Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Blues, December 18th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s home again, home again for the men in red as the Caps return from a brief road trip that saw the Caps win two one-goal games, one in Montreal and one on Long Island. Tonight, the visitors are the St. Louis Blues on Alex Ovechkin Bobblehead Night. It’s been a while since the Blues visited – January 19, 2006, to be exact. Given the length of time it’s been since the last visit, we’re guessing you didn’t know…

- St. Louis has 14 sister cities. One of them happens to be Samara, Russia, which Caps fans will recognize as the hometown of goaltender Simeon Varlamov.

- Iced tea was invented in St. Louis, at the 1904 World’s Fair (Richard Blechyden did the honors). That World’s Fair also was the occasion for the invention of the ice cream cone, a product of necessity when a vendor ran out of cups and secured the assistance of a waffle vendor who rolled waffles to hold the ice cream. Oh, and Dr. Pepper made its debut at the 1904 World’s Fair, not to mention Puffed Wheat (for the record, the official name of the fair was the “Louisiana Purchase Exposition”).

- 1904 seems to have been a big year for St. Louis…in that year it became the first American city to host the Olympic Games.

- The Blues hockey team reached the playoffs in 25 consecutive years ending in 2004. They neither won a Stanley Cup nor played in a Stanley Cup final during that streak (only twice did they so much as reach a conference final).

- The same Blues hockey team reached the Stanley Cup final in each of their first three years of existence, the only times they have reached the finals. They lost on each occasion.

- In February 2008, Men’s Health magazine ranked St. Louis as the second safest city in America with respect to food-borne diseases (for the record, avoid Lubbock, Texas).

- On the other hand, St. Louis has a disease named after it – St. Louis encephalitis.

- The Gateway Arch is the tallest manmade monument in the United States. It traces a “catenary” curve, a shape formed by a chain when grasped at both ends, and is as wide as it it tall (630 feet).

- St. Louis consumes more barbecue sauce, per capita, than any city in the United States.

- It was in St. Louis that the custom in hotels of placing chocolates on guests’ pillows began.

As for the game, the Blues are coming to Washington repeating history in a sense. Similar to the last time they visited, when the Blues were on a seven-game losing streak, this year’s version is struggling in the midst of a four-game losing streak. It hasn’t been pretty. St. Louis has been outscored in this streak, 21-11 and has not allowed fewer than four goals in any of them. The overall comparison isn’t quite as unflattering, but it doesn’t suggest that the Blues are a team poised to move into contention…

St.Louis’ problem is that they get blown out of a lot of games. Of their 15 losses in regulation, seven of them have been by at least three goals (tied for 3rd most in the league with, of all teams, the Rangers). If they can keep things close, they are a reasonably successful team. They are 7-4-3 in one-goal games this season.

Comparatively speaking (that is, compared to the Caps), the Blues finish and end games poorly. Washington has outscored the Blues 36-26 in the first period of games this year, and they have outscored the Blues by the same numbers in the third period of games this year. It is only in the second period where the Blues enjoy an advantage (30-28).

Individually, it would be normal to look first at the top scorers, but there is one statistic on this team that comes screaming off the page. On a team that struggles in five-on-five play collectively (28th in the league) and individually only three of 28 skaters dressing this season are in the plus category), Patrik Berglund is +10. While it is true that he was plus-9 in his first 14 games of the season (+1 in 11 games since), it remains a noteworthy outlier on this team. Berglund also is tied for third on the team in scoring (10-10-20) with David Perron.

As far as that leading scorer goes, Brad Boyes is building on a solid scoring season last year (43-22-65) by going 16-14-20 thus far this season. However, it seems to have come at a price. Boyes is a team-worst minus-16. It should not be surprising, then, to see that he is the Blues’ leading power play scorer (9-7-16). He does have four game-winning goals among his number, though, which is half the number of game-winners registered by St. Louis so far.

Of some note is the addition of Brandon Crombeen via trade from the Dallas Stars. He started slowly with the Blues, but in his last half dozen games is 6-1-7, including a hat trick when the Blues hosted Nashville on December 8th. His other three goals have come on the road.

Where the Blues suffer, points-wise, is from the blue line. Nine defensemen have dressed for the Blues this season and the group has totaled only 33 points (6-27-33; the Caps’ blueliners, by comparison, are 16-44-60). As a group, they have but a single goal on the road (Carlo Colaiacovo).

As seems to be the case with an alarming number of teams this season, the Blues come in banged up. Erik Johnson’s adventure with a golf cart was the most notable of the injuries sustained this year. But in addition to Johnson, the Blues are missing to injured reserve: Paul Kariya (hip flexor/foot), Andy McDonald (broken ankle), T.J. Oshie (sprained ankle), and Manny Legace (concussion). Add to that Jay McKee (broken finger) and Eric Brewer (“upper body”), and you have a team with a lot of missing parts.

In goal, Chris Mason has taken up the full-time number one goaltending chores with Manny Legace injured. Trouble is, since defeating Atlanta on November 30th, 4-2, he is 0-5-1, 4.44, .869. In his last three decisions, he’s allowed four, five, and six goals. That progression spells trouble for this game. Perhaps the problem is his stick. As reported by Tom Timmerman in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

"Mason uses a product called Blade Tape, a rubbery material that you peel the back off of and stick on to the blade of a stick. Among other things, it allows a player to customize the blade of his stick. Mason has the Blues logo and his No. 50 on his blade. 'It gives you a little more cushion and you can customize it, so it looks pretty cool,' he said. It's also a time saver. Mason no longer has to tape his stick. 'I actually kind of like it,' he said. 'Taping sticks takes a long time, especially goalie sticks, and I use a lot of tape on my handle. So you just stick it on the front, stick it on the back and you're done. It's nice.'"

Perhaps he should go back to taping his sticks, but not tonight, even though he has won both of his career decisions against the Caps (1.47, .937), both while playing for Nashville.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

St.Louis: Keith Tkachuk

The Round Mound whose game hasn’t made a sound in recent years (he hasn’t topped 60 points since 2003-2004) is struggling in December. He is 1-4-5, even, in eight games this month. Given the injury list for the Blues, he needs to be heard from more. In fact, he’s been kind of quiet since starting the season with goals scored in the first six, and seven of the first eight games played. He has only four goals in 22 games since that hot start. He has, however, had some success against Washington, going 12-12-24, +9, with three game-winning goals in 22 career games against the Caps.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

Hey, it’s his night with the bobblehead thing. Besides, this is a guy who has registered at least one point in 17 of his last 19 games (17-17-34). He has ten multi-point games in this run as well. He is, like a fisherman fighting a marlin, reeling in the scoring leaders. He is only two points behind Sidney Crosby for second place in the scoring ranks, and he is only seven behind Evgeni Malkin for the top spot. He did not have an especially good game overall against the Islanders on Tuesday, although he did pot a pair of pucks. However, 12 of his 19 goals have come in the friendly confines of Verizon Center, and he is +11 in 13 home games this year. Given St. Louis’ struggles on defense, this could be a productive evening.

St. Louis looks a bit like the Islanders – clearly the lesser team, but sufficiently dangerous to make things difficult if the Caps go into a shell or try to get too cute. If the Caps stick to business, they’ll get to the 20-win mark. Seeing how Chris Mason has given up in his last three games, four, five,and six goals…

Caps 7 – Blues 3

Your Gratuitous "Brendan Witt Post Office" Moment

Note the fierce glare Caps fans will remember as he watches the puck sailing back out of the net...his feet planted firmly -- rooted even -- in the ice to his goaltender's left.

This goal by Milan Jurcina would be Witt's third "minus" on his way to a minus-5 (that is not a misprint) night.

He did have his stick on the ice, though. Remember that, kids...always keep your stick on the ice.

It helps to have something to lean on when you're at the "post" office.

A TWO-point night: Caps 5 - Islanders 4 (OT)

Thrill rides are wonderful things, as long as you get to walk away from them when they’re over. If you end up in a tangled heap of twisted metal and body parts…not fun.

By that standard, the Caps’ 64 minute, 49.3 second thrill ride on Long Island ended happily in a 5-4 win over the Islanders. Alex Ovechkin, who earlier in overtime hit iron twice – on the same shot – flipped a wrong-footed wrist shot past goaltender Joey MacDonald for the win.

One could forgive the Caps and Caps fans of thinking this would be one that would slip away as that man – Jon Sim – scored on a redirection with 2:13 left in regulation to tie the game, 4-4. That was Sim’s 12th career goal against the Caps in 23 career games.

If the Caps had let this one slip away, it would have been criminal. First, because a very good team doesn’t lose to a team like the Islanders – struggling, thin on talent. Second, because the Caps didn’t play quite as bad a game (well, goalie Brent Johnson didn't, anyway) as having allowed four goals suggests. There was the shot that Doug Weight took that was deflected down and in by Tom Poti as he was trying to prevent an Islander from doing just that. There was the shot that Richard Park took that threaded between Boyd Gordon and David Steckel that Johnson could not quite get a bead on. Steckel was playing without a stick and couldn’t defend the play. But that’s hockey – those things happen and sometimes make a weak team competitive in a game they otherwise, well, aren’t being competitive in.

But in the end, two points is two points, and that gets the Caps to 41. It is the earliest that the Caps have passed the 40-point mark – 31 games – since the 1991-1992 season (29 games, 20-9-0). It also allowed them to better their road record to 7-9-2, which is important as only five of 40 playoff teams over the last five seasons out of the Eastern Conference had a less than .500 road record (none over the last two seasons).

Other stuff…

- It seems safe to say Alexander Semin’s “upper body” is okay. That no-look, behind-the-back pass to set up Alex Ovechkin’s first goal torqued his torso pretty good. Semin was otherwise feeling pretty good…nine shot attempts (four shots), a hit, a takeaway, and he spit a couple of faceoffs. And, more than 23 minutes of ice time, in what was his second highest ice time total for the season.

- Sometimes, goals are scored by sheer stick-to-it effort, as was the case when Boyd Gordon jabbed, jabbed again, and jabbed some more at a loose puck to MacDonald’s right before poking it through the only place that was open – under MacDonald’s skate blade that was pressed against the right post.

- Then there are the goals that just happen, as when Brooks Laich was skating down the left side, pushed the puck harmlessly past an Islander and at the net, and watched as MacDonald whiffed on an attempt to poke it away only to have it slide under his pads and softly into the net. Ten years from now, that is a laser of a wrist shot that found the five hole. No matter, they all count.

- With a goal tonight, Milan Jurcina is 2-2-4, +5 in his last seven games. What’s more, he had six shot attempts, the most he’s had since also having six against Montreal on November 28th.

- 12 players (including goalie Brent Johnson) had points on the five goals. Only Ovechkin, who had two of the goals, and Nicklas Backstrom (two assists) had multi-point games. It’s nice seeing a multi-goal game from Ovechkin, but it might be as helpful getting points out of players like Donald Brashear, David Steckel, and Boyd Gordon.

- Semin’s missing so many games to injury might hide the fact that he’s on a 127-point scoring pace over an 82 game season. As it is, he’s on a pace for 49-60-109. He’s been held off the score sheet only three times in 20 games. With apologies to Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and even Alex Ovechkin, Semin is probably the most dangerous offensive player in the league right now, given that he’s putting up points at this pace getting more than three fewer minutes of ice time a game than any of the other three players mentioned. Go ahead, keep talking about his comments about Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby…we’ll take the points.

- If ever a player was making a case on the ice to stick with the big club in the face of every other argument to send him down to the minors (cough-salary cap-cough), it’s Karl Alzner. He is an NHL-level defenseman. He is not close to reaching his potential, but he is eating up large chunks of solid minutes. Even tonight, though he was on the ice for three of the four Islander goals, it’s going to be tough to send him down.

- We suspect players sleep at night dreaming of the opportunity to execute an open ice hit of the sort Mike Green had on Ben Walter. Good thing for Walter it was Green doing the hitting. If it had been someone like Scott Stevens back in the day…

- If ever the phrase, “the only thing a prevent defense accomplishes is to prevent a club from winning,” it was on display tonight. In the third period, the Caps (holding a two-goal lead), were outshot 17-5, out-scored 2-0. The Caps were outshot 9-4 in the period leading up to the Andy Sutton goal to make it 4-3. Then it got worse, the Caps being outshot 4-0 until the Sim goal to tie it. The Caps didn’t get another shot on goal until there were nine seconds left in regulation, that being by Matt Bradley from more than 50 feet. The Caps didn’t go into a shell, they went to the back of the cave.

- This was only the second of eight games in December in which the Caps failed to score a power play goal. Still, they are 11-for-32 for the month (34.4%).

Early on, this had all the makings of a blowout – 13 shots, two goals in just over 14 minutes. By the end of regulation, the Caps were hanging on for dear life to get out with a point. Then, it looked like a shootout was in the offing as the clock wound down to under 15 seconds. It paid to watch Nicklas Backstrom as the last play was unfolding…he was deep in the Islander zone pressuring Brendan Witt at the end boards. Then, he circled all the way out to the blue line as Ovechkin was fighting Doug Weight for the puck along the side boards. The puck came back to Backstrom’s stick at the blue line, and the center flipped it into open ice where only Ovechkin could retrieve it. The rest was the second standings point as Ovechkin flipped the puck past MacDonald. But what gets lost in the blur of a sudden finish like that is the play of the guy who set the whole thing up. Backstrom made a helluva play.

Nicely done, Nicklas…