Friday, February 06, 2009

A dozen games until the trading deadline...

...a dozen questions…

1. (When) does Neuvirth get a start?

With Brent Johnson now scheduled to undergo a hip procedure next week, Jose Theodore will have to shoulder the load, but he can’t play in every game. At the moment, the backup duties fall to the untested and untried Michal Neuvirth, a prospect of considerable potential, but one who has played a grand total of 21 games as a professional, none of them in the NHL. The Caps’ schedule coming up has Florida on tap at Verizon Center on Saturday, then a three-game road trip (Rangers, Lightning, Panthers). The games are spaced so that Theodore could play them all (Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday), but it might be that the Caps will want to get a take on Neuvirth to see how urgently they need to look for a stop-gap replacement for Johnson. We think he’ll get a call within the week. Tampa looks like a good bet.

2. Does the schedule present an opportunity?

We think it does, because it offers two things that the Caps seem to need at the moment. First, an opportunity to play games against their divisional opponents. Six of the dozen games before the deadline are against Southeast Division opponents (Florida three times, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Atlanta). The stars are aligned to make hay against the weak sisters (Atlanta, Tampa Bay) and the injured (Carolina), and to slam the door on the upstart Panthers. There are 12 points here for the taking. We think the Caps should grab eight. Ten would be better (duh…).

But the schedule also provides an opportunity for the Caps to test their mettle against teams they might see in the playoffs – the Rangers, Montreal, Philadelphia, Boston, and (yes, although we'll get to that) Pittsburgh. Three of those games are at home. The Caps have done well against such teams this year, and it would be helpful to maintain the competitive sharpness games against these teams provide. There are ten points there. If the Caps earn six, color us satisfied. If they get eight?...giddy.

3. Are the Caps going to be buyers at the deadline?

It seems the Caps will have a little – very little – wiggle room under the Cap to make a deadline move. They could go shopping for some insurance on defense, some grit up front, or they might have to find that replacement for Johnson. They have trading assets to use. Michael Nylander’s name has been bounced around more than a basketball at a Terps practice. But there are other assets, if the Caps think they can really go deep in the playoffs, and if the Caps use them fans in Hershey will not be pleased. Players such as Oskar Osala, Francois Bouchard, Mathieu Perreault, Chris Bourque, and perhaps even a Neuvirth, for that matter, whatever their potential as future Caps, also have value in trade. But that gets complicated a bit, by…

4. Will Eric Fehr finish what he starts?

When Fehr was a draft-eligible junior, we prognosticated that he would be drafted by Washington. We looked at his goal scoring progression in juniors thereafter, and in his AHL years, and thought he had a good chance to be doing much the same thing on the right side of the top line at some point. Then, injuries and the delays to his development that stemmed from that stopped his progress. He is still only 23, but it seems as though the clock is ticking on him. He’s played very well lately, getting top line opportunities last night and going 2-2-4 in his last four games. As much as the output has been his assertiveness. He has 17 shots on goal in his last four games, and as Alex Ovechkin shows, goal scorers don’t score if they don’t shoot. Now, Fehr needs to bury more of these chances. If he can produce in the next dozen games, it might make it easier on the Caps to move a youngster further down the food chain.

5. Does Karl Alzner return for good?

Here is what we wrote before checking in with Tarik El-Bashir

It’s the kind of question that makes one think “bomb disposal specialist” is a job preferable to “professional sports general manager.” With Johnson out for surgery, it might signal a chance for the Caps to use any cap savings to recall Alzner. Except, the Caps have six healthy defensemen playing satisfactorily (last night notwithstanding), and the Caps might have need of a defenseman with more grit and experience for the road ahead in the playoffs than Alzner has at the moment. Unless there is an emergency, we don’t think he’s going to be called up (which means Capital Insider is probably reporting his recall as we type this).

Sure enough, Alzner’s been called up.

6. Which Tomas Fleischmann will show up as the season winds down?

In his first 36 games, Fleischmann was 15-8-23. In his last eight games, he is 0-2-0. Perhaps more troubling, he’s not getting (or not taking) any shots on goal. In those first 36 games, he had 76 shots. In his last eight games…nine. And, he’s had no more than two shots in any of them. Compare that to the 18 shots he had in his previous eight games (in which he had five goals). Oddly, though, in the first 36 games he was -11. In the last eight, he is +6. Go figure. If we could have the goal-scoring, plus-making Fleischmann, that would be nice.

7. Can Ovechkin replay 2008?

From February 1, 2008, forward to the end of the regular season, Alex Ovechkin went 22-20-42, +14 in 30 games. By way of comparison, he is 24-14-38, -3 in his last 30 games through last night. He’s going to get a break, if you can believe that, by getting more chances against Southeast Division opponents that he’s had a lot of success against in his career. His past-30 games goal scoring pace puts him on a pace to finish with 60 at the end of the year. Even if Ovechkin gets some of his minutes reduced (if the Caps are taking a big division lead into March, for example), it would seem likely those would be the PK minutes he gets (he averages 1:16 in penalty killing time per game at the moment). There could be another big finish in store.

8. Is Theodore really…I mean “really” now, no fooling…”the man?”

Japers has periodically made the point, using some pretty compelling numbers, that Theodore does have a distinctly dual-personality when it comes to his goaltending performance. His second halves are Martin Brodeur-like, while his first halves are more Martin Short. That’s nice, but really…c’mon now, no foolin’ around… is he really the guy? Or is this just the last, best, most cruel trick ever played on a Caps Nation that has seen more than its share of tricks played on it by fate. Using the data Japers employed, one thing that might bear watching is how much rubber he faces. Since Christmas, Theodore has been in the upper half of this group in terms of fewest shots per game faced. It’s one thing to have a goalie you are not quite 100 percent sold on (which is probably consensus in Caps Nation), it is another to test the proposition needlessly by leaving him out to dry to face a lot of shots.

9. Can the Caps overtake Boston?

The short answer to this is, “no.” Now, here’s the long answer. The Bruins began the year 2-2-3. Since then, they are 37-6-3. They’ve lost two games in regulation in succession once in that span. The Bruins have 29 games left to play. In the worst 29-game span they’ve had at any time since that start, they still earned 46 points (22-5-2, from November 22nd through January 29th). If the Bruins were to match that level of output over their last 29 games, they would finish with 130 points. The Caps have 70 points with 29 games to play. If the Caps win them all, they get to 128. Caps fans, do yourself a favor… put Boston out of your minds until May.

10. Can the Caps be overtaken for second?

The short answer to this is…“no.” Here is why (without all the empirical mumbo-jumbo). Montreal can’t catch them, because they can’t catch Boston (division winners getting the top three seeds automatically). Fourth is as high as they’ll finish. That leaves, as a practical matter one of: New Jersey, New York Rangers, or Philadelphia. On Hallowe’en, the Rangers were 10-2-1. Trick or treat? Since then, they are 19-16-4 and, with a record of 6-5-2 in 2009, have the look of a team that is this close to a major collapse.

New Jersey might have shot their ammunition already. The Devils just had their eight-game winning streak ended by the Caps, but the wheels were already coming off that wagon. The Devils have surrendered 11 goals in their last three games, and they have Boston and San Jose coming up in mid-February in consecutive games. At some point, Martin Brodeur will come back, but he’s in a place he hasn’t been before, and that the Devils haven’t been in, in almost two decades – wondering if Brodeur will be the rock in goal he’s always been.

Philadelphia has the most ground to make up against the Caps (nine points), and they are six points behind the Devils. Plus, their goaltending situation doesn’t argue for long winning streaks. Despite the fact that he’s played in only 21 games, Antero Niittymaki has better numbers (11-4-4, 2.59, .917) than number one netminder, Martin Biron (15-11-5, 2.89, .905). Biron was the hero last year, but having lost his last four decisions (giving up 14 goals in the process) he’s not looking lately as if he’ll repeat that performance.

Unless the Caps suffer a collapse, then second place looks like a better-than-even bet.

11. Will the Caps meet the Penguins in the playoffs?

The short answer to this is…”no.” Not in the first round, not in the second round, not ever this year. Why? Because the Penguins are the kind of mess in the same way that a room of furniture bought from eight different stores is a mess. The pieces don’t seem to fit coherently to make for a long, successful run of wins. Do they match Crosby and Malkin on a line, or do they split them up? When is Gonchar coming back? What winger can they match with Crosby to get any production? What happened to the power play (tied with Tampa for 23rd overall and dead last in the NHL on the road)? What happened to Fleury (he’s saved fewer than 90 percent of the shots he’s faced in nine of the last 16 games he’s played)? Do Crosby and coach Michel Therrien not get along? Will – or when will – Therrien be fired? The Penguins have, as they say, “issues” that go far beyond a Stanley Cup hangover. Even Barry Melrose, who would know the specie (having seen one up close coaching Tampa Bay this year), said that the Penguins aren’t a very good hockey team.

12. Who won’t be a Cap on the late afternoon of March 4th?

We’re a month out from the trading deadline, and you’re asking that question? Sorry, you’ll have to stay tuned to get that prognostication.

Vox Populi

Thanks to the folks at OFB for pointing the way to the ESPN poll.

A NO-point night: Kings 5 - Caps 4

It was fitting that last night’s opponent was the Los Angeles Kings. I felt as if I was hearing the voice of Charlton Heston standing upon the rock in "The Ten Commandments," proclaiming...

“Behold, his mighty hand!"

And then the Red Sea parted.

That was pretty much the recipe for success for the Los Angeles Kings as they parted the red-jerseyed Capitals often for breaks down the middle of the ice for scores and scoring chances, then held on for dear life in the final seconds in a 5-4 defeat of Washington last night.

Even though the Caps scored 15 seconds into the game when Brooks Laich stripped Matt Greene of the puck behind the Kings’ net and fed Alexander Semin for an early goal, you saw what was coming. Barely a minute later, Kings defenseman Jack Johnson found Derek Armstrong breaking down the middle of the ice, and with both Milan Jurcina and Jeff Schultz caught outside the dots on either wall of the ice, Armstrong had an unimpeded path to goalie Jose Theodore. The Caps’ goalie made the save, but that was just a taste of what was to come.

Only a minute after that, Michal Handzus found Alexander Frolov sprinting down the middle of the ice all alone behind Mike Green on a shorthanded breakaway. Theodore made the save once more (talk about a guy who would deserve a lot better than what he got on this evening from his teammates).

After the Kings tied the game on a 5-on-3 power play to close the scoring in the first period, Los Angeles broke the tie early in the second when Tom Poti and Shaone Morrisonn both found themselves, not only on the same side of the ice, but along the same stretch of boards. Standing between them, Frolov backhanded the puck to Anze Kopitar breaking free – down the middle – and the Kings’ center banged the puck past Theodore.

Then, on a Caps power play, Handzus beat Sergei Fedorov to a loose puck at the Kings’ blue line, then fed Frolov breaking – down the middle – past Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin closed the distance, but Frolov managed to stop, turn, and put a shot on Theodore. The goalie could not find the puck beneath him, and Handzus swooped in to poke it into the net for a 3-1 Los Angeles lead.

The Caps got one back when Mike Green lugged the puck out of his own end, then fed Nicklas Backstrom cutting down the left side. Backstrom slid the puck back to Green, who ended up all alone to flick the puck past goalie Jonathan Quick to get the Caps back to within one.

That didn’t last long. From his own blue line, Kopitar found Patrick O’Sullivan breaking – down the middle – behind John Erskine. All that was left for O’Sullivan to do was take a couple of steps, deke, and slap the puck past Theodore to restore the two-goal Kings lead and leaving Theodore shaking his head at his own defense.

Right after the very next faceoff, Kyle Quincey lobbed the puck out of the Los Angeles end and found O’Sullivan at the Caps blue line. As he was falling, O’Sullivan backhanded a pass to Frolov – barreling down the middle – who was foiled by Theodore. I could almost hear a voice...maybe Theodore's..."please, Mommy, make it stop."

The Caps got it back to one again in the third period when a puck squirted out of the right wing corner to Quick’s left. Alex Ovechkin caught the puck, and in one motion wristed it past Quick before he could square himself, and Ovechkin killed the two birds with one puck of getting his 200th career goal and notching his first career goal against the Kings.

The Kings got it back, though, in the last 90 seconds when Kyle Calder and Dustin Brown were allowed to cycle the puck between themselves in the left wing corner. Calder ended up with it, then stepped out unchallenged from Theodore’s right. Taking two whacks at it, Calder managed to slide it past Theodore and close the Kings’ scoring.

With Theodore off for the extra attacker, the Caps made it interesting with just over a minute to play when a wrister from the point by Mike Green was deflected past Quick by Brooks Laich to shave the deficit to one goal. It set up a furious finish for the Caps, but they could not get the equalizer, as the Kings held on for the 5-4 finish.

So…what of it?

- It might be a blessing that the Caps lost this game. Had the Caps actually come back and won, or even forced extra time to get a standings point, after playing their worst hockey of the season in the first 40 minutes (the goal 15 seconds in, notwithstanding), it would have sent a bad karma message, rewarding the Caps for bad behavior. And let’s face it, they stunk on toast.

- It would be easy to criticize the defense for all those free and easy strolls the Kings took down the middle of the ice in the Caps’ end. And, they’d deserve it. But it isn’t as if the forwards were putting up much of a fight keeping Kings from sending those passes in for those breakaways. We might not be an expert on this, but waving a stick isn’t a defense (and neither is sticking it in a guy’s sternum – Shaone Morrisonn, we’re looking at you).

- Six power plays allowed, two of them 5-on-3’s. Caps fans might scratch their heads at some odd officiating (how does David Steckel get a minor for roughing when he’s being mauled by two Kings?), but the Caps didn’t exactly put themselves in a position to do much other than take penalties in too many instances. Penalties resulting from lazy play. Sniff…sniff, sniff. What’s that? Oh, the hairs on the back of Bruce Boudreau’s neck burning while he’s watching this go on.

-- Nicklas Backstrom…3-of-12 on draws in the offensive zone. For a team that has a fair amount of success scoring goals off set plays off faceoffs, that’s not especially helpful. Add to that the fact that Backstrom lost both defensive draws, and we’re wondering if there isn’t some sort of University of Phoenix online class he can take to improve his proficiency (he’s been above 50 percent in three of his last 24 games).

-- On the other end of that, Michal Handzus won 11 of 14 draws in the defensive end for Los Angeles.

-- The Caps took nine of the last ten shots of the game in the last 3:10 of play. Trouble was, the one shot the Kings took, they scored on (Calder).

-- The Caps had two missed shots all night?...two??

-- Penalty-Killing Watch: That's 13 games, and counting, having allowed at least one power play goal. The Caps are 53-for-71 in that span (74.6 percent). Yeesh...

-- Nine goals in this game, and Milan Jurcina isn't on the ice for any of them. Huh...

-- Ovechkin was on the ice for six of them. Trouble was, the score in those instances was 3-3.

-- Ditto, Mike Green.

-- We know, Jeff Schultz will get pounded for his play in other spaces, but he was on the ice for only one Kings goal, the 5-on-3 power play goal in the first period.

-- From the NHL official play-by-play…"WSH #21 LAICH(13), Tip-In, Off. Zone, 64 ft. Assists: #52 GREEN(27); #19 BACKSTROM(42).” A “tip-in” from 64 feet? I don’t know what’s more amazing, the fact that Laich was able to be that good at tipping, that Quick was that asleep in the crease to defend it, or that the official scorer actually typed that in.

It would be hard to say that any Cap played a good game. A few of them played a “desperate” game in the last ten minutes, but all in all, this was a waste. As I was going to the game last night, I was thinking – as a number of Caps fans might have been – that this might be a “let down” game after a nice run against the likes of Boston, Detroit, and New Jersey.

As a season ticket holder, that sort of goes with the package – there will be exhilarating nights, and there will be games that are real dogs (guess which one this ends up under). But for a father and his son who might have driven 75 miles or so to see the Caps for what might be their only time this year, they might not have had much in the way of a memorable experience, whatever the ferocity the Caps showed in the last 90 seconds. It was that ugly a game.

That might not seem fair to players who put it on the line for 82 nights a season, but that’s part of what they signed up for, too. I don’t think these are two points the Caps are going to need to win the Southeast, but there aren’t any throw away games in a season, either. And you had the feeling the Caps just threw this one away. It was a very disappointing night.