Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Morning After -- Caps vs. Senators

No points, tonight, folks.

Getting to be a tired refrain, isn’t it? Tonight's 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators makes that three in a row, eight of their last 11, ten of their last 14. As each one is heaped on the last, playoffs are becoming more a wish than an expectation.

Tonight, it was the Ottawa Senators showing why they have been Stanley Cup contenders (well, at least until the playoffs actually start) and the Caps can only see that in their future. To their credit, the Caps played a smart, under control game for the first 15 minutes or so of the game. Then, an odd thing happened. Andrej Meszaros scored a goal from 55 feet out. It was the kind of iffy goal that can have a depressing effect on a young, struggling team, and that’s pretty much the effect it had. Mike Comrie scored a couple of minutes later – in the last minute of the period – and this could have just flattened the Caps.

Then, an odder thing happened. Chris Clark picked up the puck and scooted down the left side in the dying seconds of the period. Looking pass, he snapped the puck far side past goalie Ray Emery and off the post for a goal with 2.3 ticks left in the period. It was the kind of goal that could turn the momentum of a game.

Ottawa didn’t even blink.

The Senators just played a patient game through the first half of the second period, and when an opportunity presented itself, they were quick to convert it. An odd bounce off the end boards behind Brent Johnson ended up on the stick of Daniel Alfredsson just to the left of Johnson at the post. Alfredsson snuck the puck between Johnson’s glove and the post, and Ottawa had their two-goal lead once more. Mike Comrie scored a minute later, and the Caps were bleeding all over the ice again. The rest of the game was mere details.

The Senators handled adversity calmly, patiently. The Caps handled it like, well, kids – panicky and without confidence. The latter is the story of the Caps lately. And that kind of behavior shows up in neon lights on the scoresheet – 17 goals allowed in their last three games, 40 in their last 11 (of which they’ve lost those eight), and 51 in their last 14 (in which they are 4-10-0).

If you look at the standings in the East, there are the first hints of some separation in the standings. Tampa Bay (currently 8th) came into tonight’s play with a four-point lead on three teams tied for ninth. The Caps are on the wrong side of that divide – five points behind the Lightning starting play tonight -- and you get the first sense that the season could be slipping away. And, one can see some frustration starting to creep in (it sure seemed that way with Alex Ovechkin, who has “only” three goals in his last ten games and took an unnecessary shove at Dany Heatley as the latter was going off on a shift change). The Caps did not play altogether that poorly tonight. They played just poorly enough to be on the wrong side of every meaningful play and every odd bounce. Ottawa converted those opportunities . . . the Senators had a few more shots, a couple more takeaways, some more blocked shots, won a few more faceoffs. In no single aspect of the game did Ottawa truly dominate – except on the scoreboard, where it actually matters. And that’s the difference between a club that has skill and experience and a club that is lacking in both. You think maybe you’re not playing that badly, and all of a sudden, you’re on the wrong end of a 4-1 score barely ten minutes into the second period.

The Caps are at a critical juncture of their season right now. As unsuccessful as their last month has been, the risk now is that the bottom falls out of the rest of their season. That’s a test of fortitude as much as skill. Players and a team can have their character tempered under such situations; it’s part of learning how to win. Ten years ago, a young Daniel Alfredsson and Wade Redden were going through it with the Ottawa team the Caps fell to tonight. Hopefully, ten years from now Caps fans will look back on nights like this – all too frequent these days – as part of what building a lasting competitor was all about.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Senators, January 16th

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

When the Capitals visit Scotiabank Place to take on the Ottawa Senators, the thought that will come to mind is, “reversal of fortune.” When Ottawa slunk away after taking a 6-2 spanking from the Caps on December 6th, they did so with a 15-13-1 record, and folks were asking, “what’s happened to Ottawa?”

Well, over the 18 games since, the Senators are 11-6-1, not to mention 9-1-1 in their last 11. Meanwhile, the Caps – for whom that Senator game might have been the high point of the season – are 7-10-1 since that win over Ottawa.

In most respects, the “before and after” that December 6th game aren’t that remarkably different for the Senators:

Goals for…before: 3.48/after: 3.33
Goals against…before: 2.94/after: 2.79
Power play…before: 16.6%/after: 22.7%
Penalty kill…before: 84.8%/after: 80.7%

But over their last 11 games . . .

Goals for…4.27
Goals against…2.18
Power play…25.0%
Penalty kill…90.2%

And, their big guns have boomed to life over the last 11 games. Dany Heatley is 8-12-20, +16 (that is not a misprint…+16). Daniel Alfredsson is 8-12-20, +12 (that’s not a misprint, either). Both Heatley and Alfredsson are better than a point-per-game over the course of their respective careers against the Caps. Even Chris Kelly, who The Peerless wagers maybe one Cap fan in 50 has actually heard of, is 5-10-15, +11 over the last 11 games (nope, no misprint there). They’ve been explosive, too -- in seven periods of hockey in these last 11 games they’ve scored at least three goals. At the moment, it is the Ottawa offense with which fans have become accustomed.

But it isn’t as if Ottawa is doing it just by ramming the puck down opponents’ throats. With only 24 goals allowed in their last 11 games, they’ve been stingy, too. And consistent -- only once have they yielded more than three goals in a game in this run (they won), and they have two shutouts, both by Ray Emery, who is 7-1-1 in his last nine decisions, 2.21, .926.

If there is one Senator who has struggled – and continues to – it is Andrej Meszaros. Last year, as a rookie, Meszaros was 10-29-39, +34. He is 5-19-24, -11 this year, and even in this latest run of Ottawa success is only 1-4-5, +1.

The key here for the Caps is to avoid precisely the thing to which they are vulnerable – allowing goals in bunches. In 18 games since last meeting Ottawa, the Caps have had 14 games in which they’ve allowed at least one multiple-goal period. They are 3-11-1 in those games (two of the wins were against Philadelphia; we’ll leave it the reader as to whether they should count). That they would lose such a large percentage of such games is hardly surprising, but the large number of games in which it occurred suggests a defensive slump.

And, of course, there is the matter of scoring first. Since the last Ottawa game the Caps are 4-1-1 when scoring first, 3-9-0 when giving up the first goal.

All this merely serves to explain the obvious – the Caps can’t let Ottawa get off to a fast start, and if the home team does score first, the Caps have to find a way to stop the bleeding right away. Ottawa is in a groove that could spell serious trouble right out of the gate for the Caps.

But hey, there is a silver lining here, and it wears a number “1.” Brent Johnson -- likely to get this start -- is 3-0-0, 0.91, .972 in four games against the Senators over his career. The Caps could use that kind of performance to right their own ship and perhaps start a run of their own.

As you might imagine, it says here that this is precisely what will happen...

Caps 3 – Senators 2.