Washington’s young goaltending thriving while offense struggles to find its way

It’s been talked almost to death how much the Capitals offense isn’t the same high-flying, run-and-gun brand of hockey that many of us grew up seeing in the 80s. After all, in past seasons we grew accustomed to seeing Alex Ovechkin score 50 or more goals in a season and figured that that trend could continue for years to come.

Fast forward to this year and with the Caps becoming a bit more focused on the defensive side of things, their offense is drawing attention to itself all over again. The difference being that it’s getting noticed for not being the prolific juggernaut it was in seasons passed. There is one part to their game that is decidedly better and yet it’s still not getting its proper amount of respect.

Goaltending.

Going into this season, the Caps and GM George McPhee steered clear of going after an experienced goaltender because they felt comfortable with who they had in place already. With Semyon Varlamov and up and coming fellow youngster Michal Neuvirth, fresh off back-to-back Calder Cup victories in the AHL, the Capitals management felt that investing precious cap space in a veteran goaltender was money poorly spent. Even in spite of injuries to both Neuvirth and Varlamov at different points this season, leading to the emergence of another youngster in Braden Holtby, their play is making Caps management look very smart.

We’ve seen Neuvirth and Varlamov essentially split duties this season. Neuvirth carried the Caps for the first two months of the season putting up a 15-6-4 record with a 2.55 goals against average and a .911 save percentage and earning one shutout. That win total still leads the team and his other numbers are solid for a NHL starter.

Where Neuvirth seems to get the offensive support, Varlamov is putting up the flashier numbers. He’s got a 9-7-4 record, which is decidedly unimpressive but it’s not totally his fault. Varlamov has team leading goals against numbers 2.13 and save percentage with .928 as well as two shutouts. Varlamov since getting healthy has been outstanding for the Caps and evidence that their dedication to defense is paying off. If the offense was a bit better for him in his starts, that record would look a little nicer.  Even Braden Holtby’s limited action this year has yielded solid results with Holtby going 4-2-2 with a 2.47 goals against average and a .908 save percentage.

The Caps carousel of goaltending has done its job to this point in the season. They’re young (Neuvirth and Varlamov are 22 years-old, Holtby is 21) and they’re going to be prone to having the occasional bad game, but one area that Caps coach Bruce Boudreau seems to be handling well is how to juggle time and performances from his goalies.

It’s still a high-risk venture for the Caps to be counting on guys this young in goal to carry them deep into the playoffs and to win a Stanley Cup, but if last year’s playoffs showed us anything it’s that unknown goalies have as good of a chance to go deep as the franchise guys do. Look at the starting goalies that have been in the Stanley Cup finals the last few seasons:

2010: Michael Leighton, Antti Niemi

2009: Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood

2008: Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Osgood

2007: Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Ray Emery

2006: Cam Ward, Dwayne Roloson/Ty Conklin/Jussi Markkanen

Out of that list Fleury, Giguere, and Ward are the only big names and at the time, Cam Ward was but a young guy still relatively unproven. Osgood was a famous name but in 2008 he was playing backup to Dominik Hasek before seizing the starting job during the playoffs in 2008. We’re not about to say the playoffs are a crap shoot, but the Capitals plan of letting youth be their guide isn’t one without past results to back them up.

For now, Varlamov and gang are making life easier on the Caps and if they can continue to do that in the playoffs it’ll be a load off the minds of everyone in Washington.

Is Brayden Schenn’s star turn for real?

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For years, hockey nerds and/or experts were waiting for Brayden Schenn to make “the leap.” Eventually, people gave up on that, to the point that the 26-year-old’s trade to the St. Louis Blues seemed more like a curious swap than a tide-turner.

Now, sure, Schenn found a solid niche with the Philadelphia Flyers, but it was in more of a specialist role. Many believed that he was dependent upon a plum gig on the team’s lethal power play and would possibly slip in St. Louis.

Considering that 17 of his 25 goals came on the power play last season, it wasn’t that outrageous to wonder if he might be just “a guy” in St. Louis.

As it turns out, he’s bordering on the guy with the Blues, and it’s been a truly wondrous thing to behold. Wondrous and baffling, to be honest.

On Saturday, it seemed like his hot streak would come to an end … until overtime. In what was very much a solo effort, Schenn beguiled the Vancouver Canucks to secure a 4-3 OT win for his Blues.

Nice. Now, it’s true that Schenn wasn’t the overall star of the night for St. Louis, as that probably goes to Paul Stastny, who piled up three assists. Still, Schenn’s third game-winning goal of the season extended his point streak to seven games, and it’s not like he’s just eking out production, either:

Wow. Overall, Schenn now has 8 goals and 26 points in 21 games during his debut season with the Blues. He’s on a pace to absolutely smash the best work of his career, which came in previous seasons where he collected 55 and 59 points.

So, naturally, the question is: with about a quarter of the season over, how much of this is real and how much of this is a lucky little mirage?

Under normal circumstances, one would lean toward luck, especially with a guy who’s already 26. That doesn’t sound old, and it’s certainly in a scorer’s prime range, but it also strikes as a bit unexpected.

To some extent, this is luck. Frankly, it’s not realistic to expect Schenn to average 1.25 points per game; consider that Sidney Crosby‘s career mark is 1.30, and you realize it’s wise to dial back expectations for a guy whose previous career-high was .74.

That aside, there are some reasons to believe that Schenn could very well remain a bigger scorer with the Blues than he did with the Flyers. Allow me to break it down.

Firing away

Whenever you’re trying to do some hockey myth-busting, shooting percentage is a great place to start. If one-third of the pucks a guy sends toward the net beats a goalie, then ‘ol gravity might not be very kind.

According to NHL.com, Schenn has now connected on 14 percent of his shots on goal this season (eight of 57). That might be a little high, but his career average is 12.5.

Now, assists are a big part of his totals, and that’s where things should cool down. Schenn’s most common linemates have been Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, by quite a margin according to Natural Stat Trick.

So, you can deduce that some of Schenn’s numbers are inflated by those two, especially with Schwartz connecting on 22.2 percent of his SOG so far in 2017-18.

Nurtured

And that’s where things could slide quite a bit. If the Blues get some talent back from that wave of summer injuries, perhaps Mike Yeo might move Schenn away from one or both of Tarasenko and Schwartz?

The overall setup definitely gooses Schenn’s numbers, but it’s not just linemates.

He’s getting way more ice time, in general. Schenn is averaging just under 20 minutes per night after logging almost 18 per evening last season, via Hockey Reference. While Schenn enjoyed fairly cushy zone starts before, it’s even more pronounced now; the 26-year-old’s began a career-high 63 percent of his shifts in the attacking zone entering tonight’s game.

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So, long story short, you can expect some of this success to subside. The Blues, as a team, are on a roll that is likely cool down.

The more interesting queries revolve around how much the Blues and Schenn might slip from these hot streaks. It should be some, but will the slide be as extreme as some expect? It should be fun to find out.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Chance the Rapper plays clueless hockey reporter on ‘SNL’ (Video)

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Chance the Rapper hosted “Saturday Night Live” last night and in skit he played Lazlo Holmes, a New York Knicks reporter for Madison Square Garden network filling in for the usual New York Rangers reporter who’s on paternity leave.

Holmes quickly discovers that the temperature for hockey is a tad different than that of a hoops game, and that some of the names in the sport are pretty tough to say for an outsider, like Brady Skjei, for example.

It’s not quite Tim “Little Hockey” Meadows bemoaning the 1994 NHL lockout, but it was good for some chuckles.

Hopefully next time NBC has a coach mic’d up for a pre-game speech, he lets fly with “let’s do that hockey!”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

USHL goaltender scores goal, makes most of celebration (Video)

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It was a pretty eventful night Saturday in Sioux Falls as the USHL’s Stampede beat the Muskegon Lumberjacks 7-4 to sweep a weekend series.

After falling behind 3-0 in the first period, the Stampede scored five unanswered times en route to the win. Along the way, their first goal started the teddy bear tossing and the game’s final tally came off the stick of goaltender Mikhail Berdin. Not only did the kid make history by becoming the first goalie in franchise history to ever score, he followed it up with an impressive celebration.

Berdin, a 19-year-old sixth-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets in 2016, went with the bench fly-by, did some fist pumps, saluted the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center crowd and ended it with a Vince McMahon strut. That kid knows how to celebrate.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Monahan the man, torrid Tavares

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Choice PHT Cuts:

Canadiens, Maple Leafs did NOT play nice.

If you didn’t think Alex Ovechkin was tough …

*Rubs eyes* A winning streak … for the Coyotes?

Connor McDavid and Oilers are sad pandas.

Players of the Night

  • Anthony Duclair‘s hat trick is well-covered here, so check that out. Duclair gets one edge on Sean Monahan in that Duclair scored all of his team’s goals on Saturday, but Monahan combined his first career hat trick with an assist, helping his Flames win in OT much like Duclair did for Arizona.

Monahan slightly upstaged Johnny Gaudreau (one goal, two assists) who was pumped to play in front of a crowd in Philly.

  • Paul Stastny collected three assists to help the Blues beat the Canucks in overtime. Check PHT on Sunday morning for an in-depth look at Brayden Schenn, who kept his hot streak going with the OT-clincher.
  • John Tavares just continues to ride high with a goal and two assists. The real stars might be the Islanders as a whole, however, as they beat the Lightning and kept Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov pointless in a 5-3 Isles win.
  • Frederik Andersen has achieved back-to-back shutouts, helping the Leafs make the Habs extra-miserable. He made 33 saves, so you could argue Montreal deserved better than a 6-0 fate.

Heel of the Night?

While Connor McDavid absorbed an odd portion of the Oilers’ blame in defeat despite a three-point night, Antoine Roussel really played up his villain cred. He collected three points of his own and did this:

Highlight of the Night

Going off script a bit here, let’s go with Alex Ovechkin bouncing back from this:

And Corey Crawford being OK despite this bump from Evgeni Malkin.

Both players helped their teams seal up wins as a bonus. (Feel free to share your favorite highlights from tonight, even if they don’t involve near-injuries.)

Factoid of the Night

Congrats, Antti Niemi. Kind of.

Here’s a free joke regarding that situation.

Scores

Flames 5, Flyers 4 (OT)
Stars 6, Oilers 3
Coyotes 3, Senators 2 (OT)
Jets 5, Devils 2
Kings 4, Panthers 0
Hurricanes 3, Sabres 1
Maple Leafs 6, Canadiens 0
Islanders 5, Lightning 3
Blackhawks 2, Penguins 1
Capitals 3, Wild 1
Predators 5, Avalanche 2
Blues 4, Canucks 3 (OT)
Bruins 3, Sharks 2

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.