Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Peerless Prognosticator is BACK...ON THE AIR!!! Caps vs. Canadiens, December 27th

The Peerless Prognosticator is BACK ON THE AIR!!!

Ok, so we took a few days off to give the fat man directions, whip up some Peerless Nog, and make rather merry, as Bob Crachit put it. We returned just in time to see Brent Johnson do his bit for the waste lumber industry. Enough column inches have been expended in recounting that effort.

But tonight, it’s Le Club de Hockey Canadien. Montreal, perhaps more than even Buffalo, is the epitome of the kind of club that will succeed in the new NHL. Five-on-five, they are an ordinary team at best (25th in 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio). But special teams? First on the power play, second in penalty killing. This is a bigger factor than the goaltending of Cristobal Huet (which is the name of a high-end glassware set, not a hockey player), who is ninth in the league in goals against average and first in save percentage. He’s 5-1-1 in his seven decisions in December. But, Montreal splits time between their goalies than most other teams. Huet has played about two-thirds of the available minutes this year, while David Aebischer gets the rest. The Peerless is inclined to think that Huet’s performance this year is surprising, but his numbers this year (2.36, .931) are not appreciably different than his statistics last year (2.20, .929).

Among the skaters, Saku Koivu remains the Hab to watch. Six goals in his last eight games, and he’s winning almost 56 percent of the draws he’s taken this year. The Chris Higgins-Koivu-Michael Ryder line has 11 goals in those last eight games, more than a third of the Montreal total. But while that group is especially dangerous, the Canadiens have scoring from 14 different skaters in the last eight games. Goals can come from unexpected places (although not from Maxim Lapierre, who despite three goals in four games, was returned to Hamilton of the NHL). Given Montreal’s special production on the power play, the man to watch here will be Sheldon Souray – third in total scoring among defensemen, first in power play goals, first in total power play scoring, tied among defenseman for game winning goals (including an overtime winner). You'd think his name was Sheldon Gonchar...

The Caps suffered what looked to be a monstrous nog-over in the first ten minutes of the game last night. But, they are 4-2-2 in the back half of back-to-backs so far this year and have won their last three of such games. Alex Ovechkin, as if he needed more attention, took over the league lead in goals last night with his 25th (in fewer games than any of his four closest pursuers) and has climbed to a tie for fourth in total scoring. In December, he is 9-12-21, +4 in 11 games (by way of inevitable comparison, Sidney Crosby is 7-16-23, +2 in 12 games). Alexander Semin is 3-5-8, +5 in his last five games. On the other side of the coin, Matt Pettinger is scoreless in his last seven games and -4 . . . Ben Clymer has had one plus game since November 4th (the day he moved back to forward) . . . in the callup category, Jeff Schultz has acquitted himself well in his three games since being called up from Hershey – more than 18 minutes of ice time a game and -1 overall.

Montreal is 7-1-1 in their last nine. In that time their power play converted 32.5 percent of its chances (13 of 40) and killed 83.3 percent of it shorthanded situations (35 of 42) with four shorthanded goals (they lead the NHL with 11). Outscoring the opposition 17-7 in special teams situations – more than a goal a game – clearly points to the importance of special teams tonight (Montreal outscored opponents 14-13 otherwise over these nine games). More so, given that the Caps’ special teams haven’t been particularly special in their last nine games – 19.2 percent on the power play (10-of 52), 78.1 percent in penalty-killing (32 of 41). If this is a tightly called game, it favors Montreal. If the refs “let ‘em play,” the Caps would appear to have the advantage. Hey, the gift giving season is over . . .

Caps 4 – Canadiens 2.

The Morning After . . . Too Much Egg Nog, Boys? Caps vs. Sabres

Team record…most goals allowed, first period

League record…third fastest six goals allowed to start a game

And still, in spite of Brent Johnson allowing four goals on six shots, in spite of Olaf Kolzig allowing goals on two of the first three shots he faced, the club did not yield.

There is much to complain about in the Caps’ 6-3 loss to Buffalo last night, and that will be chronicled elsewhere. But for the last 49 minutes of the game, the Caps gave at least as well as they got. Alex Ovechkin dealt with perhaps the first sustained angry booing of his career – not the garden variety opposing player sort – and came out of things with a goal, a couple of hits, and a more manly response to his being speared by Daniel Briere than the latter’s incessant whining about the hit he took almost four weeks ago at the hands of Ovechkin. The Peerless wouldn’t be surprised if Briere finds his wallet a bit lighter for his effort, although no suspension is merited (remember, Ryan Whitney got $1,500 and no suspension for a spear that netted him five(spearing)-five(fighting, when Brian Willsie jumped in)-game).

Clearly, the Caps weren’t ready from the drop of the puck, but there were some decent efforts in the game . . .

- Lawrence Nycholat assisted on Ovechkin’s goal and was a +1 for the night in 18+ minutes of ice time.

- Alexander Semin continued to skate as if on a mission – he had seven shots and was a +1 himself.

- Chris Clark making it interesting with 17 minutes still left in the third with a shorthanded goal

If there is a problem here, it is in the goaltender rotation being messed up. That Brent Johnson lasted less than eight minutes meant that Kolzig got more than two periods last night when he otherwise would have been rested for a contest against the wholly underappreciated (third in points in the East) Montreal Canadiesn this evening. There is merit, perhaps, in putting Johnson right back on the horse, but if Kolzig gets the nod, then one would have to think Johnson gets the start against the Devils on Friday with Kolzig starting on Saturday in Madison Square Garden against the Rangers. It isn’t bad enough that the skating lineup is a patchwork, but the goalie situation isn’t exactly where the coaching staff might have liked it.

But again, that’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity. Lawrence Nycholat and Jeff Schultz are getting valuable ice time that could pay dividends in Hershey later in the year (or in Washington, for that matter). Schultz, in fact, logged more than six shorthanded minutes last night. He was on the ice for four Sabre goals, but that’s part of the learning process, too.

As bad as the Caps played (and as unlucky as they were), it’s only one loss. They don’t get negative points for allowing six goals in a period. The key is how they respond tonight. They just need to remember that the puck drops at 7:35 (note the unusual time), not 8:30.