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.

Everything Else

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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