Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Evening after the Afternoon -- Caps vs. Penguins

Nope . . . no points today.

It was all about the goaltending. One flinch was the difference – a hesitation by a shooter, followed by an innocent looking flick at the net. That was the sliver of difference between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, the latter skating off Mellon Arena ice with a 2-0 win this afternoon. An empty net goal at the end provided the final margin, but less than ten seconds in the second period was just enough to sink the Caps – long enough for Ronald Petrovicky to collect the puck in his own end, skate down the right wing, fake a pass, and send the puck to the net and past goaltender Olaf Kolzig, who appeared to be expecting something smarter fired at the net.

At the other end, Marc-Andre Fleury continued his run of fine performances with a 30 save shutout. It was good enough to send Alex Ovechkin into a stick-snapping fit of frustration after the game.

There really isn’t anything else to offer in terms of difference. It is not as if the Caps played a bad game. They didn’t. They had chances. Eric Fehr, especially, had two golden opportunities – one on a partial breakaway – that Fleury turned aside. Fleury was, as he has been for the Penguins the last five weeks, the difference. For the Caps, this loss looked a lot better than the confounding and sloppy losses to Florida. Offense is, by its nature, often streaky. But defense is a product of effort – something that can be brought every night (or close to it). The Caps had that effort this afternoon.

If there was one very subtle number in this game it was this . . .

20:23. That was the ice time for the newest Cap, Milan Jurcina, more than any other defenseman. The Peerless wonders, if the club was in the thick of the playoff hunt, would a brand spanking new player be given top minutes on the blue line?

There is much caterwauling on the official boards about the play of Olaf Kolzig and the Caps in general. Going 6-15-0 over what amounts to more than a quarter of the season will do that. But let’s step back and look at the hand the Caps are playing on the blue line . . .

Shaone Morrisonn (18:26 in ice time today) – 173 games experience
Steve Eminger (16:36) – 173 games
Mike Green (17:04) – 72 games
Jeff Schultz (18:26) – 11 games
Milan Jurcina (20:23) – 92 games

Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin noted the Penguins’ youth in this afternoon’s broadcast (second youngest team in the league), but it would be hard to find a greener defense than the one Washington is putting on the ice. These are guys who someday will fit the roles they are now being asked to play, but it is unfair to expect these guys to flourish in those roles right now. Today, they did themselves proud against what is one of the hottest teams in the league (now 11-2-2 in their last 15 games).

The standard argument among a lot of Caps fans – that the club should have gone out and procured a veteran defenseman sooner – is largely irrelevant. The problem is not talent . . . when healthy. The club did manage to compile a 15-10-7 record when the blue line was vertical. The problem is depth and experience. Jeff Schultz is as good an example as any to point to. He is a first round pick of whom much is expected . . . down the road. He was ticketed to spend a full year in Hershey. Although he has played well, for the most part, in his 11-game stint with the big club, he is not equipped in terms of either his experience or his current skill level to be a cornerstone defenseman on this club. Two or three years from now? Maybe. But some Caps fans would rather sacrifice his development in the here and now to have the club procure (at what cost usually remains a bit of a mystery) a veteran defenseman.

We keep coming back to this point in a variety of ways, and we return to it again. There will come a time when the addition of a veteran – either a forward or a defenseman – will not just be recommended, it will be required. But that has to be done to complement the development of youngsters, not to replace it. Schultz, Green, Eminger, Morrison, and the newcomer Jurcina are getting that battle experience now. It could have the benefit of accelerating their development curve and to sort out just who among them can really play this game, if that needs to be done.

Here is another way to look at it. Pittsburgh is, at the moment, the most improved club in the NHL – 26 points better than they were at a comparable point last year. Most of that is a recent development (that 11-2-2 record they’re currently on). In a sense, the light has gone on as their top picks garnered as a result of their 2002-2006 run of suck have gotten some games under their belt. For the Caps, the light-going-on moment is (and The Peerless expects to be) next year. The experience the kids – especially on the blue line, where development is slower – are getting right now, and the lumps they are taking in getting it, will only help bring that day closer.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!! -- Caps vs. Penguins, February 3

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!

OK, kids . . . here’s the rule for today . . .

The Caps – 6-14-0 in their last 20 games – visit the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are 10-2-2 in their last 14 games, 7-0-1 in their last eight. The Penguins have done just about every thing right over the last five weeks. The basics:

- Record: 10-2-2

- Goals for/against: 56 / 33 (4.00 / 2.36)

- Power Play: 25 / 70 (35.7 percent)

- Penalty Kill: 58 / 68 (85.3 percent)

- 14 skaters share in the 56 goals scored

- In four of their last eight games, they have scored five or more goals

- The big guns are roaring: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Mark Recchi each have eight goals in the last 14 games

- The Penguins start strong. In 14 games they’ve outscored the opposition 15-7 in the first period.

- The finish strong, too. In the third period, they’ve outscored opponents 22-10.

- The third period has been among the more noteworthy things in their run – only twice in 14 games were they held off the scoreboard (they won one and lost the other in a shootout).

- Scoring first seems not to matter much. In eight of the 14 games the Penguins scored first. They were 6-1-1 in those games. In games where the opponent scored first, the Penguins were 4-1-1 . . .

. . . but leading after one does. The Penguins carried a lead into the first intermission nine times. They were 8-0-1.

The Penguins have been a finely-tuned six-cylinder engine over the last 14 games:

- Sidney Crosby: 8-19-27, -4
- Evgeni Malkin: 8-13-21, +5
- Mark Recchi: 8-9-17, even
- Jordan Staal: 6-4-10, +10
- Ryan Whitney: 4-11-15, +4
- Sergei Gonchar: 4-10-14, even

Although The Peerless wonders . . . how can one score 27 points in 14 games, and still be -4? Answer – don’t let the Penguins get the man advantage.

But for all those gaudy numbers among the skaters, the difference in the last 14 for the Penguins is this . . .

9-1-2, 2.11, .932

Those are the numbers for goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who over this stretch is giving the Penguins the results they expect from a number one overall pick. To the extent the Penguins can keep this up, it will be the extent to which Fleury can maintain this, or close to this level of play.

Mellon Arena has been

for the Caps for more than a decade. The Caps lost in an embarrassing fashion in the teams’ first meeting this year, giving up a 4-0 lead on their own ice in a 5-4 shootout loss. The Caps, who have been plagued by poor starts in games in their seven week slide and poor overall defense, are looked at in many quarters as being the guests of honor for a ritual sacrifice. It has all the makings of a rout.

The Peerless doesn’t do routs for the other club. The Caps have managed to conjure up excellent efforts against good teams all year. The Caps have to consider the Penguins a good team, or at the very least a decent team playing excellent hockey.

The keys are these:

- Avoid the slow start; play the Penguins at least even for the first 20 minutes – conservative hockey

- Bring the packing materials. No, not to help the Penguins move to Kansas City . . . to pack things in against Fleury. Make him play the position, make his life difficult, create havoc in front of him, crowd him.

- Do not get into a special teams fight. Five-on-five to stay alive.

- No lead is safe. If the December 11th game doesn’t drive that point home, the Penguins’ 22 goals in the third period in their last 14 games had better.

The over-under here is seven. If the total goals in this game is seven or more, chances are the Caps are on the short side of that number. So . . .

Caps 3 – Penguins 2.