Monday, March 12, 2007

After-Math -- Caps vs. Thrashers

Nope…no points tonight, either.

It ain’t pretty. The Caps lost again, tonight, 4-2 to the Atlanta Thrashers. But for a couple of goals from Alex Ovechkin (neither being exactly a blistering shot ripping to the back of the net, but who can be picky at this point), the Caps offense was dormant tonight. It wasn’t for a lack of effort – well, for the most part -- but rather a lack of skill.

When a club is going as badly as the Capitals have been over the last however many weeks, they become brittle – one moment of adversity can break them down for the rest of the game, and that moment came late in the first period. With a Capitals defender hanging on, Bobby Holik slid toward the Caps net on his side and managed to redirect a feed from Eric Boulton past an unprepared Brent Johnson to put the Caps in a 2-0 hole. Even though Ovechkin would score goals to bring the Caps within one – twice – one got the feeling that this was the turning point in this game. The Caps just don’t have enough offense to climb out of holes they dig for themselves. The Peerless wonders, though, will Bobby Holik’s effort get nearly the same attention given to Sidney Crosby for scoring essentially the same goal in a game against Tampa Bay two months ago? We’re guessing, “no.”

The worst news of the night might be the bitter birthday present provided to Brent Johnson, who appeared to tweak (or worse) something when trying to deny Keith Tkachuk’s 24th goal of the season in the second period. Johnson finished the period but was replaced by Frederic Cassivi in the third period. Not the best way to celebrate the big “three-oh,” eh? Olaf Kolzig appears likely to return to the ice, perhaps as soon as Thursday against Boston, but the Caps could be reduced to the situation they faced at the end of the 2003-2004 season, when Matt Yeats was playing four of the last six games of that woebegone season.

For the Caps (and for their fans), the scoreboard is the last thing to be watching. There are games within the game, and tonight the “game” was “Where’s Alex?” No, not Ovechkin…Semin. The young winger has one goal in his last eight games (including tonight), but what was of concern tonight was the missing ten minutes. Semin was on the ice when Vyacheslav Kozlov netted the first goal of the evening at 11:26, then did not appear until the second minute of the second period. The same could almost be said for Mike Green – another culprit on the Thrasher goal – who saw but a few seconds on one shift over the same stretch of time (just enough to get a good view of the Holik goal). With a club like this, the currency a coaching staff can use is ice time, and the play of Semin and Green getting caught and giving up the puck in a vulnerable position – allowing the Thrashers to go the other way in numbers – was the price for a ticket to the bench. A bad record is not an excuse for sloppy play, and coach Glen Hanlon was right to use the tools at his disposal to drive that point home.

Green had an especially brutal game. Minus-3, ten minutes and change of ice time, a generally lackluster game. But he wasn’t alone. One got the feeling that if Hanlon could have sat all the defensemen at some point, he would have (with the possible exception of Jeff Schultz and Brian Pothier, who stood out not because of their own sterling play, but for the “what’s the use” attitude of some of their colleagues over stretches of this game).

The forwards, on the other hand, didn’t play a bad game. It is here where the lack of skill is most evident. They try – they really do. But this isn’t a group that is especially adept at either passing or shooting (the Alexes aside). It is an offense that is pretty much limited to whatever the Alexes can create on their own or luck. Luck was the predominant ingredient in the Caps’ offense tonight – the first goal was Ovechkin following a shot and nudging the puck enough to fool goalie Kari Lehtonen into thinking the puck was coming faster than it was. The second goal was off a Thrasher skate. That’s not enough on which to build an actual functioning offense.

The lack of offensive skill means the Caps don’t hold the puck long enough to take the pressure off a young defense. They end up spending too much time in their own end, giving up too many chances to the opposition. Eventually, they pay. Their 9-24-5 record since their high-water mark of the season means that they’ve paid – often.

But maybe that’s the price for the lessons they have to learn.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Thrashers, March 12th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

As we prepare for this evening’s contest against the Atlanta Thrashers, we go to our mail bag to take the pulse of the fan during this difficult time for the Capitals . . .

First up is a letter from a fan in Viera, Florida . . .

“Dear Peerless…You’ve been watching the Caps for a few years now, and I know that they’re having trouble, but tell me – is it contagious or something? I mean really, 84 runs in 12 games…you’d think Olie Kolzig was pitching.”


Manny A.

No, Manny, it’s not contagious, it’s the water.

Next up is a fan from Hershey, PA, who writes . . .

“Dear Peerless . . . Stop. No, really. Stop. We’re running out of players here. That stupid bear is going to start in goal against Worcester next Friday. Rumor has it if you guys take anyone else, the Governor is going to have to declare an emergency, and we’d rather he just spend his time screwing up the Penguins’ arena deal.”



Well, Bruce, The Peerless doesn’t have a line to George McPhee, but if it’ll help, I can see about the club sending Slapshot down if they bring up Steckel.

And finally, a letter from the District . . .

“Dear Peerless . . . I wanted to take this opportunity to update our plan-holders and fans regarding the moves we made at the NHL trade deadline involving chicken tenders, dippin’ dots, personal pizzas, and soft pretzels. First and foremost, all of these decisions were made for food reasons, not financial ones. Our decisions were solely based on what was best for the hungry hockey fan . . . “

George? George? . . . stop. Enough with the letters.

Meanwhile, the Thrashers come into tonight’s game having apparently righted their ship. In danger of falling out of the top-eight two weeks ago when they were mired in a 2-7-2 run, they ran of five wins in a row before losing at Florida on Saturday, 3-2. In the last half-dozen games that the Thrashers have played, they have managed to outscore the opposition 22-12 in going 5-1. It is quite the reversal of fortune for a club that had been outscored by opponents 43-28 in the 11 previous games.

The difference in special teams has been noteworthy. The Thrashers’ power play has converted 6 of 32 chances in their last six games (18.8 percent) versus 6-of-44 in their previous 11 (13.6 percent). The penalty killers have retired 25-of-28 shorthanded situations over their last six games (89.3 percent) versus 32-of-45 in their previous 11 games (71.1 percent). It is the difference between being outscored by about half-a-goal a game during the rough stretch and outscoring opponents by roughly the same margin during the 5-1 streak. The net goal-a-game difference makes a huge difference at this time of year.

Marian Hossa has led the way back for the Thrashers’, going 5-5-10, +9, in the last six games. Couple that with the fact that he is 21-22-43, +12, in 36 career games against Washington, and this is a case of the hot guy coming to face the Caps at a bad moment for the boys and their fans. Trouble is, the Thrashers have gotten help from unexpected quarters, too. Eric Belanger is 4-3-7, +5, over the last half-dozen games. More expectedly, newcomer Keith Tkachuk has chipped in three goals (3-1-4, +3), as has Ilya Kovalchuk (3-3-6, +4). Cap-killer Jon Sim has been average (2-0-2, +2), but those 11 goals in 20 career games against the Caps always has to be in the back of Caps fans’ minds.

Kari Lehtonen will almost certainly get the call in net this evening as the Thrashers try to cement their status among the top-eight in the East. Lehtonen is 5-1-0 in his last six games, 2.01, .939. His maintaining that level of production will be the critical element for the Thrashers down the stretch and into the playoffs.

For the Caps, it’s another chance to inch forward against a club preparing for the playoffs. There’s been a lot of slipping backward in the 1-8-4 stretch in which they find themselves. Here is another way to look at this . . . the Caps have one win in regulation – one – in their last 19 games dating back to a 7-3 win against Carolina on January 27th. On the other hand, eight of their losses were of the one-goal variety, five of them in shootouts. They’ve been just bad enough to lose on most nights, which serves to illustrate how thin the margin is between being a playoff club this time of year and being one that is looking to next season.

Seneca wrote, “Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men.” These are the times when such strength is forged.

Caps 5 – Thrashers 3.