Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Panthers, April 11th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The invitations are out, we just need to know the dance partners now. All 16 teams for the playoffs have been identified – Anaheim and St. Louis locking up the last two spots in the West. For our purposes, we just wait to see whether the Capitals will face either the Montreal Canadiens or the New York Rangers in round one. And in the waiting, there is one more game left to be played, that against the Florida Panthers. It hardly matters who the opponent is, the focus here is on staying healthy, getting focused, and addressing some last-minute issues. And as such, the focus tonight is on the Caps and how it is they are finishing up the regular season.

Wins. The Caps have 50, which ties a franchise record set by the 1985-1986 team. There was no Gimmick in the day, but that 1985-1986 team did play in ten overtime games. That team compiled a record of 3-0-7 in those games (ties being the outcome if neither team scored in overtime). This year’s edition of the Caps has played in 18 extra time games, of which nine have gone to the Gimmick. In those games the Caps are 4-5. If those games were to have ended in ties, as was the case in the 1980’s, the Caps would have 46 wins, not 50. And, the current team would have compiled that number of wins in 81 games (tonight being game 82), not 80 games, as was the case in 1985-1986. Still, even under the 1985-1986 rules for determining outcomes, this team stands to finish with the second highest number of standings points in a season (by our reckoning, a win in regulation or overtime would allow this team to finish with 103 points under the old rule).

Goals (team). The Caps have scored 264 goals as we enter the season’s final game. That is good for third in the league in goals per game (3.26). The Caps cannot catch Detroit for the top spot (the Wings have 287 goals, 3.59/game), but with a big night tonight and a dry weekend for Boston, they could catch the Bruins (3.29 per game through 80 games). The 264 goals the Caps have is the highest number for a Capitals team since the 1993-1994 season (277), and it falls well short of the 315 scored by that 1985-1986 team. But here is where we are really talking about not only different eras, but in a sense different games. The mid-1980’s was the Wild West era of the sport, a lawless (seven Caps had more than 100 PIMS, and that wasn’t thought of as a goonish team), no-holds-barred sort of era where goal scoring in bunches was a nightly affair.

Four Caps on that 1985-1986 team had at least 30 goals (Dave Christian, Mike Gartner, Alan Haworth and Craig Laughlin). Three more had at least 20 (Bengt Gustafsson, Larry Murphy, and Bob Carpenter). The current team has a total of five players with at least 20, although one would have to include Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green among the most dangerous goal scorers at their respective positions in the current NHL. One might not have had the same fear – relatively speaking – of a Haworth or a Laughlin, who were better known as two-thirds of the “Plumbers Line” in the 1980’s.

Goals (player). Alex Ovechkin won’t catch Dennis Maruk’s 60 goals in 1981-1982 again this year, but his 55 entering game 82 dwarfs that of the Caps leading total from 1985-1986 – Dave Christian’s 41 goals. It would be hard to overstate the degree to which Ovechkin is the dominant goal scorer of his era, even as he lowers the curtain on only his fourth season. He will lead the league in goal scoring for the second straight year (he has not finished lower than fourth in any of his four seasons). He has topped 50 goals for the third time in four years. For the second straight year, he could finish at least ten goals ahead of his nearest competitor (the Flyers’ Jeff Carter is ten behind). For the second straight year, he could finish with at least 20 percent more goals than his nearest competitor (he has 22 percent more goals than Carter). Here is perhaps the most amazing part of this and another reflection of his amazing consistency. Since enduring a slow start to the season – two goals in his first 11 games – he has been on precisely a 65-goal pace, that being the number he finished with last season. If there is one area in which the 1985-1986 team has no answer, it is to Ovechkin. But the same could be said about the league’s relationship to Ovechkin as well.

Assists (player). Until last year, one could make a case that one of the best home-grown playmaking centers in Caps history was Bengt Gustafsson (yes, we know he played in the old WHA, but he played for no other NHL team but the Caps). Gustafsson certainly was the key set-up man for that 1985-1986 team, finishing that year with 52 assists in 70 games. But second-year center Nicklas Backstrom has already obliterated that total, having registered 64 assists through 81 games. If he gets two tonight, he will take over the third spot on the all-time Capitals single season assist rankings, passing Michal Pivonka (65 in 1995-1996). If he has a really big night – five assists – he will tie Adam Oates for second (69 in 2000-2001). We’re guessing he doesn’t have a 12-assist game in him, which he would have to have to catch Dennis Maruk’s 76 assists in 1981-1982. But next year…

Power Play. If there is one area in which the 1985-1986 and 2008-2009 Capitals teams are virtually identical, this is it, as this table shows…

But while the goals scored and opportunities are just about equal, this version of the Caps team is much more dominating than their 1985-1986 counterparts. In that year, if you can believe this, only three of 20 teams failed to hit on at least 20 percent of their power play opportunities, although Edmonton – which led the league with a 26.4 percent success rate – wasn’t much more successful than this year’s leader, Detroit (25.7 percent) or even this year’s Caps. That explains why the Caps of 1985-1986 finished 9th on the power play in effectiveness, while this year’s club challenges for the top spot. What is also similar is the two clubs' comparative inability to draw enough penalties to make their power plays even more fearsome. Both ranked in the lower half of opportunities drawn.

Even the individual breakdowns look similar. Both the 1985-1986 team and 2008-2009 team had one dominant power play goal scorer (Christian then, with 18, and Ovechkin now, with 19), and had two other players with at least ten. The difference between the teams is Mike Green. Mike Gartner had 11 power play goals for second most on the team, and no defenseman had more than ten (Larry Murphy had eight). Green has 18 power play goals, and counting. That puts him in a tie for seventh most for a season in Caps history. Ovechkin hold three of the top six totals and could tie his own franchise record (shared with Peter Bondra) if he gets three power play goals tonight.

Penalty killing. If the two clubs of different eras are almost identical in terms of power play success, then they are very different when shorthanded…

There are similarities in terms of success rates, but again, the differences in the eras means that an 80 percent success rate gets you in the top ten in 1985-1986, while a similar success rate puts you in the bottom half of the rankings this year. The real difference here, though, is responsibility. Even accounting for the comparatively more free-wheeling style (and physicality) of the 1980’s, the current Caps team is a good deal more irresponsible than their 1985-1986 counterparts. Being tied for the second most number of power play opportunities allowed (with Philadelphia) is playing with fire.

Goaltending. Again, the teams are reflections of entirely different eras with respect to goaltending. Both the 1985-1986 and 2008-2009 teams have dressed four goaltenders. However, where the Caps of 1985-1986 had no goalie with at least a .900 save percentage, this year’s Caps have three. Even Michal Neuvirth, who falls below the line at .892, would have led the 1985-1986 Caps in that measure (unless you count Bob Mason’s saving all five of the shots he faced that year). Only Neuvirth has a goals-against average of at least 3.00 (he has exactly that). All four Caps goalies from 1985-1986 exceeded that mark, and the man the Caps traded for that year to shore up what was thought to be iffy goaltending – Pete Peeters (traded with then Caps back-up goalie Pat Riggin) – had a GAA of 3.35 as a Cap. If there is one common thread between the two teams, it is a subjective one…does the goaltending talent and consistency match that of the skaters on the club?

In 1985-1986, oddly enough, the goaltending ended up not being the problem in the playoffs, even in the second round, when the Caps fell in six games to the heavy underdog New York Rangers. Peeters allowed 20 goals in six games, roughly consistent with his regular season performance with the Caps. But the skaters managed only 25 in the six games against John Vanbiesbrouck and Glen Hanlon, only three in the last two games of the series, both of which the Caps lost.

This year’s concerns focus on whether Jose Theodore – more clearly the number one goalie over the course of the regular season than any goalie the Caps had in 1985-1986 – has what it takes to lead the club far in the playoffs. But if the 1985-1986 club has a lesson to teach, it is as much that the skaters have to help their goalie by doing their share to give him a chance to help them win. That will bear watching after the final horn sounds in Florida tonight.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder (and other stuff)

We usually look at one player for each team for the game, but here, we’ll look at how certain Caps are carrying themselves into the last regular season game…

The Young Guns: Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom

Ovechkin is in the position of needing an herculean performance against the Panthers to overtake Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins for the Art Ross trophy. No matter…Ovechkin is closing with a rush, whether he catches Malkin or not. In his last ten games, Ovechkin is 6-13-19, +1. If anything, he’s closing faster – on the offensive side of the ice – than he did last year, when he was 8-5-13 in his last ten games. But last year, he was +10 in those last ten games, which suggests that he does have an eye on both catching Malkin and perhaps getting 60 goals. He won’t get the latter and likely won’t get the former, so maybe now he can just settle into playing the game at both ends, instead of loitering (or so the current school of thought seems to be in a lot of hockey corners) waiting to spring on the offensive.

Semin, on the other hand, is dealing with a slump in his last ten games, if you compare those ten with his previous ten. From February 24th through March 14th, Semin went 7-9-16 in ten games. In ten games since, he is 3-4-7. Perhaps a bit more ominously, in the whole 20-game set, he is -4, and this is a player who is tied for the team lead in plus-minus this year. His last ten games look a lot like his last ten games last year (5-1-6, -3), which was then followed by going 3-5-8, +2 in seven playoff games. Like Ovechkin, he seems to be playing without a focus the last few games, but certainly his past performance suggests he has it in him to lift his game.

Green is the record setter this year that Ovechkin was last year, but after setting a record for consecutive games with a goal by a defenseman, he went into a slump – 1-7-8, -4 over his next 13 games. But starting with a two point night against Carolina on March 14th, Green is 8-7-15, +2 in his last 11 games. Perhaps more important for him, given the time on ice he chews up each night, he is even or better in each of his last seven games. It is quite different from last year, when Green was more the set-up man from the blue line, going 1-9-10, +8 in his last ten games of the regular season.

Backstrom is poised to take his place – if not now, in only his second season, then soon – as the best playmaker in the history of the franchise. Backstrom is fifth in the league in assists, ahead of such renowned playmakers as Marc Savard and Joe Thornton. If he can have a big night tonight against Florida, he could leap over Ryan Getzlaf and Pavel Datsyuk into third in the rankings, behind the duo from Pittsburgh of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. He is 3-9-12, +5 in his last ten games, which is entirely consistent with the way he wrapped up last season, in which he was 3-7-10, +7 in his last ten games.

The Next Wave…

One could say that the first four players – those “young guns” – are a given. It would be surprising if they performed at a significantly lower level of production than their regular season output. Let’s put it this way, if they do, the rest of this conversation is irrelevant, because the Caps won’t get past round one. But it is in the next wave where the ultimate fortunes of the club might lie. And there, the focus is on the group of Brooks Laich, Viktor Kozlov, Tomas Fleischmann, and Sergei Fedorov.

As a group, they are 12-16-28, -1 in their last ten games. It isn’t a lot different, scoring wise, from how they finished last season (7-21-29). But this group was a combined +10 last year. The difference is the production of Viktor Kozlov, who finished the 2007-2008 season +9 in his last ten games, but is even in his last ten entering tonight’s game. Another difference – on the good side – is the way Brooks Laich is ramping up for the playoffs. He has five goals in his last ten games on the way to a 5-7-12 scoring line. Last year at this time, he was also finishing strong, going 2-6-8 in his last ten. We don’t think it is a coincidence that in those 20 games, in which Laich has gone 7-13-20, the Caps have gone 16-2-2.

Wild Cards…

Two players who did not figure heavily in the end game of the 2007-2008 regular season or the playoffs could be important this time around. Michael Nylander sat out the end of the season after shoulder surgery, and Eric Fehr was a support player averaging less than ten minutes a night in the last ten games of the year and the seven game playoff loss to the Flyers. More might be expected this time around. Combined, they are only 3-5-8, even, in their last ten games. However, Fehr has shown glimpses of the goal-scorer he can be, and he is also a diligent forechecker – an important ingredient to the Caps’ game of pursuit and puck control. Nylander is having a nightmarish season in which he could finish with the lowest point total of his career in seasons with at least 50 games played since that of his rookie season with Hartford in 1992-1993. But Nylander’s career record also reflects an ability to contribute at the offensive end, having reached the 60-point mark in five seasons since 2000-2001.

Defense and Goaltending…

The way the Caps are constructed and play their game, the object of the exercise is for games not to come down to defense and goaltending. It is a style that worked for Tampa Bay in 2003-2004 and for Carolina in 2005-2006 in winning Stanley Cup. As was the case with those teams, defense and goaltending need only be competent – they cannot give up easy goals, turn the puck over carelessly, or allow the Stay-Puft marshmallow goal. In the last ten games, the Caps have allowed 27 goals (Gimmicks don’t count). One would like that number lower heading into the playoffs, but keep in mind, too, that the Caps are 7-1-2 in those ten games. If Caps fans have to take that goals-against record, but they can have that record, too, well…I suspect it is a bargain that will be accepted eagerly.

What the Caps are going to have to guard against, if the regular season is a guide, is things coming too easily early. The Caps have a +13 mark (goals scored to goals allowed) in the first period this year. They have scored more first period goals than everyone except Boston, with which they are tied (85). However, they have only a +3 mark in the second period. Caps fans might have an idea about this that doesn’t bear up under the numbers.

Fans might think the Caps are more porous on defense in the second period of games, but in fact have allowed the eighth (tied with Florida) fewest number of second period goals in the league. But of the seven teams ahead of them, all of them are in the playoffs. What might be of greater concern is how they score in the second period. Only ten teams have scored fewer second period goals, and of that group, two (the offensively challenged Rangers and Blue Jackets) are in the playoffs. Seems as if the minds of the young guys tend to wander when things go well early.

We’ll probably have more to say about such things as we get closer to game one of the first round, but there are some things here to think about as the Caps wrap up the 2008-2009 regular season and head on into the second season. As for records, we don’t think Ovechkin will hit 60 or catch Malkin, although we do have a feeling about Backstrom jumping over Getzlaf and Datsyuk in the assist race. And Jose Theodore will match a career high in wins, while Tomas Fleischmann does reach that 20-goal mark…

Caps 5 – Panthers 4