At first blush, the Washington Capitals might have a comparatively easy schedule ahead for Week 5. They wrap up their two-game set with the Philadelphia Flyers, a tough opponent, but then head to Buffalo to take on the Sabres, a team battling the effects of players sitting out due to COVID protocol and currently in last place in the East Division. The Caps wrap up the week with a visit to Pittsburgh to face a team that has only one win in regulation time this season.
Philadelphia Flyers (Tuesday/6:00pm)
The Caps and Flyers renewed their long rivalry on Sunday in snowy Washington, the Flyers spotting the Caps a 2-0 lead before catching (twice), passing, and winning going away, 7-4. The win put the Flyers in a standings points tie with the Boston Bruins atop the East Division, the Bruins winning the tie breaker having played fewer games. When Robert Hagg (goal) and Justin Braun (assist) recorded their first points of the season, it brought the total number of skaters with points to 21 of the 24 skaters to dress for the club this season.
That the Flyers were outshot badly by the Caps (23-37) might lead Caps fans to believe the Caps played better but were unlucky, but this is hardly unusual for the Flyers. Philadelphia has been outshot in 11 of 13 games this season, and eight times the shot differential deficit exceeded ten shots. Only once in five road games did the Flyers outshoot an opponent, January 26th when the Flyers out-shot the New Jersey Devils, 31-26, in a 5-3 win. The appearances are even worse at 5-on-5, where the Flyers have been out-attempted 11 times in 13 games, including every one of their five road games. In this area, the Sunday game against the Caps was one of the better efforts, their minus-5 differential in 5-on-5 shot attempts being their second best effort in a road game and fourth best overall.
Buffalo Sabres (Thursday/7:00pm and Saturday/1:00pm)
The historical definition of the verb to “decimate” is “to select by lot and kill every tenth man of a group (usually soldiers).” That’s a bit harsh, but “decimated” is as good a word as any to describe what has happened to the Buffalo Sabre. The Sabres are currently on a pause in their schedule due to the effects of COVID exposure running through their squad. They have not played since January 31st, a 5-3 loss to the New Jersey Devils, and they are not scheduled to resume play until they face the Caps on Thursday.
As of Sunday, eight players were on the league’s COVID protocol list: Taylor Hall, Rasmus Ristolainen, Brandon Montour, Jake McCabe, Tobias Rieder, Dylan Cozens, Curtis Lazar, and Casey Mittelstadt. Head coach Ralph Krueger tested positive for the virus and was entered into the league’s protocol. Twelve of their games have been rescheduled.
When the Sabres do take the ice again, they will be fighting to escape the cellar in the East Division. The odd thing about that is that all eight teams in the East Division have a points percentage of .500 or better, including the 4-4-2 Sabres (.500). That doesn’t mean the Sabres lack holes, even in the best of times. Their scoring offense (2.80 goals per game) ranks just tied for 20th in the league, and that is with the talented Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall appearing in ten games apiece. Their scoring defense, perhaps fitting for a .500 team, ranks in similar territory, 21st in the league.
Their special teams are respectable, the power play ranking seventh (30.8 percent) and the penalty kill ranking ninth (82.6), but it is a team that has scored only 15 5-on-5 goals, their 1.5 5-on-5 goals per game ranking 30th in the league, ahead of only the Detroit Red Wings (1.17). The low 5-on-5 goal production looks out of place when you see that the Sabres rank 12th in the league in shot attempts at 5-on-5 per game (41.5) and tied for ninth in 5-on-5 shots on net per game (23.1). Buffalo is either shooting in bad luck at fives, their shot selection is poor, or they just lack the depth of skill needed to finish the chances they are getting.
Pittsburgh Penguins (Sunday/3:00pm)
When the Penguins take on the Caps next Sunday, it will be their first game on home ice since January 24, when they defeated the New York Rangers, 3-2. That happens to be the only win in regulation that the Penguins have recorded so far this season. Their 5-5-1 record has to qualify as disappointing, but there is a distinct home-road split in that record. They opened the season losing a pair of games in Philadelphia to the Flyers before opening the home portion of their season with successive two game sweeps of the Caps and the Rangers. They then went on a six-game road trip on which they are 1-4-0, the lone win in overtime against the Rangers on January 30. That trip wraps up against the New York Islanders on Thursday before they host the Capitals on Sunday.
The real drama, though, might be in the front office, where Jim Rutherford resigned as general manager on January 27. It left Patrik Allvin in charge in an interim capacity, a veteran of 15 years in the organization, but who went from director of amateur scouting in October to assistant GM to the interim GM job in barely three months. The circumstances of Rutherford’s departure were a bit murky, but they have moved on with their search in an effort to fill the job quickly and have cast a wide net in doing so.
On the ice overall, the Penguins are muddling through, one of a clot of seven teams with a .500 points percentage so far. What is surprising, given the skill level they possess, is that they are middle-of-the-pack in a variety of offensive statistical categories. For instance, their scoring offense (2.82 goals per game) ranks 20th, their power play ranks 25th(13.9 percent), they rank 11th in shot attempts at 5-on-5 per game (41.73), and they rank 17th in shots on goal at 5-on-5 per game (22.5).
What has been a disaster so far is a scoring defense that ranks 28th in the league (3.73 goals allowed per game). It is not as if the Penguins are allowing a lot of shots (26.9 per game/fifth fewest in the league) or shot attempts at 5-on-5 (35.1 per game/second fewest in the league). But of 42 goalies playing at least 250 minutes, Tristan Jarry ranks 37th in save percentage (.857), and Casey DeSmith ranks 31st (.882). They are just not stopping pucks.
- Conor Sheary. There have been 589 skaters taking at least five shots on goal this season. Conor Sheary ranks tied for fourth in shooting percentage in that group (40.0 percent).
- Garnet Hathaway/Tom Wilson. The forwards are ranked fifth and sixth in credited hits this season (Hathaway: 45; Wilson: 42); the Caps are the only team with two players in the top ten in this category.
- T.J. Oshie. Oshie won 19 of 30 draws last week, his 63.3 percent winning percentage tops on the team (minimum: five faceoffs).
- Conor Sheary. That 40 percent shooting percentage? It is the product of two goals on five shots in eight games. The 0.63 shots per game could use some work.
- Dmitry Orlov. In seven games played so far, Orlov is looking for his first point of the season and has a minus-4 rating.
- Jonas Siegenthaler. He is right behind Orlov with no points in six games and a minus-3 rating.
- If the Caps beat the Flyers on Tuesday, it will be the 50th time that the Caps beat the Flyers on home ice in their all-time series; the Caps are currently 49-44-4, with 13 ties on home ice against Philadelphia.
- Of all East Division teams, the Caps have the worst all time points percentage in games played against the Sabres in Buffalo (.392/28-46-3, with six ties).
- When Phillippe Maillet took the ice for the Caps on Sunday against the Flyers, he was the 26th skater to dress for the Caps this season in 12 games. After 12 games last season, the Caps dressed 21 skaters.
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: 23).
- 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.
- Alex Ovechkin needs one even strength point for 800 in his career.
- Ovechkin is ten 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 three power play points to tie Bobby Carpenter (116) for 20th place in team history; with three points 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 13:43 in ice time this week to reach the 18,000 mark in minutes played as a Capital.
- Carlson needs two game-winning goals to tie Michal Pivonka (27) for tenth place on the Caps’ all-time list.