Friday, March 21, 2008

The Peerless Prognsoticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Thrashers, March 21st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s all about the divisions, least as far as the remaining game matchups are concerned. As the calendar turns from winter to spring the Caps head into their last seven games with nothing between them and a playoff spot but 21 periods (give or take) against the familiar teams of the Southeast.

Trouble is, this division thing probably isn’t going to matter…with Carolina’s 2-1 shootout win over Florida last night, the Hurricanes opened up a seven point lead on the Caps with seven games for the Caps to play. Even with a sweep of the two games remaining with the Hurricanes, the Caps are going to need lots of help in the Southeast. And since Carolina is 14-3-1 in their last 18 games, it doesn’t seem likely that help is going to be forthcoming. So, the Caps just have to tend to their own business with an eye on Philadelphia and Boston…

“It's such a good feeling…to know you're alive…it's such a happy feeling…you're growing inside…and when you face off, ready to say…’I think I'll make a snappy new day.’"

Why, Mr. Rogers…we didn’t know you were a hockey fan. Guess you’re like the rest of us who think that the loss to Chicago on Wednesday was a killer…

“Well, I just wanted to say…

You can never go down…can never go down…can never go down the drain
You can never go down…can never go down…can never go down the drain
You're bigger than the water…you're bigger than the soap…you're bigger than Kornheiser (you know, he’s a dope)

So you see...
You can never go down…can never go down…can never go down the drain
You can never go down…can never go down…can never go down the drain
The rain may go down…but you can't go down…you're bigger than any bathroom drain
You can never go down…can never go down…you can never go down the drain.”

Guess you’re caught up in the playoff fever like the rest of us…

“It's a beautiful day in the NHL…a beautiful day for some hockey
Would you please win? Could you please win?
Won't you please... Please won't you make the playoffs?”

Any special wisdom you can share with the boys?

“You always make it a special day for me. You know how, don't you? By just your being you. Whether you're a goal scorer or a checker or just wearing a baseball cap, I like you just the way you are. I'll be rooting for you. Bye.”

Thanks, Mr. Rogers...that dose of optimism comes just in time. As for tonight’s opponent, Atlanta has done their level best to keep the Caps out of the playoffs…why, this week alone they lost to Florida (one point behind the Caps), Philadelphia (two points ahead of the Caps), and Carolina.

It’s part of a complete meltdown by the Thrashers over the last five weeks, during which they are 2-10-4. They have been, to put it plainly, awful in these last 16 games:

Record: 2-10-4
Goals for/against: 36-61
Power play: 10/60 (16.7%)
Penalty killing: 53/69 (76.8%)
Avg. shots for/against: 25.1/36.3
Times allowing >3 goals: 9
Times scoring >3 goals: 2

This is not, at the moment, a very good hockey team. While his numbers certainly aren’t stellar, it would be hard to fault number one goaltender Kari Lehtonen for the misfortune. He is 1-7-1, 3.83, .899 in ten appearances over this stretch, but he’s been in a shooting gallery, facing 37.5 shots-per-60 minutes. He has a good career record against the Caps – 8-4-2, 2.66, .917 – but this year he is 2-3-0, 2.96, .917.

With the departure of Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis via trade, this is the Ilya Kovachuk show as far as the skaters go. And while Kovalchuk can be an exhilarating player to watch, this isn’t really a good thing, as the Thrashers’ record suggests. Kovalchuk is 10-6-16, +4 over the last 16 games – he's had a hand in 44.4 percent of the Thrashers’ offense. By way of comparison, second leading scorer Mark Recchi is 2-9-10, -5 over the last 16 games and hasn’t scored a goal in his last 13 games. We say that with some trepidation, since Recchi hasn’t lacked for scoring against Washington in his career: 46 goals in 89 games.

Atlanta has had three seasons within a season. There was the 0-6-0 start that got Bob Hartley fired as head coach. There was the 29-21-4 “second season” that had folks thinking this might be a playoff team, and now they are in the throes of the 2-10-4 run over their last 16 games that has them in 28th place in the league-wide points standings. If you’re wondering which one is most representative of the club, based on their statistical rankings, well…you decide:

Goals/game: 2.53 (24th)
Goals-against/game: 3.26 (30th)
5-on-5 goals for/against ratio: 0.72 (30th)
Power play: 17.4% (18th)
Penalty killing: 78.7% (27th)
Winning pct. When scoring first: .548 (30th)
Winning pct. When trailing first: .311 (12th)
Winning pct. When leading after 1st period: .667 (27th)
Winning pct. When leading after 2nd period: ..762 (28th)

They are actually 8th in winning percentage when outshooting their opponents, but having accomplished that feat only 10 times in 76 games this year, it is another – if perversely so – indicator of how bad the club has been.

There are two immutable truths about games like this. First, the Caps have no business losing, even if it is on the road. Atlanta is a beaten team – on the ice and confidence-wise. They are getting almost nothing outside of some decent performances from Ilya Kovalchuk and at least determined goaltending from Kari Lehtonen (and Johan Hedberg, for that matter, who has managed to cobble together a winning record: 14-13-3, even if his other numbers are inferior to Lehtonen’s).

Second, the Caps have it well within their power (or lack of it) to lose a game like this. Showing up is not a sufficient condition to win. Kovalchuk is always dangerous, and Lehtonen is more than capable of stealing a game on his own. If the Caps play like they did in Chicago on Wednesday, this could end unpleasantly.

Part of the lesson plan for the kids is learning how to win when the season is waning and the pressure is growing. While unable to match Carolina’s 14-3-1 record over the last 18, the Caps are a respectable 9-6-3 over a like number of games. Unfortunately, such a pace (say, a 4-2-1 record) over the last seven games probably will not be good enough to earn a playoff spot. With 14 points still on the table, we’re thinking 11 more – at a minimum – will be needed. And the Caps can’t give two of those three “spare” points away to a team in a situation such as that in which Atlanta finds themselves.

The Caps are simply better, and – the “stinker” in Chicago notwithstanding – they have for the most part played that way lately. There should be no lack for focus with what is at stake, and that’s why…

Caps 5 – Thrashers 2