Monday, December 29, 2008

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Sabres, December 30th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, we’ve come to the end of 2008, and the Caps will ring out the year in the hip-hoppin’ burg of Buffalo, New York…The Queen City… Land of the Odd Chicken Parts as Bar Food… the town only snow could love. Speaking of snow and remote locales, we got really…really tired of all this “Malkin for the Hart” talk and decided to take things into our own hands and go to the people. No, not ESPN-addled, Crosby-sotted, Penguin wannabe hockey fans…folks who have never been biased by the All Penguins, All the Time marketing of the NHL. We went to places where people had never seen hockey (no, not Tampa) – Hockey Virgins, if you will – and asked them to choose between the Russians, Malkin and Ovechkin. Herewith, we present the results…

Well, the creepy obsession these folks seemed to have with hamburgers aside, we now have proof of which hockey player is number one in the hearts of unbiased hockey fans. And with that question settled, we can turn our attention to this, the last game of 2008. The numbers for the Caps and the Sabres…

When last these teams met the past Friday, the Caps saw Patrick Lalime in goal. This time, the Caps are likely to see Ryan Miller. And this is a goalie who can be said to be in an odd slump. In his last five games he has allowed three or more goals in four of them. In the fifth – against Los Angeles on December 19th – he had a 40-save shutout. So, which is it? The goalie who was 3.86, .880 in the four games he allowed goals in his last five appearances, or is it the goalie who shut out the Kings in the other appearance and who is 8-2-0, 2.48, .911 in 11 career appearances against the Caps? Well, Miller does have a shutout against the Caps this year (5-0 on November 1st in Buffalo).

The skaters for the Sabres are, once again, characterized by their balance. 13 skaters are in double digits in points (to ten for Washington). Where they are not balanced, though, is in goal scoring. Thomas Vanek has 25 goals, exactly 25 percent of the Sabres’ total for the year. He has more goals than the next two goal-scorers, combined (Derek Roy, Jason Pominville). However, Vanek is in his most extended drought of the season. He has a single goal (in last Friday’s game against Washington) in his last six games. Vanek had a pair of tallies when the teams met in November and is 6-5-11 in 14 career games against the Caps.

Vanek’s goal-scoring aside, the Sabres are a team that can come at you from anywhere. Seven different players have game-winning goals against the Caps, none more with two. And oddly enough, that group does not include Jason Pominville, who always seems to play well against Washington (4-4-8 in 13 career games). But Adam Mair, not generally thought of as a goal-scorer, has a pair of game-winners among the four goals he’s scored against the Caps in his career.

And even though Vanek is the big goal-scorer in terms of volume, Derek Roy is a player who has picked his spots for big ones lately. Roy has five goals this month, three of them game-winners. He had a nine-game points streak snapped against the Penguins on December 22nd and was scoreless last Friday against the Caps, but did manage an assist in his last game, against the Islanders on Saturday.

If there is one place Buffalo has enjoyed a distinct advantage over the Caps, it is in stability on the blue line. Five Sabre defensemen have played at least 33 of the 36 games played by the Sabres this year. Only Milan Jurcina has played as many as 33 games this year (37) among the Caps defensemen this year. Those Sabre defensemen are led in total scoring by Jaroslav Spacek (1-17-18), who actually has a second job, playing as part of the ensemble cast of the NBC sit-com, ”The Office.”

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo: Jaroslav Spacek

In last Friday’s game, Spacek was on the ice for both of the Caps’ first two goals, once not getting over quickly enough to get into Viktor Kozlov’s shooting lane when the Caps’ winger fired a slap shot in full stride down the right wing, and once out of the play when Boyd Gordon deflected a Milan Jurcina drive past goalie Patrick Lalime. You wouldn’t call it a great night. The Caps have scored three or more goals in seven of their last nine games in going 8-1-0. The Buffalo defense will have to give Miller help, and Spacek is going to have to have a better game than he had on Friday.

Washington: Brooks Laich

In the 8-1-0 streak, Laich is 5-1-6 and is doing the dirty work in front that earns him scoring opportunities. Buffalo is not an especially physical team by NHL standards, especially among the defensemen. Laich is only 1-2-3 in ten career games against the Sabres, but he’s doing the things he does best to get into scoring position and could get some opportunities in this one.

Buffalo has not been hospitable to the Caps. Over the last five-plus seasons, the Caps are 3-8-0 and often have looked ghastly in losing. In all eight of those losses in Buffalo the Caps have allowed four or more goals. In seven of them they allowed five or more. More than even Pittsburgh, perhaps, this might be the most difficult city in which the Capitals have played in this decade. But while the Caps have struggled historically, the Sabres have struggled recently – 3-3-2 in their last eight games overall, 2-2-1 at home in that span. On the other hand, the Caps’ lone loss in their last nine games involved giving up seven goals to an opponent on the road.

Makes for an interesting game, doesn’t it? But you already know how we think this will end…

Caps 4 – Sabres 2

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 3

Number 3. Capitals Depot

The Capitals had a reputation for a long while as one of those clubs that would out-work you to death. Defense, checking, grit. That was the philosophy of the team. It even showed up in the nicknames applied to the team. If you go back through time in NHL history you will find a lot of top lines with nicknames – The French Connection, The GAG (Goal-a-Game) Line, The Production Line – and not because they kept goals out of their own nets. Meanwhile, in Washington, you had The Plumbers Line, a trio of checkers (Craig Laughlin, Gaetan Duschesne, and Greg Adams) that could chip in a goal here and there. The only individual who had a lasting label attached to him for his play in Capitals history was Rod Langway – The Secretary of Defense.

And in case you haven't noticed, most of the NHL hardware that gets handed out to individuals is done so on the basis of offense. The Ross Trophy is for top scorer. The Richard is for top goal scorer. The Hart is biased toward players with prolific scoring numbers. Even the Norris and Selke, while awarded to defensive players in name, often go to players who put up good to great offensive numbers.

Hence, you won’t find a lot of Capitals having won NHL hardware over the years. In 30-plus seasons, the list (quantity-wise) is not impressive:

Hart Trophy (MVP): none
Pearson (top player): none
Ross Trophy (top scorer): none
Richard Trophy (top goal scorer): none
Selke Trophy (top defensive forward): Doug Jarvis (1984)
Norris Trophy (top defenseman): Rod Langway (1983, 1984)
Lady Byng (gentlemanly play): none
Vezina (top goalie): Jim Carey (1996), Olaf Kolzig (2000)
Calder (top rookie): Alex Ovechkin (2006)
Masterton (perseverance to hockey): none
Adams Award (top coach): Bryan Murray (1984)

Teams without a reputation for success that don’t put up big numbers among their individuals don’t generally win a lot of league awards, and such has been the case for the Caps, although they are represented among those awards for defensive players (Selke, Vezina, Norris).

In 2008, with the abrupt change in philosophy that came with the coaching change in November 2007, the Caps had players who could put up points and a coach willing to put them in positions to do precisely that. A 28-12-3 finish in 2008 put the team in a position to have people recognized for their efforts. Bruce Boudreau was the man behind the bench for that run, made more memorable by his ability to coax the club to an 11-1-0 finish in the last dozen games in what resembled a single elimination tournament for the Caps. Alex Ovechkin finished the 2008 portion of the season 35-29-64, +23. Nicklas Backstrom emerged as a top rookie and contender for post season recognition by finishing the 2008 portion of the season 7-34-41, +19, in 43 games. Mike Green got some mention as a potential Norris Trophy winner on the heels of a fast finish – 10-28-38, +10 in 43 games.

When all was said and done, Capitals would take home five trophies, four of them by Ovechkin and one by Boudreau, but the team was represented well in the voting with a number of top ten finishes in the NHL awards…

Hart Trophy:

1. Alex Ovechkin (WAS): 1,313 votes
2. Evgeni Malkin (PIT): 659 votes

Norris Trophy:

1. Nicklas Lidstrom (DET): 1,313 votes
7. Mike Green (WAS): 84 votes

Vezina Trophy:

1. Martin Brodeur (NJD): 113 votes
8. Cristobal Huet (WAS): 4 votes

Calder Trophy:

1. Patrick Kane (CHI): 1,078 votes
2. Nicklas Backstrom (WAS): 872 votes

Lady Byng Trophy:

1. Pavel Datsyuk (DET): 984 votes
9. Alex Ovechkin (WAS): 115 votes

Jack Adams Award:

1. Bruce Boudreau (WAS): 208 votes
2. Guy Carbonneau (MTL): 196 votes

Add the Ross (scoring) and Richard (goal-scoring) among the NHL awards, and the Pearson an award of the NHL Players Association, and Capitals nailed down five major awards for the 2007-2008 season. It would not have been possible without the performances in the 2008 portion of the season, making the haul of hardware that would befit a display at Home Depot one of the top stories of 2008.

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 4

Number 4. A Story for a Frank Capra Film

Until Hollywood discovered the wonder of computer generated imagery, it had a long history of telling stories of people. Mysteries, dramas, comedies, tragedies – film was a reflection of the mundane and the extraordinary in the lives of people. No one, though, is perhaps more closely identified with stories of individuals overcoming great odds in the face of misfortune or just plain bad luck than Frank Capra. The term, “Capraesque” is often defined as “focusing on courage and its positive effects and the triumph of the underdog.”

Well, 2008 allowed Caps fans to see a story such as that brought to life. It was the story of a hockey lifer – Bruce Boudreau – who as a young man was drafted in 1975 by his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs as a prolific scorer, having amassed 152 goals and 213 assists in 183 games with the Toronto Marlboros. But from there, his career took a disappointing turn of sorts. He would make his NHL debut with the Maple Leafs two seasons later, appearing in 15 games for Toronto. But as it would turn out, he would never appear in more than 40 games with the Maple Leafs in parts of six seasons with the team. He would play a total of 134 games with the Leafs in the NHL and another seven in one season with the Chicago Black Hawks, totaling 28 goals and 42 assists in his 141 game NHL career.

He would, however, become something of the minor leagues’ equivalent of the fictional “Crash Davis” in the movie “Bull Durham” – a player of considerable accomplishment at the next tier level. In ten AHL seasons he would put together a career that would leave him today the 14th leading goal scorer in AHL history, 11th in assists, and 11th in total points. He was a 100-point scorer for five different teams in three different leagues, and is the eighth all-time leading scorer in minor league hockey history.

After finishing his playing career, Boudreau turned to coaching, and his success mirrored that of his playing days. And that wasn’t entirely a good thing. Starting in the 1993-1994 season with the Fort Wayne Komets of the International Hockey League, Boudreau would have an almost uninterrupted string of accomplishments. In 12 full seasons of coaching in the International Hockey League, the East Coast Hockey League, and the American Hockey League:

- He would have 11 seasons of finishing .500 or better.

- He would lead 11 teams to his league’s playoffs.

- He would win 40 or more games seven times.

- He would lead four teams to his league’s championship finals.

- He would win two championships – with the Mississippi Sea Wolves of the ECHL and with the Hershey Bears of the AHL.

- He would lead the Hershey Bears to consecutive trips to the league championship series in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007.

However, that added up to close to 1,000 regular season games behind the benches of teams in three different minor leagues (and almost 500 wins) with no indication that there was an NHL bench to patrol in his future. The opportunity would come when the Capitals, who had endured two difficult years after the lockout, were thought be some to be a potential dark horse playoff contender in 2007-2008. The Caps, however, didn’t just stumble out of the gate, they did a full face plant right in the middle of the track. They were 6-13-1 in their first 20 games going into a Thanksgiving-eve game against the Atlanta Thrashers. The Thrashers beat and beat up their hosts in as ugly a 5-1 loss as ugly as one would want to see.

A change had to be made to save some dignity for a season that in all likelihood had already been lost. So, the club relieved Glen Hanlon of his coaching responsibilities and gave Bruce Boudreau his long-coming first opportunity behind an NHL bench... a 6-14-1 team made up of youngsters and guys who were underachieving, mixed in with a recent experience of persistent losing. Oh, and your title has the word “interim” attached to it – good luck, Bruce.

It looked like a great move right off the bat as the Caps stormed out to a 3-0 lead against the Flyers in Philadelphia on the day after Thanksgiving. Not so fast… the Flyers did some storming of their own to tie the game late in the third period, but an overtime goal by rookie Nicklas Backstrom won the game for Boudreau. The new “interim” coach would improve on the Caps record in his first month on the job, but a 7-5-3 record from Thanksgiving to Christmas wasn’t dominating.

2008 would be another matter.

From January 1st through the end of the season, Boudreau managed the enterprise to a 28-12-3 finish, including an 11-1-0 record in the last half dozen games to clinch the first playoff spot for the Caps since the 2002-2003 season. Establishing a style that took advantage of the energy, skill, and talent in his young team, rather than stifling it under a defense-first system more reminiscent of the pre-lockout favored style, Boudreau’s team was as entertaining to watch as it was successful.

Boudreau was a favorite in other respects as well among fans for his plain-spoken, tell-it-like-it-is personal style. That he had the look of a somewhat rumpled, sartorially challenged coach who spent more than his share of time at the rink (we can identify with the rumpled part – we shop in that section of the men’s store) only added to his charm. His nickname – “Gabby” – was a product of his gift of gab. This was a hockey guy through and through.

His success in leading the Caps to the fantastic finish earned him a somewhat surprising, although entirely deserved selection as the Jack Adams Award winner for the 2007-2008 season as the league’s top coach. That success would hardly seem to have changed him. He still had the look of a hands-on, teaching sort of coach in running the Caps’ prospects through the summer development camp, and he even took a turn volunteering at the Hockey Resume Free Agent Camp in Canada in July (he would crack that he did it so his son wouldn’t have to pay…we’re not buying it, not entirely, anyway).

Boudreau then picked up more or less where he left off – leading a talented, if precocious team to a successful start to the season. With one game to go in calendar 2008, Boudreau has a 51-23-6 record. From being a high-scoring amateur to a somewhat unfulfilled professional career as a player, to years of toil and travel through the minor leagues of North America as a coach, he found himself – finally – behind an NHL bench when a lot of other coaches in his situation would simply have given up that dream. He made the most of his opportunity with a stern word here, a twinkle in his eye there, a well-place quip and a talent for coaching youngsters that was sorely needed in these parts. His year was truly “Capraesque” in the triumph of the underdog and was one of the top stories for the Caps in 2008.