Friday, November 17, 2006

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!! -- Caps vs. Hurricanes, November 17th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!

It’s back to divisional play tonight as the Caps host Carolina. The Canes are . . . what’s this? It’s . . . Knute? Knute Rockne? Coach, shouldn’t you be haunting the Notre Dame locker room or painting graffiti on Touchdown Jesus? You have something to say to the boys?

“Well, boys ... I haven't a thing to say . . . played a great game against Boston...all of you.

“Great game.

“I guess we just can't expect to win ‘em all . . . I'm going to tell you something I've kept to myself for years -- None of you ever knew Kip Miller. It was long before your time. But you know what a tradition he is in Washington . . . and the last thing he said to me – ‘Rock,’ he said – ‘sometime, when the team is up against it -- and the breaks are beating the boys -- tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Kipper... I don't know where I'll be then, Rock’, he said – ‘but I'll know about it - and I'll be happy.’

Well . . . there you have it. Tonight, it’s “Win one for the Kipper.” And the boys can do it, even though it will be a tough slog. The Hurricanes are 4-1-1 in their last six games, 6-2-1 in their last nine, starting to show the consistent high level of play befitting a defending Stanley Cup champion. Included in that run is a 5-0 whacking of the Caps last week, but it isn’t as if they’ve spared others their wrath. In these six games, they outscored their opponents, 22-14.

The re-emergence of the Hurricanes is largely a product of the play of two cornerstones – center Rod Brind’Amour and goalie Cam Ward. Brind’Amour has taken the attack on his back in recent games, going 6-9-15, +4 in his last nine contests. He has won a whopping 60.7 percent of his faceoffs this season and leads the team in average ice time with 23:42 of action per game. With apologies to the young Eric Staal (who continues to have a tendency to be a minus player despite good scoring numbers), and the performance of Ray Whitney and Justin Williams so far, as goes Brind’Amour, so goes the ‘Canes’ attack.

But that shouldn’t diminish the recent efforts of Cam Ward at the other end, either. Ward has been the goalie of record in each of the games in this 6-2-1 nine game stretch. He hasn’t been spectacular, but he’s been steady enough – 2.52, .902. But if one looks deeper – past Ward’s numbers -- there is another stat worth noting . . . in Ward’s first nine games (4-4-1, 3.30, .896) he faced 31.7 shots per 60 minutes. In the last nine (6-2-1, 2.52, .902) he’s faced 26.0 shots per 60 minutes. His save percentage is marginally higher in this latest stretch, but facing fewer shots (only once has he faced more than 30 shots – he lost, giving up 6 goals to Buffalo) he’s had more success in the win column. Carolina has been playing more complete games, especially at the defensive end, and it shows in the results.

For the Caps, the object of the exercise is to play for 60 minutes. Now, that has an entirely different connotation than what you’re probably thinking. Usually, “playing 60 minutes” means giving maximum effort for the entire contest. No . . . not here. It means not going to an extra session. Once that clock ticks “60:01,” the Caps are in trouble. The club is 1-5 in extra session games this year, 0-4 in shootouts. When the game is confined to 60 minutes, the Caps are 7-5 (that’s a 96-point, likely playoff pace over 82 games).

But enough despair. Mike Vogel, in his Caps Gameday column, makes a salient point. The Caps are 15-8-8 in their last 31 games. That is a 101-point pace, kids. And 38 games – largely with the same players in key roles – is enough to think that this is not a fluke. We might be at the point of discarding this notion that the Caps are bottom-dwellers in the league and are at the point where, if they can’t yet dominate, they can compete with just about anyone on a night-to-night basis.

The object, in the face of this sustained level of performance, is believing that fact, that this club can compete with the playoff teams. There is much work to do, but a club with an ethic of hard work, a reputation as difficult to play against, and a growing cadre of skilled players does – in The Peerless’ mind – validate the strategy of growing the club from within and letting the development take its own pace. It’d be nice, though, to stick one in the Canes' ear-hole tonight. It’ll be difficult, and it will be close, but at the end of the night . . .

Caps 3 – ‘Canes 2.