Monday, March 24, 2008

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Hurricanes, March 25th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, we’re here. For so long, the Caps have been hunting the Hurricanes like the great whale of yore (or Hartford). We found a fan who knows something about hunting whales, too, for some insight on the matter. Sir, your name?

"Call me Ishmael."

OK...Ishmael. The Caps have been chasing the Hurricanes for most of the last few months. I take it you have some experience of your own in chasing down the beast. Any advice?

"Aye, aye! It was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!... an' what you have to say is, 'I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up.'"

And this would be a big day in that pursuit...

"It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment."

But now that we're finally here, it seems the boys have not yet reached their goal. They have to finish the job, isn't that right? After so long on the hunt, what do you say to your enemy?

"Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale...uh, Hurricane; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."

You seem to have some anger issues, there, Ish...

"Yeah, well...I used to be a Whaler fan."

Like two fighters that have been eyeing one another for months before the inevitable match, so these two teams have been circling about one another for the past two months. Since February 1st, they’ve been inching toward this, the first of two games that will settle the Southeast Division matter and go a long way to determining whether one or two Southeast teams (at least the second club being the Capitals) make the playoffs. The tale of the tape since February 1st:

Each are surprising in their own right. The Capitals have done it without their captain (Chris Clark), top center (Michael Nylander), and a top-four defenseman (Brian Pothier). The Hurricanes have done it without their captain and Mr. Everything – Rod Brind’Amour (out since February 14th), Mr. Underrated – Ray Whitney (out since February 28th), and Justin Williams (30 points in 36 games when he went out on December 20th.

But what Carolina lost through injury, they regained through some deft – in retrospect – personnel moves...

Sergei Samsonov was left for the NHL equivalent of dead. After a 29-41-70 season with Boston in 2001-2002, it seemed the slick Russian was on his way to a solid career. However, a wrist injury limited him to eight games the following year, sending his career into a free fall. After the lockout, Samsonov struggled to reach the 50-point threshold, and the one time he would do it, in 2005-2006, he would do it playing for two different teams – Boston and Edmonton. Last year he would end up in Montreal, where his performance, to be charitable, was disappointing: 9-17-26, -4 in 63 games. That nightmare over, he found himself in Chicago, where things got worse – 23 games, no goals, demoted to Rockford in what seemed more a paper transaction in the hope he would be claimed on waivers.

He was. On January 8th, Samsonov found himself in Carolina with perhaps the last chance to resurrect his career. He has taken advantage of the opportunity, going 13-16-29, +9 in 32 games.

There was the trade of forward Andrew Ladd to Chicago for Tuomo Ruutu. Ladd – a fourth overall draft pick in 2004 – was perhaps not developing as quickly as one might have expected for such a high draft pick, and Ruutu provided the sort of edge that the Hurricanes could use. He was also once a 23-goal scorer once upon a time, so there was at least the potential for some punch. Ruutu, however, had something of a history of injuries, missing 78 games over the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons. This might not be a consequential trade, but Ruutu has contributed 17 minutes a night for a very successful team (Carolina is 9-2-0 since this trade).

As for consequential, there was the trade of Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore to Ottawa for Joe Corvo and Patrick Eaves. This might have been interpreted (an interpretation we’d have agreed with) as “giving up” the season. Stillman and Commodore were solid, productive veterans. Eaves was a youngster and was coming to the Hurricanes hurt (shoulder injury). Corvo was a solid, if unspectacular defenseman with some offensive potential from the blue line. Well, Eaves has returned to play in 11 games (1-5-6) where he is now getting ice time minutes in the mid-teens. Corvo, meanwhile, has points in nine of 17 games and has been on the minus side of the ledger only four times since coming to Carolina. Carolina is 14-3-1 since this trade. Please note this when you’re thinking it’s big names that make the difference in trades or free agent deals.

But losing a player of Brind’Amour’s skill and leadership, and Whitney’s steady contributions isn’t necessarily the kind of thing one can address completely via trade. Someone had to step up. Eric Staal has done that, going 8-19-27, +5 in 22 games since the beginning of February. More to the point, he is 7-18-25, +9 in 16 games since Brind’Amour went down.

In goal, the Hurricanes have put their season on the back of Cam Ward. Ward has not been spectacular as much as he has been steady – 14-5-1, 2.56, .911 since the beginning of February. Only four times in 21 appearances has Ward allowed more than three goals. The word that comes to mind in looking at Ward’s performance since February 1st is “dependable.” For a team that is averaging a little better than three goals-per-game over this stretch, that kind of performance is completely in line with Carolina’s consistent production in the last third of the season.

Thus far this year, the Caps have not been especially successful against Carolina:

Record: 2-4-0
Goals for/against: 14/19
Power play: 8/30 (26.7%)
Penalty killing: 24/31 (77.4%)

The Caps have had an especially hard time in Raleigh: 0-3-0, outscored 15-6. Twice they have lost by at least three goals, and the key there was penalties (and power play goals scored as a result). The Caps allowed a total of seven power play goals in 14 shorthanded situations in 6-3 and 5-0 losses in Raleigh. In the two wins (Both in Washington), the Caps gave up only a total of seven shorthanded situations. This is probably going to be the key once more. Carolina leads the league in total power play opportunities (379) and is the only NHL team with more than 200 power play opportunities at home (206). And the key number there seems to be, “five.” In games in which the Hurricanes are awarded more than five power plays, they are 17-7-2. In all other games, they are 24-23-3.

For the Caps, there is also key information to be mined in Ward’s statistics. He has those four games in which he’s allowed four or more goals. He lost all of them in regulation, and in three of them gave up at least two goals in the first period (twice he gave up four).

This is a game the Caps have been pointing to for weeks. There is the possibility that after so long anticipating such a match, an egg will be laid. Well, eggs go nicely with pork products, and there is that mascot for the Hurricanes. Rather than laying an egg, we're seeing "pulled pork"...

Caps 5 - Hurricanes 3

Winning and the dominating scorer

Alex Ovechkin scoring 60 goals is quite an accomplishment, not achieved since the 1995-1996 season.

Now that the first blush of that mark has worn off just a bit, it might be worth noting that in 1995-1996, when Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr both eclipsed the 60-goal mark, the Penguins earned 102 points and won the Northeast Division. However, it was Colorado playing Florida in the Stanley Cup final, the Avalanche defeating the Panthers for the title.

What has been the experience of the dominating scorer? More to the point, have Cup winners been characterized by the presence of such a scorer in their midst?

Here, we look back across the years -- from 1970-71 to the present -- to look at two things. First, did the Cup winner have a dominating scorer in terms of his edge in goals over the second leading scorer? Second, was the leader dominating in terms of his share of goals scored?

Getting to this level of team achievement would appear to require some measure of balance, at least more than has been exhibited this year by Washington. Even looking at perhaps the purest sniper in the history of the game -- Mike Bossy -- he never exceeded 20 percent of his Islanders' team goals in a Stanley Cup-winning season.

In fact, only twice has the leading scorer on a Cup-winner had at least 20 percent of his team's goals in a season (Phil Esposito in 1972 and Joe Sakic in 2001), and barely that.

And, while there have been the occasional wide gaps between the leading and second-leading scorer (five times the leader had at least 20 more goals than the second-leading scorer), the differences have not been that great on average -- 10.7 goals between first and second.

Perhaps the current situation for the Capitals reflects the as-yet incomplete development of some players. It also might reflect injury (Alexander Semin, for example, has missed 19 games this year after posting 38 goals last year).

Whatever the reason, one would think it likely that while a uniquely dominating season such as the one Alex Ovechkin is enjoying is entertaining, it is not likely to be the stuff of which a championship is going to be built, based on a history that spans the dead-puck era of the late 1990's/early 2000's and the go-go period of the late 1970's/1980's.

This is not to say that Ovechkin is suddenly going to have to morph into a 40-goal-or-so-scorer (although seasons in the 60's might not be conducive to a championship...not unless the Caps become the Canadiens of the late 1970's). The point is that the Caps are going to have to get some more offensive production from the players they should expect big things from...Alexander Semin and Eric Fehr, to name two. When that happens, then the Caps will be contenders. They already have their Ovechkin.