Hockey

So after dropping 2 of their last 3 (one in mind-numbingly dumb fashion against The Leaf), the Hawks return to West Madison for an extended session of home cookin, with only the Stars matchup on the road until the Wednesday after Christmas. The issues the team faces remain the same (lack of scoring outside of Kane and Cat, questionable goaltending when Fleury isn’t in net), but there may be a glimmer of hope as Jonathan Toews potted 2 goals over that span, and has actually looked more himself than in quite awhile.

With Dylan Strome becoming more dangerous while actually getting meaningful minutes (who knew?), the Hawks are kinda sorta getting some of the secondary scoring the team so desperately needs right now. Even Domanik Kubalik was able to get one past The Leaf on Saturday night, so perhaps things are trending upward?

The Hawks will have to make due without having Reese’s Johnson (candy porno name) out of the lineup for at least a month or so, as he landed on IL Sunday with a broken clavicle. The Hawks also punted Mike Hard Man back down to The R, and recalled Brett Connolly and MacKenzie Entwistle. Hopefully Johnson being out means more meaningful minutes (alliteration!) for guys like Phillip Kurashev and Brandon Hagel.

With the game Monday night against Cal and Gary postponed to a Rona outbreak in the Flames locker room, the Hawks catch a break from what would have been (and still kinda is) a tough stretch of games. The Caps are still rolling, having gone 3-1 in the span since the Hawks beat them in the skills competition. The Preds are also hot, having won 7 of their last 10 (though 4 of them came against The Scum, Isles, Habs and Devils) and Dallas had a 7 game win streak before they dropped 3 straight. It’s not going to be easy, but 4 of 6 points here would go a long way to showing that this team is more than just a bottom-feeder right now.

 

12/15 vs. Capitals 

Game Time: 7:00 PM CST

TV/Radio – NBC Sports Chicago, SportsNet, WGN-AM 720

Bulldog Front – Russian Machine Never Breaks

 

After securing their first win in DC since the 2nd Bush administration, the Hawks look to take the season series against the Caps. The offense (and some of the defense to be honest) still resides in the orbit of the best hockey player of the last decade, Alexander Ovechkin. He’s had 7 points in his last 5 games and 44 overall (good for 3rd in the league behind the twin wizards in Edmonton), 10 more than the guy behind him. 20 of those 44 points are goals, good for 2nd in the league. The guy is still a dynamo, and his shot is almost impossible to stop if he gets it off from his spot low in the circles. Adding to the Hawks misery in this game is that TJ Oshie has returned from the land of wind and ghosts, giving the Caps another scoring option.

Defensively the Caps line up pretty well against the Hawks, with John Carlson having another very solid year resulting in Washington having the 2nd best goal differential in the league behind Carolina.  In net, the tandem of Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanacek have pretty similar numbers, and actually kinda look like each other too. They’re basically the same guy, with an average GAA and Save % to go with it. Just goes to show how often the Caps score if they can have an OK goaltending duo and still be tops in differential. Professional Assbag Tom Wilson is still here, so if the Hawks powerplay could find it’s way in from the cold, that might go a long way towards giving themselves a chance in this one.

 

12/17 vs. Predators

 

Game Time: 7:30 PM CST

TV/Radio:  NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720

Getting Smashvilled:  On The Forecheck

 

Since the last time the Hawks saw the Preds they’ve managed to go on a mini-heater by going 11-5 in that span. As noted above, however, a good chunk of those 11 have been against lower-tier teams. Granted, the Preds can only play the schedule barfed out by the league office, but that record can be taken with a grain of salt. Nashville’s advanced stats look like one of my old training reports back in the day, which said “does nothing well,” which describes them to a tee. They’re not top 10 in any meaningful metric other than PP% (and even then they’re 9th), and yet they currently sit in 2nd place in the division. Much like in every year past, this is due to their goaltending, and playing the part of Pekka Rinne this year is his countryman Juuse Saros. The Juuse keeps the Preds playoffs afloat all by his lonesome, and does so with a 2.24 GAA and a .925 save percentage. On the surface those don’t look like superior numbers, but when you combine those with the Preds style of game and Saros’ excellent save percentage of high danger chances you get a Nashville team that does just enough to be very annoying. If the Hawks plan on pulling themselves out of the basement, this game needs to be won in regulation. Having a coach that understands the benefit of matchups could go a long way to making that happen.

 

12/18 vs. Stars 

Game Time: 7:00 PM CST

TV/Radio: NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720

Jerry Jones Runs This Town: Defending Big D

 

Last and most certainly least on this list are the Dallas Stars, who have lost 3 in a row during a down road trip. The Stars are actually statistically better than the Preds in a few categories, but are not great inbetween the pipes. Anton Khudobin has turned back into a pumpkin after a few years of relevancy with a 3.73 GAA. After leaving Washington for greener pastures, Braden Holtby has been a pretty mixed bag, with a terrible year in Vancouver and now a slightly above average one in Dallas with a 2.40 GAA and a .920 save percentage. That comes from a team that is one of the better ones in the league in shot suppression, currently ranking 7th in the league in that department at evens. The fact that the Stars are only slightly better than the Hawks at scoring 5 on 5 and you get all the ingredients for a thrilling game. Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski lead the way for the Stars on “offense,” with Hintz leading the team with 11 goals and Pavs with 21 points respectively. Russian expatriate Alexander Radulov is still here, and his production has gone off a cliff, with only 1 goal and a -11 to his name thus far. With the Hawks actually improving over the last few weeks under Derek King at evens, this game looks to be their best chance to pick up an easy 2 points in regulation.

Hockey

To a certain extent it’s a mild relief that now the Hawks are losing games where they’re simply outgunned as opposed to looking like they’re playing a completely different sport than the opposition, or at best there like was a gas leak in their locker room (which would have explained Coach Jeremy Trestman hiding in the stalls). But regardless of who is coaching it, and that’s still currently up for debate seeing how much more of a role Marc Crawford has taken recently who is now playing the part of Dick Cheney in the Derek King administration, this team still really can only get goals from like 3 players even when things look how they’re supposed to. Basically if Alex DeBrincat and Garbage Dick don’t score, they’re not really going to, especially since the power play has completely dried up. Dylan Strome gets back into the lineup and back onto the first unit this evening after being healthy scratched for a while, and he STILL has their last power play goal that happened over two weeks ago. But with what Toews can contribute still a mystery, Dominik Kubalik still trying to gain his footing after having his ice time messed with by Kelvin Gemstone, really past the top 2 wingers there’s a big yawning void only occasionally filled by Brandon Hagel. Kirby Dach hasn’t scored in over a month, much of that spent between two guys with 40 goal potential, and that’s simply unacceptable for the third overall pick and who the Organ-I-Zation says the future is entrusted to. If that doesn’t turn around in a big way and in a hurry, there are going to be some extremely bleak and uncomfortable situations concerning the post-Toews era.

12/2 at Washington

Game Time  – 6:00PM CST
TV/Radio – NBC Sports Chicago, SportsNet, WGN-AM 720
Bulldog Front – Russian Machine Never Breaks

Look, the Hawks are going to lose this game. They literally have not won in DC since 1998, and the Caps are just better even without plenty of key pieces (Backstrom, Oshie) in their lineup, even though it does appear that Justin Schultz is supposed to return. When watching this game, just seriously take time to appreciate what Alex Ovechkin is doing right now. Yes he’s creeping up on the all time goal list having passed Brett Hull this season (Hull himself was gracious, his Garbage Son was not) in a race against time to possibly catch Gretzky. All things considered factoring in eras and equipment and style of play, Ovie already is the greatest goal scorer in the history of the league, but having that number to prove it would be something to behold, especially after it was once thought that literally no one could every ascend to Gretzky’s totals. But the fact that he is second in the league in goals and third in the league in points (19 and 37 respectively) through 23 games in his age 36 season is truly incredible. He’s on pace right now for 68 goals, which would put him just two shy of Gordie by year’s end. And even if that pace flattens out a bit, he still might be the oldest player to score 50 goals ever, passing Johnny Bucyk 50 years ago. And Ovechkin isn’t just camping out at his spot on the power play. Twenty four of his 37 points have come 5v5, 27 at all even strengths. The Hawks have 26 goals AS A TEAM at five on five.

12/4 at MSG

Game Time – 7:00PM CST
TV/Radio – NBC Sports Chicago+, WGN-AM 720
NUMBA ONE BAYBEE – Blueshirt Banter

After completely overhauling their front office and coaching staff where they decided they needed to get more rock-headed in launching Jeff Gorton and David Quinn for first timer Chris Drury as GM and red ass Gerard Gallant behind the bench, the team promptly announced that as a roster they intended to be stupider by trading for Ryan Reaves. Of course, this roster was already promising enough with a surprise Norris from Adam Fox last year, as well as Mika Zibanejad flourishing alongside Artemi Panarin, but it appears that they’re poised to make a return to the post season with 31 points in the airtight Metropolitan division. Chris Kreirder has cannonballed his way into 16 goals already, on pace to obliterate his career high of 28 – though shooting 26.2% against a career average of 14% probably helps with that quite a bit. There’s no one thing that this team does exceptionally well, they’re in the middle of the road statistically in pretty much everything, but Gallant teams always play fast and hard, and Igor Shesterkin’s .936 5v5 and .935 overall are certainly good to make it all stand up. Given the expectations set by the start and the new management, don’t be surprised if they try to make a big splash at the deadline.

12/5 at Belmont

Game Time – 6:30PM CST
TV/Radio – NBC Sports Chicago, WGN-AM 720
A Headache With Pictures – Lighthouse Hockey

Apparently the limits of Barry Trotz’s occult coaching wizardry are finally breached by a 13 game road trip to start the season, injuries, and a COVID outbreak that forced the Islanders to postpone three games last week. Perhaps playing in the the charmingly revolting toilet that was Nassau Coliseum is where those dark forces that allowed the Isles to reach two straight final fours/semifinals/whatever in modified playoff years, because their brand new UBS Arena at Belmont Racetrack has not been so kind to them to this point, as they’ve lost all four games they’ve had there in regulation. They’re currently in the midst of an 8 game losing streak, and will face the somewhat surprising Sharks tonight at home before they see the Hawks again, so that may very well reach nine. They’ll at least have the benefit of getting the Hawks on the second half of a back to back, but given the offensive struggles of both of these squads, it’s not likely to be a Sunday evening track meet.

Hockey

These are the kinds of posts we like, even if it’s about the Bruins. Or Bruin, in this case. Because goals are fun. It’s the name of the game, after all. And lots of goals are lots of fun. Which means David Pastrnak is having the most fun of anyone, causing the most fun for others, and might do so at a rate never seen before. His linemate Brad Marchand might be a total fraud, but Pastrnak is the real deal, folks.

At the moment, Pastrnak has 25 goals in 28 games. After tonight’s 29th game for Boston against the Hawks, he should have at least 32. We’re kidding. We hope. Anyway, 25 goals in 28 games puts him on track for 73 goals this year, which would obviously be ridiculous. Only two players in the past twenty years have managed 60 goals. Alex Ovechkin’s 65 in ’07-’08 and Steven Stamkos’s 60 in ’11-’12. Ovechkin’s year is considered the greatest goal-scoring year by anyone ever when you adjust for the time or era of the NHL. And Ovie is the only one to get past 50 in the past five seasons aside from Leon Draisaitl’s 50 last season. Clearly, Pastrnak has a chance to do something we just haven’t seen and didn’t think we would.

Scoring is up a tick from last year so far, but the gap from 3.03 to 3.01 per team per game is small enough that it could be washed away as things tighten up over the season, as they tend to do. Pastrnak at this point is averaging 0.89 goals per game, or about 29% of his team’s goals per game. When Ovechkin put up 65, that was 0.79 goals per game while the average goals per team then was just 2.78 per game. Still, that totaled only 28.5% of his team’s goals per game, so if you go by that, Pastrnak is on a pace never seen.

For comparison’s sake, when Gretzky scored 92 goals (that actually happened and you really need to take a moment to think about it) in ’81-’82, teams were averaging 4.01 goals per game. So his per game average still only accounted for 28.6% of his team’s goals per game. So Pastrnak is ahead of that. By this measure, admittedly not exactly all that scientific, Brett Hull’s 86 in ’90-’91 is better, coming in at 30.3%. And Pastrnak isn’t too far off that pace, though he’s unlikely to get much past where he is already.

So the question would be can Pastrnak keep this up? The 22.5% shooting-percentage is awfully ambitious, and eight points above his career average. His SH% has climbed the past three seasons, but that was at a steady-rate, not at this six-point jump from last year to this. So he can easily stay above his 14.5% career-rate, but staying over having one-fifth of his shots go in is probably pushing it.

It’s probably even less likely when you get metric with it (it’s like getting giggy with it, we think). Pasta is generating the exact same individual expected-goals as he did last year, which suggests he’s getting the same amount and types of chances. However, he’s firing three more attempts per game at the net at evens, and as we know the more you fling rubber somewhere toward the net the more chances you get for something to go right. He is averaging one more shot on goal per game as well, and if you go by strictly scoring-chances (a little different than expected goals) he’s getting three more per game than last year, which is a massive jump. So maybe?

Pastrnak’s work on the power play has remained steady from last year and the past few, so any jump is probably going to have to come at evens. By the scoring chances, it is.

There are some factors out of his control. You would think if Patrice Bergeron were out an extended period of time, that would hurt his chances. Except that in his first game without Bergeron this year he lit up the Canadiens for a hat trick, and has tacked on two more goals in the four games since. Small samples and all that. He could get hurt himself.

Still, you get into this sort of thing to see things you hadn’t seen before, and Pastrnak taking a run at 70 goals would certainly qualify. There’s probably a cold snap coming, so we might as well enjoy the heat now. He’s going to light up the Hawks either way, so you decide how to interpret it for yourself.

Hockey

vs.

RECORDS: Capitals 5-2-2  Hawks 2-2-1

PUCK DROP: 6pm

TV: NBCSN Chicago/NHLN Outside the 606

WHAT A BUNCH OF CLOWNS: Japers Rink

The Hawks come in to their first game of the year on a positive base, though perhaps a touch lucky to have their second win of two. So the Hawks have a chance for their first “winning streak” of the season. The challenge is that to get to there, they’ll have to go through one of the hotter teams in the league.

The Washington Capitals come in with the second-highest point-total in the East, tied with the Penguins atop the Metro which has been their apartment for the past few seasons. Their two regulation losses have come against the Predators and Avalanche, who have been a problem for America so far on the nascent season. And they’re doing it a little differently so far than they have.

In the past, at least the last couple seasons, the Caps were not a great team when measured metrically. But they’re finishing talent would always outshoot what the chances and attempts said they should have, because when you have Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, TJ Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and some nifty bottom-sixers that’s a thing you can do. They didn’t give up too much while not being exactly defensively iron curtain, but just enough to let their array of snipers to outdo whatever they did surrender.

This year, they’re controlling play much more so far, ranking fourth in team Corsi-percentage and expected goal-percentage. Which has left them sixth in goal for, because again, they have finishers everywhere. But Barry Trotz’s ways haven’t completely disappeared, as the Caps remain one of the better defensive teams around in terms of attempts and chances against. It’s been a promising start for a team that becomes an afterthought simply because they’ve been around so long you get a little sick of them or take them as a given so consistently they just fade into the background. But it’s been a decade now where anyone trying to get out of the Metro or NASCAR Division before that had to go through DC. Still looks that way now.

The concern for the Caps so far is that Braden Holtby has been awful, and once again the Capitals are thinking about turning their eyes to a younger model. Where it was once Phillip Grubauer, it’s now Ilya Samsonov. He’s been very good in his first month in the NHL, and with Holtby a free agent after this season, you can bet there are more than a few hopes in the Caps front office that Samsonov proves he can be a cheaper, younger starter going forward. Of course, we won’t know that until April, where Grubauer faltered for the Caps a couple years ago and kept Holtby around.

The big story tonight for the Hawks is whether or not Kirby Dach is going to make his debut. It would seem silly to call him up and then just have him sit in the pressbox, but we’ve seen that before. Dach was skating as a top line winger with Jonathan Toews yesterday, as a totally charming, bright, and handsome (and available!) writer suggested just a couple days ago. Given the success David Kampf has had between Brandon Saad and Dominik Kubalik, and that Dylan Strome belongs far less on a wing, it seems the best answer. It would be the softest landing as well, and Toews and DeBrincat could use a little more dash than Drake Caggiula can provide. Then again, Caligula is the only puck winner there, and Toews might not be able to that any more. Could we see Dach with Caggiula and Toews with Top Cat sliding down to the second line with Kane and Strome? Even talking about it is kind of exciting. It could be new toy night, and what we really want is Dach just to flash what he can be this season. It won’t all be pretty, but let’s see if there’s a diamond here.

As for the rest, Corey Crawford will take the net as he and Lehner are going to split the starts over this busy stretch you’d have to think, at least until one gets hot or one turns into stone. It’s how they drew it up.

The Hawks were scorched at least in the first period by the Jackets, who are a team that’s consistently been able to use their speed against the Hawks’ lack of it. The Caps certainly can play in the straight lines through the neutral zone that the Hawks can’t handle when their defense gets squared up. Kampf can take the Backstrom assignment, but the thing with the Caps is they still feature Kuznetsov behind that. If we’re going to get excited about what the Hawks can do this season, they have to prove not only that they can survive against teams that can do that thanks to goaltending, but can actively handle it and give as good as they get. It’s been a while since that happened. Tonight’s another test.

Hockey

The old standby. The last four seasons, no matter what happens, there the Caps are, finishing first in the Metro. There’s always a portion of the season where it feels like it’s gone on them, that this is finally where they’ve gotten too old and too predictable and too comfortable, and yet the season ends and here we are. Coaching change doesn’t seem to matter much. Whatever player turnover doesn’t seem to matter much. There seems to be things you can always count on. Alex Ovechkin will lead the league in goals, he’ll score from his post-up spot, and the Caps will finish first.

Will it be true again? There are a couple challengers, but maybe we’ve gotten to the point where we just take the Caps as a given until they say they’re not.

2018-2019

48-26-8  102 points (1st in Metro, lost in 1st round)

3.34 GF/G (5th)  3.02 GA/G (17th)

49.1 CF% (18th)  47.1 xGF% (25th)

20.8 PP% (12th)  79.9 PK% (24th)

Goalies: You think of Braden Holtby as another given for the Caps, along with Ovie and Backstrom. Still, the past two seasons he’s only been ok, and you’ll recall the Caps’ Cup run started with Philip Grubauer in net in the playoffs before he gave way to Holtby. Holts put up a .911 last year, which was only a touch above league average. He hasn’t been near his Vezina form for two seasons now, but this is his final one before hitting free agency. Tends to motivate some players. He’ll be 30 when the season starts, which means whatever comes after this is probably the last big contract he’ll sign, wherever that might be. There’s no reason to think the .908s and .911s of the past two seasons are now the norm. If the Caps get another .920+ out of Holtby, then they’ll almost certainly be near the top of the standings again.

He’ll be backed up by Pheonix Copley and his misspelled first name, who was your run of the mill backup last year. The Caps can’t afford an injury to Holtby, that’s for sure. Then again, do the Caps want Holtby to prove he’s worth $8M or $9M for the next few years?

Defense: The Caps mostly return the same outfit on the blue line, except they’ve swapped out Matt Niskanen for Radko Gudas. At first that sounds like a major downgrade. It’s still something of one, but Gudas is actually effective when none of the bullshit is on display. Sadly, there’s always some bullshit on display, so the Caps will be killing off some dumbass penalties. John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Michal Kempny (sigh) will be doing the heavy lifting here, They’ll hope for development from both Christian Djoos and Jonas Siegenthaler, and both were good in sheltered roles last year. If they get that, they can reduce what they need out of Gudas, which should always be the idea. They may get minutes from prospect Lucas Johansen as well, but they shouldn’t need it.

Forwards: Along with Holtby, Nicklas Backstrom is going into his free agent year at 31. Just like the goalie, this is probably his last big contract, and it’s a question if he’ll get it from the Caps with Evgeny Kuznetsov pretty much taking the #1 center role, or poised to. Backstrom is a lock for 70 or more points every year, and that should get him a deal nearing eight figures next summer, even at 32. Kuznetsov and him down the middle is just about as good as it gets. Lars Eller does the dirty work, and you know what Ovechkin is going to do no matter how old he is. He’ll be scoring 45 when he is 45. Beyond that there’s TJ Oshie, who if healthy he’s probably good f0r 30 goals again. Big if, though.

Beyond that, the Caps might be a touch short on scoring forwards. If they get a step forward from Jakub Vrana and his 24 goals last year, they’ll be ok. Carl Hagelin is around for a full season this time, and though he’s getting up there he still that brain and those feet. If the top six do top six things, the Caps are fine as they have plenty of foot soldiers in the bottom six to carry through. They always do, don’t they?

Prediction: You know what the floor is with the Caps. It’s incredibly hard to envision them slipping out of the playoffs unless Holtby goes full poltergeist in net or getting hurt. Ovie will score. So will Kuznetsov and Backstrom and Oshie. They’ll get contributions from elsewhere. The defense is solid if not spectacular, though it could start to approach that if the two kids become things. They have the Penguins and Hurricanes to outlast, but they always seem to. Maybe they’ll fall all the way to second. It’s hard to see anything worse.

Previous Team Previews

Carolina

Columbus

New Jersey

New York Islanders

New York Rangers

Philadelphia 

Pittsburgh

Everything Else

I would say that the Washington Capitals learned all the wrong lessons from winning their first Cup last spring, but then what can you learn when you spend the next eight months riding the creature? You’ve probably learned some lessons while bass-ackwards, but they were learned the wrong way and could have been absorbed in much more efficient and cleanly ways.

So there the Caps were, kind of like a Diet ’07 Ducks, convinced their constant penis-measuring and bicep-flexing was the reason they had a parade last June. Running around trying to hit everything, as if trying to impersonate a super collider. And there they were trying to hold up T.J. Oshie as some sort of martyr. He broke his collarbone, he wasn’t the dude from the “One” video. And it’s hard to take a team’s claims of a dirty or iffy hit seriously when they employ Tom Wilson. It’s like that one friend you have who made out with someone truly objectionable at closing time at the bar once. It’s a response you always have in the back pocket.

You didn’t like that crosscheck to Oshie? You employ Tom Wilson. Thought you should have had more penalties? You employ Tom Wilson. Afraid the opponent isn’t looking you in the eye? You employ Tom Wilson.

Of course it goes beyond that with the Caps. They nearly won this series on the back of their premier and special amount of scoring. That’s how they won the Cup last year, behind Ovie and Backstrom and Kuznetsov and Carlson. But after a summer and more of listening to professional belchers like Mike Milbury and Keith Jones claim that their path past the Lightning had to do with scaring and beating them up, they clearly bought into the bullshit and started growling like a five-year-old trying to be scary. It was almost an adorable sort of growling.

So yeah, Ovie got to punch a child unconscious while his teammates applauded, a super great look for the league. And hey, if he hadn’t his team might have only gotten one shot in the final 40 minutes of that game instead of the glorious two he lifted them to through his “leadership.” He might have gotten into Dougie Hamilton’s head, but Justin Faulk and Jaccob Slavin were more than happen to just glide into the space the Caps had vacated while trying to be the meteor from “Armageddon.”

It’s not really Ovechkin’s fault, of course. He’s an intense guy. He’s also the greatest scorer of all-time, and should focus on that. And yet what gets more replays? His goal in Game 6 which was a thing of beauty, his assist in Game 7 which was the same, or him trash talking the Canes bench after he missed a hit by five feet? It’s the way we live, apparently. Also his chicken impression isn’t much more than a tick above the Bluths.

Still, the Caps carried on a noble tradition of the previous Cup champs losing in seven games. The Wings did it, the Penguins did it the first time, the Hawks did it the first, second, and third time, so did the Bruins. The Penguins of last year lost in a Game 6 overtime, which is pretty close. Seems that’s how you go out on your shields these days. Maybe they can raise a banner for that next to their Winter Classic ’15 one.

The Caps have such a strange legacy. They’ve won their division four straight years and five of the last seven, which is a rare accomplishment. It should be celebrated. And yet it feels like they just kept winning a division the Penguins can’t locate enough fucks to give to win it and everyone else is too helpless to take. It’s the division crown the Caps keep finding in the alley.

In the end, last year’s run will be the outlier to the true nature of the Caps. They don’t go past the second round. It’s just not something that happens. They find a way to spit it before eight wins. There won’t come another season where the true power is simply too tired, and the rest of the rabble incapable to keep them in their natural habitat. The Caps win last year felt like the first time a child claims he’ll walk way from his/her parents. With every step they turn around to see if anyone will stop them, and you let them go knowing they’ll end up back where they should with a new sense of bravery. They don’t have it in them to stay out there though.

Water seeks its own level. The Caps win the division and then go away soon after. It’s how things are. It’s how they will be. We may spin off our axis every so often, but always return. Doesn’t it feel better this way? Comfortable, right?

Too bad T.J. Oshie died for nothing.

Everything Else

vs.

Schedule

Game 1 in DC tonight, 6:3o

Game 2 in DC Saturday, 2pm

Game 3 in Carolina Monday, 6pm

Game 4 in Carolina Thursday, 6pm

There’s a chance that being everyone’s bandwagon team, the Carolina Hurricanes could get kind of annoying pretty soon. I’ll never find them that way, because of Our Dear Sweet Boy, but you can see where plenty will. And rarely, outside of Vegas last year, does the hot new thing that everyone likes with all the fun stuff ever go very far. And the Caps are just the the kind of tried and trusted yet boring-ass team that snuffs this kind of thing out with no mirth whatsoever. The Authority always wins Let’s see if we can find a way to an upset.

Goalies: The only longer shot to leading a revival than Jordan Binnington had to be Curtis McElhinney, who is 35 and already proven to be an NHL journeyman. Then he and Petr Mrazek put up a ridiculous February, the Canes got hot, and here we are. But McElhinney has only been so-so since, and was actually pretty bad in March as the Canes made the playoff chase harder than it needed to be. So another unlikely revival came to save the day, as Mrazek has been on fire for the whole of the spring, and he has taken the job and will start tonight. But it’s still Petr Mrazek, who was basically woeful for three years before this. The Canes certainly limit what their goalies have to do, which is good, because other than recency you’d be awfully afraid of Mrazek having to do that much.

Meanwhile, Braden Holtby basically did what he did last year, which is kind of just be ok. His numbers are pretty much on-line with what he did last season, and then of course he turned it on in the playoffs, took his job back after a game and a half, and ended covered in beer. That’s probably been his plan all along. So while he might not looked all that good in the season, his playoff record is what it is. He’ll take some beating, because history says he’s going to turn back to Vezina-level now.

Defense: You won’t find a better defense than Carolina’s, and it’s getting Calvin de Haan back. It includes the best d-man who’s never considered among the top tier but the metrics say he is in Dougie Hamilton. It’s got another premier puck-mover in Justin Faulk. It’s got two guys who dominated the dungeon shifts before Dougie’s arrival in Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin.

And then there’s Maude (TVR).

It can do anything, it does everything, and is the main reason why the Canes remain one of the more dominant even-strength possession teams around. When it comes to possession and expected-goals, the Canes are the best.

The Caps will be hamstrung by Michal Kempny being injured, which is a sentence that also hurts to write. Still. He provided a platform for John Carlson to pull something of a cowboy act, and now that appears to fall to Nick Jensen, who was a Red Wing d-man so you know he sucks. Orlov and Niskanen still do the mine-sweeping here, and if they don’t get the pop they got from Carlson this spring as they did last (and all season) then they lack a little punch from the back. Or if they’re getting buried because Kempny isn’t around to spring Carlson. And there’s still a belief that Brooks Orpik will cause damage at some point. Against a team loaded with fast, nippy forwards would seem the prime time for that.

Forwards: Once again, you’ve got a classic tale of Star Power vs. The Collective. Which is what last year’s Final was supposedly. How’d that go?

It’s something of a disservice to Sebastien Aho, who is a genuine star or will be one day very soon. But he is not Nicklas Backstrom, at least not yet even though he outscored him this year. And there’s our Darling Finnish Prince, but of course he is not Alex Ovechkin. Justin Williams is a fine leader and gritty gutty guy, but the Caps answer with TJ Oshie.

The Canes do have some depth, as Nino Neiderreiter showed up, was nearly a point-per-game, and was the perfect Cane which everyone except for Minnesota predicted. McGinn, Foegle, Martinook have chipped in with big goals as the Canes locked down a playoff spot. Still, Jordan Staal is a #3 center miscast as a #2 here, and you can see where this could be a problem.

Because not only do the Caps have stars, not only do they have pedigree, but they also have depth. And where the Canes are trying to convince you Staal can score, the Caps have Kuznetsov who does. The Caps boast seven 20-goal scorers. The Canes have four. Eller and Burakovsky are always lurking down at the bottom of the lineup, along with Brett Connolly. Carl Hagelin has been a playoff hero before. and he’s down there too.

Prediction: This is something of a classic matchup, where one team’s strength goes right up against another’s. The Canes have the deepest defense in the East, possibly in the entire playoffs. The Caps have forwards for days. So it would be easy to think this is where the series is decided.

Except the Caps aren’t weak defensively. Or more to the point, they have good players on defense. But this year, they’ve given up more chances than before, and have one of the worst expected-goals against in the league. They were seriously only a little better than the Hawks in that category. But the Caps do what they always do, which is outshoot their problems, with a league-leading 10.0 SH% at evens. Do the Canes have enough scoring to make that weaker defensive play hurt against Washington while surviving the firing squad at the other end? With Petr Mrazek? You can almost make the case. Just not quite.

Caps in seven. 

Everything Else

Only in this way is it a shame that Russia-US relations are headed to Cold War status soon, because Alex Ovechkin should be considered an imported treasure, if not a national one. But being a close friend of The Shirtless Rider in charge over there probably won’t help his cause in a lot of eyes. Either way, we’ve spent years talking about what a true phenomenon Ovechkin is and has been. He’s leading the league in goals again at 33. and it doesn’t feel like he’s going to stop doing that anytime soon. What’s peculiar about this year is how he’s going about it.

Ovechkin used to score his usual avalanche of goals by sheer volume of shots. Think Matthew Stafford. No player in history averaged the five shots per game that Ovechkin routinely put up. although he hasn’t done that in a couple years. And while he had a decent accuracy on them, the fact that he found a way to get a puck through more than anyone else from anywhere is the reason he was always atop the scoring charts.

That’s not so this year. Ovie is only averaging 3.96 shots per game, his second-lowest since 2012 when Adam Oates tried to turn him into a fucking checking winger. As far as rates go, Ovie is only getting 11.2 shots per 60 minutes total on net, a low since that Oates-era confusion. His 17.7 SH% are a career-high this year, which explains the 33 goals.

It’s even more pronounced at even-strength. Alex The Great is only getting 8.9 shots per 60 at 5-on-5, when he’s comfortably been over 10 per 60 for his entire career. Again, his 17.5 SH% at even-strength is a career-high, and by some distance. The best he had done before was last year’s 12.8%. He’s not really making it up on the power play either, averaging less shots there than he has in seven seasons and with less accuracy. This could be the third-straight season his power play goals tally declines.

Which would lead one to ask if Ovie is just finding better spots to get a higher percentage of shots to the twine, or he’s just getting luckier. It looks like the latter. Ovechkin is nearly doubling his expected individual goals for per 60, which is 0.83 and he’s actually potted 1.58. This is by far the highest difference in the last five years. Now to be clear, Ovechkin is always going to outshoot what the percentages say he “should” score, because his shot is just that heavy. But doubling it up is pushing it. It also doesn’t suggest he’s getting to any different areas or getting chances he didn’t before. His expected-goals rate is below what it was last year, so he might not even be getting the same chances as before, though he’s pretty much in line with the past few years on that.

All of which would lead you to believe that if you wanted to wager that the decline is coming for Ovie next year, it might be smart money. Hell, he’s only got three in his last 14 right now, so it might already be here. Going five percent over your career-high in shooting-percentage is a neat trick at 33, and one that’s hard to maintain. That doesn’t mean Ovie is going to be a detriment or anything close to it. But it might behoove the Caps to start planning on him being a 25-30 goal guy soon, because underneath the fireworks, that’s the way things are trending.

 

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Japers Rink has been among the gold-standard in team blogs for over a decade. They lent us Greg this morning. 

The Caps for the second straight year are kinda weird. Theyre near the top of the Metro, so no problems there, but their metrics say they shouldn’t be. Braden Holtby has been good, but short of great. Is it just as simple as the top line is always going to outshoot the percentages and they get just enough saves to make that count? Or just weird?
 
We’ve been wondering the same thing! There’s been a bit of debate amongst Caps fans about how good our team is this year, and this is something I speculated a bit about this on our site’s podcast earlier this week. I tend to think that the Caps will outperform their expected goal metrics to some degree (Kevin Klein explained why this keeps happening earlier this year, and having the skill of the Capitals helps generally in this area)…but they were still due for some regression this year, because they were outperforming their metrics by an even more extreme degree. The fact that our power play has come crashing back down to earth and is now ranked 11th in the NHL isn’t helping matters much.
One positive note, as your question referenced, has been the goaltending for the Capitals this year. Braden Holtby has bounced back, and is returning closer to his career norms in Save % (.912 this year) and Goals Against Per Game (2.82 this year.) We’ve also been impressed with backup and human typo Pheonix Copley, who is close to Holtby in Save % and GAA.
Ultimately, I still think the Capitals are safely a playoff team, and we’re ultimately still talking about a team with a number of elite-level players, but things definitely aren’t perfect over here in D.C.
You wouldn’t say Evgeni Kuznetsov is having a bad year, as he’s still close to a point per game. But only eight goals after 27 last year in a more free-scoring environment. Just rotten luck on the shooting-percentage?
 
I wouldn’t say it’s just rotten shooting percentage luck…though he seems pretty likely to improve from a 1.54% (!!) shooting percentage at 5v5. Anecdotally, Kuznetsov has been making some strange decisions in the neutral zone,  is turning the puck over pretty frequently in all zones, and just seems…off. One note is that he did suffer a concussion earlier this year, which he still maybe recovering from, even though he’s in the lineup. We’ve noticed this with Capitals players before, that sometimes it can take a couple of months after a concussion to start getting back in the swing of things.
The Caps find themselves in an interesting spot down the road. Both Backstrom and Holtby will be up for extensions in the summer. Both will be over 30. How careful do the Caps want to be with this or will they hand both significant raises from their current bargain rates of $6 million per year?
Backstrom first: Backstrom’s next contract is going to be a fascinating puzzle for GM Brian MacLellan to solve. Backstrom has consistently managed to hover around a point per game throughout his tenure, a pace he’s continuing this year. His value isn’t just offensive though, he’s continued to draw key defensive assignments, and former head coach Barry Trotz was always vouching for him to get Selke consideration. Yet, at the same time, Backstrom will be 32 when his next contract is discussed, which is a dangerous age to be giving away massive free agent contracts. Personally, I think they’ll have to get a deal done (maybe around 6-7 million a year?), and his legendary passing ability may help stave off a drastic decline in his late 30’s.
Holtby, to me, is a bit clearer of a case. The Capitals top prospect is goaltender Ilya Samsonov, and a lot of people envisioned him taking over the starting job once Holtby’s contract expires. Unfortunately, Samsonov has struggled a bit in Hershey, which has perhaps slowed the calls for him to immediately take over from Holtby. Here, I think the Capitals have the benefit of waiting. If Holtby plays consistently well this and next year and Samsonov continues struggling, they can absolutely work out an extension. However, if Samsonov looks ready and Holtby starts a bit of a decline, it could be time for a transition in net.
What might the Caps do around the deadline and what are you expecting from them in the spring?
 
I’m actually working on a piece now about this, so stay tuned for more details! Generally, at the deadline, I’d expect them to get a depth forward and maybe another depth defenseman. The problem is that the Caps have basically no cap space (around 400k, according to Capfriendly), which limits any deals. 
 
The expectation here is that the high talented but inconsistent Andre Burakovsky seems likely to be traded  which could free up around $3 million in cap space. He’s fallen out of favor with the Capitals brass and has been healthy scratched a few times this year, so he could use a change of scenery. There could be a fit by trading Burakovsky either for another player who could use a change of scenery, or maybe to a talent-starved team in exchange for a forward on an expiring deal.

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