Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Thrashers, October 29th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

And tonight, the Caps take on the Atlanta Thrashers in the first of a back-to-back that will end tomorrow in Washington against the New York Islanders…

“Whoa. Déjà vu.”

“What did you just say?”

“Nothing. Just had a little déjà vu.”

“What did you see?”

“What happened?”

“The Caps played the Thrashers and Islanders last week and then another pair of games on the schedule that looked just like it.”

“How much like it? Was it the same pair of games?”

“It might have been. I'm not sure.”

“Switch! Apoc!”

What is it?

“A déjà vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix. It happens when they change something.”

“Oh my God... they cut the hard line, it's a trap, get out!!”

Uh, folks? It’s just a quirk in the schedule. The Caps play these teams more than once this year, and this is just how the second games against these two fall out. Tonight Atlanta, tomorrow the Islanders.

“Whoa, it happened again.”

No, you slack-jawed idiot! And why did everything turn this weird green color like the pixels on an old computer monitor?

Anyway, the Caps play the Thrashers in Atlanta a mere one week after they raced out to a 5-2 lead, then almost let it slip away in a 5-4 win that provided the third win in the five-game winning streak the Caps find themselves in. Here is how the numbers stack up...

Since last Thursday’s tilt, the Caps have added a pair of wins to their streak, while Atlanta sustained a 4-3 loss to San Jose in their only game since. But the loss on the scoreboard paled in comparison the larger loss for the Thrashers of Ilya Kovalchuk, who broke a bone in his foot sustained in the first period while blocking a shot. He is expected to miss four weeks.

Adding to that, Nik Antropov missed three straight practices as of Wednesday nursing a groin injury. He is expected to play against the Caps. Good thing for Atlanta – in the game last week he registered a pair of assists to bring his lifetime numbers against Washington to 7-12-19 in 26 career games. With Kovalchuk out, Antropov is now the Thrashers second leading scorer, but he is still looking for his first goal as a Thrasher, all seven of his points being assists.

Evander Kane – the fourth overall pick in last June’s draft – appears to be staying with the Thrashers for the remainder of the year. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he’s been told by the club to move out of the hotel in which he is staying and find more permanent accommodations (we wonder when Pittsburgh is sending Sidney Crosby back to Rimouski).

Speaking of accommodations, goalie Ondrej Pavelec was also green-lighted to check out and find new digs, which is a sign that either Kari Lehtonen is going to be out for a significantly longer period of time, or Lehtonen might be finding new accommodations of his own… in another city.

Pavelec got in 30 minutes of work in the San Jose game following his 32 minute effort against the Caps a week ago. As opposed to his having given up five goals on 14 shots in the game last Thursday, he stopped all 12 Sharks shots after replacing the ineffective Johan Hedberg. Pavelec did not figure in the decision.

With Kovalchuk out, the temptation is to say that Kane has to pick up more minutes (he’s averaging 13:53 a night as he gets his feet wet in the NHL) and more points (he is 3-2-5, tied for fifth in team scoring). But the Thrashers need more goal scoring from the likes of Antropov, Brian Little, Vyacheslav Kozlov, and Colby Armstrong, who combined have a total of one goal (Armstrong). On the power play, Zach Bogosian will be assuming Kovalchuk’s position on the point (again, according to the AJC). With Kovalchuk and his nine goals gone for the time being (of 28 scored by the Thrashers), Atlanta needs to spread the offense around.

One of the problems the Thrashers have had so far this year is the schedule. After beating Tampa Bay on opening night, they waited five days before taking the ice again (a 4-2 win over St. Louis). Then, after losing to Ottawa in their third game of the season, they waited six days before their next game, a 4-2 win over New Jersey. Tonight’s game against the Caps comes five days after losing to San Jose, 4-3. The Thrashers have had no chance to establish a playing rhythm of, say, a game every other day or so. That will end right quick, though. Atlanta has four back-to-backs in November, and they are on the road for both “sandwich games” – those surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday (at Detroit and at Carolina).

This is an odd game. First, there is the matter that in each of the two instances in which the Thrashers played after a long layoff, they registered 4-2 wins. Then there is the matter of the Thrasher goalies each playing about 60 minutes in their last two games (losses to Washington and San Jose), except those minutes were broken up in the odd way of both playing about 30 minutes each in each game. Pavelec was pulled against the Caps, Hedberg against the Sharks. Is the third time the charm?

Even though Atlanta has scored at least four goals in five of the eight games they have played, with Kovalchuk out it is hard to see a way to Atlanta getting to four goals. Four does seem to be a magic number for Caps goaltender Semyon Varlamov, should he get the call. He’s allowed four in three of his five appearances so far this season. He got the win last Thursday, and with this being the front end of a back-to-back, he could very well be tapped for this one.

On the other hand, the Caps have scored at least four goals in five of the 11 games they have played, including three of the five road games they’ve played. And there is this – the Caps trio of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin skated together in the first three games and were a combined 9-15-24 (the team went 2-0-1). On Tuesday, the trio was reunited and combined to go 4-5-9 in a 4-2 win over Philadelphia. If they skate together tonight, and the Thrasher goalies continue to struggle at the start of games, the competitive portion of the evening could be over early, especially with Atlanta’s big threat – Ilya Kovalchuk – out of the lineup.

The Caps’ confounding tendency to let teams stick around in games will probably keep this from being an early evening, and if Varlamov’s own troubles make an appearance, this game could be a real adventure, not unlike last week’s game.


Caps 5 – Thrashers 3

A TWO-point night: Caps 4 - Flyers 2

Caps 4 – Flyers 2

Let that roll off the tongue and appreciate it… Caps 4 – Flyers 2. It was a game that had more than a faint whiff of a playoff air to it as the Caps and Flyers traded chances for 60 minutes, fought hard for every scrap of ice, and competed hard in what amounted to periods five, six, and seven of a year-long battle (the Flyers needing the first four periods to take a 6-5 “lead”).

The story of the night was the reunited top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin, which went 4-5-9, plus-9, had 13 shots on goal (of the 36 the Caps had in total). It didn’t look good early, though. The first period ended scoreless with the Caps enjoying the only power play… for all the good it did them. With Ole-Kristian Tollefsen off the ice for cross-checking Matt Bradley, the Caps managed a grand total of no shots on goal for the man advantage. More than that, they were not credited with so much as a shot attempt. For a team that came into the game with a goose egg in their last 13 power play opportunities after finding the back of the net on their first opportunity in a 3-2 Gimmick win against Nashville, it was not a good sign.

It got worse. In the second period the Caps took three penalties, and the Flyers scored during two of them. Scott Hartnell buried a nice feed from Mike Richards to get the Flyers on the board with Brendan Morrison off for hooking, and Braydon Coburn one-timed a feed from Kimmo Timonen to put the visitors up, 2-0, with Tyler Sloan off for the same offense.

Then the top line for the Caps found their scoring muse. Nicklas Backstrom used some deft stick work to settle a puck dropping out of the air as he was crossing the Flyer blue line, with Mike Richards swatting at him, no less. Backstrom gained control of the puck and eased toward the left wing boards. Richards followed, opening a seam that was filled by Alex Ovechkin. Backstrom found him, Ovechkin snapped a shot in a blur past Flyer goalie Ray Emery, and the Caps were back within one.

Backstrom got the Caps off the power play schneid later in the period on a slick play by Alexander Semin. After Emery knocked aside a drive by Keith Aucoin from the side of the cage, the puck came to Semin in the Zamboni corner. Semin held his ground, waiting for Claude Giroux to make a move – to cover the pass to Ovechkin parked at the left wing point, or to cover the pass to Backstrom hiding along the inside of the left wing faceoff circle. Giroux chose to cover the pass back to Ovechkin. He chose poorly. Semin flicked a pass to Backstrom, who snapped the puck past Emery, and just like that things were tied going into the second intermission.

The odd pattern of scoring for the Caps continued one more time early in the third. First, Backstrom fed Ovechkin for a goal. Then Semin fed Backstrom. The third time, Mike Green fed Semin at the Flyers’ blue line, and Semin took one more stride before whipping a wrist shot past Kimmo Timonen’s leg and past Ray Emery’s blocker for the goal that gave the Caps the lead they would not relinquish.

Not that the Flyers didn’t have an opportunity. Darroll Powe took a feed at the Caps’ blue line and split the defense to go in alone on Jose Thoedore. Tom Poti dove in an effort to sweep the puck off Powe’s stick, but was ruled to have taken out his skates before getting the puck. The referee pointed immediately to center ice to signal a penalty shot. Powe skated in and showed the crowd why he doesn’t take shootouts (he has never appeared in the Gimmick). He fired at Theodore in what looked like an effort to find the five hole, but he missed badly, hitting Theodore’s left pad to keep the Caps advantage at 3-2.

At that point, it became the Jose Theodore Show. In the 8:43 following Powe’s unsuccessful penalty shot, Theodore turned away 11 consecutive Flyer shots before the Caps would register a shot at the 15:30 mark into the period. He would turn away three more – a pop-pop-pop of shots taken in a seven second span in the period’s 18th minute – before Alex Ovechkin put the Flyers out of their misery when, with Chris Pronger trying to use his reach to deny Ovechkin a shooting lane down the left side, he flipped a backhand into the open Flyer net in the last minute to close the scoring.

Other stuff…

- Brooks Laich had, overall, a pretty good game, but he was a step late in preventing the cross-ice pass that Hartnell potted past Jose Theodore.

- Mike Green and Tom Poti victimized by... Darroll Powe steaming between them down the slot to draw a penalty shot? Bet you wouldn't put that in a script.

- Nicklas Backstrom was the only Cap taking more than one faceoff who was on the losing side of the ledger (six up, ten down).

- That’s five multi-goal games in 11 games played thus far for Alex Ovechkin. Last year, he had his fifth multi-goal game in Game 30. In 2007-2008, when he finished with 65 goals, he had his fifth multi-goal game in Game 42. The Caps are 25-0-2 when he scores at least two goals.

- That’s Backstrom’s third three-assist night this year and the 11th time in his career he has registered at least three assists in a game.

- Alexandre Giroux had another one of those nights… three hits, but no shot attempts in 8:20 of ice time.

- 20 blocked shots… Mike Green and Tom Poti had five apiece. It tied the Caps high in blocked shots this year (20 in a 3-2 loss to Detroit).

- The Caps are now 7-2-2, but consider that each of the losses are of the one-goal variety (two in regulation, one in overtime, one in a Gimmick).

- The Flyers have a keeper in James Van Riemsdyk. He didn’t show up much on the score sheet (four shots, one assist), but there is the look of maturity in his game. Never did we see him rush things that weren’t there or panic in difficult situations. When he fills out, he’s going to be a load.

- Did you ever have a dream where you are standing in the middle of a busy thoroughfare and cars are whizzing by you front and back, one side and the other? Jose Theodore is going to have that dream tonight if he ponders for a moment the abuse he took from Flyers depositing themselves in his crease (and occasionally, in his lap).

- Nine shots in four power play opportunities covering 5:30 in time isn’t too bad. They had six shots on a five-on-three over 1:41 of ice time, plus a missed attempt by Mike Knuble and a shot on goal two seconds after the first half of a two-man advantage expired. Four of those shots came from inside 15 feet (according to the play-by-play record), and the one taken just after the first penalty expired was also inside of 15 feet. Sometimes, you just don’t get the bounce.

- David Steckel was 10 for 16 in faceoffs in the defensive zone. We’re not sure which is more noteworthy, winning 63 percent of those draws or taking 16 of them (of 24 total defensive zone faceoffs). Calling Boyd Gordon... Calling Mr. Boyd Gordon...

Jose Theodore was awarded the game’s first star, and he deserved it. In a curious way, this was a disappointing defensive effort for the Caps. Here were the Flyers, playing their fourth game in six nights (three of which were against quality opponents – Boston, San Jose, and the Capitals), and the Flyers’ shot progression by period was 10-13-20. 20? In the third period? That’s right. What’s more, the Flyers had 22 other attempts in the third period that missed or were blocked. That is obscene.

But it’s a win, too. Only four teams have more wins, and three of those teams have played in more games than have the Caps. Only three teams have more standings points, and two of them have played in more games than have the Caps. And that matters more than style points, although truth be told, the Caps were a dominating team for about 20 minutes of this game (the last ten of the second and the first ten of the third). Against a quality opponent, that’s not a bad thing.