Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Consistency of Inconsistency...Among Commentators

The NBC Boys don’t seem to think much of the Caps chances for a Stanley Cup run with Jose Theodore as their goaltender (2:15 in for those of you not wanting to wait)…

Theodore is described as “playing small” by Pierre McGuire and as “definitely an inconsistent goaltender” by Mike Milbury. Well, gee. If we want to shine the light on goaltenders in the East, we might as well send seven teams to the first tee now and just let Marty Brodeur suit up to meet whichever team comes out of the west. Why?...

In Boston, Tim Thomas probably merits the Vezina Trophy (Steve Mason fans, notwithstanding). But since going undefeated over a six game stretch in late January and early February, he is 5-5-1 and is showing his own signs of inconsistency. In five wins, he has allowed only eight goals. In six losses (including an overtime loss to Washington), he has allowed 14… not bad, certainly, but in his last five games he has a GAA of 2.62 and a save percentage of .911. Those are pretty ordinary numbers. A sign of a slump coming on?

In Philadelphia, the Flyers seem to want to give the keys to the car to Martin Biron, but he keeps on dropping them. Biron has played better lately – 3-2-0, 1.60, .942 in his last six appearances (he got a no-decision in relief of Antero Niittymaki in a 5-1 loss to Calgary). But before this latest run, Biron might have been the very epitome of “streaky.” Going back through his season, he had these records…3-5-0, 10-2-3, 3-5-1. Think he has the consistency for four series wins in him?

Milbury points to Marc-Andre Fleury’s record since Dan Bylsma took over behind the Pittsburgh bench and pronounces him “absolutely” good enough for the Penguins. OK, maybe. But in his 9-1-1 run under Bylsma, Fleury’s numbers are 2.56 and .906. Those aren't numbers that jump off the page. He can count wins against Florida (twice), Tampa Bay, the Islanders as part of that run. Maybe we shouldn't be all that quick to pronounce Fleury (who has otherwise mediocre numbers this year) “absolutely” the guy to carry a team deep into the playoffs.

In Montreal, Carey Price is about as likely to allow four or more goals on any given evening as not. He’s done it seven times in 17 games since January 21st, during which time he has gone 4-11-2 (he had a no-decision on February 15th against Vancouver). His save percentage over that span is .882, perhaps making folks in Montreal wonder if he really is ready to be the number one goalie for now. Does that mean the Habs turn to Jaroslav Halak? A guy with all of two playoff games on his resume (no wins)?

The Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist might be the best Eastern Conference goalie not named "Marty" to carry his team deep into the playoffs. And in fact, he seems to be getting out of a slump of his own – he has won his last five decisions (including a 4-1 win over Philadelphia today) and has allowed only nine goals in doing so. His trouble is having to bear too large a burden with the underachieving Ranger skaters angling for room to ride on his shoulders. From January 28th through February 26th, it looked as if that burden might finally be getting to Lundqvist, as he had a record of 2-7-4, 2.74, .912. He’d be the goalie who, along with Brodeur, could drag a team along with him for a playoff ride, but the Rangers have the worst offense in the league (2.40 goals/game).

In Carolina, Cam Ward is another one of those goalies who has played better of late (9-5-1 in his last 15 decisions, 2.24, .921), but who has a season of mediocrity behind him. His overall GAA and save percentage have him tucked safely into the middle of the NHL pack (17th and 22nd, respectively). And, before his latest 15-game run, he had one winning streak of more than three games this year (the same number as Jose Theodore). Ward’s problem might be that the Hurricanes are riding him so hard. He has been the goalie of record in 35 of the last 36 Carolina games and has played in 18 in a row. Given Carolina’s precarious hold on the eighth spot in the East, he’s not likely to get a break soon…or perhaps have anything left for the playoffs.

We’re not making the argument that Jose Theodore is a lock to be a Conn Smythe Trophy winner in the playoffs, or that he is even a lock to get the Caps to the second round. He is in the midst of his own bout of inconsistency (5-4-1 in his last ten decisions, 2.95, .905), but there is an annoying consistency in the commentary of “experts” with respect to Theodore’s play. It is, for lack of a better description, “creating a fact.” As if by saying a thing long enough and often enough, whatever the real performance of the player in question, that the repetition will create the “fact” that a player is, in this case, “inconsistent.” Hockey pundits have been pounding the theme of "Theodore isn't consistent enough to win" since he was signed, and it has shown no sign of abating. But there isn't a lot of ink or air time devoted to the chinks in the armor of the other goaltenders in the East. Even Brodeur, with that 7-1-0, 1.95, .930 record since returning from injury, has earned some of those wins over also-rans -- Colorado, Toronto, Phoenix -- and he was pasted by the Islanders for six goals. There aren't any sure things here.

Theodore has wrestled with bouts of inconsistency this year, and even for those who point to his propensity for post-Christmas success, he has had win-loss success (18-8-3), but his numbers of 2.52 and .914 that accompany that record aren’t extraordinary. However, they could be, given the talent elsewhere on this roster, enough to get the Capitals deep into the playoffs. His chances appear as good as just about any other goaltender in the East…well, except maybe for that Brodeur guy.

The Last Dozen: Then and Now

There are one dozen games left. If you’re thinking that there is still time to catch Boston for first in the Eastern Conference, a little rewind is in order -- a comparison to last year's chase of Carolina for the Southeast title:

That 11-1-0 record of last year would be hard to duplicate, especially since there isn’t the same urgency attached to simply making the playoffs. And Boston isn’t Carolina, even if the Bruins are only 8-8-3 since February 1st and 3-4-0 in March.

And there is the matter of the New Jersey Devils, a team that is 13-5-0 since February 3rd and 5-1-0 in March. What’s more, Martin Brodeur is 7-1-0 since his return from injured reserve and shows no signs of rust having accumulated during his layoff (he has allowed two or fewer goals in each of his seven wins).

The Capitals might catch Boston, after all, although it still seems highly unlikely. But the team they appear to have even a lesser chance of catching is New Jersey, which holds a one-point lead on Washington and two games in hand. The best hope for the other seven teams that make the dance in the East is that the Devils are peaking a month or two too soon.

The Caps had their fate in their own hands last year, in a sense. Two of those last dozen games were against the team in front of them – Carolina – and the Caps won both. The Caps have no games left with either Boston or New Jersey (and those two play each other one more time, so there remains the possibility of one of those three-point “draft” games where one team pulls another along, getting two points while the other gets one), although the Caps do appear to have the easiest schedule remaining, in terms of opponents' winning percentage, of any of the team now in the top eight in the East.

The striking thing about the Caps last year was their ability to absolutely shut teams down. Some of that might have been the play of goaltender Cristobal Huet, but consistently holding teams in check – the Caps allowed only 22 goals in their last 12 games, five of them in their only loss – suggests a team-wide adoption of a shut down mentality. In fact, the last dozen was a carry-over and improvement from their play over the previous five weeks. From February 1st through March 9th, when they played their 70th game, the Caps allowed only 44 goals in 18 games (2.44/game).

Last year, the rush to make the playoffs had its own sense of immediate urgency. There was no luxury, if that is the right word, to be able to prepare for the playoffs, to make sure all the players are on the same page in system and strategy. That is what is left for the Caps in the last dozen games this time around -- to tend to business in their own schedule, to get ready for the playoffs, to re-acquaint themselves with the structure that Coach Bruce Boudreau cited as necessary for the playoffs. In that way, it might not going be so much going back to last year, it might be going back to training camp.

A TWO-point night: Caps 5 - Hurricanes 4 (OT/Gimmick)

It’s the time of year when no one should think anything is going to come easily.

The Caps fought off a game Carolina Hurricanes squad last night, 5-4, in a Gimmick to increase their Southeast Division lead to 14 points and match their high water mark of the year, going 22 games over .500.

It was the sort of “playoff intensity” game you might want to see if you’re a suit at NHL headquarters. Shooters for both teams had their way with both defenses. Specifically, it was a night for the top lines for both clubs.

Carolina’s top line of Eric Staal (1-2-3, +3), Erik Cole (1-1-2, +3), and Ray Whitney (1-1-2, +4), who got time with the other two in place of Tuomo Ruutu, was virtually unstoppable for the Hurricanes. They had a hand in three of the Hurricanes’ four goals.

On the other hand, the Capitals’ trio of Alexander Semin (1-3-4, -3), Alex Ovechkin (1-1-2, -2), and Nicklas Backstrom (1-1-2, -2) abused the Hurricanes penalty killers – the Caps were 3-for-4 on the power play – and had a hand in all of the Caps’ four goals.

As suggested in those last two paragraphs, this was two distinct games within a game. At even strength, the Hurricanes had a 4-1 advantage. Meanwhile, the Caps won the special teams play, 3-0. Perhaps most important for the Caps, that zero was a product of having to kill off a penalty in the overtime session, part of a six-for-six save performance in the extra session for goalie Jose Theodore.

Watching this game was like watching teams that are echoes of one another…

Alex Ovechkin – he of the gaudy shot totals – had 14 attempts, eight on goal. Eric Staal – he of gaudy stats of his own lately – had 16 attempts six on goal.

Mike Green – the top scoring defenseman in the league – had five shot attempts. Joe Corvo – the Hurricanes’ leading scorer among defensemen – had nine shot attempts.

Alexander Semin – the top scorer no one seems to pay much attention to – had eight attempts. Ray Whitney – the guy who seems to get lost on the Hurricanes’ roster – had six attempts.

Jose Theodore – seen as perhaps the weak link on this team – stopped 28 of 32 shots (many of them high quality), including all six he faced in overtime, then shut the door on both Carolina shooters in the Gimmick. Cam Ward – who seems to have spent his recent career trying to justify his winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs – stopped 27 of 31 shots (many of them high quality), including both shots he faced in overtime.

Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, the scoring went:

Ovechkin: 1-1-2
Staal: 1-2-3

Green: 1-1-2
Corvo: 0-0-0

Semin: 1-3-4
Whitney: 1-1-2
Theodore: 1.000 save percentage in the Gimmick (2-for-2)
Ward: .333 save percentage in the Gimmick (1-for-3)

And what the Hurricanes don’t have is an answer for a guy like Nicklas Backstrom, whose 1-1-2 line gave him points in 15 of his last 16 games. His assist gave him a total of 55 for the season to match his total for last year.

Speaking of Backstrom, a slight detour is in order. If you’re looking at last year’s Calder finalists, the race looks like this…

If the Caps didn’t have a monster night hitting Hurricanes (well, given some of the totals we’ve seen at the Verizon Center, maybe their 28 total hits was “monster”), they spread it around. Only Nicklas Backstrom and Michael Nylander didn’t register one.

It isn’t often that the Caps get out attempted in shots, especially at home. But last night, Carolina tipped the scale far in the direction of the visitors, out-attempting the Caps 79-46. The flip side of that is that Carolina got 32 of their attempts on goal (45.1 percent), while the Caps got 31 of theirs through to Cam Ward (67.4 percent).

Paul Maurice played with a pretty short bench for Carolina. Ryan Bayda took two shifts in the first period (1:28 total) before retiring for the evening. Tim Conboy took three shifts in the first period (2:36 total) and didn’t return for the evening. At least Patrick Eaves lasted into the second period, but he played a total of 6:06 and didn’t appear in either the third period or overtime.

It was a reversal of fortune for the Hurricanes in one respect. The last time these teams met, the Hurricanes managed only one even-strength goal, but had two short-handed, one power-play, and a penalty shot goal. Last night, no special teams theatrics, but they did have four even-strength goals.

Last night’s splatterage trophy on the score sheet goes to Chad LaRose for the Hurricanes. One shot, two shots blocked, four misses, two hits, a giveaway, a takeaway, a blocked shot, and three faceoffs (all losses) to go along with a plus-1. He didn’t however, have a point.

The Caps had a deceptively effective night in the faceoff circle. Carolina was 16-for-30 in neutral zone draws, but five of those wins came against guys who might not be the first go-to center to take draws – Keith Aucoin, Tomas Fleischmann, and Brooks Laich. Meanwhile, Nicklas Backstrom won 12-of-21 draws, including 8-of-13 (combined) in the offensive and defensive zones. David Steckel was 10-for-13, including 7-for-9 (combined) in the offensive and defensive zones. Even Michael Nylander was 3-for-4 in defensive zone draws.

It was an entertaining game, but probably not the sort one is going to see in the playoffs. Coach Bruce Boudreau alluded to as much in his post-game comments…

“It was like pond hockey, and in the playoffs you have to play much more structured.”

There was a lot of up and down – mostly down, if you’re looking toward Jose Theodore. Carolina had four clean breakaways in the second period alone, including a shorthanded break by Chad LaRose. Ray Whitney had one, following a 5-on-1 Caps rush at the other end that netted nothing, which Theodore stopped. But he couldn’t stop Eric Staal swooping in to collect the loose change. Theodore, despite allowing four goals, might have been the best player on the ice for either team in this one. He simply had too many high-probability scoring chances to have to defend.

But part of winning is getting that extra point when the other guys are playing their game their way. Carolina might be the fastest team – top to bottom – in the Eastern Conference. Adding Erik Cole provides a power dimension that now must be reckoned with. Both speed and power were on display for Carolina last night, and yet the Caps still got the extra point, because they are a team of superior skill. And it was the Caps’ skill guys who paved the way…with more than a little help from the goaltender no one outside of DC seems to have much use for.