We have come to the end of the beginning of the 2018-2019 season, the last week of regular season games for the Washington Capitals and the NHL. There remains some uncertainty about playoff seeding, but attention will begin to turn to defense of the Stanley Cup championship by week’s end.
Florida Panthers (Monday/7:00 pm). There are some teams that are just annoying to play and difficult to beat, even if they are struggling. For the Caps, the Florida Panthers are just such a team. Despite this season being the third straight in which the Panthers will fail to reach the postseason, they are the only team in the Eastern Conference against which the Caps do not have a win this season, losing each of the first two contests this season in extra time (0-0-2). In fact, over their last ten meetings dating back to December 2015, the Caps are 3-5-2 against Florida. They have been outscored in those ten games by a 34-27 margin and have a woeful special teams record – 4-for-37 on the power play (10.8 percent) and 30-for-42 killing penalties (71.4 percent). The Caps have allowed at least one power play goal to the Panthers in nine of the ten games, three times allowing two power play goals.
The Caps have had a hard time keeping the Panthers off the scoreboard this season, Florida recording five goals in each of the two games, a 6-5 shootout loss to the Panthers in October and a 5-4 overtime loss in February, both of those games played in Washington. The Panthers have scored five or more goals against only one other opponent this season at least twice, the Ottawa Senators (three times). This is not a neighborhood in which the Caps want to find themselves. For their part, the Panthers are trying to end the season on a high note. They go into this contest winners in their last two contests, a 5-2 win over Ottawa and a 4-1 win over the Boston Bruins, both on the road. The Panthers are 7-5-0 over their last dozen games and have won three of their last four on home ice.
Montreal Canadiens (Thursday/7:00 pm). The Caps begin their last home stand of the regular season with a matchup against the Montreal Canadiens. Each of the two games in the series this season have been high-scoring affairs, the Caps dropping a 6-4 decision to the Habs on November 1st and winning a 5-4 overtime decision 18 days later. Both games were in Montreal.
The Canadiens have been in playoff mode for two months. And, it has been a struggle. Since February 1st, Montreal is 14-11-3 in 28 games. It negated a good start over which the Canadiens were 28-18-5 in their first 51 games through January 31st, the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. That record since February 1st is 11th best in the East, leaving Montreal on the outside looking in at the playoffs, a tie-breaker behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild-card spot.
Montreal’s problem since February 1st has been, in part, an inability to a) get power play chances, and b) convert what chances they get. The 69 power play opportunities in those 28 games are tied for second fewest in the Eastern Conference over that span; only the Blue Jackets with fewer (64 in 28 games). Their 11.6 percent conversion rate is lower among Eastern Conference teams over that span than every team except the New York Islanders (10.7 percent), and their eight power play goals are fewest in the East since February 1st.
It gets worse for Montreal on the road. In 15 road games since February 1st, they are 5-9-1, the fifth-worst record in the East, and they are the only club among the 16 whose road power play is under ten percent (8.8 on 3-for-34 conversions).
New York Islanders (Saturday/7:00). It is possible that this game will be for top-seeding in the Metropolitan Division in the postseason. The Islanders get the slumping Toronto Maple Leafs (4-5-3 in their last 12 games) and the regular season also-ran Florida Panthers, both on home ice, before heading to Washington for the season finale for both teams. New York is finishing relatively strong, winners of four of their last five games after suffering consecutive shutouts in mid-March to Boston and Montreal. Sure enough, that lone loss was a shutout as well, to Columbus.
Those shutouts shine a light on the Isles. If they do not score, they do not win. While this sounds a bit obvious, it is an indicator that this team is not grinding out wins in close, low-scoring games. In their last eight losses, all of them in regulation time, New York was shut out three times and did not score more than two goals in any of them, hitting that two-goal mark only once. Five of the eight losses were by three or more goals. On the other hand, over that same span, since February 23rd, the Islanders have 11 wins, seven of them featuring four or more goals scored and eight of them by multi-goal margins. It is one the oddest features of a team that over those last 19 games has scored 47 goals and allowed 47 goals.
What jumps off the page for the Islanders over those 19 games since February 23rd is how bad their special teams have been. They are 2-for-42 on the power play in that span (4.8 percent), by far the worst in the league (Calgary is 10.6 percent over that span). Their penalty kill has been better, but still ranking in the bottom half of the league (79.5 percent/19th).
- Alex Ovechkin. Since March 1st, Alex Ovechkin leads the team in goals (seven) and points (14). He has four multi-point games in that stretch and has points in eight of his last ten games.
- Nicklas Backstrom. Over his last 17 games, Nicklas Backstrom has 17 points and eight goals, that goal output being more than a third of his season total (21). He goes into the week with 52 assists for the season, the fifth time in his last six seasons that he topped 50 assists.
- Braden Holtby. Over his last five appearances, Braden Holtby has stopped 136 of 145 shots (.938).
- Matt Niskanen. Since March 1st, Matt Niskanen has two points (both assists) in 15 games. He has no goals on 34 shots in that span.
- Dmitry Orlov. The goal watch continues. Dmitry Orlov has no goals on 40 shots over his last 31 games (14 assists). If this is the price for a big postseason, it is all good.
- Christian Djoos. In 42 games this season, Christian Djoos has one goal on 31 shots (3.2 percent). That is 141st among 219 defensemen with at least 30 shots on goal this season.
- Since 2005-2006, Tom Wilson is the only player in the NHL to post 50 or more goals and log 900 or more penalty minutes over his first six seasons.
- Alex Ovechkin has 51 goals and 88 points. Only one player in NHL history has a season with more than 51 goals and more than 88 points in a season after age 33: Jaromir Jagr (54-69-123 in 2005-06).
- The Capitals have three players with 50-plus assists, matching last year’s number (John Carlson: 56; Nicklas Backstrom: 52; Evgeny Kuznetsov: 51). That also matches the most players the Caps have ever had in a single season with 50 or more assists (accomplished four times).
Potential Milestones to Reach This Week:
- Lars Eller needs two points to reach 100 points as a Capital.
- With 72 career power play goals, Nicklas Backstrom needs one power play goal to break a tie with Dale Hunter for fourth place in team history in that category.
- With his next game-winning goal, Kuznetsov would break a four-way tie for 17th place on the all-time franchise list. He shares that spot with Mike Green, Dmitri Khristich, and Marcus Johansson with 20 game-winners. It would tie Kuznetsov with Dave Christian for 16th place on that list (21).
- With his next shutout, Braden Holtby will break a tie with Olaf Kolzig (35) for most shutouts by a goaltender in Capitals history. He is 15th among active goaltenders in shutouts.
- If Alex Ovechkin takes two penalties this week, he will tie Peter Bondra (319) for sixth place on the all-time franchise list. He needs five penalty minutes to tie Greg Adams for tenth place (694) as a Capital.
- A hat trick for Alex Ovechkin this week, and he will break a tie with Jari Kurri for tenth place on the all-time list (both have 23).
- With one even-strength goal this week, Ovechkin will break a tie with Jari Kurri for 14th place all-time (407).
- Three assists this week for Nicklas Backstrom would tie him with Bobby Orr for 66th place on the all-time list (645).
- Ovechkin is tied with Bobby Clarke and Sidney Crosby for 44th place on the all-time points list. Six points in his last three games would tie Ovechkin with Jeremy Roenick for 43rd place with 1,216 points (unless Crosby gets there first). Seven, and he would tie former Capital Larry Murphy (1,217).
- Two game-winning goals for Ovechkin would tie him with Brendan Shanahan for sixth-place all-time in the NHL (109).