Let us try this again. After we posted last week’s snapshots, the Washington Capitals had their week of games wiped out, save for Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh. The schedule calls for a four-game work week for the Caps, starting with the back half of their two-game set with the Pens and ending with their hosting back-to-back set of games against the Rangers in Washington after a visit to Buffalo to face the Sabres. We will see if we can get an entire week of games played without further incident.
Pittsburgh Penguins (Tuesday/7:00pm)
The Caps open the week on a double-downer. Four straight losses overall and losers of all three games played against the Penguins so far this season (0-1-2). The Pens ran their home record to 5-0-0 with their Sunday win over the Caps. It was the first time the Pens won their first five games on home ice since the 2013-2014 season, and they will be going for their sixth straight win at home to open the season on Tuesday. The last time the Pens accomplished that feat was in the 1994-1995 season, when they opened their home slate with seven straight wins (an unbeaten streak that would eventually reach nine games – eight win and a tie).
The Pens are one of four teams left in the league with unblemished records on home ice (Boston, Tampa Bay, and Carolina are the others), but they have hardly been dominating. Even with the three-goal win over the Caps, they have outscored opponents by a 20-15 margin. The win over the Caps was the first among the five home wins for Pittsburgh not settled by one goal, and the Pens have two shootout wins among the five victories.
One of the stranger things about the Penguins’ home success to date is that Sunday’s game against the Caps was the first time they took a lead into the third period at PPG Paints Arena.
Buffalo Sabres (Thursday/7:00pm)
Here is the “we will see” game of the week. As of this writing, the Sabres have not played a game since January 31st, and although they do have a back-to-back set of games scheduled with the New York Islanders on Monday and Tuesday in advance of their meeting with the Caps on Thursday, they did have seven players on the COVID protocol list after Taylor Hall, Rasmus Dahlin, along with head coach Ralph Krueger, were taken off the list over the weekend.
It was unfortunate for the Sabres that the COVID situation struck when it did. In the five games leading to their hiatus, they were 3-1-1 after going 1-3-1 in their first five games, three of those losses coming at the hands of the Caps (0-2-1). That record the Sabres compiled over those last five games played and the seven standings points they earned was tied for the third best record in the league over that period (Philadelphia and Vancouver were each 4-0-0). They did it largely with a power play that was 9-for-22 (40.9 percent), fourth-best in the league over that period and tied for most power play goals (nine) with Edmonton.
The COVID absences could matter for the Sabres if some or all of the remaining absences are extended, and the Sabres do return to the ice. More than a third of the 14 goals scored in that five-game run of success (five) remain on the shelf at the moment (Tobias Rieder (2), Dylan Cozens, Curtis Lazar, Rasmus Ristolainen), and Rasmus Dahlin, who also had a goal on that run, is uncertain as to availability after his absence.
The odd part of the Sabres’ 3-1-1 run going into their COVID hiatus is that they scored first only once, that in a 4-3 shootout win over New Jersey in the Sabres’ penultimate game heading into their break. Did the COVID pause kill their momentum? We will get an indication this week.
New York Rangers (Saturday and Sunday/7:00pm)
The New York Rangers have not had quite the COVID misfortunate that has run through the Sabres’ squad; their troubles have been more on the ice heading into Week 6. Since defeating the Caps in Washington, 4-2, on February 6th, the Rangers are 0-2-1, have scored only two goals, and were shutout twice. They wasted two fine efforts in goal by Igor Shesterkin, who allowed only three goals on 57 shots (.950 save percentage) in two games, but without receiving a single goal from his own side in support, the victim of both shutouts.
The Rangers have had a very light road schedule to date, only four games away from Madison Square Garden to date, none since January 28th when they beat the Sabres, 3-2 in overtime, in Buffalo. When they arrive at Capital One Arena for the weekend back-to-back, they will have played seven straight games on home ice, assuming their game with the New Jersey Devils scheduled for Tuesday, will be played.
That road win in Buffalo is the Rangers’ only road win in four tries this season (1-2-1). It is not surprising, given that the Rangers have managed only nine goals in regulation time (one in overtime) against their road opponents and scoring more than two goals in regulation time only once, in their first game of the road season that ended in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Penguins in Pittsburgh. In doing so, they have wasted some rather good defensive efforts, holding all four road opponents to three or fewer goals.
The Rangers’ problem, acknowledging a small population of road games, is abysmal special teams. Their 8.3 percent power play on the road ranks 29th of 31 teams going into Week 6, while their 60.0 percent penalty kill on the road ranks 30th. At 5-on-5, the Rangers have broken even at scoring on the road – seven goals scored and seven goals allowed – but even here it seems a bit of a wasted opportunity given the Rangers’ ninth ranked road shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 percentage (52.1). Will the long spell since the Rangers were on the road, along with weak special teams and a back-to-back set of games play into the Caps’ hands? We will not know until the weekend.
- Tom Wilson. Broke out of a two-game pointless streak in a big way in the Caps’ only game last week, posting his second career four-point game (1-3-4). He has points in seven of 11 games played so far this season.
- Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom recorded his second three-point game (1-2-3) in four contests in last Sunday’s loss to Philadelphia. He has five multi-point games among the 13 in which he has played this season and is on a pace to finish this season 30-47-77 in 56 games, a point total that would be his best, even in an abbreviated season since 2016-2017 (23-63-86 in 82 games).
- Alex Ovechkin. Since his four-game absence under COVID protocol, Ovechkin is making up for lost time in the goal scoring race. He has four goals in his last five games, and while the goal scoring rankings are dominated by players of the North Division (seemingly intent on using this season to celebrate 1980’s era hockey), he is on a pace to finish the season with 29 goals, keeping the chances in sight of extending his streak of 30 goal seasons to 16.
- Richard Panik. The last four games have been brutal for Panik, who is without a point and has a team-worst minus-8 rating over those games. His ice time was shaved from 15:46 in the first of those three games to 9:30 in the loss to the Flyers last Sunday, his lowest ice time of the season to date (he skated 10:56 against the Penguins on Sunday).
- John Carlson. He does have a goal and an assist on his February ledger, but in four games this month his minus-7 rating is worst among Caps defensemen. Among all Caps skaters, he has been on ice for the most even strength goals scored by opponents (11) over those four games.
- Vitek Vanecek. It was bound to happen, but after going 5-0-2, 2.78, .918 in his first seven NHL games, he is 0-3-0 (one no-decision), 4.22, .866 in four games in February.
- If the Caps win one of two games against the Rangers this week, it will be their 60th win against the Blueshirts on home ice in their all-time series (currently 59-40-4, with nine ties). Six goals over the two games would bring their total on home ice all-time against the New Yorkers to 400.
- If plus-minus has any meaning, Evgeny Kuznetsov likes playing against the Sabres. His plus-13 career rating against Buffalo is best in Caps history.
- If Alex Ovechkin records a hat trick against the Penguins on Tuesday, he would tie Mike Gartner for the all-time lead in goals scored against the Penguins (Ovechkin: 36; Gartner: 39).
Potential Milestones to Reach This Week:
- Nicklas Backstrom needs one overtime goal to break a tie with Mike Green (currently with eight apiece) and take over second place alone in Caps history (Ovechkin: 24).
- Backstrom needs five assists to reach 700 for his career.
- If Backstrom does not get that OT goal, Evgeny Kuznetsov needs only one to tie Backstrom and Green for second place all-time on the Caps’ list.
- Ovechkin is nine points short of 1,300 for his career. He will be the 35th player in NHL history to reach that mark.
- Ovechkin needs one power play point to tie Pierre Turgeon (487) for 30th place all-time, two to tie Denis Savard and Doug Gilmore for 28th place.
- Ovechkin needs six goals to tie Phil Esposito (717) for sixth place on the NHL all-time list.
- Ovechkin needs four power play goals to tie Brett Hull (265) for second place all-time.
- Evgeny Kuznetsov needs two power play points to tie Bobby Carpenter (116) for 20th place in team history; with two points of any sort he would tie Carpenter (395) for 18th place on the all-time franchise list.
- Kuznetsov needs one assist to tie Sergei Gonchar (272) for 14th place on the Caps’ all-time list, six to tie Kevin Hatcher (277) for 13th place.
- John Carlson needs one power play point to pass Scott Stevens (182 apiece) for tenth place all-time in Caps history.
- Carlson needs two game-winning goals to tie Michal Pivonka (27) for tenth place on the Caps’ all-time list.