Monday, November 03, 2008

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Senators, November 4th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Caps are back at it on this Election Day in the United States, and the Caps are casting their absentee hockey effort in Ottawa to take on the Senators. The Caps are coming off a grisly 5-0 loss in Buffalo on Saturday, and this opponent isn’t likely to be any easier…

“They’ll be as hard as the sod in west Texas in July.”

Why, it’s Dan Rather. Dan, you’re usually manning the anchor desk on election night. Shouldn’t you be covering the campaigns?

"Well, yeah, but like we used to say, if a frog had side pockets, he'd carry a handgun."*

Makes you want to avoid French restaurants. But Dan, I didn’t know you were a hockey fan. Any special insight on this one between the Caps and the Senators?

“We need Billy Crystal to Analyze This.”

Well, there’s only the two of us tonight. What about the Caps? Most folks had them as a potential Stanley Cup contender this year, but they’ve stumbled a bit out of the gate. Your take?

"You know that old song, 'it's delightful, it's delicious, it's de-lovely' for the Caps in most areas of the country. However, they had a slight hitch in their giddy up, but they corrected that."

You’re talking about the practice Coach Bruch Boudreau put them through on Sunday morning…

“You could say that like in southern states, he beat them like a rented mule.”

A lot of folks have pointed to the Caps taking a lot of penalties and some below par goaltending. Do you agree?

“You look at them and think they’re thinking, ‘"We don't know what to do. We don't know whether to wind a watch or bark at the moon.’"

Do you think the Caps can turn things around?

"Let's see where it goes from here. Round and round it goes, where it stops nobody knows."

A lot of the focus has been what’s going on down on the ice, but do you think the front office is thinking of pulling the trigger on a deal? George McPhee doesn’t often tip his hand, but do you think he’s working the phones?

"Is it like a swan, with every feather above the water settled, but under the water paddling like crazy?"

What about Ottawa…they’re last in the Northeast.

"This situation in Ottawa would give an aspirin a headache. No question now that the Senators are rapidly reaching the point where they’ve got their backs to the wall, their shirttails on fire and the bill collector's at the door."

The early season has a lot of prognosticators looking pretty bad…

"It's one reason so many of them drink a lot."

Well, that’s our cue to get to the game at hand. The Caps and the Senators come into this game as two of what might be identified as underachievers in the season’s young stages. Combined, the clubs are 9-9-3, with 62 goals scored, 63 alllowed. The term “mediocre” immediately springs to mind…

Ottawa’s problems are not in their special teams. Being top-ten in both power play and penalty killing would be, you would think in this new NHL, a sure-fire recipe for success. It’s just that the Senators have been such a gawd-awful team at even strength. Here is your fun stat as far as that goes. Ottawa has scored only five even strength goals in the first period in 11 games so far – three of them came in a single game (a 6-3 win against Phoenix on October 17th). That leaves two even strength goals scored in the first period in ten other games. Make you want to sneak into the Caps locker room before the game and write on the white board in big block letters…


If you’re looking at Ottawa on an individual basis, you’re tempted to think they should change their name from the “Senators” to the “Comedians.” Why, because they're just a one liner of a team (we kill us…). Here’s what we mean…

-- The top line of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson has combined to score a total of 15 of the 31 goals the team has scored.

-- They have combined for a total of 35 points. The rest of the team – 17 other skaters having dressed -- has 50.

And here is an indirect indicator of the dominance of the top line – Filip Kuba. Kuba has 12 points, tied with Spezza for second on the club. Of those 12 points, all are assists. Here is how they break down…

-- Eight of them are on goals scored by the top line (three Heatley goals, three Alfredsson goals, and two Spezza goals)

-- Eight of those assists are on the power play (three on goals by Alfredsson, two on goals by Heatley, one on a goal by Spezza).

The disappointments thus far from the Senators don’t take a lot of looking to find. Antoine Vermette was a player that might have been looked to for a big breakthrough season on the heels of his 24-goal year last year. Certainly the Senators thought so, giving him a two-year, $5.525 million contract (thus avoiding arbitration that might have resulted in a bigger payday). But while has been launching shots in an almost Ovechkinian fashion (38 in 11 games), Vermette has but has two goals to show for it. In 15 career games against Washington, Vermette is 2-2-4, -8, with a shorthanded goal.

Mike Fisher has had to deal with a groin injury that caused him to miss a couple of games in mid-October, but in the nine games he has played in, he has yet to register a point and is a minus-5. In 20 career games against the Caps, Fisher is 7-6-13, -5, with three power play goals, a shorthanded goal, and a game-winner.

In goal, one would think Alex Auld has taken over the top spot in the Senators’ nets. He brings a 3-2-1, 2.15, .931 record into the game, and perhaps more importantly for the short term, has been the goalie getting the call in the last four games for the Senators. Ominously enough for Caps fans, he’s allowed four, three, two, and one goal in those four games. Clearly, a shutout is in the offing (uh, that’s a joke, dear reader). He hasn’t been especially successful against the Caps, though. In six career games, he is 2-2-1, 2.57, .899, but he has authored a shutout (a 6-0 win while with Vancouver in 2003).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Ottawa: Anton Volchenkov

It isn’t often that a player with two points and a minus-4 in 11 games would get such attention, but Volchenkov has been something of a shot-blocking machine. Last year, despite missing 15 games, he finished second in the league. He led the league by a whopping 45 blocked shots the previous year. For a club that doesn’t have the top-notch goaltending you’d expect of a contender, this guy could be the goalie’s best friend on the ice and could serve to frustrate Caps looking to get pucks on net.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

Ovechkin returns in this game from a hiatus to help care for his ailing grandfather in Russia. He is also burdened with having gotten off to a slow start – tied for 189th in scoring at 2-3-5. But Ovechkin has made the Senators his personal scrimmage club, going 10-9-19, +6 in 12 career games. He’s had three power play goals, a shorthanded goal, two game-winners, and a four goal night in his brief career against Ottawa. If Ovechkin is going to shake his early season difficulties, this could be as good as any a team against which to do it.

Ottawa, as a club that was a perennial contender in this decade, seems to be extending their disappointing play that emerged in the second half of last season. The Caps, the hot finisher last spring and darling of the hockey punditocracy in the pre-season, hasn’t exactly electrified the league. Something has to give. The Senators have incentive here – they lost all four games to the Caps last year, giving up 22 goals in the process. But the flip side of that is that the Caps might have this club’s number in terms of exploiting its defense and goaltending.

Well, Dan, whaddya think…will the Caps’ll win tonight?

"No one is saying that Washington is not going to win this game, and if you had to bet the double-wide, you'd have to bet that they'd win."

We would too…

Caps 5 – Senators 3

Oh, and by the way...

Get out and vote!!!

* Based on actual Dan Ratherisms…swear to God.

The First Ten -- The Players

We’ve looked at the team, but what about the pieces – the individuals so far this season? Start with the young guns – Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green (click on the image for a larger version)…

As a group, these guys are the anti-Goldilocks. They haven’t performed as a group up to the way they finished the season last year, but they’re further along as a group than they were to start the 2007-2008 season. That should not be interpreted (to carry along the Goldilocks analogy) as being “just right.” This result shouldn’t be unexpected, given that the Caps are neither quite as badly off as in the first ten games last year, nor are they as well off as the blazing finish last year. But, this is the group upon whom the fortunes of the Caps rest (at least among those who don’t strap on leg pads). It really needs to get better.

What is perhaps odd about this group is that they have precisely the same number of combined power play goals, assists, and points as what they finished with over the last ten games of last year. As a group they have the same number of game winning goals. It is at even strength where they have been less effective, with three fewer goals, three fewer assists, and down 10 on the combined plus/minus.

That the group is as close as they are to where they finished the season last year is, of course, a product of the play of Alexander Semin. Up three goals, seven assists, ten points, and up nine in plus/minus, Semin has carried the Caps on the offensive side of the ledger in the early going. Conversely, Alex Ovechkin has gotten off to a slow start, which has been chronicled in enough places. The odd element here is the performance of Nicklas Backstrom, whose performance thus far suffers perhaps more than the others in terms of the burden of expectations. Backstrom finished with a rush last year, but looking at his start this year, it looks a lot like his start last year. The silver lining there is that this might be less the beginning of a sophomore slump than it is just a slow start.

Then there are the “new guys.” As a group, that includes Michael Nylander, Chris Clark, and Sergei Fedorov, who are either coming back from missing large chunks of last year (Nylander, Clark) or are here for the start of the year (Fedorov).

The stats look better so far in comparison to the last ten games of last year, but when two guys didn’t play a game in that stretch, you’d better have that result. Getting 16 points from Nylander and Fedorov is about as good as one might expect from a guy coming off a major injury and another who is in the tail end of his career. The problem here is the early performance of Clark. We can’t know if there are lingering effects from the groin injury that limited Clark to 18 games last year, and Clark’s being a top scorer is not critical to the success of this team. But so far, one point (and that coming almost a month ago, in the third game of the season) is something that has to improve.

We might also take a look at what we’ll refer to as the “next tier” guys – players who don’t often show up in bright lights on the score sheet, but who did make contributions last year and would be expected to make important contributions this year…

This is another group that sits squarely between the highs of the last ten games last year and the lows of last year’s first ten games. The disappointment here is the play of Viktor Kozlov, who despite getting top line responsibility and minutes, has only three points in six games and is a minus-1. Kozlov has battled a knee injury, missing four games out of the first ten, and in that there is one of those silver linings. Pro-rated over ten games, his early performance doesn’t look much different than his first ten games last year. Now, you could argue, “that was under Glen Hanlon,” and you might have a point (you could make that argument for any of the “first ten” game numbers we’re using as comparisons). But, in 2006-2007 he was 2-3-5, even, through ten games…in 2005-2006 he was 2-3-5, +1, through ten games. See a pattern?

Then there are the “crash and bangers.” What one might be looking for here is not scoring, but energy and keeping other teams off the board...

In that respect, this bunch is struggling. Even though they, as a group, are scoring more than either the first ten or the last ten games of last year (Steckel missing all of the last ten regular season games last year with a finger injury), all are on the minus side of the ledger so far this year. One of the things to watch doesn’t appear in that graphic above. David Steckel and Boyd Gordon were among the league leaders in faceoffs last year, finishing seventh and ninth, respectively last year. They are down a bit so far in the first ten games this year – Steckel from 56.3 percent to 54.8 percent and Gordon from 55.8 percent to 54.8 percent – but Steckel has been very effective of late (six of his last seven games over 50 percent), as has Gordon (four straight over 50 percent). Possessing the puck requires having the puck – it helps to start plays in that position.

Looking at the defense, one number screams off the page. See if you can find it…

This group (not including, of course, Tyler Sloan) finished the year with a plus-25 in the last ten games. None of the top four – Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Tom Poti, or Shaone Morrisonn – were worse than plus-5. This group is a combined minus-1 through the first ten games so far, and as a group, the defense has struggled. Now, is that a chicken and the egg problem (goaltending being the egg to the defense’s chicken)? Hard to say. But it would be hard to make an argument that the defense has played well in any case. The silver lining is in looking at how the group improved from the first ten (under presumably a more defense-oriented coach in Glen Hanlon) to the last ten games. This bunch certainly has it in them to play well. They just haven’t so far. And perhaps even more than getting Alex Ovechkin up to the productive pace to which we are accustomed, getting these guys playing well will be the big factor in getting the Caps off and running toward a playoff spot as the season wears on.

If you look at the goaltenders, it isn’t hard to see what the problem is…

They’re not stopping enough pucks (-smack-…duh!). Despite the fact that the Caps have allowed the seventh fewest shots per game in the league, they are 24th in goals allowed per game. A lot of that is poor defense, generally, but the goaltender is the last line of that defense. Jose Theodore ranks 35th in save percentage in the league (.877). If that number doesn’t improve significantly, it’s hard to see how this team makes the playoffs. One simply can’t count on the Caps scoring four goals a game on a nightly basis. Why?...well, the leading goals per game average has decreased in every year since the lockout. Ottawa led the league at 3.80 goals/game in 2005-2006, Buffalo led with 3.63 a game in 2006-2007, and Ottawa led last year at 3.15 goals/game.

Here is one last point. Much is made about a team having to play 60 minutes of hockey to be successful. The Caps are getting more like 54…three 18 minute periods. They have surrendered eight goals in the first or last minute of a period this year. With more discipline, their goals allowed per game might be reduced from 3.30 a game (24th) to 2.50 a game (10th). The good news is that is a problem that is not one of lack of talent, but of lack of discipline. It is a problem that a capable coaching staff can correct, and if they do, the Caps chances will suddenly look much better.

Rodney Dangersemin?

So, we were checking out to read about Alexander Semin being named first star in the league for October, expecting to read about how he finished the month among the league leaders in most offensive categories. We clicked on the link on the home page and were taken to this story...

What does a guy have to do to get a little respect?

Well, congratulations Alexander, it was an honor richly deserved.

The First Ten -- The Team

Ten games are in the books, and it’s as good a time as any to take a look at where the Caps stand.

First, let’s keep in mind that the object of the exercise is to win the Stanley Cup, not show well or merely make the playoffs. So, in keeping with this theme of “tens,” how did the last ten winners do in their first ten games?

No Stanley Cup winner in the last ten years has won fewer than six games, but perhaps more tellingly, they don’t lose. Only one team lost as many as three games in regulation time in their first ten games. The Caps, at 5-4-1 through their first ten games, have a lot of work – not to mention recent history to overcome – to realize their goal.

But looking at the Caps in comparison with themselves, the picture somewhat more mixed. Again, in keeping with the notion of looking at ten-game segments, we looked at the first ten games played to date in comparison with two other sets of ten – the last ten they played (corresponding to the last ten games of last year) and the same “first ten” segment from a year ago.

It’s tempting to say that the first ten games this year look like the first ten games last year, but that comparison does not bear up under scrutiny. This year’s club is clearly better offensively (or at least permits a fuller expression of the offensive talent available). In fact, the Caps’ performance over the first ten games on offense (32 goals) looks a lot like how they closed the season last year (31 goals). The difference between this club and the one that finished last year is on defense. The Caps have allowed 33 goals (excluding Gimmicks) so far. Compare that to the 19 they allowed over the last ten games last year, and you can understand why it is that people say, “defense wins championships.”

What is perhaps striking about this club versus the one that closed the season last year is in how similar they look in many respects. That’s to be expected, given the continuity of the Boudreau system. If you look at goals for, shots, shots allowed, power plays (opportunities and goals), the clubs are very similar in results.

Perhaps the most important difference to recognize between this club and the one that finished last year is on special teams. You’ll note that on the power play, there isn’t a lot of difference, either in the number of opportunities (50 in the first ten this year, 49 in the last ten last year) or success (eight goals versus seven). The difference is on the penalty kill. The Caps were not then, and are not now, an especially talented penalty killing club. The percentages (80.0 percent this year, 79.5 percent in the last ten last year) bear this out. The difference is in opportunities. Last year, the Caps were on the short end of the manpower situation only 39 times in the last ten games. So far this year, that number is 60, which looks uncomfortably like the number through the first ten games last year (52), and it’s killing them.

There is also the matter of getting a lead. In the last ten games last year, the Caps led first in seven of them. They won them all. This year, they have led first in four games and split them (2-2-1). They’ve been less effective getting a lead and capitalizing a lead. In fact, this year’s early performance looks – again, uncomfortably – like last year’s early performance (3-2-0 when leading first). It’s also worth noting that the Caps got a lead in seven of those ten games to close last year. So far this year – five times, same as last year. One would rather not have that comparison.

The Caps aren’t a carbon copy of last year’s “first ten games” team, especially in style. But they are a little too close to that club in appearance as far as results go, especially in the performance of special teams and an inability to get up on teams and close them out. The early record of 5-4-1 suggests that their chances of winning a Cup this year (given the early performance of recent Cup winners) are dim. But virtually the same team last year closed the year on a 9-1-0 run, scoring more than a goal a game more than their opponents in the process. The Caps are capable of dominating play. What appears to be the case so far is that the very things that could undermine their play – a lack of hard work in their own end, a tendency toward the lazy penalty and the predictable results (given that the Caps haven’t been that effective a penalty killing squad) – are what is doing them in at this early juncture.