Washington Re-Capitals: Week Four

Well, I don’t know about you, but 2-1 is a good place to pause Alex and Nicky’s Epic Canadian Road Trip, especially one we went into without a single win on the road this season. There’s one more away game against Montreal before we return mostly victorious, to Capital One Arena, but given our success against strong teams (the Calgary Flames), a rousing defeat of a team missing one of their superstars (the Vancouver Canucks), and an extremely strange and unnerving performance against Connor McDavid, I don’t think there’s too much to worry about. The Capitals we know and love are back, and boy, are they not playing defense.

Status Cup-date

Record: 5-3-2 (Home: 3-1-1 / Away: 2-2-1)

Standing: 3rd Metropolitan / 9th Eastern

Goals For: 39

Goals Against: 37

Team Leaders:

  • Goals: Alex Ovechkin (8)
  • Assists: Nicklas Backstrom (11)
  • Points: Evgeny Kuznetsov (15)
  • PIM: Evgeny Kuznetsov (12), Jakub Vrana (12), and Michal Kempny (12)

Game Recap-ital(s)

22nd October: Washington Capitals @ Vancouver Canucks, 10:00pm EDT (W 5-2)

Before this game, Vancouver’s goal differential was in the negatives. After this game, Vancouver’s goal differential was definitely in the negatives. That’s all that needs to be said about a Vancouver team that’s struggled to find its footing after the departure of the Sedins, clocking in at .500 but somehow maintaining their position as 1st in the Pacific Division (which should tell you a lot about how the Pacific Division is doing this year, but I digress).

Two minutes into the first, John Carlson opened up the scoring from noted third line pinball wizard Jakub Vrana. The rest of the first felt like it went by in a flash — the penalty kill kept Vancouver off the board and the power play saw some good chances, but maintained the lead through the end of the period. The biggest highlight of the first was Fourth Line Goon Andre Burakovsky’s biggest hit of the century on Troy Stetcher (remember that name, it’s going to come back later) .

Yep! Despite all appearances, that is Andre Burakovsky, and not someone possessing the body of an Andre Burakovsky clone. Wow.

Of course, because Fate is a devil, Troy Stetcher scored a third of the way through the second, off a shot that glanced off Dowd’s glove to tie the game. But never fear, Evgeny Kuznetsov is here! The Caps headed to the power play roughly a minute later thanks to a Gudbranson crosscheck and Kuzy made the most of it, scoring his fifth power play goal of the season.

Things to keep in mind: EK92’s career best is seven power play goals. Other things to keep in mind: October isn’t even over yet. Even more things to keep in mind: per Mike Vogel, Kuzy has 11 power play goals in his last 40 games, including playoffs, and has achieved that through doubling his even strength shooting percentage on the power play. That’s elite.

Ovechkin, ever the hero, extended the lead by one more in the final minute of the second, and the Capitals went into the second intermission feeling fine and dandy (despite a Backstrom tripping penalty to end the period that would carry over into the first minute and a half of the third).

The third period was a special teams showdown — on the Backstrom tripping penalty kill, Sven Baertschi scored his third of the season off assists from Brock Boeser and Bo Horvat. Washington countered with Ovechkin’s second of the night and eighth of the season, off a picture perfect set of feeds from John Carlson and, you guessed it, King of the Narrative, Nicklas Backstrom, who notched the six hundredth assist of his NHL career on the play.

Imagine having six hundred of anything. Wow.

With six hundred assists, Backstrom extends a nearly 130 assist lead on Claude Giroux, the next most prolific teammate helper from the 2006 draft class and a 155 assist lead on Phil Kessel, who clocks in at third. Backstrom has more than two times the assists of Milan Lucic (290, on October 22nd), who comes in at fifth. That’s right. The separation between first place and fifth is more than three hundred assists. And he did it in Vancouver, where he was drafted a little over twelve years ago, by the Great 8 himself.

What a time to live in.

Nicklas Backstrom, as usual, chose to celebrate this achievement by dissociating on live television.

And then, the Capitals threw the fandom into chaos.

With 1:47 left in the third period, Alexander Ovechkin, dad, approaches the defensive blue line with the puck on his stick, thanks to Nicklas Backstrom. He looks at T.J. Oshie, flanked by two Canucks on the other side of the blue line, and decides to forge forward on his own. T.J. splits the two Canucks and crosses the center red line while Ovechkin does his magic tricks and finds a way out of the coverage to cross the red line himself, then dishes a pass out to Oshie, who is unguarded (except for one Canuck who slow motion record scratch realizes what’s happening as the puck connects with Oshie’s stick and tries to get as far back as possible). Ovechkin then zooms toward the empty net, as one does, which gives Oshie valuable time and space to wait, embarrass a defender, and take a shot.

There are arguments on both sides of the line — T.J. Oshie stole the Dadtrick, but is it stealing if Ovi gave it to him? But what truly matters is that the Capitals walked away from that Canucks game with their heads held high, another W in the books, and Connor McDavid in their sight lines. Or, at least, we thought they had Connor McDavid in their sight lines. But that’s another problem for another day.

25th October: Washington Capitals @ Edmonton Oilers, 9:00pm EDT (L 4-1)

The Music Curse has turned on the Capitals.

After watching Braden Holtby play an impressive set in Whistler, B.C., the boys lost to former Capital Alex Chiasson and the Edmonton Oilers in a win headlined by noted Shell of a Man Connor McDavid, who played 21:15 minutes, the greatest among Oilers forwards. Leon Draisaitl was the next most utilized forward at 20:16. Out of the six players who played more than 20 minutes that night, two are forwards. In my humble, unnecessarily confident opinion, the Capitals (who lost and lost hard) aren’t even the most important storyline of the game — is Connor McDavid okay? Can that level of responsibility and production be sustained?

Is that even safe?

All things the NHLPA should be focusing on instead of what they are (by the way, Tom Wilson’s appeal failed, and I am ecstatic, thank you very much).

The lone Capitals goal of the night was Andre Burakovsky’s first of the season, from Nic Dowd and John Carlson, and that’s about where the positives ended for the Capitals, other than Holtby saving a frankly ridiculous shot from McDavid early in the first.

We can also raise our total of first NHL goals allowed by one more, thanks to Evan Bouchard’s first NHL goal to open the scoring. Other side note — is he okay? Are any of them okay?

This game was a special teams bloodbath — of the Oilers’ four goals, one was scored on the powerplay (Evan Bouchard from Yamamoto and Rieder), one was shorthanded (RNH unassisted, thanks to a Carlson turnover), one was at even strength (Alex Chiasson from Rieder and Larsson), and one was an empty netter (Connor McDavid from RNH and Cam Talbot [yes, their goalie scored on us]), which I guess should theoretically count as shorthanded, since the Capitals had an extra attacker. The Capitals took four penalties to Edmonton’s one and the Oilers converted on one, which is really all it takes, and destroyed the Caps on their only power play of the night. Who knew Milan Lucic could help the Oilers more by being off the ice?

The Capitals did not come out on top tonight, but there’s still one more game against Edmonton this season (on the 5th of November, so we won’t be waiting too long for a rematch), and that one’s on home turf. The Oilers may have had their home field advantage, but they better watch out. Our time is coming.

27th October: Washington Capitals @ Calgary Flames, 4:00pm EDT (SOW 4-3)

This game killed me emotionally, between the lineup change, normal Capitals shenanigans, and complete lack of attention to defense, but I’m fine now, so let’s take a good swing at it.

Jakub Vrana, who took his two game demotion to the third line as a message, opened the scoring midway through the first to start the game on a high note. Whatever they’re drinking down there on the Capitals’ third line, I want some. They’re reinventing themselves every night and making positive progress. That’s incredible. I’m going to give all the credit to Lars Eller, because he’s perfect.

The Washington power play returned from Hell to convert for the first time since Ovi’s goal in Vancouver with an Oshie goal from Ovechkin and Kuznestov. I’d make a joke about the Russian Connection now, but I was too deep in reading about how the two goal lead in hockey is the most indefensible lead in the sport, and it was thematically appropriate, given the fact that, by the end of the first, Calgary had scored twice more — an even strength goal by Hamonic (from Monahan and Gaudreau) and a power play marker by Lindholm (from Gaudreau and Giordano).

The sole goal of the second, thankfully, gave the Capitals back their lead for the second to last time that night — Matt Niskanen scored off a feed from Brett Connolly (who now has seven points in the last ten games) and Dmitrij Jaskin, who scored his first point as a Capital with that assist. Given that Jaskin has only scored 62 points in 273 NHL games, I wouldn’t expect to see his name on the scoreboard again anytime soon, but oh well, pobody’s nerfect.

Unfortunately, in the last minute and a half of the third, Matthew Tkachuk scored his fourth of the season to send the game to overtime, and then, after an entirely unproductive five minutes, to the shootout.

The shootout was what truly put the feather in Copley’s cap that night — he turned away three out of Calgary’s four attempts (successful: Monahan, unsuccessful: Tkachuk, Neal and Gaudreau) for the win while Mike Smith, million year old caveman turned away only two of Washington’s four (successful: Kuznetsov and Backstrom, unsuccessful: Oshie and Carlson).

Side note: in a world where Alex Ovechkin exists, why is John Carlson our third shooter? Even against Mike Smith. Come on, Caps. Do better. (That being said, I do like Shootout Hero T.J. Oshie going first and fully support that message.)

All in all, we got the W. It doesn’t matter how we got it, to paraphrase Controversial Analytics Enemy Ben Bishop of the Dallas Stars. Just got to close our eyes, holler at the top of our lungs, and keep running toward Montreal.

Next Week’s Games

  • 1st November: Washington Capitals @ Montreal Canadiens, 7:30pm EDT
  • 3rd November: Dallas Stars @ Washington Capitals, 7:00pm EDT

Weather Forecast

The Montreal Canadiens are the more pressing concern of the two, simply because we have two less days to prepare for them. The Habs are coming off a 3-0 win against their dreaded rivals, the Boston Bruins, and are third in the Atlantic with a 6-2-2 record. Their goal differential (+8, 33 GF and 25 GA) is ridiculous and probably tied to the fact that the strength of their schedule has been a little lacking (they’ve played the Kings, Red Wings, Blues, Senators and Sabres in their first ten games — when half of your first ten games are against teams that either claim to be tanking, look like they’re tanking, or fruitlessly promise their fanbases that they’re tanking, forgive me for not taking your results too seriously).

They have, however, beaten the Penguins twice, once in regulation (5-1 on the 6th of October) and once in the shootout (4-3 on the 13th of October), so maybe these new look Canadiens are here to stay. They are riding a Max Domi point streak, as well as relying heavily on excellent performances by Drouin, Tatar, Lehkonen, Byron and Gallagher, but the Capitals’ top six is in a position to not only embarrass, but decimate the Habs, so long as Nicklas Backstrom stays out of the penalty box.

The Dallas Stars shouldn’t be as hard to put to bed. Sixth in the Central Division with a 5-5-0 record, the Dallas Stars have struggled to keep their goal differential positive this season, thanks to starting goalie and Analytics Nonbeliever Ben Bishop and injuries to key players like Alex Radulov (lower body, out since 10/19), Marc Methot (lower body injury, out since 10/25) and Stephen Johns (out since 9/29 with possible post-concussion syndrome). However, just because their former Canadien linemate is missing in action doesn’t mean that Benn and Seguin haven’t been carrying this team to victory, as per usual: Seguin has eleven points (3G, 8A) in nine games played, and Benn has four goals and four assists in the same span.

Seguin’s shooting percentage of 5.8% is abysmally low, and as an upcoming UFA, he has a lot to prove over the course of this season — look for his already dangerous point totals to skyrocket in the long term as he regresses back to the mean. Benn and Radulov, both shooting over 15% (Radulov with an impressive 25%) may see drops in production going forward as goalies get back into gear and read them more effectively. Either way, the first line is not the scarecrows Dallas thinks they are — we also have an elite center and a scoring winger who puts Jamie Benn’s physicality to shame, and we are also missing a permanent linemate for them (though we don’t have the security of their linemate returning from injury). It comes down, then, to Jakub Vrana versus… Justin Dowling? Who is that?

The biggest matchup of the night, in my opinion, is going to be the Battle of the Johns — Carlson vs Klingberg. Carlson, with fourteen points in ten games, handily wins the scoring race despite his 21.7% shooting percentage, but possession metrics make the winner of this battle a little more unclear.

The Dallas Stars, over the last nine games, are 4.3% better at maintaining possession over the past nine games when Klingberg on the ice. This shows glimmers of a improvement on the +4.0% he earned over 82 games last season (if he can sustain this pace long term), and blows Mr. John “Are You Really Sure I’m A Defender” Carlson’s +2.9% out of the water. However, when you take blocked shots out of the equation, the Stars are -0.7% better (yikes) with Klingberg on the ice, whereas the Capitals are 3.6% better at maintaining possession with Carlson on the ice. The removal of shot blocking from the equation drops Klingberg’s relative possession impact on his team dramatically. All this parade of percentages tells us is that John Klingberg is the offensively gifted but still defensively responsible, body sacrificing defenseman that Alain Vigneault dreamt of, and John Carlson’s stats remind us that Alain Vigneault no longer has a job.

This coming week is going to be a big one for J names: Jakub Vrana, John Carlson and Jandre Burakovsky are all going to have opportunities to strut their stuff against a weirdly potent Carey Price (4-1-2, .922 sv%, 2.13 GAA) or, uh, Antti Niemi (2-1-0, .898 sv%, 3.26 GAA) in Montreal, and either Ben Bishop (4-3-0, .923 sv%, 2.33 GAA) or Anton Khudobin (1-1-0, .898 sv%, 3.02 GAA) in Dallas. Carlson has a chance to start another scoring streak after his four game streak broke against Calgary, where he played a whopping 27:24, and to show another John who the real king of the hill when the Stars come to D.C. Jakub Vrana only stands to benefit from an audition on the first line and might find a little more consistency with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. And Jandre Burakovsky, the prodigal son returning, is being given a chance to prove he belongs in the Capitals’ top six.

All we can do is watch, wait, and try not to cry too many times. Who cares anyway? We’re Stanley Cup Champions!

This Week In Review

During last week’s Weather Forecast, I’d mentioned that this week, we’d likely find out where Vrana and Burakovsky were going to land over the course of the road trip, and I think Reirden is sending his message. The lineup in Calgary — after two games of Burakovsky paired with Dowd and Jaskin and Vrana paired with Connolly and Eller — saw Vrana on the first line with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin, and Burakovsky reunited with his father Nicklas Backstrom. I think, barring any surprises Reirden throws our way, that’s what we should expect on Thursday in Montreal.

Vrana scoring definitely solidified his case for a second look at 1RW. That spot has been a treacherous one to fill, and has already seen failed auditions by Brett Connolly (who looks so much more comfortable back on the third line) and Devante Smith-Pelly, whose sole goal as a first liner will never be forgotten. Vrana, has scored four points in the last four games (blanked only against Edmonton), split between the second and third lines, and could very much stand to benefit from the constant offensive pressure of linemates like Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. I’m not ready to put my eggs in Vrana’s basket just yet, but given that he’s scored five points in ten games so far this season, four of them coming in the last four games, I’d say Jake’s back from summer break and ready to rumble, and an audition on the first line could be an opportunity to capitalize on a strong playoff performance last season (eight points in twenty-three games, playing around twelve minutes a night).

Burakovsky murdering Troy Stetcher in Vancouver and notching the only goal in a difficult game against Edmonton could mean that he needed a break from the pressure of the top nine to find his footing. We’ll see what Reirden thinks, which is ultimately the hill the Caps will die on, but at this point, I think the organization has committed to Andre Burakovsky being a top six forward, come hell or high water, and that that will happen, no matter how hard they have to force it. Whether he’ll get paid like one come next summer depends entirely on him — will he turn scoring chances into points like he did in Edmonton? Or will we be looking at ten game scoring droughts between points all season?

(Picture Credit: NHL.com)


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