Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Lightning, January 11th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! . . .

Tonight, the Caps return to divisional play with a visit to sunny Florida and dank, dark St. “Pete” Times Forum. Honest . . . “St. Pete” . . . as in the town of “St. Pete.” One had no idea that the Prince of the Apostles was so informal. But hey, things are laid back down there, I guess.

As for tonight’s opponent, the Lightning handed the Caps a 5-4 loss in Washington on December 19th. Since then, the Bolts are 6-4-0 and stand one thin point behind the Caps in the standings, the difference between eighth and ninth place, between being on the inside and on the outside of the potential playoff mix. The Caps also have a game in hand.

Over those ten games Tampa Bay has given as good as they got, scoring 27 goals and allowing the same. One can look at that as a glass half-full or half-empty. The key for Tampa has been winning the special teams battle. Over these ten games the Lightning have outscored their opponents 12-6 (the 12 coming on ten power play and two shorthanded goals). And that is a product of opportunity. Tampa Bay has had 44 man-advantage situations over these ten games to their opponents’ 33. The latter number is somewhat amazing in the modern version of the NHL – 3.3 shorthanded situations per game. It speaks either to discipline or a lot of benefit of the doubt accorded to a recent Stanley Cup champion by the men with whistles. Whether the Caps can draw penalties in this game will be something to watch, as the Lightning’s have a rather pedestrian 81.8 percent penalty kill rate in those 33 shorthanded situations.

Individually, the Lightning have had contributions from the usual suspects – Martin St. Louis has five goals (5-7-12), as does Vincent Lecavalier (5-7-12). But here is the odd part about these two . . . St. Louis, despite 12 points in these ten games is -5, Lecavalier is -4. St. Louis’ numbers are especially odd. Of his five goals, two are power play tallies and two are shorthanded.

The third amigo – Brad Richards – is 1-7-8, -2 in the last ten Lightning contests. While his numbers might seem to lag a bit behind St. Louis and Lecavalier, he’s made contributions as the trigger man on the power play with 1-3-4 with the man advantage over the last ten games.

The man who has really jumped up over these last ten games is defenseman Dan Boyle. He’s 4-7-11, +5 in that stretch, and even accounting for his hat trick against the Rangers on December 23rd, he’s been noteworthy.

Goaltending has been good enough, if not especially outstanding for the Lightning. Johan Holmqvist is 4-3-0, 2.35, .908 since the last time these two teams met. He does, however, show up as the Corey Hirsch character in this year’s highlight goal, scored by some guy from Nova Scotia last week. Marc Denis is 2-1-0 in four appearances since the last game against Washington, 3.02, .887. At the moment, he appears relegated to baseball cap duty.

This isn’t hard to figure out. Tampa has lived and died on its power play over the last ten games – 5-2 when they score at least one goal with the man advantage, 1-2 when they don’t. And the flip side of this is that Tampa has minimized their man disadvantage situations.

If the Caps can mount some consistent level of aggression on offense and force Tampa to draw penalties, the low kill rate Tampa’s had lately could spell trouble for the home team. And, it could enable the Caps to minimize power play advantages for the Lightning.

The Caps can win this game, but they have to play better, with more urgency than they mustered against the Flyers last Tuesday. As you might expect, it says here that they will.

Caps 4 – Lightning 2.

The Peerless Improvement Index

Are the Caps getting better? Well, sports being what they are, there is an easy way to answer that question -- wins and losses. Hockey being the quirky sport that it is, that's really a matter of points.

Which brings me to what you see over there in the right-hand margin -- "The Peerless Improvement Index," or "PI Index." It's quite simple, really. The Caps decided in the 2003-2004 season that all this spending on the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Robert Lang, and the dear departed Kip Miller wasn't working. Further, keeping old hands around like Peter Bondra or Sergei Gonchar wasn't really part of a plan to tear down and rebuild the team. So, the team had what amounted to a sell-off for picks and prospects. The result was perhaps the lowest point in franchise history for Caps fans since that dreadful inaugural season. The Caps finished the 2003-2004 season with a 23-46-10-3 record for a total of 59 points.

Well, we are now a couple of years (with a lockout in-between) removed from that debacle, and it is time to take a look at the progress being made, hence the "index." All it is, is a comparison of this point in time to a comparable point in time from that 2003-2004 season. In today's case, the Caps record over 43 games this season (19-17-7, 45 points) compared to that in the 2003-2004 season (12-26-4-1, 29 points). Expressed as an index, we have a value of's "improvement index." Think of it as your Caps version of the Dow Jones.