Sunday, November 23, 2008

Maybe it wasn't Melrose?

The season's first four-goal game goes to...

That's right, Dainius Zubrus tied a New Jersey Devils team record and set a personal best by scoring four in the Devils' 7-3 win over Tampa Bay today. Today's result puts it in the top ten goal-scoring months of his career.

The post-game Lightning analysis was short and succinct...

Coach Rick Tocchet..."Pretty bad effort...A dud."

Goalie Olaf Kolzig..."I definitely needed to be better" (he gave up five goals on 28 shots...his teammates had really good looks at them)

Martin St. Louis..."We take a huge step back...It's really disappointing." (St. Louis scored his 500th point as a Lightning player in this one)

And this on the day the Lightning debuted their third jerseys. They might want to make an alteration...

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Wild, November 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s the last game of a road trip, and it ends in the Twin Cities, where the weather is cold, and the temperature of a Wild game is even colder. But there is nothing that can pump some heat into the Xcel Energy Center like a dose of Ovechkin…

Who can turn the world on with his smile?
Who can take a nothing play, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?
Well it's you boy, and you should know it
With each deke and every little movement you show it

Goals are all around, no need to waste them
You can light the lamp, why don't you take them
You're gonna score goals after all
You're gonna score goals after all

How will you make it on your own?
This season’s awfully long, but this time you're not alone
But it's time you started scoring
It's time you let someone else do some assisting

Goals are all around, no need to waste them
You can light the lamp, why don't you take them
You're gonna score goals after all
You're gonna score goals after all

Folks, go get a dictionary. Now, look up the word, “boring.” You see this, don’t you…

OK, it’s not this year’s team portrait, but you get the point. Minnesota’s game plan is to suck the life out of the building and win games 2-1 in as ugly a manner as can be imagined. They do a very good job of it, as the numbers suggest…

In 18 games, the Wild have allowed more than two goals only five times, only twice in their last ten games. In November they have allowed only four power play goals (34-for-38 on the penalty kill). It isn’t so much that their penalty killing is expert, although it is, as much as it is they don’t have to use it much. No team has faced fewer shorthanded opportunities (70) than has Minnesota. It is even more pronounced at home, where the Wild have found themselves shorthanded only 29 times in nine games (3.22/game). Conversely, the Caps have the fifth highest number of such situations faced so far overall (104) and have been shorthanded 72 times in 12 road games (6.00/game). If there is a silver lining here for the Caps, it is in the perception that the Wild are the New Jersey Devils-lite. Well, the Caps are 3-for-11 against the Devils on the power play so far this year in three games – not many opportunities, but some success.

If the Wild don’t find themselves shorthanded very often, neither do they find themselves often having the man-advantage. They are 28th in total power plays so far (77 in 18 games), although they enjoy somewhat greater frequency on the power play at home (42 in nine games). Meanwhile, the Caps aren’t especially gifted when it comes to earning power plays overall (86 in 20 games – 21st in the league), but they are fifth in total power play opportunities on the road (54 in 12 games).

Individually, the Wild Style (now there's an oxymoron) is reflected most in the numbers put up by their version of Niklas Backstrom. The Helsinki, Finland, native ranks fourth in GAA (2.00) and save percentage (.932) having appeared in 17 of the 18 games the Wild have played. The odd part about Backstrom’s game thus far, though, is that for the first time in his three seasons in the NHL, his home record is worse than his road record. Not that it is bad, mind you -- he is 5-2-1, 2.11, .925 at Xcel Energy Center this year. Of additional note, he has not lost to an Eastern Conference opponent yet in regulation, going 5-0-1, 1.94, .929. In his only appearance against Washington, Backstrom allowed four goals on 26 shots in a 4-1 loss on trading deadline day last February.

If it isn’t Backstrom, it will be Josh Harding, who is 0-1-0 this year in two appearances (1.84, .927). He has never faced Washington.

The Wild are likely to be without Marian Gaborik for the 17th straight game as the forward rehabilitates a “lower body injury” (Gray’s Anatomy, NHL edition…”lower body”…”upper body”…that’s it).

Gaborik’s absence has meant that the offense, such as it is for the Wild, has been by committee. Mikko Koivu leads the team in total scoring (5-13-18, +5), while Antti Miettinen and Andrew Brunette lead the Wild in goal-scoring with six apiece. Brunette has something of a cottage industry in making the team that drafted him (7th round in 1993) pay. He is 8-5-13 in 18 games against the Caps.

If there is an odd aspect to the Wild attack, it is how the defense becomes a force on the power play. The Wild defenseman corps is 9-21-30 overall, but are 6-12-18 on the power play. That is six of the total of 16 power play goals coming from the blue line. There are three Wild defensemen who have had particular success against Washington on the power play. Marc-Andre Bergeron is 2-4-6 in five career games against the Caps, both of the goals coming on power plays. Kim Johnsson is 5-10-15 in 23 career games against Washington with four of those goals coming with the man advantage. Marek Zidlicky (seriously) is 3-1-4 in three career games against the Caps, all three goals coming on the power play.

Speaking of the power play, the Wild don’t have a lot of goals with the man advantage (those 16 rank 18th in the league), but they spread it around. Eight different players have scored at least one (the same number as for the Caps). Clearly, the ability of the Wild to activate their defense in the offensive zone – getting shots on goal and getting points in the process – will be something to watch.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder:

Minnesota: Cal Clutterbuck

Not only does he have perhaps the best hockey name in the NHL, but Clutterbuck is the kind of player that could have Caps’ heads on a swivel. Clutterbuck is sixth among forwards in the NHL in total hits. What sets him apart is that he is doing this in far less ice time than the five forwards ahead of him (5:15 less than Milan Lucic, who has the lowest average ice time of those ahead of him). And, he does this with remarkable discipline. Clutterbuck has only one fighting major penalty this year and two minors. He’s not going to get a lot of time, and he almost certainly won’t score (he has no points this year). But he could be a factor in ways that won’t show up on the score sheet.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

Sometimes, being the star isn’t fair. With Alexander Semin and Sergei Fedorov likely to be missing once more, the status of Mike Green downgraded to “out” for this game, and (as Tarik El-Bashir reports in The Post) a number of other players nursing nagging ailments, the burden will fall even more heavily on the guy every team game plans for, anyway. But then, that’s why he’s paid the big bucks, too. This is an opportunity for Ovechkin to strike a line through one more team against which he hasn’t scored a goal (having failed to do that against Los Angeles and San Jose) and to help end a losing streak before it gets started. Ovechkin is on a seven-game points streak (6-10-16, +4).

The Caps have never won on Wild ice. They have a total of three goals scored in going 0-3-1. Getting three goals against this team would be something of an achievement, given the style the Wild play, the health of the Caps, and the fact that the Wild have surrendered as many as three goals in a game only once in their last seven home games (a 3-2 loss to Vancouver on November 20th). But, let’s not forget where we are…that score sounds about right:

Caps 3 – Wild 2

Anything you can do...

So, Simeon Varlamov got his first point as a pro on Friday. Well, Daren Machesney apparently views this as a competition. The Hershey netminder recorded an assist -- as with Varlamov's, on the game-winning goal -- as the Bears defeated Bridgeport, 4-1, to regain the top spot in the East Division of the AHL last night. It was Machesney's first point of the year, his fifth as a member of the Bears.

Sami Lepisto had the game winner for the Bears, who added tallies by Keith Aucoin, Oskar Osala, and Graham Mink. Machesney stopped 17 of 18 shots in the win.

A NO-point night: Sharks 7 - Caps 2

…they’ll have their butts handed to them.

Sorry, we were just finishing the thought we started the last time we wrote a wrap-up, as in:

“[A game like that against the Kings] just shouldn’t happen again tomorrow night, because if it does…

And the San Jose Sharks did just that in treating the Caps like chum in a 7-2 win last night. We could talk about numbers and this and that and the other thing, but the one thing that fairly jumped at us was a graphic – the shot chart…

San Jose scored five goals from the doorstep. The Caps barely had five shots from the doorstep. That’s your game. It wasn’t so much that San Jose was willing to pay a price to get themselves into position to score those goals, the Caps simply didn’t offer much in the way of resistance. Brent Johnson, whose GAA (2.26 to 2.79) and save percentage (.928 to .910) took a beating in this game, might have fared better without teammates…fewer bodies to clog his view.

The Caps were guilty of a youthful exuberance…much heat, no light (as is red lights going on). California must have this thing about violence, as in seeing it where it doesn’t exist (like on TV or something). The Caps were credited with 49 hits. That’s a rather amazing number, made more so when you look at it at an individual level…Alex Ovechkin was credited with 10 – one every 2.5 shifts. Chris Clark (five on 16) and Matt Bradley (seven on 19) had about a hit every three shifts. Sergei Fedorov was credited with two in six shifts before retiring for the evening after 4:54 of ice time, an apparent reoccurrence of his ankle injury sitting him down.

Trouble was, none of that alleged physical play was taking place in front of Brent Johnson, where Sharks swam free to deflect point shots and knock in pucks.

Here is a subtle glimpse of the differences between the teams in this game. Defensemen for San Jose attempted 21 shots, 15 of them getting to Johnson. At the other end, Caps defensemen attempted a total of nine shots, only three making it to Sharks’ goalie Brian Boucher. Small wonder that the Sharks’ defensemen were 1-7-8 last night, and the Caps defensemen were 1-1-2. Think the Caps don’t miss Mike Green? The Sharks have multiple copies (though none as prolific as the healthy original).

The Caps were playing their third road game in four nights, the Sharks were resting in their own beds since returning home from a win over Nashville last Sunday. It showed. San Jose took nine minutes to shake out the cobwebs, then scored on their first, third, and fifth shots of the game, all of them from inside the faceoff circles. Game. The rest was for the stat sheet.

We could write about which Caps had good games, but the list would look something like this…


Get the picture? If, though, you’re thinking about Caps who weren’t bad, that list starts with Brent Johnson. How can a guy who gave up seven goals in 28 shots be said to have not had a bad game? With the way San Jose was skating in the slot and Johnson’s face, seven could have been 14. Pucks were changing direction in front of him more than a Caps fan trying to find a meter with time on it ten minutes before the opening face off.

We’re 20 games in, and we’ll have more to say about that another time, but there are some things coming into focus about this team. And nothing is clearer than when they are bad, they are awful. The Caps have lost six games in regulation. In four of those losses they gave up at least five goals (all of them on the road) and lost all of them by at least three goals. In three of those losses, the Caps gave up three goals in the first period. In each instance, we would consider the circumstances an intimidating environment -- opening night in the other guy’s rink (Atlanta, a 7-4 loss), a place where the Caps have had little success (at Buffalo, a 5-0 loss), and a rink where the home team hasn’t lost yet in regulation (San Jose, a 7-2 loss).

That is not a good sign. It suggests that for all the talent on this team, what they are lacking is the swagger that truly good teams have that allows them to go into a hostile rink and eat the other guys’ lunch in front of their fans. If the Caps are going to have long run this spring, they’d better develop that talent. Giving up four goals a game on the road – their mark this morning – isn’t going to end happily.

It won’t get easier for the Caps, as they travel on to Minnesota to end this road trip. They are 1-2-1 this morning on the trip, and a win in Minnesota would not make the trip a success, but it would make things more palatable as the club heads home for Thanksgiving. The Caps and Sharks are similarly skilled teams, but the Sharks imposed their will on the Caps once they got their legs under them. The Wild are similar in that they are all about imposing their will – a suffocating defensive system – on opponents. If the Caps can’t deal with that and turn the tables on the home team…