Sunday, February 22, 2009

A TWO-point, TEN-topping afternoon: Caps 5 - Penguins 2

“The NHL on NBC” became reality television for the Pittsburgh Penguins today as they came in, found that instead of thousands, they had merely dozens of black-and-gold (or baby blue) clad fans on hand, and promptly laid an egg. The Caps clinched the season series and delivered a message, period and point blank in a 5-2 win.

The page has turned.

Caps fans and a national television audience saw two teams going in opposite directions this afternoon. The Penguins looked like a team whose moment is already over. The Capitals look like a team that might (he said while rubbing a rabbit’s foot and nailing up a horseshoe) have a parade to plan in June.

The Caps ended the competitive portion of the game in the first 35 minutes of the game, which was the time it took to put the five-spot on the record of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. It’s probably a good thing, too, because at the other end of the ice, Caps goalie Jose Theodore was leaving some tasty rebounds to open the action. Of course, giving rebounds means he was stopping pucks in the first place. Fleury, on the other hand, wasn’t so fortunate. Maybe it was the back-to-back starts, maybe it was the defense in front of him, or maybe he just plain played poorly.

On the other hand, seems the Caps respond well to abuse. The practice they had after the Colorado debacle – the Kettler Death Skate – had the intended effect. The Caps pressured the Penguins early, made their defensemen handle the puck and make decisions quickly (for all his considerable gifts, this not one of Sergei Gonchar’s), and kept Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in check (each with an inconsequential assist on the same power play goal).

Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin abused Fleury in the same fashion he’s abused other goaltenders – a one-timer from the left wing circle – for the game’s first goal. The thing with this one, though, is the passing between Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Backstrom, which looks to be quite a match. From the right wing boards, Fedorov laid the puck out for Backstrom in the middle of the ice, who swept the puck in one motion to Ovechkin to fire before Fleury could get across. Chalk that one up to a team executing a play as diagrammed.

But then, Fleury’s day took a turn. Alexander Semin’s goal was the product of a waiting game between Semin and Fleury that took all of two or three seconds. It was a matter of who would commit first, Semin with the puck, or Fleury going into his butterfly. If you’re a Penguin fan, you’re wishing you had a stand-up goalie there, because it was Fleury who committed, and Semin stepped to the side and fired the puck top shelf into the net.

Goal three was on a feed from Semin – who swiped the puck from Jordan Staal, then froze Ryan Whitney in his tracks, making him believe he was taking the shot – to Fedorov, who was steaming down the middle. Fedorov let fly from the high slot with a slapper that sailed over Fleury’s blocker and into the net.

Goal four was the nail in the coffin of Fleury’s day, except coach Dan Bylsma couldn’t get him off fast enough. Alex Ovechkin circled with the puck through the Penguin zone and fired a shot from the right hash marks. Fleury made the save, kicking the puck to the far boards, where it ended up on Shaone Morrisonn’s stick. Morrisonn flicked the puck back at the net, and it went in – a dagger that came after the Penguins closed the lead to 3-2.

Bylsma finally put Fleury out of his misery on the sort of goal of which it might be said that the puck had eyes. The Penguins gave the puck away behind their own net, Fleury putting a pass intended for Hal Gill right on the stick of Semin, who then fed the puck high to Tom Poti. The Caps defenseman let fly with a slapper, but it sailed wide to Fleury’s right. Brooks Laich picked the puck up in the corner and just threw it at the net from below the goal line. The puck crawled over Fleury’s right pad and dropped on the line, then trickled just across before Gill could sweep it out. And thus, Fleury’s day ended.

It was not a clinic in goaltending.

After that, the game was essentially a matter of two issues. First, would the Caps get the crowd an order of free wings by getting a sixth goal (they didn’t), and would the referees march Caps to the penalty box (they did). The Penguins would be the beneficiaries of three third period power plays (the Caps would receive none), perhaps in an effort to keep hordes of fans from turning the channel to the latest boring early season golf tournament action on CBS (final round of the Northern Trust Open).

But here is where the pain of the Saturday practice perhaps came into play. On the three power plays, the Penguins managed only four shots, and only one in the last two combined. None of them were by Evgeni Malkin, and only one was registered by Sidney Crosby.

Game over, thanks for coming…drive safely. Some other stuff…

-- Nine Caps shared in the scoring fun, five of them registering two points (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Morrisonn, Semin, and Fedorov)

-- That was Morrisonn’s first multi-point game since March 10, 2007, when he had two assists in a 5-2 loss to the Islanders.

-- The two assists for Backstrom leaves him 3-11-14, +6 in ten February games.

-- We’re betting there was a new – or at least a substitute – official scorer for this one. The teams were credited with a combined 80 hits… eight-zero hits. Only two Penguins (Mark Eaton and Petr Sykora) failed to scratch that column of the score sheet.

-- Marc-Andre Fleury was credited with three giveaways, an uncommon number for a goaltender (yeah, he was that bad today). He would have led the team but for the Golden Child, who had five.

-- Alexander Semin…two points, four takeaways, NO giveaways. He earned his star.

-- On the other hand, a guy who didn’t get a star we thought had a monster game. Brooks Laich netted a goal, had a couple of hits, and won a pair of faceoffs he took. But that’s a case where the official numbers don’t do the player justice. He was harassing Penguins all over the ice, as if he was some herring on steroids looking to avenge all the kin who were snacks along the way.

-- Speaking of harassment, it might not have been clear on TV, but every opportunity that presented itself to jostle or yap at Crosby was taken. Ovechkin was in on it, Laich, the defense, it seemed like everyone had something to say to Crosby. Some of it was in response to stick work from Crosby, some of it was just to be friendly. It seemed to have the intended effect. Crosby spent a lot of time leaning over the boards yapping back at the Capitals’ bench and looking for a pound of flesh when he was on the ice. The Caps turned Crosby into Matt Cooke. They’ll take that ten games out of ten.

-- Did John Erskine take an online class or pick up a “Defensemen for Dummies” book at Amazon? He’s looked more and more like a solid, reliable defenseman as time has gone by this year. It’s not even as much that his minutes and matchups have to be managed as much as in the past. He’s just playing pretty well.

-- Eric Fehr didn’t attempt a shot on goal – not something you want to see from a guy who has been scoring points pretty regularly these days, but it didn’t hurt his hustle in forechecking.

-- We were wondering how Pittsburgh’s power play could be so bad this year. We’re not wondering any more. They’re too cute. Gonchar will bomb from the blue line (he scored that way), which is in his job description under “power play,” but the other guys? Color us unimpressed, at least today.

-- There are days when the Caps have faceoff problems (-cough- Backstrom) that is a lack of skill in the middle. Not today. Backstrom did a pretty good job of winning draws or fighting to a draw, but the Caps at times just didn’t support the play very well. And, although Backstrom will record this as another sub.500 effort in the circle, he was a combined 4-for-6 in the offensive and defensive zones.

-- Getting off on the right foot… that is 12 consecutive games in which the Caps have scored a first period goal. They have 20 goals in that span and have gone 8-2-2.

-- Eight wingers for the Penguins (including Evgeni Malkin, who started at right wing) had 11 shots, total. Petr Sykora had five of those, and none other had more than one (including Malkin).

-- The Penguins are trying to play a much more “north-south” game under Bylsma than they seemed to play under Michel Therrien. We’re wondering, though, if they have the defensemen to do this. Hal Gill and Mark Eaton looked slow and out of place in this scheme. Kris Letang sat (again), and Alex Gologoski is in Wilkes-Barre. They seem better suited to what Bylsma wants to do offensively, but neither of them are especially sturdy in their own end. You have to think the Penguins will be moving a defenseman at some point.

-- Of course, Whitney might make that job easy with the way he’s playing. Before taking a puck to the face in the third period, he was a minus-2, took a penalty, and had three giveaways. Did he come back too soon from his injury, or has he been overrated?

-- We’ll give Petr Sykora credit. The wingers for the Penguins have been a much-maligned bunch. But Sykora was out there launching shots to try to get something going. Twice he had excellent chances on rebounds offered up by Theodore, but had the puck bounce over his stick each time with an open net staring at him.

-- Question…If Sidney Crosby is driving along I-95, does he get booed at toll booths, too? Washington, Philadelphia, New York. He’s not a popular guy.

As long as the Penguins have Crosby and Malkin, they will be dangerous, a team capable of beating any other – including the Capitals -- on any given night. But this afternoon, Crosby got his point, Malkin got his, Gonchar got a goal, and the Penguins got next to nothing from everyone else, plus a grisly game from their starting goalie – a microcosm of their season. Meanwhile, the Caps got five multi-point games, including such games from the guys who you expect to get them – Semin, Ovechkin, Backstrom – and a guy you don’t expect to get one (Morrisonn). They got a decent, if not spectacular, performance from their goalie, who got better as the game wore on – a microcosm of their season.

The Caps didn't get the crowd their wings, but it will be a busy time at a local pizza firm's stores tomorrow. As for the hockey, it was two teams going in opposite directions. We’re happy with the one the Caps are on. Great job boys…

Looking in the mirror and seeing yourself

On this Sunday morning, consider the hockey teams separated by a couple of hours -- Hershey and Washington, one the AHL affiliate of the other. Think these teams are similar? Yes, they play from the same playbook of style, and many Bears have skated on Verizon Center ice this year. But this morning, or rather last night, with the electrifying finish the Bears authored, the similarities took a new turn...

37 wins - 17 losses

That's right...both teams have this many wins and this many losses in regulation.

Cue The Twilight Zone music.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Penguins, February 22nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

And here we are, trying to keep from this being a lost weekend against inferior opponents, which is an odd thing to say when one of those opponents, and the object of today’s exercise, is a finalist from last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. But the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves on the outside, looking in at the playoffs at the moment with less than two months remaining in the regular season. The Penguins being The Penguins, this will be one of those games that fans get up for as much as players, and given the state of crowds at Verizon Center this year, it should be loud. And that’s why we visited Dr. Vynot Schootdepuck, Director of Advanced Applications at the Bettman Institute of Technology and Competitive Hockey.

Dr. V, I’m guessing that you and the other geniuses at BITCH really know a lot about noise.

“Oh, ja, dats vun zubjeckt vee know qvite a bit about. Ve’re alvays bitching arount here.”

I see… well, the crowds at Verizon Center have been loud this year, but we wanted to get a flavor for just how loud “loud” is. Can you shed some light on this for us?

“Zertainly. Vutt ve heff here is a scale of loudness zat iss measured in vutt ve call 'dezzibells.'”


“Ja...dezzibells. Let me tr-r-r-ry to describe ziss in terms you can unnershtand. At ze one end of ze dezzibell shpecktrum, you have a quiet vissper in a library – or a typical Islander home game – zat’s bout 30 dezzibells. Iff you heff a normal converzashun, zay, like you voot heff at a Panthers home game, zat voot be about zixty-fife dezzibells. Unnershant?”

Yes, I think I do…but vutt…what about Caps games, Professor?

“Ah, zat is vhere sinks get inter-r-r-restink. Vay beck venn ze Kepps vere vutt ve call “shtinkypoo,” you could hear a pin dr-r-r-upp. But now, ach du lieber! It’s cr-r-r-razy. You heff dat guy mit de horn. Mein gott! I hevent heard zuch a ting zince I played ze alphorn beck home venn I vuss a boy. Zehn zere iss zat guy mit the booming voice. I zingk zere are libr-r-r-rarians in Dusseldorf going “SHHHHH!” effry time he zhtarts mit de “LET’S GO CAPS” ting.”

Tell me, Professor, with the Penguins coming to town, is there anything special we should look for in terms of noise when the Penguins visit Verizon Center?

“Oh, ja, but you von’t know it.”

Why is that?

“Vunn ting dat vill happen, qvite often I tink, is zat dogs all around ze arena vill ztart to howl.”

And that is because…

“Oh, dat’s venn Zidney Cr-r-r-rosby ztarts to vine. It’s de kind of zound only dogs and referees can hear.”

Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. The Penguins come to town having earned five of six standings points in three games at the dawn of the Age of Bylsma. Since Dan Bylsma took over from Michel Therrien, there is a spring in their step, a sparkle in their skate blades, and a song in their hearts. They’ve also scored five goals in each of their last two games, which is an ominous sign for the Caps this afternoon and the rest of the league in general. It is the first time the Penguins have hit the five-goal mark in consecutive games since turning the trick in the first two games of November (6-3 over St. Louis and 5-4 over Edmonton).

Three games does not a trend make, but the early returns point to a distinct change in style for Pittsburgh from what had become the case under Therrien. Looking at the 2009 portion of the season, here is how the numbers stack up under the two coaches…

Overall, though, Pittsburgh does have a hole out of which they must dig, and 22 games in which to do it. Although much of the season has been spent with fans of Penguins searching everywhere but the Anchor Bar for wings to play with Sidney Crosby, their problems have been manifold, as the overall numbers show…

Pittsburgh comes into this game with two wins in their last three games, but the margin of error has been razor thin – a shootout loss to a team thinking “Tavares” more than “playoffs,” a one-goal win over a team preoccupied by bad play and emerging scandal, and a one-goal win coming on a gift from an old friend. “Dominant” is not quite the adjective that comes to mind in thinking of the Penguins, but a team struggling to right itself for a stretch run has to start somewhere.

Unless you’ve been living on that island those folks in the plane crash on TV have been living on (and if they can get video of their exploits off the island every week, why can’t they just come along, too?), you know that the Penguins are led in scoring by Evgeni Malkin (27-59-86) and Sidney Crosby (23-55-78).

What you probably don’t know is that the Penguins’ next leading scorer (Petr Sykora: 22-20-42) ranks 72nd in the league, as of this writing. And therin lies a part of the problem for the Penguins. Here’s a comparison…the Caps’ third and fourth leading scorers are Mike Green and Alexander Semin. Both have more points than Sykora. Both have done it in at least ten fewer games – Sykora has played in 57 games, Green in 46, Semin in 40.

At least Tampa Bay had a big three to get them to a Cup. A big two isn’t going to get it done for the Penguins. They have to find some other scoring from somewhere. The question becomes, who are the candidates?

You’d think Sykora might be a candidate, he being the third leading scorer, but he is only 1-0-1 in his last five games. He’s had five assists since Christmas, two of them coming in February. He might pot goals from time to time, but he’s not helping out much (that being the province of Evgedney Malskby).

OK, so how about Ruslan Fedotenko? Fedotenko lost more than a month to injury when he went all Mike Tyson on Colby Armstrong in a 3-1 win over Atlanta on January 6th. Since coming back from the hand injury he suffered in the fight, he took a couple of games to get back into skating shape, but he had a pair of goals and an assist in yesterday’s 5-4- win over the Flyers. That’s 2-3-5, +4 in his last two games. This is the sort of production the Penguins need. Crosby and Malkin are constants, they are givens. They will get their points. But a guy like Fedotenko is key. If this is a two-game spurt, only to be followed by the sort of season he had up to that point (11-10-21 in 41 games), then the Penguins’ road to the playoffs will be more difficult.

After that, the pickings get pretty slim as far as scoring off the wings. Miroslav Satan has had one of the most disappointing seasons in the league. 15-18-33 isn’t what folks probably had in mind when he was signed off of Long Island last off season. He had a game-winning goal against Atlanta on December 18th. Since then, he has three goals in 29 games. He’s the fourth-leading goal scorer on the team.

You get the picture? This is a team that – the three-game Age of Bylsma notwithstanding – relies entirely too much on Evgedney Malksby.

That’s only half the problem. The three-plus goals the Penguins are giving up a game is the other half. You could say that the loss of Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney for a combined 89 man-games to injury is a large, if not the largest part of that problem. We’re not buying that one. Neither Gonchar nor Whitney have made a reputation in this league as a shut-down defenseman. They’re hardly incompetent in their own end (although Whitney’s -13 in 27 games makes one wonder, at least this year), but they’re out there to move the puck and provide some punch. And besides, the Caps have had 12 defensemen dress for them this year – not including turns taken by Sergei Fedorov and Brooks Laich – and they’re on a pace for 110 points.

Brooks Orpik pays a bigger price than most to defend his end (see our reference to the “Bobby Gould Trophy”). His 340 combined hits and blocked shots is evidence of that. But…seeing as how he gets next to no power play time (35 seconds a game), he makes his money chewing up even strength ice time and stopping teams at 5-on-5. Well, he’s minus-3. Not bad – he pulls difficult defense assignments – but only Kris Letang (who was scratched by Bylsma after the new coach saw him for one game before getting a sweater against the Flyers) and the aforementioned Whitney are worse.

We’ve said this before, but Rob Scuderi doesn’t get enough credit as a defenseman. He might be the best “defenseman” on this team, if you’re looking for a defenseman to defend. He is the only Penguins defenseman to have played in all 60 games for the team this season, he leads all defensemen in plus-minus (no small thing, considering he gets only four seconds of power play ice time a game). He’s done it with discipline, receiving only 12 penalty minutes this season. But here is perhaps his most impressive stat – he is the only Penguin defenseman who does not have more giveways than takeaways. His ration of 1.00 (takeaways to giveaways) is better than Orpik (0.30), Whitney (0.32), or Letang (0.39).

Orpik is at least competent in his own end, Scuderi has been extremely efficient. That leaves us with goaltending, and frankly, this season is a step backward for Marc-Andre Fleury. Capable of the SportsCenter highlight save, he is also capable of allowing questionable goals along with exhibiting a maddening sense of inconsistency. Since January 1st, he is 10-8-2, 2.77, .911. Those aren’t bad numbers. They’re not great, either. But buried in there, he’s had five decisions in which he allowed one or no goals, and he has six decisions in which he’s allowed at least four goals. He’s the messy kid who can’t keep his food on the plate.

Since Fleury got the start on Saturday, the task might fall to the latest contestant in the “Conk II” contest to see who can actually serve as a competent backup in place of last year’s backup hero, Ty Conklin, who is Detroit’s number one goalie these days. And that new entry is Mathieu Garon.

The early returns are not encouraging. OK, he’s had one game with the Penguins, that being a 21-save effort against the Maple Leafs on January 30th. The trouble is, those 21 saves came on 26 shots in a 5-4 loss.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Pittsburgh: Sergei Gonchar

The Penguins power play has been disappointing all year. It has been downright vomit-making on the road. Until today, when they went 1-of-4 against the Flyers, they were dead last in the league in road power play conversions. They now stand at 28th. That’s where Gonchar comes in. The Penguins have power play goals in two of their last three games. Gonchar has assists on both of them. Again, three games is not a trend, but Gonchar’s being able to contribute on the power play is a critical ingredient to the Penguins’ success.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

When last we left these teams on the ice of the Verizon Center, Backstrom had that moment that every player in sports fears. His Jim Marshall moment, his Andres Escobar moment (fortunately, Caps fans are more forgiving than Columbian soccer fans). Backstrom shot the puck into his own net with 28 seconds left to give the Penguins a lead in what would turn out to be a 4-2 loss for the Capitals. Backstrom has recovered from the trauma nicely, thank you very much. Since then, he is 18-55-73, +22 in 73 games. He’s also had a really nice February – 3-9-12, +6 in nine games. The own goal notwithstanding, he’s been a real Magic Johnson against the Penguins – ten points in six career games, all assists.

The Caps have won three of the last four meetings of these teams, with all three of the wins coming in Pittsburgh. The Caps have not beaten the Penguins at home since taking a 6-3 decision in March 2006, a game featuring a 160-foot shorthanded goal scored by Ivan Majesky on Sebastien Caron. Neither Caron nor Majesky are in the NHL these days. Neither are these the days when the Caps were such hospitable hosts (well, to Eastern Conference guests), especially when this game comes on the heels of a brutal dose of medicine for the acute suckitis the Caps were afflicted with against Colorado the other night…

Caps 5 – Penguins 2