Saturday, January 31, 2009

A TWO-point afternoon: Caps 4 -- Red Wings 2

And that’s how they do that.

It was red, it was loud, and even for a chilly weekend afternoon in January, it had the whiff of a game played on a warm night in June. The Caps scored late and held off the Red Wings in March of the Penguins Penalized over the last 98 seconds to beat Detroit, 4-2. But Peerless, what did all mean?...

Figuring out a way to win. It’s one thing to come from a couple of goals down to beat a bottom dweller. It is another thing to take a game away from a team you’re tied with at the second intermission when that team is the defending Stanley Cup champion skating on your ice with the third highest number of road standings points in the league. Figuring out a way to win close, highly charged games against quality opponents is perhaps the last lesson a team has to learn to be a credible championship contender. And what fits hand in glove with that is…

Dealing with adversity I. Folks are going to remember Alex Ovechkin’s two goals to win, but what they might put aside (we’re betting the coaches don’t) is the fact that the Caps yet again gave up a power play goal – that’s ten games in a row and counting – and gave up seven power play opportunities (they’ve given up at least five in seven of their last eight games). You might argue that the last one is a technicality (Tom Poti took the penalty, but the Caps were already two men down from previous penalties), but the flip side of that is that the Caps took three penalties in the last 98 seconds of the game. That’s not playing with matches, it’s playing with a blowtorch. They fought through it in the end, which is a good thing (what isn’t a good thing is that these kinds of things are repeat offenses).

Dealing with adversity II. There isn’t a graceful way to say this – Alex Semin struggled (ok, that might be a bit “graceful”… you may call me a coward). We thought that if the Red Wings weren’t the opponent in this game, we would not have been surprised if Semin had been benched in the third period for his penultimate shift in the second period. From pulling up short with the puck at the Red Wing blue line when it looked as if he had a chance to press the matter – he seemed to pass up chances all afternoon – to his hooking penalty in the neutral zone (apparently, the experience in the Ottawa game had been forgotten). Detroit scored on the ensuing power play – a goal in the last minute of the period – but it didn’t cripple the Caps in terms of momentum the way it might have done with a younger, less experienced version of this team (say, two years ago, of even perhaps this time last year).

Dealing with adversity III. Detroit: 73 – Washington: 42. No, that’s not the halftime score of a Pistons/Wizards game, it is the shot attempts for the two teams today. That’s an indicator that the ice was tilted in Jose Theodore’s direction, but the Caps prevailed in spite of it. One had the feeling (well, I did at least) that the Caps would have these short bursts where they would threaten the Red Wings’ goal, but that Detroit won large blocks of time in terms of territorial play. They always seemed to have the puck. But hey, they count goals, not shot attempts.

It’s 60 minutes. That goes for players as well as teams. Alex Ovechkin took three shots in the first period. He would not so much as even attempt one for more than 35 minutes of playing time thereafter. Good thing there were still almost 13 minutes left to play when he did take his next shot. That one, and the next one he took, found the back of the net – the game winner and the insurance goal. That makes 18 third period goals (of his 33) for Ovechkin this year, a number that leads the league.

I’ve got rhythm. Well, I don’t, but Jose Theodore seems to have it. He’s gotten into a nice playing rhythm since “the yank.” He is 10-3-1, 2.03, .925 and has given up more than three goals only once in 13 games since that Ranger game when he was pulled after giving up three goals on five shots in less than 14 minutes. We’re a little surprised he didn’t get a star in this one, but it might be indicative of his being solid in goal to the point of being almost boring.

Defense, defense, defense. The Red Wings came from everywhere. 16 of 18 skaters had shots on goal; every skater except Tomas Kopecky (who did record a shot on goal) had at least two shot attempts. But, as the graphic below suggests, the Wings were pushed outside for many of those shots…

…and yes, it also shows that the Wings did miss having Tomas Holmstrom wreaking his own special havoc in front of the net. Another way to look at the job the Caps did… Pavel Datsyuk – one shot on goal. Marian Hossa – one shot on goal.

We’re thinking we need to see more from… Eric Fehr. He had five shots on goal, but he had a couple of great chances today that, frankly, he needs to bury. One shot – a slapper off a nice drop pass from Nicklas Backstrom – was the kind of shot a goal-scorer is going to nail. On another, off a great feed from Tomas Fleischmann, he just didn’t get very good wood (ok, composite) on the puck (we have a feeling the ice was not all that hot, and we cringe at the prospect of what it will be tomorrow for the Ottawa game). But it’s a good thing that Fehr is shooting the puck – five shots in less than ten minutes of ice time (we might suggest other wingers take a cue). Perhaps as in basketball, shooters need to shoot to get out of their slumps.

Nit picking. Yeah, that’s what it will be, but the Caps had what was an annoying result in faceoffs in one respect. They held Pavel Datsyuk and Valtteri Filppula even in the circle (18 up, 18 down), but went 2-for-9 against Justin Abdelkader, Tomas Kopeckey, Johan Franzen and Kris Draper.

Angels with Dirty Faces. Yup, it’s the name of a James Cagney movie. It also could describe the Caps in an important respect this afternoon. Mike Green had a nice goal on a wrister coming on a delayed penalty when Nicklas Backstrom was hooked down in front (perhaps distracting goalie Ty Conklin on the Green shot), but the other three goals were scored from in front, going to the net – Viktor Kozlov deflecting a Milan Jurcina drive… Ovechkin barreling past a defenseman, feeling the puck through his legs and charging in on the Detroit net to score… Ovechkin again after a Nicklas Backstrom shot from in close was turned away, Ovechkin chipping the puck over Conklin from the doorstep. Oh, and by the way…that play never happens if Backstrom doesn’t win the face off to start the action. The point is that three goals came from in tight – the money area that the Caps are going to have to dominate come the spring.

At the end of the day, it was a very entertaining game… “thrilling,” in fact. Why would we use that adjective? Well, it wasn’t the up and down kind of stuff that gets fans roaring and coming out of their seats. Quite the opposite – there were stretches in the game in which we were stunned by just how quiet the arena was, mostly a product of wonder over whether the Caps could hold off the Red Wings on one of their keep-the-puck-in-your-end-for-the-whole-shift kind of displays. Then when the Caps cleared the puck or started a rush of their own, there was a palpable sense of relief followed by the kind of cheering that speaks…”score one, already, and get these guys off our backs.” The Caps did just that and grabbed (“stole” would imply a certain amount of luck, and we think this one was more a product of hard work) two points in a game that serves as a measuring stick for how far the Caps have come this year.

Great job, boys.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Red Wings, January 31st

The Peerless Prognosticator is IN THE AIR!!!

Well, it’s been a few days.. days to get some practice in, to correct some problems, to use the tools of drills to engage in a little fix-up…


Well, if it isn’t the tool man, himself…Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor. I guess it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to find you here, being a Detroit guy and all.

“It’s Tim ‘The Puck Man’ Taylor, now…”

Is that so…

“Oh-h-h-h yeah… when I’m out there with my Binford 6100 graphite composite hybrid monofilament sure-grip...argh-argh-arghhh…”

So you’re a big scorer in the Detroit amateur leagues, eh?

“No, I’m still married to Jill…”

Good one…so, you’re still a Red Wings fan, I assume?

“We’re there at every game…”


“Oh yeah. Me, the boys, Wilson, and even Heidi once in a while…

Once in a while?

“Yeah… every time she goes, the Jumbotron seems to get stuck on her and I have to go fix it.”


Well, the Red Wings are visiting Verizon Center in a matinee start, the first of back-to-back afternoon games on Fun Street this weekend. But the Red Wings, while still occupying the lofty standings status one might expect of a defending Stanley Cup champion and perennial contender, are doing it in a manner a little different than hockey fans might be accustomed to seeing. Here are the numbers…

What jumps out from the page here are the goals-against and penalty-killing numbers for the Red Wings. The 2.90 goals-against is a far cry from the 2.18 that the Red Wings posted last year (best in the league). And the 78.4 percent penalty kill is more than a little bit off the 84.0 percent number (8th overall) that the Wings posted last year.

The first thing that comes to mind in looking at those numbers is to wonder if shots matter here. Well, not much it would seem. The Wings are giving up 28.1 shots a game at the moment (tied for 4th in the league), not a large drop-off from their 23.5 given up last year (1st overall). And on the penalty kill, the Wings are actually giving up fewer power plays per game (4.25) than they did last year (4.35).

The next place to look is goaltending, and here the Red Wings appear to have a problem on their hands. Chris Osgood, who came into the season firmly entrenched as the number one netminder, has a goals-against average that is more than one full goal per game worse than last year (3.29 versus 2.09). His save percentage is down significantly as well (.880 from .914). What that means is that he has had only 26 appearances in the Wings’ 48 games and has left an opportunity for backup Ty Conklin to record major minutes.

Conklin has appeared in 24 games, recording more wins (16 versus 14 for Osgood) with a much better GAA (2.31) and save percentage (.917). It’s not as if Conklin is new to this rescue-in-relief role. He more or less saved the Penguins’ season last year when he took over for an injured Marc-Andre Fleury (17-4-5 during Fleury’s absence). The result is that the Red Wings seem to be postponing a day of reckoning. Despite Conklin’s playing relatively well -- better than Osgood in fact -- he has more or less split time with Osgood in the month of January. Conklin has six appearances this month, Osgood has seven in 12 Detroit games in January (Osgood was pulled in favor of Conklin after giving up three goals on 12 shots in the first period of the last game, a 4-2 loss to Dallas).

It’s a good thing, then, that the Red Wings are scoring at an amazing clip. They are first in the league in goals-per-game, but more than that, Detroit has 14 players in double digits in points, a dozen of them with more than 20 points. The Wings have seven players with more than ten goals, five of them with more than 15. A dozen players have at least one power play goal, seven of them with at least five.

And here is an odd number, but one that is entirely within the concept of Detroit’s philosophy of playing keep-away with the puck. Of the four skaters who have taken at least 350 faceoffs, none have lost a majority of their draws.

And another odd number, one that points to the depth of this team. No forward averages as much as 20 minutes of ice time per game. Coach Mike Babcock spreads it around.

Individually, the names at the top of the scoring list are familiar to even the most casual hockey fan – Pavel Datsyuk, Marian Hossa, Henrik Zetterberg. They’ve accounted for 60 of the 172 goals scored by the Wings, and collectively the average better than a point a game.

But there are a lot of teams with a top-trio of skaters – Ottawa has one, and they’re fighting to stay out of the lottery. The “undercard” on this team is what makes it impressive. Johan Franzen has 21 goals in 42 games, carrying over the big late season production he had last year. How big? In his last 74 games dating back to last season (including last year’s playoffs) he has 49 goals and has scored at least one goal in 38 of those games. He also leads the Red Wings in game-winning goals with six.

Jiri Hudler, whose size seemed to be a concern early in his career, is having a breakout season. His 17-22-39 scoring line has already yielded a career high in total goals and power play goals, and is only three points shy of his career high with 34 games left to play. However, Hudler is nursing a foot injury and might not play.

Daniel Cleary isn’t high on the list of goal scorers on this team, but three of his eight tallies have been game-winners (third on the team).

And then there is Tomas Holmstrom, who in a perverse sort of way might be the single irreplaceable cog in the Red Wing machine. While not necessarily the biggest player out there (6’, 203 pounds) he has developed a reputation for his backside being almost unremovable from the cage of a goalie’s mask. When he sets a screen in front, he might as well have a sign saying “WIDE LOAD” planted on the back of his shorts. It’s put him in a position to score 14 goals (sixth on the team), eight of them on the power play (tied for the top spot for Detroit). Trouble is, he (along with Zetterberg) is listed as "day-to-day" and is noted as out (as is Zetterberg) for this one. Caps goaltenders, rejoice!

On the blue line, the Wings are not only good, they’ve enjoyed continuity. Nicklas Lidstrom, Brian Rafalski, Kiklas Kronwwall, Brett Lebda, Andreas Lilja, and Brad Stuart all have played in at least 41 games, and five of them (Lebda being the exception) have played in at least 45 games. Five of them (Stuart being the exception here) have scored in double digits in points. Only Kronwall has a minus figure for the year, and the group has accounted for nine power play goals. Of the group, Stuart will not dress today, out of the lineup with an injury.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Detroit: Marian Hossa

Hossa’s numbers are impressive – a rather symmetrical 24-24-48 this year in 48 games. But he has feasted on the Caps over the years. While he is averaged 0.92 points-per-game against the rest of the league over his career, he’s averaged 1.14 points-per-game (23-27-50) in 44 career games against Washington. He is 7-7-14 in his last dozen games this season, including five power play goals. He must be drooling at the prospect of setting up against the Caps’ penalty killers. The game could turn on whether the Caps can keep him off the board on the power play.

Washington: Sergei Fedorov

Fedorov is heading to the Hockey Hall of Fame on the body of work he authored as a Red Wing. Playing against them has been another matter. In 20 career games, he is 6-6-12, -20. He might be getting first line time in this one, based on what went on at practice yesterday. That would mean he’d get his chances adding to his point total, certainly. But scoring isn’t the problem, even if the Caps have scored more than three goals only three times in 11 games this month. Defending the other guys’ power play has been the more persistent problem, and Fedorov’s experience in that regard, noted well by Japers, might be the less visible, but more important, factor here.

These are two teams of a similar specie at different stages of development. The Red Wings have the Cups, score a lot, play keep-away with the puck, the travelling red road show, the guys giving them hometown discounts on contracts. The Caps aspire to Cups, score a lot, have shown flashes of being able to play keep-away, rock the red really well in their own house and have their own road crew, and will have some interesting contract matters down the road. This is a “measurement” game – how do the Caps measure up to a genuinely elite team, even if that elite team is banged up and coming in 0-3-1 in their last four games?

We think they’re measure quite well after a couple of days of fun and drills.

Caps 4 – Red Wings 3