Saturday, January 10, 2009

A NO-point night: Canadiens 5 - Caps 4

It was a family thing. The Caps gave up four goals in the third period tonight – the last with 22 seconds left in the game – in losing to the Montreal Canadiens, 5-4. The Hershey Bears did the same in losing at home to the Albany River Rats at Giant Center, 6-4.

As for the Caps, sometime you lose games you deserve to win. Uh, not tonight. They played their way to this loss with some rather poor defensive zone coverage, especially in the third period, when the Canadiens scored three goals in the first 4:31 to take a 4-3 lead and put the Caps on their heels.

It would be easy to place the blame, if one were inclined to do that, on the defensive pair of Milan Jurcina and Karl Alzner, which in the last minute failed to: a) recover the puck when it was batted down (Alzner), b) find the puck when it was bouncing around in skates (Jurcina), pay attention to the only Canadien in the area (both of them), thus allowing Sergei Kostitsyn to collect the puck and slide it under goalie Brent Johnson’s right pad – itself a goal Johnson probably would like to rewind.

But that was merely the last episode of many that had one scratching their head. How does Tomas Plekanec skate in free as a bird while shorthanded and get to fire one cleanly past Johnson without a Cap within mailing distance? We can pass on the second Montreal goal – a puck that slid up the shaft of Alzner’s stick and over Johnson’s shoulder on the first half of a 5-on-3 power play – as one of those crazy bounces that just happens. But on the back half, there were all four Caps on the far half of the ice as Andrei Kostitsyn got position in the deep slot and backhanded a loose puck past Johnson.

Then, after Tomas Flesichmann tied the game at three, the Canadiens came right back 16 seconds later on some poor coverage at the Capitals’ line that allowed Plekanec to take a pass and skate down the slot unchallenged to rifle a shot past Johnson. Neither Eric Fehr, who lost Plekanec coming into the zone, nor Viktor Kozlov, who could not close in time, could help. But there wasn’t a defenseman to be found on the play, although the record will show that Shaone Morrisonn and Sean Collins were the defensemen on the ice when Plekanec scored.

The last one, well, we’ve covered that.

It was a bad defensive outing from the Caps, which made for a much more difficult night for Brent Johnson than it had to be. While Johnson was sharp in places, even spectacular on some (his save on Matt D’Agostini at the doorstep while flying across the crease was a highlight-quality save), he had a couple of goals he probably shouldn’t have allowed – the first (shorthanded by Plekanec) and the last.

Some other stuff…

Here’s a thought…dress Nylander only for games against Montreal. He has goals in each of his last two games against the Canadiens, neither of which were scored while facing the net (tonight’s came on a left boot deflection of a drive by Alex Ovechkin). They are the only two goals he has scored since October 16th.

Alexander Semin broke a six-game goalless drought with a pair. It was his fifth multi-goal game of the year (tenth multi-point game) in 26 games played. He is on a 57-goal/82-game pace. If he can stay upright, the second half should be entertaining.

Mike Komisarek had ten – ten – blocked shots. He chipped in an assist and was plus-2 to boot. Guess he was the one making a point tonight.

Speaking of blocked shots – 32? Montreal had 32? The defense had 21, more than the Caps as a team (17). The big three of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green had 17 of their shots blocked.

Short bench in the third? Eric Fehr and Chris Clark – two shifts apiece. Sean Collins, one (we’re thinking Fehr and Collins might have been sitting for their work on that second Plekanec goal). Brashear, one.

Donald Brashear had three shots in a little over six minutes of play. Doesn’t sound like much, except in terms of frequency, Ovechkin had eight in almost 23 minutes. Donald Brashear – shot machine.

The lost weekend for the Caps means Guy Carbonneau gets to go to the All-Star Game as an assistant, instead of Bruce Boudreau, by virtue of Montreal’s better winning percentage (.683 to .663).

This is a dangerous part of the schedule for the Caps. Big game (Philadelphia) followed by middle-of-the pack opponent (Columbus), followed by another big game (Montreal), followed by another middle-of-the-pack opponent (Edmonton), followed by a game the next night against a big rival (Pittsburgh), then a showdown against the best in the East (Boston). It’s a six-game gauntlet in which the Caps now find themselves 1-2-0. And, more worrisome, they’ve allowed eight goals in the last two games. Edmonton is not a top-notch offensive team, but they aren’t incompetent, either. Pittsburgh is always dangerous, their recent struggles notwithstanding, and the Bruins are the gold standard this year. For all of the goodwill and standings cushion the Caps built to get to 27-11-3, they could go 1-5 really quickly and start seeing Carolina in their rear-view mirror.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Canadiens, January 10th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, the home streak has ended, but the Caps have an opportunity to build on a modest two game road winning streak as they head to Montreal to take on the Canadiens. The Canadiens are in the midst of celebrating their 100th season of hockey. It put us in the mind of wondering what was happening a hundred years ago over the course of what might have been a hockey season…

October 1908 – The Chicago Cubs won the World Series in baseball. Since then, the Canadiens have won 24 Stanley Cups…the Cubs haven’t been back to the Series.

November 1908 – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were allegedly killed in Bolivia. We say allegedly because: a) their graves are unidentified, and b) besides, Butch went on to coach the Caps.

December 1908 – Construction began on the RMS Olympic at the Harland and Wolff shipyards in Northern Ireland. The Olympic would later have a sister ship…didn’t make it all the way across on her maiden voyage. Something about an iceberg.

January 1909 – was cancelled due to boredom

February 1909 – The Hudson Motor Car Company was founded. It went out of business in 1954 when it merged with Nash to become American Motors, which isn’t around anymore, either.

March 1909 – Theodore Roosevelt celebrated leaving the Presidency by going on an African safari.

April 2009 – The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire is overthrown and replaced by his brother. We think it might have been a fight over which one got the foot rest.

May 1909 – Edwin Land, the fellow who invented the process of instant photography that would become “Polaroid,” was born. Polaroid doesn’t make instant film, anymore.

June 1909 -- Alice Huyler Ramsey, a 22-year-old housewife and mother from Hackensack, New Jersey, becomes the first woman to drive across the United States. With 3 female companions, none of whom could drive a car, for 59 days she drives a Maxwell automobile 3,800 miles, from Manhattan, New York to San Francisco, California. We feel guilty now for not having driven to Montreal for this game.

And speaking of the game, it matches two teams with Stanley Cup aspirations, the difference being that fans in Montreal have actually experienced what that is like, while Caps fans have experienced it only in NHL2009. There are similarities in the teams, as the numbers suggest…

If there is a difference, it is the Montreal power play. Currently ranked 25th, the performance of the man-advantage special team has suffered a mighty come-down since finishing last season ranked first with a 24.1 percent success rate. At their current pace, the Canadiens will score 33 fewer power play goals this year (57) than they had last year (90, which also led the league). What’s the problem?

Well, you could start with the fact that defenseman Mark Streit took his 7-27-34 scoring line on the power play to Long Island, but you wouldn’t stop there. You could take a walk over to Alex Kovalev to take a look, too. Right now, Kovalev is 3-8-11 in power play scoring, a pace of 6-16-22 for the year. Compare that to last year, when he finished 17-30-47 on the power play to lead the league in total power play scoring.

And, last year, the Canadiens had nine players in double-digit scoring on the power play, including three defensemen. Right now, they have seven players on such a pace (none on a pace for as many as 30 points), and only one defenseman in that group (Andrei Markov).

What Montreal has done is improve its five-on-five play, and that has kept them in the hunt. Last year, they finished tied with the Caps at a ratio of goals for –to-goals against of 1.06 (tied for 13th). At the moment, the Canadiens have a 1.25 number that is tied with Detroit for fifth in the league.

This is a young team, at least on the front line. Seven of the 13 roster forwards (not including those on injured reserve) are 25 or younger. The defense is longer in the tooth – four of the seven roster blueliners are on the far side of 30.

But where it might count most in the spring – in goal – Montreal has an emerging star in Carey Price (as if the Caps need to see another brick wall in goal after last night). Price is tied for sixth in wins (despite every goalie ahead of him having played five more games), seventh in GAA (2.30), and ninth in save percentage (.921). Bobby Big Pants (he might be the widest load in the NHL) has only faced the Caps once, however, taking the “L” in a 5-4 overtime loss last January. Not that Caps are unfamiliar with his play. He was the goalie of record as the Hamilton Bulldogs bested the Hershey Bears in the Calder Cup finals two seasons ago, a final in which several Caps played (Tyler Sloan, Jeff Schultz, Tomas Flesichmann, David Steckel, Mike Green), coached by current bench boss Bruce Boudreau, who opined of Price at the time, “I don’t know if he even sweats out there.” Hopefully, the Caps can make him sweat this evening.

All Stars abound for the Canadiens. There are Kovalev and Price, starters both. But there are also Andrei Markov and Mike Komisarek. One could make a case for Markov getting a nod, even starting. He’s fourth among defensemen in total scoring, third in assists. He’s top-25 in plus-minus, power play goals, and total power play scoring. He has yet to find the back of the net against the Caps, though in 27 career games (0-11-11).

As for Komisarek, let’s just say that he’s a fine defenseman who is very capable in his own end. However, he’s only played in 24 games this year, missing 16 to a hand injury. He does get the defensive assignments though (second on the team in even strength ice time, tops in shorthanded ice time). We just have a hard time seeing him as the second best defenseman in the East (he typed, tongue-in-cheek).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Montreal: Robert Lang

Lang, who was traded away from Washington in the Harding administration when he was leading the league in scoring, has six points in his last three games (4-2-6, +4, including a hat trick against the Rangers). This is coming on the heels of his longest pointless streak this year, four games. Lang has had some success against the Caps – 8-13-21 in 24 career games. However, all eight goals and 11 of the assists were achieved before Lang played for the Caps. He’s faced them only twice since leaving.

Washington: Mike Green

Green had the game winner in the only time Carey Price has faced the Caps. One might wonder if Green isn’t the Cap with the chip on his shoulder who would like nothing better than making a point in Montreal that there was one defenseman left off the All-Star roster who shouldn’t have been. Green is 1-5-6 in eight games against the Canadiens, but all of that scoring came in four games against Montreal last year.

Just like the team that doesn’t want to give up a goal on the next shift after scoring one, the team doesn’t want to post another loss the day after dropping one in front of the home fans. Here is your odd stat…in wins following losses this year (something that has happened eight times), the Caps have scored a total of 37 goals (4.63 goals/game). We like that number…

Caps 4 – Canadiens 2

A NO-point night: Blue Jackets 3 - Caps 0

What?...You thought they’d go 39-1-1 at home? The Caps lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets last night, 3-0. Why?

The rest is just details…

There is a difference between the way a game is played and the results of a game. If the Caps play a game like that against most teams, they will do very well. It can’t be underestimated the effect Steve Mason had on the outcome.

Alex Ovechkin had 24 attempts in 28 minutes, many of them excellent scoring chances. The odd part about that statistic was that he had eight attempts in each of the three periods. It gets better…in each period, four shots, two blocks, two misses. Russian machine, indeed.

One had the feeling watching last night that there was this posted in the referee’s locker room:

Tonight’s Special:

Tossing Players from the Faceoff Circle

Jose Theodore did not have a poor game, just a very average one. A rebound that got away, a deflection, and a scrum in front. But it stood in such stark relief against what was going on at the other end that it had the look of a poor game.

The Caps played short a forward all night as Boyd Gordon’s back seized up on him before the game, but apparently after lineups had been presented. Add to that Chris Clark skating one shift in the third period and Donald Brashear the same, and it made for a pretty short bench.

Saw a lot of baseball analogies in this one…the Caps were the hitter hitting line drives all over the park and having all of them caught. The Blue Jackets were that junk pitcher who lobs a lot of stuff at you, only to have you muttering as you go back to the dugout, “he got me out with that?!”

There are just some nights you’re not going to have it. That wasn’t the problem for the Caps last night. They did the right things, for the most part – put a lot of rubber on goal, sent guys to the net, played the game more or less in the Columbus end (on that…it was interesting to watch the kids come out to shovel off the snow…a few flakes in the end defended by the Caps, snow drifts in the Columbus end). They played well enough, it was the result that was unfortunate.

On to Montreal.