Sunday, March 29, 2015

Down the Home Stretch: March 29 Update

Things remain tight in the three-team race for two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference.  The Caps beating the Rangers helped keep it from getting tighter still, but Boston's hot breath can be felt on the necks of the Caps...


A TWO-Point Afternoon -- Game 76: Capitals 5 - Rangers 2


The Washington Capitals scored early, scored late, and weathered a brief flurry from the New York Rangers late in the first period to skate past the Blueshirts, 5-2, at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon.

Washington’s five-goal outburst was their first game with more than three goals in their last nine games, and it started in the game’s fifth minute.  Alex Ovechkin gained the Ranger zone with speed down the left wing wall with Jesper Fast trying to pin him to the boards. Ovechkin eluded that attempt and cut behind Fast to the middle of the ice.  Before either Dan Girardi or  Ryan McDonagh could close the gap on Ovechkin, he snapped a shot that beat goalie Cam Talbot past his blocker, and the Caps had a 1-0 lead 4:32 into the game.

That lead looked safe for the Caps late in the period, but the Ranger scored goals 61 seconds apart to take the lead.  Kevin Hayes took advantage of some misfortune on the part of John Carlson to tie the game.  A pass from Tim Gleason to Carlson in front of goalie Braden Holtby was not handled cleanly by Carlson, and the puck was loose in the high slot.  Hayes collected it and deked Holtby to the ice before using his reach to one-hand the puck past Holtby’s left pad to tie the game with 1:50 left in the first period.

Barely a minute later, the Rangers had a lead.  Matt Niskanen moved up the right wing wall to try and control a loose puck, but he overskated it under pressure from Rick Nash.  It gave the Rangers the opportunity to break out of their end with speed, and it was Derick Brassard taking a pass from Mats Zuccarello and skating the puck down the ice.  Brassard cut to his left as he reached the Caps’ blue line and fed Zuccarello on his left.  Zuccarello returned the puck to Brassard for a one-timer from the left wing faceoff dot that beat Holtby on the long side to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead with 49 seconds left in the period.

After that it was all Capitals.  Mid-way through the second period Alex Ovechkin recorded his 48th goal of the season on a power play to tie the game.  The scoring play started with Matt Niskanen skating the puck down the right wing side of the Rangers’ end, then dropping the puck back to Nicklas Backstrom along the wall.  Backstrom created space and a passing lane along the wall and found Ovechkin across the ice at the left point.  Ovechkin dialed up a slap shot that looked as if it might go wide on the long side but hit Ranger defenseman Dan Boyle and caromed past Cam Talbot for the goal to tie the game.

In the third period it was time for secondary scoring to assume a primary role.  Jason Chimera gave the Caps the lead when he skated down the middle and set up shop in front of Talbot as teammates Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr were getting whacks at a loose puck.  The puck inched its way over to Chimera, and with Carl Hagelin draped all over him at the edge of the paint, Chimera backhanded the puck under Talbot to make it 3-2 just 4:41 into the final frame.

Chimera scored again three minutes later.  Steaming down the middle, he took a nifty pass from Brooks Laich from the right wing wall, skated in and waited for Talbot to go down to defend a shot before snaking a backhand around Talbot’s left pad to make it 4-2 at the 7:40 mark of the period.

With the Rangers pulling Talbot for an extra attacker in the last three minutes, the Caps closed the scoring when Marcus Johansson gloved down a pass from Troy Brouwer at the center red line, faked a shot with Rick Nash trying to defend, and snapped the puck into the empty net with 2:23 left in the game for the final 5-2 margin.

Other stuff…

-- The two-goal game for Ovechkin was his 14th of the season, tops in the league and six more than his closest pursuers, San Jose’s Joe Pavelski and Dallas’ Tyler Seguin (eight apiece).

-- Jason Chimera had his first two-goal game of the season, breaking a 20-game streak without a goal and a ten-game streak without a point.  It was the first time he recorded two goals in a game since he had a pair in a 4-3 Gimmick loss to the New Jersey Devils on December 23, 2011.

-- Secondary scoring means assists too.  Eric Fehr had a pair of helpers, his first two-assist game of the season.  Brooks Laich also had a pair of assists, his first two-assist game of the season as well.

-- When Ovechkin scored on the power play in the second period, it broke a streak of 13 straight power plays without a goal, including the first two in this game.

-- This was the fourth time this season that a pair of Capitals registered two goals in a game.  The others:
  • November 11: Capitals 4 – Blue Jackets 2 (Alex Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson)
  • January 7: Capitals 6 – Maple Leafs 2 (Eric Fehr, Marcus Johansson)
  • February 15: Capitals 5 – Ducks 3 (Alex Ovechkin, Andre Burakovsky)
-- Evgeny Kuznetsov was the only Capital taking more than two faceoffs who finished over 50 percent (8-for-13/61.5 percent)

-- The teams split 50 shot attempts down the middle, 50 apiece, but it was the Caps who won that battle at 5-on-5, out attempting the Rangers, 38-32 (31-23 in close score situations, from war-on-ice.com).

-- Nicklas Backstrom broke a three-game streak without a point when he assisted on the Ovechkin power play goal.  It lifted him into a tie with Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek for the league lead in assists (55).

-- John Carlson was a plus-2 to make him plus-10 for the season.  The Caps now have five players at plus-10 or better.  Last season they had none.  The Caps have eight players with better plus-minus numbers than the team best last season, plus-7 by Joel Ward and Steve Oleksy.

-- Braden Holtby stopped 23 of 25 shots.  In games following a performance in which he stopped fewer than 90 percent of the shots he faced, Holtby is 9-6-2, 2.36, .920, with three shutouts.

In the end…

Just when you think the Caps are about to take a long slow slide into the ooze of the off season, they play a game like this that makes you think they can do some damage in the post season.  Not that it was perfect – two late goals in a period is evidence of a continuing need to tighten things up.  But the Rangers are, at the moment, the class of the Eastern Conference, if not the entire league, and they would be expected to have their moments.

That the Caps could roar back with four unanswered goals after what might have been a dispiriting end to the first period speaks to possibilities for this team, but it also speaks to the confounding nature of this team of which we spoke in the end of week review.  These were two important points to bank, coming as they did on the road against a very good team.  Now they get to follow it up against a lottery team on Tuesday night, the Carolina Hurricanes.  If they play as they did this afternoon against the Rangers, it will not end well for Carolina.  Then again, if the Caps do not play as they did today, then this afternoon’s effort might end up having been wasted.  There just isn’t any time to rest on one’s laurels at this time of year.

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 25

Week 25 was a light work week for the Washington Capitals, and that is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you stand on the whole “half glass full/half glass empty” debate.


Record: 1-1-0

As noted, it was a light work week for the Caps, just two games.  It was their second two-game week in their last three and their first .500 week since Week 17.  It was a test of sorts.  The Caps started the week against a team that is all but out of the post season race, but one – the New Jersey Devils – that posed a systems challenge for the Capitals, being the sort of team that relies on technical execution and goaltending to win games more than skill.  The Nashville Predators posed an entirely different sort of challenge. In the Predators, the Caps faced an elite team capable of beating opponents with overwhelming force (12 wins by three or more goals this season) or with top notch goaltending (Pekka Rinne is a top-five goaltender in most statistical categories).

The results were mixed.  The Caps gave up a shorthanded goal and a goal in the last minute of regulation to be forced into overtime before escaping with a win against New Jersey.  Against the Predators, the Caps fell behind early and often (0-3 before the game was 15 minutes old).  While they did claw within a goal twice, the early deficit was too much to overcome for the Caps.  It left the week a bit of a muddle, record-wise.  A win against a struggling team, a loss that seemed less close than the score indicated against a team that served as a useful measuring stick.


Offense:  3.00/game (season: 2.85/game; rank: 8th)

Six goals in two games is not a bad output.  However, when four of those goals come when the Caps are behind or tied, there is a certain sense of urgency (you might say, “panic”) that leaves one less than impressed with the overall result.  It is of the sort of which one might ask, “where was this when the Caps were falling behind (against Nashville) or letting teams get back into the game (against the Devils)?”

It was an odd week in that Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were held off the score sheet, extending their mutual streak without points to three games, the first time that happened since mid-November.

What the Caps got was secondary scoring (go figure).  Troy Brouwer had a pair of goals against Nashville.  Eric Fehr, Karl Alzner (seriously, go figure), Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Mike Green got the others.  Matt Niskanen and Marcus Johansson each had three assists.  However, eight players sharing points, even in two games, is not the kind of expansive sharing of scoring the Caps want or need this time of year.

Defense: 3.00/game (season: 2.43/game; rank: 7th)

Folks talk about playing 60 minutes, but the flip side of that is avoiding those short stretches of time in a game that can ruin a lot of good works otherwise performed.  That was the case in Week 25.  The Caps put the Devils in a bind with two goals in the first 22 minutes of the game.  A shorthanded goal on a bad line change and a late extra-attacker goal wiped out that good early work on offense.  Then there was the 15 minutes to open the game against the Predators in which the Caps allowed three goals.

It is in that context that the possession numbers for the Caps look so odd.  At 5-on-5 overall, the Caps look pretty good for the two games, or at least not awful – a 51.2 Corsi-for percentage and a 47.5 Fenwick-for percentage.  In close score situations, though, those numbers were 45.1 and 41.1, and that does not include the late antics against the Devils (based on how close score statistics are computed; numbers from war-on-ice.com).

Goaltending: 3.02 / .897 (season: 2.36 / .918 / 8 shutouts)

In a week when Justin Peters was the star in net (this being relative), you can tell it was not the best of weeks in netminding.  Not that Peters was bad, or even mediocre.  He stopped 13 of 14 shots in relief of Braden Holtby against Nashville.  It is part of a rather good stretch of play for Peters.  In his last four appearances he stopped 88 of 96 shots, a .917 save percentage, well above the .864 save percentage he had before these most recent four appearances.

Then there was Holtby.  He had a good game against New Jersey (29 saves on 31 shots), but he was leaky against Nashville (three goals on 13 shots).  It is a further indication of some slippage in his game.  In his last 15 appearances he is 7-7-0 (one no-decision), 2.48, .918.  He has been pulled as many times over those 15 games (twice) as he has shutouts (two).  Seven times in those 15 games he allowed three or more goals.  Here are some odd Holtby numbers: 4-4-2, 2.56, .907.  That is his record with three or more days rest this season.  He had four days off between his game against Winnipeg to close Week 24 and his appearance against New Jersey to open Week 25.  He won that game and stopped 29 of 31 shots in the process, but the lack of rhythm in the schedule (he is 20-6-2, 1.83, .937, with five shutouts when playing on one day’s rest) might have affected him.

Power Play: 0-for-4 / 0.0 percent (season: 24.4 percent; rank: 1st)

No power play goals in Week 25.  That broke a 24-week streak of recording at least one power play goal and a 34-week streak since taking the collar in Week 16 last season.  Part of it was chances; the Caps had only four power play opportunities in the two games.  It was not the quality of opponent that affected the result.  New Jersey went into their game against Washington ranked 20th in penalty killing; Nashville was ranked 14th.  It was not efficiency; the Caps recorded seven shots on goal in 5:25 of power play ice time.  They even had 55 seconds of 5-on-3 power play time against Nashville.  They got the shots from the players, okay..player, they wanted (Ovechkin had four of the seven shots on goal).  Still, it was no goals for and even a shorthanded goal allowed (to New Jersey).  It was just a bad week for what is arguably the best aspect of Capitals play.


Penalty Killing: 4-for-4 / 100.0 percent (season: 81.5 percent; rank: 15th)

On the other side of the special teams divide, the penalty killers had a good week.  It was their third perfect week in their last nine, over which they are a solid 85.1 percent.  They were effective (4-for-4) and efficient (allowing only four shots in 6:20 of shorthanded ice time).  The Caps even threw in a shorthanded goal of their own for good measure.  Part of it might have been quality of opponent – New Jersey had the league’s 12th-ranked power play going into their game against the Caps; Nashville was ranked 24th going into their game.  Still, you take advantage of opportunities where you find them, something the Caps did not do in too many areas in Week 25.


Even Strength Goals for/Goals Against: 5-5 / even (season, 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio: 1.04; rank: 15th)

It was not a bad week at evens, but neither was it a good week.  The goals were even, the shots relatively so (the Caps had 24 even strength shots to 28 for their two opponents).  You might say that it was merely in a technical sense that the Caps were held even for the week, New Jersey’s late goal to tie the game in regulation coming with an extra attacker but recorded as an even strength goal.  It was that 15 minute burst by the Predators to open the game on Saturday that leaves the bad taste in one’s mouth.  Another example of a just a few minutes or weak play overshadowing a week’s effort.

Faceoffs: 61-123 / 49.6 percent (season: 51.4% / rank: 12th)

It was just about a down-the-middle week for the Caps in the circle.  They all but split 123 total draws, and of the four players taking more than ten draws, two finished the week over 50 percent (Nicklas Backstrom: 52.3 percent; Eric Fehr: 56.0 percent), and two finished below that threshold (Evgeny Kuznetsov: 33.3 percent; Michael Latta: 46.7 percent).

The Caps were fine in the offensive zone (54.0 percent, but were taken to school in the defensive end (41.7 percent), the difference being incidences.  The Caps enjoyed 14 more draws in the offensive zone (50) than they did in the defensive end (36).

Goals by Period:


The early damage and the late damage affected the week for the Caps.  The three first period goals against Nashville being the only first period goals allowed in what would be a loss, a last-minute goal scored by New Jersey being the only third period goal allowed that tied the game and forced the Caps to overtime to secure the win. 

The three first period goals by Nashville was the odd occurrence, given the Caps ability to hold things down in the opening period (sixth fewest first period goals allowed going into the game) and the Predators’ middling ability to score early (only 54 goals scored in the first period).

In the end…

The Caps are, at this point, a most befuddling team.  Consider the 2015 portion of their season.  They are 22-14-3 in those games, almost evenly split between teams that are currently playoff eligible and teams that are not.  You would expect that the Caps would feast on the also-rans and, hopefully, hold their own against the contenders.  What you find, though, it a bit different:


This is what frustrates Caps fans no end, an ability to play good teams tough and an unnerving ability to play down to their opponents if those opponents are of the struggling sort.  It is not the losing to the Nashville’s of the world that will do in the Caps, should they miss the post season, it is letting teams like the Devils hang around and make their lives difficult.  In that sense, Week 25 was a microcosm of the Caps’ season.  If the Caps get into the post season, they can play those teams tough, but if they don’t it will be because they played weak against the weaklings.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Troy Brouwer (2-0-2, plus-2, 11 hits, 5-for-9 on faceoffs)
  • Second Star: Evgeny Kuznetsov (1-1-2, plus-2, game-winning goal)
  • Third Star: Matt Niskanen (0-3-3, plus-1, assist on game-winning goal)

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 76: Capitals at Rangers, March 29th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals will be looking to kill two (or more) birds with one stone when they face the New York Rangers on Sunday afternoon.  They will be looking to shake off their 4-3 loss to the Nashville Predators on Saturday afternoon, they will be trying to put some distance between themselves and their closest pursuers for a wild-card playoff berth (Ottawa and Boston), and they will be seeking to end a three-game losing streak to the Rangers dating back to last season.

Despite having the third-best goal differential in the Eastern Conference, the Caps find themselves facing the possibility of missing the playoffs altogether as they head into this contest against the Rangers.  Part of the Caps’ problem in clinching a playoff spot is an inconsistency in their performances on a game-to-game basis, especially recently.  While the Capitals are 4-2-0 in their last six games, they are just 5-5-0 in their last ten and in that time have not been able to put any more distance between themselves and the Boston Bruins (their closest pursuer at the moment in the standings) than the three point difference they had back on March 3rd, before this ten-game stretch started.

On the other side, the Rangers are fine-tuning for the playoffs.  While they lost on Saturday in Boston to the Bruins – a 4-2 loss in goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s return after almost two months since sustaining a neck injury – the Rangers are 9-3-1 in March.  Multiply each of those numbers by three, and you have the Rangers’ record in the 2015 portion of the season to date: 27-9-3.  If there is the slightest crack in their fa├žade, it has appeared in the last two weeks, over which the Rangers are a more mortal 3-3-0.

In those six games, the Rangers outscored their opponents by an 18-14 margin, but two of the three wins were laughers – a 7-2 win over Anaheim a week ago and a 5-1 win over Ottawa on Thursday.  Their power play is just 1-for-7 in those six games and has not been on the ice in either of their last two contests.  The penalty kill is 13-for-14 in those six games.

The Rangers have had the benefit of primary scoring in the 3-3-0 run with Chris Kreider leading the club with three goals and Derek Stepan leading in overall points with six.  But New York has had secondary contributions as well.  Kevin Hayes is tied for the scoring lead over the last six games with six points (1-5-6).  Hayes was a 24th overall pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2010 draft (the Caps took Evgeny Kuznetsov two picks later).  However, the Blackhawks allowed their rights to sign him to expire last August, and the Rangers signed him as a free agent later that month.  He has been quite a find for the Rangers, going 14-24-38 in 71 games.  Those 14 goals are tied for sixth on the club, and his 38 points is seventh in Ranger scoring.  Hayes is 0-2-2, plus-2 in two career games against Washington.

J.T. Miller has provided some secondary scoring, too.  In his last six games he is 2-3-5, and in 50 games has almost twice as many goals (9) as he had in 56 games over the previous two seasons combined (5) and twice as many points (20) as he recorded over the previous two seasons combined (10).  He has points in four of his last five games, matching a four-games-in-five scoring stretch he had from December 29th through January 8th.  In seven career games against the Capitals, Miller is 1-0-1, minus-2, his goal being the game-winner in the Rangers’ 3-1 victory over the Caps on March 11th.

On Saturday, Cam Talbot assumed the backup goaltending role from which he sprung when Henrik Lundqvist suffered a neck injury back on January 31st.  With the Rangers playing a back-to-back set of games, and Lundqvist getting the nod on Saturday, it would seem likely that Talbot will get the call against the Caps on Sunday.  He already has a victory against Washington this season to his credit, a 3-1 win on March 11th.  It was part of an extended run over which he allowed two or fewer goals in nine straight games, a streak that came to an end last Tuesday in a 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings.  He got right back on track, though, with a 23-save effort in a 5-1 win over Ottawa on Thursday.  In spelling Lundqvist as the number one goaltender, Talbot was 16-4-3, 2.16, .929, with two shutouts.  In two career appearances against the Caps, Talbot is 1-1-0, 2.03, .937.

Here is how the teams compare overall:


1.  When the Rangers win, they do not just win, they bury teams.  New York has almost as many wins by three or more goals (18) as they do one-goal wins (21).  Only Montreal and Tampa Bay have more wins by multi-goal margins (29 apiece) than the Rangers (26), and New York’s 18 wins by three or more goals is tied for the league lead (with Chicago and Vancouver).

2.  The Rangers have allowed only one 4-on-4 goal this season, fewest in the league, an interesting counterpoint to the Caps being tied for second in 4-on-4 goals scored (13, with Anaheim).

3.  The Rangers being out-shot is not a good sign for opponents.  New York is tied for the league lead in winning percentage (.667/18-8-1) when being out-shot.

4.  The Rangers are one of only two teams (Nashville is the other) having lost once in regulation when leading after the first period.  And, they have the league’s second best record (32-0-1) when leading at the second intermission (Chicago is 23-0-0).  Those 32 wins when leading after two periods is tied with the Caps for the league lead.

5.  The Rangers have been a dominant team at 5-on-5 in one respect in the 2015 portion of the season.  In 38 games they have outscored their opponents by an 88-58 margin at 5-on-5, a 1.52 goals scored-to-goals allowed ratio.  It is, however, at odds with their possession numbers.  Over the same 38 games the Rangers have Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages at 5-on-5 of 50.1/50.1.  Those numbers are not a lot better in close score situations – 50.2/50.7.  If anything, the Rangers are slightly better in possession on the road.  Their Corsi-for/Fenwick for percentages in close score situations of away games are 51.8/52.1 (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

1.  Over their 5-5-0 ten-game run, the Caps have split 48 goals down the middle with their opponents (24-24).  Their power play is 7-for-24 (29.2 percent), while their penalty kill is 26-for-31 (83.9 percent), a respectable 113.1 on the special teams index.

2.  It is the even strength battle that the Caps are losing.  They have been outscored at 5-on-5 by a 16-11 margin over their last ten games.

3.  The Caps’ leading scorer over their last ten games is not Alex Ovechkin, and it is not Nicklas Backstrom.  It is Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has eight points (4-4-8).  Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, and Curtis Glencross each have four goals to lead the team in their last ten games.

4.  Neither Ovechkin nor Backstrom has a point in their last three games.  It is the first time the duo  went three straight games together without a point since each went without a point in three straight games last November 15-18.

5.  The even strength scoring problems the Caps have had over their last ten games do not align with their possession number over those same ten games.  Their Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 overall is 55.0.  It is not as good in close score situations, however (51.2; numbers from war-on-ice.com).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Rick Nash

Rick Nash scored his 40th goal of the season on Saturday against Boston. It was his first goal in nine games and just his third in his last 16 games after lighting the lamp 37 times in his first 57 games.  His scoring is a critical element in Ranger success, as you might expect.  New York is 24-8-1 in games in which Nash scores at least one goal, 31-8-5 when he records a point.  The Rangers are 23-12-6 when he does not record a goal, 16-12-2 when he does not record a point.  Not that the Rangers’ record without Nash scoring is poor, just not as dominant.  He has had more than his share of success against the Caps, too.  In 17 career games against Washington, Nash is 12-8-20, plus-2.

Washington: Marcus Johansson

On the one hand, Marcus Johansson has been a very consistent player for the Caps.  In his last four seasons he has averaged 0.58, 0.65, 0.55, and this season 0.54 points per game.  On the other hand, that is not the sort of upward arc of production one would like to see in a player still in his early career phase (Johansson is 24 years old).  On the one hand, his goal production is up, having already set a career high of 17 goals in 75 games this season.  On the other hand, he does not have a goal in his last eight games, which is lousy timing for a club suddenly finding itself in a playoff dogfight.  Johansson is not the problem; he is, however, a symptom.  The Caps need more balance than they are getting (half of the 24 goals over the last ten games coming from three players), and Johansson is a part of that solution.  He is 1-5-6, minus-6, in 15 career games against the Rangers.

In the end…

Playing to a .500 record over their last seven games might be good enough for the Caps to slide into the playoffs, but it would not be the way to bet.  Their inconsistency is a bit maddening, to boot.  They dropped their last two decisions to playoff-eligible teams (3-0 to Winnipeg and 4-3 to Nashville) after winning two such decisions over such clubs (3-2 over Minnesota and 2-0 over Boston).  And those two wins came after two losses to…well, you get the point (to the Rangers and the Wild, to complete the point).  From here on out, it is almost all playoff-eligible or near-eligible teams the Caps will face over their last seven games (only Carolina is not contending for such a spot).  They will have to earn their ticket to the post season.

Capitals 3 – Rangers 2

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A NO-Point Afternoon -- Game 75: Predators 4 - Capitals 3

The Washington Capitals dropped a 4-3 decision to the Nashville Predators on Saturday afternoon in a game that could, from the Capitals’ perspective, be viewed as sloppy and a bit alarming as the club tries to get into a playoff frame of mind as the season winds down.

An evenly fought first period over the first half of the first period broke in Nashville’s favor just over nine minutes into the game when Mattias Ekholm scored the game’s first goal.  It was a breakdown in motion for the Caps.  The scoring play started when Gabriel Bourque cleared the puck out of the defensive zone for the Predators.  The puck made it to the Capitals’s blue line where Curtis Glencross tried to settle it, but Glencross lost his footing, and the puck found its way to Ekholm’s stick.  He skated in, and with Mike Green playing of him a bit too far, Ekholm skated across the crease and flicked a backhand shot that beat goalie Braden Holtby on the glove side to make it 1-0.

Mike Fisher doubled the Predators’ lead just over two minutes later.  With Karl Alzner having lost his stick as a Nashville power play was ending, the Predators managed to maintain pressure in the Caps’ end.  A shot by Filpi Forsberg was stopped by Holtby, but the puck bounced out to Fisher in the left wing circle.  His shot through a maze of bodies found the back of the net, and it was 2-0.

Three minutes after that, Forsberg had a goal of his own.  Mike Ribeiro fed Forsberg skating through center ice, and Forsberg carried it into the Caps’ zone.  A wrister from the left wing circle beat Holtby cleanly, and it was 3-0, Holtby finding his day done after just 14:47 of work.

The Caps made a game of it in the second period on a pair of goals by Troy Brouwer.  The first of them came just 19 seconds into the period when Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne’s attempted clear around the wall was foiled by Matt Niskanen at the blue line.  Niskanen threw the puck at the net where Evgeny Kuznetsov settled it and fired a shot on Rinne.  The puck did not find its way through, but it did find its way to Brouwer at the edge of the right wing circle, and with Rinne down he lifted it over the sprawled goalie and in, making it 3-1.

Brouwer scored again in the eighth minute as the Caps were shorthanded.  A Roman Josi pass to Forsberg exiting the Nashvill zone was not controlled by Forsberg, and Brooks Laich collected the loose puck at the red line.  Laich skated into the Nashville and slid the puck to Brouwer entering on his right.  Brouwer took one step and fired a shot that Rinne might want back, the puck darting past his left pad making it 3-2 7:32 into the period.

The Caps would get no closer.  Mike Ribeiro restored the two goal lead for Nashville mid-way through the period when Forsberg beat Brooks Orpik to a loose puck in the corner to relief goalie Justin Peters’ left. He backhanded the puck into the middle where Ribeiro redirected it in, making it 4-2 at 11:56 of the second period.

The Caps got back within a goal in the first minute of the third period, Mike Green one-timing a feed from Niskanen from the left-wing circle.  Rinne closed the door from there, however, turning away the Caps’ last nine shots of the contest, and Nashville had a 4-3 win to sweep the season series.

Other stuff…

-- Braden Holtby had gone 55 straight starts without being pulled in a contest before he was relieved in a 4-2 loss to Dallas on March 13th.  His latest streak of not being pulled from games lasted five games before being relieved just 14:47 into Saturday’s game.  It was his first no-decision since he had one in the first game from which he was pulled this season, a 6-5 loss to San Jose on October 14th.

-- Justin Peters allowed only one goal on 14 shots in relief of Holtby, but he was tagged with the loss.  In his last four contests he has stopped 88 of 96 shots (13 of 14 against Nashville) for a respectable .917 save percentage.

-- On a day when the Caps struggled early and often, Troy Brouwer ended up a plus-3, his best such mark in a game this season and his best as a Capital.  The last time he was a plus-3 was in a 7-2 win over San Jose when he played for the Chicago Blackhawks back on November 25, 2009.  His second goal of the game was his 20th, making it two straight seasons with 20 or more goals and three in his nine-year career.

-- Six of one, a half dozen of the other…shots and hits, that is, for Alex Ovechkin.  No points, though, the first time he has gone three or more games without a point since mid-December.

-- Nicklas Backstrom has also gone three games without a point and in this game failed to record a shot on goal for the third time in his last six games.  He does not have a goal since February 19th, a streak of 16 games and counting.

-- John Carlson had four shots, 12 shot attempts, and 23 minutes of ice time. He was also charged with five giveaways.

-- The Caps punished the Predators physically, if hits are an indicator.  They were credited with 45 hits to 17 for the Preds.  Brooks Orpik had ten of his own.

-- Filip Forsberg recorded his first three-point game for Nashville since he recorded a goal and a pair of assists in a 4-3 loss to St. Louis on November 13th.

-- The four even strength goals allowed by the Caps was the first time they allowed four goals at even strength since January 27th in a 4-3 loss to Columbus.

-- The Caps went 0-for-3 on the power play, their fourth straight game without a power play goal, their longest such drought since going four straight without a power play goal, November 14-20.

In the end…

Nashville is a very good team, but on a day when the Predators were missing elite defenseman Shea Weber and the Boston Bruins were beating the New York Rangers to close put more pressure on the Caps in the standings, this had to be considered an opportunity passing them by.  They simply dug themselves too deep a hole too early and got less-than-needed games from the guys who need to play big at this time of year – Ovechkin, Backstrom, Holtby   Perhaps they were looking ahead to the Sunday afternoon game in New York against the Rangers, but at this point looking ahead at all is an invitation to looking ahead to tee times in April.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 75: Predators at Capitals, March 28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals look to make it five wins in their last six games as they wrap up their abbreviated two-game home stand against the Nashville Predators on Saturday afternoon.  This will be the Caps’ last contest against a Western Conference opponent this season, unless they should advance to the Stanley Cup final. The Caps come into this contest with a 12-12-3 record against the West this season, a 6-7-0 record against the Central Division, and an 0-1-0 record against the Predators, having lost a 4-3 decision in Nashville on January 16th when the Preds overcame a 3-2 deficit with two goals in the final five minutes of the contest to take the victory.

Nashville comes into this contest with something of a rocky 2015 portion of the season, although the Predators seem to be righting themselves at the right time.  Their streaks since the new year began look like this:
  • January 3 – 16: 6-0-1 (ending with the win over the Caps)
  • January 17 – 30: 1-2-2
  • February 1 – 17: 8-1-0
  • February 19 – March 17: 4-9-2
  • March 21 – 26: 3-0-0
That 22-12-5 record overall has left the Predators at the top of the Central Division and with the second best record in the conference (46-21-8/100 points), one point behind the Anaheim Ducks (47-22-7/101 points).

Nashville has struggled on the road recently, even through their streaks, posting a 3-4-0 road record in March.  In those seven games the Predators have been outscored, 17-11, and their special teams have not been very special.  The power play is 2-for-24 in the seven road games (8.3 percent), while the penalty kill is 15-for-21 (71.4 percent).

Scoring has come hard for the Predators on the road in March.  Only once in seven away games have they recorded more than two goals, and only Paul Gaustad has more than one goal for the Predators in those seven games.  Those two goals doubled Gaustad’s total for the season, the four goals being a career low for a season in which Gaustad played in at least 50 games.  In 24 career games against the Capitals, he is 2-2-4, plus-5.

Taylor Beck is in his first full season with the Predators after being taken in the third round of the 2009 entry draft.  He also happens to be Nashville’s leading scorer on the road in March with four points (1-3-4).  It is something of an unexpected outburst from Beck, who for the season is 7-8-15.  He is something of a road warrior, though.  Of his seven goals, five have come on the road, and 11 of this 15 points have been recorded outside of Tennessee.  He has appeared in just one game against the Caps so far in his career, finishing without a point.

Perhaps lost in the hoopla that surrounds the season of Montreal goaltender Carey Price, Nashville’s Pekka Rinne is putting together a season that would appear to make him a contender for one of the other finalist spots for the Vezina Trophy.  Rinne is tied with Price for most wins by a goaltender (40), is third in goals against average (2.08), is fifth in save percentage (.927), and has four shutouts.  His .935 save percentage at even strength is fifth among goaltenders appearing in at least 20 games this season.  He has done his part on the road for the Predators in March, although his record does not reflect it.  He is 3-3-0 in March road games with a 2.02 goals against average and a .929 save percentage.  In one of the odd instances of the Caps-Predators rivalry, Rinne has appeared against the Caps only once in his career, that coming in November 2011.  He made 39 saves in a 3-1 win in Nashville.

Here is how the teams’ numbers compare overall:


1.  Nashville is something of a slow starter in games, having scored only 54 goals in the first periods of games this season.  They do close with a rush, though.  Of their 200 goals scored in regulation, 146 of them (73 percent) have been scored in the final 40 minutes.

2.  Only the New York Rangers have a larger ratio of goals scored to goals allowed at 5-on-5 this season (1.37:1) than the Predators (1.31:1).  The Rangers have a goal differential of plus-44 at 5-on-5, while Nashville has one of plus-41 (the Caps are plus-7).

3.  The sweet spot for beating Nashville is the two-goal decision.  The Predators have the third-best winning percentage in one-goal games (.674/29-6-8), and they have the third-best winning percentage in games decided by three or more goals (.667/12-6).  In two-goal games they are 5-9 (.357 winning percentage).

4.  Those first period goal totals suggest that Nashville is not an especially adept team at front-running, but watch out if they do get out to leads.  They have scored the first goal only 32 times in 75 games, the seventh-fewest amount of first-goal games in the league.  However, when scoring that first goal, Nashville is 26-2-4, their .813 winning percentage third-best in the league.  Similarly for first period leads, the Predators have led after 20 minutes just 22 times in 75 games, 12th fewest in the league.  They are, however, 19-1-2 in those games, their .864 winning percentage ranking third in the league.

5. Nashville’s possession performance in March road games has been very different in 5-on-5 situations overall and 5-on-5 close score situations.  Overall, the Predators’ Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages at 5-on-5 are 50.2/49.4.  In close score situations those percentages jump: 55.0/53.6.

1.  Nashville does not score much in the first period of games, and the Caps are stingy in allowing goals in the first period of contests.  Only five teams have allowed fewer first period goals than the 50 allowed by Washington (of course, Nashville recorded one of those goals in the first meeting of the clubs).  The Caps have, however, been a bit less stingy at home, allowing 25 goals in the first period of 37 home games (12th-fewest in the league).

2.  If PDO is, in part, “puck luck,” the Caps don’t seem to have it late in games at home.  They have a 5-on-5 PDO at home of 101.9 in the first periods of games (seventh-best in the league), and a second period 5-on-5 PDO of 101.6 (eighth).  The third period falls off – 98.3 (23rd).

3.  The Caps have won four of their last five games, but they have not been doing it with offense.  In those five games they have only 11 goals, and their power play is 3-for-11 (but 0-for-8 in the last three games).  They have played on the margin, too, winning two games in extra time and another by one goal.

4.  Washington still needs to improve on those one-goal games, though.  The Caps rank 18th in one-goal game winning percentage (.452/19-13-10).  Decisions by more than one goal are not a problem (21-11, including a league best 12-4 record in games decided by three or more goals).

5.  In their recent five-game run of good fortune, the Caps’ possession numbers have been generally solid.  At 5-on-5 overall their Corsi-for and Fenwick-for percentages are 56.0/54.6.  In close score situations they are 55.3/53.9.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Nashville: Seth Jones

Learning to play defense for a defenseman in the National Hockey League is a process, not an instant mix in which you just add talent, even for a fourth overall pick like Seth Jones.  Last season – his rookie year in the NHL – Jones was on ice for 76 goals against in 77 games (1,511 minutes played).  Only Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba was on ice for more goals against among rookie defensemen (77).  This year, in 75 games, Jones has been on ice for only 56 goals against (1,466 minutes played).  He has managed this improvement with almost identical offensive numbers: 6-19-25 last season, 6-18-24 this season.  It is the difference between being a minus-23 last season (last among rookie defensemen) and being a plus-6 this season.  Jones is 1-1-2, plus-3 in two career games against the Caps.

Washington: Joel Ward

Joel Ward has never scored a goal against his old team, either before he joined the Predators when he played for Minnesota (he never faced Nashville as a member of the Wild) or since joining the Capitals (no goals in five games).  Of more immediate concern, Ward has gone seven straight games without a goal, and he has just seven in his last 52 games dating back to November 28th (an 11-goal season pace).  It is a symptom of the lack of secondary scoring the Caps have had.

Ward has been something of a slow finisher in the regular season over his career.  In the last ten games of each of his six full seasons before this one, he had six goals in the 60 games.  Getting more production out of Ward – and the bottom nine forwards generally – will be key in whether the Caps advance to the post season or find themselves coming up short.  Ward is 0-1-1, minus-1, in five career games against Nashville.

In the end…

The playoffs start early for the Caps.  Despite holding a five-point lead over both the Ottawa Senators and the Boston Bruins for one of the two wild-card playoff spots, the Senators hold a game in hand and, more important, the schedule to close the regular season is sprinkled with playoff-eligible teams throughout for the Caps.  It starts today against the Predators.  Fortunately for the Caps, history would appear to be on their side.  Washington holds a 7-2-0 all-time record against Nashville at Verizon Center and have a four-game home winning streak against the Preds.  It seems likely to be a game that fans of the game within a game – goalie vs. goalie – will like, but one that will feature little offense.  Pekka Rinne will be hard to solve, but a power play goal, a deflection, and an empty netter might be the formula here.

Capitals 3 – Predators 1

Friday, March 27, 2015

Down the Home Stretch: March 27 Update

After last night's games, here is how the three wild-card contestants in the Eastern Conference find themselves...


A TWO-Point Night -- Game 74: Capitals 3 - Devils 2 (OT)

The Washington Capitals shook off the rust of having had four days off from game action just in time to escape their contest against the New Jersey Devils with a 3-2 overtime win on Thursday night.  Matt Niskanen did the honors for the Caps, firing a slap shot from the left point that was redirected off a Devils player and over the glove of goalie Cory Schneider 1:13 into the extra period (NOTE: the goal has been awarded to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who redirected the Niskanen shot).

The game up to that point was a close affair, closer than one might have imagined it would be early on.  Karl Alzner got the Caps off and running less than three minutes into the game.  The scoring play started when Marcus Johansson walked the puck around the top of the zone to the top of the offensive zone before backhanding a pass to Niskanen at the right point.  Niskanen reversed the flow and sent the puck to Alzner at the left point.  With the Devils defense having shifted en masse to the right side of the ice, Alzner had room to step up and let fly with a shot from the left wing circle that beat Schneider cleanly over his right pad on the short side.

That would be all for the first period scoring, but Washington got on the board with another early goal in the second period.  In the second minute of the period the Devils were having difficulty clearing the puck from the own zone.  Eric Gelinas tried to clear the puck from  the crease by shooting it off the side boards but managed only to put the puck on the stick of Eric Fehr at the right point.  Fehr sent the puck right back at the New Jersey net and off the post past a startled Schneider to make it 2-0 just 1:35 into the period.

The Caps let the Devils back into the game late in the second period when, on a power play, they allowed the Devils to break cleanly out of the defensive zone.  Patrick Elias skated into the Caps’ zone, pulled up, and fired a shot that goalie Braden Holtby stopped with his right pad.  Travis Zajac followed up on the play and batted the rebound through Holtby’s pads for the shorthanded goal, halving the Caps’ lead to 2-1.

That might have been all the scoring, but the Devils had one more strike left in them.  In the last minute and their goalie pulled, the Devils worked the puck behind the Caps’ net.  Scott Gomez found a passing lane from the end wall to Steve Bernier standing at the edge of the blue paint just off the post to Holtby’s left.  Bernier slammed the pass from Gomez past Holtby’s left pad before the goalie could get across, and the game was tied, 2-2, with just 29.2 seconds left in regulation time.  That left it up to the Caps, and Niskanen (uh...Kuznetsov), to end the game 73 seconds into the extra period to give the Caps the extra standings point in the 3-2 win.

Other stuff…

-- The overtime goal was the 13th 4-on-4 goal scored by the Caps this season (second in this game), tied for second-most in the league.  The Caps have out-scored opponents by a 13-2 margin at 4-on-4.

-- After recording six game-winning goals for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season, Matt Niskanen recorded his first game-winner as a Capital.

-- It was a Devils sort of game with shots and chances at a minimum.  The teams combined for fewer than 100 attempts, the Devils finishing with 50 and the Caps with 47.

-- In addition to his game-winning goal, Niskanen added an assist, giving him two multi-point games in his last four contests (1-4-5).

-- Karl Alzner also finished with a goal and an assist for his second multi-point game this season (he had a goal and an assist against Columbus on December 18th).  The Caps have had 33 multi-point games from defensemen this season.  It is the second time this season that the Caps had multi-point games from at least two defensemen against the Devils.  Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, and Mike Green each recorded a pair of assists in a 6-2 win over New Jersey on October 16th.

-- Eric Fehr, Brooks Laich, and Tom Wilson started together as a line, and they were active.  The threesome combined for 11 of the Caps’ 47 shot attempts, four of the 24 shots on goal, and Fehr’s goal.

-- Maybe it was an odd night, or perhaps the official scorer was a bit too focused on one statistic, but the Caps were charged with 16 giveaways to the Devils’ seven.  John Carlson was nicked for four, Matt Niskanen for three.

-- The Caps were five over .500 on faceoffs for the game (31-for-57), but they were 13-for-21 in the offensive zone.

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov earned the second assist on the game winning goal, giving him points in six of his last nine games (3-4-7...edit: 4-3-7).  He is now ninth among rookies in points (9-22-31...edit: 10-21-31).

-- Braden Holtby has found himself in a rhythm of late.  This was the third straight game in which he allowed two goals.  In his last 12 appearances he is 7-5-0, 2.08, .931, with one shutout.  Three of those five losses came in games in which he allowed, yes, two goals.

In the end…

On the one hand, a win is nice, especially when Ottawa lost in regulation, and Boston lost in extra time.  The Caps now have a five-point lead on both clubs with eight games left to play.  And it was their fourth win in five games.  On the other hand, getting out to a two-goal lead, then allowing a shorthanded goal off a sloppy line change and a goal in the last half minute to tie the game…really?  The adjectives head coach Barry Trotz used after the game – “poor”…”lucky”…”average (at best)” – were apt.  As he put it, “I know I wasn't happy with that game, and I know they shouldn't be.  If they are, then we’re fooling ourselves. We didn't play very well.” 

No, no one should be happy, and no one should fool themselves that the Caps were anything but fortunate to play that sloppily against a team that can’t score and has little but pride to play for, and yet still come out with a win.   They will be tested more severely when Nashville comes to town on Saturday and again when they head to New York to face the Rangers on Sunday.  They need to get back into a playoff mind set, or playoffs might be something they watch instead of something in which they participate.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 74: Devils at Capitals, March 26th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals return home on Thursday night to host the New Jersey Devils in the last meeting of the teams this season. 

Despite this being the fifth meeting of the season between the Caps and the Devils, it will be the first since the Devils decided to employ a two-headed head coaching framework, one of those heads belonging to former Capitals head coach Adam Oates. 

The Caps return home after a 2-1-0 road trip and clinging to a three-point lead over the Ottawa Senators for the first wild-card spot in the post season.  The Boston Bruins are just four points back, threatening to push the Caps out of the playoff picture altogether.

Meanwhile, the Devils are already out of the playoff picture, for all intents and purposes.  With nine games to play, New Jersey is 12 points behind Ottawa for the last seat at the post season table.  A so-so March (5-4-1) has done them in.  It is part of a longer, not quite good enough record the Devils have posted since instituting the coaching experiment (19-14-4).

The March record has featured a lack of goal scoring, for and against, as the Devils have outscored their opponents by a 23-21 margin in ten games.  Their power play has been decent overall (4-22/18.2 percent) but has dried up of late – both in number of opportunities and conversions – going 1-for-11 in their last seven games.  The penalty kill is 12-for-24 in March (87.5 percent), but it has allowed power play goals in two of the Devils’ last three games (6-for-8/75.0 percent).

Adam Henrique leads the Devils in goals and points in March (4-4-8), pushing him into the team lead in points overall (16-24-40).  Until coming up empty in his last two games, Henrique had points in six of seven games.  He has an assist in three games against the Caps this season (0-1-1, minus-4) and is 2-4-6, minus-7 in 13 career games against Washington.

It is no small surprise that the Devils’ second most frequent goal scorer in March is Jordin Tootoo (3-1-4).  Through 59 games Tootoo has nine goals, his second highest total in an 11-year career and exceeded only by an 11-goal season with Nashville in 2007-2008.  His 15.0 percent shooting percentage is a career high, and when he recorded a power play goal in the Devils’ 3-2 loss to Columbus on March 6th, it was his first power play goal in three seasons and just his second power play goal over a ten-season span.  Tootoo is 1-0-1, minus-3, in 11 career games against the Caps.

Cory Schneider is among the league leaders in most goaltending categories – fifth in goals against average (2.17), third in save percentage (.928), tied for seventh in shutouts (5), third in total minutes played (3,614).  He is second in the league in save percentage at even strength (.936) among goalies playing in at least 20 games.  What it has been for Schneider, however, is a frustrating year.  Despite the fine individual numbers, he has just 26 wins, 15th in the league.  The frustration has spilled over into March.  He has good individual numbers – a 2.08 goals against average and a .935 save percentage in eight games – but his record is just 3-4-1.  A certain inconsistency has crept into his game, though.  Over his last ten appearances he has allowed fewer than two goals five times, but he has also allowed three or more four times.  In seven career appearances against the Caps, Schneider is 3-4-0, 2.10, .924, with one shutout.

Here is how the teams compare overall:


1.  New Jersey has the seventh-worst goal differential in road games this season (minus-22), largely a product of having scored the third-fewest goals on the road (79).  Only Toronto and Buffalo have scored fewer goals on the road, not exactly the neighborhood in which one wants to travel.

2.  Scoring against the Devils early is a chore.  No team has allowed fewer first period goals than New Jersey (35).  That stinginess has not carried over into the last 40 minutes of games, though.  New Jersey has allowed 63 goals in the second periods of games, and the 77 goals allowed in the third periods of games is tied for the sixth-highest total in the league (with Columbus).

3.  New Jersey does get out to leads – they are tied for tenth (with Chicago) for most first scores in the league.  However, they do little with early advantages.  The Devils have the fifth-worst winning percentage when scoring first (.575/23-9-8).

4.  The Devils have an odd offensive profile in one respect.  Despite ranking 28th in scoring offense (2.19 goals per game), they have 19 players with ten or more points.  By way of comparison, the Capitals (eighth in scoring offense with 2.85 goals per game) have 17 players with ten or more points.

5.  New Jersey struggles with possession.  The Devils rank 25th in the league in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (46.9).  They are slightly better in close score situations, ranking 23rd (47.7).  They have not been any better in March, posting a Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 of 46.5, 48.0 in close score situations (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

1.  The Caps could benefit from stepping up their game down the stretch.  They are 6-4-0 in March, outscoring opponents by a 27-18 margin.  They have just four goals in their four losses, three of those losses coming at home.

2.  Washington’s power play is 9-for-24 in March (37.5 percent), but “only” 3-for-13 (23.1 percent) in their last five games.  The penalty kill has been deceptive.  Overall, it is 27-for-33 in March (81.8 percent), but three of the six goals allowed came in six shorthanded situations in a 4-2 loss to Dallas on March 13th.

3.  Scoring first continues to be just about the best indicator there is of what a Capitals result will be.  Washington has the league’s best record when scoring the game’s first goal (32-3-4/.842), but they have the league’s fifth-worst record when scored upon first (7-22-6/.200).

4.  Tom Wilson has more penalty minutes recorded over the last two seasons (306) than all but two players in the NHL – Antoine Roussel (335) and Steve Downie (329).

5.  Possession has not been a problem for the Caps in March, at least overall.  In ten games Washington has a Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 of 60.4.  In close score situations that percentage is 54.5.  Of course, two of those games in March were against Buffalo, and both times the Caps had Corsi-for percentages at 5-on-5 over 60 percent (numbers from war-on-ice.com).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New Jersey: Andy Greene

Andy Greene is not generally thought of as a prolific offensive defenseman.  In nine seasons, including this one, he has topped 30 points just once (31 points in 2009-2010) and has never recorded more than eight goals in a season (eight in 2013-2014).  However, he started March on a tear, going 1-5-6 in six games to open the month.  Add in a game-winning goal to close February, and Greene was on quite a roll.  His scoring is tightly bound with Devils success, too, the team going 12-5-2 this season in games in which he recorded at least one point.  However, he cooled off of late, going without a point in his last four contests.  In 28 career games against the Caps, Greene is 2-6-8, minus-12.

Washington: Mike Green

Mike Green (no relation) seems far removed from those days when he was potting power play goals, finishing overtime games, and generally performing as the top offensive defenseman in the game.  This season he is 23rd among league defensemen in points (39), and he is tied for 56th in goals (6).  He has just one goal in his last 23 games and has ten points over that span.  He is shooting in poor luck, that one goal in 23 games coming on a total of 49 shots (2.0 percent), and his 4.3 percent shooting percentage for the season is his lowest since he shot 2.9 percent in 70 games in 2006-2007.  In 26 career games against New Jersey, Green is 7-9-16, plus-5.

In the end…

Scoreboard watching will be tempting over the next three weeks, but as long as the Caps tend to business they control their own destiny.  Part of that is dealing with teams that have dropped out of the playoff race, and the Devils are in that category (though they have not been technically eliminated).  New Jersey is one of those nuisance teams that is a pain to play against, one against which offensive opportunities are scarce and even when presenting themselves are usually foiled by an excellent goaltender.  That speaks to the need to play with 60-minute focus.

The Caps have been successful against the Devils this season, posting a 3-1-0 record in four games and outscoring the Devils, 14-4.  The Caps have been especially adept at shutting off the Devils power play, killing all 11 shorthanded situations faced in the four games.  That sounds like a good enough formula to make it four wins in five games.

Capitals 4 – Devils 1

Down the Home Stretch: Schedule for the Eastern Conference Wild Card Candidates

Here it is, the last 18 days of the 2014-2015 season, and three teams are fighting for two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference -- the Washington Capitals, the Ottawa Senators, and the Boston Bruins (our apologies to the Florida Panthers, but in a team where three-point games are not uncommon, making up six points with nine games to play to overtake Ottawa is a tall order).  Here is how the schedule plays out...


Some things to note...

  • Seven times, including the last day of the regular season, all three teams will be in action. 
  • On that last day of the season, Ottawa has a 12:30 game, as do the Caps.  Boston faces Tampa Bay in a 7:30 game.  Maybe that game will mean something, maybe it will not.
  • All three teams have two back-to-back games left; all of them have an away/away and a home/away set of back-to-backs.
  • The Caps finish up the last week with a light, two-game schedule, both games at home.  Both Ottawa and Boston finish on the road, the Senators with their final two games on the road and the Bruins with their last three away from Beantown.
  • Six of the Caps' last nine games are against likely playoff teams, two others against the other wild card contenders, Boston and Ottawa.
  • Ottawa plays five of its last ten games against likely playoff teams, plus a game against the Caps.
  • Boston plays four of its last nine games against likely playoff teams, plus a game against the Caps.
  • Washington and Ottawa each have five home games remaining; the Bruins have four.
We will be updating this from time to time, hoping it will all work out in the end for the Caps.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 24

In Week 24 the Washington Capitals found themselves at the top of that roller coaster on which they have been riding over the last seven weeks.  A heavy workload (four games) and a good record (3-1-0) left the Caps on the brink of making reservations for the playoffs. On the brink does not mean circling the dates on the calendar in pen, though, not just yet anyway.


Record: 3-1-0

This was the Capitals’ fourth three-or-more win week in their last seven weeks.  The difficulty with that is that the club keeps alternating such weeks with those in which they have one or fewer wins.  This was a satisfying week in that the Caps started the week by salvaging a disappointing home stand with a gritty shutout win over the Boston Bruins, a team that had been closing on the Caps for the first wild card spot in the playoffs, then following up that win with a pair of road wins.  The trick shot win in Buffalo was scarier than it probably should have been, but then again, the Caps have not won a game in regulation in Buffalo since February 2011 and were 2-2-1 in Buffalo (both wins in extra time) since that win.  It has not been the easiest place in which to earn a win.  The Caps then won their first game ever at Xcel Center in Minnesota before dropping a 3-0 decision to Winnipeg to close the week.  That loss was disappointing for its intensity level, but in the larger picture, the week went well.


Offense:  2.00/game (season: 2.85/game; rank: 7th)

It was a light week at the offensive end of the ice, even accounting for the fact that the fourth game of the week ended in a shutout against the Caps.  It was one of those “on the one hand, on the other” sorts of weeks. 

On the one hand, the Caps opened the week facing a goalie – Boston’s Tuukka Rask – who was 6-1-1, 1.59, .950, with one shutout in his previous eight appearances.  On the other, the Caps had been Rask’s personal tormentors over his career, Rask struggling with a 1-4-1, 3.13, .883 career record against the Caps.  The Caps got a goal in each of the first two periods and groundout a 2-0 win over Rask.

On the one hand, the Caps faced a Sabres team that had been leaking goals all season and had traded both of their goaltenders away.  On the other, as we noted, the Caps have not had much success recently in Buffalo. They fell behind twice by a goal, took a lead, but could not add to it, relying on the trick shot phase for a win.

On the one hand…well, there is no such thing in the game against Minnesota.  Wild Goalie Devan Dubnyk had allowed as many as three goals in a game just once in his previous 14 appearances.  The Caps scored two goals less than a minute apart in the second period against Dubnyk, added one in the third period, and pinned on Dubnyk just his sixth loss in regulation in 28 decisions with the Wild.

In the last game of the week the Caps came out fairly well, but slowly had the air leak out of their balloon, several shots hitting iron further frustrating the club before they finished against Winnipeg shut out.  It was the fourth time the Caps were shut out this season.

As it was, eight goals was a light week for the Caps, made lighter by the fact that half of the goals came from Alex Ovechkin (two) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (two).  Only one other goal came from a forward (Curtis Glencross).

Defense: 2.00/game (season: 2.41/game; rank: 6th)

The Caps’ defense was probably good enough to win all four games in Week 24.  The shots allowed was an average week of sorts (29.8 allowed per game), but it was possession numbers that were noteworthy.  Washington won the possession battle in each game and overall.  Their 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentages were north of 50 percent in each game and for the week was 56.6.  Those trends were maintained in close score situations with the Caps winning each game and finishing the week with a Corsi-for percentage of 55.3.

That is where the fickleness of hockey makes its appearance.  Consider two goals, both in the game against Buffalo.  One occurred when an innocent enough backhand shot by Cody Hodgson was stopped by goalie Braden Holtby, but the puck popped straight up into the air.  When it came down it did so on Holtby’s back, then trickled over the goal line.  The second goal (Buffalo’s third, and the game-tying goal) came on a redirect by Johan Larsson of a shot from the point.  Redirects involve some measure of skill (and, in this case, some measure of poor defensive positioning to allow Larsson position to execute the play), but they involve some measure of luck given the respective shapes of the puck and a hockey stick.  If a floating puck lands at Holtby’s feet instead of on his back; if a redirect goes just wide of instead of just inside the post, the scoring defense numbers look more like the possession numbers.

It was a difficult week for John Carlson.  He was on ice for four of the seven non-empty net goals scored against the Caps, although he skated in iffy circumstances.  For example, it was his partner, Nate Schmidt, who was victimized by Larsson’s game-tying goal in the Buffalo game.  On the other hand, he could not fight his way around Larsson on Tyler Ennis’ power play goal on a give-and-go that gave the Sabres their first goal in that game. 

Joel Ward also found himself on ice for four goals against (including the empty netter scored by Winnipeg).  As it was, every Capital skater dressing in Week 24 found themselves finishing the week with at least one goal against having been scored while they were on the ice except Chris Conner, who managed to avoid that problem in the two games he played.

Goaltending: 1.72 / .941 / 1 shutout (season: 2.34 / .918 / 8 shutouts)

Another week, another Braden Holtby production.  Holtby took all the minutes for the Caps in Week 24 and played very well overall as the top line numbers above suggest.  By period he was fine as well, posting save percentages by period all in excess of .920 (.921/.949/.947/1.000).  He finished the week in the league’s top ten in wins (35/3rd), goals against average (2.18/7th), save percentage (.924/8th), and shutouts (8/3rd).  He is 11th among goalies appearing in at least 20 games in even strength save percentage (.930).  The one area in which Holtby had issues this season – shootout save percentage – was one in which he was perfect for the week.  He came into the week with a .667 save percentage in the trick shot phase (the league average is .700), but he turned away all three attempts to seal the Caps’ 4-3 Gimmick win over Buffalo.

Power Play: 3-for-10 / 30.0 percent (season: 24.9 percent; rank: 2nd)

The Capitals certainly have dialed up their power play in March.  Coming into Week 24 they were 6-for-14 (42.9 percent) in six games.  They actually fell back a bit in Week 24, going 3-for-10 (30 percent).  What made the week a bit stranger was that Washington converted each of its first three power play opportunities of the week before going 0-for-7 in their last two games.  The odd thing about the week, and the three goals, is that none of the goals – none of the points, in fact – were recorded by the league’s leading power play goal scorer, Alex Ovechkin.  Nicklas Backstrom, who finished the week tied with Ovechkin for second in power play points in the league, managed only one assist among the three goals scored. 

As it was, there were three different power play goal scorers for the Caps – John Carlson, Curtis Glencross, and Evgeny Kuznetsov.  It was Matt Niskanen who had the only multiple assist week on the power play (two).

As one might expect from the results, the efficiency of the power play broke into two pieces for the week.  In the first two games the Caps were 3-for-3, scoring three goals on seven shots in just 3:48 of power play ice time.  In the last two games the power play was 0-for-7, failing on all seven shot attempts in 13:15 of man advantage ice time while allowing a shorthanded goal in a 6-on-4 situation late in the 3-0 loss to Winnipeg.


Penalty Killing: 11-for-13 / 84.6 percent (season: 81.2 percent; rank: 17th)

Week 24 was a good, if not great week for the Capitals. The odd part of it was that the power play goals were scored by Buffalo (30th in the league in power play efficiency/29th at home) and Minnesota (27th overall/14th at home).  Not that Boston (19th overall/25th on the road) or Winnipeg (14th overall/17th at home) are especially prolific on the man advantage, but it was a bit of an odd week on the PK. 

It was not a bad week, efficiency-wise, but it might have been better.  The Caps gave up two goals on 24 shots (score one for goaltending on the penalty kill, a .917 save percentage) in 22:34 of penalty killing ice time.  Fourteen of those 24 shots (seven apiece) were recorded by the low-ranked Sabres and Wild in just over nine minutes of ice time.  You never know who it is you are going to struggle against in this game.


Even Strength Goals for/Goals Against: 5-5 / even (season, 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio: 1.06; rank: 14th)

It would have been a pretty good week but for that Winnipeg game.  The Caps were outscored, 2-0, at evens against the Jets to leave them even for the week.  It was a deceptively poor sort of result in Week 24 for the Caps, who out-shot their opponents at even strength by a 110-93 margin and out-attempted them by a whopping 227-173 at even strength (5-on-5, 4-on-4).

The problem seemed to be more on the offensive end, where the Caps shot to just a 4.5 percent efficiency rate at evens for the week.  And there was the goal scoring.  Alex Ovechkin had a pair of even strength goals (both against Minnesota), and Evgeny Kuznetsov had one.  That did it for the forwards.  Mike Green and Nate Schmidt added one apiece from the blue line.  Secondary scoring was more a rumor than a fact at evens in Week 24.

Faceoffs: 109-224 / 48.7 percent (season: 51.5% / rank: 10th)

This was not a particularly good week for the Caps in the faceoff circle.  They were one win over .500 in the offensive end (43-for-85), and they lost both the defensive zone (36-for-73) and the neutral zone (30-for-66) for the week.  Further, it was the guys taking the heavy workload who had off weeks for the most part.  Among Caps taking at least ten draws, Nicklas Backstrom finished the week over 50 percent (51.5) on the strength of winning in the ends (56.7 percent in the offensive zone, 64.7 percent in the defensive zone).  Otherwise, Troy Brouwer (43.3 percent), Eric Fehr (44.2 percent), Evgeny Kuznetsov (44.9 percent), and Brooks Laich (47.4 percent) struggled.

Goals by Period:


While the week finished even overall for the Caps – eight goals scored, eight allowed – the periods were a bit of a different story.  The Caps lost the first (2-3) and third (2-3) periods, but won the second periods (4-2).  It was not as if the Caps were giving up an inordinate number of shots in the first or third periods.  Not counting empty net shots, the Caps allowed 38, 39, and 38 shots in the first, second, and third periods, respectively.

As it is, though, the Caps are the most consistent team in the league in one respect, unchanged from when the week began.  Washington is the only team in the league with a goal differential of plus-10 or better in each period in the 2014-2015 season to date (plus-10, plus-13, plus-11, in the first, second, and third period, respectively).

In the end…

Sure, a perfect week would have been nice.  As it was, the Caps ended their homestand on an up-note, then they went off and won two of three on the road.  In a sense, the road loss was unexpected since it was Braden Holtby taking the loss in Winnipeg, a city in which he had never lost as a Capital (4-0-0, 1.22, .962, with two shutouts against the Jets).

The Caps started the week tied with Boston in standings points and holding the second wild card spot, six points ahead of ninth-place Florida.  At week’s end the Caps held the first wild card spot, four points ahead of the Bruins.  They were just two points behind Pittsburgh for third place in the Metropolitan Division and four points behind the New York Islanders.  In that sense, Week 24 was a good week, further solidifying the Caps’ playoff position.

The season has now come down to less than a month and fewer than ten games for the Caps.  If one was inclined to play that “if they go…” game, then if the Caps go .500 in standings points over their last nine games they will finish with 97 standings points.  In that instance, Ottawa would have to earn 14 points over their last 11 games to catch the Caps, 15 points to pass them, assuming the Senators, with 31 wins in regulation and overtime, cannot catch the Caps in that category (Washington has 35 such wins).  And even with that, the Bruins would need 13 points in their last ten games to catch the Caps to earn the other wild card spot.  We are now at the points where it would take a most unlikely coincidence of events to keep Washington out of the post season.

But not impossible.  There is still work to do.

Three Stars:
  • First Star: Matt Niskanen (0-3-3, minus-1, 24:09 average ice time, seven blocked shots)
  • Second Star: Braden Holtby (3-1-0, 1.72,  .941, 1 shutout)
  • Third Star: Alex Ovechkin (2-0-2, even, 1 GWG, 21 shots, 52 shot attempts, nine hits)