Sunday, December 07, 2008

A NO-point night: Hurricanes 3 - Caps 1

Well…one in a row will have to do.

The Caps couldn’t make it two straight on the road as they fell to the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh this evening, 3-1. It was one of those games that was close, and then again, it wasn’t. Although the Caps played with the sort of uneven energy that the second of back-to-back road games would suggest, the game really turned on two plays.

In the first, the Caps were in the midst of killing a penalty late in the second period when Joni Pitkanen whiffed on a shot attempt from near the Caps’ blue line. Alex Ovechkin collected the loose puck and was off on a breakaway. He was hauled down by Pitkanen, resulting in a penalty shot. Ovechkin’s attempt had all the look of someone who changed his mind on what to do as he was approaching goalie Michael Leighton, and he ended up firing the puck into Leighton’s left pad. Coming as it did with 1.8 seconds to go in the period, a goal there – which would have tied the game – could have been a huge momentum changer as the clubs went to the locker room.

The second play came with under five minutes to play in regulation. Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff in the Caps’ end of the ice, the puck ending up with Sami Lepisto in the corner. Sergei Samsonov (not Ray Whitney, as we thought, until we looked at the video again) made a bee-line for Lepisto to harass him behind the Caps’ net. Eric Staal joined in the play, and Lepisto was unable to move the puck. Staal ended up with it, circled out from behind goalie Jose Theodore, and stuffed a backhand under Theodore to give the Hurricanes the lead once and for all.

The rest of it was equal parts boring and frustrating. It wasn’t as if Carolina played a game that will go into the Hurricane video highlights of the season. The Caps outshot Carolina (39-25) and had fewer turnovers (14-5, including having been credited with only two giveaways…must be a local scoring thing), but the Hurricanes dominated the faceoff circle (34-20), blocked more shots (14-6) and held their own physically (29-28 in hits).

If there was a difference, it was in goal. Michael Leighton made all the saves he had to, and a few he had no business stopping, including a one timer from Ovechkin in the game’s first 90 seconds, a door-step rebound try from Brooks Laich mid-way through the second, and another sliding stop of an Ovechkin one-timer in the game’s last 90 seconds. At the other end, Theodore didn’t play badly by any stretch, but the first goal was a rebound that might have gotten away, and the Staal goal is one that should not have been scored.

If there is something that is creeping into the Caps’ game of late, it isn’t entirely unexpected (given the injury situation) but it is nonetheless a problem that harkens back to last year. The Caps got a goal from Nicklas Backstrom on a nice cross-ice feed from Ovechkin. But the second line, such as it is, was silent. Michael Nylander, Brooks Laich, and Tomas Fleischmann, who started the game as a forward line for the Caps, did have seven shots on goal as a group, but nothing to show for it. Even those seven shots are a bit deceptive. That number represented the entire number of attempts for that trio. Compare that to Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Viktor Kozlov, who combined for 16 shots and 23 attempts.

It was a game when having four comparatively inexperienced defensemen bit the Caps in the backside. In their case, as with Theodore, it was not that they played badly. But a moment’s indecision, a brief mental error, a touch of frantic play behind one’s own net led to three Carolina goals scored from within a dozen feet. It was just enough. And that seems to be the lot of the Caps for the moment. There will be times, like last night in Toronto, when the defense makes things a lot easier for the goaltender. Then there will be days like today when one mistake or two creeps in and ends up in the back of the net. The Caps lack enough depth and consistency in scoring these days to make up for that. It’s the recipe for a .500 kind of performance until the team gets healthy…or at least healthier.

This was an important game for the Caps, one for which giving up two points could ripple through the week. Boston comes to town on Wednesday, followed by a visit by the Senators on Friday before the Caps head to Montreal on Saturday to finish up another back-to-back set of games. The three Northeast Division opponents are a combined 17-7-6 in their last ten games, apiece, while the injury-plagued Caps are 4-6-0 in their last ten. This week will be a challenge.

For the Record Books

With their 3-0 whitewashing of the Norfolk Admirals tonight, the Hershey Bears set a franchise record for consecutive regular season wins – 11.

It isn’t as if the Bears have eked out many those wins. Over the course of the streak, five of the Bears’ wins were of the three-plus goal variety, including two nine-goal wins. In fact, their average winning margin over this streak is over three and a half goals a game. To say that they have been utterly dominating is to damn with faint praise…

It is indicative of the talent of this team from top to bottom that in the 71-year history of this storied franchise, this should be the team that sets this record. The accomplishment is even more remarkable in light of the roster upheaval that has seen 26 different players skate for the Bears during the streak, in addition to goalies Daren Machesney and Simeon Varlamov.

Congratulations to coaches Bob Woods and Mark French, president and general manager Doug Yingst, the players, the staff, and the fans of the Bears. It isn’t over yet, but it is already a team for the record books.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Hurricanes, December 7th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Ok, shower, dress, get on the bus fellas, because the plane’s leaving for Carolina…Such is the life of the NHLer, in Toronto one night, in Raleigh the next. If it’s Sunday, it must be…hockey. It must be hard on players to play 60 minutes, hop on a plane, and then play another road game less than 24 hours later. Surely, there has to be a way to fight the jet lag that such travel leaves with the players. Maybe the good perfesser has some answers…

Perfesser, is there some scientific equation or process that can reenergize the players for the second of back-to-back games on the road they’ll be playing in Carolina?

"Vee heff performed many eggschperiments in adding time to ze 24-hour day."

Have you had any success?

"Vell…vee aggtually heff some very successful attempts at time travel…zere vuss zat vellow in Inkland a long time ago…had three zpirits come und transport him back sroo time to his childhood… "

You’re talking about Ebeneezer Scrooge.

"Ya…zat’s ze vellow. "

You realize he was a fictional character…

"Ah…zats vutt zey vant you to believe, ya?"

OK, Perfesser…you said there were many successful attempts…

"Ya, zere vuss ze two vellows in Inkland…vy is it alvays Inkland?...who built ziss model of a time machine and vent off into ze future."

That’s an H.G. Wells book.

"Ya… zo?"

Look, Mr. Scientist…is there any proof of being able to stretch time? Something our boys can use to get a few more hours of rest before the game?

"OK, let me draw you a piggture…"

Wait…that’s an equation for time travel?

"No, schtoopit…it’s mein pr-r-r-r-r-r-ognostication on how many goals the Caps vill get."

Great…well, the Caps will have to cope with travel in the usual way and take on a Carolina Hurricanes team that played its own game last night – at home – against the Flyers, losing in overtime 2-1. The Hurricanes are gasping for air at the moment, having gone 1-4-1 in their last dozen games and replacing their coach, Peter Laviolette, with their old coach, Paul Maurice. They’ve scored only 12 goals in that stretch, giving up 24. Overall, the differences between the teams’ numbers are rather stark in many respects…

It isn’t in the usual course of events that the Hurricanes would struggle so much to score goals, but this is a team that has seen its go-to guys up and gone from the score sheet. The Hurricanes’ leading scorer, Ray Whitney (7-12-19) is 0-2-2, -6 in his last seven games. Eric Staal (8-7-15 overall) is 0-2-2 in his last seven. Rod Brind’Amour is 0-2-2, -9 in his last nine games and is on a pace to finish -67. The Hurricanes don’t have a single player on a pace to top 60 points or 40 assists. They do not have a player in double digits in goals or a player on a pace to top 30.

The Hurricanes have had peculiar difficulties scoring at home, where their 2.33 goals-per-game ranks tied for 27th in the league. Since beating Toronto, 6-4, on November 2nd, the Hurricanes have topped two goals in regulation on their own ice once in 11 home games. Part of the problem is that their power play is 5-for-50 over those 11 home games.

Defensively, the Hurricanes have not been bad as much as they’ve been overwhelmed by their lack of offense. They’ve been just bad enough to lose with regularity. In those last 11 home games (in which they are 4-6-1), they’ve allowed 35 goals and have allowed at least one power play goal in eight of them.

Perhaps the odd part in this is that the Hurricanes have outshot their opponents in nine of those last 11 home games and have topped 30 shots eight times. They seem to look like the Hurricanes, without the results one might expect from them.

The Peerless Players to Ponder

Carolina: Justin Williams

His return after suffering an Achilles tendon injury is quite remarkable. An injury that was expected to cost him four months caused him to miss only 25 games. He returned to action against the Penguins last Thursday. In two games since his return, he has not scored and is being eased, as one might expect, back into the lineup (less than 15 minutes of ice time in both games). However, he is 13-17-30, +10 in 36 career games against the Caps. He might be the tonic the anemic Carolina offense needs in this one.

Washington: Tomas Fleischmann

Fleischmann has a half dozen goals in his last dozen games (6-4-10). Although he didn’t score against Toronto on Saturday night, he has seven attempts (three shots registered). He has never lighted the lamp against the Hurricanes in 14 career games. But he is now the second leading goal scorer on the team. Getting some output from him could give the Caps some breathing room.

This will be the third meeting of the season between the two clubs, Washington having won in Verizon Center (3-2) and at RBC Center (5-1). Carolina has been a good team playing poorly enough to bleed points, now trailing the Caps by six in the Southeast Division and to find themselves on the outside of the top-eight looking in. Making things worse, they will likely be missing three defensemen (is this a league epidemic, or what?)…Frantisek Kaberle, Tim Gleason, and Dennis Seidenberg. And, Cam Ward is expected to be out with a groin injury, leaving the netminding duties to Michael Leighton, who was lit up for five goals in 48 minutes in a 5-1 loss to the Caps on November 12th.

Storm warnings are out…the Caps are blowing into town to take on a nicked up Hurricanes team in a slump. Like the Perfesser scribbled…Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Laich (we’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to figure out the assists).

Caps 3 – Hurricanes 1