Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Lightning, February 14th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s February 14th, and we all know what that means…

That’s right, on this date in 1896, Winnipeg defeated Montreal, 2-0, in the first successful challenge to the holder of the Stanley Cup.

We’re not making this up. And neither are we making up these holiday specials…

...a Richmond Renegades (ECHL) '00-'01 Ryan Van Buskirk St. Valentine's Day jersey

…Missouri River Otters Valentines Day Jersey, circa 2005

…Grand Rapids Griffins romance, 2007 version

…then there is the Seattle Thunderbirds version

…and you’d have to bet on there being a Las Vegas Thunder jersey in here somewhere.

But there is real hockey to be played this evening, and the Caps are visiting the Tampa Bay Lightning. And for those of you who have not been paying attention since the last time these clubs met, on New Years Day, the Lightning have become respectable. Their 9-8-1 record since losing to the Caps, 7-4, on January 1st is better than Pittsburgh (8-9-1), the New York Rangers (7-6-3), and Montreal (9-10-0) over the same period, to name three clubs you might not have thought of.

It might be too late for the Lightning, though, as they still trail eighth-place Buffalo by 15 points with 27 games to play. The hole they dug for themselves is evident in their numbers…

What the numbers show is that while Tampa is certainly not a very good team, neither are they awful, and that is the danger for the Caps (as it seems to be a lot with such teams).

What has led to a more successful 2009 portion of the regular season for the Lightning is their power play. Since their loss to the Caps, the Lightning have converted 16 of 73 power play opportunities (21.9 percent). That power play has accounted for more than 30 percent of the Lightning’s total goals in that time.

Unfortunately for the Lightning, how that power play goes seems to dictate their results. And that is where the Caps might be catching a break tonight. The Lightning are 2-4-1 in their last seven games, during which they have gone 5-for-34 on the power play (14.7 percent). More to the point, in games they have lost, they are 2-for-26 (7.7 percent). If the Caps can stay out of the box, it will help, but this is a power play that is struggling in any case at the moment.

Oddly enough, their penalty killing has been rather sturdy in the 2-4-1 streak they are on. In those games, the Lightning have not allowed more than one power play goal in any game and have killed 27 of 31 shorthanded situations (87.1 percent).

For Tampa Bay, though, the name might be less “Lightning” and more “Clearance Sale.” Players such as Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Vaclav Prospal have been mentioned in possible trades with less than three weeks to the trading deadline. One might expect Mark Recchi’s name to be included in such talk as well, and that would account for the top four scorers on this team. All of them have played in every Lightning game this year, and all of them seem to be playing, if not with an eye toward dragging the Lightning out of the nether reaches of the standings, then with an eye toward improving their attractiveness to potential trade suitors. Here are their results in the 19 games played in 2009:

If the Lightning are looking forward, then the players at the top of the list to focus on would be Ryan Malone and Steven Stamkos. Both had rocky starts to their seasons, but have put together decent 2009 portions to their seasons. Malone has ten goals in 19 games (just don’t look for helpers – he has but one assist), and Stamkos is 3-5-8, +3 in 16 games, which would not be such a bad pace for a 2008 draftee, except for all the hype in Tampa over his selection.

If Tampa has a glaring problem, it’s on the blue line. The Lightning have dressed 14 defensemen this year. Ten of them have played in at least 10 games (none have played in all 55 games). It’s been a revolving door. At the top of the heap – and this might speak volumes as to the problem – is former Cap Steve Eminger. In 53 games, Eminger leads the defense in goals (four…compared to 21 for Washington’s Mike Green), assists (18…compared to Green’s 28), and points (22…49 for Green).

As a group, the defense has a total of 27 power play points (5-22-27). Green has 24 by himself (the rest of the Caps’ defense has six, and that might be an issue for another discussion).

Things are not a lot better for the Lightning in goal. Five goaltenders have dressed for the Lightning this year, and former Cap Olaf Kolzig is done for the year with a Marty Brodeur (arm injury). Mike Smith has been as strong as can be in goal, given the circumstances, going 14-18-9, 2.62, .916, and two shutouts. Trouble is, he’s out. He had been playing through concussion symptoms for about six weeks before he informed the club, the original injury suspected to be the result of taking a shot off his mask against Edmonton on January 4th.

Mike McKenna will get the start. He’ll be making his first career start against the Caps, but he is 2-1-1, 2.21, .918 in five games so far this year.

Tampa will come into the game nicked up. In addition to Smith’s absence, Martin St. Louis was excused from practice yesterday for not feeling well. A number of other Lightning players – Recchi, Gary Roberts, Matt Smaby, and Cory Murphy – were excused from practice for what Lightning beat writer Damian Cristodero refers to as “body maintenance.”

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Tampa Bay: Mike McKenna

The Caps have scored 50 goals in the last 13 games they’ve played against Tampa Bay (3.85 per game). What’s more, in the last six games (4-1-1) Washington has scored 27 goals (4.50 per game), has scored fewer than four goals only once, and is 8-for-22 on the power play (36.4 percent). The whole Tampa Bay defense will have its work cut out for them in this one, but McKenna is the last, best hope to keep the Caps from turning the scoreboard into a pinball machine.

Washington: Michal Neuvirth

We’re betting Neuvirth gets his first career start against the Lightning tonight. His overall statistics at Hershey are not especially impressive – 4-3-2, 3.03, .890 – but in his last five games he was 2-1-2, 2.33, .917.

This could be one of those games that constitute goaltender abuse. The Lightning are catching the Caps as Washington is in the midst of one of their goal-scoring binges. The Caps could be starting a rookie goalie in his first NHL start. The subtext to this is Mike Green, who will be trying to set a modern record for defensemen in netting a goal in his eighth consecutive game.

He’ll do it, and he certainly won’t be alone. That January 1st score looks mighty tempting as a prognostication for this one…

Caps 7 – Lightning 4

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