Friday, February 23, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 62: Capitals at Sabres, February 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals return home on Saturday to host the Buffalo Sabres and hope to stop skidding through their schedule like a car with bald tires in an ice storm.  The Caps are 4-5-2 in the month of February and just 2-4-2 in their last eight home games as they prepare for Buffalo.

It has been just five days since the Caps last faced this team, the last team they defeated.  And it is a team that struggles scoring goals on the road.  Despite playing the seventh-highest number of road games this season (31), the Sabres rank 21st in goals scored (79/2.55 per game).  Evander Kane and Ryan O’Reilly lead the team in road goals with 10 apiece, a number that has them tied for 40th in the league in goals scored on the road this season.

We focused on Kane in the prognosto for the last meeting, but O’Reilly deserves some attention.  O’Reilly has been a reliable scorer over the last six seasons coming into this one.  In the five full seasons preceding this one (not including the abbreviated 2012-2013 season), he topped the 50-point mark in each one with a high of 64 points with the Colorado Avalanche in 2013-2014.  He seems a good bet to do that again this season, having posted 44 points in 60 games.  He also is one of the most “gentlemanly” players in the league.  In 630 NHL games he has a total of just 84 penalty minutes, only two in 60 games so far this season.  If he finishes with fewer than ten penalty minutes this season it would make four seasons in the last six in which he did so.  O’Reilly has received votes for the Lady Byng Trophy (gentlemanly play) in five of the last six seasons, winning the award in the 2013-2014 season.  He combines this with a reputation for defense, despite an odd progression of numbers.  O’Reilly has been a “minus” player in each of the last seven seasons coming into this one and seems assured of an eighth (he is currently minus-12).  However, he has received votes for the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in each of those seven seasons, finishing as high as sixth in 2013-2014.  He is 0-5-5, minus-2, in 15 career games against Washington.

It was Rasmus Ristolainen who got our attention for his offensive contributions in the prognosto for the most recent game against the Caps, but among Sabre defensemen Marco Scandella deserves some attention, too.  Scandella is in his first season in Buffalo after spending seven seasons with the Minnesota Wild.  If there is a rough comparison with whom Caps fans might be familiar, it might be former Caps defensemen Karl Alzner.  Take away Scandella’s 11-goal season in 2014-2015, and his seasons look a lot like Alzners – a low single-digit goal scorer and in the low- to mid-teens in assists.  At the moment he is second among Sabre defensemen in road goal scored (2), assists (7),and points (9), his plus-4 being best of those defensemen on the road.  And, he has logged 24:05 in 31 road games, second to Ristolainen on the team.  Scandella is without a point in nine career games against the Caps.

Victor Antipin is not your usual rookie.  First, he turned 25 years old in December, a bit on the older side for an NHL rookie.  Second, he came to the NHL after spending six seasons skating for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL (he was not drafted by an NHL club when coming eligible).  Two of those clubs won the Gagarin Cup as KHL champion, so he does come from a winning tradition that the Sabres haven’t been able to match in quite some time.  He left Metallurg for the purpose of moving to the NHL, signing a one-year contract last May with the Sabres.  He has been in and out of the lineup for health (missed six games in January to illness) and being worked gently into the roster – he has dressed for 36 games this season.  However, he seems to have earned a spot on the big club, skating in 12 of the team’s last 14 games (one of those missed was against Washington last Sunday).  His opportunity is a product of injuries suffered by the blue line, but he does have six assists in those 36 games for which he has dressed.  He did skate against the Caps in the November 7th meeting won by the Sabres, 3-1, and did not register a point, although he was plus-2 for the game.

1.  Buffalo’s defense has been a medical staff’s nightmare.  Only one defenseman has appeared in all 61 games for the Sabres this season (Marco Scandella), and only two others have appeared in at least 45 games (Jake McCabe, who is currently injured, with 53 games, and Rasmus Ristolainen with 52 games).  The club has dressed 13 defensemen overall.

2.  You would think a team struggling as are the Sabres would be integrating a lot of rookies, or at least giving rookies a long look.  Not so.  As noted, Victor Antipin has 36 games played, but only three other rookies have dressed – Nicolas Baptiste, Brendan Guhle, and Kyle Crisciolo – and only for a total of 22 games among them.

3.  The Sabres are the only team in the NHL not to participate in the Gimmick on the road this season. 

4.  One thing the Sabres are adept at – shorthanded goal scoring on the road.  They have five, tied for second-most in the league (Colorado: 7).

5.  If the Caps are going to get well, shots-wise, it is going to be against this team.  Buffalo is minus-218 in the shot attempt differential at 5-on-5 on the road.  That is the third-worst differential in the league (Ottawa: minus-224; Minnesota: minus-247).

1.  The Caps had better watch out for Buffalo’s shorthanded goal scoring ability on the road.  Only three teams have allowed more shorthanded goals on home ice than Washington (4).  On the other side of the ledger, only three teams have scored fewer shorthanded goals on home ice than the Caps (1).

2. Alex Ovechkin might lead the league in goals overall (36), but he is just tied for sixth in goal scoring at home (17) and tied for 18th in even strength goals on home ice (10).

3.  Ovechkin leading the club in home goals is not a surprise, but Lars Eller second with ten?  That qualifies.

4.  Only the New York Rangers (minus-87) have a worse shot attempt differential at 5-on-5 than the Caps (minus-81) when the game is tied.

5.  Six different Capitals have empty-net goals on home ice, none of them with more than one: Jay Beagle, Tom Wilson, Alex Chiasson, Jakub Vrana, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Nicklas Backstrom.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo: Kyle Okposo

When the Buffalo Sabres signed forward Kyle Okposo away from the New York Islanders to a seven-year/$42 million contract in July 2016, they were probably expecting a player who could score 29 goals a season, not 29 goals in 124 games over two seasons with the club.  And this season has the makings of a less productive one than last year, when Okposo recorded 19 goals in 65 games.  So far this season he has 10 goals in 59 games, putting him on a pace to finish this season with 14 goals.  He has just one goal in his last dozen games, although he does have six assists in that span.  One other problem has crept into his game, that being even strength performance.  He is minus-8 in his last seven games and has not been a plus player for 13 straight contests, not since he had a pair of assists and was plus-1 in a 5-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers on January 23rd.  The production has resulted in his ice time being pared back.  He has not skated as much as 20 minutes in his last nine games, and he hit the 15-minute mark only once in his last four contests.  Okposo is 11-11-22, plus-4,in 30 career games against the Caps.  The goals scored against Washington is the second most he has in his career against a single club (he has 14 in 43 games against Pittsburgh).

Washington: Christian Djoos/Madison Bowey

When the Washington Capitals acquired Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek in separate deals with Chicago and Montreal, respectively, perhaps Caps fans could be forgiven for thinking the rookie experiment on the blue line was coming to an end.  Never mind that both are among the top scorers among rookie defensemen in the league, Djoos ranked eighth (3-11-14) and Bowey ranked ninth (0-12-12).  It left the Caps with the only team in the league with two rookies among the top-ten scorers among rookie defensemen.  Both, however, have seen scoring dry up a bit of late.  Djoos has only one assist in his last eight games after posting a four-game points streak.  Bowey is without a point in his last nine games after consecutive games with points.  While both have had low minute burdens, one has done reasonably well in possession numbers, given the team context, while the other has struggled.  In February, Djoos is second on the club in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 (47.83 percent), while Bowey is last in that category for the month (38.46 percent).  But here’s the thing.  Djoos and Bowey have combined for 103 games played in these, their respective rookie seasons.  Kempny and Jerabek have combined to appear in 107 games in their respective NHL careers to date.

In the end…

Caps fans are watching the team’s seeding, if not their playoff hopes, slip away in slow motion.  The Caps have not been awful of late, but they are just a single point ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers at the top of the Metropolitan Division, and they are only ten points ahead of the ninth-place New York Islanders.  A losing streak of any length would drop the club off the division pace and place their playoff position in jeopardy.  When one considers that the Caps still have their three-game California trip ahead of them and 11 of their last 20 games on the road, the schedule does become challenging down the stretch.  They simple have to win games they should win.  They did not do it against Florida on Thursday – their second late-game collapse in barely a week – but they need to do it against the Sabres.

Capitals 4 – Sabres 2

Washington Capitals: How a One-Point Lead Stayed a One-Point Lead in 2018

 Some things change over the course of a season, and some things don’t.  And sometimes they don’t, but they do.  That is how an 82-game season evolves.  An example of the latter can be found in the change in Metropolitan Division standings in games played since New Year’s Day:

The Washington Capitals held a one-point lead in the division when the sun came up on January 1st, but that lead was over the New Jersey Devils.  The teams representing Pennsylvania were last and next to last in the division.  Fast forward to Friday morning, and the Pennsylvania teams have replaced the Devils one-point behind the Caps.  It has not been an accident.  How it happened is in the details.  We can look at them from a high perch, descending into the nitty-gritty.

The Basics: Wins and Losses

The standings from January 1st show clearly that the Pennsylvania teams – the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins – have been the class of the division. 

In fact, as the standings indicate, it is not that the Caps have been awful.  Their 10-7-4 in the 2018 portion of the season is still third-best in the division.  And it is 94-point pace over a full season, so even with a “slump,” it is a playoff pace, but we will get back to this in a moment.

The Pennsylvania teams have been just so much more successful in the new year, the Flyers and Penguins well clear of the rest of the division with 127- and 129-point paces, respectively.  Only Flyer and Penguin fans would consider either number sustainable, and they wouldn’t think so for the other of the two clubs.

But back to the Caps on this point.  The 10-7-4 record includes a three-game winning streak to start the new year, the trailing portion of what was a five-game winning streak.  The 7-7-4 record since then should be of some concern as the Caps head into the home stretch.

The Nuts and Bolts: Scoring

What seems clear from the scoring in the division in the new year is that with the exception of the Pennsylvania teams, the rest of the division (with the notable exception of Columbus) has forgotten how to play defense, how to tend goal, or both, five of the clubs (including the Caps) allowing three or more goals per game since January 1st.

The poor defense (again, Columbus being a special case because they can’t hit the lake off their own dock shooting the puck) is the fault line in scoring, the two teams that can actually balance good scoring defense with good scoring offense being the only teams with a positive goal differential in the new year.  However, is Pittsburgh really that good to average beating opponents by almost a goal and a half per game?  Is Philadelphia really good enough up and down the roster to score almost three and a third goals per game over the rest of the season?

But back to the Caps.  Their scoring defense is the concern here.  Giving up 3.33 goals per game since January 1st is actually a little better than it is upon closer inspection.  Take away the three-game winning streak to start the year, and that average goes up to 3.44 per game.

The Flair: Special Teams

Looking at the Metro special teams performance in the new year, it just doesn’t seem to matter on a fundamental level in win-loss success.  Sure, there are those Penguins, with the best special teams index (STI: power play plus penalty kill percentages), but given their record and the scoring differential dominance overall, it is either a luxury or overkill, depending on where you sit in terms of rooting interest in that team.  Being a product of having both the best power play and the best penalty kill in the division since January 1st just makes one love/hate them even more, again, depending on your rooting interest.

With respect to the Caps, their STI is over 100, the standard of performance for this measure, a good thing.  But what tempers this is the fact that the Caps have the second-worst differential in power play opportunities and shorthanded situations, having five more of the latter (65) than the former (60), although in what might be the oddest fact here, the Penguins have the worst differential (minus-6).  What it means is that while the Caps have a positive special teams goal differential (plus-3, the last column in the table), that is a product of the two shorthanded goals they scored in 2018 as of Friday morning.

The Last Line of Defense: Goaltending

Pittsburgh is on top of this area, too, having both the best save percentage and goals against average.  What makes it a bit odd is that the numbers improve as one goes down the depth chart in this span of time – Matt Murray (2.52/.922 in 11 games), Tristan Jarry (2.43/.923 in seven games), and Casey DeSmith (2.03/.939 in five games).  And not only has Pittsburgh’s goaltending overall been the best, at least among the usual top-end numbers, it has been substantially so.  On the other hand, given the scoring defense of the rest of the division, it might be that the division is experiencing a wide-spread goaltending slump.

As for the Caps, only the New York teams – the Rangers and Islanders – have worse overall goals against averages, although the Caps are in the middle of the save percentage pack.  What Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer have faced is as high volume of shots, the 33.71 per 60 minutes being the third-highest of the division.  Still, expectations are higher than a .904 save percentage and a 3.24 goals against average at this point of the season. 

The teams in the division one has to shake their head at, though, are Philadelphia and the Islanders.  In the Flyers’ case, can they keep holding teams to 27.84 shots per 60 minutes, best in the division?  Given their .904 collective save percentage, higher shot volumes could burst the balloon than has lifted them to within a point of the Capitals.  With the Islanders it is a case of non-support.  They are allowing 40.11 shots on goal per 60 minutes in 2018, almost six more shots per 60 minutes than the Rangers (34.55).  It is a team that has already allowed teams 50 or more shots on goal four times since January 1st.

The Fancy: Five-on-Five Shot Attempts

If there is a pattern or a relationship to be found here, they are hiding themselves rather well.  The best that might be said here is that over a sufficiently large population of events, shot attempt percentages will align with success.  Here, we apparently have an insufficiently large population of events for that relationship to express itself.  How else are we to account for Carolina leading the division in overall 5-on-5 shot attempts-for (SAT) percentage and the Flyers a shade under 50 percent?   Not to mention they are at the top of this category when ahead, tied, or close.  And in the strange, there is Columbus being awful when ahead and very good (perhaps in the desperate sense) when behind.

What should concern Caps fans is how the team is overperforming (in terms of wins and losses) their numbers in this category.  The number that stands out is the shot attempts for at 5-on-5 – dead last in the division in total and next to last per game (ahead of only the Rangers) since the first of the new year.  The Caps have had an issue with these numbers for most, if not all of this season, and it has yet to bite them.  However, given the Caps 10-7-4 record (and 7-7-4 in their last 18 games), perhaps the reckoning is at hand.

In the end…

The Flyers and Penguins have done well to drag themselves out of the basement to challenge for the division lead.  However, given the number of games played in 2018 so far and those that remain until the end of the regular season, the question for them is whether their performance is sustainable.  Scoring almost four goals a game, especially when it is fueled by a better-than-30-percent power play and a shooting percentage north of 12 percent as a team (12.1, tops in the division over this period) seems rather extraordinary, not to mention difficult to sustain over a half-season, from January into April. 

For the Flyers, the secrets of their success are not obvious.  Both their scoring offense and scoring defense have been good, but not so good to dismiss either as being impossible to sustain.  Their special team index is unimpressive, and it is unbalanced – a good power play (25.4 percent power play, 71.7 percent penalty kill).  Their goaltenders are, as a group, middle of the road in this division, and they are breaking in a new one (Petr Mrazek) due to injuries.  Their 5-on-5 numbers do not excite.  One wonders if the Flyers not having to depend on an outlying number makes their performance easier to sustain over games to come. 

For the Capitals, the situation is a strange one.  They are actually shooting more efficiently since January 1st (11.2 percent overall) than they did in the season to that point (10.4 percent).  Their power play has been good (25.0 percent).  Then again, offense is not their problem.  Only the New York teams – the Rangers and Islanders – have allowed more goals per game than the Caps.  Only those teams have allowed their goaltenders to face more shots per 60 minutes, and only those teams have allowed more shot attempts against at 5-on-5 per game than the Caps. 

Defense was always going to be the big issue with this team this season, despite losing a couple of top six forwards and their offensive contributions.  It remains the big issue.  The Caps simply have allowed too many shot attempts, too many shots, and too many prime scoring opportunities to be able to keep their distance from the Penguins and Flyers.  If the Capitals cannot correct this problem, at least in part, then Capitals Nation had better hope that what the Flyers and Penguins have done in the new year is not sustainable.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 61: Capitals at Panthers, February 22nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals head back on the road and hope to find some spark there as they visit south Florida and the Florida Panthers on Thursday night.  The Caps actually have a better record on the road in their last five out-of-town games (3-1-1) than they do at home over their last five contests at Capital One Arena (2-2-1).

The Panthers are making a late run, but it might be a bit too late to challenge for a playoff spot.  Florida is 7-3-0 over their last ten games, and they might be slipping back into mediocrity with losses in each of their last two contests going into this game.  It is no mystery regarding the recent overall success.  The Panthers scored at least three goals in each of the seven wins and did not reach three goals in any of the three losses.

Evgenii Dadonov and Aleksander Barkov have combined to record almost a third of the 34 goals the Panthers scored over their last ten games, five apiece.  This is Dadonov’s second tour with the franchise.  He was taken by the Panthers in the third round (71st overall) of the 1007 entry draft.  After three seasons with only intermittent play with the big club, but after two more seasons in Russia and a year and a half in the AHL, with some intermittent action with the Panthers, he was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes with A.J. Jenks for Jon Matsumoto and Mattias Lindstrom in January 2012.  At the end of the 2011-2012 season he headed back to Russia, signing with Donetsk in the KHL.  It was not until last July that he returned to the team that drafted him, signing as a free agent with the Panthers.  In his second tour with the club he is having a career year.  His 49 games almost matches his total in his first tour (55 games over three seasons), and his 15 goals is more than his total in his first tour with the club (ten).  He comes into this game with points in four of his last five games and 8-8-16 in his last 18 games.  Dadonov is 2-1-3, minus-4, in eight career games against Washington.

Barkov is not just scoring on his own, he is involved with Panther scoring generally over their last ten games.  With a 5-6-11 scoring line, he has been involved in almost a third of the Panthers’ goal scored by himself.  The five goals scored has allowed him to hit the 20-goal mark for the third consecutive season, and his 54 points overall put him close to his career best of 59 points in 66 games of the 2015-2016 season.  The odd part of his goal scoring to date is the drop in efficiency from his previous two seasons.  In 2015-2016 Barkov had 28 goals on 171 shots (16.4 percent shooting), and last season he had 21 goals on 142 shots (14.8 percent).  Going into this game, he has 20 goals on a career high 185 shots (10.8 percent).  Five of those goals are shorthanded, most in the league.  Barkov is 3-4-7, plus-3, in 11 career games against the Caps.

That Keith Yandle would lead the team’s defensemen in scoring over the 7-3-0 run (2-8-10) is not a surprise.  The Mike Matheson would be second – and the leader in goals – might be (4-4-8).  Matheson was a first round pick of the Panthers (23rd overall in 2012) and appeared in 81 of 82 games last season, his rookie year (second in the NHL).  He has already surpassed last year’s goals, assists, and points (7-1-0-17) in just 56 games this season (8-14-22).  The Panthers depend on his production for success, going 14-5-0 in the 19 games in which he registered a point this season and going 5-2-0 in those games in which he scored a goal.  And, his being on the ice is generally a good luck charm, the Panthers with a 12-4-1 record in games in which he skated more than 22 minutes.  In five career games against the Capitals, Matheson is 1-0-1, even.

1.  In their 7-3-0 run, Florida has out-shot opponents by a 352-313 margin (plus-3.9 shots per game).

2.  Over that same ten-game span, the Panthers have the best power play in the league at 12-for-34 (35.3 percent), those 12 power play goals also being most in the league over that span (tied with Tampa Bay).

3.  Florida is tied for the league lead this season in shorthanded goals scored (nine, with Buffalo…go figure).

4.  No team in the league has more penalty minutes per game than Florida (11:41), largely a product of their leading the league in fighting majors, and by a wide margin.  They have 34 fighting majors to 23 for the Anaheim Ducks.

5.  Florida might be doing better if their possession numbers were better when they were ahead.  In the rankings at, the Panthers rank 14th in shot attempts-for percentage when behind (53.69), 18th when tied (49.47), and 17th in close situations (50.29).  But when ahead, they rank only 27th (44.14).

1.  When the Caps recorded 37 shots on goal against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night, it broke an eight game streak in which they did not record more than 30 shots on goal in a game (they had 30 in the 3-2 win over Buffalo on Sunday).

2.  The Caps allowed just 19 shots to the Lightning on Tuesday, a season low in shots on goal allowed.  The previous low was 23, accomplished three times.

3.  Jay Beagle’s individual shot attempts-for percentage on ice (38.84) is second worst in the league among 617 skaters appearing in at least 25 games (Buffalo’s Jacob Josefson has a 37.91 percent in 29 games).

4.  Alex Ovechkin is tied with four other players for the league lead in overtime goals with three (David Perron, Sean Monahan, Nathan MacKinnon, and Brayden Point).

5.  Ovechkin leads in shots on goal, but Dmitry Orlov has been on ice for the most shot attempts by the club at 5-on-5 (1075, 37 more than John Carlson).  Ovechkin ranks third with 907.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Florida: Roberto Luongo

It has been a hard year on goalie Roberto Luongo.  He missed 33 games over two tours on the injury list, missing six games to a broken thumb in October, and then missing 27 games after suffering a groin injury on December 4th.  He could end this season appearing in fewer games over a full season than any in his 18-year career in the NHL (he appeared in 24 games in his rookie season with the New York Islanders in 1999-2000.  Luongo, the oldest goalie in the league to dress this season (he will be 39 years old in April), is the only goaltender active in the league to have dressed for an NHL game before the calendar rolled over to the year 2000.

This will be Luongo’s first home game (assuming he starts) since his return.  He split two road decisions, stopping 30 of 33 shots in a 6-3 win over the Calgary Flames on February 17, and stopping all but one of 31 shots in a 1-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday.  In his limited duty this season he has faced a lot of rubber.  In nine of his 17 appearances he faced 35 or more shots on goal, although he does have a .934 save percentage in those games to go with a 4-3-1 record (one no-decision).  Luongo is 20-12-3, 2.39, .924, with two shutouts in 38 career appearances against the Caps.  Those 38 appearances are tied for second-most among active goaltenders, with Marc-Andre Fleury.  Cam Ward has 41 career appearances against the Caps.

Washington: Andre Burakovsky

It has been a rough season for Andre Burakovsky, too.  Limited to 34 games due to injury (23 games to illness and a broken thumb) and inconsistent play, he has just 14 points this season (six goals, eight assists) and is a minus-9, second worst on the team (Brooks Orpik: minus-11).  He was showing signs of coming out of his season-long funk with six points over an eight-game stretch from January 25th through February 15th.  However, he is without a point in his last three games and is a minus-4 over that stretch. 

Not only has Burakovsky’s production overall been disappointing, it has been inconsistent.  He has points in just ten of those 34 games, although if you are looking for a silver lining, he has three multi-point games, all of them in wins and all of them on the road.  And, he has to do more with the ice time he gets.  Burakovsky has logged 13 or more minutes 20 times this season.  In those 20 games he is 4-5-9, minus-3, and the Caps are 6-10-4 in those games.  Not the profile one might want in a top-six forward, the expectation for Burakovsky.  He is 2-2-4, minus-5, in nine games against Florida in his career.

In the end…

The Caps have alternated wins and losses on the road since sweeping the Carolina Hurricanes ten days apart in early January (4-2-2).  Continuing the pattern would mean a loss in this game, the Caps having taken advantage of the Sabres in Buffalo last Sunday.  Patterns aside, this is a game the Caps could, should, and must win, if they are to continue to be a credible contender for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.  Yes, they currently occupy that spot and would occupy it even with a loss (Pittsburgh, one point back, does not play again until Friday).  But the Caps are entering what should be a soft spot in their schedule – Florida, Buffalo, Columbus, and Ottawa, only Columbus playoff eligible and occupying the second wild card spot at that.  If the Caps don’t make hay here, the sun might not shine so brightly after it with a game against the spunky Toronto Maple Leafs and then the three-game California trip following.  It makes beating the Panthers a priority.

Capitals 3 – Panthers 2

A NO-Point Night: Washington Capitals -- Game 60: Lightning 4 - Capitals 2

The Washington Capitals returned to the friendly confines of Capital One Arena after a 2-1-1 road trip, hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning in what could be a playoff matchup down the road.  It was the Lightning sending a message that they are the deeper, more talented team, at least for the moment, skating off with a 4-2 win.

First Period

It did not take the Lightning long to take the early lead.  Brett Connolly went off for decking Dan Girardi, who did not have the puck, and Tampa Bay scored on the ensuing power play, Brayden Point converting a feed by Ryan Callahan from the left wing boards to beat goalie Braden Holtby through the pads at the 2:30 mark.

Chris Kunitz doubled the Tampa lead at the 16-minute mark when he tipped an Andrej Sustr drive from the right point out of mid-air with the tip of his stick past he left shoulder of Holtby and inside the neat post.

Point made it 3-0 late in the period when he took an Anton Stralman pass at the offensive blue line, blew through three Caps defenders and slipped the puck past Holtby’s right pad at the 17:52 mark.

Tampa Bay went to the locker room tied in shots on goal with the Caps (eight), a 21-14 edge in shot attempts, and a 9-5 edge in faceoffs.  The Caps went to the locker room.

Second Period

The Caps got one back on a power play mid-way through the period.  With Vladislav Namestnikov off for tripping Tom Wilson, Lars Eller one-timed a Dmitry Orlov feed from the top of the right wing circle past goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy’s blocker on the far side to make it 3-1, 9:32 into the period.

It would be all the Caps could get to cut into the lead, though, through 40 minutes.  Washington had a 14-5 edge in shots and a 25-14 edge in shot attempts.  They did tilt the ice more to their advantage.  Alex Ovechkin had a total of four shots on goal (tied with Matt Niskanen) and nine shot attempts through two periods.  Nicklas Backstrom was the only Cap over 50 percent on draws after two periods (5-for-7).

Third Period

The Caps teased in the third period.  In the 11th minute Alex Ovechkin took a cross ice feed from the right point by Matt Niskanen and rifled a shot from the left wing circle past the left pad of Vasilevskiy on the far side to make it a 3-2 game.

However, not two minutes later Nikita Kucherov restored the two-goal margin.  T.J. Oshie dove at a loose puck to keep it in the offensive zone and nudged it to Christian Djoos.  From the top of the circles Djoos backhanded the puck to no one in particular, and Braydon Coburn jumped on the turnover, sending Kucherov off on a breakaway.  Kucherov faked a shot and then slid the puck past Holtby’s pad to give the Lightning their final margin of victory at the 12:58 mark.

Other stuff…

-- In his last four appearances, Braden Holtby is 0-2-2, 5.16, .848.

-- Ovechkin’s goal, his league-leading 36th of the season, was his eighth in 13 games.  Alas, the Caps are just 3-2-2 in the seven games in which he has goals over that span.

-- Ovechkin had nine shots on goal and 19 shot attempts to lead both teams in both categories.

-- Tampa Bay goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was charged with four giveaways.

-- Matt Niskanen had five shots on goal, the first time this season he had more than two shots on goal in a game.  He had nine shot attempts.

-- One does not expect a lot of scoring from the fourth line, but this was the sixth straight game in which Jay Beagle did not record a shot on goal.

-- NIskanen was the only Capital to finish in plus territory for the evening (plus-1).

-- The Caps have found home ice a difficult place to play lately.  With this loss, they are 2-4-2 in their last eight games at Capital One Arena.

-- The Caps out-shot Tampa Bay, 37-19.  It is the first time the Caps out-shot an opponent since out-shot the Florida Panthers, 46-34, in a 4-2 win on January 25th. 

-- Think the Caps have defense issues?  The top three defensemen all had 23 or more minutes (NIskanen: 27:12, Orlov: 25:11, John Carlson: 23:00).  The bottom three all had less than 15 minutes (Brooks Orpik: 14:51, Christian Djoos: 13:54, Madison Bowey: 10:24).

In the end…

Well, if this was a measuring stick game, as we opined in the prognosto, then the Caps didn’t measure up.  Their first period was ghastly, and one had the feeling the Lightning were on auto-pilot over the last 40 minutes, content to get out with a win and not a lot of wasted effort.  Sometimes, you look at a player or a team playing a particularly difficult opponent who enjoys a lot of success at that player or team’s expense, and you think that something or someone is in their heads. 

Watching Braden Holtby in goal at the moment, it looks as if his own teammates are in his head.  When he swept the puck away after the Kucherov breakaway goal to seal the decision for the visitors, it looked a lot like disgust in what is taking place in front of him.  In this instance – a turnover just inside the offensive blue line that was turned into a breakaway – it was one more breakdown that the goalie was asked to clean up.  Holtby, for his part, has been unable to clean everything up these days, but the volume of litter would challenge Mr. Clean.  The Caps have 22 games to straighten this out and for Holtby to get his head right again.  If they don’t, the Caps don’t have 30 games left in this season.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 60: Lightning at Capitals, February 20th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals return home for their first game at Capital One Arena in nine days when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.  The Caps are fresh off a 2-1-1 road trip that enabled them to return home on top of the Metropolitan Division, albeit by the thinnest of margins, a one-point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Tampa Bay arrives in Washington as losers in three of their last four games, part of a lengthy streak of mediocrity.  Since January 11th, the Lightning are 8-8-0 in 16 games.  Over that span, Nikita Kucherov leads the team in points (17), allowing him to maintain a seven-point lead over Evgeni Malkin in the race for the Ross Trophy as the league’s leading point producer.  The flip side of that is that Kucherov is a minus-5 over the same 16-game span, second worst on the team (Tyler Johnson is minus-7).  He has done a large share of his production in this 16-game stretch on the power play (2-5-7), and two of his four goals over this segment are game winners.  You could say that as Kucherov goes, this season, so go the Lightning.  Only twice in 28 games in which he scored a goal this season did the Lightning lose in regulation (24-2-2), and Tampa Bay is 33-10-2 in games in which he has a point.  Kucherov is 7-5-12, even, in 13 career games against Washington.

Despite missing five games in late January to a lower body injury, Victor Hedman leads the defense in scoring over this 16-game run, going 2-7-9 in 11 games.  It is part of a season overall in which Hedman is sixth in total scoring among defensemen (8-34-42). His plus-24 for the season ranks second among league defensemen and is, so far at least, his best career plus-minus.  His scoring total is not on a pace to provide another career best, but it would be hard for a defenseman these days to surpass the 72 points he recorded last season, which was good for second-best in the league (Brent Burns has 76 points for San Jose).  He has become a real anchor for the Lightning defense, his minutes per game increasing over each of the last five seasons (22:26/22:41/23:04/24:30/25:38).  Hedman is 2-11-13, minus-6, in 32 career games against the Caps.

Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the league’s goaltenders in wins (34), is fifth in goals against average (2.34; minimum: 1500 minutes), is third in save percentage (.927) and has seven shutouts to lead the league.  Only once this season has he lost consecutive decisions in regulation time, dropping three in a row from January 11-20 against Calgary, Vegas, and Minnesota.  What is especially noteworthy about his record this season is his effectiveness on the road.  He has a 2.16 goals against average on the road, compared to 2.51 at home; and his .937 save percentage is 20 points better than his .917 on home ice.  Six of his seven shutouts have come on the road this season.  Oddly enough, his record does not match his performance, going a more modest 15-8-1 on the road, compared to 19-4-1 on home ice.  Vasilevskiy is 1-4-0, 3.58, .892 in five career games against the Capitals.

1.  For a team with a record as good as the Lightning, they perform relatively poorly when enjoying early success in games.  Only three teams have more losses in regulation time this season than the Lightning (four): Chicago (six), Arizona (five), and the New York Rangers (five).

2.  If attention to detail means anything, the Lightning might want to work on faceoffs.  They are 29th of 31 teams in faceoff winning percentage (47.6).  Only New Jersey (47.1) and Colorado (43.8) are worse.

3.  Tamps wins close, and they win big.  The Lightning have the third-best record in the league in one-goal games (14-5-3), and they have the second-best record in decisions by three or more goals (18-7).

4.  The Lightning lead the league in goals scored at 4-on-4 (six).  They have also allowed six 4-on-4 goals, second-most in the league (Colorado has eight).

5.  You would think a team with the Lightning’s record would have better possession numbers, but their 51.54 percent shot attempts-for is just 11th in the league.  They are effective in close situations, though, ranking fourth (52.72 percent).

1.  The Caps are 3-2-0 this season in their first home game following a multi-game road trip.

2.  Washington is 11-4-2 against Atlantic Division teams this season, largely a product of special teams – a 26.9 percent power play and an 86.4 percent penalty kill.

3.  Washington is one of seven teams this season without a goal scored with a 5-on-3 advantage.

4.  The Caps lead the league in winning percentage when leading games at the first intermission (19-0-1/.950).

5.  Only four teams have a worse shot attempts-for percentage in tied games than the Caps (46.19).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Tampa Bay: Yanni Gourde

Fans would not be surprised to find that Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos lead the Tampa Bay Lightning in goals with 31 and 24, respectively.  Finding Yanni Gourde next in line with 22 would qualify as a surprise.  An undrafted free agent signed by the Lightning in March 2014, he spent four seasons in in the AHL, scoring 80 goals in 298 games, before getting his shot with the big club.  He has taken advantage of the opportunity, tied for second in his rookie class in goal scoring, tied with Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat and trailing only Vancouver’s Brock Boeser (27).  His recent history suggests a tendency to score goals in bunches.  All of his goals in the 2018 portion of the schedule have been recorded in consecutive games – three goals in two games in early January, goals in each of three straight games in late January, another three-game goal streak in early February, and goals in consecutive games on February 12th and 13th.  The odd thing is, though, the Lightning have lost three of the last four games in which he recorded a goal.  In four career games against the Caps he has yet to record a point.

Washington: Michal Kempny

The Washington Capitals pulled the trigger on a trade on Monday, sending a third-round draft pick to the Chicago Blackhawks for defenseman Michal Kempny.  It was not the blockbuster a lot of fans hope for at this time of year, his acquisition seeming to address the need to shore up the third defensive pair.  His experience in the NHL is modest, 81 games over two seasons with the Blackhawks, but the 27-year old has extensive international experience.  He did not get a lot of work with the Blackhawks this season, appearing in only 31 games and logging more than 20 minutes only once.  The odd thing about his ice time is that the Blackhawks were 11-7-0 in 18 games in which he logged more than 15 minutes, 3-7-3 in games in which he skated less than 15 minutes.  Kempny is without a point in two career games against the Lightning.

In the end…

This is a measuring stick game.  If a Stanley Cup run goes through Pittsburgh for the Caps, Tampa Bay might be on the itinerary as well, and now is as good a time as any to see just how this team stacks up against a club that has been at or near the top of the league standings all season.  The Capitals had the look of a team lacking motivation over the last month or so.  Tampa Bay should provide sufficient motivation.

Capitals 3 – Lightning 2

A TWO-Point Night: Washington Capitals -- Game 59: Capitals 3 - Sabres 2

The Washington Capitals wrapped up their four-game road trip with a welcome rebound win over the Buffalo Sabres, 3-2, on Monday afternoon.  It was not the prettiest of wins, but two points is two points, and the win propelled the Caps back into the top spot in the Metropolitan Division over the idle Pittsburgh Penguins.

A scoreless first period gave way to a Capitals goal early in the second period, courtesy of the captain.  The Caps worked the puck around the perimeter, T.J. Oshie sliding puck up the right wing wall to John Carlson at the right point.  Carlson sent the puck across to Christian Djoos at the left point, and Djoos flicked a shot at the net.  Alex Ovechkin, cutting across the slot from right to left, angled his stick for a deflection down and to the right of goalie Chad Johnson, finding the back of the net 78 seconds into the period.

John Carlson gave the Caps a 2-0 lead in the 14th minute of the period when, off an Evgeny Kuznetsov long range shot that caromed hard off the end wall, Carlson looped around the Sabres’ net and slid the puck between Johnson and the near post.  The puck trickled over the goal line just before Kyle Okposo could sweep it away, and the Caps had a two-goal lead at 13:33.

That would be how the teams went to the second intermission, and the third period went 12 minutes without incident for either side.  In the 13th minute, though, Buffalo halved the deficit when a Scott Wilson drive hit Okposo in the low slot and eluded goalie Philipp Grubauer at the 12:42 mark.

Buffalo got no closer, and Evgeny Kuznetsov hounded defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen into a turnover that Kuznetsov converted into an empty net goal with 25.9 seconds left to make it a 3-1 game.  Evander Kane added a window dressing goal with 3.3 seconds left, but it was too little, too late as the Caps skated off with the 3-2 win.

Other stuff…

-- Alex Ovechkin’s goal continued the alternating games with goals, on and off.  He has three goals in his last five games.

-- John Carlson’s 11th goal of the season tied him for the sixth highest goal total by a Capitals defenseman since the 2004-2005 lockout.  Dennis Wideman had 11 goals from the blueline in 20111-2012.  His next goal will tie a career high and put him in a tie for fourth most goals by a defenseman in a single season since the 2004-2005 lockout.

-- Carlson added an assist, making him the seventh defenseman in the league this season to reach double digit games with two or more points.  He is tied with Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman with 10.

-- T.J. Oshie finished a plus-3, his bet plus-minus for a game this season.  Evgeny Kuznetsov did the same, his fourth plus-3 of the season.

-- The Caps suffered a lack of shooting effort against Chicago on Saturday.  That was less the case in this game.  Jay Beagle was the only one of 18 skaters without a shot attempt, and he and Tom Wilson were the only Caps without a shot on goal.

-- Jakub Vrana had an assist, his first point on the road since he had a helper in a 4-3 win in Carolina against the Hurricanes on January 12th.

-- Christian Djoos had an assist, breaking a five-game streak without a point.

-- Dmitry Orlov was the only Capital to get more than 20 minutes of even strength ice time (22:13).

-- The Caps are in the midst of a short, but odd pattern.  Buffalo had 34 shots on goal, meaning that over the last four games the Caps have alternated allowing 44 shots and 34 shots on goal.

-- Philipp Grubauer has been unlucky with high shot volumes this season, but he handled 34 shots on goal with only two goals allowed.  He is now 4-4-2, 2.78, .922, with one shutout when facing 30 or more shots.

In the end…

A 2-1-1 road trip is not a bad result, but one would be hard pressed to think the Caps looked good in doing it.  In this game, the Caps played just well enough to win and played just poorly enough to let the Sabres stay in it until the last minute.  The win did enable the Caps to reclaim the top spot in the Metropolitan Division, and it sets them up to add to their lead when they face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.  But the Lightning are now, themselves, in a fight for a division lead with the Boston Bruins closing to within a point in the Atlantic Division standings.  It will be a challenge as the Caps head home.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 59: Capitals at Sabres, February 19th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals wrap up their four-game road trip with a matinee meeting in Buffalo against the Sabres on Monday.  And when the Capitals wake up to face the new day, they will be looking up at a team in the Metropolitan Division standings for the first time since December 29th.

The Pittsburgh Penguins passed the Caps in the Metro standings on Sunday night, the first team other than the Caps to occupy the top spot in the division since the New Jersey Devils sat atop the division on December 29th, but the Caps have the opportunity to reclaim that spot with a win in Buffalo.

The Caps will be facing a team that, in its own context, is on something of a good run.  Buffalo is 3-1-2 over their last six games.  They have done it largely with a consistent offense, scoring four or more goals in four straight games before they were held to a pair each of their last two games, a 3-2 overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators on Thursday and a 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday.

It was an improvement for the Sabres, who still bring the league’s worst scoring offense into this game.  From that dim background, Jack Eichel shines.  Although Connor McDavid gets almost all the ink reporting on the 2015 draft class, it is Eichel who leads that class in goals scored (70 to 69 for McDavid through Saturday).  He has 22 of those goals this season, two behind his career high of 24 set in each of his first two seasons in the NHL.  He has displayed an odd habit of scoring goals in consecutive games this season.  Five times this season he recorded goals in consecutive games, but he does not have a three-game streak.  He will not have one if he scores against the Caps, his latest two-game streak stopped when he was held without one in a 4-2 win over the Boston Bruins on February 10th.  That was the result of his skating only 3:55 against the Bruins before sustaining a high-ankle sprain that has kept him out of the lineup since then.  He is listed as day-to-day, but the injury is reported to be serious enough to keep him out of the lineup for some time to come.  

In Eichel’s absence the goal scoring load falls largely to Evander Kane, second on the club with 18 goals this season.  Kane has been a 20-goal scorer in each of his two previous seasons with Buffalo (28 last season, 20 in 2015-2016), and he seems assured of hitting that mark again this season.  Provided he is not moved at the trading deadline, that is.  Kane is an unrestricted free agent after this season, and he is one of those players of whom reports concentrate these days on potential destinations as much as his performance with his current team.  Kane was mired in a 14-game streak without a goal until he scored in consecutive games against Boston and Colorado.  However, he is without a goal in his last three games heading into this game with Washington.  It matters, because the Sabres have at least a fighting chance when he lights the lamp.  Buffalo is 7-6-2 in the 15 games in which he has goals this season.  Kane is 13-6-19, minus-2, in 28 career games against the Caps.

Rasmus Ristolainen is in his fifth season on the Sabres’ blue line, and he is already 15th in franchise history in points scored by a defensemen.  He is no immediate threat to the player at the top of that ranking (Phil Housley with 558 points), but he has 136 career points heading into this game, including more than 40 in each of the past two seasons.  He has been on an extended run, going 4-12-16 in 20 games since the start of the new year, tied for fourth among all defensemen in points over that span.  Most of his production has come on the Sabres’ power play, 14 of his 27 points this season coming with the man advantage.  Ristolainen is 0-4-4, minus-2, in nine career games against the Capitals.

1.  Buffalo was last in the postseason in 2011.  Since then, they are 189-259-69, the worst record among  the 30 franchises playing over that span of seasons, and they have gone through five coaches: Lindy Ruff, Ron Rolston, Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma, and current head coach Phil Housley.

2.  That Buffalo is last in the league in scoring offense should be no surprise.  They are last in scoring offense among all of those same 30 teams over the same span of years since they last made the playoffs (2.26 goals per game). 

3.  This season, the Sabres’ problem is getting off to decent starts.  They have only 29 first period goals scored in 59 games, last in the league by a healthy margin (St. Louis has 36 first period goals in 60 games).

4.  Overtime has not been kind to Buffalo, either.  The Sabres have allowed ten goals in the extra session, most in the league.

5.  Like most teams, leading after two periods is a pretty good indicator of success for Buffalo.  They have not lost a game in regulation when doing so (12-0-5).  However, if they are not leading at the second intermission, the outlook is bleak.  They are 5-31-6 when tied or trailing after 40 minutes.

1.  The seven goals allowed by the Caps against the Blackhawks was the third time this season they allowed seven or more goals, the first time they did so against a team not in Pennsylvania (eight in an 8-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on October 14th, and seven in a 7-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 2nd).

2.  The Caps would do better to take leads into the first intermission.  Only Toronto (22) and Winnipeg (20) have more wins when leading after one period than the Caps (19).

3.  Washington is 9-5-4 in the 2018 portion of the season to date.  That is good for 16th best record in the league over that span.  But after winning their first three games of the new year they are just 6-5-4.

4.  Their possession rankings are even worse.  Only the Ottawa Senators (44.27 percent) and New York Islanders (43.88 percent) have worse shot attempts-for percentages at than the Caps (45.77 percent) since the calendar turned over.  It is their “PDO” keeping them afloat (shooting plus save percentages).  At 1028, their PDO is second in the league (Colorado: 1033).

5.  That the Caps no longer find themselves, at least for the moment, at the top of their division is odd.  Seven times in the previous ten seasons they finished at the top of their division, five times in the Southeast and twice in the Metropolitan.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo: Robin Lehner

No goalie has lost more games this season than Buffalo’s Robin Lehner (30 – 22 in regulation and eight in extra time).  One might say it is a reflection of being a bad goaltender, but that would not be fair to Lehner.  Buffalo goalies get little goal support, and Lehner is facing almost 33 shots per 60 minutes.  The fact is, his numbers rather resemble those of the Caps’ Braden Holtby.  His goals against average is 2.95 (Holtby’s is 2.92), and his save percentage is .910 (Holtby’s is .911).  And, he has three shutouts, while Holtby has yet to record one this season.  He has been substantially better on home ice with a 2.66 goals against average and a .916 save percentage.  If there is a problem, it is in how his numbers have deteriorated in his three seasons in Buffalo after spending his first five NHL seasons with the Ottawa Senators.  His goals against averages have gone from 2.47 to 2.68 to 2.92 this season, while his save percentage has gone from .924 to .920 to .910 this season.  Lehner is 1-2-1, 2.25, .922, in four career games against Washington.

Washington: Brooks Orpik

Plus-minus is not a very good statistic on its own, but let’s start there with Brooks Orpik.  He is minus-8 on the season, worst among the Capitals’ defensemen and his worst individual plus-minus since his rookie season (second in the league) when he was minus-36 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.  He is in jeopardy of finishing in minus territory for only the second time in his last 12 seasons.  The odd part of it, at least on the surface, is that his plus-minus tracks with his ice time.  In 30 games in which he skated less than 20 minutes he is minus-8, while he is even in the 27 games in which he skated more than 20 minutes.  One can reason this away in thinking that as a defensive defenseman, he is not going to get a lot of late ice time in games in which the Caps are trailing.  And he has had quite a home-road difference in this number, going minus-16 in road games and plus-8 at home.  But he does not come upon these numbers accidentally, either.  Of 212 defensemen to appear in at least 25 games so far this season, his shot attempts-for percentage on ice (43.31 percent) ranks 205th.  His frequent partner, Madison Bowey, ranks 200th in that group (44.61 percent).  It is a situation that has not prohibited the Caps from enjoying success so far this season, but unless it – and he – improves these numbers, it is hard to see how the Caps go deep in the postseason.  Orpik is 0-8-8, plus-2, in 42 career games against the Sabres.

In the end…

The Caps could end their longest remaining road trip of the season with a 2-1-1 record.  In the bigger scheme of things, this is not a bad result. But how they get there matters.  There was the late-game collapse against Winnipeg and not showing up against a struggling Chicago Blackhawks team that left three points on the table.  It is not unreasonable to think that under the circumstances, the Caps should be playing for a road sweep instead of fighting to stay above water for the trip.

The Caps seem oddly disengaged at the moment.  This might be – finally – the effect of having things a bit too easy in the regular season the past two-and-a-half seasons, and focus could be wavering.  Just as it is that momentum, once lost, is hard to regain, one wonders if a team’s focus, once it goes wandering, can be sharpened again in time for the stretch run and the postseason.  This is the task at hand for the Caps as they wrap up their road trip and head into the home stretch.

Capitals 5 – Sabres 2

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was - Week 20

Last week we said, “hockey is a funny game.  Not often funny, ‘ha-ha,’ but funny, ‘strange.’  Week 20 was no exception.  Although the Caps earned points in three of four games and ended the week still in first place in the Metropolitan Division, one had a sense of foreboding.  In the Era of Bettman, a .500 week in standings points earned can be accompanied with three losses in four games.  And that is the week the Caps had, seeing their division lead dwindle to a single thin point.  Worse, the week ended with what was arguably the worst game they played this season and the worst performance in goal perhaps in the career of their number one netminder since he took over that position, not that he had any support – any support this week – in front of him.

Record: 1-1-2

Technically, in the way the league keeps score of such things (standings points), it was not a losing week.  The Caps did earn four points in four games, three of them in three road games.  Under normal circumstances, three-in-three would not be a bad week on the road.  This wasn’t normal.  The Caps sandwiched ghastly, in different ways, performances around a very good one.

What might be most noteworthy about the week, record-wise, is the realization that there just might be something to this whole concept of “regression to the mean.”   Washington lost two games in overtime this week, bringing their streak of overtime losses to four, dating back to January 18th.  This after starting the season 6-2 in extra time games.

The strange part about the two overtime losses was that they came in consecutive games.  It has not been unusual for the Caps.  It was the fourth time this season that the Caps played at least two consecutive games into extra time (they had a three-game streak of such games in December).

The loss in regulation to the Chicago Blackhawks to end the week brought the Caps’ total of regulation losses to 18, tying their total of two years ago and closing to within one of their total of last season.

Offense: 3.25 /game (season: 3.09 /game, rank: 9th)

The Caps did not lack for offense, at least early in the week.  And overall, an average of 3.25 goals per game, their second straight week at or over that average, is top-five level performance in the league this season (Boston was fifth at 3.27 goals per game at week’s end).  They did it efficiently, scoring 13 goals on just 101 shots (12.9 percent shooting).

There was the good and the bad individually, though.  On the good side, four Capitals registered multi-goal weeks.  Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson led the team with three goals apiece.  Backstrom seems to have settled into a decent goal scoring rhythm after struggling over much of the early part of the season.  He has goals in five of his last seven games, four of them at even strength and one of them a game-winner.  Finally getting to the 200-goal career mark seems to have taken the shackles off.

Wilson’s achievement was more a marker in his developmental arc.  When he scored in the first period against Chicago in the last game of the week, it was his tenth of the season, the first time in his five-year career that he reached double-digits in goals scored.

It was good to see Andre Burakovsky awaken, too.  He has a pair of goals in the four games, the pair coming in consecutive games against Winnipeg and Minnesota, the first time this season he scored goals in consecutive games.

Alex Ovechkin had a strange week.  On the one hand, he was the fourth Capital with a multi-goal week, and he had the 24th game of his career with four or more points when he recorded a goal and three assists in the 5-2 win over Minnesota on Thursday.  But in the 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks to end the week, he failed to record so much as a single shot attempt, the first time in his 13-year career.

Defense: 4.50 / game (season: 2.98 /game, rank: 20th)

Shots allowed is going to sink this team.  Twice in Week 20 the Caps allowed 44 shots on goal – in the 4-3 overtime loss to Winnipeg and the 7-1 loss to Chicago.  Those two games are the highest in shots on goal allowed against the Caps this season, bringing the total to four the number of games the Caps allowed 40 or more shots.  They have a 1-1-2 record in those games, all of them on the road.  At weeks’ end, the Caps allowed teams 35 or more shots 21 times.  Only five teams have had more instances, and of that group only the Toronto Maple Leafs is playoff-eligible at the moment.  This week, each game feature a single period in which the opponent recorded at least 15 shots, the high of 21 coming in the first period against Chicago to end the week.  In only four of 12 regulation periods did the Caps allow fewer than ten shots.

Overall, the Caps were out-shot for the week, 151-101.  How bad is that?  The Arizona Coyotes, 31st in the league standings, were out-shot by a 155-101 margin.  Arizona is not a club the Caps want or can afford to emulatre.  It was almost as bad in the shot attempts, where the Caps were out-attempted at 5-on-5 by a 206-149 margin, their minus-57 being the fifth worst number for the week, as was their shot attempts-for percentage at fives (41.97 percent).

Goaltending: 4.44 / .881 (season: 2.84 / .912 / 1 shutout)

You could call this the worst week of the season for the Caps in net, and you would not be far wrong, if you were wrong at all.  Braden Holtby had what might have been his worst week as a number one netminder in his career.  Not that he had much support in front of him (see the shot differential discussion above), but he was not above .900 in save percentage in any of the regulation periods overall for the week (he played two third periods and was .900 overall in those).  You could say he is, if not in a serious slump, then stuck in an inconsistent pattern.  In his last six appearances he is 2-2-2, 4.53, .884, and he allowed five or more goals in three of those appearances.

Holtby’s struggles have inspired a new wave of the fans’ biggest pastime, calling for the backup to get more time or take over the number one spot (with the number one guy getting traded).  This is a staple of football fans and quarterbacks, and it rears it head from time to time in hockey.  The other side of this occasional distress is the play of the backup, which has to be good to complete the thought.  And Philipp Grubauer has been playing well.  In Week 20 he stopped 42 of 45 shots in limited duty (.933) earning the Caps’ only win of the week in the 5-2 victory in Minnesota.  In his last dozen appearances, Grubauer is 5-2-2 (three no-decisions), 1.86, .940, with one shutout.

Power Play: 2-for-9 / 22.2 percent (season: 20.9 percent, rank: 13th)

Another week, another plus-20 percent effort with the man advantage.  Over the last four week, the Caps have been better than 20 percent in each week and are 9-for-31 overall (29.0 percent).  This was where the top guys were the top guys, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin getting the two power play goals for the week and earning three of the six points awarded.  Ovechkin (1-1-2) and John Carlson (0-2-2) were the multi-point players for the week. The hard part of this is the opportunities.  Nine power play chances in four games put the Caps in the bottom third in the rankings overall for the week.  Only once in the last ten weeks have the Caps finished a week with ten or more power play chances (13 in Week 15).  While they rank in the middle third of the league in power play chances overall this season (177/19th), the lack of chances seems to be wasting one of, if not the most dangerous offensive weapons that the Caps have.

Things were not quite as good as they seemed, though, and there is an ominous quality to how the week progressed on the power play.  The Caps were 2-for-3 in 3:57 of power play time against Detroit to open the week, but they were 0-for-6 in 9:59 in power play time over the last three games of the week, and they were held without so much as a power play shot on goal in 2:44 with the man advantage in the 7-1 loss to Chicago to end the week. 

Penalty Killing: 13-for-15 / 86.7 percent (season: 79.9 percent, rank: 18th)

The Caps did not lack for opportunities to practice their penalty killing.  The 15 shorthanded situations they faced were more than the combined total of the previous two weeks (12 in five games).  It was the most opportunities faced since Week 2, when they were shorthanded 17 times (the Caps also were shorthanded 15 times in Week 7.

But here, too, things might not have been quite as good as they seem.  The Caps blanked Detroit and Winnipeg on six chances over 12 minutes, allowing only ten shots on goal.  Then, they stopped the first three power play chances the Minnesota Wild had in the third game of the week.  But the Caps allowed power play goals on two of the last six shorthanded situations they faced for the week (one in the last two the Wild had and one in four chances Chicago had).  And, the Caps were shorthanded nine times in the last two games, compared to six in the first two games.

Faceoffs: 118-for-244 / 48.4 percent (season: 50.3 percent, rank: 16th)

This is an area in which the Caps have been slipping in recent weeks.  This week was an instance in which the Caps were very good in one end and not so good in the other, almost mirror images of one another.  They managed to win less than 40 percent of their offensive zone draws for the week (27-for-71/38.0 percent), and no Capital taking more than one draw finished as well as 50 percent.  In the defensive end, things were much better, the Caps finishing 58-for-96 (60.4 percent).

Individually, the big four (those taking at least ten draws for the week) followed a similar profile – good in the defensive end, poor in the offensive end.  Jay Beagle was the only one of that group to finish the week over 50 percent (57.9), perhaps a function of taking 40 defensive end draws (winning 25) versus taking only nine faceoffs in the offensive end (winning four).  That offensive zone-defensive zone split for Beagle was certainly evident in the game against Winnipeg when Beagle took 18 defensive zone faceoffs (winning 12) and only one in the offensive zone (winning that one).

Goals by Period:

Third periods were the story in Week 20, and it was not a good one overall.  Yes, the Caps did score three third period goals to salvage a point in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings in the first game of the week.  However, the Caps gave up a pair of goals in the last 10 minutes of the third period to give back that standings point in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Winnipeg Jets, they gave up a pair of third period goals to the Minnesota Wild, and they played a lifeless third period after falling behind the Chicago Blackhawks, 6-1, after two periods of what would be a 7-1 loss to end the week. 

It falls into a patter with this team, one of allowing more goals as games go on.  They have allowed 49 first period goals this season, 56 in the second period, and 62 third period goals.  And there are those two overtime goals allowed this week that left the Caps with six overtime goals allowed this season, tied for fifth-most in the league.

In the end…

One wonders, is this club in a slump, or is it expressing its expected performance after overachieving for much of the season?  Consider that the Caps won their first three games of the new year, part of what would be a five-game winning streak.  Since then, though, they are 6-5-4.  There are 22 teams in the league with better records over that span.  If this is the team the Caps really are, and their possession numbers certainly suggest they might be (24th in the league in 5-on-5 shot attempts-for percentage), it could be time for a reality check, that this team might be what we thought it was when the season started, and not in a good way. 

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Tom Wilson (3-2-5, plus-2, nine shots on goal, 15 hits, five block shots)
  • Second Star: Alex Ovechkin (2-5-7, minus-1, 15 shots on goal)
  • Third Star: Nicklas Backstrom (3-1-4, minus-1)