Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Hurricanes, February 23rd

"Everybody understands the magnitude of the game. We need to be ready."

-- Capitals goaltender, Olaf Kolzig, on the importance of tonight's game against Carolina

And sometimes, it's big enough to let the general get the troops ready...

Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a hockey game by taking a penalty for his team. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard take a penalty for his team. Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about the Caps not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the contest, is a lot of horse dung. Caps traditionally love to fight. All real Caps love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball player, the toughest boxer. Caps fans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Caps play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Caps have never lost and will never lose a game. Because the very thought of losing is hateful to Capitals.

Now, a hockey club is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, checks as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for ESPN don’t know anything more about real hockey games than they do about fornicating.

We have the finest food and equipment, the best spirit and the best men in the world. You know, by God I actually pity those poor bastards we’re going up against. By God, I do. We’re not just going to check the bastards, we’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to tape the blades of our sticks. We’re going to hit those lousy Hurricane bastards by the bushel.

Now, some of you boys, I know, are wondering whether or not you'll chicken out under fire. Don't worry about it. I can assure you that you will all do your duty. The Hurricanes are the enemy.

Wade into them.

Spill their blood.

Check them into the boards.

When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend's face, you'll know what to do.

Now there’s another thing I want you to remember. I don’t want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. We’re not holding anything. Let Carolina do that. We are advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We're going to hold onto him by the nose and we're going to kick him in the ass. We're going to kick the hell out of him all the time and we're gonna go through him like crap through a goose.

There’s one thing that you men will be able to say when you get back home. And you may thank God for it. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you what did you do in the great National Hockey League, you won’t have to say, "Well, I shoveled shit in DC."

Alright now, you sons-of-bitches, you know how I feel. Oh, and I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle – anytime, anywhere.

That’s all.

When midnight falls, the Caps will still have three games in hand on Carolina. They could find themselves within two points of Carolina or as far back as six points behind.

This is, as Kolzig put it, the "biggest game of the year." It is the biggest game for the Caps since the double-overtime loss to Tampa Bay in Game 6 of the first round of the 2003 Stanley Cup playoffs.

While every game will be big from here on out, this is the first really big test for the young Capitals in their march back to competitiveness. And, they will be taking on a team that has hit its stride. Carolina is 9-5-1 in its last 15 games, 4-1-1 in its last six. In these last six games...

Goals for/against: 20/18
Power play: 3/25 (12.0%)
Penalty killing: 12/18 (66.7%)
Record when scoring first: 4-0-0
Record when trailing first: 0-1-1

Carolina has gotten off to fast starts in the games they've won over this short stretch of games. Oddly enough, it's been at around the three minute mark of the opening period that has spelled trouble for opponents. In the first three of the four wins in these last six games, Carolina scored at 3:01, 3:13, and 3:21 of the opening frame. And, even in the games they lost, their opponent got off fast -- New Jersey scored 2:02 into the game in a 5-1 win, and Boston scored with 4:50 gone in the first in a 3-2 shootout win.

When you look at Carolina's overall stats for the season, you wonder, "how does this team lead its division?"

Goal/game differential: -0.24 goals/game
Power play: 19th (17.0%)
Penalty killing: 30th (76.6%)
Winning pct. after two periods: 23rd (.808)

The goaltending they're getting out of number one netminder Cam Ward isn't a lot better:

GAA: 36th (2.89)
SV: 37th (.900)

OK, both rankings are higher than that of Caps number one goalie, Olaf Kolzig, but Ward is younger, presumably playing on a team that was supposed to be a contender this year. He is only recently a Conn Smythe Trophy winner as MVP in the Stanley Cup playoffs. His numbers this year are roughly what he finished the year with last year (2.93, .897), and last year was not thought to be an especially good one.

What Carolina does reasonably well is play five-on-five. They are 11th in the league in five-on-five goals for/goals against ratio. They are also front-runners -- seventh in the league in winning percentage when scoring first.

What Carolina lacks these days is their captain, Rod Brind'Amour, who suffered torn ligaments in his knee on Valentine's day. Three days before that, they moved veteran forward Cory Stillman and defenseman Mike Commodore to Ottawa for forward Patrick Eaves and defenseman Joe Corvo. Eaves is on injured reserve with a shoulder injury, and Corvo is not generally thought of as an impact defenseman. What this means is that a larger share of the burden falls to the shoulders of Eric Staal and Ray Whitney to generate offense. It's early to tell about these two, but in three games since Brind'Amour's injury, Whitney is 3-1-4, +4; while Staal is 0-3-3, +1.

One wonders if Carolina can sustain their recent good fortune over the season's last six weeks. The loss of Brind'Amour is, to use an overused term, "huge." Even absent, he remains high on the Hurricane stats lists:

Goals: 3rd (19)
Assists: T-1st (32)
Points: 3rd (51)
Power play goals: T-2nd (6)
Power play assists: T-3rd (12)
Power play points: T-3rd (18)
Game-winning goals: T-2nd (4)
Ice time: 1st (22:27/game)
Blocked shots: 1st among forwards (38)
Takeaways: 3rd (31)

Add to this that he is one of, if not the, best faceoff men in the league (3rd among players taking 500+ draws -- 58.3 percent), and use of the term "huge" with respect to the effect of his absence is not an overstatement.

For the Caps, this boils down to the prototypical road game. Do not let the 'Canes start fast...take the crowd out of the game by controlling the for a lead, then play smart (without resorting to a prevent defense)...get good goaltending.

On this last matter, Olaf Kolzig is 26-13-8-1 against Carolina in his career. He is the veteran among veterans on this, a young Caps team. It's a big burden to bear, but this game rests largely on his broad shoulders. If the Caps are to overtake the Hurricanes, Kolzig has to play large, and this is precisely the game in which he has to do it.

Another great movie leader of sorts, Herb Brooks, had what is perhaps the most relevant take on what this game is for the Caps in their effort to replace Carolina at the top of the division...
"This is your time. Their time is done. It's over."

Carolina is yesterday...tomorrow, the Caps will wake up two points behind the Hurricanes.

Capitals 4 - Hurricanes 1

Deadline Day -- Looking Back a Year Ago

Trading day is like Christmas morning for hockey pundits, fans, media, and…well, everyone connected to the sport except players and GMs, we suspect. The thrill of who will be dealt next for what will have folks trolling every media site and rumor mill they can click on for the latest move.

Does it matter in the end? Last time, we looked at deals in the week leading up to Deadline Day last year. Now, we look at a handful of the pile of deals made on Deadline Day itself – February 27, 2007…

Atlanta acquires Pascal Dupuis and a 2007 third round pick from New York Rangers for Alex Bourret

The irony here is that these two teams would meet in the playoffs in the opening round, and this deal nudged the two clubs in entirely different directions, the Rangers looking at the future and Atlanta looking for help in the present. Atlanta (32-23-10 at the time of the trade) was struggling to secure a playoff spot and ended up with an unspectacular, if capable forward in Dupuis. It would be his third team in 2006-2007 (Minnesota being the team he started the year with). He would finish the season 3-2-5, -6, in 17 games as the Thrashers finished 11-5-1 and in the top spot in the Southeast. As much as anyone on the Thrashers, he had a decent playoff (given his role), going 1-2-3, +2 in the four-game one-and-done against the Rangers. Meanwhile…Bourret is 8-23-31, -1 in 46 games at Hartford in the AHL.

Pittsburgh acquires Gary Roberts from Florida for Noah Welch

The Penguins wanted a character guy to help the kids on their first foray into the NHL playoffs. They got the genuine article in Roberts, who pretty much is the NHL poster guy for “the guy I’d want in the foxhole with me.” Old school, grizzled, chippy at times (ok, a lot)…he was what the doctor ordered for the rosy-cheeked Penguins. Pittsburgh was 33-19-9 when the deal was made and finished 14-4-2 after. Roberts contributed a 7-6-13, -5, line in his 19 games to finish up the regular season and chipped in a pair of goals and assists in the five-game opening round playoff loss to Ottawa. His contributions, though, are as much those that don’t show up on the score sheet. The Penguins thought so…they resigned him for 2007-2008, but he sustained a broken leg on December 29th. Meanwhile…Welch played four games this season for the Panthers, injured his shoulder in a fight in a game against Montreal, and after having surgery in November is out indefinitely.

San Jose
acquires Bill Guerin from St. Louis for Ville Nieminen, Jay Barriball, and a 2007 or 2008 conditional first-round pick

Another rental…San Jose had use for some scoring punch with an edge, and Guerin is just that kind of player…or so you would think. San Jose was 38-24-1 at the time of the trade and finished the year 13-2-3 after the deal. When Guerin contributed eight goals in 16 games for the Sharks, this looked like a rental that worked. Then, Guerin picked the worst time to go cold. The Sharks managed to get past Nashville in the first round, but they were knocked out by Detroit in the second round. Guerin was 0-2-2 in nine games, missing the last two in the Detroit series after he was cut in the face by a deflected puck. Meanwhile…Nieminen has not played in the NHL this year (he signed a contract to play in Sweden). Barriball is 3-13-16, -11 in 31 games with the University of Minnesota, although last year he was the Golden Gophers’ leading scorer on a team that included Blake Wheeler and Kyle Okposo.

acquires Brad May from Colorado for Michael Wall

You’d think a club like Anaheim – one that won as much through intimidation (at least what passes for it in the post-lockout NHL) as skill – would not be looking to add more of that particular specie of player at the deadline, especially when the story line goes that in the playoffs teams play a little closer to the vest. You’d have thought wrong. The Ducks were 37-17-10 at the time of the trade, 11-3-4 thereafter. May chipped in only an assist in 14 games, but he wasn’t added to be a Gretzky knock-off. What he did bring to the table was displayed in living color in the waning moments of Game 4 of the opening round series against Minnesota when he punched Wild defenseman Kim Johnsson from behind (part of a larger scrap between the teams). May was issued a match penalty and game misconduct, and was subsequently suspended for the next three playoff games. Anaheim kicked Minnesota to the curb in Game 5 and went on, of course, to win the Cup. Meanwhile…Wall is 7-11-4 , 2.75, .910 in 23 games tending goal for Lake Erie in the AHL.

acquires George Laraque for Daniel Carcillo and a 2008 third-round draft pick

On paper, this looks a lot like the previous deal described. That’s where the similarity ends. Laraque – a feared pugilist – played in 17 regular season games for the Penguins and registered two assists and two fights. In the first round five-game playoff loss to Ottawa, Laraque dressed only for the first and last game, logging less than nine minutes of ice time total for the series. Meanwhile…Carcillo, who is a one-man crusade to refine the term “pest,” has 236 penalty minutes this season and is on a pace for 356. Those are positively 1970’s-ish in volume. His current volume of PIMs exceeds that which led the league last year (Ben Eager: 233). He is on a pace to have more PIMs than anyone since Peter Worrell’s 354 in 2001-2002.

acquires Dainius Zubrus and Timo Helbling from Washington for Jiri Novotny and a 2007 first round pick

Buffalo was looking for depth and some physical forward play; the Caps were looking at the future and hoping Novotny could improve the skill level in the short term. Neither club got everything they wanted. Buffalo was 41-16-5 at the time of the trade and finished 12-6-2 thereafter. What Zubrus gave the Sabres (4-4-8, -3, in 19 games) was about what he gave the Capitals…and the Canadiens…and the Flyers – glimpses of skill dotting long stretches of ordinary play. It was more of the same in the playoffs, where Zubrus was 0-8-8, +1, as Buffalo reached the conference final, where they dropped a five-game series to Ottawa. Meanwhile…Novotny didn’t light up Washington, either. He was allowed to pursue free agency, where he was signed by Columbus. As for that 2007 pick, it was moved to San Jose for a second rounder in 2007 and another one in 2008. Washington then sent the second rounder in 2007 to Philadelphia for a third in 2007 and a second in 2008. The Caps used the third rounder (originally a Nashville pick) to pick Phil Desimone.

New York Rangers acquire Paul Mara from Boston for Aaron Ward

The Rangers got younger and bigger in this deal. They also got some solid play from Mara, who was 2-3-5, +6, in 19 games after arriving in Manhattan. He contributed another pair of goals and assists in the playoffs, but the Rangers struggled at the other end in the second round series against Buffalo, scoring only 13 goals in six game (four of those in the 5-4 final-game loss). Meanwhile…Ward has had a decent year in Boston (4-5-9, +8, in 47 games) but lost 13 games to a variety of injuries (concussion, ankle, broken foot).

acquires Todd Bertuzzi from Florida for Shawn Matthias, a 2007 conditional draft pick, and a 2008 conditional draft pick

It seems as if every year, the Red Wings – despite lighting up teams in the regular season – are in need of getting bigger, grittier, and nastier for the playoffs. Bertuzzi would quality as bigger, grittier, and nastier. But for the Wings, such a player has to contribute, too. Bertuzzi had 46-goal season on his resume, so there was the possibility of getting production in a surlier package. The trouble was, Bertuzzi was injured goods when the trade was made – a herniated disk would ultimately cost him 66 games of the 2006-2007 season. When he returned, he notched a pair of goals and assists in eight games – not especially productive, but not unexpected given all the time lost. Things didn’t improve much in the playoffs, though, as he was 3-4-7, -2 in 16 games. He was signed by Anaheim as an unrestricted free agent in the off season. Meanwhile…Matthias is 26-43-69, +20, in 43 games with Belleville in the OHL.

acquires Mattias Norstrom, Konstantin Pushkarev, a 2007 third-round pick, and a 2007 fourth-round pick from Los Angeles for Jaroslav Modry, Johan Fransson, a 2008 first-round pick, a 2007 second-round pick, and a 2007 third-round pick

This was the biggest deal at the deadline, at least in terms of volume. The defenseman Norstrom was the key to the deal for the Stars in the short term. He was to provide some additional stay-at-home protection. However, Dallas was a team that was considerably challenged in the offensive end (they finished tied for 21st in the league in goals-per-game). The deal for defense didn’t hurt Dallas over the rest of the regular season (they finished 13-4-4 after the deal), but in the first round of the playoffs against Vancouver (with whom the Stars tied for that 21st spot in goals-per-game), the Stars could manage only 12 goals and scored more than two only once (in a 5-4- overtime loss in Game 1). Meanwhile…Modry played a total of 80 games for the Kings over last season and this, before being moved to the Flyers for a 2008 third-round pick. Fransson – a defenseman prospect – is playing for Linkoping of the Swedish Elite League.

New York Islanders acquire Ryan Smyth from Edmonton for Ryan O'Marra, Robert Nilsson, and a 2007 first-round pick

Smyth – a sixth-overall draft pick by the Oilers who played all of his 838 NHL regular season and playoff games with Edmonton – was brought in by the Islanders to add some scoring punch with a style consistent with its gritty, in-your-face style. But, while Smyth did give the Islanders a spark (5-10-15, even, in 18 games to finish the regular season), this ended up a big deal with a big price for a team that had too many other holes. Smyth chipped in a goal and three assists in the opening round of the playoffs, but the Islanders weren’t a match for Buffalo, who moved past the Islanders in a five-game series. Smyth headed back west to Colorado as an unrestricted free agent last summer, but has lost 18 games this season to a fractured ankle. The deal probably had more of a negative effect on Edmonton last season than a positive one for New York. The Oilers went 2-16-1 after the trade. Meanwhile…O’Marra has split time between Springfield in the AHL and Stockton of the ECHL this year, going 2-5-7, even, in 25 games with the AHL Falcons. Nilsson began the season in Springfield, but he was called up in late October to the Oilers. He’s 7-18-25, +2, in 50 games for Edmonton.

This year, there are arguably more-talented players available at the trading deadline – Marian Hossa, Brad Richards, Dan Boyle, Mats Sundin, and even Jaromir Jagr have been mentioned with some frequency as potential trade candidates. They’d fetch considerable returns, should any of them be moved. But will they help their new teams? At best, the results were mixed from last year. Good teams that rented players were still good, but it isn’t clear that the players acquired made them that much better. And the prices were steep.

If you look at the two teams that made it to the Stanley Cup finals last year – Anaheim and Ottawa – they made a total of four deals between them in the last week of trading. None of them involved a marquee player. Here are each of those deals:

Anaheim received Brad May – Colorado received Michael Hall

Anaheim received Doug O’Brien – Tampa Bay received Joe Rullier

Anaheim received Gerald Coleman – Tampa Bay received Shane O’Brien

Ottawa received Lawrence Nycholat – Washington received Andy Hedlund/2007 6th round draft pick (Justin Taylor was selected)

Sure, these were teams that were largely set, but there is the temptation to find that last piece. There were other teams motivated to pursue rentals by other factors – Atlanta was looking to ensure its first trip to the playoffs in franchise history, for example. But looking back over the deals made last year in the last week, it doesn’t seem to The Peerless that the help these teams acquired was worth the long-term hits to their respective clubs, for the most part. One wonders especially about the Thrashers’ behavior in giving up a solid prospect defenseman (Braydon Coburn), a depth forward (Glen Metropolit), and three draft picks for a rental (Keith Tkachuk, who re-signed with his old team) and a defenseman who is now on the far side of 35 (Alexei Zhitnik).

There is occasionally the odd deal that really results in a tectonic shift for one or both of the teams. But it seems that more often than not, the deal that looks really good on paper doesn’t really have much – or at least the intended – effect on the ice.