Monday, January 21, 2008

A TWO point night!!!...Caps 6 - Penguins 5 (OT/SO)

Well, if nothing else, it was entertaining. The Caps survived a two-goal night from Evgeni Malkin and a rare 5-on-3 power play in overtime, capitalizing on shootout goals by Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, 6-5 in a shootout.

And in its own way, it probably signaled what the Eastern Conference is going to look like going forward – if not this year, then in the years to come. These two teams are emerging as potentially the class of the East. It’s easier to see with the Penguins, as they are a more developed team at the moment. Even without Sidney Crosby, they are a loaded club in terms of youthful talent (they are third in the league in points among players younger than 25 years old). But one can start to see it with the Capitals in the play of Alex Ovechkin (no surprise there), Mike Green, and Nicklas Backstrom (who is a point-a-game player the last two months). The Caps are second in the league in points among the under-25 crowd.

Tonight, though, it was a battle of the Russians early as Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin traded haymakers and hits. First Ovechkin assisting on a goal by Viktor Kozlov, sending a screamer at goalie Dany Sabourin that rebounded to Kozlov for the quick deposit. Then Malkin…then Ovechkin…then Malkin…then Ovechkin. Ovechkin took an open ice run at Malkin to deliver one of his trademark hits, and Malkin shrugged him off and into the end boards as if Ovechkin was merely a nuisance. It was like watching Balboa and Creed trading head shots in Rocky II.

But the difference in this one was defense…yes, defense. And with apologies to Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and even Nicklas Backstrom with his second straight four-assist night, the MVP tonight was Quintin Laing. With the Capitals trying to kill off a 5-on-3 Penguin advantage in the overtime, Laing blocked consecutive drives by Malkin to keep the Caps’ hearts beating. Without those plays and the inspiration they provided late in that overtime, this game might not go to a shootout.

And let’s hear it for the “other Russian.” Malkin?...Gonchar?...Ovechkin?...Semin?


Viktor Kozlov had two goals for the Caps tonight, his second straight contest with a pair of markers, and he’s 4-2-6 in his last four games. With Michael Nylander on the shelf for the rest of this season, it is nice to see Kozlov stepping up like this.

Has Nicklas Backstrom reached a comfort level? Four assists…eight in his last two games…14 in his last 11. He has closed to within five points of rookie scoring leader Patrick Kane.

There were lots of numbers that deserve mention. For the Penguins…

Ryan Malone – who takes a fair amount of grief in Penguin Nation – managed a three-point night (goal, two assists) and logged more than 24 minutes. He’s one of those guys who absolutely has to step up for the Penguins in the absence of Sidney Crosby, especially on the road, where teams will get more favorable matchups against Malkin, if the Penguins are going to continue competing for a playoff spot.

Sergei Gonchar was a 30-minute man for the Penguins and had a three-point night of his own. Oddly, though, he did not register a single shot on goal (he had three attempts blocked).

Seven Penguins took draws tonight, and only one had a winning percentage. Tim Brent (no, not Tim Brant, the DC sportscaster…) won three of five draws. As a group, the Penguins were rather brutal…they won only 28 of 68 draws (41.2 percent).

Malkin had seven of the 15 total shots for Pittsburgh. He had nine of the 28 total attempts. Only one other Penguin had more than one shot recorded (Maxime Talbot).

The Penguins had 24 hits…Georges Laraque did not have any of them in 10:31.

And for the Caps…

There was Tomas Fleischmann having another solid game. 1-1-2 (scoring on his only shot taken) and creating a number of opportunities in his almost-14 minutes of play.

Matt Pettinger had one assist, and it was a subtle beauty. Taking the puck from Backstrom, Pettinger backed off to give himself space to find Kozlov at the edge of the right wing circle for the Caps’ fifth goal to tie the game. It looked a lot like Backstrom…

The Caps beat two teams in the shootout in the last week that had a combined win-loss record of 17-4 before being beaten by the Caps.

The Caps had 24 hits…Donald Brashear had five of them in 8:32.

Alex Ovechkin has been held without a point in only three of his last 33 games (29-17-46, +8).

Ovechkin had 11 shots and 16 total attempts, but there was Alexander Semin with three shots and nine attempts, himself.

All told, the Russians went 6-6-12, +2 and had 23 shots on goal, not to mention two of the shootout goals*

As big as the four assists were, so might have been Backstrom winning 12 of 19 draws. It’s been a weakness in his game (one of the few), and this was welcome.

Backstrom, Boyd Gordon, and David Steckel were a combined 32-14 on draws (69.6 percent).

So there it was…ten goals on 45 shots…three goaltenders…five-for-ten on power plays. If you like offense, this was the game to watch over the first 60 minutes. But in the extra skating session, it was defense…the Caps’ ability to sacrifice and kill a 77-second two-man disadvantage that was the difference between getting one point and giving themselves a chance for two. And if that point comes in handy in April, y’all better be thinking of Quintin Laing.

* Ovechkin, Kozlov, Semin, Malkin, Gonchar

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Penguins, January 21st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It is Game 3 of the annual series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins…between the red-white-and-blue and the black-and-some-shade-of-gold…between Alexander the Great and Sidney Cros…


So sad, no Sid. The Penguin Prodigy was injured in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning last Friday night, sustaining what is diagnosed as a “high ankle sprain.” The injury received more press than the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 and has, The Peerless has learned, triggered Congressional hearings on the subject…

The Chairman…”The hearing will come to order…today we are investigating a possible criminal matter, what is perhaps a conspiracy of monstrous proportions. Last Friday, we suffered a critical blow to our homeland when Sidney Crosby was felled in a contest between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. On behalf of the American people, I assure you that we will get to the bottom of the matter. Our first witness is Mr. Jim Garrison, formerly of the office of the District Attorney of Orleans Parrish, Louisiana…welcome, Mr. Garrison.”

Mr. Garrison: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”

The Chairman: “Mr. Garrison, you have been sworn, so let us proceed. I understand you have an important piece of film to show us…”

Mr. Garrison: “That is correct, Mr. Chairman…we have been provided a film shot by Mr. Abraham Zapruder, of Dallas, Texas, who happened to be visiting Pittsburgh on business.

"So what really happened that day? Let's just for a moment speculate, shall we? We have the Wanvig goal at 4:34…then, they don't shoot him – uh, check him -- coming up center ice, which is the easiest shot for a single shooter in the Book Depository – uh, single defender -- but they wait till he gets to the killing zone between three Lightning. Crosby makes the final turn toward the offensive zone, slowing down to some 11 miles per hour. The first check is misses completely... Frame 161, Crosby tries to slow down.

"Frame 193 - the second check hits Crosby in the arm from the front.

"Frame 225 - Crosby emerging from the check. He obviously has been hit, trying to lean into the play.

"Frame 238... This is the key shot that proves two checkers from the rear. This is 1.6 seconds after the third check, and we know no single checker can throw three hits in that time. A fan at the glass yells out, 'My God, they're going to kill us all.'

"The fifth and fatal shot - frame 313 - takes Crosby to the ice from the front...This is the key shot. Watch it again. Crosby's ankle is going back to his left. Hit from the front and right. Totally inconsistent with the check at the blue line. Again... back and to the left…back and to the left... back and to the left."

The Chairman: "Mr. Garrison, that is compelling evidence of a conspiracy against Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the National Hockey League, and all the freedoms and blessings we hold dear in this country. But why?...why, Mr. Garrison? Who is behind this heinous act?"

Mr. Garrison: "Well, isn't it obvious, Mr. Chairman?"

The Chairman: "Nothing is ever obvious to Congress, Mr. Garrison."

Mr. Garrison: "Mr. Chairman, there is only one party who could benefit, who -- by the very nature of the victim and the crime -- could further their interests. Mr. Chairman, I give you the mastermind of this fiendish act..."

Well, conspiracy nuts aside, there is a game to play tonight, and for the Penguins it will be what they hope is a coming out party for their Russian -- Evgeni Malkin -- against the Caps' Russian -- Alexander Ovechkin.

The attention to be fixed on Malkin will not be the only change for the Penguins in this matchup, as they have recalled three farmhands from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the contest. This is in response to injuries to Colby Armstrong (hip) and Adam Hall (groin).

The Penguins, though, are the hottest team in the NHL at the moment, holding the best record in the Eastern Conference since Thanksgiving and a 10-1-1 record in their last dozen games. The particulars:

Record: 10-1-1
Goals for/against: 35-16
Power Play: 8/47 (17.0 percent)
Penalty killing: 34/38 (89.5 percent)

Although the loss of Crosby is and will be keenly felt, the story of the last dozen games is those 16 goals. Only twice have the Penguins allowed as many as three goals, and they have three shutouts in the process.

And that brings us to Ty Conklin. The 31-year old netminder came into this season with a 30-24-4-3 record in 76 career games, but he found himself manning the nets in Wilkes-Barre for the Baby Pens until Marc-Andre Fleury was injured (a high ankle sprain…still think there’s no conspiracy?). In this 12-game run, Conklin is 9-1-1, 1.43, .957 in what looks for all the world like the pay off in a deal with the Devil (or, “The Devil”…the one who wears #30).

The attention on Evgeni Malkin might be a new twist, but his performance lately merits the focus. In the last dozen games, Malkin is 11-3-14, +10, with a couple of hat tricks thrown in. That Malkin has almost a third of the Penguins’ goals in the last dozen games is important, but what might be equally important are the goals in these dozen that are not likely to be in the lineup – Colby Armstrong and Sidney Crosby have a total of seven of the 35 goals the Penguins have in this stretch.

But the most important player for the Penguins might not be Conklin or Malkin, but Jordan Staal. It is hardly a stretch to think of Malkin as a top-line center. He’d probably be the top line center on 25 clubs in the NHL. But now, it might fall to Jordan Staal to take Malkin’s place as the trusty sidekick to the top gun. Last year, Staal had 29 goals and was a +16…right now he’s on a pace to score nine goals with a -16. That’s what one might characterize as a “sophomore slump.” One of the things missing from his game is shorthanded goals. He had seven last year (leading the league in that measure), none so far this year.

These are the two of the best teams in the East since Thanksgiving – the Penguins are first in points, the Caps third since then. Both teams are contending with injuries – Crosby and Fleury the noteworthy ones for Pittsburgh; Chris Clark, Brian Pothier, and Michael Nylander for the Caps.

We’re going to get a measure of the younger guys on both clubs – these being two of the younger and deeper clubs in the NHL with respect to up and coming prospects. Staal, Kris Letang, Malkin, Ryan Whitney, and Tyler Kennedy lead the youth corps for the Penguins. The Alexes, Mike Green, Boyd Gordon, Nicklas Backstrom, Jeff Schultz, and Tomas Fleischmann from the under-25 brigade for the Caps.

The Caps are hot in their last dozen games as well: 8-2-2, with three wins over Ottawa, and they’ve scored at least four goals in seven of their last nine games. And in that span, Alexander Ovechkin has done his countryman Malkin one better, with 12 goals (12-7-19, +8). Alexander Semin completes the Russian double with 7-3-10, -4. The combined 19-10-29, +4, with three game-winning goals contends with the 13-9-22, +15, and two game-winners of the Malkin/Sergei Gonchar Russian duo.

We like the Alexes in this one in the contest between a couple of teams a couple of players short…

Caps 4 – Penguins 3