Sunday, February 24, 2008

Some other things to think about...

Washington trails Carolina by five points with 19 games, two of them against the Hurricanes and with two games in hand. Seeing how they are sitting in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, we still think winning the Southeast Division is the path of least resistance to the playoffs. But the plot, as they say...thickens:

- Philadelphia, which currently resides in ninth place and is a team the Caps must jump to reach the eighth spot, has lost center Mike Richards for at least three weeks with a torn hamstring suffered in last night's 2-1 overtime loss to Florida. The Flyers are 0-8-2 in their last ten games.

- Buffalo, which currently sits in eighth place, is still deciding what to do about defenseman Brian Campbell. He is an unrestricted free agent at year's end, and he will command a hefty raise above the $1.75 million he's earning this year. Buffalo lost Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to free agency last summer...will they risk doing the same with Campbell if they cannot re-sign him by Tuesday? If they move him, what does that do to the Sabres' tenuous hold on eighth place?

- Atlanta, which has lost three in a row and is falling out of contention, is reported to be resigned to losing Marian Hossa. Is this one competitor the Caps can check off the list?

- The Islanders -- sitting in tenth place -- have lost center Mike Sillinger for the rest of the season to hip surgery, and there are rumors that Mike Comrie and/or Miroslav Satan could be traded. Think that's a formula conducive to a successful stretch run?

- Florida, which is in 12th place -- one point behind Washington -- is 3-5-2 in its last ten games, including a 5-0 loss to the Rangers this evening. And they're still the subject of speculation with respect to the fate of Olli Jokinen.

What works against the Capitals is that two teams in the bottom half of the playoff draw -- the Rangers and Boston, in sixth and seventh place, respectively -- are in the midst of pretty good fortune of late. Boston is 14-7-2 since New Year's Eve, and the Rangers are 10-3-2 in their last 15 games (including the 5-0 shutout of Florida tonight).

But that's sixth and seventh place, and it only takes getting into eighth to make the playoffs. It's an uphill climb, and the Caps are struggling. But a lot of teams are in that boat...the season isn't over. And there is more than one way to get a ticket to the dance.

Just some other things to think about in the days ahead.

A one-point night: Devils 2 - Caps 1 (OT)

Too much Marty.

There really isn’t anything else that mattered in the Caps’ 2-1 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils this afternoon. It was too much Martin Brodeur, who stopped 37 of 38 shots – many of those stops being of the “holy crap, how did he stop that one” variety.

The Caps out-shot, out-chanced, out-hit, out-blocked, out-just-about-everything’ed the Devils. They just didn’t out-score them, and in the end, that’s all that matters. The Devils know how to win those games; the Caps do not yet apparently have that knowledge at this level.

As is often the case this time of year, it was a game of inches – Matt Bradley and Eric Fehr had chances to put the Devils on the ropes early but found nothing but iron on shots that got past Brodeur. Travis Zajac fired a shot through Brent Johnson in the third period that squirted between Johnson’s pads and rolled on edge just past the post. And John Madden found a couple of inches of space under Brent Johnson’s left pad for the game-winner with 50 seconds left in overtime.

Lost in Brodeur’s superb performance was a fine effort by Johnson in the Capitals’ net. Johnson turned away 29 of 31 shots, 21 of which he faced in the third period and overtime.

The Caps played a much better game this afternoon than the one they played yesterday; there was a more consistent effort from top to bottom of the roster. 15 of the 18 skaters registered shots on goal, and the Caps got 18 shots from the players who have to take them – Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, and Viktor Kozlov. There was a higher level of feistiness among the Caps as well, as 11 different players were credited with hits – Ovechkin leading with five and Donald Brashear getting four in less than seven minutes of ice time.

The trouble is, again, the Caps aren’t getting much balance in their scoring. Today, it was Semin scoring off assists from Ovechkin and Backstrom (the latter’s 50th point of the season). Last night, the Alexes had four of the eight points, and Ovechkin figured in each of the goals (primary assists on all three tallies). And, Semin has five of the Caps’ 13 goals in this 1-2-3 six-game stretch of frustration. Other Caps have more or less dried up in the goal-scoring department…

- Nicklas Backstrom has no goals in this six-game stretch (none in his last 17 games)
- Boyd Gordon…none (one goal in his last 20 games)
- Viktor Kozlov…one (that’s one in his last eight games after netting six in nine games)

And the bottom half of the forward lines (Matt Pettinger, Boyd Gordon, Brooks Laich, David Steckel, Quintin Laing, Donald Brashear)…a total of three.

All this makes Alex Ovechkin’s five-game (and counting) goal-scoring drought all the more important.

The defense hasn’t been awful in this stretch…they’ve allowed 18 goals in the six games, but six of those came in the stinker yesterday in Carolina. What the Caps have had with respect to their defense and goaltending lately is an awful sense of timing. Whenever they make a mistake, it ends up in the back of the net…what you might expect at this time of year, though. Today’s split-second moment came when Shaone Morrisonn got turned around on a shot from Patrik Elias that snuck through and hit the post to Johnson’s left. While Morrisonn was looking to find position, John Madden pounced and slid the puck under Johnson for the winner.

That’s not meant to single out Morrisonn for bad play, only a bad moment. Morrisonn logged more than 24 minutes of pretty solid play and led the club with five blocked shots. But that’s the story this time of year…blink, and you lose.

Also part of the Caps story in recent weeks is losing a point here, a point there…since beating Pittsburgh in a shootout on January 21st, they are 6-6-3. A pair of shootout losses to teams they are fighting with for playoff spots – Atlanta and the Islanders…losses to teams they should have beaten in Toronto and Florida…getting shutout 2-0 at home against the Thrashers, the second goal being an empty-netter. If they’d picked up at least an extra point in each of those games, they would be tied with Carolina tonight with two games in hand. That’s the slow bleeding that can end a season before the 82nd game.

And despite the fine effort put forth by the Caps this afternoon, another point got away. Someday – perhaps not this year – this team will learn how to gobble up those points instead of frittering them away. But this is the price one pays to young guys to learn. Part of it is learning to win close and win late. The Caps have yet learned those lessons.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Devils, February 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It doesn’t get any easier for the Caps this afternoon as the men in red host the New Jersey Devils at Verizon Center. With last night’s 6-3 loss to Carolina, the Caps’ backs might not be quite up against the wall, but they’re casting shadows on it.

The Caps now have 20 games to make up six points…not necessarily desperation time, but it does put them squarely in the unpleasant role of…

“…there’s no need to fear…Underdog is here.”

Underdog…what brings you downtown?

“After watching Olie Kolzig give up six goals last night, I remembered, when Olie's in trouble, I am not slow, so it's hip! hip! hip! and away I go.”

Well, that’s a nice sentiment and all, but there is more wrong with the Caps’ performance these days than goaltending…and it’s likely Brent Johnson will get the start this afternoon.

“Oh…well, I am a hero who never fails, I can't be bothered with such details.”

Let’s just hope the Caps pay attention to details, because we know New Jersey is the kind of team that does…

“The Devils effort is always there, so the Caps will have to hound them everywhere.”

Is it tough coming up with rhymes like that?

“Oh, my friend, you have no idea, I just wish I could buy them at IKEA.”

Back to the game…the Caps have had trouble putting consecutive good games together lately and sometimes haven’t been able to give a full 60-minute effort…when you’re doing your Underdog schtick, how do you handle those kinds of situations?

“The secret compartment of my ring I fill, with an Underdog super energy pill.”

I don’t think that sort of thing is allowed…

As for the game, the Devils come to town 6-0-1 in their last seven games. That pretty much makes the Caps underdogs in their own building. Here is how the Devils got there…

Record: 6-0-1
Goals for/against: 27/13
Power play: 6/27 (22.2%)
Penalty killing: 21/23 (91.3%)

You want balance? 15 Devils share the 27 goals scored over their last six games. Patrick Elias leads New Jersey in scoring over this points-earned streak (1-8-9, +8), while the mighty mites Zach Parise (5-2-7, +6) and Brian Gionta (3-4-7, -2) are right behind. Even Martin Brodeur got into the act, registering an assist yesterday in the 4-2 win against the Islanders.

Speaking of Brodeur, one would think he’d be wearing the baseball cap this afternoon. He’s played in 57 of the Devils’ 62 games this year. His backup – Kevin Weekes – has made only one appearance in almost 11 weeks (a 4-3 loss to Boston on January 5th). Weekes doesn’t have a win since beating Pittsburgh on November 12th.

The Devils would be doing the Caps a favor in sitting Brodeur. He is 31-11-4, 2.09, .913 in 47 career games against the Caps; he is 11-1-1 in his last 13 decisions against the Caps.

If Weekes gets the call, he is the anti-Brodeur in his success against the Caps…2-14-1, 3.24, .892 are his career numbers in 18 games. He lost a 3-2 decision to Washington on December 10th.

A lot has been made – justifiably so – of the Caps’ record since Thanksgiving (22-13-6 at the moment). However, New Jersey has been even better (27-11-3). This is a team that knows how to win, and more to the point, knows how to win when the winter gives way to spring. Although the names change (well, except for “Brodeur”), they’ve been doing it for years. The Caps are searching for that formula.

That makes this test this afternoon perhaps a stiffer one, even if Brodeur sits it out, especially since the Devils are locked in a duel with Pittsburgh, Montreal and Ottawa for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Sometimes, though, a team has that game that defines its season. Caps fans would hate for that game to have been last night’s. Perhaps it will be today’s, and that’s why we’re thinking…

Caps 3 – Devils 2

A no-point night: Hurricanes 6 - Caps 3

It’s gone.

Whatever margin of error the Caps had entering the weekend was blown away in a force-5 onslaught of power play goals, courtesy of the Carolina Hurricanes in a 6-3 thumping in Raleigh.

The Hurricanes now enjoy a six-point lead on the Caps, while the Caps have three games in hand. The Caps also have two games left with Carolina to be played in the last half-dozen contests of the year. After tonight, you’d have to wonder if it those games will matter. Washington is now 6-6-2 in their last 14 games with the loss tonight (including only one win in their last five), and while they still have yet to lose consecutive games in regulation under coach Bruce Boudreau, they have won consecutive games only once in the last month.

Let’s boil it down. The Caps have five games that matter – the three games in hand and the two remaining against Carolina. They have to win them all. If they win only four of them, they can do no better than tie Carolina for wins, unless Carolina helps out by having a worse record than Washington over the “non-Caps” portion of its remaining schedule. It is unlikely there will be a second Southeast Division team making the playoffs.

As for the game tonight, there just isn’t much to say about it that’s good. Alex Ovechkin registered three points (all assists, part of a 15 shots-attempted, five hit effort), Mike Green added to his league-leading goal total among defensemen, and…well, that’s it.

The bad?...let’s start with playing stupid…three hooking calls taken in a space of less than four minutes spanning the end of the first and the beginning of the second period. Whatever momentum the Caps might have had going into the first intermission with a 2-1 lead was pretty much stomped flat with that march to the box, Carolina finally cashing in on the last of the three penalties to tie the game. After that, Carolina took over the game, outscoring Washington 4-1.

Then there was this…four goals scored by Carolina were scored within 10 feet of the net (ok, 12 feet, according to the NHL play-by-play sheet). All were pucks lying open off rebounds that defensemen were not able to clear away. Another – the first Hurricane goal by Matt Cullen – was scored on a slap shot with two Carolina players screening goalie Olaf Kolzig. The defense had a ghastly night playing defense.

And that’s pretty much the story of the game – the extra whacks at the puck Carolina was allowed to have that explains their 42-34 shot advantage and 6-3 goals advantage. The Hurricane power play – or rather, the Caps giving up seven power plays – served as an added ingredient to allow Carolina to roam around the Caps’ net with little resistance.

There was a fair amount of puck-flicking and stick-banging by Kolzig after Hurricane goals. It might have been less frustration and more a realization that in this, the “biggest game of the year,” things were beginning to slip away. Unless the Caps turn things around in a hurry (as in, say, tomorrow, when they play one of those “games in hand”), that’s exactly what will be happening.