Capitals-Rangers Game 2 preview

Apr 30, 2012

Washington Post hockey stats blogger Neil Greenberg fielded questions about the Washington Capitals' playoff run and their chances tonight in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals vs. the New York Rangers.

- On Hockey: Ovechkin knows what he has to do
- Insider: Return of the regular season Caps?
- Jay Beagle's playoff diary
- NHL playoff schedule

Hi all! Welcome to the chat and thank you for submitting your questions. A lot of good stuff here, including a question that has stumped the world for ages. Let's get right to it.

Can you explain, once and for all, the difference between a nerd and a geek? I know you get mislabelled on Capitals Insider. How do you feel when some of the knuckleheads on CI discount almost anything and everything you post that is statistically related?

Yes, and thank you for joining the fight against misnomers! A geek is intelligent and obsessive while a nerd is both intelligent and obsessive but also socially inept. Clearly, by evidence of this chat, I am social. Here is a handy Venn diagram for future reference:

Nerd Geek Venn

As for people who may disagree with #fancystats: “Moneyball” in the NHL is a new concept, and MLB saw the same amount of resistance back when Bill James started the SABR movement, but in the end, it is meant to enhance the understanding of the game, not replace anything.

The biggest misconception is that I want stats to replace “watching the game” or reduce hockey to binary 1s and 0s - which is not the case. Advanced stats try to put in context what we see on the ice. When done right it should expand the discussion, not end it.

Neil, The Caps' power play looks to continue its perennial non-appearance. From a fancy stats perspective, who rates to play on the Caps PP units? Also, can you quantify what Aucoin brings to the PP, i.e., is there something that we're not seeing?

Washington's power play hasn’t been great this postseason, has it? It was just 3 for 23 (13 percent) in the Boston series and 0 for 4 in Game 1 vs. New York. Here is who I would have on the PP from a #fancystats point of view:

Ovechkin on half wall - NOT playing the point or carrying the puck.

Backstrom roaming in the middle.

Brouwer, Laich and/or Knuble setting up camp in front of the net.

Green on the point.

If I am going to have a player on both units, it is going to be Backstrom, not Ovechkin. With Backstrom the Washington PP generates 51 shots on net per 60 minutes and 33 without him. Plus, he was tops in the league in primary assists on the PP per 60 minutes. He is the engine, not Ovechkin.

As for Aucoin: the sample size is small, but the Caps' PP also put 51 shots on net per 60 minutes but had just a 7.4 percent shooting percentage – way below average. In fact, the Washington PP saw three goals against and just two for with Aucoin on the ice during the regular season.

How long have you been following hockey, and what was it about the sport that sparked your interest?

I grew up in New York, and went to my first Ranger game at MSG in 1980. The sport has so much to like: a fast pace, physical contact and just enough scoring to keep you on the edge of your seat. I loved it as soon as the puck dropped.

I am surprised by the blame heaped on Semin. I know he made one stupid mistake  - the slashing penalty - in Game 1, but he is being painted as the main reason we lost it. We should expect more from Ovi and Backstrom -- but they are not moved to the fourth line.

Not sure it is blame as much as “Play more responsible hockey.” One penalty is usually not the reason a team loses a game, especially one where a defenseman has a bad line change (MIke Green) that leads to a goal or your netminder stops just 11 of 14 shots against (Braden Holtby).

In the end, it is not a “death sentence.” Hunter seems to want four versatile lines, with each one having both grinders and scorers alike. 

As for Ovechkin and Backstrom, I agree, they need to tilt the ice more in Washington’s favor. When you look at the puck possession metric Corsi, which is similar to the traditional plus/minus stat except it uses shots at net (goals, saved,missed and blocked) instead of just goals, Backstrom was the only skater on the plus side during the Boston series. Everyone else was on the ice for more even-strength shots at their own net than towards Tim Thomas. That will have to get better if they are to have a fighting chance vs. NYR.  


How did Holtby look at practice today? Could they win with less than stellar goaltending? What are the alternatives if the kid has another weak performance? Is Vokoun better? What would be our odds with Neuvy?

Practice? We talkin’ about practice? Not a game?

As we saw in the regular season, the puck possession is not where it needs to be for Washington, which makes them lean heavily on their young goaltender. Perhaps too heavily. The Caps never got both good puck possession and good goaltending in the same game vs. Boston, and it took every bit of seven games to win.

 Neuvirth, if healthy, is likely Plan B if Holtby falters, but I do believe a healthy Vokoun is the best of the Washington glove triangle.

I don't think ovechkin has lost his edge, i think it's the lack of power around him that's leading to his decline in numbers. Do you think that has anything to do with it?

Ovechkin has a pretty good supporting cast: Backstrom and Semin are legit top-six forwards and Brouwer is a good complement player.

For Ovechkin, it is all about shot volume. His shots on goal has declined every year for the past few years, and that is ultimately what is making him a 30-goal scorer.

Plus, he is determined to carry the puck into the zone, which is not working anymore. I talked to one top pair defenseman and this is what he told me (paraphrasing):

"We poke check him to the outside, and if he decides to still come inside we have the other dman help out - causing either a bad shot or turnover. If he takes the shot from outside, we know our goaltender can stop it." 


Is there a Neil Greenberg #fancystats fanclub? Seems #fancystats are pretty legit...also seems that ngreenberg deserves a fanclub...something like NGreenbergs kNiGhts or something...

There isn't a fan club that I know of, but, there is a @fakengreenberg on Twitter. That means I made it, right?

Do you see McPhee going with Hunter/Neuvy next season? Has Holtby "proven"himself?

I don't. While good, not sure Holtby is ready for a full season as the number one and he needs to play regulary, so that would rule out a back up role. His rebound control leaves a lot to be desired.

It wouldn't surprise me to see one of the goalies (Neuvirth, Holtby, Grubauer) dealt this offseason for the team's glaring need: second-line center.



The 82-game NHL season is just a glorified exhibition, right? Because in the end, all that matters in the playoffs is whether my goalie is hotter than your goalie. Home ice advantage, seedings, etc. are almost comepletely pointless.

I wouldn’t call it “pointless,” but home ice advantage has sure evaporated in the postseason lately. None of the higher-seeded teams won both of their home games in round 1 and two of the visiting teams - PHI and LAK - swept both. Overall, home teams won just a third of their games. In fact, the last time the home teams were above .500 in the first round was 2008-09, when they went 24-44. 

The “hot goalie” strategy is a myth. You just need average goaltending to advance, unless your team is from Pennsylvania. Historically, teams emerging out of the first round have a .923 post-lockout Sv% while those going home are just .906. League average is .921. If Pittsburgh got anything remotely resembling average goaltending from MAF, they probably would have moved on in their series vs Flyers.


Why did Hunter play Perrault most of the regular season, and then suddenly turn to Aucoin at the end of the season and now in the playoffs? Are there any #fancystats to support an argument for 23 > 85?

At first glance, it probably has more to do with size and versatility than actual talent -- but was there a better Washington player at crashing the net this year than Perreault? Not sure there was. He scored 16 goals on just 60 shots, and while that 26.7 percent shooting percentage is high, it is not all "puck luck."

Perreault was also second on the team in scoring chance differential (plus-24), which is a quick tally of even-strength scoring chances-for minus those against. That is a higher mark than Ovechkin, Backstrom and every other top six forward aside from Alexander Semin, who led all skaters with plus-52.

Aucoin was a plus-11.


Is your mother making meatloaf for dinner again?

Not sure. I can ask her what's for dinner after she is finished with my laundry.

If you were hunter, what would your lines and pairings be? Also, is it worth looking at neuvy over holtby since he is (basically) healthy now?

I like splitting up Ovechkin and Backstrom because that gives Washington two scoring lines. Beyond that, it is a tough call for a few reasons:

1. Johnasson has not shown he can play the 2C.

2. Semin has not shown he can play responsible hockey.

3. Knuble may have lost a step.

I like Carlzner as a d-pair and Green with Hamrlik. That leaves Wideman and Schultz/Erskine which is ok, but as we have seen can be a liability at times.

Taking into account that balanced handedness might confer some advantage to a team, is there much of an argument for not benching Wideman and using either Schultz- Erskine or one of them plus Orlov?

Tough to bench an All-Star who plays big minutes at 5v5, the PP and PK. That being said, the former London Knight was on the ice for eight of the Bruins' 13 even-strength goals and still got 21 minutes in Game 1 against the NYR. 

There is obviously a comfort level Hunter has with Wideman, and I think it is going to take something catastrophic to remove him from the lineup.

Katie did have a piece on Orlov today, and Hunter references Erskine and Schultz’s ability to play on the PK as to why they get a sweater over Orlov. But, Erskine and Schultz have played less than 2 minutes combined on the PK and 47 seconds with the man-advantage this postseason, so that too is a head scratcher.


"If I want to have [scoring] opportunities they have to give me the puck at full speed in the neutral zone because in the [offensive] zone it's harder because they have [Dan] Girardi and another guy [Ryan McDonagh] on me." Do you agree with Ovechkin's opinion of how best for him to score?

No, I don't. If we look back at the goals he scored this season, especially late when he went on a mini-tear, most were when he didn't handle the puck.

Ovechkin is always going to have the opposition's best d-pair defending him, so it is probably better to have him set up in between the crease and the faceoff dot and let a one-timer rip than try to navigate his way through the neutral zone.

Neil, rumor has it that the Rangers are your team. Who are you rooting for in this series. Be honest!

Ha! I did grow up in Queens, NY, and rooted for the Rangers almost all my life. I even drank from the Cup in 1994. That said, I would like to see the Capitals win a Cup and think the Caps can pull out this series in six - but that starts with a win tonight.

What do you think is the best way to discipline Alexander Semin for those ridiculous minor penalties?

No ice cream before bed?

Seriously though, I am not sure. You can't bench him, because then you're left with one legitimate scoring line (Ovechkin-Backstrom) but you also waste one of the NHL's best scoring talents by having him on the 4th line.

This is why Semin is often classified as an enigma.

I'm new to hockey, but what does Dale say to his guys during the breaks between periods? Is there any more than, "score more goals than they score against us?"

Welcome to the sport of kings! OK, maybe not kings, but it is a great sport nonetheless.

I don’t have first-hand knowledge, but I like to think it is a recreation of the “Unleash the Fury” video that is played at Verizon, with Dean Evason playing the part of Tom Green and Ted Leonsis clapping in the background a la Hoosiers.

In reality, according to Karl Alzner, it is along the lines of “Defense, we’ve got have tighter gaps. Forwards, we’ve got to backcheck harder. Forwards, we’ve got to backcheck harder to the net.”

Why is Aucoin getting so much love when Jeff Halpern (who wins most of his faceoffs) not getting a chance to play and contribute. I have seen VERY little from Aucoin

Aucoin plays on the PP, which is where Washington needs help. There is no denying Halpern is a great faceoff specialist, but Aucoin brings more offense to the table, and when you are in the playoffs setting records for the most one-goal games in a series, that's what you need.

What kind of disadvantage (statistically) are the Caps at when Wideman is on the ice? Seems like he's out there for about 75% of the goals against

Wideman hasn't played his best hockey lately, but he is a definite upgrade over Orlov, Erskine and Schultz. Plus, he plays at even-strength, on the power play and kills penalties. Tough to replace that on this roster.

After reduced ice times, benched for near full periods, and called out by several teammates, why can't Ovie improve his play? He continues turning the puck over on the blue line and is often found skakting in circles in the defensive zone rather than covering his responsibilities. Also how does a ten million dollar player miss the net so much?

Ovechkin gets the full attention of the opposition every time he steps on the ice. He is the guy the other team game plans for. I never get the feeling he doesn't want to improve, but with the talent level in the NHL getting better and better each year, and Ovechkin getting older and older, expectations surrounding his performance need to be readjusted.

You sound critical of Ovechkin. He definitely looked revived under Hunter and kept getting better and better at the last quarter or so. How do you see this improvement in the regular season and do you think he has a set back in the playoffs?

Not critical, but I do think the Ovechkin who scored 50-60 goals is long gone.

As for his performance under Hunter, I think he looked worse during the regular season, at least in terms of puck posession. 

In the end, Ovechkin is going to score and this team will need every last goal he can muster, especially in the postseason.

Thank you to everyone who particpated and submitted questions.

If I didn't answer your question don't fret - there is so much good stuff here I will use it over the next few days and in the offseason so you have hockey to read about all summer long.

In This Chat
Neil Greenberg
Neil Greenberg writes about hockey statistics (also known as #fancystats) and "Moneyball" in the NHL for the Washington Post and ESPN Insider.

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