It’s desperation Tuesday, which follows desperation Sunday. Why? Well, if Florida was a team desperate to hold onto a playoff spot (they are sixth in the East) on Sunday, then tonight’s opponent – the Carolina Hurricanes – is desperate times two. Carolina visits Verizon Center on the wrong side of the playoff mix, currently standing tenth in the Eastern Conference. What makes this worse for the Capitals is that for as often as they have seen Carolina this year (the teams haven’t met since December 7th), the Hurricanes might as well be a Western Conference team…and you know how the Caps have fared against Western Conference teams this year (if you don’t, they are 7-10-0).
“Why so cheerless, Peerless? You sound like Mopey over here…”
Hey, cuz. Guess it’s just the anxiety over the last 18 game-stretch of the season, the trading deadline, the snow in my driveway, taxes due in a month…
“Whoa, whoa, whoa…you’re so down, you make me sound like freakin’ Stuart Smalley.”
Let’s not be silly, Cheerless…but what brings you guys here?
“It’s the holidays, cuz! Trading Deadline Day! It’s like Christmas without the egg nog and wrapping paper. Gotta spend it with family.”
I appreciate the sentiment, but don’t you think the Mike Milbury mask is a bit much?
“Sorry…just getting into the whimsical spirit of things.”
So, do you guys see any deals for the Caps?
“You mean like the Bill Guerin un-trade?”
“I didn’t bring my magic 8-ball with me, but…”
“I got it right here, cuz.”
“Cheerless, you’re useful for something other than making beer runs after all…”
OK, so let’s ask a question…Will Michael Nylander be a Cap at sundown on Wednesday?
Will the Caps get a pick, a prospect, or a player?
Let’s try this another way…will the Caps get a defenseman for the stretch run?
You’re not very good at this, are you?
This isn’t going well…ok, how about this…will the Caps land Chris Pronger?
Did I say something funny?
OK, let’s try something simple…will the Caps win tonight?
OK, fine…as for tonight’s game, the Caps come in – stop us if you’ve heard this before – as the superior team in just about all of the numbers…
Carolina is one of those teams in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts. They have one player in the top-50 in scoring (Ray Whitney: T-47th), one player in the top-50 in goal scoring (Eric Staal: T-12th), no player in the top-100 in plus-minus (Patrick Eaves: T-111th). Their top goalie – Cam Ward – is only 20th in GAA and tied for 24th in save percentage.
But the Hurricanes are a team that still has managed to hang around the periphery of the playoff picture, mainly by being thoroughly and consistently mediocre of record. The Hurricanes have one losing streak of more than three games this year (five games, January 8 – 17) and one winning streak of more than three games (four games, Dec. 31 – January 6). Otherwise, this is a team that lurches from a couple of wins here to a couple of losses there.
For February, Carolina was – typically – 7-6-0. Perhaps as typically, they scored as often as their opponents – 39 goals for and against. The odd part about that is, eight of the 13 games played in February were settled by at least three goals (Carolina was 5-3-0 in such games). Although they finished as more or less a .500 team, they were either very good or very bad in doing it.
Special teams in February were just as middle-of-the-road for Carolina. The Hurricanes were 11-for-61 on the power play (18.0 percent) and 40-for-50 in penalty killing (80.0 percent). It’s worth noting in there that Carolina managed to draw 11 more man advantages than they yielded. In fact, in their last five games, they have drawn 29 man advantages compared to 13 shorthanded situations. Had they converted more than four times (13.8 percent) on those 29 power play opportunities, they might have improved on their 3-2-0 record in those games.
Looking at the top scorers for Carolina, one is struck by one thing – they are, as a group, not very good at even strength. Ray Whitney, Eric Staal, Tuomo Ruutu, Sergei Samsonov, Matt Cullen, and Rod Brind’Amour are the Hurricanes’ top six scorers. All have at least 30 points this year, but as a group they are a minus-51. Only Cullen is on the plus side of the ledger, and three of them are a minus-10 or worse. Brind’Amour is -30, which makes him next to last in the league in that measure (Brendan Witt coming in last at -31).
It’s not as if this is a dynamic team on the power play, either, to make up for even strength shortcomings. Ray Whitney leads the Hurricanes in power play scoring at 3-16-19. By way of comparison, the Capitals have three players with at least 30 power play points (Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Mike Green). They might have a fourth, but for the fact that Alexander Semin (22 power play points in 45 games) has missed 19 games to injury.
What Carolina gets that the Capitals do not is balanced scoring from the blue line. Mike Green is having a tremendous year (56 points to lead all NHL defensemen), but no other Washington defenseman has as many as 15 points (Milan Jurcina and Tom Poti have 13, apiece). Carolina has three defensemen with at least 20 points (Joe Corvo, Joni Pitkanen, and Dennis Seidenberg), and Anton Babchuk has 19.
Meanwhile, Cam Ward is giving every indication that his Conn Smythe-winning performance in the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs might be his high-water mark as an NHL goalie. This isn’t to say he’s a bad goalie, but neither is he the great one that people might have expected on the heels of that special post-season. His 2.58 GAA (20th among 43 ranked goalies in the NHL) and .909 save percentage (tied for 24th among 43 ranked goalies) put him squarely in the middle of the pack of the goalie rankings.
As for backups, Michael Leighton started well – 4-1-0 in his first five decisions. But he is 2-5-2 since, and in three of his last four appearances, dating back to January 10th, he has been little more than a mop-up reliever for sub-par performances by Ward.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Carolina: Rod Brind’Amour
Brind’Amour’s career numbers against the Capitals are very different than his numbers this year. In 94 career games, he is 38-42-80, +18, with eight game-winning and three game-tying goals. Compare those last numbers to what he has this year: minus-30 and one game-winning goal among only eight goals he has this year. If Carolina is going to make a push, one might think it will start with the captain, and it couldn’t start at a better time for the Hurricanes than against a team Brind’Amour has had success against in his career.
Washington: Mike Green
Since setting the record for consecutive games with a goal among defensemen in NHL history, Green has but a single goal in eight games. Not that he’s been shy about shooting, he has 36 shots in those games. But he’s come up dry, and it seems to have affected him in other ways. While he was a plus-10 in the eight games of his streak, he is minus-4 in eight games since and hasn’t been on the plus side of the ledger since a plus-1 against Florida on February 15th. He is getting points on the power play (five in those last eight games), but appears to be in something of a slump at the moment.
If the Caps have been long since playing the Hurricanes, they will more than reacquaint themselves with Carolina shortly. The teams will meet three times in the next ten games of the Capitals’ schedule, two of them at Verizon Center. The time for unfocused, inconsistent play is over. If the Caps really are that elite team that is going to make a Stanley Cup push needs to do better than the 3-3-0 placeholder they’ve put up in the last half dozen games. We’d like to think they can muster enough effort to weather the Hurricanes…
Caps 4 – Hurricanes 2