Friday, January 25, 2008

When we get back...Southern Un-hospitality

Something to ponder...After the break, the Caps will have 32 games left. Of this number, 14 will be against teams in the Southeast Division as follows (records against, to date, in parentheses):

vs. Carolina (2-2-0): 2 home/2 away
vs. Tampa Bay (3-2-0): 1 home/2 away
vs. Atlanta (2-1-1): 2 home/2 away
vs. Florida (2-2-1): 1 home/2 away

That's 9-7-2 against the Southeast so far with six games left at home, eight on the road. The last seven games of the year are against Southeast Division clubs.

But here's the thing...the Caps are 6-1-1 against the Southeast since Thanksgiving. Florida is 4-3-0, Carolina is 4-3-1, Atlanta is 2-3-1, and Tampa Bay is 2-5-0 over that span in the division.

If the Caps can keep up the pressure on their divisional rivals in the heavily division-weighted schedule after the All-Star break, the playoffs might not be a pipe dream.

Sure, it's getting ahead of ourselves a bit, but think about what 20 (or more) of the 28 available points might mean...and what that last two weeks of the season might be like.

Revisiting a Benchmark

Last August, when pondering "benchmarks" and their usefulness to gauging the Caps' playoff hopes, we asked this about goaltending...

" is apparent that the Caps are going to have to get production from the backup goaltending position, if not have a backup who can assume the top job for significant stretches. Is Brent Johnson that backup?"

Well, look at this, then you tell me...

First 21 games:

Caps' record: 6-14-1 (13 points)
Johnson's record: 7 games, 1-4-1, 3.19, .894

Last 29 games:

Caps' record: 17-8-4 (38 points)
Johnson's record: 7 games, 5-1-0, 2.05, .926

It is plain that Johnson has not only been a dependable backup since Thanksgiving, he's been downright dazzling, for the most part, despite being injured for a part of this run. It is a significant development, since we also said last August...

"...unless Kolzig simply forgets how to strap on his pads (he should be a constant in the games he plays), Johnson is the key. Playoff aspirants can’t afford to give away games when the number one goaltender isn’t on the ice."

We took a look at backups for playoff teams last year and found that...

-- None of the ten goalies who played more than 20 games in this group (except for Marc Denis, who was demoted) had a below-.500 record.

-- None of the ten goalies who played more than 20 games (again, except Denis) had a goal-against of more than 3.00

-- Only two of the ten goalies in this group who played more than 20 games had a save percentage below .900 (Denis and Johan Hedberg)

Johnson has exceeded those benchmarks by far in the Caps strong run since late-November, and in fact has been there to pick up the club when Olaf Kolzig has occasionally had difficulty finding his "A" game. It has been an important ingredient in a point we were trying to make...

"...if a backup is going to be playing significant time, and the history of the past several years with the Caps indicates that he will, then he needs to provide a consistent (despite his still intermittent appearances) level of play. Johnson will need to improve on his numbers for the Caps to have realistic playoff aspirations. Part of that will be the improvement in the play around him – the Caps did upgrade at several positions and should see further development at others. Part of that will be Johnson improving, too. That could be the key to solid overall goaltending this year."

Johnson has improved on his numbers, and his continuing this strong play will be an important factor in the Caps stretch drive.

A TWO-point night!...Caps 2 - Maple Leafs 1

On November 22nd, the Caps were on a pace for 53 points for the season. With tonight’s 2-1 in over the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Caps are on a pace for 84 points. But if you look at the Caps over the last 29 games, during which they have amassed a 17-8-4 record, keeping up that pace in the 32-game post All-Star break sprint to the finish would result in 93 points.

You’d have to think that 93 points would: a) win at least an eighth spot, or b) win them the Southeast Division outright, given the state of the other four teams in the division. The Caps stand at the all-star break one point behind the Carolina Hurricanes with two games in hand.

Tonight, the Caps ended the figurative “first half” of the season on a high-note in a low-down game. There wasn’t anything pretty about it, nothing that would commend it as an example of what the Nu-NHL strives to be. It was played zone-to-zone and along the boards with a singular lack of continuity or flow. What chances there were came out of nowhere and were few and far between, despite the 52 shots combined shots recorded by the two teams.

In other words, it was exactly the kind of game Toronto wanted to play…and they still lost.

Brooks Laich tipped a drive by Alex Ovechkin…Boyd Devereaux tipped a drive by Pavel Kubina…Viktor Kozlov cleaned up after another drive by Ovechkin with goalie Vesa Toskala far out of position to do anything about it.

That did it for the scoring. They were blips on an otherwise flatline of a game spent largely in pursuit of pucks in the corners and along the boards. Toronto did another efficient job of taking away the center of the ice, clogging passing lanes and leaving the Caps to dump, chase, and hit (the Caps had 22 hits). When Toronto managed to move the puck out of their own end, they dumped, chased, and hit, too (they had 18 hits).

Since this was more to Toronto’s liking in terms of style, they had -- for lack of a better term -- the “advantage” of play for the most part. They managed 32 shots on Caps’ goalie Brent Johnson, but except for the wacky deflection just under the crossbar by Devereaux, Johnson was more than equal to the task of keeping the net free of pucks. He did manage to make a few top-notch saves, particularly a glove save on Mats Sundin on a drive from the edge of the left wing circle in the third period.

For the record, the 10:45 sports report on WTOP radio proclaimed that Kris Beech netted the game-winner. We hope Viktor Kozlov does well in Hershey.

Hey, we all make mistakes.

As for the numbers and other stuff, there isn’t much in there that leaps off the sheet…

For Alex Ovechkin, it was a deuces-are-wild night…two assists, two points, two shots (two??), two shots blocked, two shots missed, two giveaways.

Nicklas Backstrom made it back to the scoresheet with an assist…he hasn’t been held scoreless in consecutive games in a month.

Tonight’s big bopper was Milan Jurcina – six hits, including one on Alex Steen in the first period that effectively ended his evening. Steen did not return after the first intermission. He also had four blocked shots to tie for the team lead (go ahead…guess the player with whom he was tied).

No Cap had a losing record in the circle. As a group, they won 33 of 53 draws (62.3 percent) and were led by Boyd Gordon (11-for-18) and David Steckel (10-for-16).

Heard on the 3WT post game…”Big Boo”…apparently, this is a nickname the studio guys have given to Bruce Boudreau. We don't think it's going to catch on.

The Peerless knarfed down three dogs, in case you were wondering.

As for the second period hot dog eating competition…no one should contemplate giving up their day job, and that includes the “Black Widow,” who looked for all the world as if she was struggling mightily to keep her “lunch” down. We already can’t wait for next season’s competition. Maybe they’ll have bloggers.

We miss not seeing Kerry Fraser’s coif-of-perfection-and-envy. Fraser in a helmet is like putting Saran Wrap around the Mona Lisa. He looks like one of the mites out there in that thing.

Brent Johnson’s 31 saves on 32 shots faced added fuel to the fire for a goaltender controversy. For a town that almost invented the term, “quarterback controversy” in football, it could make for an interesting situation.

Alexander Semin had no shots on goal. In case you were wondering, that’s only the fifth time in 31 games that’s happened.

It was “deuces-wild” for Mike Green, too…two shots, two shots blocked, two shots missed, two giveaways, two blocked shots.

Green also had 11 seconds of penalty killing time. That is almost twice as much as his average (six seconds/game).

Of the 18 skaters for Toronto, only Anton Stralman and Darryl Boyce were held without a shot on goal, and Boyce only played 3:20 (he left the ice in the second after catching a skate in a rut and didn’t return).

With this loss, the Maple Leafs lead the Eastern Conference in road losses in regulation (15).

Ovechkin scored two points and dropped from a tie for second to third in scoring...Daniel Alfredsson leap-frogged both Ovechkin and Vincent Lecavalier with a seven-point night in an 8-4 win over the Lightning.

The 23-22-5 record on this date is the best for the Caps since the 2002-2003 season (22-18-6-3), the last year they made the playoffs.

The 23 wins equals the total number of wins recorded in the 2003-2004 season.

And there you have it…the Caps are poised to make a run at a playoff spot in the second half. If they can get Chris Clark and Brian Pothier back, it’ll make the club that much stronger…and give Bruce Boudreau some more of those hard choices coaches are supposed to love.

Hang on, kids…it gets to be a wild ride from here.