Friday, March 30, 2007

Why do the Caps suffer in attendance?

It is accepted as divinely inspired truth that the Capitals can't fill their rink because: a) they stink, and b) they work in a town that ranks hockey somewhere south of The Weather Channel in terms of entertainment.

Well, here is another reason, made painfully evident in last Tuesday's "home" game against the Penguins. It is 246 miles from Mellon Arena to Verizon Center.

The closest Caps "rival" in the Southeast Division -- the Carolina Hurricanes -- play in RBC Center . . . 274 miles away.

Hard to generate much in terms of rivalry -- and the attendance in each others' arenas -- with that kind of proximity. This isn't the western half of North America, where large distances between points is a fact of life. This is the Eastern Seaboard, the home of neighborhoods . . . and the rest of the Southeast ain't in the neighborhood.

The Serious Six -- March 30th

The “six” are bunching up. Three points separate six teams, and all have played 77 games, save for the New York Islanders (76). And this weekend would seem likely to send a team or two spiraling out of contention. Five teams will play back-to-back games; only Carolina escapes that fate – they have Friday/Sunday games.

Today’s theme is “potholes,” and every one of these teams has some deep ones to get across if they are to survive . . .

The Rangers sit atop the “six” with 87 points, and they’ve had superb goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist (9-1-3 in his last 13 decisions leading up to the Montreal game), but he was shelled in his last outing (four goals on 15 shots in less than 30 minutes of work) that the first sign that he's running out of gas?

Tampa Bay is next with 86 points/41 wins, and they are an experienced group with a Cup in their recent past. But, they’ve had goaltending issues all year. It really isn’t getting better. They’ve given up five or more goals in 7 of their last 18 games, including three of their last five. They have skill, but are prone to bouts of laziness. Atlanta's win probably forecloses any chance of an SE championship and top-three seed.

Montreal follows with 86 points/40 wins. The Canadiens are an excellent home club – 24-12-3 for the season -- but three of their last five are away from Bell Centre. And, they are heading for home leaning on a goalie with 12 games of NHL experience. He’s been more than capable – 8-4-0, 2.94, .904 – but the pressure might be on this club to score more. They are already the third highest scoring team among the “six” this year. Do they have another gear?

Toronto – next at 85 points – is an easy team to dislike, what with the seeming sense of entitlement their fans have (odd for a club with no Cups in 40 years). But they've managed to hang around on the margins for weeks. Unfortunately, though, their schedule is difficult -- Pittsburgh, at the Rangers, at the Islanders, home to finish the regular season against Montreal. Only the Flyers pose a weaker challenge in the last five.

The Islanders, with 84 points/36 wins, are almost a "feel-good" story with the hijinks in the front office before the start of the year. But they're such a chippy team, it's hard to root for them. They have a game in hand on every club in front of them, but on the other hand they're likely to lose tiebreakers on the basis of wins (they have the fewest among the six).

Carolina – 84 points/38 wins – just has never really clicked this year. Whether it's been a hangover from the long spring and Cup win, who knows? They finish up with all SE games (2 TBL, 2 FLA, 1 ATL) -- they are a combined 12-5-2 against those teams this year, so that's in their favor. But three teams to climb over with five games left? They probably need four wins -- minimum -- to do that. They've had at least four wins in five games three times this year.

Two games this weekend involve “four-point games” – games pitting two of the “six” against each other:

Tampa Bay at Carolina, tonight

Toronto at New York Rangers, Sunday

Carolina is in virtually a “must-win” situation. A loss would leave them sixth among these teams and two points (plus a tiebreaker on the basis of wins) behind Montreal and Tampa Bay with four games to play.

Toronto’s “must-win” status is largely a function of how they fare in the Saturday game against Pittsburgh. If the Maple Leafs can win that one, the Ranger game might not appear as daunting a task.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Panthers, March 30th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

That’s right, boys and girls, TPP is here to prognostify you to your heart’s content. Tonight, it’s the Caps heading to balmy south Florida to take on the Panthers. If you haven’t been noticing, the Panthers are teasing their fans just enough to think that there is the chance of a playoff in their near future – as in “April.” Don’t believe it. We won’t go into all the weird math as to why that’s a dim possibility, only to say that there are too may teams to climb over (four), and too few points to be had.

Florida is probably thinking, though, that here are two points ripe for the plucking. And, based on the season series this year, one would be inclined to agree. After winning the first two games of the season set by a combined score of 9-3, the Caps have dropped the last four and have been outscored 22-12 (not including a shootout result) in the process.

If there is a theme to the Panthers over their last ten games, it is “doin’ the two-step.” They’ve alternated two wins with two losses throughout this last ten-game stretch (6-3-1, to be precise), and seeing how they are coming off two wins, you’d think the Caps are in position for a win.

Florida has outscored its opponents by a 33-28 margin in their last ten games, and while that’s not bad, their power play certainly has been – 2-for-32 (6.3 percent). If there is a glimmer of promise on that score, those two goals were scored in the Panthers’ last two games (one in each, if you’re too lazy to do the arithmetic). The penalty kill has, in comparison, been positively fabulous (39-for-46, 84.8 percent). Trouble is, Florida is second in the league in most short-handed situations faced.

Olli Jokinen is the embodiment of “hot” (no, not his looks, unless you like that mug-shot of a deranged menace look). Ove his last ten games, he is 7-9-16, +11. That’s a good month for a lot of people; Jokinen did it in less than three weeks.

Nathan Horton has chipped in another six goals (6-1-7, +1), and Josef Stumpel has gone 4-4-8, +4, to fall into second among the Panthers’ scoring over the last ten games.

Ed Belfour is no the man in goal. He’s figured in nine decisions in the last ten games and is 5-3-1, but has offered up a 3.42 GAA and a .891 save percentage, neither of which calls to mind Ken Dryden.

For the Caps, let’s face it . . . there are all sorts of factors pointing south for this contest. There is their record against Florida this year . . . then there is the fact that there is little to play for, not even really a spoiler angle . . . the Caps are 2-7-1 in their last ten . . . they’ve lost by three or more goals in half of their last 12 games . . . Alex Ovechkin is a very long shot to get 50 goals (if you’re into individual statistics) . . . and, it’s south Florida (pass the sun block).

Nevertheless, there are guys playing now who are auditioning for a spot on next year’s roster. In a sense, they are auditioning to keep playing in the NHL, if you concur with the argument that if a guy can’t make this club, he’d have trouble latching onto another roster.

It is with that in mind that The Peerless is averting his eyes and typing . . .

Caps 5 – Panthers 4.