Saturday, November 08, 2008

A TWO-point night: Caps 3 - Rangers 1

Well, well…wasn’t that a whole bucket o’ fun?

The Caps beat the Rangers on Saturday night, 3-1, before a crowd of 17,948 at Verizon Center. The game had a bit of a playoff air to it with a lot of up-and-down play, a pair of excellent goaltending performances, and the kind of ugly goals that the Caps need to see more of.

Brooks Laich got his ugly on in the first period with a strange power play goal, the puck taking more turns and more ricochet’s than you’d see in a cartoon gunfight. Alexander Semin sent a drive that Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist got a piece of. The puck sailed off the glass behind Lundqvist and bounced all the way back to bounce off the cross bar behind Lundqvist. The puck then bounded off Lundqvist’s mask where Brooks Laich swept it into the net out of mid air past the bewildered goalie. The play was reviewed to ensure that Laich did not strike the puck with a high stick, and the goal stood.

The second goal was credited to Tom Poti, but the hero of the play was Boyd Gordon. Gordon collected the puck on the left side and skated in. Dmitri Kalinin tried to angle Gordon off the puck, but the winger dipped his shoulder, got leverage, and worked his way in to Lundqvist. The puck trickled off Gordon’s stick before he could complete a deke, and it squirted to Lundqvist’s left. Tom Poti jumped in and lifted the puck past the sprawled Lundqvist, and the lead was two. This play also was reviewed to determine if the right post (away from the play) had been lifted off its peg before the puck crossed the goal line. The review confirmed the goal, and the Caps took a two-goal lead into intermission.

The Rangers made things interesting in the third as Aaron Voros scored a goal on Caps goalie Brent Johnson’s short side, the puck apparently tipped ever so slightly by Tom Poti’s stick. From there, it was a case of the Caps closing down the Rangers, making it difficult for the visitors to even exit their own zone with any comfort. As the clock was ticking down to two minutes, though, Alexander Semin had a brain cramp and took a tripping call when he got his stick into Scott Gomez’ skates. Strangely, the Rangers let almost the entire two minutes of the power play burn off before pulling Lundqvist to get a 6-on-4 advantage. By the time the Rangers went for the second extra man, the effort needed to finish off the penalty kill was not as great, and six seconds after the power play expired – with Lundqvist now on the bench – Semin redeemed himself by picking up a loose puck in the right wing faceoff circle, spinning, and firing a length-of-the-rink wrist shot into the heart of the Ranger net to complete the scoring.

Some things we saw…

This was the most complete game the Caps played since beating Vancouver in the third game of the season. In all three zones, the Caps dominated play. Especially on the forecheck, they made life difficult for the Rangers exiting their end. They did not allow Nikolai Zherdev, Markus Naslund, Scott Gomez, or Chris Drury to gather any momentum skating through the neutral zone. Rarely did the Rangers enter the Capitals’ zone under control of the puck, and once in, often found themselves chasing the puck right back out of the zone.

Hey Brandon Dubinsky…show up early for practice tomorrow. You’re doing faceoff drills. One-for-13 ain’t gonna get it done.

How good was the Caps defense? OK, here it is…Wade Redden and Ryan Callahan led the Rangers with four shots apiece. If those two are leading the team in shots in this game? I like the Caps’ chances. Nikolai Zherdev, Markus Naslund, Brandon Dubinsky, and Scott Gomez – the Rangers’ top four scorers – had a total of six shots among them. OK… now I really like the Caps’ chances.

OK, Ovechkin didn’t have a point, and he’s become so frustrated, it seems, that he’s taken to celebrating goals before they are goals…but he is this close. If not for the sterling play of Lundqvist (and if we’re picking sides for pick up hockey, I take him as my goalie), Ovechkin has at least a pair of goals (the ones he “celebrated”).

Speaking of Ovechkin, we suspect there will be a call from one brother to another…”hey, Eric…does he hit guys like that all the time?”…”yeah, Marc, he does…all the time.”

We’re starting to say this more often, but Nicklas Backstrom had his best game of the year. From controlling the puck, to finding the open man, to standing up to physical play, he had a very good game. And he almost headed in the puck on the goal scored by Laich. And there he was, in the middle of a scrum coming to the aid of Brent Johnson when the Rangers were taking some liberties. He will, however, perhaps see Lundqvist in his sleep after having three whacks at the puck with Lundqvist down and out on the doorstep with only his glove to save him.

Tomas Fleischmann isn’t going to deliver many hits or take many without giving up the puck, it seems, but he can be fairly described as “shifty.” On many an occasion this evening, he was lined up by a Ranger and managed to duck out of trouble with the puck.

Tyler Sloan had a fine game by keeping things simple. In his own zone, it was “get the puck, clear the puck.” No muss, no fuss.

Once again…no penalty killing time for Ovechkin. Is it us, or does he look fresher as a result?

As if it needs saying, Brent Johnson is in a zone. He is now fifth in goals against and tied for fifth in save percentage. Since losing in relief in the season opener in Atlanta, he’s 3-0-2, 1.75, .942. What goalie controversy?

It gets more than a little tiring hearing fans yelling at Jeff Schultz every time he gets within a stick length of someone, “hit him, Schultz!” Here’s a guy who played more than 19 minutes, recorded an assist, and blocked a couple of shots. He was on the ice for the Rangers’ power play goal, but he wasn’t in the vicinity of the play when the puck was shot. He was busy defending his man on the other side.

We heard on the radio after the game that John Erskine won the “hard hat” for this one. He deserved it. It was his best game of the year, too.

And, if Erskine gets the “hard hat,” Brooks Laich gets the “tool belt.” He has a solid game all around tonight. A goal, tied for the team lead in shots, a couple of hits in 16:30 of work.

This was a good test for the Caps, given that the Rangers – and especially Lundqvist – have played solid hockey for just about all of the early going. That they got a pair of goals by sheer will – Laich and Backstrom driving to the net on the first, Gordon bulling his way in with Poti jumping into the play on the other – is an encouraging sign. But it can’t be a one-time thing. Tampa Bay comes to town on Monday, and they are 5-2-1 after starting the year 0-2-3. And, the Capitals alumni club of Olaf Kolzig, Matt Pettinger, and Steve Eminger will be looking to take a measure of bragging rights.

But tonight, this was a game well-played against a quality opponent. Well done, boys.

Varlamov records first shutout

Simeon Varlamov returned to the Hershey Bears from the injury list in a big way last night, blanking the Albany River Rats, 3-0, for his first career shutout in the AHL. For more, check out Hershey Bears Hockey, John Walton Hockey, Derek Meluzio at Stack the Pads, the Patriot-News report on the game, and of course, the the Bears' website.

It doesn't get easier for the Bears. They're at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton tonight and at Bridgeport tomorrow for the next two games of a five-game road swing.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Rangers, November 8th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s Hockey Night on Fun Street as the Caps entertain…host…lay out a spread of tea and cucumber sandwiches…what’s the word?...thwart?...annihilate the New York Rangers?...well, we’ll get to that. But The Peerless, being something of a political junkie, understands that in these few days since the election in the United States there are a group of people who are heartbroken, crestfallen, and just in a funk about what to do next.

No, we’re not talking about McCain/Palin supporters, we’re talking pundits! What do these folks do, now that there is no need for their pontificating, their white boards, their touch screens, and their practiced indignation? As part of our effort to care for this forgotten class, we’ve invited a few to join us for their take on the game…Chris Matthews of MSNBC’s “Hardball”…you’re an east coast guy – born in Philly and all that. You must have grown up with hockey…the Caps are at home to the Rangers tonight. Any thoughts on what the Caps need to do tonight?

“I know one thing: There are a billion Islamic people in the world today, and there will be about 2 billion by the time we're dead. They're not going to give up their religion just because the Rangers are coming to town.”

Well, the Rangers are coming to town as the top team in the East, you’d have to think they’d be the favorite in this one. Would you agree?

“I can't find a reason to be for the Rangers. I've looked, and I can't, so I'm not.”

A lot of Caps fans might agree. George Will, these are very different teams. The Rangers added by subtracting, losing Jaromir Jagr and replacing a large part of their club. The Caps played more of a “stand pat” strategy. Any thoughts on which one will work better in the end?

“A society that thinks the choice between ways of building a hockey team is just a choice between equally eligible ‘lifestyles’ turns hockey message boards into cafeterias offering junk food for the mind.”

I see your point. But I take it you’re more a hockey fan than, say, a football fan.

“Football incorporates the two worst elements of American society: violence punctuated by committee meetings.”

What about bloggers, Dr. Will…any thoughts on the emergence of bloggers in hockey coverage?

“If your job is to leaven ordinary lives with elevating spectacle, be elevating or be gone.”

We’ll try to keep that in mind. Finally, we have Keith Olbermann, the outspoken host of MSNBC’s “Countdown.” Keith, you come out of the sports journalism world, having spent some years at ESPN. Your take on the Caps so far?

“Even on the greatest teams, there's always one role player.”

OK, well let’s use your format. What are the five stories for the Caps this year…

"Well…Number five – the emergence of Alexander Semin. Number four – where’s Ovie? Number three – Is it ‘holy’ or ‘hole-y’ Jose? Number two…"

This is your “worst person in the world” segment, right?

“Right…we’ll start with who is ‘worse,’ and that honor goes to…Nikolai Zherdev, who when asked about whether he was looking forward to playing against fellow countryman Alex Ovechkin, said, “just a game…two points.” Mighty presumptuous there, aren’t you young whipper-snapper?

"And the ‘worser’ award tonight goes to Kelly Hrudey, who is the living embodiment of the thought that goaltenders are a species that has taken too many rocks to the coconut. Hrudey, nominally a hockey ‘analyst’ has gone on the record to say that ‘This year, with mostly the same players, the Washington Capitals are a bad team.’ Wonder what he thinks of the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team with but two more points having played one extra game.

"Tonight, we select, as if this could be any surprise, Gary Bettman as the worst… person… in the wor-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-rld…"


’Why?’…just how long have to been at this hockey blogging thing?”

With all apologies, Keith, the number one story is tonight's game, which pits the Rangers, who are on top in the East, against the Caps, who are at the bottom of the top eight. The thing is, the Caps have four games in hand on the Blueshirts and trail them by nine points, so perhaps the gap is not as pronounced as you’d think first off.

The Rangers come into the game with the most standings points earned in the Eastern Conference (2nd in the league to San Jose) and ranked high in most of the number categories…

New York, which struggled for years as they tried to assemble a team that had more fantasy potential than on-ice production, became a good team when they improved from the goal outward. That is reflected in the numbers, and their standing. First in goals against in the league and second in penalty killing means that they don’t beat themselves much, and that they are in just about every game they play. Compare that to Washington, which is middle of the road in both categories and pretty much middle of the road in the standings.

The Rangers haven’t abandoned entirely their tendency to add parts from the outside, but they appear to have done it more intelligently recently, and what risks they’ve taken have paid higher dividends. No one reflects the high return on risk so far better than Nikolai Zherdev. Seen as a somewhat immature, selfish, indiffferent player in his four years in Columbus, he has set aside those descriptions so far to unleash the talent that made him the fourth overall pick in the 2003 draft. Zherdev leads the Rangers in scoring (5-9-14) and is an eye-popping +11 (tops in the league) in 16 games – quite a number for one thought to have no interest in two-way play.

Markus Naslund is another player picked off the scrap heap, of sorts, who has produced early. Having seen his production decline every year in Vancouver from 104 points in 2002-2003 to 55 points last year, Naslund was allowed to walk away from the Canucks and was signed by the Rangers to a two-year, $8.0 million contract. It’s paid off for the Rangers so far, as Naslund is tied for second on the team in scoring, with a third of his 12 points on the power play.

The surprises, if there are any, are the emergence of Brandon Dubinsky and Aaron Voros. Dubinsky had a good rookie season last year, skating for large parts of the season with Jaromir Jagr. But this year, his 4-8-12 production in 16 games has him on a pace for 62 points. There seems to be some grit in his game as well, having taken 23 minutes in penalties (3rd on the club).

Speaking of grit, there is the matter of Aaron Voros. One of the free agent signings you probably didn’t pay much attention to (he played for Minnesota last year), Voros has assumed the role of a passable replacement for the departed Sean Avery. It shouldn’t be surprising. Voros had 14 fights in 55 games with the Wild last year. He has four in 16 games this year. He might have been a pest in the upper plains last year, but being one in New York gets one a reputation a lot more quickly. He caused Tampa goalie Mike Smith to go all Hextall on him this past week (drawing nine minutes in penalties from the goalie)…

Voros leads the team in penalty minutes (34), but he’s also chipped in 10 points (tied for fifth on the team).

On defense, the big addition was Wade Redden from Ottawa. Redden, whose game seemed to fall off after the departure of Zdeno Chara to Boston, has not yet recovered the level of play he displayed over the five seasons ending in 2006 (he averaged 11-33-44, +25), but he’s been a steady performer so far. He’s on a pace to go 10-20-30, +20. The other addition, if it can be called that, on the blue line is long time Sabres defenseman Dmitri Kalinin. One of those steady guys for Buffalo for years, he was limited to 46 games last year because of knee and shoulder injuries. He hasn’t had the success the other additions have had, though, as he is a team worst minus-6 in 16 games.

In the end though, the Rangers will rise or fall on the play of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. He had some questions about his knees in the off season, but hasn’t let that impair his play so far. He has a 9-3-1 record, and his 2.00 GAA and .928 save percentage put him squarely among the league leaders in those categories (fourth and tied for sixth, respectively). Lundqvist is 7-2-1 in 10 career appearances against Washington (2.51, .913), but he is 4-0-1 in his last five games against the Caps.

The Peerless Players to Ponder

New York: Chris Drury

Drury, who is not generally thought of as a top-end scorer, despite his other skills, has scored at almost a point a game pace in his career against Washington (6-14-20, -1, in 22 games). He was held without a goal in his first 11 games this season, but has five in his last five contests, including a hat trick against Tampa Bay in his last game (but you knew that if you watched the whole video clip).

Washington: Mike Green

After going 4-2-6, +5 in his first five games, Green is 0-3-3, -1 in his last seven contests. However, he’s had success against the Rangers. In seven career games against New York, Green is 2-4-6, both of his goals being game-winners. Green also managed a plus-3 in almost 28 minutes of play against Carolina in the last game, so perhaps he’s on the brink of a breakout all around.

The Rangers have been streaky this year. They opened the season with a five-game winning streak, and they’ve had a four game winning streak as well. In between, they were 1-2-1. There is a pattern here…streak, stumble (1-2-1), streak. Right now, they are on a 1-2-0 run in their last three games. If the pattern holds…

Washington 3 – New York 2 (OT)