Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A FIRST PLACE night: Caps 4 - Flyers 3

Where it started, it finished.

The Caps were 6-14-1 on November 23rd, when Bruce Boudreau stood behind an NHL bench for the first time in a 4-3 overtime win over the Philadelphia Flyers at Wachovia Center. Tonight, the Caps climbed all the way back from the cellar in the Southeast, assuming first place in the division on a 4-3 win over those Flyers in south Philly.

The win gives the Caps a 20-10-4 record under Boudreau, a fact that was almost unthinkable back in November. And they jumped Carolina and Atlanta in the standings to take a one-point lead.

The Caps played several games tonight…there was “Checking Game,” which comprised most of the first two periods, the only interruptions being a sweet feed from Mike Green to a streaking Brooks Laich, who finished the play by roofing a backhand past goalie Martin Biron, and a similarly nice feed from Daniel Briere – parked behind the Caps net – to Mike Knuble who banged the puck in at the far post past goalie Olaf Kolzig. Other than that, it was a largely close-to-the-vest effort by both teams.

Then, the Caps had their “Breakout Game” in the first part of the third period…in less than five minutes, Matt Bradley, Viktor Kozlov, and Alex Ovechkin netted goals to put the Flyers on their heels, If the game was in DC, folks would be starting to think about what sauce to have with their wings.

Then, the Caps decided that they’d take a walk on the adversity side of the street, only to find that it is better to be lucky than right. Simon Gagne skated in on Kolzig and fired the puck into Kolzig’s pads. Scott Hartnell, following up the play, pushed the puck, Kolzig, and maybe even Kate Smith into the net. From where I sat (in front of my TV), it sure looked like a goal – from two different angles it was clear that the puck was over the goal line. But “after further review,” someone decided that the whistle had blown due to a loss of sight of the puck.

No goal.

But the Flyers kept up the pressure, and the Caps apparently weren’t satisfied with making things easier on themselves…Sami Kapanen converted an odd bounce off the side of the Caps’ net into a shot that eluded Kolzig and cut the lead to two. Then, with less than a minute left, Randy Jones jumped into a space at the top of the crease as the Caps’ defensemen moved to cover other players and potted a goal to make things a lot more interesting than Caps fans cared to endure.

But then “Bottle Up Game” played out as the Caps didn’t allow Philadelphia to get any momentum down the ice in the last 54 seconds, and they killed the clock to preserve the win.

Although Flyer fans will mutter – well, actually they’ll wail…Flyer fans don’t do “mutter” – that the Hartnell goal was robbed from its rightful place on the scoreboard, the Flyers benefited from some quite generous interpretations of the rules, resulting in five power plays. And, give that club enough opportunities, they’ll convert. The Flyers were two-for-five on the advantage for the evening.

Tonight was “cream cheese” night for the Caps…they spread it around. Four different players had the four goals, nine players had points (only Mike Green had two – a pair of assists), 15 players recorded shots on goal, and 11 players were on the plus side of the ledger.

Philly wan’t a lot different – three different players had the three goals, eight players had points, 13 players had shots on goal.

Individually, both teams had some noteworthy efforts -- good and bad -- that don’t immediately leap off the score sheet…

- Tom Poti played in bad luck…he was on the ice for all three Flyer goals, but it would be hard to say he was the breakdown in any of them (although it was he who Kapanen snuck behind to get into position to score).

- It was Poti who hustled to keep the puck in the offensive zone that permitted Tomas Fleischmann to drop the puck for Kozlov and his goal.

- Although the Caps spread things around offensively, Derian Hatcher and Braydon Coburn took it in the ear with a -3, apiece, for the Flyers. Neither could do anything to prevent Ovechkin from collecting his own rebound and sweeping it under Biron for his 46th of the year and his second straight game-winner (and eighth of the year – tops in the league).

- An odd stat for the Flyers…11 different players registered hits. But they had a total of only 15. And the duo of Hatcher and Coburn had one between them. Somewhere, Moose Dupont is rolling his eyes.

The climb back to the top of the division is finished, but now the chore is to stay there and put some space between themselves and the rest of the division. The Caps have 27 games left; 13 of them are against Southeast teams. And the Southeast campaign starts on Friday against Carolina. This kicks off a stretch where the Caps will play five of their next seven games against division rivals. It’s been a long time since the Caps have played such meaningful games this late in the season.

But that’s what first place teams do…

A public service...the four major food groups, Philly style

...enjoy the game...

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Flyers, February 6th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

And it’s the second half of a back-to-back tonight, this time a visit to The City of Brotherly Love to take on the Philadelphia Flyers.

Brotherly love…from the greek, “philos” (love) and “adelphos” (brotherly). It is a town that has a peculiar affection for two-word terms…cheese steak...water ice…soft pretzels…losing teams…bad attitude…goofy curse.

Goofy curse, you ask? Was The Curse of the Bambino goofy? Philly has Boston beat, though. They have a curse that has consumed all four pro sports teams – the Eagles, Phillies, 76ers, and of course…the Flyers.

It is The Curse of Billy Penn. For those of you not familiar with this ne plus ultra of sports curses, it has to do with City Hall, the statue of William Penn that stands atop it, and the place of that statue in the Philadelphia skyline and local sports. Until the mid-1980’s, the statue of William Penn stood taller than did any building in the city. Then someone thought it would be a good idea to build not one, but two buildings taller than Penn…and not by a little bit, but by almost 400 feet.

Since One Liberty Place rose to cast City Hall in a shadow a few blocks away, the city has been shut out of titles. The last title won by any of the major sports was by the Sixers in 1983. Since then, it’s the big oh-fer. And for the Flyers, it is 32 years and counting. The last time the Flyers won a title, in 1975…

- Olaf Kolzig was five years old

- Gary Bettman was a year out of Cornell University

- Wayne Gretzky hadn’t yet scored a point in the NHL

- The song of the year was “Love Will Keep Us Together,” by The Captain and Tenille

- The cost of a first-class postage stamp was ten cents

- Apollo and Soyuz would not rendezvous in space for another couple of months

- A couple of guys named Wozniak and Jobs started tinkering with ideas for a gadget that would be named after a fruit

- Saturday Night Live had not yet aired an episode

- We hadn’t yet seen the wars between Betamax and VHS

- Wheel of Fortune premiered on NBC

- David Letterman left Indiana for Los Angeles with hopes of being a comedy writer (“Good Times” would be a show on his resume)

- Robert E. Lee was pardoned by Gerald R. Ford

- Bill Clinton had not yet married Hillary Rodham (not until October)

- The lake freighter Edmund Fitzgerald hadn’t yet found its resting place at the bottom of Lake Superior (that was in November)

- Queen hadn’t released “A Night at the Opera” yet (again, November)

- A young whipper-snapper named Gates was yet to use the term “Micro-Soft” for the first time; he’d do that later in the year in a letter to Paul Allen

It’s been a while.

But the Flyers are back in their accustomed place, this year, of hobnobbing with the leaders in the Eastern Conference. Their record of 30-17-5 (they defeated Atlanta last night, 3-2) is a 32 point improvement over their 52-game record last year (13-32-7).

Since going 0-4-2 in mid-December, the Flyers are on a tear: 14-3-1 in their last 18 games. Their numbers are rather on the scary side as well…

Record: 14-3-1
Goals for/against: 63/44
Power play: 24/87 (27.6%)
Penalty killing: 64/79 (81.0%)

The penalty killing number is skewed by a ghastly effort against the Devils on January 22nd, when the Flyers gave up five goals in eight chances. If Philly gets a mulligan for that one, they are at 83.1 percent for the other 16 games, a more respectable figure.

Eighteen different skaters have those 63 goals, led by…Scott Hartnell. That’s right, Scott Hartnell, who is 12-8-20, +7 over the last 17 games. Not far behind is Mike Knuble (10-4-14, +2), and Jeff Carter (6-7-13, +6). Mike Richards (4-13-17, +1) and Daniel Briere (5-10-15, -6) have chipped in a bushel of helpers in the process.

Briere is an odd case. Among players having played at least 40 games, “Britney” (“spears?”…play on “Briere?”…ok, it’s a stretch) is tied for eighth worst plus-minus in the league, which is rather noteworthy on a team where only four such players having played at least 40 games are in the minus category (this doesn’t count Rory “Hanging Chad” Fitzpatrick, who is -12 in 19 games). At this point in the season, it’s nice for Flyer fans that Briere has 28 power play points (fourth in the league), but -16 probably wasn’t part of the script.

And speaking of power plays, that 27.6 percent number is better than their season average (24.8 percent), but not extraordinarily so. The key? Briere, Knuble, Mike Richards, and Kimmo Timmonen. Among them, they are a combined 33-68-101 with the man advantage. And avoiding their wrath has been a rare thing. Only three times in the last 14 games have the Flyers been held without a power play tally. They are 1-2-0 in those games, and their win came via a 1-0 shutout of Florida.

We're guessing the power play will be important.

Which brings us to the goalies. Martin Biron is 7-1-0 in 10 appearances during this 14-3-1 run. His 2.19 GAA and .926 save percentage have been excellent. He’s stopped his last 44 shots covering portions of three games. On the other hand, Antero Niittymaki has been just about as good in his ten appearances: 7-2-1, 2.69, .922. The difference is that Niittymaki has faced a whopping 34.6 shots-per-60 minutes, accounting for the higher GAA.

For both clubs, it is the back end of a back-to-back set. Brent Johnson and Niittymaki played last night for the Caps and Flyers, respectively. So, it would seem that we’ll see Olaf Kolzig and Biron tonight. The career numbers against the opponent would appear to favor Biron (10-6-1-1, 2.63, .909) ever so slightly over Kolzig (13-19-3-0, 2.73, .908). But if we’re looking at career numbers, Alex Ovechkin is 11-9-20, +4, in 11 career games against the Flyers. Since Ovechkin is also on quite a run of his own (20-11-31, +11 in 18 games since Christmas), this could be quite a matchup.

Philly’s hot, their scorers are scoring, their goalies are tending goal, and the game is in their barn. So…

Caps 4 – Flyers 3

We ain't purdy, but we're competitive...

Closing in on the 25-games-to-go mark, the top four teams in the Southeast are within one point of one another. The fight for the three-seed is going to be something these last two months.