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The Morning Narrative: Burak-off-sky, Block Party and Hershey Advances

Three things we’re talking about this morning when we’re talking about the Caps

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

1. Over the course of the regular season, the Caps’ third line of Andre Burakovsky (64 games played, 12 goals, 23 assists), Lars Eller (81-12-13) and Brett Connolly (66-15-8) gave Caps fans every reason to believe that the team had the scoring depth to ice a true “top-nine” group of forwards, while posting a 60.9 score- and venue-adjusted five-on-five Corsi-For percentage (per Corsica) along the way. The trio was in the top five among all lines with 250-plus minutes played in CF%, goals-for and -against rate (and goals-for percentage), and while their PDO wasn’t sustainable (104.5 via a 10.6 shooting percentage and .939 save percentage), that dominance in shot metrics should have softened the landing a bit when regression came.

RON HOWARD, NARRATOR: It didn’t.

Through eight games, none of the three has a goal, and Connolly has been replaced in the lineup by undrafted AHL vet Paul Carey (he of the one goal and one assist in 36 career NHL games), after first being demoted to the fourth line and seeing his ice time reduced to less than six minutes per night over the four games leading up to his healthy scratch.

And the possession numbers? They’re still pretty great - no trio that has skated more than 30 minutes together in the playoffs has a higher score- and venue-adjusted five-on-five Corsi-For percentage than Burakovsky, Eller and Tom Wilson, who has both of the goals for which that trio has been on the ice; they’ve surrendered one in 39 minutes. (Burakovsky, Eller and Connolly are at 57.1 percent, but haven’t been on the ice for a Caps goal and were on for a pair of Leafs tallies in Round 1.

What gives? Burakovsky has as many individual scoring chances at fives as Alex Ovechkin (5, third on the team behind Nicklas Backstrom’s and Justin Williams’ six apiece), but Eller doesn’t have one, while Connolly and Wilson has three apiece.

That was in Game 1 of this series. He’d miss one more and end the night with eight attempts, only one of which was on net. And he and his linemates were singled out for their effort:

But this is the time of the year when production - actual goals - matter, and predictive stats, while nice, may predict things that don’t come around soon enough. So what does Burakovsky need to do to get back on track?

Sounds about right. Game 2 was a bit better, though with less shot generation - two shots on, two blocked, one miss. But for the supremely talented Burakovsky (who we identified as an X-factor in this series) and his third line (a strength all season long) that production needs to start immediately if the Caps are going to make this a competitive series once again. As we noted in our pre-series Roundtable on that X-factor question:

J.P.: The Caps have spent the last 12 months trying to mimic, in a lot of ways, the Pens team that eliminated them from the playoffs, most notably the notion that a “top-nine” forward group featuring three scoring lines is the way to win in today’s NHL. Well, critically important to that is, of course, that third scoring line, and that falls on Lars Eller (more of a possession center than a playmaker), Tom Wilson (more of a fourth-line grinder than a goal-scorer, Round 1 notwithstanding) and Burakovsky, the most-talented of the trio by a mile. It’s on him to start producing at this time of year and I think he’s got it in him to do just that.

Adam: It’s gotta be Andre Burakovsky. His boxcars have been good through his first few seasons but his production rates are elite: he ranked 23rd in the league in five-on-five points per 60 minutes of ice time during the regular season. It’s time for that regular season production to translate to the playoffs. Without production from Burakovsky it’s hard to imagine the Capitals winning this series.

Andre Burakovsky has played 31 NHL playoff games and has three goals (two of which came in the same game two years ago) to show for it. If he doesn’t start lighting the lamp more regularly soon, he’s going to start getting a reputation that won’t be entirely undeserved. No one’s asking us, but it may be time to go back to the third line that got you here in the first place. Dance with who brung ya, and all of that...

2. Through two games, the Penguins have blocked 62 Caps shots (29 and 33 in Games 1 and 2, respectively), 34 of those coming from their blueline, with Ian Cole accounting for ten of those on his own. That’s a lot of blocks, and if it gives you flashbacks to a certain other series from the Caps’ past, that makes sense - these two games are in the top-six blocks-against rate among Ovechkin Era playoff games. Via Corsica, here’s the list (trigger warning!):

Put another way...

Meanwhile, the Caps have managed the unlikely pairing of dominating shot attempts while also racking up a ton of hits, out-hitting the Pens 78-36. Take those numbers with a grain of salt, but couple it with with shot-blocking and it’s gotta take a bit of a toll over time. In fact, the shot-blocking is taking a toll already. Via the Washington Post:

Through two games Olli Maatta has been hit ten times and has blocked seven shots. Cole is at seven and ten. And so on. Eventually (if this series goes long enough for “eventually” to matter much), that could wear Pittsburgh down. Via NHL.com:

Besides the obvious implication of blocking so many shots (namely that it means the other team has the puck a lot), if the Caps can make this a long series, the blocked shots and hits that the Penguins are absorbing should continue to test the Pens’ depth and provide the Caps with an edge... in theory. But these secondary and tertiary impacts don’t matter if the Caps can’t get more pucks through and, y’know, win a couple of games.

3. Congrats to the Hershey Bears on advancing to the second round of the AHL playoffs (where, down a level, the Caps’ ECHL affiliate in South Carolina is already tied 1-1 in their series):

Of particular interest to Caps fan...

Vrana had two stints in Washington this season (usually on that third line with Eller, either in Burakovsky’s or Connolly’s place, to bring things in this post full circle), the first of which was quite good, the second of which... less so.

Down on the farm, Vrana wrapped the season in Chocolatetown with five goals and five assists (and a plus-five rating) in 13 games after being reassigned from Washington and ended the season with 19 goals and 17 assists in 49 games. So what happened that landed him in the press box?

Ouch, baby. Very ouch.