Monday, April 16, 2018

A Glutton for Punishment

For the second time in two games, the Capitals blew an early 2 goal lead and lost in overtime.

Also for the second time in two games, the Blue Jackets were the big kids on the block.

Coincidence?  Probably not.

Through two games, the BJs have amassed four goaltender interference penalties, have injured two Capitals, and have dominated Grubauer's goal crease.  Last night, four of Columbus' five goals, including the overtime game winner, were scored from 20 feet or less.  Through two games and nine goals, the average distance from the net for Columbus goals is 18 feet- 13.5 feet when discounting Zach Werenski's blue line wrister through Route 66 evening rush hour traffic.

The Capitals, meanwhile, have just two goals from within 20 feet, averaging 27 feet per goal thus far.

In game 1, the Capitals mustered 30 shots on goal, scoring thrice, at an average distance of 40.733 feet.  Of those thirty shots, five were from within 20 feet.  In game 2, the team through everything at Sergei Bobrovsky, somehow managing 58 shots on goal- this time at an average of 40.759 feet.  Of those 58 shots, 20 were from within 20 feet.  Massive progress, for sure, but not enough, as Bobrovsky showed why he is a two-time Vezina winner.

Interestingly enough, the Blue Jackets averaged 45.889 and 45.1 feet per shot in games 1 and 2, respectively.  In game 1, four shots were from within 20 feet, netting three goals.  In game 2, six shots were from within 20 feet, netting four goals.  They banged home their close chances by controlling rebounds and dominating at home plate.

I cannot stress this enough.

The Capitals are getting bullied and are, in typical Ted Leonsis-led fashion, overly reliant on a dominant power play generating distance shots with incredible accuracy.  Washington has scored two even strength goals on home ice in two games.

Columbus has otherworldly goaltending, allowing the ninth fewest even strength goals (2.05/game) while playing in a division that scored the most.  The Capitals tied for sixth in even strength goals scored, or 2.4/game.

If there is any hope of turning the series around, it will come from even strength play.  If there is any hope of even strength play generating offense, then the Capitals need to generate more chances close to the net, and to convert them, while limiting those allowed by the defense.

For that to happen, the team needs to win in the paint.

Edit: Andre Burakovsky is out for games 3 and 4 and will not travel with the team, due to the hit detailed here.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Morning After Pill

The Washington Capitals surprisingly outshot the Columbus Blue Jackets last night, though your hometown heroes got fewer pucks in the net, losing 4-3 in overtime.  On home ice.  In Game 1.

Folks, we have been down this road before.  An opposing player was able to knock out a top four defenseman unchecked, Jakub Vrana apologists cry bloody murder because the forward with the lowest corsi was buried in ice time, and the Capitals' dominant power play was not enough to punch home a win.

Artemi Panarin delivered a Hall of Fame quality performance, including potting a beautiful OT winner from a tough angle.  Worse is that the Capitals had numbers and good positioning.  Panarin is just that good.

The Capitals were able to jump on the Jackets at the end of the first, led by Evgeny Kuznetsov's dominant skating, to take a 2-0 lead.

What we would like to see next game:

  • Philipp Grubauer keeps the net.  He played well.
  • Christian Djoos in the lineup.  If Michal Kempny is good to go, then Jakub Jerabek should sit.  He was invisible.  With five defensemen in a 66 minute game, he played 13:17.  NEXT!
  • Obviously, if Jay Beagle is healthy, then he plays and Chandler Stephenson sits.  If Beagle is not good to go, then Stephenson still sits, and Shane Gersich (we love how his name resembles our newest SCOTUS justice) plays.  Stephenson was the only player to not manage a shot attempt - Brooks Orpik got 4!
  • Speaking of Brooks, he had a hell of a game.  He only played 19:39 in spite of Kempny's early injury, but managed to shine during this time, finishing with a 60.7 corsi rating and a big hit on Ian Cole that sent the latter's stick flying like a helicopter.
  • No other changes.  Keep everything else exactly the same.  Minor tinkering is okay.  Wholesale roster makeovers are bad.
Stay tuned for Game 2 on Sunday.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Playoff predictions: first round

The most exciting time in sports, hockey's second season, begins tonight.  For the next two weeks, the NHL's sweet sixteen will do battle for the chance to advance to the second round, that mythical but oh-too-real glass ceiling the Capitals seem unable to shatter.  But first, our bold predictions.

Eastern Conference

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. New Jersey Devils

It was a mistake to trade Vladislav Namestnikov, who at times drove play on what was the best line in hockey.  J.T. Miller shone in Tampa, and Ryan McDonagh is an improvement on an already deep defensive corps, but the hit to the top line chemistry may be too much to overcome.  Nikita Kucherov, one of the most potent snipers in the game, was noticeably less effective without Namestnikov on his opposite wing, managing only 6 goals in 17 games after the trade deadline.  With Steven Stamkos's health up in the air, Tampa's ability to match New Jersey's top line offense may be muted, but make no mistake: this is an elite team stacked with talent throughout.  Led by Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall, who will be making his long-awaited playoff debut tomorrow, the Devils will have their hands full.  Marcus Johansson was supposed to be a key cog, but he has been out since January with concussion problems.  Winning the right to draft Nico Hischier was a blessing, but the team is in the first year of a long rebuild.  Tampa overwhelms New Jersey in 5.

Washington Capitals vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

What else can be said that has not been beaten to death already?  Your Washington Capitals impressed the field, far exceeding expectations in spite of serious underlying problems.  The team was strong down the stretch too, finishing 15-7 since acquiring Michal Kempny.  Since Philipp Grubauer took over the starting role, the team has been particularly scorching, and he was rewarded with the start in Game 1.  But the woes get worse when considering just how top heavy this team is: Alex Ovechkin scored 18.9% of the team's goals; if the Capitals win the Cup, that will be the largest share of team goals since Teemu Selanne in 2007.  A disciplined team can limit their exposure to the greatest shooter of all time by simply staying out of the box.  Unfortunately, the first round opponent is highly disciplined: Columbus was shorthanded just 214 times.  Only Carolina stayed out of the box more.  Sergei Bobrovsky was his usual dominant self, though he took a step back from last year.  The bigger concern is the Bread Man, who controlled play at even strength better than almost the whole circuit.  If the Capitals can jump on Columbus' mistakes, and keep out of the box themselves, this series should be a breeze.  Realistically, this goes the distance.  Washington in 7.

Boston Bruins vs. Toronto Maple Leafs

Boston head coach Bruce Cassidy was a disappointment behind the bench in Washington, losing in dramatic fashion to Tampa Bay before tanking for Ovechkin.  Back in the league for the first time since 2003, he has a lot to prove.  Bouncing back from two straight seasons of golfing in April, the Bruins are the best team in the East, led by an 80 year old defenseman and a generational talent in Patrice Bergeron.  Toronto rode the backs of their rookies last year to a six game defeat at the hands of the Capitals, and they will fall short of expectations this year, as they draw the toughest slot in the tournament.  Auston Mathews was banged up, but managed to score a point per game, and is developing into a dominant center in his own right.  But the Bruins will prove too much for the youngster and his cadre, as Boston wins handily, in 5.

No time to write the others, so a quick dump:

Pitt over Philly in 6
Nashville over Colorado in 5
Winnipeg over Minnesota in 4
LA over Vegas in 7
Anaheim over San Jose in 5

Monday, April 2, 2018

Capitals clinch third straight Metropolitan Division title

With a huge win in Pittsburgh last night, the Washington Capitals captured the Metropolitan Division title for the third straight season.  This marks the eighth time in Alex Ovechkin's thirteen seasons that the Caps will finish tops in their division (previously the Southeast).

What's more is the performance on the ice last night.  Philipp Grubauer's magical 2018 continued, as he saved 37 shots in the 3-1 victory, nearly pitching a shutout save for yet another defensive breakdown.  Jakub Vrana was the backchecker but missed his mark, forcing Dmitry Orlov to take the low man, which left Patric Hornqvist wide open for a goal that even Patrik Stefan would bang.

In spite of that blunder (and many others), though, Grubauer stood tall.  As we have argued before here at Contrarian Sports, Grubauer has earned the starting job, leading the team when the defense has failed- something starter Braden Holtby has not been able to do this season.

Grubauer was snakebitten to start the season, earning his first win (3-1 home win over Tampa Bay) in his 9th game, and 7th start.  Since then, however, he has been the man, with a .940 save percent and an absolutely insane 1.838 GAA to go with 3 shutouts, going 15-4-2 during his run.  What's more: 18 of his 27 starts are on the road, and he has posted a respectable 9-6-3 record; Philipp is 1-3 when starting the second game of a back-to-back, or 8-3-3 when the team is rested.

His even strength save percent is .935, on par with Sergei Bobrovsky, Marc-Andre Fleury, and likely Vezina winner Pekka Rinne.  Holtby has a respectable .915, which is a far cry from the .930 career even strength save percent he has earned prior to 2017-18.

It is worth noting that despite his woes, Holtby has posted a great record against Eastern Conference playoff teams: 12-5-2.  So all is not lost.  However, we have seen time and time again that the better goalie is not necessarily the winner; the hot goalie is.

And right now, Grubauer is the hot hand.  

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Persistent Problem

Even in today's watered down game, playing a home-and-home with a division rival usually leads to bad blood.  This is especially true when one team has something to play for besides points in the standings.  

The Washington Capitals and New York Islanders matched up on Thursday and Friday, in what promised to be a physical pair of games.  The Islanders delivered; the Capitals, not so much.

In 2015, the two played an incredibly physical series by today's standards, capped off with Tom Wilson ending Lubomir Visnovsky's career in one of the most brutal hits we have seen post-lockout.  The severely outmatched Islanders were only able to respond by letting Anders Lee get pounded by pre-suspension Wilson, who was still playing with reckless abandon.

This new Capitals squad, however, has no identity.  No longer do the Capitals have a stifling defense, three scoring lines, and a Vezina candidate in goal.  Beyond TomLineTommy, the Capitals physical response is limited to an 80 year Brooks Orpik, and a cadre of non-fighters who watch their teammates get steamrolled like back in the good ol' Bruce Boudreau days.

Cal Clutterbuck is a rat, incredibly effective at getting under the opponent's skin.  The Thursday match-up saw him get under Wilson's skin; the Friday match-up saw him take a run at hot streak TJ Oshie, who has been dealing with concussion issues.  Thomas Hickey is scrappy too, always playing on the edge; on Friday he rammed Jakub Vrana into the boards well after the whistle, and injured Evgeny Kuznetsov with a well placed and timed slash.  

And the Capitals responded with the powerplay.  It is good to win on the scoresheet, but it is betterto protect your teammates- with talent on the shelf, it is impossible to win.  

At Contrarian Sports, we sadly recognize that the age of the true enforcer is gone.  However, that does not mean the Capitals have to be so damn easy to play against.  What is truly puzzling is that Barry Trotz, a coach well known for not developing youth talent, would consistently prefer to play guys like Alex Chiasson, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Chandler Stephenson 12 minutes per game, while encouraging Wilson to clean up his game, instead of deploying even one guy to provide some semblance of physicality beyond the top trio of forwards.

Again, this does not mean the Capitals should bring in a guy like Joel Rechlicz, as much as we would love that.  But, with guys like Antoine Roussel, Zack Kassian, and Nick Ritchie playing significant roles and bringing grit, actual grit, not repeatedly-get-hammered-and-get-up-just-to-get-clobbered-again "grit" the Capitals seem to love so much, the proof is out there that scrappy forwards still very much belong in the game (there is no sense bringing up Matt Tkachuk, Ryan Hartman, Austin Watson, etc., because they were highly rated prospects whom the Capitals obviously had no real opportunity to target).  

It is embarrassing that the Capitals now have to enter another tough stretch of games, kicked off with a road game in Philly, without the team's second top scorer, who may be out for a significant amount of time.  Injuries happen- but injuries caused at the hands of an opponent without fear of retribution only cause more injuries to occur.

This team has enough hurdles already; no need to add more by getting pushed around and hurt.