Thursday, January 01, 2009

A TWO-point night: Caps 7 -- Lightning 4

“Move your feet.”

It is something coaches are always telling their players to do to keep in the play, but it was something 18,000 fans, 39 players, and six coaches were silently imploring Jamie Heward to do as he lay on the ice after a hit by Alex Ovechkin early in the third period of tonight’s 7-4 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Ovechkin has had bigger hits, but on this one, Heward had his head turned and struck the glass awkwardly. He was face-down on the ice for almost ten minutes as emergency medical personnel attended to him and took him from the ice on a stretcher. The initial report after the game was that Heward sustained a concussion. The Lightning reported that Heward was able to move his extremities.

Lost in all of that was that there was a game played -- a 7-4 win for the Caps. It seems as if the first goal of the game was scored in 2006, not the first day of 2009. Sean Collins’ first as an NHLer came on a shot that was a harbinger of a ghastly night goalie Mike Smith would have as the puck squirted through his pads.

By the time Ovechkin would put the Lightning out of their misery with his 26th goal at the 18:14 mark of the third period…

- Seven different Caps has goals.

- 11 different Caps had points.

- Every skater would have at least one shot on goal except Shaone Morrisonn (at least he attempted a couple, one blocked and one missed).

- Nicklas Backstrom would have another two assists – that makes 33 (fifth in the league), and he has climbed into a tie for sixth in total scoring.

- Ovechkin would have three points (1-2-3) to take over second in the league scoring rankings.

- Matt Bradley had a two-point night (1-1-2), his first since getting three in the 10-2 win over Boston last March 3rd.

- Boyd Gordon had a two-point night (1-1-2), his first since a two-point night against Edmonton last January 17th.

- 35 shots on goal and no Caps with more than four (Ovechkin, Brooks Laich). That’s the kind of balance that keeps goalies looking around to see where the puck is coming from next.

- Alexandre Giroux was a plus-3. Whoever said 90 percent of life is showing up was onto something.

- The Lecavalier-St. Louis-Prospal line was 2-5-7 for the Lightning. They also finished a combined minus-3. Things happened when they were on the ice… and that’s not all a good thing for Tampa Bay.

- Eleven goals… none of them on the power play.

Tonight’s score sheet buffet award goes to Ovechkin… one goal, two assists, three points, a penalty taken, four shots, four shots blocked, one shot missed, three hits, a giveaway, a takeaway, two blocked shots, and he won his only faceoff. Pace yourself, big guy.

Note to Coach Tocchet… take Mike Smith’s stick away from him. Nothing good happened when he used it tonight.

Players have bad games, so do referees. Mark Joannette had a brutal game in the striped shirt. He blew the sweep check on Adam Hall by Mike Green, awarding Hall a penalty shot. He missed Mark Recchi’s goal, too. Everyone in the arena, including the folks at the Papa John’s stand outside of Section 403 knew it was in.

Did we mention Mike Smith had a bad night? “Bad” doesn’t cover it. I think the adjective we used above was “ghastly.” That’s closer to it. The first goal was brutal – a shot he had a clean look at off the stick of Sean Collins that he just whiffed on. Then, from behind the net he played the puck too hard to Marek Malik, who couldn’t collect the pass, and before Smith could get back in front of the cage – where goaltenders generally do their best work – Matt Bradley slam dunked the puck home 11 seconds after Ryan Malone had cut the Washington lead to 3-2.

He wasn’t done yet… wandering off into the corner to collect the puck, he had the curious idea that sending the puck up the middle would be a good thing. First, that’s not generally a good idea when: a) you are the goaltender, and b) you are 30 feet from your crease. It is made worse if you then shank the pass, which is what he then did, putting the puck on Boyd Gordon’s stick. He could have put it on Jeff Gordon’s stick or Gordon Lightfoot’s stick, and what happened next would have occurred. But Boyd Gordon is a professional hockey player, and even for one with as thin an offensive resume in the NHL as Gordon (Boyd, not Jeff or Lightfoot), he knew what to do, and that was to send it smack dab into the heart of the net before a leaping Smith – doing a passable Bobby Orr “we win the Cup” leap – could get back to the net. When Ovechkin scored the Caps’ seventh goal between Smith’s legs, you just wanted the ref to call the fight.

Twice Tampa Bay climed back to within a goal, and twice they allowed a goal less than 30 seconds after doing so. If Rick Tocchet had hair, he’d have been pulling it out on the bench. Speaking of which…think Tampa Bay misses Dan Boyle on the blue line? Yeah, he might have been and still is an offensive specialist, but he’s also better than any defenseman the Lightning had tonight in his own end.

How great was it to see Chris Clark get off the schneid? He went 24 games without a goal since getting one on November 28th, 2007.

As for the Caps, it’s not as if they played a good game here, at least not as much as having scored seven goals suggests. They took advantage of what Tampa Bay gave them, and the Lightning certainly were in a giving mood. But the Caps let the Lecavalier line run around too much and too freely. They weren’t giving Brent Johnson much of a chance out there. The whole defensive group had a rough time – all of them were on the ice for at least one Tampa Bay goal (Morrisonn and Collins for two). The forwards seemed to be a little too interested in running back into the Lightning end from time to time and looked a little too indifferent in the defensive end. Against teams whose goaltenders don’t give away goals like stocking stuffers, that could have made for an unhappy finish.

But, it’s two points, which is the way one wants to start the year. It was the Caps’ biggest offensive output since that 10-2 win over Boston last March 3rd. We’ll leave out the fact that it was the first time Brent Johnson allowed as many as four goals on Verizon Center ice since March 3, 2007. We’ll prefer to ponder that the Caps are 32-6-3 on home ice since January 1, 2008, and that there are 23 more games on home ice to play. The first of them will be Saturday against the Rangers, and that will be a step up of a couple of weight classes in opposition. But for now, tonight – good job, boys.

And get back on the ice soon, Jamie.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Lighting, New Years Day 2009

The Peerless Prognsoticator is ON THE AIR!!!

And a Happy New Year to all of you on this fine first morning of 2009…

“hey…you wanna keep it down?...”

Well, if it isn’t 2008…out a little late last night, were we?

“wouldn’t you be?...I mean, what a year…we had Rock the Red, that Ovechkin thing, Bruuuu –urp- uuuuuuuuce…”

Yes, it was quite a year. But tell, me Two – can I call you “Two?”

“…you could call me a –urp— cab , if you like.”

Good one…but tell me, what does the old year do on New Years Eve?

“do I really have to do this, this early in the morning?”

Our readers would really like to know…

“OK…well, after we put the diaper on 2009 to get him ready for the ball-drop -- and isn't THAT a whole lotta laughs -- we head out on a bar crawl with all the other old years gone by.”

Aren’t some of those years, well, pretty old?

“Some of look a lot older than our years…take 2004, for example…he looks positively ancient, but then again, you saw the Caps that year…then there was the lockout to end the year…it aged him terribly.”

And 2005?

“not a wrinkle…the lockout ended, Ovechkin arrived…he still looks like he could be there for the ball-drop.”

So you guys had a pretty good time, I take it.

“what I remember was pretty good…but I got left with the check, since I’m the new guy.”

What you remember?

“yeah…well, it’s all kind of a blur…all I remember is 2000 hitting on all the women with some tired line about 'why NOT two-K, baby?'”

Well, we’ll let 2008 sleep it off…he’s earned it. And that brings us to today’s game in which the Caps host the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning come into this game with an awful record, but they’ve been on something of a roll of late. They have earned points in their last four games (3-0-1) , their longest such streak this season and longest since a three game winning streak to close October and open November. Their numbers don't suggest a great team in the making, though...

And, despite the buying frenzy over the summer that netted Tampa Bay every free agent forward in North America that wasn’t playing basketball, they’ve done with defense in these last four games. They’ve allowed only seven goals in the hockey portion of the contests (they had a Gimmick loss to Montreal in their last game this past Tuesday) and shutout the mighty Penguins in Pittsburgh (although the Pens are playing lately like a team intent on playing themselves out of a playoff berth).

The defensive performance begins with the goaltender – Mike Smith. Despite an 8-12-9 record, Smith has more than respectable numbers otherwise – a 2.42 GAA, .923 save percentage, and a pair of shutouts. Smith was not the goaltender in the Lightning’s . In fact, Smith has only faced the Caps once in his career, and that was as a member of the Dallas Stars on the last day of November 2006. It was not memorable… he allowed four goals on ten shots in 40 minutes of work in a 4-3 loss, a game perhaps more memorable for the ugly cut to his face received by Jamie Heward thanks to the skate of Mike Modano.

If Smith isn’t given the nod by coach Rick Tocchet, the Caps might get a chance to face Olaf Kolzig once more… well, no. He’s out with an “upper body” injury. That leaves the backup duty to Karri Romo, and that might be where he is best kept – he has an 0-2-1, 3.30, .903 career record against the Caps.

Actually, for a season that has been as frustrating as that which the Lightning have endured so far, there is optimism down in Florida. Witness this morning’s column by Brant James of the St. Petersburg Times…

“They were woeful from the outset. So woeful their coach was fired by mid November. They didn't earn their 30th point until the 36th game of the season.

“But they won 28 of their final 46 games (including 11 of their last 12) and made the playoffs.

“Recollections of the last season's Capitals should seem familiar, and be a comfort, to the Lightning as it returns to the Verizon Center to take on Washington tonight.

“The point to be taken from it: The Lightning's season isn't necessarily over.”

Well, what tools are the Lighting bringing to the 2009 portion of their season to try to repeat what the Caps accomplished last season?

Well, there are, of course, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier – the leading scorers for the Lightning and players with a history of success against the Caps. St. Louis is 17-25-42, with three power play and two game-winning goals (not including his series winning goal in the 2003 playoffs) in 45 career games against the Caps. Lecavalier is 24-27-51, with seven power play markers and two game winners in 53 games against the Caps. However, St. Louis is on a pace for 73 points, which would be another drop in his production from his career high of 102 points two years ago (he had 83 last year). Lecavalier is on a pace for 68 points, which reflects a similar trend – he has his career high in points two years ago (108), but dropped to 92 last year. Should he finish with 68 points, it would be his lowest total since 2003-2004.

After that, things get grim quickly for the Lightning, if you’re looking at their numbers. Mark Recchi is the third leading scorer on the roster (8-14-22), but he is a -15 for the year (worst on the roster and better than only six players in the entire league). He has been on a bit of a run of late with a four game points streak that was broken in Tuesday’s game against Montreal. He’s made a career of playing the Caps, though – 46-61-107, +16 in 91 career games. Unfortunately for Tampa fans, that record was compiled primarily in sweaters of orange and black, and black and gold, not one with a Lightning bolt on it.

If there has been a pleasant surprise for Tampa Bay, it is Steve Eminger. The former Cap leads all defensemen and is sixth on the team in scoring. His 2-13-15 line already challenges his career scoring total (5-13-18 in 2005-2006 with the Caps). He’s third on the team in plus-minus (plus-4) and is fourth in ice time. Seems he’s found a home.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Tampa Bay: Ryan Malone

After suffering upper and lower body injuries that have caused him to miss nine games, and a slow start that had him with three assists in his first 14 games, Malone is now on a pace to match his career best scoring total (51 points) set with Pittsburgh last year. In his last 13 games, the left winger is 5-11-16, including a four-point night (1-3-4, +4) against Florida on December 27th. Malone has had fair success against the Caps in the past (3-7-10, +6 in 16 career games), and if he can get some crooked numbers put up on the score sheet, it could be a difficult night for the Caps.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

Alex Ovechkin has abused the Lightning quite a bit in his short career (15-14-29 in 25 games). But a lot of that was done on his own. Now, he has Nicklas Backstrom setting up plays, and Backstrom is on fire. Since registering an assist against the Rangers on November 8th, the second-year center is 11-27-38 and has climbed to second on the team in scoring and into a tie with Ryan Getzlaf for ninth in the league. His overall scoring puts him on a pace to finish with 91 points, but his recent turbocharged pace is putting him on a pace, should he continue it for the rest of the season, for 107 points. Backstrom hasn’t had extraordinary success against the Lightning in his brief career (0-4-4 in nine games), but it hardly seems to matter who he’s playing against these days. He’s been deadly on the power play, with seven man-advantage goals in his last 20 games. Wind him up, watch him go.

2008 was a big step up for the Caps, and 2009 affords the young team with an opportunity to take another big step toward a Stanley Cup. Part of that is beating teams they should beat, and the Lightning is just such a team. It’ll be a good start to 2009…

Caps 5 – Lightning 1

What's "In," You Ask?

...but you already knew that, didn't you?