Monday, November 30, 2009

A TWO-point night: Caps 3 - Hurricanes 2


It is the worst picture Caps fans can conceive of, and not even a 3-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes tonight can erase the image of Alex Ovechkin being helped off the ice on one leg after crumpling to the ice as a result of a knee-on-knee hit with Carolina’s Tim Gleason in the first period.

The injury to Ovechkin cast a dark cloud over some fine performances for the Caps tonight. To wit…

Nicklas Backstrom had a three-point night, his first multi-point night since November 7th and the most points he’s recorded in a game since a four-point night against Philadelphia on October 27th. He also won 12 of 23 draws and was not deemed guilty by the official scorer of a turnover.

Jose Theodore stopped 37 of the first 38 shots he faced and 38 of 40 overall to give his skaters some comfort and stability as they were dealing with Ovechkin’s absence. He single-handedly kept the Caps in it early as Carolina outshot the Caps 13-1 in the first 7:18, Theodore stopping 12 of them.

David Steckel… he’s still without a goal this season, but he had an interesting night, nevertheless. Steckel lost his first seven draws, then won 11 in a row before finishing 11-for-21. It was the 25th time in 27 tries that he finished a game with at least 50 percent wins on faceoffs.

Other stuff…

- Think injuries are becoming a problem? The Caps’ top line at the end of the game was Tomas Fleischmann-Nicklas Backstrom-Alexandre Giroux.

- For Eric Fehr, it was the best of times and the worst of times. Fehr had a goal and an assist (that makes four goals in three games). He also took two high-sticking penalties in the third period (of four third period penalties the Caps took).

- Don’t look now, but Ovechkin leads the league in game misconduct penalties (two).

- How is Ovechkin’s absence felt? Here is one way – the Caps had only four shots on goal on five power plays. By way of comparison, Carolina had 12 shots on seven power plays.

- Alexandre “Chauncey Gardner” Giroux… less than ten minutes, plus-3, and an assist.

- Jeff Schultz, five blocked shots in almost 18 minutes. Overall, 12 Caps had blocked shots.

- Tim Gleason has a rather eventful night for Carolina. Not only was he the recipient of the Ovechkin knee, after he missed a couple of shifts he finished the night with four shots (seven attempts), four hits, three blocked shots, and two penalties (a misconduct and a minor). All that was missing was the partridge in the pear tree.

- Eric Staal had 17 shot attempts for Carolina (almost a third of the attempts the Caps had – 59), but only two in the last 14 minutes of the game (both in the last two minutes).

- Carolina was credited with 45 hits. Seven Hurricanes were credited with at least four. Stormy the Pig (described as a “furry ball of fun” on the ‘Canes’ web site) had eight of them… we think.

- Much as we liked Nicky’s performance tonight, Theodore was the number one star.

- Well, the Caps spread it around… seven players shared in the nine penalties (seven minors, a major, and a game misconduct).

- Satchel Paige once said (although he probably wasn’t the first), “don't look back, something may be gaining on you.” Well, Atlanta is now in fifth place in the conference, seven points behind Washington and Pittsburgh, and they have three games in hand on the Caps, four on the Penguins.

- Three teams from the Southeast are in the top-eight (Tampa Bay being the other one). Go figure.

- Tomas Flesichmann had a pair of layups on his stick tonight and could convert neither of them. You’d think he was playing for the Wizards.

- Attendance was officially recorded as 12,797 at the RBC Center. It looked on TV like a Caps game at Verizon Center… from say, 2006.

- The seven power plays the Caps surrendered was the most since allowing eight to Atlanta on October 22nd. It was only the second time this month that they gave up more than five, the other time being on the first day of the month, to Columbus. It was the first time they gave up more than four since November 4th.

- You like consistency? The Caps finished October 8-2-3; they finished November 8-3-3.

- December will be a bear. Eight of 13 games are on the road, including a western swing to Colorado, Vancouver, and Edmonton in the middle of the month, then out to San Jose to close the year.

All in all, if a Caps fan had to trade two points for a healthy Ovechkin, it would be the easiest choice in the history of earth. But for now, all Caps Nation can do is wait for the injury verdict, not to mention the league's for the kneeing penalty (although after the game, Tarik El-Bashir reported in the Washington Post seeing Ovechkin walking with a limp, but without brace or crutch). As of tonight, the Caps are without their first, sixth and seventh leading scorers (Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Mike Knuble). They are without two top-six defensemen (Tom Poti, Shaone Morrisonn). They are without two important penalty killers (Boyd Gordon, Quintin Laing). That is almost half of what would be the usual complement of skaters for the Caps.

Ugh…

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Go to the polls


Seems there is a "blog-off" underway sponsored by the fine folks over at NHL Arena.

So get out and vote... early and often.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Hurricanes, November 20th

The Peerless Prognosticator is BACK ON THE AIR!!!

The Turkey Day weekend is winding down, and after gorging ourselves silly on turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and all the usual suspects lurking on dinner tables at this time of year, we are back to prognosticating on the Capitals, who will be visiting the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh tonight. The Hurricanes have had a tough…

“Is the coast clear?”

Ugh… we must have had too many drumsticks. Now we’re seeing a talking turkey…

“The name is ‘Courage.’”

“Courage?” What sort of name is that for a turkey?

You should have seen what they named the other one…”

The other one?

“Yeah, that guy who lives in the big white house pardoned two of us this year. The other one was named, ‘Carolina.’”

Really?

“Yeah, must have been named after the hockey team… Hurricanes… five wins, 21 losses… turkey…”

Ah, obviously. So, you were pardoned?

“Yeah, then they wanted to send us to Disneyland and ride in a parade, then send us to something called ‘Santa’s Reindeer Round-Up.’”

So, what’s wrong with that?

“Hey, Einstein… what do you think happens to turkeys after Christmas and the ol’ round up moves on?”

Hmmm… never thought of that.

“Well, Carolina and I… we decided we were bustin’ out of that place faster than you could say, ‘pass the gravy.’”

So where’s Carolina?

“I dunno, man. She went nuts… she went all gobbler on me and took off. Now I’m on the most-wanted list, and not just for my delicious giblets. But it was the dame.”

And now you’ve flown the coop, as it were.

“Funny… yeah, and I need a place to hide out.”

And you’ve picked a hockey arena?

“Hey, these guys are 25th in attendance. Besides, they’re into that whole pork barbecue thing down here. Hiding out here is like being in the witness protection program. No one’s going to find me here.”

The Capitals find themselves in Carolina tonight to end the month of November. In one of the quirks of NHL scheduling, the Caps are in Raleigh to face the Hurricanes for the first time this season in the 27th game on the schedule. In fact, the Caps have played more games against the Western Conference so far (3-1-1 record) than they have against their fellow Southeast Division clubs (4-0-0). So, some catching up is in order. The Hurricanes are 5-16-5 for 15 standings points. That puts them on a pace for a 16-50-16 season (48 points). At that pace, Carolina would…

- Finish with the fewest wins in Hurricanes’ history (previous: 22 in 2002-2003)

- Finish with the fewest standings points in Hurricane’s history (previous: 61 in 2002-2003)

- Finish with the fewest wins in the history of the franchise (previous: 19, twice – in 1982-1983 and 1994-1995, both in Hartford, and the latter was in a shortened 48-game season)

- Finish with the lowest point total for a full season since 1982-1983 (45 points on a 19-54-7 record) and second-worst for a full season in franchise history.

Carolina does not come upon its record by accident, as the numbers indicate…


The Caps come into this game with four players on injured reserve and two more (Morrisonn and Poti) listed as “questionable.” For the Hurricanes, goalie Cam Ward is on IR, and the others range from questionable to indefinite. Health is an issue for both teams.

Health aside, though, Carolina has had a brutal season. Keep in mind, this is a team that reached the conference finals in last year’s playoffs, beating a hall of fame goaltender (New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur) and the top team in the East in the regular season (Boston) to get there. But perhaps that conference final – one in which the Hurricanes were dispatched in four games by a combined score of 20-9 – was a harbinger of things to come...

- Carolina has not won consecutive games in regulation this year, and they have won consecutive games only twice of any sort (a 2-1 Gimmick win over Tampa Bay on October 6th followed by a 7-2 win over Florida on October 9th, then a 6-5 Gimmick win over Toronto on November 19th followed by a 3-1 win over Tampa on November 21st).

- They have one win in regulation time since October 9th.

- The Hurricanes have a 14-game winless streak to their credit this year.

- They are nursing a four-game losing streak at present in which they have been outscored 16-7.

- They have eight losses by at least three goals, only one three-goal win (that October 9th game against Florida).

- They have allowed five or more goals on ten occasions this year (record: 1-9-0); they have allowed two or fewer goals only twice in their last 19 games.

- They have only three games this season in which they have more than one power play goal; they are 6-for-61 (9.8 percent) for November.

- They have five players worse than a minus-10 for the season (that would be five of the worst dozen in the league in that statistic going into Sunday’s play); they have one player with at least 20 games played who is a plus player (Stephane Yelle, plus-1 in 24 games).

- The two goalies left with Cam Ward on the shelf – Michael Leighton and Manny Legace – are a combined 3-7-2, 3.72, .869.

- No Hurricane has more than 15 points (the Caps have six players with more than that total); no Hurricane has more than six goals (five Caps have more than that number).

- They have outscored by a whopping 40-18 in the third period of games this year.

The devil (or Hurricane) you know…

Rod Brind’Amour

Season: 26 games, 2-6-8, -17, 16 PIMS
Last five games: 0-1-1, +1, 4 PIMs
Career vs. Caps: 97 games, 39-42-81, 87 PIMs

Rod Brind’Amour built a long and noteworthy NHL career as a sturdy two-way forward. In 20 NHL seasons coming into this one, he’s averaged almost 70 points per 82 games played. He also has two Selke Trophies on his resume as top NHL defensive forward. But he’s coming to the end. Perhaps it was the torn knee ligament that ended his 2007-2008 season after 59 games; perhaps it is age (he is 39) and wear (he has 1,430 regular season games played, plus another 159 playoff games). But Brind’Amour is a minus-40 in his last 106 games after returning from his injury, and the scoring pace he is on – 6-19-25 – would be his lowest over a full season of his career. He hasn’t had a goal since October 10th (21 games) and has only five assists over that span. His ice time has been cut back, too. Coming out of the lockout, here is how his ice time has progressed…

2005-2006: 24:17 (1st among Hurricane forwards)
2006-2007: 23:19 (1st)
2007-2008: 22:27 (1st)
2008-2009: 18:58 (3rd)
2009-2010: 17:05 (5th)

He does, however, remain one of the top faceoff specialists in the league, but here too, he has slipped. After finishing in the top five in faceoff winning percentage in each of the first four years after the lockout and never finishing with lower than a 58.3 percent winning percentage, he currently ranks 11th with 55.8 percent wins.

The Hurricane you might not know…

Brandon Sutter

Season: 17 games, 6-4-10, -4, 0 PIMs
Last five games: 1-0-1, -3, 0 PIMs
Career vs. Caps: 2 games, 0-0-0, -1, 0 PIMs

A Sutter with no penalty minutes? Considering that his father (Brent) and uncles (Brian, Darryl, Duane, Rich, and Ron) amassed a total of 7,224 penalty minutes in a combined 4,994 NHL games, you’d have to chalk up the younger Sutter’s numbers to the current NHL really being a different game. But the younger Sutter has shown a scoring touch. Since he was recalled from Albany on October 24th, he has six goals in 17 games, which ties him for the team lead in goals scored. He has slowed down a bit, having scored only one goal in his last six contests, part of it due no doubt to a reduction in ice time (averaging about 16 minutes a game over his last five after averaging just under 20 minutes in his previous seven starts).

In goal, you’d have to wonder, does it matter? Neither Michael Leighton nor Manny Legace has given comfort to Hurricane fans that they can keep the nets clean in the absence of Cam Ward, still out after sustaining a lacerated leg in a 3-2 loss at Columbus on November 7th. But there has been a glimmer of hope in the form of Manny Legace. Legace – signed only on November 9th – appeared in six consecutive games for the Hurricanes (2-3-1, 2.82, .907), starting with a relief appearance against Montreal on November 17th, before giving way to Michael Leighton in Carolina’s last game (a 5-1 loss at Buffalo in which the Hurricanes suffered a five-goals-in-barely-twelve-minute third-period meltdown).

Keys:

1. Remember…it’s a rivalry. With apologies to Caps coach Bruce Boudreau and Atlanta’s John Anderson -- pals and rivals though they be -- the Capitals-Hurricanes matchup is as close to a rivalry as there is for the Capitals in the Southeast Division. Since the lockout, Carolina is 17-11-2 against the Capitals, 10-4-1 at home. It might be valuable to recall that two years ago on this date, the Hurricanes also hosted the Caps at home and with the Caps mired at the bottom of the conference standings, Carolina barely held on for a 4-3 win. There are no easy ones.

2. Make the first period the fourth period… of the Buffalo game, that is. Carolina has had a couple of days to stew in that five-goal meltdown at Buffalo. One would expect they will want to rid themselves of that memory with a fast start against the Caps in front of the home folks. If the Caps can get out fast, then it might look a little too much like the end of the Sabres game for comfort for the home team.

3. Stand on their throats. The Hurricanes are an awful third period team. When you are outscored by 40-18 in the third period of games, you deserve that adjective, “awful.” But the Caps have been too tame with clubs, guilty of sloppy play – especially with respect to taking penalties – in the third period of games this year. The Hurricanes don’t seem able to convert the gifts they get in terms of man advantages (6-for-61 in November on the power play), but why tempt fate. Show the killer instinct.

Two years ago, Carolina came into their November 30th game against the Caps with a 13-9-3 record, the Caps at 8-15-2. Carolina won the game, 4-3, but lost the war as the Capitals put on their memorable push to pass Carolina for the divisional crown and a playoff spot. History is not likely to repeat itself in terms of a Carolina resurgence, but there is little reason to give the Hurricane faithful hope.

Capitals 5 – Hurricanes 2

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An Institution

Washington is, in the eyes of many, a city of institutions. The great houses that anchor the image of the ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, the great museums, the monuments, the edifices of stone and glass that house the agencies of Government.

But there have been two other great institutions in the recent history of this city that perhaps only locals can appreciate. They could not have been more different than those two great institutions that stand at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. One – Jack Kent Cooke, was flamboyant almost to a fault. He was the owner of a local sports team who would hold forth on every Sunday looking on from his private box with an aristocratic air as his burgundy and gold charges galvanized a region. In more than a quarter century he ran the club, the Washington Redskins would know their greatest successes and would become the common thread that united an entire community, regardless of color or class. But although Cooke was an outsized character in life; what he left behind has somehow been diminished in his absence. The monument built to his name is not revered by local fans as was the rickety predecessor in which they had their greatest successes. The town he conjured up as its home is no longer called by name. The team he owned has fallen on hard times, at least on the field.

The other local institution is Abe Pollin, a man who seemed no less determined to succeed, both in business and in sport, but one who applied that determination in very different ways. Mr. Pollin passed away yesterday. He did so having built a legacy in his adopted home town that will long outlive him. He was of the community, a part of it, not above it, and it was reflected in his innumerable charitable pursuits and his devotion to the teams he would bring to Washington. Fans of hockey in this region would later complain that the Washington Capitals were the neglected stepchild, relegated to lesser status to that of his beloved Bullets (later the Wizards) basketball team. We can only think such a charge hurt Pollin, given his incredible devotion to his city and its people.

Whether the charge is fair or not is another discussion. But Pollin seemed more a business man rooted in another era, a man who seemed less an anonymous corporate manager but rather a mom-and-pop store owner writ large. Some might see that as a fault. We see it otherwise, for it implies a simple devotion to the local community and to the people who are employed by that firm. He had the resources to devote to bring two professional sports teams to Washington, to allow its residents to swell their chests with pride that first the Bullets, which he brought to Washington from Baltimore, and then the Capitals, which he brought here when the National Hockey League expanded in 1974, were “their team.” It seemed for him, personal as well as “business.” And, unlike those modern professional sports teams who use the towns in which they reside as pawns to leverage ever sweeter deals for new stadiums, Pollin would later build his own arena downtown (after city officials balked at the prospect of doing so) to house his teams.

Pollin’s was not an uninterrupted path of success in managing sports franchises. His teams won little during his tenure, save for an NBA championship, and he could be, even for public consumption appear out of touch and cranky about his teams and his management style. But what he leaves behind is a city that is better for his efforts. While our attention is on the hockey team he brought here and subsequently sold, sports teams are perhaps the least of his legacy. The lives of many Washingtonians have been made better for his efforts, and a section of the city long left neglected has been raised up largely through his work and resources.

The other great institution of recent Washington sports history has passed – one of its great civic institutions. It is an incredible void he leaves in the Washington community that will be long in filling.

Thank you, Abe.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Sabres, November 25th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s Turkey Week. No, we’re not referring to the Caps’ 1-2-2 record in their last five games. We’re referring to that most American of holidays, Thanksgiving, where families gather around the table to give thanks for the NFL Network. And The Peerless is no different. We’ll be gathering around the table with our cousins to share in this year’s bounty, which, as you might imagine, is a little different than what you might usually find on a Turkey Day table.

“Why, I’m hurt cuz.”

Cheerless... I thought you’d be getting ready for Thanksgiving.

“I was, but that dang fool Fearless decided he was going to cook dinner, and he told me t’git out and take my can o’ turkey Spam with me.”

You weren’t planning on having turkey Spam, were you?

“Well, not by itself, cuz. I got more taste than that. Git it? Taste?...”

Yeah, I get it. So, what did you have planned to go with the, uh... entree?

“Well, there’s sweet-taters fried up in raccoon fat with marshmallow fluff. And then there’s sugar-baked groundhog with maple surrp. Oh, an’ there’s critter-stuffed taters with turnips.”

Wait, “critter-stuffed?”

“Yeah, we always has a surprise dish for the kids. An’ we got kettle cooked owl mush with pickled biscuits, an’ fer dessert, sugar-baked woodpecker pudding with oiled-up huckleberry…”

I’m amazed that Feerless would be able to improve on that…

“That’s what I said, but he said we needed to have a so-fisteecated Thanksgiving."

And what’s his idea of a menu?

“Git this… free range turkey medallions with pomegranate glaze. Whut in tarnation is that? Free range? Shoot, we got free range turkeys out in back. We call ‘em ‘buzzards.’”

Well that doesn’t sound so bad.

“Oh, and what’s with ‘wood-fired’ roasted baby turnips with rosemary and fennel fronds?... wood fired? Ain’t that how we cook all our meals? Out back on a wood fire? And what the $#@% is a ‘frond?!’”

Well…

“And can somebody tell me what ‘brined tofu and razor clam dressing’ is?”

Cuz?

“Yeah?”

You still got that can of turkey Spam?

Before we sit down with a can opener and a fork to celebrate the holiday, there is hockey yet to be played. And tonight it will be the Caps and the Buffalo Sabres in the annual Turkey Day Eve game at Verizon Center. The Caps come home limping, 1-2-2 in their last five games. It’s not as if the Sabres are lighting up the league either, as they visit DC having lost their last three games (0-2-1), giving up six goals to Florida and five to Ottawa in doing so. This could be a contest of the resistible force meeting the moveable object. The overall numbers for the two teams look like this…



What has been remarkable about the Sabres’ three game slide is that Ryan Miller has been in goal for two of them, giving up seven goals on 49 shots. Still, he tops the NHL leader board in goals against average (1.97) and is second in save percentage (.931). It is a reflection of the amazing start he’s had that he could have a slip in the last two games and maintain such a lofty ranking. He got there by virtue of the fact that in 17 appearances this year he has allowed more than two goals only four times, and he has given up more than three goals only twice. He is 9-3-0, 2.64 in 13 career appearances against the Caps and has allowed two or fewer goals seven times.

Buffalo has struggled with offense lately. The Sabres have not scored more than three goals in a game since October 28th, a span of 11 games and counting. In those games, the Sabres are 5-5-1, cooling off considerable from their 7-1-1 start and putting more pressure on their goaltending. They have been outscored 33-23 in those 11 games.

Thomas Vanek started the season as if he was going to blast past his career high in goals (43 in 2006-2007). He had four in his first five games. Then he went nine games with only one goal to show for it. He does, however, have two in his last four games, but there are a couple of other numbers that are a bit odd and not too flattering. First, Vanek doesn’t have an even-strength goal since October 21st (that was the last in his four-in-five run). Yet he remains the Sabres’ top goal scorer (seven). Second, he is minus-8 in his last five games, a product of being on the ice for 10 of the 17 goals allowed by Buffalo in those five games. In 16 career games against the Caps, he is 6-5-11.

Vanek might not be the forward causing the greatest concern. After arriving in Buffalo in 2002-2003 from Edmonton, Jochen Hecht was a reliable, if not flashy producer for the Sabres. In his first five seasons in Buffalo, he was 84-141-225 in 328 games (21-35-56 per 82 games). But last year, he was 12-15-27 in 70 games and finished on the minus side of the ledger for the first time as a Sabre (minus-9). This year, he is only 2-2-4, minus-2 in 20 games, with one point in November (a goal in a 3-1 win over Edmonton on November 11th).

On defense, the story is Tyler Myers. The 12th overall pick in the 2008 draft has played in all 20 games for the Sabres and is tied for sixth on the team in scoring (tops among defensemen). Like many of the Sabres, he has slowed down some recently (0-1-1, minus-3 in his last six games). He remains a rock on the blue line, though, ranking second among defensemen in ice time and having logged more than 20 minutes in 14 straight games dating back to October 21st. He is also tops in goals among Buffalo blueliners, tied with Henrik Tallinder for the top spot in assists, tops in hits, tied for the top spot in blocked shots, and is the tallest defenseman in the league not named “Chara” (6’8”). He is certainly holding his own with 2008 defenseman classmates Drew Doughty, Zach Bogosian, and Luke Schenn (and yes, John Carlson is a member of that class).

Keys…

1. Turkeys belong on the dinner table. The Caps not only have struggled with results – that 1-2-2 record in their last five games – they’ve played badly in important stretches of games. There have been too many turkeys in this run. They allowed five unanswered goals to New Jersey after getting out to a 2-0 lead. They lost at home to an offensively-challenged Montreal team. They lost to arguably the worst team and the worst goaltender in the league at the time in the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vesa Toskala. They gagged on a 3-1 third period lead in losing to Ottawa, 4-3 in overtime. The Caps probably don’t even want to see turkey on Thursday. They’ve had enough. Certainly their fans have.

2. Young gun misfires. Alex Ovechkin… 2-1-3 in his last six games. Nicklas Backstrom… 0-1-1 in his last six games. Caps… 2-2-2 in their last six games. See a connection? With the Caps nursing injuries down the roster, these two need to break out of what, for them, passes for a slump.

3. Third period smarts. Three times in the last four games the Caps have taken three minor penalties in the third period. In 24 games they have taken 41 minors (of 94 total) in the third period. Hey, here’s a thought. STOP IT!

If the Caps can put the Sabres on their heels and make them take chances, if Nick and Alex can get some points, if the Caps grow a brain in the third period, they should take home two points. C’mon guys, save the turkey for Thursday.

Caps 4 – Sabres 2

* We’ll be out for a few days to let the turkey – the Thanksgiving turkey, that is – digest. Have a happy and safe holiday, and we’ll see you in a few days.

Heaven... I'm in Heaven

And my heart beats ‘cuz there’s little time to pack,
And there seem to be too many guys to whack,
When we play on nights when games are back-to-back.


This is a season that is compressed because of the long Olympic Games break, which will carve a chunk of the schedule out from February 15th through February 28th. That being the case, back-to-back games will figure prominently this season. Let’s take a look at what has transpired to date…

Overall

On a pure win-loss basis, chances are you are going to lose that second game of a back-to-back. Teams, regardless of how they start a back-to-back set, are 49-64 in the second game of back-to-back sets (extra-time losses counted as losses). But if you look harder, you find that teams – again, regardless of how they start a back-to-back set – have earned points in 67 of the 113 games in the second half of the sets played so far. It’s all in your perspective (and, how you feel about the Bettman Guide to Standings Points).

But one thing you will find that is rather consistent in back-to-back games so far. Those teams who play them have been very successful in the first half of the set. Overall, teams playing back-to-back games are 60-38-15 in the first game of the set. As you might expect, teams are more successful over all if the first game is a home game (22-10-6) then if it is an away game (38-28-9). Here is how the sets breakdown into their four categories overall:



Home/Home Sets

First of all, there haven’t been many home/home back-to-backs played by NHL teams thus far – only nine in 113 total back-to-back sets. And if you think winning that first game of a home/home set gives the home team a big advantage in the second, you would be wrong (but it is a small sample size). Seven times the home team won the first game, and only three times have they completed the sweep. Here is how the home/home sets break down:



Some other tidbits about the home/home sets…

- No team lost both ends of the set in regulation. Only Atlanta failed to get a win out of a set, losing in regulation then in extra time on October 21-22.

- Only two teams lost the first game of a home/home back-to-back. Atlanta and New Jersey. Curiously enough, New Jersey’s loss in a home-home set was to Atlanta on October 16th.


Home/Away Sets

Teams playing one night at home, and then having to travel through the night (or early the next morning) would seem to have the biggest intuitive disadvantage in any of the back-to-back types. You’re tired, you often have to rush out of your building to get to an airplane, check into a hotel, sleep in a strange bed, and then skate 60 minutes in front of a hostile crowd the following night.

Well, it hasn’t been the disadvantage you might have expected. Teams have lost 16 of 29 “second” games in those sets (12 of them in regulation). But as a function of percentage of available standings points won, teams playing home/away sets played to a .517 winning percentage. And it doesn’t appear to matter much whether one wins, loses, or goes to extra time in that home half of the back-to-back. You have a roughly even chance of picking up at least a point in that second game on the road, although you do have slightly higher incidences of taking a loss. Here is how the home away sets break down:



Some other tidbits…

- There have been seven sweeps of the home/away sets. New Jersey is the only club so far to have done it twice, and they accomplished the feat in a single week, winning on November 6-7 (Islanders-at Ottawa) and again on November 11-12 (Anaheim-at Pittsburgh). They came in the midst of an eight-game winning streak for the Devils.

- Four teams dropped both ends of a home-away set in regulation (Buffalo, Carolina, Florida, and Detroit, although the Detroit instance was one of those overseas sets).


Away/Home Sets

Getting home to your own bed and skating on your own ice after getting home from the road matters more than the home/away split, but perhaps not all that much. Teams are 16-15 on a pure win-loss basis in games on their own ice following a night on the road (.565 on a winning percentage of available points basis). It hardly seems to matter whether they won or lost that first game, either, on a win-loss basis. Here is how those games break down so far:



Teams do, however, appear to do somewhat better when winning the first game on the road.

Other tidbits…

- While losing both ends of a back-to-back was rare in the home/away instances, not so in the away/home version of a split set. It was done seven times by six different teams, Totonto having the dubious honor of having twice endured the result.

- Only one team lost both games in extra time among the away/home sets (Los Angeles).


Away/Away Sets

First, there is the matter of 44 such sets having been played out of a total of 113 (thank you, NHL scheduling). Second, it matters that you win that first game, as the breakdown indicates:



Teams winning that first game of a back-to-back on the road earned at least a standings point in 16 of the 23 second-half games played so far. Lose that first game, whether in regulation or in extra time, and you are going to have to struggle to get any success on the following night. You have only about one chance in four of getting a win in the second game (five wins in 21 chances).

As for the Caps, they have played four sets of back-to-backs so far, two home/away sets and two away/home sets. In the home/away sets they have a W-L result and a L-SOL result. In the away/home sets they have a W/OTL result and a sweep (the home-and-home with Florida). They’ve pretty much run the gamut of possible results thus far.

Are there great truths to be divined from this? Probably not. It’s early yet, and the accumulated wear on a team as the season moves on, especially with the compressed schedule this year could raise the bar even further for clubs trying to navigate the back-to-back games they have yet to play. But so far, teams do not appear to be especially burdened, in terms of results, by back-to-back games.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A ONE-point night: Senators 4 - Caps 3 (OT)

Can the Caps get salary cap room if they only get paid on a 40-minute a game basis?

Getting 40-minutes of production out of a 60-minute game might be attributable to the Caps playing their third game in four nights, but getting 40-minute efforts has been a problem this year. It was a problem tonight as the Caps coughed up a 3-1 third period lead to lose to the Ottawa Senators, 4-3, in overtime.

Giving up three goals after the 40-minute mark can’t be looked upon sympathetically, even if the team is playing that third game in four nights. And it wasn’t the product of the legs not being there, it was a case of brains not being there. The Caps took a 3-1 lead into the third period, but got caught on one occasion giving up inside position to a Senator (Chris Neil) that provided an opportunity to deflect a puck into the net, cutting the lead to 3-2.

Then the Senators got the tying goal after the Caps took an offensive zone penalty – a mental mistake by Alex Ovechkin going arms up into a Senator along the end boards for a roughing penalty.

And then, the Senators won it in overtime when Mike Green coughed up the puck in the neutral zone, allowing Chris Phillips to collect it along the side wall and throw it in front, where Mike Fisher deflected the puck past Semyon Varlamov for the game winner. And this was moments after Green coughed up the puck to allow a 2-on-1 that required a fantastic save by Varlamov on Jason Spezza, just to extend the action a few more seconds.

It was too bad, a sour end to a nice night for Jay Beagle, who netted his first NHL goal in the second period to give the Caps that 3-1 lead.

Other stuff…

- Mike Green – officially – had no giveaways. Nothing for those last two hiccups in overtime. No Senator was even credited with a takeaway on either play (which would have been the wrong scoring of the play). Must have been free beer night in the scorer’s lounge.

- Green had a rough night. He was on the ice for three of Ottawa’s four goals (including the game-tying and game-winning goals). Still, he was accorded the third star of the evening. It might be testimony as to how bad the rest of the club played in that third period, save for goalie Semyon Varlamov, who deserved a better fate.

- Three more third period penalties. Here are your takeaway numbers – three times in the last four games the Caps have taken three minor penalties in the third period, including tonight. In 24 games they have taken 41 minors (of 94 total) in the third period. This is a team that sorely lacks 60-minute discipline.

- The Caps were brutal on faceoffs – 6-for-17 in the offensive zone, 11-for-27 in the defensive zone. David Steckel was the only Cap with a plus-.500 night in the circle in the offensive and defensive zones (he took no offensive zone draws).

- One has to think Alex Ovechkin is still feeling the effects of his shoulder injury. Why? No power play shots on goal. Of course, part of that is that he isn’t playing in his wheel house, either. Somehow, Mike Green taking one-timers from the top of the left wing circle isn’t going to seem as intimidating to goalies as having Ovechkin take them from there.

- Shots on goal by period: Washington – 15/10/4/0… Ottawa – 8/7/18/3. The Senators had 30 shot attempts in the third period. They lived in the Caps’ zone.

- Matt Carkner and Jarkko Ruutu were the only Senators not to record a shot on goal.

- Ottawa was dropping bombs from the blue line on the power play, well, Alexandre Picard, anyway. It’s part of why they had nine power play shots on goal from six different players. Even if the shots didn’t get all the way through, they could try to stuff the trash in the can.

- Tomas Fleischmann and Brook Laich each failed to register a shot on goal. Alex Ovechkin had one shot on goal in the last 45:45. There is no hockey universe in which those are good results, if you're a Caps fan.

- 24 games, 24 games in which the Caps have held a lead. Of course, that also means that there have been 11 games (five in regulation, six in extra time) in which they have allowed that lead to slip away and not get the standings points.

- It would be hard to improve on Coach Boudreau’s summary of the game – “This was a total collapse by 20 guys.” Although we do wonder what Jose Theodore had to do with this (psst… we get what Coach was driving at).

And with the result, the Caps are now second in the Eastern Conference. Pittsburgh leap-frogged them with a come-from-behind 3-2 win over Florida in overtime. Now that’s the cherry on a hot sludge sundae…. Or Monday.

Whatever.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Senators, November 23rd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Canada Weekend ends tonight for the Capitals, and it is a case of trying to keep it from being Lost Weekend. The Caps travel to Ottawa having lost to Montreal on Friday, then to Toronto in a Gimmick on Saturday. On paper, this is the toughest of the three, as the Senators come into this game occupying the 6th spot in the Eastern conference. This might be a surprise to some, inasmuch as the Senators finished last season in 11th place in the conference. But…

“Will the gentleman yield?...”

What?

“Will the gentleman yield his time?...”

And you are…

“Senator W. Throckmorton Fogglebottom.”

You have something to say, Senator?

“Why yes, yes I do. I rise today to give praise to the Washington Capitals, a team that in a year of utter despair for its city’s sports fans has captured the hearts of a region. Despite the woeful records of the other local sports teams – the Redskins, the Wizards, the Nationals, the Mystics, the Terrapins, the Cavaliers, the… well, the rest of them, the Capitals have shined with a light that would light… well, a lot of things.”

You’re not very good at this.

“Hey, I’m a freshman, and they don’t let us make speeches these days.”

Why not?

“We have to insert the page numbers in that health care bill. Have you seen that thing?”

Can’t say as I have. That can’t be all you do.

“Well, there really isn’t a lot to do. It’s the Senate… duh!”

I see. Well, then maybe you have higher aspirations?

“Oh, no. If you mean, will I run for President, that’s out of the question.”

Why is that?

"Well, over the course of history, we’ve had a lot of Presidents known only by their initials – FDR, JFK, LBJ. That sort of thing won’t work for me."

Why is that?

“Would you vote for “WTF?’”

I see your point. But let us all rise and give praise to the Capitals, who despite having lost those games to Montreal and Toronto, still occupy the top spot in the Eastern Conference. They are on a pace to top last year’s record setting standings points total (111). They have three players scoring at a point-a-game or better pace and two more that are on a pace to top 70 points. They have a rookie who is playing in hockey’s most important position as if he will be in the Calder Trophy conversation in the spring. They have had a number of youngsters come down the road from Hershey and not just pull on a sweater, but make real contributions to the club as it works its way through injuries. And although what really matters will come in the spring, this is a very entertaining group to watch, called by the NHL Network in its television ads for next Saturday’s game against Montreal, “the most dynamic team in hockey.”

Count your blessings.

In Ottawa, they are probably counting theirs, given that most outlets seemed to have the Senators finishing south of the playoff line this season. But there the Senators are, sitting in sixth place in the East, six points behind the Caps with three games in hand. If you look at their summary numbers, it’s a bit hard to see how they’ve done it…


But here is a set of numbers you might pay some attention to… 6-1-3. That is Ottawa’s record in one-goal games. That could be a very important set of numbers, especially when you compare them to Washington’s numbers in such games – 5-4-5. More to the point, the Caps have won but one game in their last six one-goal decisions (1-2-3).

As for Ottawa, these are not your father’s – ok, your older brother’s – Senators. A few years ago, they could boast a high-powered attack anchored by what was arguably the most dominating first line in hockey with Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Dany Heatley. In 2005-2006, two of that group topped 100 points (Heatley and Alfredsson), and the third – Spezza – had 90 points and finished second in the league in assists.

Well, Heatley is gone, and this year, while they can score, the Senators just don’t do it to the level of those teams of the recent past. Alfredsson is still skating for the Senators and is sitting in his accustomed perch atop the Senators’ scoring rankings (8-15-23 in 20 games). Last year was the first year since the 2001-2002 season that he averaged less than a point a game (74 points in 79 games), but this year he’s on the far side of that threshold again. And he has had particular success against Washington. There is no other non-divisional opponent against whom he has scored more points than the Capitals (47 games, 31-24-55). If anything, he’s been more troublesome since the lockout. Before the lockout, Alfredsson was 23-14-37 in 34 games (1.09 PPG), but since then, he is 8-10-20 in 14 games (1.43 PPG). If that isn’t enough, he had a six-game streak without a goal (0-3-3) before he broke out with a two-goal, three-point performance against Buffalo on Saturday.

The last member of that old top line that remains – Jason Spezza – has had the kind of season that to date has to be considered disappointing. He started the season reasonably well in the playmaking aspects of his game – he had eight assists in his first ten games – but hadn’t registered a single goal. Then he missed two games to an upper body injury. He came back with a vengeance, getting a goal and two assists in his first game back, against the Lightning. But since then he has two points (both assists, in Saturday’s game against Buffalo) in his last seven games. He is on a pace to finish at or below his lowest point total for a full season in his career. He’s had reasonable success against the Caps (6-13-19 in 20 career games), but he has struggled in recent games (1-1-2 in his last seven).

Dany Heatley’s departure via trade to San Jose shines a light on the return – Milan Michalek and Jonathan Cheechoo. One would have to say that after 20 games the returns are mixed. Michalek – a very underrated goal scorer who worked too much in the Pacific time zone to get much attention in his first four full seasons – leads the team in goal scoring (10). He is well on his way to shattering his career high (26) set in 2006-2007. He comes into this game with a goal in each of his last three games, including the game-winner on Saturday against Buffalo.

On the other hand, Cheechoo has continued his inexplicable descent from his 56-goal season in 2005-2006. With a pair of goals and a pair of assists in 20 games, he’s tied for 15th in team scoring with Chris Neil and Peter Regin, and he is a team-worst minus-5. There are six Senator defensemen who have out-scored Cheechoo to date, two of them (Filip Kuba and Anton Volchenkov) having played no more than a dozen games apiece. Maybe he’s coming out of it, though. Both of his goals this season were scored in the past six games.

It seems like every team in the NHL has been smacked around by injuries, and Ottawa is no exception, especially on defense. Anton Volchankov, the human shot blocking machine (with apologies to the Caps’ Quintin Laing), is on injured reserve with a dislocated elbow. They missed Filip Kuba for eight games earlier in the year with a lower body injury, but he has since returned for 11 games in which he is 1-7-8, including a four-point night (1-3-4) against the Sabres on Saturday. The 5-3 win over the Sabres came at a further cost as goalie Pascal Leclaire failed to finish the game after Buffalo’s Jochen Hecht fell on him in a goal-mouth scramble. Leclaire will miss this game with the “lower body” injury that resulted.

Leclaire’s injury likely means that Brian Elliott will get the call for the Senators. Elliott hasn’t been bad – his win-loss record at 3-1-2 is pretty good as a back-up -- but his numbers haven’t sparkled in that role, either (2.90, .903). His history has been brief against the Capitals – 82 minutes in two appearances. His only decision was a 3-2 win at home last January. His other appearance was a 22-minute torture session in which he allowed four goals on 16 shots in a 7-4 loss in Washington.

Keys:

1. Jump-Bump. After wins, Nicklas Backstom and Alex Ovechkin engage in a little jump-and-bump in celebration. Well, Backstrom is 0-1-1, minus-3, in his last five games, and Ovechkin is 2-0-2, even, in his last three since returning from injury. Not coincidentally, perhaps, the Caps are 2-2-1 in their last five games. Ovechkin will bear watching. He is 14-8-22 in his last 12 games against Ottawa overall, but hasn’t registered a point in either of his last two games in Ottawa.

2. Monday’s child is fair of face. Semyon Varlamov has never appeared in a Monday game in the regular season. He was, however, 3-0 on Monday’s in last year’s playoffs. In his last four games he is 3-0-1, 1.23, .957. We can’t speak for his face, but he’s been pretty fair lately in goal.

3. Fight the feeling. This will be the Caps’ third game in four nights. Even with a day off on Sunday, this game could be something of a grind. It will be important for the Caps to get contributions from down the roster to give the team balance. It could also provide the sort of cushion that would leave a nuisance such as Jarkko Ruutu less inclined to engage in his special sort of Averyian hijinks.

The Caps are 9-3-1 in their last 13 games against Ottawa, but they are 3-3-1 in Ottawa over that span, splitting 40 goals evenly with the Senators. The Caps have held a lead at some point in every game they have played this season; the trick has been holding onto it once they have it. While they have outscored teams by 27-11 in the first period of games this year, they have been outscored 28-23 in the second period, giving away much of their early advantage. Good teams finish what they start. We’re going to go out on a limb here and think that the Caps will do just that…

Caps 4 – Senators 3

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A ONE-point night: Maple Leafs 2 - Caps 1 (OT/Gimmick)


Well, didn't they lay an egg?

There is no explanation to do justice to losing to a team that had one win on its own ice in nine tries, whose wins coming into this game came against teams with a combined 22-28-12 record. But the Caps found a way to lose to such a team tonight, dropping a 2-1 Gimmick loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto.

It isn’t even as if Toronto played an especially inspired game. They didn’t. The Caps just didn’t seem to have what it took to pay a price to stomp the Leafs flat, especially at the top of the lineup. Here is an example. Here is how the shots on goal started for the Caps in this game:

1:13 – Tomas Fleischmann, 48 feet
2:57 – Jay Beagle, 22 feet
6:29 – Jeff Schultz, 54 feet
7:39 – Brendan Morrison, 163 feet
9:33 – Eric Fehr, 30 feet
12:57 – Brooks Laich, 22 feet

Let’s leave out the fact that the Caps registered only six shots on goal in 13 minutes against a weak defensive team. It took the Caps almost 13 minutes to get a shot on goal from inside of 30 feet from a top-six forward. Start a game like that, and all it does is invite a team to hang around and gain some confidence that, if only for tonight, they can skate with the big boys.

And that’s just what Toronto did. They stuck around. Even after Alex Ovechkin wired a puck past Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala to give the Caps another first goal of the game, the Caps skated as if they thought it would be easy after that, or convinced themselves that since it was the second of a back to back, they should be tired. Toronto, in the mean time, stuck around.

And when a team lets their opponent stick around, they not only have to rely on their goaltender to keep the back of the net clean, they have to rely on the hockey gods to turn the other way on the matter of bounces. The gods didn’t. Toronto managed to tie things up late in the second period when Niklas Hagman was in the right place at the right time, when a shot by Mikhail Grabovsky pinballed up and off Hagman’s right arm and behind Semyon Varlamov.

After that, it was the 11th commandment that “thou shalt have a Gimmick.” And so it was, and one wonders, was Mark Henderson driving the Zamboni to scrape the ice? It was a weird, not to mention drawn out production to prepare the ice for the Gimmick, and the Caps weren’t exactly pleased with the manner in which it was done, a process that required the referee to squeegee away snow that was left along the runway.

Having tidied up, it was left once more to the hockey gods to point a finger, and they pointed their collective fingers at the Caps shooters. It’s really quite hard to win a Gimmick without getting a shot on goal, but that’s what happened. OK, Eric Fehr will go into the hockey record books as having recorded a shot on Vesa Toskala, but by the time the puck left his stick, he was holding his stick in both hands… half in his left, and half in his right, after the twig broke in half. Note to Coach Boudreau, when it comes to the Gimmick, IT’S NOT FEHR!

When Alex Ovechkin launched his try high and wide right (Bobby Bowden is going to be visiting to see if he wants to kick field goals for Florida State), it was all but over. Nicklas Hagman lifted a backhand over Semyon Varlamov, and with the earlier trick shot success by Phil Kessel, the grisly spectacle was complete.

Other stuff…

- Can’t really fault the power play in this one, despite going 0-for-4. They did get 10 shots on goal in four power plays from an average of 15 feet and only one outside of 25 feet. They had their chances.

- Semyon Varlamov might have a bit of the barracuda in him. It was something Joe Beninati alluded to in the telecast, that (to paraphrase) Varlamov might sense that the number one goalie job is there for the taking. He was sharp, to say the least (38 saves on 38 shots that weren’t off a body part, 0-for-1 on shots off of arms). He has stopped 112 of the last 117 shots he has faced (.957), dating back to the third period of a 3-2 loss to New Jersey on November 4th. Since that loss, he is 3-0-1, 1.30.

- Bad number #1: The Caps were dinged by the official scorer with 18 giveaways tonight. 12 of them were by defensemen. That’s the kind of thing that can make a goaltender’s hair fall out (or his coach’s).

- Bad number #2: Toronto had 39 shots on goal. That doesn’t tell the half of it, literally. The Maple Leafs had 86 shot attempts in 65 minutes. That’s one every 45 seconds, or pretty much one for every single shift, generally speaking. The Caps, on the other hand 57 attempts in 65 minutes (one every 1:08).

- Bad number #3: The score sheet will show that the faceoff battle was almost split between the teams (Leafs 31 – Caps 28). But the Caps were 7-for-17 in the offensive zone, 9-for-21 in the defensive zone.

- The Caps got off lucky to get to the trick shot competition. They could have been whistled for boarding and tripping early in the overtime.

- Various reasons already tied to trial balloons as to why the Caps lost – tired from last night, the building was hot. If the Caps had lost to San Jose in this fashion, one could buy this. If the Caps lost to Tampa Bay in this fashion (Tampa has played in nine extra time games this year, including six that ended in Gimmicks), one could buy this. Not against the Maple Leafs.

- It wasn’t all bad. Chris Clark had five shots on goal, a couple of hits, and a blocked shot in 12:36. Brooks Laich had six shots on goal (tied for the team lead with Ovechkin), a couple of hits, and a blocked shot. Brian Pothier had three blocked shots and none of those dozen giveaways by Caps defensemen.

- Bad number #4: Jeff Schultz wears jersey number “55.” That’s a high number by NHL standards. It’s a high number for any team sport except football. Numbers higher than that are generally the sort you see in training camp, spring training, or… injury call ups. Five skaters wore numbers greater than “55” for the Caps tonight. Four of them started the year in Hershey – Andrew Gordon (63), John Carlson (74), Jay Beagle (83), and Mathieu Perreault (85); and Tyler Sloan (89) dressed for only his 12th game this year.

- Bad number #5: David Steckel won only five of 11 draws. That might not sound so bad, except it is only the second time this season Steckel has finished a game south of 50 percent, the other time being October 24th, when he won only four of 11 draws against the Islanders.

- Bad number #6: In the “he taketh, and he giveth away” category, we have John Erskine. He taketh four hits, and he giveth away the puck four times.

- Bad number #7: With Alexander Semin out, three young guns skated tonight. Two of them – Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green – did not register a shot on goal.

- Odd number #1: Six of the 18 skaters for the Caps averaged at least one minute per shift tonight (the best thing for guys skating on consecutive nights?). No Maple Leaf skated an average shift more than 55 seconds.

- Odd number #2. Of the 18 skaters for Toronto, 17 registered shots on goal. Jeff Finger took the bagel.

- Odd number #3: If under “Team Lead, Hits” you had “Mike Green,” you win. He had five for the Caps.

Bruce Boudreau was quite upbeat for a coach who was on the wrong side of the result. Look, he’s the expert in this sort of thing, so the fan here has to defer to his judgment. Still, we didn’t think the Caps were very much in this game from the get-go. And frankly, despite having devoted 1,367 words to this point, there really isn’t a good explanation for losing this game to that team.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Maple Leafs, November 21st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s Saturday in Washington… Toronto, too. And that’s where the Caps find themselves this morning as they prepare to take on the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. The Caps will be anxious to get the taste of a 3-2 loss to the Canadiens out of their mouths tonight, and…

“beep, oot, blat-blat… ooooooooooooooooooh”

What the…

“Oh, don’t mind him. He can’t wait for the ‘Star Wars: In Concert' show at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday.”

And you are…

"I am C-3PO, Human-Cyborg relations. And this is my counterpart, R2-D2."

I’m, uh… sure. And you’re here for a hockey game?

“Oh, yes. We find the action quite exciting. Much like the dogfights Master Luke fought when he defeated Lord Vader. This is our first such game in person.”

And you picked a Toronto Maple Leafs game to see…

“We seem to be made to suffer. It's our lot in life.”

And your little friend here… looks a little like Martin St. Louis.

“Sir, San Loo’ee is the Lord High Commissioner of the forest moon of Endor.”

Well, all I know is that he’s a forward for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“Tampa Bay Lightning, sir?....that sounds like the storms we encountered on Kamino.”

Whatever. At least you get to see the Caps for your first game in person.

“Oh, yes sir. And we’ve read so much about this ‘Alex Ovechkin,’ haven’t we R2?”

“beep-beep-beep….chirp…hoooooooo….blat-blat.”

“He’s quite excited, sir. He was just remarking on our way over here that Ovechkin has more power than the Death Star.”

Well, I hope you two enjoy the game.

“We do have one question before you go, sir.”

Ask away.

“Do you know of any ‘Star Trek’ conventions in town? We just love to trash talk those pointy-eared twerps.”

While those two are going where no robot has gone before, we have a game tonight. You could not find a more dangerous opponent to face than the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not good, mind you, just dangerous. Why? Let’s look at the record. The Leafs started the season 0-7-1. In doing so, they scored a grand total of 15 goals. They allowed 35. Then, they gave indications of having a heartbeat. Not a strong one, mind you, but at least a pulse. They went 3-0-4, including a 5-1 whomping of Detroit, and Leafs fans were probably thinking about vantage points on the parade route in June.

That Detroit win was the Leafs’ last one, on November 7th. Since then, they are 0-4-1, scoring more than two goals only once (against Carolina, which is without the services of their top two goaltenders, so that one shouldn’t count). And then there are the numbers…


Yes, this game is dangerous because Toronto is so bad, a loss to them would be nothing short of embarrassing. OK, so… can the Maple Leafs embarrass the Caps? Yes. It wouldn’t be the way to bet (unless handing your money over to the fellow at the betting window, never to see it again, is a fetish of yours), but there are possibilities.

For one, Phil Kessel is back on the ice. He has goals in four of the eight games he’s played since coming back from shoulder surgery. He hasn’t had a lot of success against the Caps in his brief career (2-2-4 in ten games), but coming into this one 5-2-7 in his last six games, he’s coming in hot.

Tomas Kaberle – of the famous Rakovnik Kaberle’s – comes into this game tied with Mike Green atop the scoring rankings among defensemen. This is his 11th season of being the good soldier in Toronto playing for some mediocre (and some other ghastly) teams. He’s mentioned a lot in the usual spaces that talk about trade rumors, but there he is, still wearing the blue and white. He is 5-13-18 in 34 career games against Washington, and he has an assist in the team’s only meeting this year (a 6-4 Caps win in the home opener for Washington). He had quite a run in late October with a five game run in which he was 2-11-13. Since then, he’s gotten into a pattern, alternating games in which he records a point with those in which he does not. He had an assist for the Leafs in the 6-5 Gimmick loss to the Hurricanes on Thursday, so the pattern seems to bode well for the Caps.

After that, you have to wonder where the results are going to come from at either end of the ice for Toronto. After Kaberle, the Leafs do not have a player with more than 13 points (the Caps have seven players with more than 13 points, five of whom should dress tonight). They have only two players with more than five goals (Alexei Ponikarovsky and Niklas Hagman), and even if you put Kessel in this group of scorers, the Caps have five players with more than five goals, four of whom should dress tonight.

At the other end, Mike Komisarek has a torn quadriceps muscle (what, not a "lower body injury?”) and is on injured reserve. Filling the breach is Carl Gunnarsson, a 23-year old seventh round draft pick (2007) for whom this is his first year of professional North American hockey. However well thought of he is (and he is), he has 12 games with the Marlies and three with the Leafs on his North American resume. He’s averaged a few ticks under 20 minutes of ice time, and if he gets that many tonight, he is going to be matched against some formidable firepower. Perhaps not the Ovechkin-Backstrom line, but he will see minutes against the Morrison line.

In goal, things are a mess for the Leafs. Jonas Gustavsson has allowed three, four, and five goals in his last three appearances. Carolina – yes, Carolina – scored three goals in the last 12 minutes to take the game on Thursday into overtime, after which they won in the Gimmick phase. How bad is that? Carolina had scored three goals in 60 minutes of regulation in only five of 20 games leading up to the contest with Toronto.

That would leave Vesa Toskala, who is probably 2,324,567th on the Leaf fan’s holiday card mailing list these days. He is so adored by Leafs fans that he has not started a game on Toronto ice since October 10th (he lost, 5-2, to the Penguins). A knee injury contributed to his absence on the ACC ice, but it’s not as if coach Ron Wilson was taking extraordinary measures to get him home ice time in any case. Oh, but the way, Toskala hasn’t won a game this season. He is 0-4-2, 4.26, .854. He has one game this season (in eight appearances) in which he has saved at least 90 percent of the shots he faced. He lost that game, too.

There are no excuses here, not playing back to back, not playing on the road, not playing with injuries, not sunspots. The Caps can, should, must, had better win this game. Losing to a team this bad can only be accomplished as a product of effort, as in “giving none.” And that is why this game is so dangerous. As Caps fans know, a night of iffy effort is not something that has been expunged from the Caps operating manual. Recall the first meeting between the teams in the home opener, when the Caps scored three goals in the game’s first 14 minutes. They allowed things to get entirely too interesting in a 6-4 final score, as Toronto scored three times in the third period.

But if they give the effort tonight that they are capable of – and with a national television audience in Canada watching, that should be motivation enough – this could end ugly for the Maple Leafs.







Caps 6 - Maple Leafs 2

A NO-point night: Canadiens 3 - Caps 2


Sometimes, you lose a game.

Give Montreal credit. They played hard, and they played smart. It wasn’t the jaw-droppingly boring sort of “playing hard” that you might see by the plucky Islanders or the robotic Devils. Montreal played a game tailored to their own skill and that of the Capitals in a 3-2 Canadiens win last night. They took away the middle of the ice, they took away time and space from Alex Ovechkin to deny him shooting lanes and angles, they played an error-free game, and they got a solid game from goaltender Carey Price to get the win. Montreal coach Jacques Martin described the game in a nutshell in the postgame: ''The last 3 1/2 minutes were kind of hectic But up to that point I felt we were managing the game well.'' Yes, they managed the game well.

Make no mistake, even with that the Caps win that game absent two somewhat fluky goals that ricocheted of bodies and bounced oddly past goalie Michal Neuvirth. The Caps did not lack for effort as much as results.

Other stuff…

- OK, let’s get this one out of the way. The home town fans are always going to think they got hosed by the referees when they come out on the short end of a close game. But there was one sequence in a 2:28 span of the third period that fairly dripped with irony. At 3:21 of the period, Mathieu Perreault was whistled for hooking off Guillaume Latendresse from the puck, a man who outweighs Perreault by almost 60 pounds. It was a close call, but OK. 2:28 later Latendresse was whistled for hooking off Brendan Morrison, a man Latendresse outweighs by 45 pounds. And Morrison was sent off coincidentally for… diving? Are you bleeping kidding me?

- John Carlson didn’t get the fairy tale finish to his NHL debut – the Caps lost, and his best chance at a goal didn’t go in (even though it sure looked from our seat that it did – chalk that up to our sitting at the other end of the rink and wishful thinking). But he was solid in all three zones – he managed his own end well (finished the night even), used his body effectively (five hits), and was not shy in the offensive zone (five shot attempts). One thing we watched more of in this game – we kept tabs on Carlson a lot in the second period. It’s the long change for a defenseman, and since he plays on the right side, it’s the longest change. He played the period well in that respect, not getting burned on changes or staying past his time. Sure, he’s done this since he was a kid (Peerless, he’s still a kid), but playing one’s first NHL game might be something of a different experience. It was one game against a somewhat offensively challenged team, but there is so much upside to this fellow.

- Ovechkin had 14 shot attempts (five on goal), but really precious few good ones, and never any that Price didn’t get a good look at. Credit Montreal’s team defense, despite the high (or for Ovechkin, average) shot attempts total.

- Mike Green wakes up this morning as the leading scorer among defensemen (ok, tied with Tomas Kaberle). He’s doing it a lot differently than last year, when it seemed every game offered him at least one opportunity to pinch in and roof a puck over the goalie’s glove. That’s not there this year, but Green has assists in 14 of 21 games in which he’s played. He had two more last night. Give him credit for adjusting his game to take what the opposition gives, or more accurately, to take advantage of what the opposition takes – his space to take open shots – to find the open teammate.

- For one brief, blinding moment, you saw why Eric Fehr was a first round draft choice. That wrist shot that Carey Price could only wave at was a rocket. The trouble has been that such brief, blinding moments have been something else… too infrequent. But Fehr had a solid game last night in all aspects in 14 minutes of ice time.

- This game is why the Caps miss Mike Knuble. There were opportunities for cashing in rebounds lying in and around the crease last night, but no Cap was able to get a stick on the puck before Price calmly covered it up.

- Speaking of Price, that was the goalie was saw a few years back in the Calder Cup final against Hershey. He played “quietly,” with an economy of movement and good position. No swimming, no flapping, no happy feet. He was as still as a quiet lake for most of the game, even when, as coach Martin put it, things “were king of hectic” late in the game. If a team lets him get in a happy zone, he’s hard to beat.

- Carlson’s five hits led the team.

- Michal Neuvirth deserved better. The first two goals pinballed in front of him and caught him in position where he had no chance to keep them from bouncing in to the net. The third one was a nice deflection by Mike Cammalleri. If you look at his saving “only” 19 of 22 shots, you’d think he had a pretty mediocre night. He was better than that.

- Give John Erskine credit for guts and smarts. He had the guts to go with Georges Laraque (even if it was Laraque’s first game back from injury), and he had the smarts to get inside early and wrestle Laraque to the ice. Didn’t seem smart to let that think go on for long and allow Big Georges to find his timing.

- Tom Poti missed the last 35 minutes with what is an “upper body injury.” Hershey’s area code is 717.

Like we said, sometimes you lose a game. Losing this one was not a product of bad effort. The only complaint we have is that when Montreal went up 3-1 in the third, the Caps reverted to the individual style, each man trying to do too much himself. They got the goal late and put on a lot of pressure in the last minute. They just couldn’t solve Price one more time. It happens.

The trick is to make sure it doesn’t happen in consecutive games. They likely face a goalie tonight in Toronto who has struggled lately (Jonas Gustavsson has allowed three, four, and five goals in his last three appearances). The “results” need to match the effort.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Canadiens, November 20th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Homecoming. The Caps return home after a visit to the Big Apple for games against the Devils and the Rangers. Tonight, it’s the Montreal Canadiens, and the Caps will be playing host with a thinner lineup. Alexander Semin is out with a wrist injury, Jose Theodore is out tending to personal matters, Boyd Gordon’ balky back will keep him on the shelf, Mike Knuble is waiting on his finger to mend, Quintin Laing is contemplating which body part he will sacrifice next to the gods of hockey while his jaw mends, Milan Jurcina is nursing a lower body injury, and Shaone Morrisonn is suffering a case of “knocked-into-next-week-itis.”

What that means is that some guys will have to step up and fill the bill, and none is more greatly anticipated than John Carlson, defenseman late of the Hershey Bears, who makes his NHL debut this evening.

“Gonna be a real player…”

Why, it’s The Big Guy, himself. Arthur Carlson, the old station manager at WKRP in Cincinnati. Are you guys related?

“All of us Carlsons are related in some way and…. Well, no.”

And you came all the way from Cincinnati to see the youngster’s debut. How are things in the radio business these days? Still doing rock-and-roll?

“Oh, yeah… the gang is still there… Andy, Fever, Venus, Bailey, Jennifer, and of course, Les.”

What about Herb?

“Oh, he got out of radio. He’s selling men’s wear on QVC.”

You’re kidding!

“Absolutely. But they only let him on during the midnight shift. Something about the way he dresses scaring small children...”

You much of a hockey fan, Art?

“Oh, yeah. Used to have tickets to see Pittsburgh.”

Used to?

“Yeah, well… I went to a playoff game a couple of years ago, when the Penguins were playing the Red Wings?”

Uh-huh?

“I thought I could start a tradition, you know, like that thing with the octopus the fans in Detroit are famous for.”

And?

“Well, things didn’t go so well.”

How do you mean?

“As God is my witness, I thought penguins could fly.”

While we try to get that image out of our heads, this is the beginning of Canada Weekend for the Caps – tonight’s game against Montreal, a visit to Toronto tomorrow night, and a hop over to Ottawa against the Senators on Monday. The Canadiens have been wallowing in mediocrity over the last eight games, going 4-4-0 over that span. It is a microcosm of their season, which at the moment has them sitting at 10-11-0. Their numbers (going into last night's action) don’t improve on the image of their record…



Montreal has 48 goals scored this season (not including the ones they award in the standings for winning a Gimmick). Tomas Plekanec has had a hand in 19 of them (39.6 percent). He is tied for the team lead in even strength scoring (6-9-12) and leads the Canadiens in power play scoring (1-6-7). You’d have to think, if the Canadiens are to do anything on the ice, he’s going to be involved. He has certainly made life hard for the Capitals. In 16 career games, he is 6-8-14, plus-7. And, he’s coming into this game with five assists in his last three games.

Mike Cammalleri is tied for the team lead in goals, with eight. After potting 39 with Calgary last season, he’s a bit behind that pace. It might be worse than that. After starting the season without a goal in his first six games, he went on to notch seven in his next nine games, including a hat trick topped off with the game-winning goal in a 5-4 overtime win against the Rangers. Since then, though, he has one goal in his last six games. If streaky has been his M.O. this year, let the one he’s on continue another game. He doesn’t have much in the way of history against the Caps, going 2-2-4 in four career games.

Plekanec and Cammalleri will have to be on top of their games, because the player with whom Cammalleri is tied in goals – Brian Gionta – is out with a broken foot. That’s one-sixth of the team’s goal scoring on the bench for a team that is already mired in 26th place in scoring. After Cammalleri and Gionta, no other Canadien has more than four goals.

With offense at a premium for Montreal, the defense would be expected to have a bright light shined upon it, but the problem here – even more than at forward – has been injuries. Andrei Markov is, and will be out for several months with an ankle tendon injury that required surgery. Hal Gill is on injured reserve for the next couple of weeks, at least, with a foot injury. Ryan O’Byrne has been on the shelf with a knee injury, but has been cleared to play tonight against the Caps.

Montreal will, however, have the benefit of dressing a trio of defensemen long in experience. Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek, and Paul Mara have a total of 2,559 games of NHL regular season experience among them. All of them are averaging more than 20 minutes a game, Hamrlik sitting in the league’s top-ten in ice time (25:26/game). None of them individually – well, even combined, will make up for the loss of Markov’s offense from the blue line. Hamrlik has no points in his last seven games, Spacek has one (an assist) in his last eight, and Mara has one (an assist) in his last dozen games. They’ll have to be pulling their share of the load in the defensive end against the highest scoring team in the league.

The Canadiens' offensive troubles will mean an added burden on goaltender Carey Price. And hasn’t he had a change in fortune over the past two-plus seasons? After joining the Hamilton Bulldogs late in the 2006-2007 season and backstopping them to a Calder Cup championship, beating the Hershey Bears in the finals, great things were more than expected for Price, they were assumed as the natural arc of his career.

Things haven’t worked out that way, at least not yet. He won 24 games in 41 appearances in 2007-2008 with a respectable GAA (2.56) and save percentage (.920). He was given the keys to the Montreal nets when Cristobal Huet was traded to Washington late that season. But last year he slipped to 23-16-10, 2.83, .905, and he was on the wrong end of a first round playoff sweep. His struggles have continued and been magnified this year. He comes into this game with a 5-8-0 record, 2.99, .906, and only won his first home game of the season last Wednesday, a 3-2 shootout win over woeful Carolina.

Keys:

1. It’s only blue, white, and red. If the Caps can forget the whole “bleu, blanc, et rouge” thing, they should dispose of the Canadiens in short order. Montreal hasn’t posted wins in regulation in consecutive games this season. They only have one win in regulation in their last 12 games, and that was against Phoenix.

2. Lend a helping hand. It’s the kids’ weekend in goal, with the streaking Semyon Varlamov (8-1-0) and the call up, Michal Neuvirth. You would like to keep the young guys from facing a ton of shots. The Caps have done a good job of limiting shots lately, allowing an average of 29.4 a game over their last eight games since allowing more than 40 in consecutive outings against Philadelphia and Atlanta. They haven’t allowed more than 32 in any of those nine games and allowed only a total of 43 shots in their last two games, against New Jersey and the Rangers.

3. BGP. It stands for “Big Game Player.” And any game against Montreal can probably be considered “big.” In his last six games against Montreal at Verizon Center, Alex Ovechkin is 6-6-12, and among those games he includes a four-goal performance and a goal that if it was on anyone else’s resume, would be their career highlight. The bank-it-off-the-boards-backwards, outrace-the-defenseman, get-hauled-down, and still-poke-the-puck-in goal he scored on Carey Price last year is merely second on the Ovechkin top-ten.

Do you see any problems with this one, Big Guy?

“Oh… only if Mama is on her way.”

She isn’t…

Caps 5 – Canadiens 2

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Finding Your Inner Bradley

Caps Nation is awash in Matt Bradley-love as this week comes to an end. Being a guy who will get bloody, then take it out on the other goaltender for the game-winning goal will do that. But Matt Bradley is something of a complex sort for a grind-liner. There is so much depth to plumb to find your own "inner Bradley"...



There is the "intellectual Bradley," at home in a lab coat and lighting bunsen burners, expounding on the physics of reaction times for goaltenders.




There is "shot and a beer Bradley," who can regale crowds with stories of his hockey prowess and travels around the league.








There is "dramatic Bradley," who can thrill throngs of Caps fans with the timely goal on a breakaway.






There is "joyful Bradley," who can share big moments with Caps Nation as goalies flutter in despair in their crease.







There is "punishing Bradley," who is always game to get down and dirty with a hated rival.










There is "relentless Bradley," who despite having taken a few blows himself, will be only to happy to return the favor.









There is "greasy Bradley" who goes into all the dark and nasty spaces to get the job done.








There is "heart throb Bradley," who can cause a whole segment of Caps Nation -- the one colored scarlet -- to swoon.






There is "M*A*S*H Bradley," who needs just a shift to tidy up after a scrape, and he's back for more.







So, when you think you might discover your own "inner Bradley," you have so much from which to choose.

Kids Half-Off-Weekend

Semyon Varlamov... 21 years old, 16 regular season games, 13 playoff games.

Michal Neuvirth... 21 years old, five regular season games experience.

And now...


John Carlson... 19 years old, no NHL experience.

This should be an interesting weekend.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Twitterizations

A few of those Twitternet things with Caps stuff...

- "Syracuse Crunch sign Bates Battaglia."

- Vladislav Tretiak said he will attend the WAS-MTL game on Nov 28.

- Coach Bruce Boudreau said Sean Avery talked trash to him for the entire warmup last night at MSG. The comments were mostly about BB's book. (we're sure Avery was just offering some heartfelt tips to the coach on how he could spruce up his wardrobe)

Someday, I'll understand this Twitterweb thing.

Ouch!

Quintin Laing took one for the team last night. In fact, he probably banked about 500 for the team with the puck he took to the jaw last night that will keep him on the shelf for several weeks. We've never experienced the technicolor pain of a broken jaw (although we do remember cringing when Michael Corleone took one to the teeth and had his jaw wired shut in "The Godfather"). We wondered, what do people suffering such injuries do after the injury and, if necessary, the surgery they need to repair the damage?

Well, thank heavens for Google. We found a few sites that describe the "blenderized" culinary world the patient inhabits and some of the precautions that the recuperating patient needs to take. For instance...

The Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center recommends...

- Instead of 3 meals each day, try to eat 6 to 8 times a day.

- Avoid foods that are very hot or very cold. Your teeth can be extra sensitive to the temperature extremes.

- Avoid large amounts of water, diet sodas, coffee, and tea, as these drinks have few calories.

We're going to guess that the DHMC doesn't recommend jaw fractures as a weight loss strategy. The meals they describe are the sorts of things you haven't sampled since you were about, oh... six (months old, that is). Here is a sample lunch:

- 1 jar strained chicken (blend with milk or chicken broth)
- 1 jar strained peas (blend with milk or chicken broth)
- ½ cup mashed potatoes (blend with milk or chicken broth)
- 1 cup juice
- 1 cup milk

And how might you partake of the liquids without getting them all over yourself or resorting to the use of a bib? Well, that's where the fine folks at "Zip-n-Squeze Products" come in...

"These squeezable bags make hydration and nutrition a simple task not an overwhelming event... In the past the only other options for consuming a liquid diet were a syringe & catheter, turkey basters or sipee cups. This product is fun and easy to use greatly reducing anxiety at mealtime."

Catheters? Turkey basters? Sipee cups?!?!? Well, at least these things look cool, like something astronauts might use in space flight.

The people at the Loudoun Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery firm suggest that "a liquid diet does not always meet all the essential requirements, so it will be necessary to supplement each meal with one serving of any one of the following Sustagen, Meritene, Nutrament, Ovaltine or Carnation Instant Breakfast." Hey, just throw it all in the blender you have to buy and whip some up.

Here is how one person copes with the injury, and adds these helpful tips...

- Keep things that you use at waist height or higher to avoid having to do a lot of bending down. Bending down can cause nose bleeds.

- Try not to sneeze if avoidable. Sneezing when you have a broken jaw can be very painful.

- Use cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol to clean your nose. No nose blowing while your jaw is wired.

Oh, and don't partake of anything that makes you nauseous. That's a whole other conversation. We'll spare you the details.