On Wednesday night the Capitals beat the Flyers 4-1 in a tough, tight, bruising affair. There were multiple skirmishes and Matt Niskanen left the ice with a lower-body injury, but the Capitals played a controlled brand of hockey and kept a desperate Flyers team in check, getting back in the W column after falling to the bye week curse with back-to-back losses. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored twice, and Nicklas Backstrom continued to be red hot with a two-point night.
This game was neck-and-neck through 40 minutes, with five-on-five shot attempts tied at 35 a piece to start the third period. The Caps held back after their fourth goal, and shot attempts ended up at 54 to 46 in favor of the Flyers. Washington did a good job getting in lanes and blocking shots, as unblocked shot attempts were almost even at 36 to 35 for the Flyers.
Before the bye week, the Washington Capitals had been on a 119-point pace. Since the bye week, with just one loser point in two games, the Caps are now on a 20.5-point pace, making them the worst team not just in the league, but in the history of the league — edging out the 1974-75 Capitals by half a standings point.
Yes, one weekend of shooting 4.3 percent has been devastating for what was once the league’s best team. As we all know, taking a week off from hockey has a well documented depressive effect on shooting percentages. Now we’re left to reconcile with the post-Valentine’s Day Caps, who — it turns out — are still really good.
In this week’s snapshot, let’s take a look at what happens if and when the bottom falls out.
We’ve gotten used to elite goaltending in Washington — to the point that it might be taken for granted that Braden Holtby is in line for his second straight Vezina Trophy. This would be a big deal not just because it’s a prestigious trophy at an elite position, but also because it would make him the first goalie to win it back-to-back since Martin Brodeur did so in 2007 and 2008.
Even more impressive is that in the modern era of the trophy (since 1981) it’s only been won back-to-back by Brodeur, Patrick Roy, and Dominik Hasek — arguably the three greatest goalies of all time.
But by no means is it a slam dunk. Holtby’s toughest competition is Sergei Bobrovsky from the Columbus Blue Jackets and Devan Dubnyk of the Minnesota Wild. The race is close, with Holtby and Dubnyk currently neck-and-neck.
This weekend the Capitals dropped back-to-back road games to the Red Wings and the Rangers, losing two in a row for the first time since late December. The NHL is piloting a new “bye week” this season, whereby each team gets a five to seven-day mid-season break.
This weekend marked the Caps’ return from their own bye week and the continuation of what has been dubbed “the bye-week curse.” So far, 16 of 19 teams (including the Caps) have lost their first post-bye game.
Time to check in on one of my favorite data visualizations. Concocted by Tyler Dellow a few years back, this is a colorful way to look at how ice time and shot attempts are distributed.
I’ve performed this exercise a few times, most recently October 2015. This season paints a stark picture that you can’t miss.
Karl Alzner is the iron man of the Washington Capitals. In every game since October 8, 2010, Alzner has played a vital role: lots of minutes against tough competition, plus killing penalties.
While Alzner is an unspectacular player (the polar opposite of Alex Ovechkin), he had been solid in his role. And with a $2.8-million RFA deal, Alzner had been affordable too.
But there has been a stark change in Alzner’s impact this season, and it puts the Caps in a difficult position as we near the trade deadline and, this summer, free agency.
TJ Oshie has been just about a perfect fit for the Caps since coming to the team during the summer of 2015. He’s been excellent in the role envisioned for him: a top-six wing to play the right side with a healthy mix of skill and physicality. Oshie’s tenacious forechecking has fit in great on the Caps first line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and TJ has proven he can keep up with his superstar linemates, as he’s posted his two best goal scoring seasons of his career while in DC.
Oshie, who is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, has fit in so well that it may seem like a foregone conclusion that the team should make re-signing him a top priority. While it’s possible there are scenarios that could play out to make bringing Oshie back a no-brainer, there’s plenty of reasons for the Caps to be very cautious when considering whether or not they should re-sign him.
The Washington Capitals have been using faceoff set plays in the offensive zone to generate scoring chances this season. The key to these plays is adding new wrinkles, making them harder to read for the opposition.
The Caps’ most common faceoff play is the direct win to Alex Ovechkin for a shot, but the Caps have many others, some of which we will be focusing on here.
On Saturday night the Caps beat the Anaheim Ducks by a score of 6-4, making it their record 11th home game in a row scoring at least five goals. This team has completely forgotten what a low-scoring game is. The match also featured a dramatic go-ahead goal late in the third by Zach Sanford, for his first NHL tally, as well as milestone points by TJ Oshie and Nick Backstrom.
The Caps had a few defensive breakdowns as the game wore on, but they put consistent pressure on the Ducks. They tallied 38 shots on goal (to just 22 against), and their five-on-five shot differentials for the three periods were plus-seven, plus-two, and plus-eight. The bye week starts now, and the Caps get some much-deserved rest.
Thursday evening started with a large dose of heartwarming when Fatima Al Ali, the Caps’ guest from the UAE, dropped the puck for the opening faceoff and took one of the best selfies of all time. It ended with the Capitals beating the Detroit Red Wings by a score of 6-3, scoring five or more goals at home for the tenth time in a row. Time is a flat circle.
This win came with the rarest of stats — Alex Ovechkin did not have a single shot on goal. This is the first time the Caps’ captain has been held shotless in 315 games. That’s 35 percent of his career. Overall, the Caps played a particularly deadly brand of hockey, outshooting the Wings 47 shot attempts to 29 at five-on-five and beating them resoundingly in scoring chances, 29 to 16.
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