Monday, March 09, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Predators, March 10th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

On the road again
Just can't wait to get on the road again
The life I love is playin’ hockey with my friends
And I can't wait to get on the road again
On the road again
Winnin’ games in ways we’ve never won
Makin’ plays that we may never make again,
And I can't wait to get on the road again.

On the road again
Like a bunch of pee-wees we go down the highway
We're the best of friends
Insisting that the season be turnin' our way
And our way
Is on the road again
Just can't wait to get on the road again
The life I love is playin’ hockey with my friends
And I can't wait to get on the road again

On the road again
Like a bunch of pee-wees we go down the highway
We're the best of friends
Insisting that the season be turnin' our way
And our way
Is on the road again

Just can't wait to get on the road again
The life I love is playin’ hockey with my friends
And I can't wait to get on the road again
And I can't wait to get on the road again…

Sometimes, you just have to get on the road again. A different routine, away from the distractions and the duties of home life, where there is the hotel, meals, and the rink. Making things simple. And that might be a goal as the Caps embark on a road trip that begins in Music City, where there resides another desperate team that sits on the cusp of the playoff eight, the Nashville Predators.

This is a team that the Caps and Caps fans do not get to see often. And when they do, it is generally boring, if your excitement is defined in terms of offensive fireworks. The Caps are 5-5-1 all time against the Predators, having scored a total of 27 goals in those 11 games, only four times potting more than two in a game. The Predators have scored 31 in those 11 games. Neither team has won more than two in a row at any time in the series. The Caps hold a victory in the last game played between the clubs, a 4-2 win last March 18th in Nashville in which Alex Ovechkin reached the 100-point mark for the 2007-2008 season.

This year, the Predators are caught in the maelstrom of a playoff jumble that has eight teams separated by ten points (66 to 76 points on Monday evening), ranked 5th through 12th in the Western Conference. The Predators are smack dab in the middle of it, ranked eighth with 70 points. The 70 points is tied with Edmonton and Dallas.

Nashville is not a team that is going to excite folks based on their offensive abilities. But as their overall 2008-2009 numbers suggest, they do have a formula for winning games…

…that formula is to play things tight, get a lead, and choke the life out of opponents. The getting a lead part is fundamental to the Predators’ fortunes. No team in the league has a better record than does Nashville when taking a lead into the first intermission (15-0-1). On the other hand, if Nashville trails at the first intermission, well… only six teams have a lower winning percentage, and none of them are currently playoff eligible.

The Predators had a gruesome start to the 2009 portion of the year – 4-8-0 in January – but they have come on since February 1st. Since then, the Predators are 12-5-1 and just had a six-game winning streak ended with a 4-1 loss to the Flyers on Saturday. That they would find themselves in the playoff mix despite finding themselves 14th in the West on February 3rd is astonishing. They found success by rediscovering what made them successful. Whereas in January they allowed three of more goals in eight of 12 games (losing six of them), they allowed three or more in only seven of the 19 games they’ve played since February 1st (3-4-0 in such games).

What accounts for the turnaround? Well, it might start in goal, where Pekka Rinne has taken hold of the number one goaltender position. Rinne, who came into this season having only three NHL games on his resume (oddly enough, all of them against Chicago), is 11-3-1 since February 1st with a 2.10 GAA, a .930 save percentage, and two shutouts (one of them against Detroit).

Rinne has some history here of a different nature. He was the goalie for the Milwaukee Admirals in the Calder Cup finals of 2006, when the Hershey Bears’ under Bruce Boudreau took home the trophy. It was not a pleasant experience. Rinne was the goaltender of record in all six games of a 4-2 series win for the Bears. He was pulled in the first period in two of the last three games and had overall marks of 4.25, .852, despite pitching a shutout in game three of that series. He seems to have done better since that misfortune.

This is a team of odd names and offensively-challenged players. You’ll not find many teams with names such as Fiddler (Vernon), Erat (Martin), Bonk (Radek), and Tootoo (Jordan), which sound like characters from the end of the credits of a Star Wars movie. And while you’ll find that both the Predators and the Capitals each have four players with more than 40 points, you’ll find that the Caps’ four players also have more than 50 points, whereas the Predators have but one with more than that number – Jean-Pierre Dumont (12-39-51).

In a way, this Predators team is a faint echo of the Capitals teams, circa 1990, when they got a lot of scoring from the blue line. The 1990-1991 Caps team was led in scoring by defenseman Kevin Hatcher and had defensemen Calle Johansson and Al Iafrate (an in-season addition that year) in the top ten in team scoring. Two years later, the Caps would have three defensemen with at least 50 points. This Predators team has three defensemen among the top ten in team scoring – Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Dan Hamhuis. Hamhuis is the oldest of the trio at 26. None of this should be surprising, given that the common thread between the teams is former Caps GM and current Predators GM David Poile – the architect of those clubs representing the two franchises.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Nashville: Steve Sullivan

Sullivan missed 153 games spanning parts of three seasons (including 40 this season) with back problems that eventually required two rounds of surgery. He took the ice for the first time this season on January 10th, but didn’t register his first goal of the season until February 18th in a 6-2 loss to Detroit. Starting with that game, though, Sullivan is 7-5-12, +8 in nine games (he does not have a minus game in the bunch). Sullivan is a great story of a little guy (5’9”, 155) fighting long odds to play in, then return to the NHL after a serious injury. In 13 career games against the Caps, Sullivan is 6-5-11, -2, with three power play goals and two game-winners. He has not faced the Caps, however, since netting a pair of goals in a 5-2 win over Washington in December 2005. How long ago is that? Well, in that game, Alex Ovechkin got a goal (some things don’t change), assisted by Andrew Cassels and Jamie Heward. The other goal was scored by Ben Clymer.

Washington: Jose Theodore

On the road, things get tighter, and against the Predators – given their style – they promise to shrink another size around the collar. Theodore is 2-4-1 in his last seven decisions. That record, along with the accompanying 3.45 GAA and .890 save percentage, have to improve quickly for the Caps to have a successful spring. Nashville is not necessarily the team against which those numbers will improve. Theodore has a 3-3-0 career record against the Predators (2.81, .905), but he is winless in his last three appearances against the Predators (0-2-0, 3.45, .890).

This is a game likely to be dictated by defense. Nashville is 25-6-1 in games they score more than two goals, and they are fourth in the league in one-goal game winning percentage (16-7-4/.593). Oddly, perhaps, the Capitals have played in more one-goal games than have the Predators (16-7-6/.552, 11th in the league). It argues for a tight, low-scoring game against a team that is resurgent, desperate, and out of the West – the trifecta of trouble for the Caps this year. Hey, it’s a challenge…

Caps 3 – Predators 2

The Plight of the Division Leader

March has not been kind to the six division leaders. Witness...

- All six have lost their last game played.

- They are a combined 7-13-2 for March.

- Seven of the losses are by at least three goals.

- They have been outscored, 82-63.

- Five times they have allowed more than five goals.

- They are a combined 19.8 percent on the power play (17-for-86).

- They are a combined 72.4% on the penalty kill (63-for-87).

A ONE-point afternoon: Penguins 4 - Caps 3 (OT/Gimmick)

We will stipulate that any loss to the Penguins is anathema to Caps fans – at Verizon Center, in Mellon Arena, on a pond, in a pickup game, on NHL2009.


But there is a bigger picture to consider. There are no shootouts in playoff hockey, and now that we’re past the trading deadline, that’s the picture to consider. Yesterday’s 4-3 Gimmick loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins will no doubt leave Caps fans with a bad taste in their mouths (the taste of a season sweep having that of honey), and Penguins fans can gloat over one more Crosby-Over-Vechkin result. But when a team has lost three in a row at home, and has not come about those results by accident, then coming out of the slump is of paramount importance.

And anyone who has been anything more than a casual observer of sports knows that the end of a slump is often signaled more playing well than getting the desired result. And despite the result yesterday, the Caps played a very good hockey game, but for three mistakes on defense.

Let’s look at those. The Penguins got on the board first on what amounted to two misjudgments by Caps defensemen. Tom Poti made the first, stepping up on Chris Kunitz at the red line near the benches. Kunitz slid the puck ahead to Bill Guerin, who was now with Sidney Crosby on a two-on-one, Jeff Schultz back. The general thought there is to play the pass and let the goalie focus on the puck carrier. Instead, Schultz backed in, looking to depend more on his reach to try to distract Guerin, but he needed about another foot of reach to be able to poke the puck away. The result was that the defenseman played neither the shot, nor the pass, and Guerin passed to Crosby for the easy tap-in.

The Caps tied the score on a truly boneheaded move by defenseman Kris Letang (who the more we see, the more we think, “nope, he’s not the eventual replacement for Sergei Gonchar” – or maybe he is…he seems to make the same kinds of head-slapping bonehead plays Gonchar has often made in his career). Nicklas Backstrom was doing an “Avery” in front, harassing goalie Marc-Andre Fleury at the top of the crease while marking Letang behind the Penguin net. Letang tried to send the puck hard up the middle, and the only middle he succeeded in hitting was Backstrom’s. The puck lying at his feet, Backstrom backhanded it to Alexander Semin cutting to the net. Semin got Fleury down and leaning one way, then roofed the puck over his stick to tie the game. The mistakes were even.

The Penguins got their second goal on what amounted to a classic, standard hockey play on the power play. They moved it around the top of the zone, and Guerin – who is playing early dividends since the trade – was creating a ruckus in front. It got to where goalie Jose Theodore was engaged in trying to move him out of the way, and that was sufficient distraction to allow a slapper by Sergei Gonchar to find the back of the net. Those kinds of plays happen – although never, it seems, on a Caps power play – so we’ll chalk that up to Penguin performance rather than a lack of it on the Caps side.

We have more concern with the third goal for Pittsburgh, which was the product of the third error by a defenseman. Sidney Crosby received the puck at the Caps blue line and slid it to the middle for Bill Guerin, who was skating into the zone one-on-two, Eric Fehr and Shaone Morrisonn back. Guerin, not known for his happy dance moves, pulled the puck inside, and Morrisonn, oddly enough, stepped outside, as if to give Guerin a free shot at Jose Theodore. Guerin, who is known for having a good shot, picked the far corner of the net to give the Penguins a 3-1 lead.

The best predictor of wins in this league is a lead at the second intermission. No team in the NHL has lower than a .600 winning percentage when leading after two, and the team in last place in that measure – Toronto – has yet to lose a game in regulation when leading after two periods (14-0-8). At 3-1, one would have to have thought the Capitals were toast.

But the Caps started the third period with a power play. It didn’t take long to halve the lead, a product of the Caps’ own classic, standard hockey play. After a shot was blocked in front, the puck came back to Mike Green on the right point, who sent it rink-wide to Alex Ovechkin. Maxime Talbot could not rotate quickly enough to get into Ovechkin’s shooting lane, and Ovechkin wristed one past Fleury to halve the lead.

Then, the Caps took advantage of a line change by the Penguins. David Steckel battled with a pair of Penguins behind the Caps net. One of them – Guerin – ended up tangled with Mike Green, allowing Steckel to curl away with the puck. From the Capitals’ goal line he sent the puck up the middle to Brooks Laich breaking behind the Penguins trying to get onto the ice. Laich almost let the puck get away ahead of him, but corralled it, then faked five-hole before flipping it over Fleury’s right pad to tie the game 1:18 into the period.

After that, it was in the hands of the goalies, and both Theodore and Fleury kept their teams in it without allowing a goal over the remainder of regulation and the overtime. Things were left to the Gimmick, and since we write about hockey, not Gimmicks, we’ll leave that for others to cover.

One would not be able to condone, but could understand, the Caps skating through the motions in the third period. After winning one of the previous 16 periods of hockey they played and down, 3-1, they could have curled up and waited for the engines to spin on their flight out of town. That they didn’t is perhaps the best evidence that they are emerging from their recent funk.

In fact, because of the manner in which Pittsburgh has come out of their own funk recently, one might conclude that the Caps played their game more than Pittsburgh played theirs. Here is why…

- The 22 shots recorded by Pittsburgh in 65 minutes of play was the fewest they’ve had in ten games under Dan Bylsma. For a team with as much talent at the top of the roster as the Penguins, and for Bylsma’s philosophy of being aggressive on offense, it was a remarkable number. More to the point, the Penguins had only 41 attempted shots.

- The Caps, themselves a team rooted in puck possession, won 38 of 67 draws. Most notably, Nicklas Backstrom actually looked as if he was paying attention in the circle, fighting for draws, tying guys up, and working for the puck. He won 11 of 21, and many of his losses were the product, not of his inability to win the puck, but of teammates not supporting the effort when he was tying guys up.

- It was, by Verizon Center scoring standards, a big hitting game. There were 64 hits in all. You can tell things are shifting into playoff mode when Jeff Schultz is credited with three. More on him later.

- The Caps had only 18 turnovers – nine giveaways and nine Pittsburgh takeaways (the Penguins had 28).

- Mike Green looked more engaged in this one than he has in the last several games. Since he set the goal-scoring record, his game seemed to have gone into a shell. He was coming out of that yesterday, even once jumping into the hole for his signature weak side pinch. Fleury made a fine shoulder save as Green was trying to pick the near corner on the play.

- Evgeni Malkin had what charitably might be called a “difficult” day. He had three shots on goal, two of which were passes served on a platter to the blade of his stick that he should have buried.

- The Caps had only ten missed shots. For Team Misfire, that could be an important number going forward. Fleury had his best game, by far, in the season series in this one, making all the saves he should and a few he shouldn’t have. Not all goalies will be so fortunate (especially given the state of goaltending in the Southeast, where most of the Caps’ remaining games reside).

- It would be hard to say any Cap had a truly bad game, even Jeff Schultz. No one is going to want to get on the road more than this guy. The home fans just seem not to have warmed up to the guy. It was getting tiresome yesterday listening to fans in full-throated roar screaming at him to get off the ice, or attributing to him mistakes that were not of his making (like the first Penguin goal). For good or ill, he is now the lightning rod for everything that goes wrong for the Caps, and it does seem to have affected his game. This is unfortunate, because for all the grief he takes, he might be the one defenseman on this team who makes the best first pass in his own zone, perhaps second only to Tom Poti.

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are very different sorts of players, but they are alike in important attributes. One of them – and it might have been the difference here – is that when they get feeling all happy about themselves early in games, it is a recipe for trouble for the opposition. In the 5-2 game on February 22nd, the Caps were early, often, and constantly in Crosby’s face – bumping him, yapping at him, jostling him, being a nuisance to him. Not yesterday. Crosby got time and space to work, and for a guy whose game is predicated on taking advantage of time and space, it made for a difficult afternoon for the Caps. That they did as well as they did (he was 1-1-2, +1) was a signal that they played pretty well, but they should have looked at what they did last month and offered the same hospitality.

We can’t get all worked up about a Gimmick loss, even if it is to the Penguins, because if this game is played in April or May, the clubs might still be playing, and based on the way the game progressed, we were liking the Caps’ chances in that scenario. Truth be told, both teams got something out of this game. The Penguins got an extra point – one which allowed them to hang onto eighth place this morning. The Caps got a point they had no reason to think they’d get after the game was 40 minutes old, and they actually played like a functioning hockey team – something that has eluded them over the past couple of weeks.

In that respect, it was a very entertaining game for both sides and perhaps a prelude to an early round playoff series.