Saturday, December 06, 2008

A TWO-point night: Caps 2 -- Maple Leafs 1

Just like we said…a defensive struggle.

Yeah, right. The Caps played with what looked like at times five defensemen on the ice as the squeezed the life out of the Maple Leafs and just enough offense (from their defense, appropriately enough) to edge the Maple Leafs, 2-1 at Air Canada Centre.

It wouldn’t have been a Caps game, though, without another injury as Eric Fehr left the game mid-way through the second period with a shoulder injury. Having finished a check and then hitting the glass near the Caps bench, Fehr went to the bench where he was in obvious pain in a manner that suggested a rather significant injury. He’s reported as day-to-day…of course, he’s hardly alone on that list.

With the short bench and the thin defense, the Caps went to all-hands-on-deck mode in their own zone. It showed…

- The Leafs were limited to 20 shots, only three in the final 12:48 after the Caps took the final 2-1 lead in the third period.

- The Caps blocked 17 shots, eight of them by Hershey call-ups Bryan Helmer and Karl Alzner.

- The Caps led the turnover battle (takeaways plus Toronto giveaways), 31-19.

- Washington won 10-of-15 defensive zone faceoffs.

At the other end, the defense did the damage with Karl Alzner netting his first NHL goal on an innocent enough looking shot from the top of the offensive zone through a screen set by Alex Ovechkin. After Toronto tied the game on a power play goal from Nik Antropov, Milan Jurcina let loose a cannon shot from the right point that beat Vesa Toskala over his left pad. That was it for the scoring…sorta. Brooks Laich had a goal waved off for making a distinct kicking motion on a puck in the Maple Leafs’ crease. If it was a kick, it was one that wouldn’t tear a tissue. And it denied Sean Collins – yet another call-up on the blue line – from getting his first NHL point. Alex Ovechkin rang the post past Toskala, too, but he looked good celebrating it.

The game also saw the almost “The Goal II.” Getting hauled down at the Toronto blue line by Jeff Finger after taking a long lead pass from Michael Nylander, Ovechkin scrambled to his knees with the puck sliding in front of him. As he was going down again, he laid out, got good wood (or composite) on the puck, and flicked it at the Toronto net. If not for a fine save by Toskala, that would have been on the short list for the goal of the year.

The first star of the game was awarded to Alex Ovechkin, no doubt for his seven shots (on 17 attempts), six hits, and that almost amozing goal. But there was a bit of boneheadedness in there, too. Having taken an iffy hooking call three minutes into the third period, he no sooner skated back on after serving that sentence than he took a holding penalty in his own end. That penalty led to the Toronto goal and made things more interesting than then had to be.

That they did not become more interesting was a product of the team-defense and some fine goaltending from Brent Johnson, who saved 19 of 20 shots to see his save percentage rise to .913 (better than the likes of Ryan Miller, Marc-Andre Fleury, and Evgeni Nabokov) and his GAA drop to 2.59 (better than Miikka Kiprusoff, Chris Osgood…oh, and Cristobal Huet).

What the Caps – and coach Bruce Boudreau – are doing balancing a make-shift line-up is nothing short of amazing. Here is an indicator…defensemen Karl Alzner: 23:06 in ice time tonight, Sami Lepisto: 20:37, Bryan Helmer: 20:05. All of them were in Hershey a couple of weeks ago. Sean Collins was in Hershey last week. Keeping the team playing within a system and playing within themselves has been part of a fine coaching job by Boudreau through this injury run.

Keith Aucoin might be the leading scorer in the AHL, but he’s been doing the little things in his stint with the Caps. A couple of shots, a couple of takeaways, a blocked shot, and he won five of nine draws. Not spectacular, just pretty solid. He almost had a goal when Vesa Toskala bollixed up a shot from a bad angle, allowing it to go through his legs and roll along the goal line and out the other side.

Speaking of quiet…Nicklas Backstrom – four shots, four takeaways, and he won 10 of 16 draws in almost 21 minutes. Not all well-played games involved goals or assists. Frankly, that could be said for a lot of Capitals tonight.

The hard hat for this one might be going to Boyd Gordon, who had a fine game for someone who barely made a ripple on the score sheet. He had an excellent game in his own end, serving almost as a roving defenseman during his shifts. From lugging the puck clear to getting in the way of shots (we’re thinking that one blocked shot is a little light in credit) to winning three of four defensive draws (seven of 13 overall), he was solid in the defense-first aspects of the game.

We’re wondering…are Ron Wilson, Tim Hunter and Rob Zettler joined at the hip?

Chris Bourque had seven shots on goal for Hershey tonight…hope he’s still limber, seeing as he might be joining the Caps in Carolina tomorrow.

If the Islander game on Thursday was a “business game,” according to Coach Boudreau, this one was a “stick to business” game. It wasn’t pretty, but is was among the more satisfying wins of the year, given the circumstances of a poor road record coming in and an injury list that got longer by one during the course of the game. Nicely done, boys.

Anybody got a rabbit's foot?

As reported on Capital Insider...

Tyler Sloan is nursing a bruised foot, which means that Sean Collins was called up from Hershey in the event Sloan can't go. Alexander Semin was put on LTIR (eligible to come off on Tuesday...we're not holding our breath). John Erskine was put on IR (no "LT," apparently, although his return doesn't seem imminent).

If you want a graphical representation of how bad this is, here is the list of Caps who have played at least some time this year on the blue line...

Collins would make 13. If one only counts defensemen, Collins seeing ice time would break a tie the Caps are in with Florida, the Islanders, and Tampa Bay for most defensemen dressed this year (10). At the other end of the spectrum, the Rangers have played all 29 games with the same six defensemen.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Maple Leafs, December 6th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s back on the road again as the Caps head to Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs and former Caps coach Ron Wilson. The Maple Leafs are Team Frustration, having failed to win their birthright – the Stanley Cup – since May 2, 1967. To give you an idea of just how long ago that is, here are a few highlights from 1967…

The NFL had only played Super Bowl I to that point

The Doors released “The Doors”

The American Basketball Association was formed

Aretha Franklin released “RESPECT”

New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison claimed we would solve the Kennedy assassination, and would show it was planned in New Orleans. The body of the late President was moved to its permanent resting place in Arlington National Cemetery in that year.

Jimmy Hoffa, who was still alive, was sentenced to eight years in prison for bribery

Expo67, a world’s fair coinciding with the centennial celebration of Canadian Confederation, opened in Montreal

Elvis Presley and Priscilla Beaulieu were married

The “monkey law” (the basis for the “Scopes trial”) was repealed in Tennessee

The Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”… “The Soundtrack of the Summer of Love”

400 million viewers watched “Our World,” the first live, international, satellite television production. It featured the live debut of The Beatles' song "All You Need is Love"

The first automatic cash machine was installed, in the office of Barclay’s Bank in Enfield, England

“The Jungle Book” – the last animated film personally supervised by Walt Disney – was released

John McCain, who would later run for President of the United States, was shot down over North Vietnam and made a prisoner of war

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was established

Christian Barnard performed the first human heart transplant procedure

Dave Matthews was born (January 9th)

So was Kurt Cobain (February 20th)

And Curtis Joseph (April 29th), in keeping with a hockey theme

And…Tony Siragusa, John Smoltz, Paul Giamatti, Nicole Kidman, Pamela Anderson, Will Ferrell, Vin Diesel, Deion Sanders, Carrie-Anne Moss, Harry Connick, Jr., Faith Hill, Mira Sorvino, Toni Braxton, Carlos Mencia, Julia Roberts, Jimmy Kimmel, Anna Nicole Smith, and Jamie Foxx.

It’s been a while…

But tonight, the Maple Leafs can try to take a small step toward changing history in hosting the Caps. For teams on opposite ends of the playoff divide (the Caps 3rd, the Leafs 11th), they have a fair number of similarities…

One would think, given those goals scored and goals allowed numbers, that this is going to be something of a free for all, more so when you consider these teams' abilities to score at home (Toronto: 3.33/game) and on the road (Washington: 2.86). The problem for the Caps, again, is that they are dead last in the NHL in total goals allowed on the road (55 total, 3.93/game), a point magnified by the fact that they are 28th in power play goals allowed (17 in 14 games).

It’s not that Toronto is without its own problems on defense. Being in the lower half of the league in 5-on-5 play and in the bottom five in penalty killing is a recipe for, well…being 11th in the Conference. If they do have a distinct advantage over the Caps for this one though, it is in that the Leafs are among the leaders in fewest minor penalties taken (3rd fewest, compared to 26th fewest for the Caps). Toronto has been shorthanded a whopping 33 fewer times this year than have the Caps. Washington has been shorthanded 81 times in 14 road games, making this a big factor to watch as the game unfolds.

Unlike the Caps, though, who will skate once more without seven starters, the Leafs are comparatively healthy. None of their top scorers will sit out, which means Matt Stajan – the Leafs’ leading scorer – gets to try and break the log jam at 46th in the league in scoring (7-14-21). Mikhail Grabovski (he of the Potsdam Grabovski’s) will try to add to his ten goals (tied for 36th with, among others, Evgeni Malkin…although Malkin has 31 assists while Grabovski has eight).

Toronto is one of those clubs that has tried to assemble spare parts in hopes of building a Maserati, but pretty much has a 1962 Rambler for its trouble. A look at the top dozen scorers on this team reveals shipments of parts built – or drafted – from Montreal (Grabovski), Florida (Niklas Hagman), New York (Dominic Moore), Tampa (Pavel Kubina), St. Louis (Lee Stempniak), New Jersey (Mike Van Ryn, who is out for this one), and a spare part who started as a free agent in the Los Angeles system (Jason Blake).

If there is a plan here, it isn’t immediately evident. Toronto fans hope that the Saviour of Providence (the city, if not the word meaning, “divine guidance”) -- Brian Burke -- can right the ship and return the Leafs to the glory that was theirs when bell bottoms were all the rage.

But for now, the Leafs have to skate with a team with a defenseman squad that is a combined -23 (although two of them, Van Ryn and Jonas Frogren, won’t be playing tonight). But it is a team with a fair amount of scoring balance. 11 players have registered double digits in points (eight for the Caps, two of whom – Mike Green and Alexander Semin – won’t be dressing). They have eight players with at least five goals (seven for Washington, the same two of whom are not playing tonight) and eleven with at least a power play goal. The Leafs might lack for a high-end scorer, but they do have players who can sit up and bite a team in the bee-hind.

Nowhere, though, it there a clearer picture of where the Leafs have been and where they can go than on the blue line. In one of the biggest head-scratchers of the free-agency signing period, the Leafs showered Jeff Finger with $14 million over four years…this for a player who had a total of 94 games of NHL experience coming into this season. He might be worth the money, and Toronto certainly has enough of it, but what there was about his performance or potential to merit such a contract remains one of nature’s darkest mysteries. He is 2-5-7, +1 in 19 games this year, so in some respects (and this might be a low bar to clear) he is pulling more than his fair share for this defensive group.

On the other side is Luke Schenn, picked fifth overall in last June’s draft. After struggling a bit early (0-0-0, -4 in his first nine games), he has appeared to become more comfortable lately (even in his last eight games…no small feat on this club). He is one of only nine players (Finger is not among them) to have played in all 26 games for the Leafs so far and looks like the sort of player a club could build a defense around.

In goal…well, it ain’t good. Vesa Toskala is the nominal number one here, but the term is relative. His GAA of 3.24 is ranked 40th in the league, his save percentage of .883 ranked 41st. And no, neither Jose Theodore nor Brent Johnson is ranked lower in either category. Should the leafs choose to go with Curtis Joseph (the same one born three days before the Leafs won their last Cup), his numbers – 3.95 and .851 would, if he had enough appearances, be ranked last in the league in both categories.Neither have been especially successful against the Caps, Toskala with a 2-2-0 record (3.13, .892), and Joseph with a 12-10-3 record (3.08, .897).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Toronto: Tomas Kaberle

OK, so he looks a little too much like Rowan Atkinson for comfort, but he leads the team in ice time (23:40), and he is the Leafs’ top scorer on the power play (1-10-11). He is a respectable 5-11-16, +1 in 31 career games against the Caps. On the other side, he is -10 in 26 games (worst on the club among players who will dress tonight), has only four points at even strength, and tied for the eighth highest number of giveaways among defensemen in the league. Which Kaberle appears – the one who leads the power play or the one who can be taken advantage of at even strength – could be the key for the Leafs.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

Is he hurt? He gave that impression in the Islander game on Thursday (although his skating off and to the locker room was attributed to a “skate problem”). It would be nice to have him at full-strength, or something approaching it for this one. As much as to compensate for the absence of those seven starters, Ovechkin has dined on Maple Leafs in his brief career – 11-5-16 in 12 career games with seven power play goals. Given the prodigious performance of the power play recently (16-for-49 in the Caps’ last dozen games – 32.7 percent), having Ovechkin out there could be important.

The Caps have lost four straight road games, scoring seven goals and allowing 19. Goals should not be as difficult to come by for the Caps in this one, given Toronto’s defense and goaltending. However, the Caps are also having considerable difficulty keeping the home team from scoring when they visit. It points to a high scoring affair…

Caps 6 – Toronto 4