Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Lightning, March 27th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, you can count the games left on one hand. Last September seems like yesterday afternoon, and we’re almost to the end already. But there is work to be done, and the Caps will get to it tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

With five games left, two points to make up on Boston, four on Philadelphia and Carolina, we’re left with a simple question…”can they or can’t they?” Well, we could go to hockey pundits and get their wise take, but you can go read about that. Nope, we’re going right to the source…the Magic 8-ball.

Our first question…

Will Alex Ovechkin hold off Evgeni Malkin for the scoring title?

“You believe this crap?”

Why, it’s Cheerless Prognosticator, our hang-dog cousin who never saw a sunny day he didn’t think would turn into a thunderstorm.

“Yeah, yeah…what about this 8-ball stuff?”

We professional prognosticators use every tool…

“…you mean every trick.”

…every tool at our disposal.

“Hey, Cheerless, knock it off…I wanna see how this comes out.”

“Fearless, you’re as dumb as a bucket o’ rocks.”

OK, back to the prognostifying…

Will the Caps win at least four of their last five games?

“You get a deal on 8-balls, cuz?”

“Looks honest to me, Cheerless.”

You’re breaking the fog of mystery here, guys.

“That ain’t fog…that’s last night’s bratwurst.”

Okay, okay…will the Caps overtake the Bruins?

“Why don’t you ask it if the sun will rise in the east?”

“Shhh…don’t spoil it, Cheerless.”

Will the Caps overtake the Flyers?

“Can I ask it one?”

Sure, Fearless, give it a shot…

“Will David Archuleta win ‘American Idol?’”

Hey, let’s stick to hockey, ok? Who will the Caps play in the first round of the playoffs?

That’s looking far into the future…too far for our purposes, even if Penguin fans are drooling at the prospect. Tonight, it’s Tampa, and the Lightning have gone from playoff contender to lottery team faster than you can say, “Tortorella.”

On Valentine’s Day, the Lightning beat the Flyers, 5-3, to haul themselves to within two games of .500. Then, they lost their next game to the Caps, 3-2, on a late goal from Alexander Semin, which sent them spinning toward Lotteryville…

Record (since February 14th): 5-11-2
Goals for/against: 45-56
Power play: 13/62 (21.0%)
Penalty killing: 58/69 (84.1%)
Record in one-goal games: 1-4-2

Tampa hasn’t been awful, and there is a caution in this for the Caps. They have merely been consistent…consistently good enough to lose often. Except for a three game winning streak from March 11th through March 15th, Tampa has shown themselves adept at stringing losses together…an 0-4-1 streak from February 16th through February 27th…another 0-4-1 streak from March 1st through March 9th…a three game losing streak from March 19th through March 22nd.

When one thinks of the Lightning, what comes to mind immediately is goaltending, and the problems they’ve had with it. The odd thing, though, is that Tampa’s goals-per-game allowed over the last 18 games (3.11/game) is lower than their season figure (3.22/game, 29th in the league). This is not to say that their goaltending has been good, just that it is not the only problem.

Well, if we're interested in finding a problem, let’s start with even-strength scoring. Tampa has been outscored 43-31 at even strength over these last 18 games. Getting outscored by two-thirds of a goal a game at even-strength is a sure-fire way to sink in the standings. And that 31 goals scored should be a concern (1.82/game) as well. How bad is the even-strength performance? The individual performances tell the story…

Vincent Lecavalier: 8-6-14, -17 (no, we’re not kidding)
Martin St. Louis: 2-7-9, -19 (honest)
Dan Boyle: 1-12-13, -17 (no, really…)
Paul Ranger: 0-4-4, -8 (yeesh…)

And did coming in new to the Lightning at the trade deadline make a difference? …well, Jussi Jokinen is 14 games, 1-9-10, -10, in 14 games after coming over from Dallas.

We’re thinking Brad Richards (2-7-9, -2 since joining Dallas) and Vaclav Prospal (3-8-11, +5 in 14 games since joining the Flyers) were not the problems.

On the other hand, Jeff Halpern, who also came over from Dallas, is 7-8-15, +4 in 13 games, and Michel Ouellet is 9-5-14, +7 since February 16th for the Lightning. But if it's these guys leading the way, there is a problem.

As poorly as the top guys have been over the last six weeks, once has to wonder, have they simply tuned out their coach? It’s a question that seems reasonable to ask, and one that might get some attention in the off season. Tampa lacks for a balance of talent, but that's hardly a new development. They’ve been in a nose-dive in the last month with key players who are just a few years removed from a Stanley Cup and still in the prime of their respective careers.

What isn’t likely to be a product of coaching is the goaltending situation. It wasn’t all that good to start the season, and it hasn’t improved much. Johan Holmqvist lost the first three games (one in overtime) in this 18-game drought, then got shipped to Dallas. Enter Mike Smith. Since coming to Tampa from Dallas, Smith has performed well – 2.62, .900…almost Vezina-like, given what Tampa goaltending has looked like the last couple of years. But he’s been unlucky, too, managing only 3-7-0 record in ten games. Karri Ramo has the other five appearances, going 2-2-1, 2.78, .907.

Tampa Bay is a club that neither plays well with a lead (20th in winning percentage when leading after one period, 28th when leading after two), nor when trailing (28th in winning percentage when trailing after one period, 30th when trailing after two). As to the latter, the Lighting are 0-24-2 when trailing after two. The Caps are 1-25-2. If you have to catch an early flight on Friday morning, you might get a head-start on sleep just by noticing who is leading after 40 minutes.

This is a lot like the Atlanta game last Friday. The Caps are visiting a team they could, should, and must beat. But Tampa is dangerous enough with the likes of Lecavalier and St. Louis to make things difficult. And remember, it took a four-goal eruption by the Caps in the third period to overtake the Thrashers and win, 5-3.

It makes us want to ask…who will win this game?

Caps 5 – Lightning 2.

Frei-d Food...Adams Award Served Up

OK, there's a bad New York Post-like headline, but Terry Frei weighed in over at on who should be considered (as opposed to who will win) the Jack Adams Award as top coach for this season. It is an interesting look, with a case to be made for a number of coaches, including the Caps' own Bruce Boudreau, of whom Frei writes:

This is a triumph for the good guys who plug along as organization men and minor league coaches, wondering during the recycling process what the heck they have to do to get an NHL shot. Mostly a minor league journeyman player and then a minor league coach (including in the ECHL) for over a decade, Boudreau has paid more dues than a lifetime teamster at retirement.

As of this writing, the Capitals are 31-17-7 since Boudreau took over for Glen Hanlon on Nov. 22. A lot of that has to do with Alexander Ovechkin's ascension, but look around and note the talented players who aren't allowed enough freedom to be this electrifying. Boudreau has been the right man, in the right place, at the right time -- and that's a compliment. Even if the Caps fall short of making the playoffs, that doesn't diminish Boudreau's work.

There is something in there that has an unspoken quality to it, and that is the reference to Boudreau's getting a shot. Someone had to give him that shot, and that credit goes to George McPhee, who -- demeanor aside -- is quite the gambler of sorts. One might question the decision to give Glen Hanlon as much time as he was given at the start of the season, but the work he did in the two years after the lockout argued for giving him the chance to see what he could do with a more talented team than the one he had in those first two years.

However, once the decision was made to make a change behind the bench, the selection of that "organization man and minor league coach" was risky. A bad start to a season might have become a full implosion, had that decision been a poor one, with unthinkable lasting results for this franchise.

Heaven knows, Boudreau more than deserved a chance behind an NHL bench -- there was nothing more he could accomplish at the minor league level. But given the Caps having already tried a minor-league coach in the recent past -- with famously disastrous results -- picking this coach for this position didn't seem quite right (at least we didn't think so at the time).

But McPhee did, and the rest is a pleasant piece of Caps history that has yet to find it's closing line for this year.

Boudreau is worthy of Adams consideration, and given what he inherited, not to mention the lowly standing that pundits predicted for the Caps at the start of the season, he'd be a most deserving winner.

Taking one for the team...Dan Cleary

Consider the case of Red Wing forward Dan Cleary, who had three plates and over a dozen screws inserted into his jaw so that he could return to Detroit's line-up as soon as possible after having sufffered a broken jaw when he took a puck to the face in a game against Toronto on February 9th.

Cleary returned to action last night wearing a football-style helmet, picking up an assist (and a team-high five hits!) in 17 minutes of ice time as the Red Wings defeated St. Louis, 2-1.

..doff of the cap to James Mirtle for this one.

Standings that matter...

The records matter now only for what they mean in terms of the differences. It's time to think, "tie-breakers." Here is the tie-breaking formula...

1. The greater number of games won.

2. The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs. If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game shall not be included. If more than two clubs are tied, the higher percentage of available points earned in games among those clubs, and not including any "odd" games, shall be used to determine the standing.

3. The greater differential between goals for and against for the entire regular season.

Here is where the Caps stand on points and the three tie-breakers, relative to their own position:

In the event of a tie with any of the clubs in front of them, the Caps can win a tie-breaker only if they will have posted more wins, since they lose on head-to-head points-earned differential with each of those teams.

If the Caps come in on the short end of a three point game, it will have all the look of a loss. That is how fine the margin of error has become...there is none.

A TWO-point night: Caps 3 - Hurricanes 2 (OT/SO)

Excruciating, isn’t it?

Two…measly…points. That’s all that separated the Capitals and the playoffs when play began last night, and that is what still separated the Caps from the playoffs when play ended last night.

The Caps did their part to maintain the suspense in this last fortnight of the regular season with a 3-2 overtime shootout win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

As hockey games go, this would have been a decent enough contest had it been played in January. But with the added meaning such games take on now, it was a lot more. The three-point nature of the game probably means that the Hurricanes have all but clinched the Southeast Division. It would take something of a collapse by Carolina for the Caps to win the division, especially since the Hurricanes have clinched the season series (they have nine points earned to six for Washington, with one game remaining, and this is the second tie-breaker at season’s end).

Meanwhile, both Boston and Philadelphia maintained their margins over the Caps with wins. Side note…why has Daniel Briere decided now to earn his money? He has points in 11 of his last 12 games (8-6-14, +3), including a goal last night in a 2-1 overtime win against the Rangers in another three point game.

As for this one, the Hurricanes stole a point thanks to goalie Cam Ward, who stopped 42 of 44 shots, including all six in overtime when the Caps outshot the Hurricanes 6-0.

If Ward played well, his counterpart – Crisotbal Huet – deserved better…much better. Huet “allowed,” if that word can be used, two goals. Both were odd, to say the least. On the first, Joe Corvo held the puck at the top of the Caps’ zone on a power play, faking a slap shot. He moved the puck to Jeff Hamilton, who was proceeded to pass to Eric Cole for what appeared to be a one timer from the right point. The puck never got to Cole. It pinballed off of the skate of Boyd Gordon, and with Huet already moving across the crease in anticipation of the shot from Cole, the puck slid quietly into the Caps’ net.

The other goal came on the infrequent occurrence of an overturned referee’s call. Eric Cole stepped out from behind the net to Huet’s right with the puck on his backhand. Shaone Morrisonn tried to tie up Cole, and the two tumbled into Huet in the crease. Three bodies and a puck were tangled at the goal line, and the referee blew the play dead, signaling no goal.

After further review…

…and some more review…

…and some more review…

…the call was overturned and the goal awarded. You could make an argument that Huet stopped all the “shots” he faced, deflections off a teammate from 40 feet away and goal-line scrums notwithstanding. It was a superb effort on his part in a hostile arena against a team looking to make a point and stick a dagger in the Caps’ playoff hopes.

Almost lost in this was the fact that Alex Ovechkin set a franchise record for goals in a season with his 61st off a nifty feed from Nicklas Backstrom. The goal put Ovechkin into a tie for 29th in the all-time top goal-scoring season rankings (with Mike Bossy, Reggie Leach, and Phil Esposito). Just as amazing, Ovechkin racked up a whopping 27:07 in ice time (second to Mike Green’s 31:17). He also led the team in hits with four. Guess the team is going to climb on his back for a ride to (hopefully) the playoffs.

With two assists, Nicklas Backstrom regained the scoring lead among rookies, pulling one point ahead of Chicago’s Patrick Kane. And he’s closing with a rush, too. Backstrom, in his last 15 games, is 5-12-17, +14. That last number is not a misprint, and the points pace works out to an 82-game pace of 27-66-93. He’s a keeper.

Think the Hurricanes didn’t miss Rod Brind’Amour? 15-15, 8-15, 0-3, 5-7. Those were the face off wins and losses for Eric Staal, Trevor Letowski, Scott Walker, and Keith Aucoin. Overall, Carolina was 29-42 (40.8 percent) in the circle.

Four. We thought that holding the Hurricanes under five power play chances was important. The Caps held the Hurricanes to four chances, although both Carolina goals were scored, so to speak, with the man-advantage. When the Hurricanes pounded the Caps 5-0 and 6-3 in previous games in Raleigh, they were 7-for-14. They had the same success rate (50 percent), but fewer chances.

Viktor Kozlov, with the winner coming in the gimmick phase of the contest, is 3-for-7 in such situations. So is Alexander Semin. Think that doesn’t mean anything? The Caps’ top gimmick performers last year were Semin and Ovechkin, both with two goals (on 10 and 12 shots, respectively). The Caps also were 1-11. This year, 4-4.

Eric Staal had a point – an assist on the Hamilton ricochet. That’s not bad, but this was a guy who had multiple point games in six of his last nine contests coming into last night’s game. Getting him off for four minutes on two minor penalties wasn’t bad, either. OK, less than four minutes, since the Caps scored when he was off on his first minor.

Playing Twister with numbers…Alex Ovechkin had 11 shots in 27:07 of ice time. That works out to a shot every 2:28. Donald Brashear had two shots in 6:45…a shot every 3:23. That was the second most frequent shooting pace on the team last night…puck hog.

More Twister with numbers…Alex Ovechkin has taken 421 shots in 1,648 shifts, about one shot every four shifts (doesn’t sound like that much when you say it like that, Peerless). He has 61 goals in those shifts…about one in every 27. Goes to show, even as prolific as Ovechkin is, goals are special things.

Know who’s due for a breakout game?...Mike Green. He’s gone a dozen games without a goal, his longest stretch of the year. He’s not lacking for being aggressive in ending that slide…nine shot attempts last night, nine last Friday against Atlanta, four against Chicago, four against Nashville, eight against Boston…you get the idea. Sooner or later…

And speaking of the defense, the six blueliners who dressed last night deserve a hand. Two fluky goals against a team that has given the Caps so much trouble this year is a fine night by any standard.

We’re down to five games with a couple of land mines immediately ahead. The Caps are 6-5-1 against Tampa Bay and Florida, 3-3-0 in their trips to the Sunshine State. The Caps can’t do anything about Boston, Philadelphia, or the price of gas. All they can do is tend to their own business by winning. Do that, and things will take care of themselves.