Saturday, October 10, 2009

A NO-point night: Red Wings 3 - Caps 2

Goaltending. It was a game about goaltending.

Well, sort of. Because if Jose Theodore didn’t play as well as he did, and Chris Osgood didn’t play as poorly as he did on two shots, the Caps would have lost tonight’s game against the Red Wings by a much wider margin than the final 3-2 score.

Actually, it was something of a clinic in Red Wing hockey. Subtle, yet effective defense. Don’t let the two goals fool you (both of which were on stoppable shots). The Caps really weren’t that close to mounting much of an offense. They spent the entire game fishing pucks from along the walls and from behind the Red Wing net. Take away the nine shots on goal from Alex Ovechkin, and the Caps had a total of 15 shots in 60 minutes, a lot of them from guys who aren’t necessarily that much of a threat to score – two by Matt Bradley (one of which resulted in a goal), and one each by Quintin Laing, Tyler Sloan, and David Steckel.

Here’s another way to look at that. The top line of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin took 12 of the Caps’ 24 shots on goal. The other four lines of forwards had nine, and Mike Knuble had four of those.

And another… seven Caps didn’t have a shot on goal. Five of them didn’t have a shot attempt (Boyd Gordon, Eric Fehr, Chris Clark, Milan Jurcina, and Shaone Morrisonn).

And there is this – the Caps had a total of 40 attempts on goal, the Red Wings had 68. You’re going to expect a top line to get their shots, and the Red Wings’ top line of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Todd Bertuzzi had 11 shots on goal. But the other three forward lines had 20 shots and all three goals. Compare that to the Caps, where the second, third and fourth lines had a total of nine shots on goal and both goals.

It was a story of the undercard, and the Red Wings won that battle. The Red Wings make you spend so much time and effort just getting into position to shoot, you don't often manage to get a shot off before the puck is out of the zone going the other way.

And there was the curious inability to learn from one’s mistakes when it mattered. Semin and Mike Green took two minor penalties apiece, and the Red Wings scored on two of them, those being the last two power plays the Red Wings had. The Caps had one power play tally on three opportunities, so in that respect the special teams were the difference.

It’s not that the Caps played poorly – they didn’t. What they didn’t do, and what they haven’t done since the opening night 4-1 win over Boston, was play a solid 60 minutes at both ends of the ice. Tonight, the Caps didn’t have long stretches of poor play, like they did in the second period against Philadelphia last week, but they had those 10-15 second lapses that gave the Red Wings enough room to get shots on goal that Theodore couldn’t stop. There was the inability to prevent the Red Wings from crashing the net on the Ville Leino goal in the first and the leakage on defense that allowed Jason Williams and Tomas Holmstrom to have wide open looks at the Caps net that resulted in the power play goals that would secure the win.

Other stuff…

- Nicklas Backstrom saw his eight-game points streak (dating back to last year) come to an end.

- Alex Ovechkin had 10 hits. By itself, that would leave him in a tie for 41st in the league, and it is more than 540 players in the league who have dressed so far.

- Ovechkin was on the ice for 5:30 of the Caps’ 5:39 of power play ice time. Mike Green was on for 5:25.

- Green was reported to have changed his gloves to those he used last year. This isn’t a good sign. It’s not the gloves, it’s not the stick, but all this stuff seems to have gotten into his head.

- Alex Ovechkin had an assist tonight, giving him five on the year. Sidney Crosby has only one. Can we now call Sidney Crosby a “puck hog?”

- That Holmstrom goal in the third period? The first third period goal the Red Wings have scored this season.

- If Pavel Datsyuk and Mike Richards played on the same team, their goalie might not ever see a shot.

- Seven power play shots… five of them from Ovechkin. You get the feeling if the rest of the club raised their level of effort to that which Ovechkin has displayed thus far, the Caps would be 5-0.

- On the other hand, the Red Wings had only six power play shots, but they came from six different players, two of them finding the back of the net.

- The Caps were 13-for-16 on draws in the offensive zone. You’d have thought they would have been able to put more pressure on the Detroit net with that kind of dominance. OK, the Bradley goal did come off a faceoff win by Boyd Gordon.

- We don’t have a time-of-possession clock, but maybe a reasonable proxy is this… 16 faceoffs in the Detroit zone, 26 in the Caps’ zone.

- Some of the best chances on the Capitals power play came on the penalty to Derek Meech in the third. Unfortunately, those best chances were had by Detroit.

There is still a gap between these teams. Not much of one, perhaps, but still one nevertheless. The Caps had stretches when they played very well, where the effort was top notch, but there weren’t enough of them, and not for long enough. The Red Wings had a particularly solid effort up and down the lineup at both ends. But for the play of Jose Theodore, it might have been a four or five goal night. And but for a couple of stoppable shots that Chris Osgood flubbed, it might have been a 5-0 night.

You could say that this is a sign of the Red Wings’ maturity. Well, no. Not anymore. This Caps team is in their third year together, and even the younger guys have built a fairly lengthy body of work at the NHL level. What they haven’t given evidence of in the last three-plus games is having grown up, of having the moxie to grind out games like this. Maybe there is too much “slick” and not enough just meat and potatoes hockey, although again, there were stretches of that on this night.

They’ve been outworked in the last three games, and they have three losses to show for it. And on Monday, the hardest working team in hockey pays a visit to Verizon Center. If the Caps don’t match the effort that the New Jersey Devils are likely to bring, the Caps will find themselves on the south side of .500 for the first time this year.

Something got us thinking

We were visiting the Red Wings web site, and we took note of the various season ticket plans that were available. Leaving aside the fact that we never thought we'd ever see the Red Wings advertising this late in the year for season ticket plans, we were struck by what was available.

Of course, they have the "45 game" plan that covers all regular seaon and preseason games (note to staff... there are less than 45 games left, unless you're going to include playoff games at this point).

But the Wings also have a 19-game plan that they call the "Yzerman" plan for Stevie Y's number. Then there is the 9-game plan named for, you guessed it, Gordie Howe.

We were wondering, how might the Caps employ such a scheme?

- First, a 19-game or a 9-game plan won't work. Somehow, the "Brendan Witt" plan or the "Dainus Zubrus" plan doesn't seem like a stroke of marketing genius.

- The 37-game "Kolzig" plan. The games with Pittsburgh and Philly aren't included because he never did particularly well against those teams anyway.

- The 20 game "Metropolit" plan to commemorate all the teams in North America and Europe for which he has played (ok, it's 18... sue me).

- The four game "Alexei Tezikov" plan that includes games against the Islanders, Coyotes, Thrashers, and Avalanche... figure it out.

- The 11-game "Esa Tikkanen" plan, but you get to miss all your games.

- The 18-game "Craig Laughlin" plan that comes with coupons for biscuits in a basket.

- The 16-game plan "Trevor Linden" plan, but you only get to attend ten games before your remaining tickets are sent to Vancouver.

- The 25-game "Mike Grier" plan, but you never get to see a game, because you keep dropping your ticket on the way to the gate.

- The 68-game "Jaromir Jagr" plan, but it'll cost you 10 million bucks, and they'll be lousy seats.

- The 40-game "Nolan Yonkman" plan, but you see only four games before you trip on the stairs and break a foot.

... just a thought.

Trust us... it gets harder. No, really

Two games, two wins.

62 shots faced, 61 shots stopped (including 38 last night in a shut out*, on the road, in what might be the most difficult arena in the league for his club to visit. As his opposite number put it, "He was there. He was square")

119 minutes and 37 seconds played, a 0.50 goals against average.

Oh, and these are the first two games this kid has played as a pro.

Ah, to be Braden Hotlby this morning.

* By the way, that's the third consecutive time the Bears have shutout the WBS Penguins, dating back to last spring's Calder Cup playoffs.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Red Wings, October 10th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

We’re here live at Peerless Central on a Saturday morning as the Caps head off to vist The Joe – Joe Louis Arena – to take on the two-time Western Conference champion Detroit Red Wings, and…

“What’s goin’ on?”

Well, if it isn’t an old friend of ours from our college days in Michigan, Mo Towne. Mo, it’s good to see you again. Hey, it’s too bad about Johan Franzen – I see where he’s going to be out for a few months after injuring his knee against the Blackhawks the other night.

“It’s a shame.”

And it’s not like the Wings are off to the sort of start folks in Detroit were expecting, either.

“A ball of confusion…that’s what the world is today.”

Espeically coming after that heartbreaking loss to the Penguins in t he finals last spring.

“Can you see the tracks of my tears?...what becomes of the brokenhearted?"

But the Red Wings are still a formidable team, aren’t they?

“You could say they’re a brick… house.”

But it’s going to be tough holding off those rising Blackhawks, I would imagine.

“Nowhere to run…”

But the Wings still have a strong core of players – Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Valtteri Filppula, Brian Rafalski, Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart – signed for years.

“Signed, sealed, delivered…”

And they seem to have some talented kids in Ville Leino, Jonathan Ericsson, and Justin Abdelkader, even though they just sent Abdelkader down.

“Super freak!”

But I guess the key is still Nicklas Lidstrom.

“Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby…”

But the Caps have improved quite a bit in the last couple of years, too. It should be a good one tonight…


So you’ll be there tonight?

“I’ll be there…”

Well, we’ll have to do this again soon…

“Keep on truckin’…”

As the Caps take the road to visit Detroit tonight, they can take comfort in the fact that they have not lost a game in regulation to the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena since January 2002. OK, so they’ve only played there in two games since, but 1-0-1 is better than most teams fare in that venue.

The Red Wings have stumbled out of the gate, by their standards. At 1-2-0 and two standings points, no Western Conference team has fewer points. But it is, as they say, early. Any team with this statistical profile from last year has to be thought better than their start suggests:

Points: 112 (3rd)
Goals for/game: 3.52 (1st)
Goals against/game: 2.93 (20th)
5-on-5: 1.20 (4th)
Power play: 25.5% (1st)
Penalty killing: 78.3% (25th)
Winning pct. when scoring first: .804 (2nd)
Winning pct. when leading after 1st period: .788 (12th)
Winning pct. When leading after 2nd period: .810 (24th)

But looking at those numbers, you have to start to wonder, are the Wings primed for a slip in the standings? The Wings are and remain a powerful offensive team, but in last year’s regular season they also gave up a lot of goals and have allowed 11 in three games so far this season.

The Wings were a dangerous team with the man advantage last year – the best power play success rate in this decade. But they were a poor penalty killing club that benefitted from being tied for 10th in fewest times shorthanded last year. So far this year, their penalty killing has been ghastly, even by Caps standards. At 64.3 percent (9-for-14 in three games), this could be a dangerous problem for the Wings as they try to repeat as conference champs. It could be a problem in the context of this game as the Capitals have converted 23.8 percent of their power play chances so far this season and were second to the Wings (with the second best power play of this decade) last season.

And, speaking of power play and penalty calls that create them, it has already gotten under the skin, it would seem, of Red Wing goalie Chris Osgood
"Every year the calls are exactly the same. They call the most ridiculous things for the first two months of the season trying to jack up the scores, then they call nothing as the season goes along, depending on who you are."

The Red Wings have participated in 5-on-3 situations in each of their first three games – two against and one for, and that doesn’t include a 6-on-4 to end the Wings’ 3-2 win over Chicago in their last outing when the Blackhawks pulled their goalie on a late power play.

Another problem the Red Wings will have to solve is bad finishes. Specifically, the Red Wings have not scored a third period goal this year. While they’ve been able to hold opponents to two third period goals in three games (both goals coming in losses), the Wings have not been able to muster much in the way of an effective late attack.

Which brings us to the back end of the defense (and we use that term “back end” with some caution) – goaltending. Neither Chris Osgood (3.03 GAA, .895 SV) nor new backup (for now) Jimmy Howard (5.17, .844) have distinguished themselves in net thus far. But it is, as they say, early. Osgood had an equally grim regular season last year (3.09, .887), yet still backstopped the Wings to the Cup final.

What the Wings are going to have to deal with that they did not last year is a serious injury early. If one looks at the core of skaters for the Red Wings, none of forwards Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, Johan Franzen, Brian Rafalski, or Nicklas Lidstrom played in fewer than 71 games. Only Brad Stuart among the top-four defensemen played in fewer than 70 games.

Well, Franzen is out an estimated four months after having sustainging the dreaded “ACL” knee injury against the Blackhawks in the Wings’ last game. Franzen hasn’t had any particular success against the Caps (one goal in three career games). But losing a player with 61 goals over the past two years will leave a mark.

We could say at this point that guys like Datsyuk or Zetterberg will have to fill the void. But the Wings are in a bit of a transition. There is a “next generation” thing happening under the star level for the Wings.

Ville Leino bears watching. In a late season trial last year, Leino put up five goals and four assists in 13 games, which he followed up with a pair of assists in seven playoff games. However, he did put up 28 goals for Jokerit Helsinki (Finland) in 2007-2008, and he had 15 goals in 57 games in Grand Rapids last year (plus 3-10-13 in 10 playoff games for the Griffins).

Leino is the oldest (he turned 26 last week) of a young group that is poised to take over bigger responsibilities. Jonathan Ericsson (25) got his feet wet with the Wings last year (19 games, 1-3-4, minus-1) and picked up some valuable playoff experience (4-4-8, plus-9 in 22 playoff games). He could grow into a minutes-eater on the Red Wings blue line for years to come. Not that he needs any more size at 6’4”, 220.

Valtteri Filppula is the most experienced of the young group in terms of NHL games played (238 regular season games, 63 playoff games in three full seasons). In in Red Wings mold, he’s shown flashes of offensive talent (31 goals over the last two years in 158 regular season games, eight goals in 45 playoff games) and defensive responsibility ((plus-25 over the past two years in the regular season, plus-15 in the playoffs). Also in the Red Wings mold, he’s been brought along slowly, getting mostly third and fourth line responsibility. But now, with Franzen out, he might be the one to watch as the player to assume a bigger role in the middle.

The Wings have some sorting out to do of the sort that they haven’t had to do lately. How their lines remix with Franzen out will be an issue, although the Wings certainly have enough firepower (not to mention experience) to make any variety of combinations work. Perhaps more troubling is that the Wings have gotten off to a rough start in their own end of the ice, and this really isn’t much different from last year, when they finished the regular season a very mediocre defensive team.

The Wings’ weaknesses play to the Caps’ strengths. But by the same token, the Wings' strengths (depth in scoring) play to the Caps’ weaknesses (the Caps are 24th in goals allowed per game so far this season). It is the irresistible forces meeting the very movable objects. This is a game where a dozen goals might be scored in regulation with an overtime needed to settle the matter (we can’t imagine needing a whole overtime). And that’s how we think it will unfold…

Caps 7 – Wings 6 (OT)