Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Semifinals, Caps vs. Penguins...Game 5

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

As we kill two birds (get it?... birds… penguins) with one puck, we first look back on last night’s game and take note of Grabel’s Law…

2 is not equal to 3 - not even for very large values of 2

So, no matter how big last night’s 5-3 Pittsburgh Penguin win over the Washington Capitals will be described, the fact remains that the series is tied, 2-2. Each team has tended to business in its own rink, and if that trend continues, it will be the Capitals who advance to the next round.

But last night’s defeat did raise some concerns for the Caps…

Was it a “bad game?” If you have to ask for whom, you weren’t watching. OK, given as many as there were for the Caps, maybe you can be forgiven for asking…

Simeon Varlamov… five goals on 28 shots. And there were those in there – Gonchar’s drive for the Penguins’ first goal (even if Milan Jurcina provided a screen), the Fedotenko goal off the tip of his glove… probably the killer goal (since it put the Caps behind the eight ball with the first two goal deficit they’ve had in this series), and even the Talbot goal to ice things looked like a case of losing focus just long enough to let the puck sneak through on the short side.

Alexander Semin…an assist on the Nicklas Backstrom goal to start things off, then he wasn’t heard from again (even with eight shot attempts). And, a minus-3.

Mike Green…who gets an assist (for getting the puck to the cage so Chris Clark could bang it in), but he doesn’t have a goal in this series, was minus-2 last night (minus-3 in his last two games)

Alex Ovechkin…who pretty much shut down after his knee-on-knee hit on Sergei Gonchar that put the Penguin defenseman out for the night. He had one shot on goal after the incident, none after the first period. Perhaps more telling, he had only two hits recorded for the night. As for “supplemental discipline,” if a cross check to the throat merits a $2,500 fine and no games, then Ovechkin might find himself lighter in the wallet, but he won’t be missing tonight’s contest.

Brooks Laich…if not a “bad” game than a largely absent one. Good things happen when he’s plastered across the score sheet, but his line is oddly white. No points, even, no shots on goal (one attempt), one hit, one takeaway, one blocked shot, one facoff (a win).

For the fourth time in four tries in this series, the team scoring first lost. Not that we advocate the Caps giving up the first goal, but the point is that teams – both of them – have the capacity to erase leads in this series and do it quickly.

Despite the grand save on Fedorov, it’s not as if Mar-Andre Fleury had a game for the ages in this one, either. Three goals on 22 shots makes three of four games in this series and five of his last six in which he’s been below .900 in save percentage. The trouble for the Caps – and it dates back to the end of the Ranger series – is a lack of shots. Only once in the last seven games have the Caps topped 30 shots on the opposing team.

One guy who deserved better than to be held off the scoresheet and take a minus-2 was Sergei Fedorov, against whom the post had another good game for the Penguins. If his drive hits the post and goes in with just over five minutes gone in the first and the score still tied at 1-1, well…on such things games turn. Then there was the save made on a shot ticketed for the top corner over Marc-Andre Fleury’s glove that Fleury somehow gloved down. It was Fleury’s save of the series.

Which brings us to…tonight.

Games 5 have not been kind to the Caps in their history. The Caps have an all-time record in Games 5 of 8-17. In those eight wins, they have gone on to win the series in which they played six times, including this year’s win over the Rangers in Game 5 of the first round. In the 17 losses they have in Games 5, they have gone on to lose the series in which they played 14 times. It gets worse… the Caps have played the Penguins seven times in Games 5 in a series. They’re record… 0-7. Four of the last five of those losses were by one-goal, the last two of them in Washington (both by 2-1 scores). Guess that makes tonight’s game critical.

And as if the mind games haven’t reached stratospheric levels, there was this after last night’s game…

"Everyone likes to play hard, and play physical. But there's a line you can't cross, and a lot of guys in our room felt like the last couple games [Alex Ovechkin] was taking shots where he was trying to hurt guys."

That quote comes from Brooks Orpik, who once broke a player’s neck in a game by hitting him from behind into the boards. We don’t believe either Orpik or Ovechkin intended to injure either Erik Cole (in 2006) or Sergei Gonchar (last night). But the irony fairly drips in that comment.

The best thing that can be said for the Caps is that there isn’t any time to think about last night’s game – no off day to sit around and ponder this or that. It’s off to the rink to set things right, that being the home team winning. What might work against the Caps here is carryover, and we’re thinking about Ovechkin in this respect. Clearly, his collision with Gonchar last night affected the rest of his game. He was tentative for the remainder of the evening. If that carries over into tonight’s game, let’s face it, the Caps will almost certainly come up short here. That’s not to put all the burden on Ovechkin (we’d still like to hear from Alexander Semin and Mike Green, and maybe a little Brooks Laich, too), but he can’t have a repeat of last night, even if he doesn’t show up on the scoreboard. He has to be fully engaged to get the rest of the team energized.

As for Varlamov, he’s shown an ability to shake off bad goals, often coming up with spectacular saves in their aftermath. Now, we’re going to see if he can shake off a bad game. Five goals allowed matches his season/career high (in an overtime loss to Buffalo). The thing is, after he allowed those five goals back on April 3rd, he went ten consecutive games without allowing more than three, and he had a pair of shutouts thrown in to boot.

Some other things to think about…

- This is the first time in the eight times these teams have met in the post-season that the home team has won each of the first four games.

- The Caps are undefeated since the lockout in Games 5, beating the Flyers last year (3-2) and the Rangers this year (4-0). Please note…both games were played at Verizon Center.

- The Caps are 9-6-1 in games following those in which they allowed five or more goals this year (Varlamov is 1-0-0).

Look, neither of these teams has looked unbeatable in any game of this series. Two evenly matched, not to mention similar teams can do that to one another. There have been bad goals, there have been great saves. The superstars have come out to play, and they’ve had their struggles. What we still think it’s going to come down to is not necessarily the play in goal Simeon Varlamov (unless Cinderella’s coach has turned back into a pumpkin after all) or Marc-Andre Fleury (unless the Caps can find a way to get a dozen or so more shots on him). It won’t be Sidney Crosby (unless he’s kidnapped) or Alex Ovechkin (unless he’s suspended). It’s going to be guys like Ruslan Fedotenko and maxime Talbot (both of whom scored for Pittsburgh last night) and Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann (who did not – Fleischmann has the only goal by this pair in the series, a game-winner).

It’s time for guys to take the next step up. We’re guessing they will…

Caps 4 – Penguins 2