Saturday, January 05, 2008

A TWO-point night: Caps 5 - Canadiens 4 (OT)

Félicitations, Club de Hockey Capital!!

The Capitals made it four-for-four in Canada for the season this afternoon with a 5-4 overtime win over the pesky Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre. Pending games to be played this evening, the win moved the Caps to within four points of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and within seven points of the top spot in the Southeast Division.

Mike Green delivered the game-winner – his second overtime game winner in the past dozen games – 1:27 into the extra session.

Green’s goal caped a wild and wooly contest that saw the Caps once more come back from a two-goal deficit, the third time they’ve done so in less than four weeks.

You’d think that in a game with nine goals, there was some rather poor goaltending on display, but that wasn’t entirely the case. Most of the goals in this one came off good plays or superb individual efforts…

Alexei Kovalev finding a passing lane to hit Tomas Plekanec, who had a virtually open net to shoot at…

Andrei Kastitsyn undressing Mike Green on a rush and roofing the puck over Olaf Kolzig’s blocker…

Alex Ovechkin rifling a blur of a shot right off a face off past Carey Price…

Roman Hamrlik waiting at the post to Kolzig’s right as a slap pass made it all the way through on the other side, hitting the end boards and bouncing right to Hamrlik, who had only to bat the puck into an empty net…

Michael Nylander taking a pass from Tomas Fleischmann, stepping around Kastitsyn, and finding Mike Green, who wasted no time getting the shot off for the game winner. Green didn’t get everything on it, but got it off in time before Price could scramble across the crease to cut it off…

There were goals that each goaltender might want back…Price didn’t look like the next coming of Patrick Roy on goals by Nicklas Backstrom or Boyd Gordon, and Kolzig probably should have had the save on what became a goal by Alexei Kovalev. But this was more a skills-on-parade kind of game than it was poor goaltending. It might even have been worse but for some fine saves by both netminders.

The number in this one that comes leaping off the page is…17.

That is the number of shots attempted by Alex Ovechkin, more than a quarter of the Caps’ total (63). 12 of those attempts were blocked, and we’re going to assume that Mike Komisarek is spending extra time in the whirlpool after blocking seven shots (five off the stick of Ovechkin).

We were just wondering…how is it that a player who was treated like a pylon on the game winning goal – a goal scored by a player who was 1-2-3, +1 – end up being named the third star of the game at the expense of that player scoring the game-winner? Just adds fuel to the idea that the whole “three stars” idea is one whose time has come and gone…it’s just a “homer” device (and the Caps are not immune to that sort of thing, either, in games at Verizon Center). Green might have disqualified himself for his own pylon moment on the Kastitsyn goal, but his was the winner in the end.

Brooks Laich didn’t show up in the scoring summary, but he had another solid game…8-for-11 in the circle, a couple of hits, a couple of blocked shots.

Matt Pettinger must be setting some record for lowest shooting percentage…three more shots today without a reward (he also had four misses), giving him two goals on 78 shots this year (2.6 percent). If Alex Ovechkin had that shooting percentage, he’d have six goals. But give Pettinger credit…he’s still plugging out there.

Much will be made of Mike Green taking on more minutes – he was on the ice for 27:46 in this game – but Jeff Schultz was next in line in ice time: 25:33. With Tom Poti and Brian Pothier on the shelf, Schultz has to assume a larger workload, but therein lies a problem, too. Schultz might not be far enough along in his development to be assuming that big a role on a consistent basis.

Matt Bradley had nine hits in 12:20. Can we suggest a nickname…”Tomahawk.”

Komisarek had better not use all the hot water in the whirlpool…Milan Jurcina had seven blocks, too.

Nine goals in this game…and John Erskine was on the ice for only one of them (Ovechkin’s second). Of the six Caps defensemen, he was the only one against whom Montreal scored no goals.

Shaone Morrisonn was on the ice for three of the four and still ended up a +1…he was also on the ice for three Caps goals.

Last year, after 42 games, the Caps had 18 wins (18-17-7). This year, they have 17 (17-20-5). Which feels better?

It was a nice way to end a short road trip, especially with a five game home stand coming up. There is only one divisional game in this upcoming set (Florida), but the five teams coming to Verizon Center have a combined road record of 50-45-9, as of the start of play today. It doesn’t get any easier.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Canadiens, January 5th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!

Wake up, Cap fans, it’s an early start to the second half of the year as the club visits Bell Centre for a 12:30 game against the Montreal Canadiens.

That’s right…12:30 pm.

But before we get to the particulars, this game starts the second half of the year, and in looking ahead, we’ve brought one of the most renowned practitioners of the prognosticatory arts to predict what the Caps fortunes might be over these last 41 and – we hope – more games.

To The Amazing Kreskin, welcome.

The Amazing Kreskin: “I knew you were going to say that.”

Let’s begin…the Caps are 16-20-5 as we start the second half. Since Christmas, they are 3-1-1 against some stiff competition. They have this roadie against the Canadiens today, then a five-game home stand…what do your spirits say?

TAK: “Well, if the Caps play well, and they score more than their opponents, I am supremely confident that they will win these games…”

That’s a very interesting take…in looking ahead, what do you think the chances are that the Caps will find a way to score more than their opponents?

TAK: “I see that the key is…goals. The Caps have to score more ‘goals’ than their opponents…and if they can do that, then I’m sure they will win at least most of their games.”


TAK: “And there is more…should the Caps emerge from their contests with their opponents scoring fewer goals, they will have an even better chance of success in the second half of the season.”

Ya think?

TAK: “Absolutely…the combination of scoring more and opponents scoring fewer is what I see as the critical force in the Caps’ success in the second half.”

Well, where do you see the Caps finishing in the standings? Will they make the playoffs?

TAK: “I am confident that if the Caps finish no worse than eighth in the Eastern Conference, that they will make the playoffs.”

Well, what are their chances of doing that?

TAK: “If they finish with no more than seven teams ahead of them, their chances are very, very good.”

OK…this has been very interesting, but we’ll take it from here.

Five predictions:

1. Alex Ovechkin will not sign a new contract before the end of the season.

2. Alexander Semin will finish the year with more than 20 goals (he has six at the moment)

3. Matt Pettinger will finish the year with more than ten goals…and in a new city.

4. The Caps will be buyers at the trading deadline, probably for a veteran defenseman. The name that is popping up is…”Greg DeVries”

TAK: “you’re new at this, aren’t you?”

5. The Caps will catch the Florida Panthers – that’s right, the Florida Panthers – for the top spot in the Southeast Division on March 29th, in game 79, when they defeat the Panthers in Florida. They will win the division with 88 points.

Now, as for today’s game…

Since leaving Washington after a 5-2 win on December 20th, Montreal is 3-1-2, outscoring their opponents 22-16. Montreal’s success is not hard to figure out – if you commit a penalty against them, you pay. Six of their 22 goals in the last six games have been scored on the power play in 26 man advantages. Their success rate of 23.1 percent is actually behind their league-leading season success rate of 24.2 percent. They spread it around, too. Five different players have those six power play goals: Andrei Markov, Mark Streit, Andrei Kostitsyn (2), Alexei Kovalev, and Chris Higgins.

Spreading power play scoring around has been a key to the Canadiens’ season. 13 different players have scored power play goals, and 14 have power play points. Six have at least 10 power play points (the Caps have three players in that category).

It isn’t as if the Canadiens have been shirking their responsibilities on the other side of the special teams divide, either. They’ve killed off 18 of 20 shortages in the last six games.

If there is an odd statistic in the Montreal special teams play, though, it is this. The power play goal differential (goals for/goals against) is much narrower at home (18-16) than it has been on the road (27-16) this season.

The bottom line, though, is this…Montreal is 17-6-4 in games in which they score at least one power play goal, 3-7-3 in games in which they don’t. Conversely, the Caps are 13-6-2 in games where they have held a club without a power play goal, but only 3-14-3 in games where they have allowed at least one. The Caps’ penalty killers will be key in this game. The trouble is that in the last five road games, the Caps have killed only 13 of 19 man disadvantages (68.4 percent).

This is the first game of the second half and in a sense the first game of a new season. The pace the Caps have set since Thanksgiving (10-6-4) needs to be maintained, or even improved upon, for the club to have a shot at the Southeast Division crown (and it seems likely only one team from the division will make the playoffs). They get off on the right foot today…

Caps 4 – Canadiens 3

TAK: “I knew you were going to say that…”

Professor Peerless Posts the Midterm Report Card

41 games in the books, and it’s time to hand out midterm evaluations. We will dispense with the usual “grades” that come out this time of year and look to the sorts of comments that we used to get when we were in grade school...

Is a good citizen.

Viktor Kozlov. This might go for his only having accumulated 10 penalty minutes in 41 games, but one can’t help notice that despite his wretched goal drought that he ended the other day against Ottawa, he never seemed to complain or pout or get surly about it. He kept plugging, and while he can have the look from time to time of a guy skating without a care in the world, he did manage to compile 20 assists in the first half. That’s a pace that would get him his second highest career total.

Is becoming more dependable during work periods.

Alex Ovechkin. It might seem odd to place him under this comment, but while we marvel at his pace of a 60 goal season, let’s not forget that he is also on a pace for a +12 – a 31 point improvement over last year.

Is developing a better attitude toward work.

Alexander Semin. He hasn’t dressed as often as one might like, and this is a product of somewhat limited viewing this year, but he seems to be just a bit jollier in his attitude.

Is learning to occupy his time constructively.

Nicklas Backstrom. After what might be regarded by some as a slow start to his rookie campaign, he’s been averaging about a point a game since Thanksgiving, and he’s been able to hold his own with the top centers in the league. And he’s doing it while averaging 17:32 a game.

Wants responsibilities and follows through.

Mike Green. He still doesn’t get any penalty killing time to speak of, but he’s become the go-to guy on the blue line in the offensive end. He leads the defensemen in power play scoring, and he’s added five and a half minutes to his average ice time this year. He has the look of someone who can – and wants to – do better.

Has great potential and works toward achieving it.

Ovechkin. It isn’t often that a player – any player, but especially one arriving with all the ballyhoo of an Ovechkin – can be said to exceed expectations, but he’s done so in his short time in the NHL. That he would be mentioned as a potential 60-goal scorer in his third year, before his 23rd birthday, is rather amazing. Here is a comparison for his first three years in the NHL, Wayne Gretzky scored 149 goals in 231 games. At his current scoring pace this year, Ovechkin is on a pace to score 141 goals in his first 231 games. He’s in pretty good company. And the combination of his enthusiasm and his raw hunger to score more suggests that he’s still on the rise in his scoring production.

Gaining more self-confidence.

Brian Pothier. This might look like another odd pick, Pothier being 30 years old. However, Pothier had logged fewer than 300 games in his career prior to this year and last year was burdened with the weight of a comparatively (for the Caps, at least recently) large contract and playing a larger, broader role than to which he was perhaps suited. He is not an all-things-in-all-situations defenseman, and he is not a 28-32 minute guy. This year, he’s fit into a role in which he seems a better fit – playing 18-20 minutes a game – and his game has prospered for it (5-9-14, +5, one game winner). The result is that he looks surer of himself on the ice.

Has earned a very fine report card.

Brooks Laich. The Caps have a lot of third and fourth line kinds of guys, and coming into this season there was a fear that there would be a real log jam among them. But Laich has quietly put together a pretty solid season, moving anywhere from the second to the fourth line, chipping in the odd goal, and crashing and banging when the situation calls for it. Only Ovechkin has more game-winning goals.

Has been consistently progressing.

Backstrom. Last summer, there were more than a few Caps fans who seemed to think Backstrom was overrated, based on his performance in rookie camp. Here’s a kid – 19 years old when the season started – in a different country, on a different ice surface, learning a different kind of game than the one he was used to playing in Europe. It was hardly a stretch to think he might struggle early. The club brought him along slowly, starting him on the wing in the early games. But since he’s been established at center, his scoring has improved, he’s been responsible in his own end, and he looks more assertive in all three zones of the ice. Playing with Ovechkin helps, but Ovechkin’s production has been helped by Backstrom’s improvement, too.

Works well in groups, planning and carrying out activities.

Michael Nylander. Let’s put Nylander’s -16 aside for the moment (no, let’s just throw it in a hole and shovel dirt on it). He has done what Nylander does...he is a “playmaker” who looks to set up teammates. Some might see him as a little too cute with the puck from time to time, or a little too concerned with making the pass, but he has 14 assists in his last 15 games. If he keeps up that pace in the last half (he’d finish with 61 assists), he will eclipse his career high for helpers (57, set last year with the Rangers).

Possible he could exceed grade expectations.

Boyd Gordon. Gordon had a slow start to the year and has missed 15 games (12 of them in December), but he’s 1-2-3, +3 in his last four games, has won 55.7 percent of his draws this year, and leads the entire NHL in shorthanded ice time. Not this year, but soon, he could be a Selke winner for the Caps. And we still think there is an untapped offensive potential there.

Unusually mature.

Jeff Schultz. He makes mistakes from time to time, and can be somewhat exasperating in not using his size to better advantage. But he rarely looks as if he is in panic. He plays smaller than his size, and that is not always a bad thing. Smaller defensemen need to use smarts and an ability to use angles and position to defend. He does this pretty well for one with fewer than 75 games of experience at the NHL level.

Good attitude.

Tomas Fleischmann. He played his way onto the opening night top line, then found himself overmatched early on. But he’s been earnestly plugging away – sometimes on the second line, sometimes on the fourth line – and is putting together a season that, if it won’t especially impress anyone this year, could be something to build on for the future.

He is capable of much better work.

Matt Pettinger. If someone had predicted Pettinger would have only two goals in 39 games and have the same scoring line as Donald Brashear (2-3-5), they’d have been thought a bit wacky, based on Pettinger’s last two years (36 goals in 135 games). His performance has been one of the big mysteries and disappointments of the first half. The good news is, if he can approach his rate of production of the last two years in the second half, it could be just the additional jump this team needs to push them into the playoff mix.

Disruptive in class.

The obvious pick here might be Donald Brashear, with his seven fighting majors this year (11th in the league). But Matt Bradley deserves a nod here, too, and in a good way. 56 hits (4th on the team) while getting only 8:29 of ice time a night. He makes his presence felt.

He still needs guidance and support from both you and me.

Milan Jurcina. And the “you and me” might read, “coaches and fans.” There is the lingering feeling that Jurcina is not performing up to the level he displayed upon coming to the Caps via trade from Boston last year. Statistically, that’s true...2-7-9, +5 in 30 games with the Caps last year versus 1-2-3, -4 in 36 games this year. He does not appear to be playing with quite the same edge or sense of urgency as last year and appears at times a bit lost on the ice. You’d wonder if this wasn’t a matter of a slip in self-confidence. One good sign...he’s only been on the minus side of the ledger twice in the last dozen games.

He assumes responsibility well and has a fine attitude.

Shaone Morrisonn. He draws the big assignments – the Jagrs, the Crosbys, the Lecavaliers. The lack of offense (four goals in 202 career games with the Caps) is something that folks might like to see improvement in, but here is a guy who has had two minus games in his last 14 drawing those big assignments. If he’s on the plus-side of the ledger that often in the second half, it will be a good second half for the Caps.

Quality of work has improved.

Tom Poti. Before Thanksgiving, Poti was 0-4-4, -4, in 15 games. Since then, he is 0-8-8, -1 in 19 games. It hasn’t propelled him into a short list for Norris Trophy consideration, but it is improvement.

Excessive absences.

Chris Clark. Hey, it’s not his fault (we’re more inclined to wonder if it wasn’t the condition of the ice that contributed to Clark’s groin injury), but having the captain out hasn’t helped this team. That the Caps have done as well as they have in his absence is a credit to the team and Bruce Boudreau. If Clark can get back to the ice for the second half, it can only help the team that much more. The hard part about this is that despite going scoreless for his first seven games, he was 5-3-8 in ten games before his injury, very much consistent with his career-record setting pace in goals set last year.

Hard worker.

David Steckel. He draws big minutes among forwards on penalty kills and often draws the big matchups at center. Even with some recent struggles in the faceoff circle, he’s won 52 percent of his draws this year. Not bad for a guy who came into the season with 12 games of NHL experience.

Does colorful and interesting work.

John Erskine. He has a knack for getting under the skin of opponents without ever changing the expression on his face. And I’ll bet no one had the “over” on the scoring contest between him and Pettinger this year (Erskine is 1-5-6).

Takes pride in work well done.

Quintin Laing. Some guys do one thing very well. Often, it is something that doesn’t get a lot of attention other than a “here’s an odd statistic” moment on a game broadcast. Laing’s thing is blocking shots. He has 19 in 14 games. Here’s some perspective on that projects to 111 for a full season. That happens to be the total that led the league among forwards last year (Mathieu Dandenault).

Exhibits excellent attitude.

Brent Johnson. You’d better have someone with an excellent attitude who is likely to get into a game maybe three times a month over the course of a season, if the number one goalie is doing well. Johnson is having perhaps his best of three years with the Caps (3-4-1, 2.92, .898). For a team with ambitions of making the playoffs, those numbers might have to improve some in the second half, but at the moment that will be difficult, given that he’s injured.

Does not work up to his ability.

Olaf Kolzig. This might seem harsh, but only because he has been the rock of this franchise for the better part of the last decade – a goaltender who has played a lot better than his numbers might suggest because the team in front of him has been so weak. But this year, one has a disturbing feeling that the club has bailed the goalie out more often than had been the other way around in the past. It is not that Kolzig has played poorly, at least not for long stretches. But he’s given up at least four goals in four of his last ten appearances, ten in 33 appearances this year. Part of the recent trend might be the higher risk offense coach Bruce Boudreau employs. But a save percentage of .868 over the last ten games isn’t something the team is going to be able to weather from its number one goaltender, either.

Overall, we said that this would be a team that would probably struggle early with all the new parts it had to incorporate this year, especially among the top-six forwards and on defense. We didn’t think they’d struggle to the extent they did. If one looks at the first 41 games, then it projects to 74 points...another year of disappointing mediocrity. However, the Caps are 10-6-4 in 20 games since the change behind the bench. If they continue that pace, they will finish with 86 points. Given that last year, 92 points was necessary to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, that projection might look bleak. However, at the moment Carolina leads the Southeast Conference, and they are on a pace to earn...

...86 points.

The above might look a bit too "pollyanish" for some tastes, but the after-Thanksgiving team looks a lot more like the team folks thought might contend for a playoff spot. That goal is not out of reach, or at least not to the extent is appeared to be a month ago. There is still a lot of work to do, performances that have to be improved, and there are a lot of teams to climb over, but it could end up being a very interesting second half...if only this club can get healthier.