Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Lightning, February 15th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

We return to hockey Thursday evening with a visit to Florida and the Tampa Bay Bettmans . . . er, Lightning.

“Bettmans,” Peerless? Well, yes. Since the last time the two clubs met, the Lightning are 10-3-0 in 13 games. “Wow,” you exclaim? Well, four of those ten wins are of the shootout variety (thanks, Mr. Commish). And, they have three other wins of the one-goal variety. It isn’t as if the Lightning have been burying opponents. They’ve managed to show just how thin the margin is between winning and losing in the NHL these days. If they lose those four shootouts, they are in eighth, not sixth place. And if those one-goal wins had been losses on top of that, they’d be 13th.

Tampa has been the picture of “okay-ness” in their winning run since last facing the Caps, scoring 37 goals while giving up 34. But their special teams have been rather special. They’ve been 13 of 46 on the power play (28.3 percent), including nine of their last 26. The penalty kill has been 40 of 47 (85.1 percent), including 26 of their last 28.

Peering deeper into the numbers, Tampa has taken a lead into the first intermission five times in this 10-3 run. They’ve won four of those games, roughly consistent with their season winning percentage in such situations (78.9 percent). Six times they trailed after one period, and three times they lost (two of their shootout wins came under such circumstances). But it’s been more a case of a back-and-forth character to Lightning games – scoring by period is roughly even: 1st period: 10 GF/11 GA, 2nd period: 17 GF, 12 GA; 3rd period: 10 GF, 11 GA

Vincent Lecavalier has been on fire for the Lightning, goal scoring-wise. He is 11-6-17, -1 over the last 13 games to take over the league goal-scoring lead (37, three more than second-place Alex Ovechkin). The other two of Tampa Bay’s “big three” are conspicuous on the scoresheet as well. Martin St. Louis is 5-12-17, +2; while Brad Richards is 6-7-13, -2 in the last 13 games.

Johan Holmqvist appears to have grabbed the reins of the number one goaltending position with the Lightning. He is 8-2-0 in this recent run with a 2.14 GAA and .923 save percentage. Marc Denis appears to have played himself to baseball cap-wearing duty with a 2-1-0 record, but a 3.14 GAA and .894 save percentage. The trick for Holmqvist is in being able to maintain this level of play. Before this season, one in which he’s appeared in 33 games, he had a total of four games of work in the NHL. In a way, he might be a reflection of just what a crap-shoot picking goalies can be. A former 7th round draft pick of the Rangers in 1997, he subsequently did enough bouncing around from the AHL (193 games) to the Swedish Elite League (182 games) to qualify for a “super ball” designation before signing with Tampa Bay as a free agent last June

-- Johan Holmqvist Caps-related trivia moment . . . the Rangers parted ways with Holmqvist in a 2003 trade with the Minnesota Wild. Who did the Rangers get in return? Lawrence Nycholat.

For the Caps, it’s about focus. Olaf Kolzig is on the shelf with a grade-two tear of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee (translation: “ouch”) and is expected to be out at least three weeks. There, that’s the situation, and the best must be made of it. Brent Johnson, who has had something of an inconsistent record in a backup role this season, might look back on how he completed last year, when he was 4-1-1, 1.79, .956 in splitting the last dozen games of work for the season.

It will be nice to have some extra hands on deck as John Erskine and Brian Pothier appear ready to return to the lineup, according to Tarik El-Bashir, but for the skaters what will be of interest is a matter of style. The Caps, who spent much of late-December and January giving up goals as if they were tax-deductible contributions to charity (72 goals in 19 games December 19 through January 30th), went to a trapping-style of defense to stem that tide. But in looking to solve one problem, they created another. They have 12 goals scored in six February games. And, they’ve given up 19.

The Caps have to start looking at the longer view. What kind of club do they want to build for next year? A trapping style of the sort played in New Jersey is good for that club, but for one that will likely have the sort of skill reflected in an Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom? When the rules have been tailored to bring out the skill in skill players? That doesn’t absolve the players from being responsible defensively, but to adopt such a style as a “system” would not seem a fit for this club as it is being built. And that’s been something of an emerging problem for the club over the past couple of months. Just what is this club’s personality? We’re going to to get a clue about that over the next few weeks.

Given Tampa’s recent history, the key for the Caps (to state the obvious to NHL observers) will be to keep the Lightning from breaking fast -- all three of their losses came in which they trailed going into the first intermission. And, to state the even more obvious, the Caps will have to find a way to keep the big three of Lecavalier, Richards, and St. Louis (22 of Tampa Bay’s 37 goals in the last 13 games) from doing too much damage. But here is a subtle key . . .

. . . watch Vaclav Prospal. He has three goals in the last 13 games, but each one was the first tally for the Lightning in the game, and each one served to tie a game the Lightning would eventually win.

In the meantime, the Caps get a character check tomorrow night. It says here that they will pass this test . . .

Caps 5 – Lightning 3.

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