Saturday, February 07, 2009

A TWO-point night: Caps 3 - Panthers 1

See? They can kill penalties.

For the first time since January 3rd, the Caps killed off all the penalties they took, including a major penalty that gave the Florida Panthers a power play for all but the last second of regulation as the Caps defeated the Panthers, 3-1. It was even a better performance on the penalty kill than that as the Caps had to kill a 5-on-3 for the first 1:05 on the major penalty for checking from behind taken by Shaone Morrison, the result of a holding penalty taken by Sergei Fedorov with just under six minutes in regulation.

From the sellout crowd to the closely fought game, it had the feel of a playoff contest, and these are two teams that could find themselves playing a best-of-seven come April. Eric Fehr got things started for the Caps by working the puck up ice with Tomas Fleischmann in the first minute, snapping the puck under Tomas Vokoun’s left arm to get the Caps an early lead. Keith Ballard got the Panthers even eight minutes later with a drive from the top of the offensive zone, and after that things settled into a back and forth affair, the Caps getting a ton of shots on Vokoun, and the Panthers playing a counter-punching style for the rest of the first period and the second.

Stephen Weiss took a penalty at the end of the second period, and that would be the crack in the Florida armor the Caps would need. In the first minute of the third period, with Weiss still in the box, Alex Ovechkin readied himself for a shot on Vokoun. But with the Florida defense overplaying him, Ovechkin slid the puck to Mike Green, who rifled it over Vokoun to give the Caps the lead they would not relinquish.

Green would light the lamp one more time as the Caps were killing off the late major to Morrison, taking the puck at the boards in the corner to goalie Jose Theodore’s right, then lifting it out of the zone and all the way down the ice into the empty net vacated by Vokoun as Florida tried to take advantage with a sixth skater against the four defenders on the ice for the Caps.

Other stuff…

Although the Caps outshot the Panthers, 39-21, they also out-giveawayed (if that’s a word) the Panthers, 26-14.

Alex Ovechkin had an assist, but he also had 12 shots. That makes eight times this year he’s had at least ten in a game.

Was Florida ever going to score after Ballard’s goal? Well, if you look at the Panthers’ top six goal scorers – David Booth, Nathan Horton, Jay Bouwmeester, Cory Stillman, Michael Frolik, and Gregory Campbell – they had a combined five shots for the game. None of them had more than one, and none of them had an even strength shot on goal in the third period.

Ovechkin had the just about the whole buffet on the score sheet – 12 shots, 14 attempts, an assist, three hits, two takeaways, two blocked shots, and he won his only faceoff, creating an excellent scoring chance for himself in doing so.

We like Alexander Semin taking five shots, even if he didn’t get a goal. The six giveaways, not so much.

Shaone Morrisonn might get some grief for that last major penalty – it wasn’t an especially smart play (if you can see the guy’s name plate on the back of the jersey, don’t hit him…), but he did have four hits, too , and had a pretty decent game up to that point.

The two goals by Mike Green make for goals in six straight games. If you’re wondering, yes, Ovechkin does have a longer streak in his career – seven games (February 10th – March 8, 2006).

And speaking of Green, he is 7-6-13 in his last six games.

After Morrisonn took the major penalty at 14:59 of the third period, the Panthers had one shot on goal… one.

And, after Morrisonn’s penalty, Tom Poti took the most ice time among defensemen in killing off the major (2:48). You’d expect that. Who was next? Jeff Schultz (2:13).

Richard Zednik…four hits? OK.

And, if you’re counting…that’s 12 sellouts in the last 13 games for the Caps.

Losing isn’t a good thing, but when it happens the trick is to stop the bleeding before it becomes a habit. The Caps seemed to get the message tonight, as they pressured the Panthers from the openingdrop of the puck. Tomas Vokoun kept the Panthers competitive with some big saves, but it wasn’t evident that Florida would score after the Ballard goal unless there was some freakish deflection. That was good team defense, and great team defense when the Caps had to kill off the last five minutes of the game a man short. Just the way to wrap things up before going on the road.

Great job, boys.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Panthers, February 7th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s Hockey Night on Fun Street as the Caps try to get back on the winning track, hosting the Florida Panthers…

“Did he say ‘Panzers?...I fought the Panzers in dubya-dubya-two, ya know…”

No…Panthers..Pan-thers…the hockey team from Florida? Geez, must be a couple of Panther fans up from the retirement village in Fort Lauderdale…Anyway, tonight the Caps renew their acquaintances with a division rival, the first time the Caps have played a Southeast Division rival since New Years Day…

"…I remember New Years Day in 1948, we were at the Biltmore hotel, and you were wearing nothing but a…"

OK, that’s too much information you two… The Caps haven’t played the Panthers since December 2nd, the only time that the teams have met this year – a 5-3 panther win that gave the Caps their first loss in regulation time at home this season. The Panthers come into the game as the hot team you don’t hear anything about. Since ending 2008with a four-game losing streak, they’ve gone 9-2-3 in 2009 and climbed into the top eight in the East.

Florida has had the reputation of doing it with defense and goaltending – Bouwmeester, Vokoun, and a collection of unknowns. Well, we’ll get to them, but frankly, the recent Panther performance has been characterized by a rejuvenated offense. In the 9-2-3 run in 2009 they have scored 52 goals (3.71/game). However – and here is the key part – their production has started to tail off. After scoring 27 goals in their first five games of the new year, they have 25 in their last nine and have scored more than three in regulation only twice. Here is what they've done so far this season...

Fortunately for the Panthers, their defense has followed a similar trend as their offense in 2009. After allowing 14 goals in those first five games of the year (2.80/game), they’ve allowed only 22 in their last nine (2.44), more in line with what one expects of the 2008-2009 Panthers.

“Dancers? There are dancers at hockey games?”

Panthers, you old fart! PANTHERS! Like the cat…

“Hey, I might be old, but I don’t wanna see any fat dancers…”

Somebody get this guy a battery for his hearing aid…

Here is the odd part for a team like Florida, though. They have a reputation as a club with a good defense. You’d expect them to play games close. Then why are they 26th in the number of one-goal games played? They really ought to play more of them…they are 11-3-8 in such games. Despite being 26th in the number of one-goal games played, only seven teams have played in more one-goal games that earned them points. Every one of them, except Carolina, is in the top-eight of their conference. The motto of this is, if you don’t jump on them and let Florida hang around, they are going to bite you.

Individually, Florida doesn’t really have a lot to strike fear into opponents. Here is how they compare to the Caps is some offensive measures:

40-plus point scorers: FLA: 0 – WAS: 3
30-plus point scorers: FLA: 3 – WSH: 6
10-plus point scorers: FLA: 15 – WAS: 14
Players with game-winning goals: FLA: 14 (23 goals) – WAS: 15 (31 goals)

If you look at the last two elements there, what they appear to have is an ability to get contributions from up and down the roster. It starts with Stephen Weiss and David Booth, who not only top the scoring ranks for the Panthers, but rank first and third in plus-minus as well (Ville Peltonen being the player between these two).

Booth, in his third year in Florida, has shown a remarkable progression in his offensive game – ten points in 48 games in his rookie year, 40 points in 73 games last year, and he is on a pace for 59 this year. It won’t propel him to the top of the league scoring rankings overall, but he is developing into a goal scorer to be watched – his 20 goals puts him on a pace for 35 this season. The trouble for Booth in this game is that he’s had a recent bout with the flu. He missed the games against the Islanders and Tronto last week, but did return for Florida’s last game, a rematch against the Islanders, in which he had an assist.

Weiss, on the other hand, came to the Panthers as a fourth-overall pick in the 2001 draft. If he hasn’t achieved the level of play that might be expected of a fourth-overall pick (he’s never scored more than 48 points in a season in five full seasons preceding this one), he has become a steady performer. He finished with 48 points and 42 points the past two seasons (both in 74 games), and he is on a pace for improvement this year (59, at his current scoring pace). He’s had some success against the Caps – 7-10-17 in 26 games.

But the soap opera in Florida is “As the Bouwmeester Turns.” Speculation on whether Jay Bouwmeester would be traded by the March trading deadline has been going on for the better part of a year. Given Floeida’s stuggles in the standings the past few years (they have not made the playoffs since 2000), it was a given that Florida would move the young defenseman for a Brinks truck worth of prospects, picks, and/or players. Now? Well, it would still look as if Bouwmeester will be moved (he seems to prefer playing elsewhere), but it isn’t quite the slam-dunk it might have been in October.

While all of this is going on, Bouwmeester is playing as if he’s trying to bring the Panthers an even larger return that at fine, young two-way defensemen who is among the best skaters in the game would otherwise bring. He is tied for fourth on the team in points (28), third in goals (12), leads the team in power play goals (7), and leads the league in ice time per game. He is the very model of the cornerstone franchise defenseman. The games Florida plays between now an March 4th will probably pale in entertainment compared to the speculation surrounding Bouwmeester’s possible new destinations.

In goal, Tomas Vokoun had a finish to 2008 that he might like to forget. But 2009, that’s another story. The 2008 and 2009 portions of his season so far break down like this…

2008: 8-12-3, 2.83, .916
2009: 7-2-2, 2.15, .923

In 11 games in 2009, Vokoun has allowed more than two goals only three times. He’s had excellent number against the Caps – 2.16 GAA and a .933 save percentage – even though he’s played in a bit of bad luck, with only a 6-6-0 career record against Washington to show for it.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Florida: Nathan Horton

In an eight-game stretch from December 27 through January 10th, Horton scored six goals. Since then, he has had one in nine games. While he has managed to score by way of assist (nine in those nine games), Florida could use the additional firepower. His problem appears to be in shooting the puck. In 2007-2008, he had 217 shots on goal. Last year, 212. He is on a pace this year for 137. He’s had more than two shots in a game only once in 14 games in 2009. He hasn’t had more than three since early November. The Panthers might like him to shoot a bit more. Against the Caps, he is 5-7-12, -2 in 26 career games.

Washington: Alexander Semin

Here is another guy who might benefit from being a bit more selfish. He has taken more than three shots in a game 11 times this year. He has goals in seven of them. This might be why he should not be on a line with Alex Ovechkin. Like a lot of goal scorers, he scores them in bunches. Of the 20 he has this year, he’s had six in five games, seven in eight games, four in three games, and now two in three games, accounting for 19 of the 20 he’s scored. You’d have to like his chances in this game to get one…if he shoots the puck.

Florida is the kind of team that can give the Caps fits. They play a defensive style, they get good goaltending, they tend to play games close. But Washington plays one-goal games pretty well, too. The Caps are 13-6-4 in such contests this year (tied for 10th in winning percentage). We’re thinking it will be low scoring, with perhaps an empty-netter at the end…

Caps 3 – Panthers 1