Pregame: Caps and Stars; Fighting for the Lead

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Washington Capitals: 40-9-4

Dallas Stars 35-15-5

So, the Washington Capitals appear to be out of the reach of any other team in the league with 84 points. The Blackhawks trail at 76 and the Dallas Stars—the Caps opponent on Saturday—trail with 75 points. Dallas is desperate to regain the Western Conference lead and needs a win on Saturday to jump ahead of the Hawks.

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Saturday will come down to a battle between goalies as well as key players. The Caps and the Stars had a pretty remarkable Thursday with Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Eaves scoring hat tricks in their games. Eaves only has seven goals this season so it was a crazy night for him. Although we don’t expect to see that kind of performance from him on Saturday, he could motivate team leaders Jamie Benn (62 points) and Tyler Seguin (60 points) to follow suit. They are slightly above Caps leaders Evgeny Kuznetsov (54 points) and Nicklas Backstrom (52 points).

Any way you look at it, this should be just as exciting a match-up as when the Stars visited Washington in November 2015. It was a close game, 3-2 Stars. Seguin and former Caps’ player Cody Eakin scored first followed by Jason Spezza with the game-winning goal. Ovechkin and Backstrom (who had the assist on two of the three Ovi goals Thursday) scored twice that night. Zach Parise, who seemed to be everywhere Thursday, was the third star of the night in November for his assists.

It’s the last of a three-game trip and the Caps need to wrap this up and get back home to prepare for the Los Angeles Kings. Kuzy took a bit of a hit to the head on Thursday night but has cleared the concussion protocol, according to Vogs, and will be back with the team Saturday. The team was off Friday—some of them spent the day golfing. We’ll see what comes out of morning skate and post the lines for you  soon as we have a better idea.

Injury Report and Team Scratches

Jay Beagle: Yes, he is still injured and not ready yet.

Brooks Orpik traveled with the team. There is a rumor he might play but we aren’t holding our breath.

 Photos by Brittney Marcum

Washington Capitals Face New Challenges in February

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The Caps are the most talked about team in the league as they hold the dominating lead. Nearly every press report references the stunning control of Braden Holtby over the crease. And this weekend Nicklas Backstrom finally got his due with an appearance at the NHL All-Star Games, walking the carpet with teammate Evgeny Kuztnetsov, who is quickly gaining his own notoriety. The Caps have become more than just a show-case for the talent of Alexander Ovechkin.

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With a 35-8-4 record returning from the All-Star break, the Caps will soon begin a series of games against Western Conference leaders—most who they have yet to play this season. They are home for a good bit of February to meet with several Eastern Conference teams starting with the Panthers. Come mid-month, they take off to Nashville and will finally meet the Stars in Dallas, who they spent the first half of the season challenging for first place in the NHL. They end the month in Chicago playing current second place defending Cup champion Blackhawks.

Here’s a quick look at some the challenges the boys face. One common thread in all these challenges is the goalie match-up against Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer. We’ve got the best team in the league, but the Western Conference clearly has some standout goal tenders combined with scoring machines.

Again with the Flyers—any maybe Michal Neuvirth. He is back to leading the league in save percentage (.933). He has won the last three games when in the net; however, there is some question about his health…no surprise for Neuvy. The Flyers have a small chance of making it to the playoffs, but they always give the Caps a run for their money. Jakub Voracek put a hurting on the Caps last time they came to town and is the rising star of the team.

The Panthers have clawed their way up to the top and will be coming in from Nashville after a weekend of festivities that focused on them and Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo. They lead the Atlantic Division with a 29-15-5 record. They have won their last three games with “Strombone” in the net. He has four shutouts this season. Jonathan Huberdeau leads the team in points (34 with 8 goals & 28 assists). Jagr follows with 33 points and sits behind Riley Smith (16g) with 15 goals. (BTW: Kuzy did score on Luaongo during the Games)

The Dallas Stars have had an amazing season so far and have some of the best players in the league on their team right now. Jaime Benn is second on the charts with overall points (58) as well as second in goals with 28—ahead of Ovi simply because he has played one game more. Tyler Seguin follows closely behind with 53 points (25 goals & 28 assists). They each have three game winning goals on their record. This could be the most challenge of all match-ups.

LA has found its way back to the top of the Pacific Division with a 30-16-3 record. The Kings not so secret weapon against the Caps will be Jonathan Quick who ranks third in the league with wins (26 in 41 games) and has had three shutouts so far this season. He is the player often credited with leading the Kings to two Stanley Cup wins. Oh, but the Caps do have a slight advantage now that two of their winning players (Richards and Williams) have moved to Washington and can give the coach some insight into what to expect.

The Blackhawks want to keep the Cup in Chicago. Despite all the booing of Patrick Kane during the All-Star Competition and Games, he is having another stellar year, leading in points, goals, and assists; (73p, 30g, and 43a) and a +22. There is hope though—he failed to score against Carolina or the Panthers in recent weeks proving he can be undone. And the Caps found their weak spot in October sending them home after a 4-1 loss. John Carlson scored in that game and now that he is back the Caps have an improved defensive play—add Brooks Orpik and the threat could be minimized.

With February full of first-time meetings with leading Western Conference teams, the Caps will be facing some of the best teams in the league. Are they up to the challenge? Having a coach that has played in the West for most of his career, and new team members with years of experience in the Conference, we think they will continue to surprise everyone and keep moving closer to the Cup challenge!

Are the Caps that Good or is Everyone Else That Bad?

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Washington sports fans have a habit of skepticism when it comes to winning. It has been a long time since we have had a championship team—we’ve come close but never taken it all the way. So as we look at the NHL standings today and see the Caps on top, we also keep hearing how poorly they are playing. It seems some of the bloggers and media don’t want to get our hopes up. You know, we’ve been here before…

Are we the best right now? How do we tell? Is it more than just putting wins in the column? The fun thing about stats is you can slice them any way you want to tell your story. We don’t do deep statistical analysis here but let’s take a stab at some simple numbers to compare how our players stack up against our closest competitors. Let us know what you think.

It Takes A Team

No one is going to the Stanley Cup Finals without a strong team effort. The Caps have that. Looking at the active roster, every consistently active player has at least one goal—all but Brooks Laich and Nate Schmidt have two. Stan Galiev isn’t playing right now and he has yet to light the lamp.

stat oshieFive players have double-digit goals—Ovechkin (17), Oshie (13) Kuznetsov (10) Williams (10), and Backstrom (10). Chimera has 9 and will probably join their ranks in a game or two. Five teams have at least four players in the same category so this stat may be relatively meaningless. However, with scoring an average of 3.12 goals (ESPN) a game, it seems to reason that their numbers will keep growing.

Everyone is assisting. Everyone has points in the A column which indicates a team-wide effort to create scoring opportunities. This may be the more important stat when looking at how the Caps are playing as a team.

The defensemen are hot this year. John Carlson leads the Caps defenseman with 27 points. He is part of the offensive posture we are seeing in every player. The addition of Taylor Chorney with a +8 has proven a good fill for the loss of Mike Green.  stat chorneyJohn Carlson

And then there are the net-minders: Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer. Holtby is the winningest goalie in the league right with 21 wins and is in second place at 1.96 for goals against average (GAA). He is the centerpiece of the Caps success. Grubbs is no slouch. He hasn’t had as many opportunities to play but when he stepped in for Braden during the Bolts game he turned the team around and helped seal the win. He was great in the Caps most recent matchup in Raleigh and with a .914 save percentage; he too brings the right stuff to the game.

Around the Metropolitan Davison

How do the Caps compare in these areas against their rivals. Let’s start with our own division where we have a slight edge right now.

Islanders: All but two of their players have goals and three players have double-digit goals. Everyone is assisting and  all but one defensemen has a goal and most have multiple assists. Goalie Jaroslav Halak is winning half his games (10) as is their backup goalie, Thomas Greiss (9). Halak is a 2.09 for GAA and 5th in the league.

NY Rangers: We know they are struggling right now. All but one of their players has a goal on the sheet and four of their players have 10 or more goals. Looking at the assist column, everyone is helping out, including the defensemen. Their goalies are not doing as well as they have in the past and could be the largest reason for their decline. Henrik Lundqvist has won just half of the games (15) in which he has played, putting him 4th in the league. Antti Raanta has won 4 of his 10 games. They have a .925 and .919 save percentage, respectively. Lundqvist has slipped to 26th place in GAA at 2.43.

The Weakest Links

Does it matter that other than Braden Holby, only Evgeny Kuznetsov shows up in the top five of any of the league leader categories. Ovi is inching up in the goal category but lags 5 points behind top seater Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars. You have to slide down to 16th place before you find a Cap (Backstrom) on the assists board and 17th (Backstrom again) under points leaders. Kuzy sits in second place with a +17 in the plus/minus column. The Caps are 11th in the league when it comes to the average shots per game (29.9) while the top ranking teams in this category, LA Kings and Dallas Stars, average 32.2 shots.

The fourth line is doing what a fourth line should be doing—giving the top line a breather and looking for scoring opportunities when they are on the ice. Michael Latta has three goals, Andre Burakovsky two and Brooks Laich one. They may not be the strongest link but they aren’t the weakest. Latts (AKA Sparky) has energized the team with his recent goals and enthusiasm. Burakovsky has not lived up to the hype yet and we aren’t sure what’s going on with Laich.

stat coahcAs a team we are playing better together than we have in years. The challenge for the team though is that Braden Holtby is the weakest link. Yes, he is the best goalie we have had since Olie Kolzig and yes he is out performing most goalies in the league, but many of our wins rest on his shoulders. As we heard after Trotz pulled him in New York, the team needs to do better by him. It’s great that he has an incredible save record; however, the team needs to do more to keep the puck out of his zone and in the net at the other end. But we have to ask, what if something happens to Holtby? Can the team rally and move forward or has he become such a stabilizing factor that they might lose their advantage? Any team with a powerhouse net-minder (i.e., NYR) has to ask what happens if their goalie slips.

Our Strength

The Caps are spreading the wealth, so to speak. With the top six scoring across the board we don’t have one star standing out as a scoring leader. That’s a good thing. It means that our opponents don’t know who to focus their defense on because Trotz’s Boys keep changing it up. That is probably our single strongest advantage right now. It isn’t all about Ovechkin reaching 50 (or even 500). It’s about creating chances and celebrating the team scoring.  stat ovi

So why compare league leaders then? The teams with the league leaders are, for the most part, in the Western Conference and should we make it to the final show—we will be facing one of these teams there. We may have a healthy lead now in our own division and conference and it will take a strong presence to hold that lead. If the Caps continue to pull out wins in hard-fought games, they are likely to maintain the edge that will take them to the playoffs. But let’s be real—they need to shoot more and score more. In some respects they are still a bit of a heart attack team. It remains to be seen how we will do once we start facing the Stars, Blackhawks, Blues, Kings, and Sharks in February. We have a month to secure our lead and prepare for the force of the west.

Bottom line: we’re pretty good. Don’t start talking about the DC curse yet. We have a long way to go. We aren’t quite half way through the season and we can still relax and enjoy the game for the next few weeks. The team has some things they may need to tweak, but they have a positive attitude and that should carry us to February when we can see how we match up against the West. In the meantime, lets keep enjoying these guys and Rocking the Red!!  stat two willy