Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Devils, October 12th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s crisis time in Capitals nation. The Caps have lost three in a row, an unheard of turn of events (psst… they lost four in a row last March).

OK, well, they had to have lost to really, really good teams (uh, no… they lost to Florida, 6-2, and they lost to Toronto, 2-1, in that streak).

Well, it had to be part of an off year (nope… they won 50 games and set a club record for standings points).

Well, really good teams don’t have those kinds of streaks (oh?... the Penguins twice had losing streaks of at least three games last year – including a five-game streak – and they won the Cup).

But if you want to be a “dynasty,” like the Red Wings, you can’t have that (hmm… then explain the five-game losing streak the Red Wings had last year, or two three game losing streaks they had in the last two weeks of the regular season last year, or the four losing streaks of at least three games in 2007-2008 – including a six-game losing streak – when they won the Cup).

But the Caps’ goaltending stinks (do you even read your own writing?).

Well, the coaching leaves something to be desired (what, exactly?... Bruce Boudreau is 89-43-16 in the regular season).

Well, George McPhee should be fired (uh-huh… what, for taking Nicklas Backstrom instead of Phil Kessel? For signing Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison? For drafting Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth?).

Well, Slapshot’s new look is ugly (no argument here…).

Huh..wha… was I sleeping? I was dreaming about a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other. And a big ugly bird in a hockey jersey… But anyway, tonight the New Jersey Devils visit the Caps as the Caps try to get off their three-game schneid. You would think that the Devils are not a good opponent against which to do that sort of thing. However, the Caps haven’t lost in regulation to the Devils at home since February 25, 2007, when the Caps dropped a 3-2 decision.

And, the Devils have had something of a dicey start of their own. New Jersey is 2-2-0, and oddly enough, the Devils are winless at home (losses to the Flyers and Rangers) and undefeated on the road (wins over Tampa Bay and Florida). But it is a different Devils team, to an extent.

If you compare the roster that skated for the Devils in the last game of the 2008-2009 season – a 4-3 loss to Carolina to close out the Eastern Conference quarterfinal – to the first game of this season, there were six newcomers among the skaters on the Devils’ roster on this year’s opening night:

Niklas Bergfors (who played in eight games with New Jersey last year)
Matt Halischuk (one game with New Jersey last season)
Cory Murphy (split time with Florida and Tampa Bay last year)
Rob Niedermayer (Anaheim)
Rod Pelley (with Lowell in the AHL last year)
Andrew Peters (Buffalo)

As a group, they are 2-2-4 (Niedermayer is 2-1-3), minus-7. You could say that the Devils can’t wait to get Patrik Elias back. Elias had arthroscopic groin surgery on September 15th and is due back with the club by late October. In the meantime, the Devils will have to depend on Travis Zajac, Zach Parise, and David Clarkson for their offense.

“David Clarkson,” you ask?

OK, Clarkson has more of a reputation as a brawler with 20 fights last season (seventh in the league) and 21 the year before (fifth), but he is tied for second with Parise in scoring for the Devils (1-3-4) and has points in each of his last three games, including the game-winning goal against Florida in the Devils’ last outing. And in fact, Clarkson is not merely a brawler. Last year he was 17-15-32 (including three game-winning goals) in playing all 82 games. You underestimate him at your own risk.

One does expect, however, scoring punch out of Zach Parise. The stunt double for Jonathan Taylor Thomas on “Home Improvement” has seen his goal scoring and point totals march forward in each of his four NHL seaons – 14, 31, 32, and 45 goals; 32, 62, 65, and 94 points. And, he’s been durable. In those four seasons he’s missed a total of two games. In 16 career games against the Caps, Parise is 4-8-12, even.

Caps fans might be forgiven if they think of the 2004 entry draft as the draft of Alex Ovechkin, but Travis Zajac was one of four centers taken in the first round of that draft. None have played in more NHL games, not even Evgeni Malkin. You could say that it was a weak class for centers once you got past Malkin, but Zajac has quietly become an offensive cornerstone for the Devils. In three full NHL seasons he’s improved is goals scored from 17 to 20 and his total points from 42 to 62. He’s also been durable, missing only a total of two games in three NHL seasons. Against the Caps, he is 3-5-8, plus-6 in 12 career games.

On defense, the Devils have no one who will put up flashy numbers. No defenseman among the seven who have dressed has a goal this season, and this group has averaged – on an 82-game basis – 4-16-20 for their careers. It isn’t a big hitting group, as these things go, either. Colin White led the team in hits last year with 126, but that was only good for 37th among defensemen in the league. Bryce Salvador was the only other Devils defenseman with more than 100 hits.

OK, they don’t score, they don’t hit. What do they do? Well, they play smart. Paul Martin had the most giveaways among Devils defensemen last year with 43. That was tied for 66th among defensemen. Another way of looking at it – the Devils’ top two defensemen in giveaways (Paul Martin and Mike Mottau) combined for 83 giveaways. Mike Green had 95 for the Caps.

If the Devils don’t play loose with the puck, it makes it that much harder to get quality chances against goaltender Martin Brodeur. Until last season, Brodeur was the league’s iron man in goal. From the 1995-1996 season through 2008-2009, Brodeur topped 4,000 minutes played in 11 of 12 seasons. He had more decisions in overtime in that period than his backups had total appearances.

Then he had his first major injury, a torn biceps tendon in his catching arm. He missed 16 weeks, but upon his return he posted two shutouts in his first three games back. You’d think he hadn’t missed a beat. Well, not so fast. Since that second shutout – a 3-0 blanking of the Flyers on March 1st – Brodeur seems a bit more mortal. Including playoffs, he is 13-11-1, 2.79, .912 since March 1st. Is he enough of a mortal for the Caps to take a bite out of his 33-12-4, 2.08 GAA career record against them?

The Caps, contrary to what you might see in other spaces, are a good team – a very good one, in fact… when they want to be. The days of tolerating the odd week of inconsistent effort and iffy results is over, that is… if this team really wants to be a Stanley Cup contender. Teams have slumps, it happens. But the really elite teams do not have the sort of self-inflicted slumps that come with “ok” -- or worse -- play. Against the Bruins and Red Wings the Caps played good hockey against quality opposition. New Jersey qualifies as “good opposition” and should have the Caps’ full attention. If they do, the Caps can solve Brodeur enough while limiting the less offensively skilled Devils in their opportunities.

Sounds like a plan.

Caps 3 – Devils 2

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