Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Maple Leafs, December 28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, we’re back, and it seems the Caps have hardly missed a beat in our absence, even if they are still missing quite a few players. They won another game at home, Ovechkin scored another highlight reel goal. Film at 11.

The Caps are doing it with spit and bailing wire these days with a “can-do” spirit that boggles the mind. To get a unique perspective on that, we found a special source on the subject, The Little Engine that Could. Little Engine, what is the secret of having a “can-do” attitude? Is it “thinking” that you can?

“’Thinking’ you can? must have been reading that stupid book. ‘I think I can, I think I can…what crap. Don’t ‘think’ you can… do it!”

But isn’t that supposed to be a story of perseverance?

“Hey, Sherlock…they don’t give you a trophy for ‘persevering’…”

What about positive thinking…surely that’s one of the lessons of the story…

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…I’m special, I’m unique, I can be anything I want to be…do I look like Stuart Smalley?”

OK, so what about all those cars you had to pull…surely having determination and perseverance helped you get the train over the mountain.

“You ever heard of CGI, Sparky?...they can do wonders with computers.”

You’re a mighty cynical sort, aren’t you?

“Hey, if you had kids coming up to you and asking you to pull this and pull that, you’d be pretty cynical, too.”

But wouldn’t you say that for a team like the Caps, with all the injuries they’ve had, that your story is a valuable lesson – that they can overcome any odds with hard work and determination?

“Oh, sure…but it doesn’t hurt to have Ovechkin, either.”

And the Caps – with Ovechkin – will be facing the Toronto Maple leafs on this, “Mike Gartner Day.” The Caps star right winger of the 1980’s will have his number “11” retired this evening. In a way, Gartner is a reflection of a “can-do” attitude. He played in all of his team’s games in eight seasons over a career that spanned 19 seasons. He led his team in goals in nine seasons, including five times in nine full seasons with Washington. His 708 career goals ranks sixth all time in the NHL, and his 397 goals as a Capital ranks second all time in franchise history. He had a remarkable ability to step into a situation and succeed, as evidenced by his amassing a 24-18-42, +16 record in games played in a season after being traded (35 games, covering three in-season trades). Gartner will be the fourth Capital to have his number retired, joining Yvon Labre, Rod Langway, and Dale Hunter.

As for the visitors, they dropped a 2-1 decision to the Caps in Toronto on December 6th. Since then, though, the Leafs have gone 5-3-0, scoring 29 goals in the eight games and giving up 30. The Leafs have had good scoring balance in those eight games with six players registering at least seven points: Nik Antropov (3-6-9), Alexei Ponikarovsky (3-5-8), Matt Stajan (2-6-8), Jason Blake (3-4-7), Jeremy Williams (5-2-7), and Pavel Kubina (2-5-7).

Overall, the Leafs are a team that can score (8th in the league in goals-per-game average) but struggle with other aspects…

That has been on display in spades in this eight-game stretch, as the Leafs have scored four or more goals four times, while they have allowed that many or more three times, including twice allowing eight in a contest – an 8-5 loss to Boston and an 8-2 loss to Dallas.

As you might expect with that dismal a defensive record, the goaltending has been lacking. Vesa Toskala, who will get the call tonight, has 13 of the 14 wins posted by the Leafs, but that is a product of showing up – he also has appeared in 31 of the 35 games played by the Leafs. Otherwise, he is a “second page” goaltender in the statistics. No player with more than 20 appearances has a worse goals-against average than his 3.32, and only Marty Turco in Dallas has a worse save percentage among goalies with at least 20 appearances than Toskala’s .881.

Backup Curtis Joseph has been providing little relief. He has played in three full games this year and has allowed four, five, and six goals in doing so. He has four other appearances, for which he has a combined 2.65 GAA and .884 GAA (much better than his 4.12/.841 overall numbers)… apparently the trick is to let Joseph play ten minutes at a time.

It’s gotten bad enough that the Leafs turned to prospect Justin Pogge for a shot against the Atlanta Thrashers on December 22nd. Pogge shocked Leaf fans by looking like an actual NHL goalie, stopping 19 of 21 shots in a 6-2 win. Of course, these being the Leafs, Pogge was returned to the minor league Marlies upon the expiration of the roster freeze yesterday. We’re guessing he won’t be there long.

Toronto did win in their last visit to Verizon Center – a 3-2 victory on March 1st. The trouble with that history is that the Leafs had goals by Alexander Steen and Mats Sundin (the latter having a three-point game), and that pair is playing elsewhere these days. In fact, of the five players who registered at least one point for Toronto in that game, only Nik Antropov remains. Sundin, Steen, and Bryan McCabe play for other NHL teams, and Jiri Tlusty is playing for the Marlies in the AHL.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Toronto: Mikhail Grabovski

The speedster was putting together a decent season when these teams last met; he was 10-8-18 in 26 games heading into the December 6th game against the Caps. He was quiet in 18 minutes of playing time in that one (no points, even) and has been rather quiet ever since (2-1-3, even, in eight games). He also doesn’t have a power play point in that stretch, even though he remains among the team leaders in power play scoring (sixth overall, fifth in goals). If this gets to be a track meet, Grabovski is going to have to be heard from, especially since leading scorer Matt Stajan is day-to-day following a freak injury when he was hit in the eye with a soccer ball before practice yesterday as he and his teammates were engaging in some limbering-up exercises.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

The second-year center is 3-11-14 in his last nine games. He also has only one assist in five career games against the Leafs. Backstrom has started strong (2-3-5 in first period scoring) and finished strong (1-6-7 in third period/overtime scoring) in his last nine games. If he gets off strong, given the weak Maple Leaf defense and goaltending, this should be a successful night.

The Caps of the Gartner era were characterized more by a grinding, gritty team than perhaps the current high-octane group personifies. A right wing with Gartner’s nose for the net would certainly fit in here (and given the injuries and comparative lack of production on the right side, would be welcome). But the Caps have more than enough elsewhere on their roster to take advantage of the Leafs’ deficiencies in their end of the ice.

Caps 6 – Leafs 3

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