Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Rangers, December 12th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

And the theme for this installment is…

Mullets Through the Ages!

What with the Caps hosting the New York Rangers on “80’s Night” and a offering a mullet wig to the first 5,000 fans, it behooves us to stop and pay our respects to that misunderstood, disrespected icon of coiffure…

It is important to note that the mullet can be traced to the very beginnings of the Republic. Not only did Ben Franklin find time to invent the “bifocal” glasses, odometer, and lightning rod, he managed to sport a mean precursor to the modern mullet that revved up the revolution…

While Franklin might have introduced the mullet to the Colonies, the style was all the rage on the Continent long before that…Louis XIV – the Sun King – sported quite the coif that said “royal highness” by day, and “mad monarch” by night…

...and there was the husband and wife team of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette who always celebrated a new “moo-lay,” as they say in France, with a nice big wedge of cake.

The mullet wasn’t limited to royalty, either. The style was all the rage in the arts. Georg Friedrich Handel could only exclaim, “Hallelujah!” upon seeing his new style for the first time.

The mullet even found its way into the intelligentsia, giving a bit of whimsy to those who might otherwise have seemed dull…and they could be combined with what might be called “early Don King” for a truly unique hair experience.

But the mullet achieved its zenith in the 1980’s. Whether sports, entertainment, or just the guy changing pins at the bowling alley, you could count on seeing mullets of every color, shade, and sheen. You could never confuse one with a gray mullet, even though these are much tastier.

Mullets made the heart throb for the heart-throb. They were the art that made the artist.

But the mullet found its true calling in the world of sports. While the mullet was often referred to as “hockey hair,” it was all the look in baseball…whether on short, fat guys…or long, tall guys…it was every bit as much required as a chaw of tobacco on the diamond.

It even found its way into tennis, knowing no difference between the genders, making it hard to see…well, the difference between the genders.

Hockey, though, is where the mullet found its true expression…who could forget the flowing locks of Ron Duguay – the proto-mullet as it were. Or a young Barry Melrose, whose combination of mullet and thoughtful finger resting on the cheek fairly screamed, “I’m a doofus! And I’m proud of it!!”

As time passed the mullet faded into obscurity, although every once in a while, it gains a new respectability when sported among the thespian crowd. Even a two-time Academy Award winner such as Tom Hanks can sport the style without the slightest hint of self-consciousness (although having Audrey Tautou at one’s side might do wonders for that, too), even if his modified style might be more appropriately termed, “mul-lite.”

But in the end, we must pay homage to he who took the mullet to the next level of “what the...?" And it is he who we honor tonight with our donning the mullet wig. His locks flowing as he streaked across the Pittsburgh Civic Arena ice gave rise to the term, “puck bunny” as thousands of Pittsburgh school girls swooned at the very thought of running their nicotine-stained fingers through his mane.

Jaromir Jagr would forsake the mullet to achieve some measure of erudition, but we must never forget that Jagr never won a Stanley Cup with shorn locks. The mullet gave him strength and purpose. And now, in this, his worst season since his rookie year, he must ponder the question…to mullet?...or not to mullet?...

Jagr’s Rangers (does that sound like some Saturday morning kids show on public access?) visit Verizon Center to see if they can halt the Capitals’ rush to respectability. Since completing a five-game winning streak with a 4-3 overtime win in Pittsburgh on November 17, the Rangers have been treading water: 4-5-1 in their last ten games.

For the Rangers, the problem is one they endured all year. They can’t score goals. They’ve scored two or fewer goals in eight of these ten games. What that means is that while they’ve given up a respectable 26 in these ten games, they’ve been on the low side of .500.

You would think a team with Jaromir Jagr, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, and Brendan Shanahan (that’s $24.65 million of cap space eaten up, kids) would have scored more than a combined 29 goals in 30 games. It’s been somewhat better over the last ten games (12 goals, combined), but what it means is that the Rangers have been suffering a bit of the same problem that has plagued the Caps for much of the year – not getting scoring from their support players.

But it is Jagr’s performance that has been most perplexing. The idea was that with a couple of high-end centers to feed him the puck and get out of the way, he would have the kind of year that could lead the Rangers to a Stanley Cup. It isn’t turning out that way. Head coach Tom Renney has struggled to find the combination to unlock Jagr’s production this year. At his current pace, Jagr will finish the season 19-38-57, -14. That would leave him far short of any of the statistical triggers on the option year of his contract. If anything, the club must be quietly contemplating moving him at the trading deadline, even if the Rangers are still in the playoff mix.

What might be a bit more ominous for the Rangers in the short term (as in, “this game”) is that they took three on the chin (outscored by a combined 14-4) before stopping the bleeding with a 1-0 overtime win against the Devils on Sunday.

Henrik Lundqvist – who took two of those three losses, giving up eight goals in the process – figures to get the start. He’s 7-2-0, 2.25, .920 in nine career games against the Caps and is 2-0-0, 0.50, .982 this year.

The problem for the Caps is solving Lundqvist more than it is stifling Jagr and his buddies – they’ve done a pretty good job of doing that to themselves in a lot of games this year. This is the pivotal game of the four-game homestand. Win, and they have had a successful one – one upon which they can build. Lose, and they risk a split when Buffalo comes to town on Friday.

It says here that the Caps will have one of those infrequent games in which Lundqvist looks mortal, and the Rangers won’t have enough fire power to make up the difference. The Caps will play the role they have to play on this night...

Caps 4 – Rangers 2.

The Quote of the Night

"The energy and the effort was fabulous. I don't know how much of it was the system, but everybody was playing with each other for each other. We rolled four lines, and everybody was talking on the bench. It was a pretty sight."

-- Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, following last night's win

A TWO point night: Caps 3 - Devils 2

Two in a row! Holy schneikes, break up the Caps. The good guys won their second in a row, this one a 3-2 win over the New Jersey Devils.

And don’t bring that “they didn’t play Brodeur,” or “they were playing their second game in as many nights” nonsense, either. The Caps didn’t have Michael Nylander, Chris Clark, or Boyd Gordon – that’s the second leading scorer, the captain, and the top faceoff guy. Let’s call it even on the excuse-o-meter.

The Caps managed to scratch out a win despite playing perhaps 40 minutes…the last ten minutes of the first period, the whole second period, and the last ten minutes of the third.

It was enough.

It also was a weird game. Both teams had goals disallowed – the Caps had one disallowed with less than a half minute to play in the first when Tomas Fleischmann stepped out from the right wing corner and tried to stuff the puck under Devil goalie Kevin Weekes’ pads. With David Steckel and Joe Motzko crashing the crease, the puck snuck under Weekes and into the net – a fact plainly visible on replay. But…

…someone blew a whistle, or maybe they heard the chimes on a Metro train at Gallery Place…the referees heard something, and thus disallowed the goal.

New Jersey had one disallowed in the opening minute of the third period when Mike Mottau followed up his own shot and directed the puck into the net with his skate. The question was, did he do so employing a kicking motion. After a phone call that probably exhausted the minutes remaining for December on the NHL’s calling plan, the goal was disallowed…score that -1 to -1.

But this night belonged to Quintin Laing. Since being called up, he’s been a defensive specialist and shot blocking savant. But late in the second, when it looked as if the Caps would squander a period they thoroughly dominated, John Erskine sent a harmless enough looking shot at the Devils’ net from the far left point. Weekes played the shot much as a mite might, which meant he fumbled it, then couldn’t secure the rebound as it dribbled out in front of him. Laing was Johnny-on-the-spot to collect the trash and deposit it with a backhand in the nearest receptacle – the Devils’ net.

That goal would prove to be the game-winner as David Clarkson scored a goal just over two minutes into the third period on a semi-wrap around that Olaf Kolzig had no business allowing to sneak through his pads from a tough angle. In a way, the Clarkson goal might have been a suitable test – that sort of goal might have triggered a collapse by the Caps a few weeks ago. Tonight it served to test the ability of the home team to defend a one-goal lead against a veteran squad.

The Caps were up to the task, settling down in the late stages to force New Jersey to try to run their offense from the outside.

Looking at the final numbers, we are once more impressed by the balance. Eight players had nine points. And if you had “John Erskine” as the only Cap with two points before the game, come see me…The Peerless will split a MegaMillions ticket with you.

One thing a fan might have expected in this game was that the Caps would come out and press the Devils – hitting them early and often. Well, they didn’t accomplish much of that early (in fact, the Caps looked somewhat flat in the first ten minutes), but they made up for it as the game wore on. The Capitals were credited with 31 hits. Milan Jurcina made up for a stretch of relative timidity by laying six hits on Devils to lead the club. Alex Ovechkin was more or less a heat-seeking missle all night, lining up Devils in all three zones. He was credited with five hits, but it seemed like more. In all, 15 skaters were credited with hits, but the two hits that might have mattered most came about ten minutes into the first period when Laing hit Dainius Zubrus who careened into a hit from Matt Bradley. It touched off a fight between Bradley and Sheldon Brookbank (think he had a lot of fights as a kid?...”hey Shel-l-l-l-l-don”) that Bradley finished by going into a fist-cocked pile driver pose over the fallen Devil. Washington owned the pace of the game from that point until the third period.

If there was one exasperating part of the game, it was that the Caps worked the puck extremely well in the Devil zone, creating a number of excellent chances. But they gave away the puck entirely too much for comfort (20 giveaways for the game). And that stat was spread around, too. 11 skaters combined for the 20 giveaways. A more skilled offensive club might have exploited that a lot more effectively. As it was, it made for frustrating conclusions to excellent sequences. The Caps could have – and perhaps should have – had three more goals in the second period on the basis of their play.

The night might have belonged to Laing, with his first goal, but the best player on the ice was the youngest one. 20-year old Nicklas Backstrom once more pounced on a loose puck in the middle of the offensive zone, deking Weekes to his knees, then lifted the puck past him for the first Caps goal. Throughout the game he displayed a calm, unrushed sense with the puck – sort of like Viktor Kozlov, only effective. He created a number of those chances of which we spoke up above, and he could have had three assists to go with his goal.

There was also the matter of this being a game in which the "unknowns" shined. In addition to Laing's game winner and Erskine's two assists, don't forget Jeff Schultz, who took a cross-ice, off the boards feed from Ovechkin and in one motion snapped the puck at the net. It hit a Devil on the way in and changed direction just enough to sneak past Weekes on the far side. Good things happen when defensemen get the puck all the way to the net.

One other thing coming out of this game…Matt Pettinger has the same hell-bent-for-leather all out skating style that Ovechkin possesses. He seems to be one of the few Caps who displays a willingness not to merely watch Ovechkin barrel into the offensive zone, but to head along with him looking for a pass or perhaps a rebound. Now, if Pettinger could have capitalized on the chances he had – he had several. This might be something to watch, though.

Two points is two points, and they are nice to have, especially since the Caps were giving some indications early in the third period that they might let at least one of them slip away. It’s a two point night and a two-game winning streak. And next is the Rangers…and an opportunity to both match their longest winning streak of the year and climb out of the league basement.