Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!! -- Caps vs. Thrashers, October 19th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!

Didn’t we just do this yesterday? . . . Well, yes we did, but this is the NHL, and if this is Thursday, it must be . . . Atlanta.

The Caps took care of business last night with a 5-2 whipping of the Florida Panthers and now get the chance to redeem themselves for the overtime loss at the hands of the Thrashers last Saturday evening. It won’t be an easy task, since the Thrashers have had the week off since that contest in DC, while the Caps arrived in Atlanta early this morning (or so they are reported to have done).

The Peerless was wondering . . . what sort of things to players do to maintain their energy and focus for the second of a back-to-back set of games . . .

Well, there’s sleep . . . getting a good night’s rest is always a good thing.

Black coffee, and keep it comin’ . . . not a bad idea, if you don’t mind running back to the locker room at every TV time out . . .

But The Peerless is into visual themes . . . and he thinks he might have stumbled on a way for any player to stay wide awake and focused on keeping his feet moving for 60 minutes . . . the mental image of a crazed Ted Leonsis running after him – naked – shouting, GREAT SEATS ARE STILL AVAILABLE…GREAT SEATS ARE STILLLLLLL AVA-A-A-A-AILABLE!!!”

As for the game . . .

Ilya Kovalchuk scored his first goal of the year in last Saturday night’s game – the overtime game winner. Usually, we’d be concerned that this would be the first drop of a pelting rain of goals by the streaking sniper. But, he’s been off since that Saturday, too. Time enough to cool off?

Jonathan Sim (displaying his skating prowess) has five goals in six games . . . I had to look at that statistic a few times to let it sink in. And this from a guy with 35 goals in his first 230 NHL games. Take away his nine goals in 15 career games against Washington, and that’s 26 goals in 215 games (works out to about ten goals per full season). Mr. Mephisotpheles?...your client is here.

Slava Kozlov (here in the hockey equivalent of the "purposeful businessman off to a meeting" magazine cover) . . . with Sim, makes up something of a surprising second line. With as much attention as is given to Marian Hossa (with the always hilarious "tap-the-guy-with-your-stick, then-look-away-when-he-turns-around" move) and Ilya Kovalchuk (showing fans his Curly "nyuk-nyuk" move around a pylon dressed as Mike Commodore) on the top unit, these two wingers have combined to go 7-5-12, +8.

There will be no talk of a Johan Hedberg sighting (here in his, "why do I bother, he's not going to play me" expression). With five days’ rest and a division opponent on hand, it will almost certainly be Kari Lehtonen (distracted by Andy Sutton while Garnet Exelby picks his pocket) – and his 4-1-1, 1.63, .943 record – getting the start in goal. Lehtonen has not lost to Washington in four career starts.

For the Caps, the stories of last night were the play of the second line of Alexander Semin-Kris Beech-Richard Zednik in the first period (2-3-5, +9) and Olaf Kolzig, especially in the second period when the Caps looked a little too satisfied to make the effort. Compare that second line’s work last night with their line in the game against Atlanta last Saturday: 0-1-1, -2. Getting production out of that unit is of growing importance given the uneven start so far from the first line of Alexander Ovechkin-Dainius Zubrus-Chris Clark. If the second group can form a credible scoring threat, things might open up for the top line.

Something to watch . . . it seems teams are adopting similar strategies for dealing with rushes up the left side by Alex Ovechkin. They’re playing almost a triangle defense with a defenseman low, his pair shading a bit from the middle of the ice toward Ovechkin, cutting off the cut in, and a forward high, trailing him. Ovechkin always faces two men in any direction he wants to go, unless he decides to try to take the puck far along the boards. Both Atlanta – last Saturday – and Florida appeared to be employing this tactic whenever Ovechkin carried the puck into the offensive zone on the left side. This is where the other two linemates – especially Zubrus – would seem to need to make teams pay for leaving as much ice open as they do.

The Caps are not last year’s team, at least its early-season version. That they could play as listlessly as they did last night for the last 40 minutes (especially the middle period) and still hold onto a lead is a decent sign. But this is an upgrade in opponent, and it’s on their ice. Still, this is “Statement Week” for the Caps, and this is part two . . .

Caps 3 – Thrashers 2, in OT.

The Peerless' Morning After -- Caps vs. Panthers

When I got home last night, I was of a mind that that was about the worst 5-2 win as you're ever going to see, even thought the Caps put up five goals in the first period to end the competitive portion of the game. Despite his fine record coming into the game, Alex Auld put on a clinic on how not to play the position. Between leaving garbage all around his crease to whiffing on shots from near the blue line, it was a grisly night – four goals on only 12 shots.

But, having had the luxury of sleeping on it, it probably wasn’t as bad as I first thought, and these are the Caps – being grateful for a win should be required of fans.

I thought the Caps did three things well -- they capitalized on mistakes (for the first 15 minutes of the game, anyway), they killed 1:31 of a 5-on-3, and they took only four minors (perhaps as much a product of the listlessness of the last 50 minutes as any discipline on the Caps' part).

On the other hand, they fought the puck on their sticks most of the night. Alexander Semin flat out whiffed on several superb chances, never getting the puck to the net. Steve Eminger just didn’t look especially energized. And tonight, I could agree with some other Caps fans that are of a mind that something is amiss with Alexander Ovechkin -- I got the impression that the spirit was willing, but the body didn't have the overdrive gear he usually seems to have to outrace an opponent to the puck or to get position for a scoring chance. He had bursts of his top gear, but that just led me to believe even more than something is up. He picked his spots instead of relying on his usual unrelenting pursuit.

What led me to believe things weren’t as bad as I’d first thought was the experimentation with lines that seemed to characterize the last two periods. Looking over the shift chart, I see a number of odd combinations showing up from time-to-time, including . . . an Ovechkin-Klepis-Brashear line?

The best line of the night was the second line of Semin, Kris Beech, and Richard Zednik – 2-3-5 as a group with a +9 (plus-threes all around). But Olaf Kolzig was the difference here. If he allows a second, or even a third goal in the 5-on-3 in the Panthers had in the second period, I think the Panthers could have caught the Caps flatfooted over the rest of the game. Kolzig didn't have to do much in terms of making highlight saves; his game was that solid. The good thing was, Florida was just pitiful. How that team brought three wins into the building was a mystery to me.

The crowd was especially disappointing, even for a weeknight game. 10,125 announced, but it looked like about two thirds of that in real bodies.

The bottom line? The Caps did what they had to do – jump on a divisional opponent at home and protect the lead they earned. This isn’t a game they would have won last year, in my opinion. And that, friends, is a good thing.

-- The Peerless