Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Candiens, March 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Seventy-five down, seven to go. We’re a long way from Ashburn and September, aren’t we? The Caps have seven games to garner six points and pass last year’s 70 standings points. Frankly, with the way this season has gone, that would be something of an achievement. Tonight, the Caps embark on those last seven games with a visit to Montreal to take on the Canadiens.

This is the story of two teams having taken similar roads. The Caps were a playoff-bound team in mid-December, and their fall from that lofty status has been well chronicled and painfully experienced by Caps fans. Montreal’s fall has not been as abrupt, but might have a similar result – an early tee time in April. The Canadiens’ high water mark came on December 27th when they defeated the Capitals, 4-1. The win left them with a record of 22-9-5, and the 13 games over .500 matched their high point of the year. Since then, the Canadiens are 16-22-1, which leaves them 38-31-6 and in ninth place this morning with 82 points.

Montreal has made a game of it lately, though, with a 5-1-0 record in their last six games during which opponents have been outscored 21-17. The Habs’ special teams have stepped up here, going 20.0 percent on the power play (7-for-35) and 88.9 percent on the penalty kill (16-for-18). That the Canadiens have been outscored 15-14 in situations that weren’t “special” could be a key to this game for Washington.

In this 5-1 run, Montreal has been led in overall scoring by center Tomas Plekanec (2-6-8, +3), but the goal scoring load has been taken up by a couple of kids – 19-year old Guillaume Latendresse (4-0-4, -1) and 23-year old Chris Higgins (3-4-7, +1).

In goal, Cristobal Huet put up some fine numbers through mid-February (18-15-3, 2.74, .918) but has been on the shelf since suffering a hamstring injury against the Devils on Valentine’s Day. David Aebischer was given the chance to take up the slack, but he’s gone 3-3-0, 4.62, .870. Not good. Enter Jaroslav Halak. He’s been 6-4-0 in his ten games of work since Huet’s injury and has won his last three, including a 30-save shutout of Boston. For now, he’s the guy.

Fans should watch for how the game unfolds in its latter stages. Over the last six games, Montreal has been outscored 6-4 in the first period, but they have closed with a rush, outscoring opponents 8-4 in the second, 9-7 in the third. The second period, which has been something of a bugaboo for the Caps this year, should be watched carefully. Montreal has scored in the second frame in each of the last six games.

The Caps are 0-5-1 in their last six road contests and have been outscored 24-12. It’s not like the games have even had much in terms of real drama to them. Even the 4-3 shootout loss to Boston was disappointing in that the Caps coughed up a 3-0 lead in doing so. But it is another chance to play spoiler on one of the big stages in North American hockey. Olaf Kolzig – who should get the call in goal, tonight – has had considerable career success against the Habs: 15-11-3-1, 2.30, .922. Among the skaters, Alexander Semin has five goals in five career games against Montreal.

The Caps have to find a way to hold leads in the third period. In two of their last three losses, they’ve been unable to do so, and given Montreal’s recent record in the latter part of games, this is a concern. So, that means getting out to a big lead early, which is where Kolzig and Semin come in. That seems to be what to watch for, and they will be the ingredients for a win:

Caps 5 – Canadiens 1.