not record one over the last 8:35.

-- The Caps killed off all three power plays they faced, including a double-minor charged to Nicklas Backstrom early in the second period (the old "phantom high-sticking" penalty).  That made it 23 of 24 kills for the Caps (95.8 percent) in the series.

-- Mike Richards took it in the teeth in the faceoff circle.  He was 0-for-10 for the game.  At the other end, Jay Beagle was 7-for-10 in defensive zone faceoffs, 10-for-17 overall.

-- The Caps rearranged their second and third lines, moving Marcus Johansson up a line and moving Andre Burakovsky down one.  The second line of Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams did manage five shots on goal, but Kuznetsov had none of them.  The third line of Burakovsky, Richards, and Jason Chimera managed three shots on goal, Chimera being held without a shot on goal for the fourth straight game.

-- Mike Weber saw his first playoff action since he skated for the Buffalo Sabres in 2011.  He recorded less than nine minutes in ice time but did have three blocked shots, and the Flyers did no damage with him on the ice.

-- Weird stat… Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth combined for a goals against average of 1.51, Neuvirth with 0.67 and Holtby at 0.84.  Only two of 20 other goalies appearing in the playoffs so far have a better goals against average on their own.  Through the first round of the playoffs, they rank 1-2 in goals against average.  They also rank 1-2 in save percentage (Neuvirth at .981 and Holtby at .968).

-- The Caps had a slight edge in shot attempts at 5-on-5 overall (44-43), but they did have a more pronounced advantage in scoring chances (27-22) and in high-danger scoring chances (7-4; numbers from war-on-ice.com).

In the end...

It would be tempting to write this sentence and mean it… “The Caps might have won, but they will have to play much better in the second round if they hope to advance to the conference final.”  That might be true, but we have a somewhat different take on the matter.  Sometimes a team struggles mightily in the first round before going deep into the playoffs.  Last year, Chicago went six games against the Nashville Predators before winning it all.  The year before, the Los Angeles Kings lost the first three games of their opening round series against the San Jose Sharks before winning the Cup. 

That first round series can be a test of resolve.  The Caps passed that test.  Now they will face a team in the Pittsburgh Penguins that will challenge them with their speed and skill.  It will not be easy.  But then again, who expected it to be?

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Capitals vs. Flyers: Takeaways and Throwaways from Game 5


Game 5 was unkind to the Washington Capitals, who thoroughly dominated the statistics over the Philadelphia Flyers, except for, as they say, the most important one – the score, a 2-0 win for the Flyers.  While such a game has been all too common in Caps playoff history and is one that fans might be tempted to crumple up and throwaway, there are some takeaways to keep.  We can take a look at both.

Takeaways…
  • For a period of 16:50 spanning the second and third periods (from 9:41 into the second period to the 6:31 mark of the third period) the Caps held the Flyers without a shot on goal.  In fact, the Caps held the Flyers to just three shots on goal in the final 30:19 of the game, and one of those shots on goal was an empty net goal.
  • The second line, which has been largely quiet in this series, did manage five shots on goal and 13 shot attempts.  It would have been nice if they had points, but they were active in ways that were intermittently present in the first four games.
  • Braden Holtby has not allowed more than two goals in a game in this series, a streak that stands at six games going back to his last regular season appearance.  Of goalies logging at least 100 minutes of ice time so far in the postseason, he is third in both goals against average (1.01) and save percentage (.961).
  • Game 5 was the six time in his career that Alex Ovechkin recorded eight or more shots on goal and did not score a goal.  In four of the previous five instances he did not record a goal in his next game, either, but the one in which he did was the one previous to this one, a goal in a 4-3 win over the New York Islanders in Game 2 of their first-round series last season.
  • Teams winning the first three games of their first round playoff series in NHL history, the first of those wins on home ice, have a series record of 49-2 (source: whowins.com).  Keeping saying it over and over…forty-nine-and-two…forty-nine-and-two…

Throwaways…
  • In Games 6 after losing Game 5 at home, the Caps have an all-time record of 4-6.  Yeah, not much meat on that bone to gnaw on.
  • Michal Neuvirth is the only goalie in Flyer history over the last 25 years to face more than 35 shots in a playoff game and record a shutout.  Seriously? 
  • The Flyers have the worst scoring offense of any of the 16 playoff teams (1.20 goals per game).  They have the third-worst power play (4.8 percent).  They have the second-worst penalty kill (63.6 percent).  No team has fewer goals at 5-on-5 (three).  They have allowed the second-most shot attempts per 60 minutes (65.9; numbers from war-on-ice.com).  Yeah, and how is that working out so far?
  • About that second line.  There is being more active, and there is being more productive, and it hasn’t been.  One goal (Evgeny Kuznetsov), two assists (both by Justin Williams), 14 penalty minutes.  As a group (including Andre Burakovsky, who is without a point in this series), they are shooting 1-for-36 (2.8 percent).
  • If the Caps lose Game 6, the skies will darken quickly.  Eight times in franchise history they lost a Game 6 to force a Game 7.  Six times, they lost that ensuing Game 7. 

In the end…

There were a couple of object lessons for the Capitals in playoff games played on Saturday.  In one, there was an example of a team taking care of business in a cold, methodical fashion as the Pittsburgh Penguins eliminated the New York Rangers in rude fashion, 6-3.  In the other, the Chicago Blackhawks, facing elimination, fell behind the St. Louis Blues by a 3-1 margin after the first period, then roared back to win going away, 6-3, to force a Game 7.  One team shoveled dirt on another’s playoff hopes, the other clawed their way out of a hole to extend their own hopes.  The Caps need to find some of whatever it was that the Penguins and the Blackhawks were drinking and include it in their morning meal.

Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

Washington Capitals Recap -- Flyers at Capitals, Game 5: Flyers 2 - Capitals 0

And now, the gnashing of teeth begins.

The Washington Capitals saw their once all-but-insurmountable 3-0 lead in their first round playoff series over the Philadelphia Flyers whittled to a 3-2 lead as the Flyers won Game 5, 2-0, in Washington on Friday night.

Scoring was sparse, but not the ill-will, expressing itself right off the opening faceoff when Washington’s T.J. Oshie and Philadelphia’s Braden Schenn dropped the gloves, Oshie reminding Schenn that trying to chop the knees out from under Evgeny Kuznetsov in Game 4 was remembered and something to be dealt with.

The two had been yapping at one another all through the prelude to the drop of the puck, and just ten seconds into the game they expressed their mutual distaste for one another.  We had the bout as a draw, and that is how the first period ended, the teams scoreless.

It would be the Flyers breaking the ice in the second period just as a Philadelphia power play was expiring.  Working the puck around the perimeter of the offensive zone, Sam Gagner one-timed a pass from Mark Streit at the Washington net.  The puck was deadened in front, but Ryan White – the other stick in the ribs of the Caps in this series – managed to poke the loose puck past goalie Braden Holtby to make it 1-0, 7:52 into the period.

The Flyers and goalie Michal Neuvirth made that goal stand up, and the Flyers scored an empty net goal by Chris VandeVelde with 30.8 seconds left for the final 2-0 margin

Other stuff…

-- The Caps picked precisely the wrong time to lose consecutive games in regulation time for the first time this season.  In another way, it should not be surprising.  In 20 Games 5 on home ice in Caps history, the club is now 8-12.

-- A subplot to this series is emerging, that being which is the stronger force, Justin Williams as the clutch playoff performer or the Caps’ playoff history of misfortune.  They intersected on Friday night in the form of four minor penalties taken by Williams, three of them for high-sticking (including a double-minor barely a minute into the game) and another for goaltender interference.  Williams does not have a goal in this series (two assists, both on power plays) and is a minus-4.

-- The 44 shots on goal for the Caps was not a team playoff record for a game settled in regulation, but they could see it from here.  Only three times did a Caps team record more shots on goal in a 60-minute playoff game – 45 shots in a 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 6 of their playoff series in 2015, 49 shots in a 7-1 win over the Rangers in Game 3 of their 1990 playoff series, and 54 shots in a 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6 of their 2010 postseason series.

-- The shot differential of plus-33 (44-11) is a team record, surpassing the plus-32 the Caps recorded in that 4-1 loss to Montreal in Game 6 of the 2010 Easter Conference quarterfinals (54-22).  The shots on goal allowed (11) ties for the second fewest allowed by the Caps in a playoff game in team history.  The Caps limited the New Jersey Devils to 10 shots on goal in a 2-1 loss in Game 3 of their 1990 series against the Devils.

-- This game was the 12th in his career that Alex Ovechkin recorded eight or more shots.  It was the sixth time he did so and failed to record a goal.

-- Game 5 was the 14th time in club history that the Caps were shut out in a postseason game, the ninth time on home ice.  It was the second time a Flyer goaltender turned the trick, the other time occurring in Game 2 of the 2008 series between the clubs when Martin Biron stopped all 24 shots in a 2-0 win in Washington.

-- The magic for Jason Chimera seems to have been spent in that 100-foot goal in Game 2.  Since that fluke goal, he has one shot on goal, none in the last three games, including Game 5 last night.

-- The Caps started this series going 8-for-17 on the power play in Games 1-3 (47.1 percent), all wins, but they are 0-for-5 over the last two games, both losses.  They now have the second-best power play in the postseason (36.4 percent, to Pittsburgh’s 36.8 percent), but how they got there has come to matter in this series.

-- Braden Holtby has faced just 35 shots over the last two games, stopping 32 of them.  A 1.52 goals against average over two games would suggest he added two wins to his record, but the opposite is true.

-- The Caps had a Corsi-for at 5-on-5 overall of 78.8 percent (63-17 in shot attempts).  That is the highest Corsi-for at 5-on-5 for the Caps in any game, regular season or playoff, in the post 2004-2005 period (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

In the end…

Well, here we are.  Holding a 3-1 lead, losing Game 5 to make it 3-2.  Talk about history not meaning anything at this point sounds like whistling past the graveyard.  More ominously, this series is now setting up to look far too much like the 2010 Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the Montreal Canadiens.  Think about it (or perhaps don’t)…Presidents Trophy winning Caps against an 8-seed that struggled to make the post season.  The Caps dominate the series early, leaving the opponents in a quandary about goaltending.  Finally, a journeyman goaltender emerges to frustrate the Capitals relentlessly, and the team in front of him plays just well enough to eke out wins despite being utterly dominated everywhere but on the scoreboard.

It was Jaroslav Halak who so frustrated the Caps in 2010.  Now, Michal Neuvirth is trying to step into that role for the Flyers in 2016.  The cruel irony of it, of course, is Neuvirth having once been a draft pick and a playoff goaltender for the Caps.

The talk of another Caps collapse in the postseason will be hard to avoid over the next 30 hours before the teams meet at high noon in Philadelphia on Sunday.  For the Caps and their fans, it will be to wonder if the 3-0 lead the club took in this series was just a different road to an inevitable destination...a Game 7 in Washington on Wednesday night.