Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A TWO point night: Caps 4 - Blue Jackets 3 (OT)

We said this before…there are 20 games in a season you’re going to win, and there are 20 you’re going to lose. It’s what you do with the other 40 that will make or break your season.

Well, this one was one of the 20 that the Caps should have lost. And they didn’t.

Snatching a 4-3 overtime win from the Columbus Blue Jackets was a product of persistence and talent…and a Columbus team that really had no offensive threat other than Rick Nash and Bill McUnseld (we’ll get to that in a moment).

For a while, it looked as if the game’s goals would all be scored into the same net – the one Columbus shoots at twice. Two for Columbus in the first, two for the Caps when they changed ends for the second, and another for Columbus in the third.

About that Columbus goal in the third. What in heaven’s name was referee Bill McUnseld…uh, McCreary thinking? How many times in a game do you see a referee in the middle of the ice, and then skating into a player. It was McUnseld’s….uh, McCreary’s pick on Shaone Morrisonn that sprung Elvin Nash…uh, Rick Nash free for a breakaway (his second of the game) and a goal on netminder Brent Johnson.

Nash’s first breakaway was not a product of luck but some boneheaded rookieness by Nicklas Backstrom, who (on a 5-on-3 power play) did not lift an attempted pass over Nash’s stick. Nash intercepted the pass and hot-footed it the other way, staying a step ahead of Alex Ovechkin long enough to fire the puck through Johnson’s pads and the first 3-on-5 scored against the Caps since 1991.

When Jason Chimera scored less than a minute later to give Columbus a 2-0 lead, Caps fans had to think things pointed to the big “L.”

Then the clubs changed ends…Alex Ovechkin skated down the left side, and using defenseman Adam Foote as a screen rifled the puck past Blue Jackets goalie Pascal Leclaire. We’re tempted to say that no one uses a defenseman as an offensive tool better than Ovechkin, who has a singular knack for shooting through their legs or just past their hips for goals that surprise goalies.

As the period was winding down, the Great Experiment in breaking up the top line paid dividends as Viktor Kozlov found Alexander Semin all alone at the far side of the Columbus net, and it was just left to Semin to roof a backhand over Frederick Norrena.

“Norrena,” you say? What happened to Leclaire? Well, he lost in a weird game of chicken, where each team ended up running the other’s goalie. Johnson had, by this time, been plowed into a few times, but had bounced back. On this occasion, Quintin Laing barreled down the middle and with a Blue Jacket defender piled onto Leclaire in his crease. Leclaire apparently took a stick in the neck, and his night was done. It was probably the biggest play of the game, or at least the one that made the rest possible, since the Caps were having a lot of trouble solving Leclaire.

Until Tom Poti finally got off the schneid…44 games with the Caps without a goal, 45 in a row in all dating back to last year. And it came on the most innocent of shots, just throwing it at the net and having it sneak under the bar where it rolled around the frame of the goal and came out, giving the impression that it hit the crossbar. After a brief review, the goal was confirmed, and the Caps tied the game.

Where Ovechkin won it with a goal that was largely a product of the open ice a 4-on-4 in overtime produces. He sent the puck cros-ice to Tom Poti, who returned it to him at the top of the right circle, and then it was a matter of picking a hole to shoot for. He found it, and the Caps had two points where none appeared to be forthcoming tonight.

If you look at the numbers, you’d think the Caps won this game by at least a couple of goals. They “out-attempted” (shots, shots blocked, missed shots) Columbus 71-54. Ovechkin had 18 attempts by himself (ten of them recorded as shots on goal). They held their own in hits (22-21 for the Blue Jackets) and in blocked shots (18 apiece). However, Columbus did two things very well. First, they dominated the faceoff circle, especially Mike Peca and Manny Malhotra, who won a combined 21 of 32 draws (Viktor Kozlov took it in the teeth on this one…he won one of 11 draws). Second, they really collapsed on the crease whenever the Caps shot the puck. That made for a lot of ricochets, blocked shots, and few rebounds…at least it seemed that way as the Caps spent a lot of the early going (like that 5-on-3 power play) trying to be cute, rather than gritty. Columbus looked like the Ken Hitchcock team it is – aesthetically challenged, but responsible and effective in the little things. They just don’t have enough talent past Nash or Nikolai Zherdev to pose a consistent offensive threat.

Tom Poti might have had his best game as a Cap, and that was not because of his goal…or his assist…but of his “save.” With Brent Johnson prone at the top of his crease, Poti covered the near post to block a shot that prevented a sure goal, then flicked the puck out of danger with his hand. He had five blocked shots overall.

Eric Fehr did not have his minutes rationed as one might have expected. He skated 16:46 and spent a lot of time aggressively forechecking. He had a couple of decent chances and looked as if he could be a shot in the arm on the top line. And the move of Kozlov to the second line paid immediate dividends, highlighting something about Alexander Semin’s effectiveness. Semin is a deft puckhandler, but often times of late, the longer he held the puck and dangled with it, so the probability that something bad would happen – he’d lose and edge, he’s whiff on a shot, he’d make a bad pass, or he’d just turn it over – increased. Tonight, he got the puck from Kozlov in a scoring area and immediately buried his opportunity. That will be something to watch for as this goes forward – is Semin handling the puck less and being more effective as a result?

It was a welcome two points, and now the theme might be, “make one, two…”

The Caps have that opportunity tomorrow in Philadelphia.

Kid Chemistry

So…will breaking up the first line to insert Eric Fehr and move Viktor Kozlov to the second line play havoc with that top line?

The Caps, of course, are hoping it will not. And frankly, the recent statistics suggest the hope is well-founded.

Let’s do two things…let’s assume that as Alex Ovechkin goes, so goes the top line. He’s the finisher, he’s the engine that makes that line hum. Next, let’s look at the 14-game stretch that began with Ovechkin’s first four-goal game against Ottawa and that ended with his second four-goal game, against Montreal.

In those games, Ovechkin scored 17 goals. Now…who assisted. Here they are, in their entirety (principal linemates Nicklas Backstrom and Viktor Kozlov in bold):

Goal 1: Mike Green, Alexander Semin
Goal 2: Tom Poti, Nicklas Backstrom
Goal 3: Jeff Schultz
Goal 4: unassisted
Goal 5: Michael Nylander
Goal 6: John Erskine
Goal 7: Viktor Kozlov, Mike Green
Goal 8: Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleischmann
Goal 9: Boyd Gordon, Jeff Schultz
Goal 10: Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom
Goal 11: Tomas Fleischmann, Nicklas Backstrom
Goal 12: Nicklas Backstrom, Milan Jurcina
Goal 13: Viktor Kozlov, Steve Eminger
Goal 14: Milan Jurcina
Goal 15: Viktor Kozlov, Nicklas Backstrom
Goal 16: Viktor Kozlov, Mike Green
Goal 17: Jeff Schultz, Mike Green

There are 28 assists that breakdown as follows (primary/secondary/total):

Mike Green: 2-3-5
Nicklas Backstrom: 1-4-5
Viktor Kozlov: 4-0-4
Jeff Schultz: 2-1-3
Tomas Fleischmann: 1-1-2
Milan Jurcina: 1-1-2
Tom Poti: 1-0-1
Michael Nylander: 1-0-1
John Erskine: 1-0-1
Brooks Laich: 1-0-1
Boyd Gordon: 1-0-1
Alexander Semin: 0-1-1
Steve Eminger: 0-1-1

The usual suspects are at the top of the list – Backstrom, Kozlov, and Green

But look a little closer…that’s 13 different players providing at least one assist on an Ovechkin goal (he is an equal opportunity finisher). Kozlov has the lion’s share of primary assists, but defensemen have seven of those primary assists, too.

Then there are power play goals. Ovechkin has five power play goals in this group. Neither Kozlov nor Backstrom has a primary assist on any of them (Backstrom has two secondary assists).

It hardly seems to matter who gets the puck to Ovechkin; he’s finding a way to deposit it in the back of the net, regardless.

Now, let’s set those first two assumptions aside and look at the Kozlov-Backstrom pairing. Over the last seven games, Viktor Kozlov has six goals, and the assists on them break down like this:

Goal 1: Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom
Goal 2: Nicklas Backstrom
Goal 3: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom
Goal 4: Matt Pettinger, Nicklas Backstrom
Goal 5: Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom
Goal 6: Alex Ovechkin, Tom Poti

Backstrom has five assists, a product of consistent pairing with Kozlov, no doubt (there are two power play and three even strength assists in there). But whatever the reason, Kozlov and Backstrom have been showing up on the same line on the goal scoring record.

Hopefully, Fehr will be able to replace some of, if not all of the recent goal scoring that came from Kozlov, who might now be trying to resurrect the second line. If this is to be the case, it means he’s going to need to develop a working chemistry with Nicklas Backstrom in pretty short order. Quite a task for a couple of kids with a combined 78 games of NHL experience between them. But that could be the key to whether the top line continues to produce, or if teams start to load up defenses on the left side to slow Ovechkin down.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Blue Jackets, February 5th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

And today’s question is, what do the Scioto and Olentangy Rivers have in common?

Columbus, Ohio. That’s right, the Olentangy and the Scioto join downtown, just about where Washington Capitals will be taking on the Columbus Blue Jackets this evening in a rare contest against a Western Conference opponent. It is part of the Caps’ journey of discovery, as they try to navigate the rocks and shoals ahead of them on their adventure that will lead them to the playoffs. And who better to ask about the perils of such a journey than the man himself – he for whom this city by the Olentangy and Scioto is named…Christopher Columbus. Captain, welcome…it’s somewhat surprising to find you a hockey fan…

CC: “Well, it’s just water they play on, and any man of the sea will always find his way to water.”

Tonight the Jackets and their fans get a rare in-person look at Alex Ovechkin, who recently signed a big contract extension with the Caps. Any thoughts on that?

CC: “He who has gold makes and accomplishes whatever he wishes in the world and finally uses it to send souls to paradise.”

So, you think the Caps and their fans will see a Stanley Cup in their near future…but on the other hand, I understand you sided with the league during the lockout. You had some kind words regarding league commissioner Gary Bettman, encouraging the league to stand fast…

CC: “No one should fear to undertake any task in the name of our Saviour, if it is just and if the intention is purely for His holy service.”

Let’s talk about the Jackets for a moment...they had a four game winning streak in mid-January, but other than that they’ve been spending the last couple of months treading water. What seems to be the problem?

CC: “These people are very unskilled in arms ... with 50 men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished.”

Well, being 27th in the league in goals-per-game suggests they’re not exactly doing what they wish, anyway. Meanwhile, the Caps have hit a bit of a rough patch in their last ten games, going 2-3-0 in their last five games after a four game winning streak. The Jackets are 2-5-0 in their last seven. What do you say to a pair of struggling teams?

CC: “By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.”

That’s pretty good advice for any situation. This is only the second road game the Caps have played against a Western Conference opponent since Bruce Boudreau took over. Any thoughts on his performance behind the bench?...When you see him back there, what comes to mind?

CC: “I will command your fleet and discover for you new realms.”

Regarding the Caps, they’re out on the road for a short two-game road trip, but they’re important games. As something of a “road warrior” yourself, what advice can you give the boys as they skate on foreign ice tonight?

CC: “And the ice shall grant all men new hope, as sleep brings dreams of home.”

Well, thanks to Christopher Columbus for those words of wisdom…for the Caps, it’s the front end of a two-game road trip, and they’ll be taking on a team in the Blue Jackets, the Caps will be facing a team in similar circumstances to their own. A tale of the tape:


Caps: 24-24-5 (53 points)
Jackets: 25-23-6 (56 points)

Conference Ranking:

Caps: 12th
Jackets: 11th

Points out of playoff position:

Caps: three
Jackets: three

Record, last ten games:

Caps: 6-4-0
Jackets: 5-5-0

Goals for/against:

Caps: 31/34
Jackets: 20/22

Power Play:

Caps: 9/40 (22.5%)
Jackets: 8/36 (22.2%)

Penalty killing:

Caps: 31/42 (73.8%)
Jackets: 39/44 (88.6%)

Twenty goals in ten games isn’t a recipe for success in the NHL, but the Blue Jackets have avoided a collapse because of sturdy defensive play, led by the NHL’s version of “Agent Zero” – goaltender Pascal Leclaire. The Blue Jacket netminder has eight shutouts this year in 37 games – a bad sign for the Caps, a team that has been shutout in two of their last three games. Leclaire has had eight decisions over the last ten games, going 5-3-0 in the process. He’s also put up a 2.34 goals-against average and a .921 save percentage in the process. And yes, there is a shutout in there, a 1-0 decision over Chicago on January 24th.

What offense the Blue Jackets have been able to muster (get it?...”Blue Jackets?” …”muster?” …ok, it’s a Civil War thing) has been spread out. Twenty goals over the last ten games have been scored by 11 different players, four of them by Nikolai Zherdev. While Zherdev is 4-6-10 in these last ten games, he’s also a -7. Rick Nash has three of those goals (3-2-5, -4).

On the blue line, Rostaslav Klesla might be showing – finally – the considerable talent he has on defense. He has not put up big numbers on the offensive side of the ledger, but he is one of only four players with more than 40 games played on the plus side of the ledger. Those “games played” are as important as any statistic. Klesla has never played in more than 75 games in any season, but has dressed for all 54 Columbus contests this year. Coming into this season he missed 90 games over five full seasons due in large part to a variety of injuries – hip, foot, groin, hand, leg. His history is reminiscent of another physical defenseman who had hard time staying in the lineup – Mark Tinordi, who missed 112 games over five seasons with the Caps from 1994-95 to 1998-99.

For the Caps, it’s been alternating wins and losses over the last six games. Hopefully, that is merely a pause as the club re-energizes. The call-up of Eric Fehr yesterday is recognition that the Caps are at the moment too top-heavy a team in scoring. In those six games, during which the Caps have been shutout twice, Washington has 14 goals. Seven of them are from Alex Ovechkin, four from Viktor Kozlov. The new-found scoring from Kozlov is welcome, especially since the Caps have a total of three goals from other players – Tomas Fleischmann, Alexander Semin, and Brooks Laich with one apiece.

The Caps are getting little from the second line and nothing from the third or fourth lines in terms of scoring. Hence, stop the top line, the Caps don’t score. Fehr, who if nothing else has been a goal-scorer at every stop in his young career, will apparently man the right side of the top line, while Kozlov will move to the second line to perhaps provide a jolt of offense – or at least a reliable center who can take advantage of his wingers in ways neither Boyd Gordon nor Brooks Laich could accomplish.

This is probably as good a game as any for the Caps to try this experiment, or at least allow Fehr to get his skating legs under him at this level. Games later in the week against Philadelphia, Carolina, and the Rangers will provide stiffer, or at least more important tests.

It’s feast or famine with the Caps. Six times in the last ten they have scored at least five goals; twice they have been shut out. We think the jostling of the lines will be a shot in the arm, and the Caps will have a successful start to this short road trip…

Caps 3 – Blue Jackets 2