Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Three Games, Three Teams

The math is coming into focus more sharply…

If the Caps win out, that is, get six points to reach 94, either Boston or Philadelphia must be held to no more than two points in their last three games. In that instance, the Caps would finish with 94 points and their closest pursuer with 93.

So, when was the last time either of Boston or Philly achieved only two points or fewer in three games?

Boston: Well, it’s not that long ago. March 16-22 they played the Caps and a home and home against Montreal, losing all of them, two of them in a shootout. They also did it shortly before that – March 9-13 – losing all three games to Ottawa, the Rangers, and Tampa Bay, one of them in a shootout (to the Rangers). March 3-6 they lost all three games to the Caps, Florida, and Toronto, one of them in overtime. While Boston has righted their ship lately, somewhat (3-0-2 in their last five games), they seem at least a decent candidate to give up the points. Boston finishes as follows:

At New Jersey
At Ottawa

Philadelphia: The Flyers are in a similar boat. They lost three in a row to Toronto, Boston, and Pittsburgh (please note that last one), March 12-15. It was the last three of a four-game slide, the first of which was an overtime loss to Toronto. Before that, though, you’d have to go back to February 19-23 to Ottawa, San Jose, and Florida (two of them in extra time – one overtime, one shootout). Those three losses were at the end of a ten-game winless streak. The Flyers finish as follows:

At Pittsburgh
New Jersey

Meanwhile, Carolina can earn no more than three points in their last three games, providing the Caps win out. When did they last find themselves in that situation? Well, they’re in the midst of one right now. In their last three games, during which they are 1-1-1, they lost to Tampa Bay in regulation and to Washington in a shootout, while beating Atlanta. Before that, though, the Hurricanes haven’t been in a three-points-in-three games situation since February 18-21, when they beat Atlanta, but lost in regulation to New Jersey and in a shootout to Boston. Carolina finishes as follows:

At Washington
Tampa Bay

It is interesting to note that Caps fans could be subjected to one final torture…Game 82 of the Flyers’ season -- in Philadelphia against the Penguins – is a Sunday afternoon game, the Caps’ season having been completed the previous evening. If the Caps are hanging on that game as the make-or-break contest of the season, there will be no more ardent Penguin fans anywhere than the red-white-and-blue.

Sometimes, life is irony, thickly sliced on toast.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs Hurricanes, April 1st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Today being April Fool’s Day, we will dispense with the usual elaborate hoax, except to entertain you with one version of the top 100 April Fool’s Day hoaxes of all time.

No, we’re going to bring you a different kind of foolishness…the sort that passed for predictions early on in this season. First, Terry Frei of ESPN on the post-season hardware…

Hart Trophy

East: Crosby; Jaromir Jagr, Rangers; Eric Staal, Hurricanes.
West: Daniel Sedin, Canucks; Thornton, Sharks; Jarome Iginla, Flames.

Who wins: Yeah, Sedin might be a reach, but after all those earlier seasons of underachievement and waiting for confirmation that the twins were worth the trouble, and with the Canucks likely to be the class of the Northwest this season, Henrik and Daniel stepped up in 2006-07. His placid demeanor works against Henrik, but with his brother's set-up help, he's on the verge of completely breaking through.

If Iginla figures out that being a leader and wearing the "C" doesn't have to mean trying to literally fight all the battles and retains his edge without being knocked off his game, all under new coach Mike Keenan, he can be the best player in the league.

But that's a big maybe.

Having Chris Drury and Scott Gomez around can't do anything but help Jagr, and Staal will have to leave his toga in his locker to be effective.

It's Crosby's trophy to lose. The Art Ross Trophy is a cold numbers game, and Crosby remains the favorite there, as well. So, fully recognizing this isn't stepping out on a limb, I'm going to pick Crosby for both.

Daniel Sedin??? His numbers this year are positively Jagresque...and that is not a Hart-stopping compliment. See anybody missing from that summary? Next, also from ESPN, we have the Bard of Steubenville, himself, John Buccigross on where the Caps would finish

14. Washington Capitals

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

-- "The Waiting" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

The Capitals should be better than last season. That won't be difficult as Washington won only 28 games, the second fewest in the NHL. And with the additions of Michael Nylander, Tom Poti, Viktor Kozlov and rookie Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals will score more and improve a poor power play. But those five will do little to improve the Capitals' defense, which is what they will need to start thinking about the playoffs.

The key for a team like the Capitals is getting off to a good start and giving their young guys and Kozlov purpose in their strides. I agree with what the Capitals are doing by going with their young players. The team is giving its youngsters ample opportunity to grow, while simultaneously continuing to acquire top-level talent with high draft picks. This past summer, the Caps drafted big defenseman Karl Alzner, who continues to improve in the WHL with the Calgary Hitmen. This season, Washington will either mildly surprise by reaching the postseason or get another lottery pick.

That being said, I do believe the Capitals have a shot at the playoffs and this 14th spot might be too low. If they can get their goals up to 250 and goals against down
to 250, they should be able to earn around 90 points. That will put them in the playoff hunt. Then, they can reassess come deadline time if they want to add some defensive help in an attempt to make a stronger playoff run -- as long as they don't give up top-end value.

Capitals fans should feel good about things. Their team is getting better. They made a great uniform change. And they can read some old Washington Capitals stories in a brand new hockey book called "Jonesy: The Improbable NHL Career of Keith Jones" available everywhere now.
Well, at least he flamed the Caps gently, sort of like, “Johnny’s such a sweet boy, but he’s a little slow, you know.”

Then we had a whole panel of ESPN types weighing in – at mid-season, no less – on the Hart Trophy…

Scott Burnside: With Sidney Crosby out for the next month and a half, this race is wide open. With the Flames looking like a playoff team and the Lightning and Thrashers not, we like Jarome Iginla to win narrowly over Vincent Lecavalier and Ilya Kovalchuk. Watch out for Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo to edge into the voting.

E.J. Hradek: I'm going with Capitals star Alexander Ovechkin. A.O. is going to lead Washington to its first playoff appearance since 2003. And he just might win the Maurice Richard Trophy as the league's top goal scorer, too.

Barry Melrose: My choice is Roberto Luongo. Without him, Vancouver wouldn't nearly be a playoff team. He is just the embodiment of the award -- most valuable player to his team. Not the best player, but MVP to his team. The Canucks have no scoring, so Luongo knows he has to win games 2-1 or 1-0 almost every night.
Point to Hradek…

And in the “We Have No Idea What to Make of This” category…there is Adam Proteau of The Hockey News…

3. Washington: Few think the Caps can be this good this quick. But that's what they said about Pittsburgh last season.
• Best possible conference finish: Third in East; Worst-case scenario: 10th in East.

15. Montreal: Habs have talent, but sorely lack size, grit possessed by genuine Cup
• Best possible conference finish: Eighth in East; Worst-case scenario: 15th in East.
Last I looked, Montreal was second in the East, after trading their top goalie. But there is still the chance on that number three seed coming true.

Motto: Prognostifying is hard...don't try this at home, kids.

Speaking of the number three seed, here we are, home again, at last. After a 5-1-0 road show, the Caps return home to make their stand. Three games, six points. It hardly gets any simpler than that.

As for tonight, the opponent looks a little too much like the Caps, and we don’t mean the dominating role that red plays in the uniform. The Hurricanes haven’t lost consecutive games in regulation since February 2-5 (Pittsburgh, Nashville). They haven’t lost consecutive games in regulation to Southeast Division opponents since November 14-16 (Tampa Bay, Atlanta). They haven’t lost consecutive games to the Caps in regulation since January 21-March 25, 2006.

Tonight, Carolina can do all of that. And for the Caps to have any chance of winning the Southeast, that is precisely what has to happen – the Hurricanes must be beaten in regulation. Failing that, the Caps must have the two points to climb to within a point of idle Boston and Philadelphia.

We provided much of the background for this game here, when the clubs played last Monday in Carolina. With respect to the series played in Washington, here is how the Caps have fared:

Record: 2-1-0
Goals for/against: 8-4
Power Play: 4/15 (26.7%)
Penalty killing: 12/12 (100%)

Capitals scoring:

Alex Ovechkin: 3-0-3, even, one GWG
Michael Nylander: 1-2-3, -2, one GWG
Nicklas Backstrom: 0-3-3, -1
Alexander Semin: 1-1-2, +2
Mike Green: 1-0-1, +2
Boyd Gordon: 1-0-1, +2
Milan Jurcina: 1-0-1, -2
Tom Poti: 0-1-1, even
Shaone Morrisonn: 0-1-1, +1
David Steckel: 0-1-1, even
Viktor Kozlov: 0-1-1, +2
John Erskine: 0-1-1, even

While the Caps have had their difficulties in Carolina (the results of the last game – a 3-2 shootout win – notwithstanding), they have played quite well against the Hurricanes in Washington. Even in the loss, they played rather well, despite falling behind 2-0 in the first 15 minutes.

If you’re looking for a Cap to shine tonight, we’re thinking Alexander Semin is the guy to watch. 12-8-20 in 18 career games against the Hurricanes, with a goal and an assist in two games this season. You might expect (as if we don’t in most games these days) some production from Alex Ovechkin, too (16-12-28 in 23 career games against Carolina). In goal, it looks as if Cristobal Huet will get the call once more, and he’s been money against the Hurricanes, too: 4-2-0 (with one tie), 2.30, .931 career; and 3-1-0, 2.45, .924 this year against Carolina.

We’re going to go out on a limb, too…Milan Jurcina scored a goal in the home opener. He hasn’t had any since. He breaks the string tonight…

Caps 4 – Hurricanes 1