Monday, November 16, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Rangers, November 17th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

We’re here to help the Caps take another bite of the apple as the boys head across the river to Manhattan to take on their second New York City area team in the past few days, the New York Rangers. It is the Caps’ first visit to Madison Square Garden this year. It is a place that has not been especially hospitable…



“You said “spit”…”

Let me guess… you must be…

"Hello. How are ya? I'm Arnold Horsha-a-ck"

Obviously. And where you are, there would be…

“Hi there…”

“Boom-Boom” Washington.

Well guys, you’re in for a treat. The Caps are in town to meet the Rangers, and it looks as though Alex Ovechkin is going to be returning to the lineup after missing a few games to injury.

“Uh, Mr. Peerless… Ovie has a note.”

I’m sure he does, Epstein. Hand it over.

“Dear Coach… Please excuse Alex from hockey games signed… ‘Ovie’s Mother.’”

That’s good Epstein. By the way, the ink is still wet on this note.

“Up yer nose with a rubber hose.”

Oh, Barbarino… I was wondering when you’d show up.


Well, the “what” is the Caps visiting the Rangers, where the home team has been a grouchy host in this decade. Since the 2000-2001 season, the Caps are 4-9-3 skating on the MSG ice in the regular season. Much like last year, the Rangers got out to a fast start to the season (7-1-0 in their first eight games this year, 10-2-1 in October last year). But since their fast start, the Rangers are 4-7-1 for an 11-8-1 overall record. And after winning their first three games of the season on home ice, the Rangers are 2-3-0 in their last five games at the Garden. The other numbers look like this (going into last night's action)…

So far, the signing of winger Marian Gaborik in the off season is looking like a great deal for the Rangers. Gaborik has goals in 11 of the 18 games he’s played in this year and points in 16 of those 18 games. Add in the six power play goals he has (tied for second in the league), and it is clear that he is the player to watch at the offensive end of the ice for the Blueshirts. In eight career games against the Caps, Gaborik is 2-1-3, minus-2. Both of those goals were scored in the Rangers’ 4-3 win over Washington on October 8th.

Gaborik has seven goals in his last nine games out of the 24 that the Rangers have scored. As far as the other scoring is concerned, the Rangers have gotten it from some odd places. And there are none, perhaps, odder than off the sticks of P.A. Parenteau and Dane Byers. Both players notched their first NHL goal in their respective first games with the Rangers – Parenteau in a 3-1 loss to the Islanders on October 28th and Byers in a 3-2 loss to Minnesota on October 31st. Byers has been since reassigned to Hartford in the AHL.

One guy who hasn’t been scoring is everyone’s Mr. Congeniality, Sean Avery. The Ranger winger is without a point in his last eight games, leaving him stuck at 2-4-6 in 15 games this year. He’s been very productive against the Caps, though. In seven career regular season games he is 5-2-7. Given that this is likely to be the game in which Alex Ovechkin returns, it would be of no surprise if Avery tries to engage in his own brand of mischief if he is matched against Ovechkin’s line.

When the Rangers got off to their hot start for the season, no Ranger was hotter than their 2008 first round draft pick, Michael Del Zotto. The defenseman started the year 4-8-12, plus-4 in his first dozen games. Well, he’s cooled off some since that start, going 0-3-3, minus-5 in his last eight games. Part of the problem at the offensive end is that he is not getting pucks to the net. In his first nine games he had 13 shots on goal. Since then, he has six shots on goal in 11 games, four of them coming in a single game (a 3-1 loss to Calgary in which he did not record a point).

One player who has made some improvements from last year is defenseman Wade Redden. One of the favorite targets of Ranger fans last year when he finished with his lowest point total in a decade and the lowest plus-minus of his career, he has morphed into more of a reliable (compared to last year) defenseman who can keep opponents off the board and contribute the occasional point. He is not now, and perhaps won’t be again, the solid top-pair two-way defenseman who will give a club 22-24 minutes a night and 40-50 points. He is on a pace to finish with the lowest average ice time in a decade (he is averaging 19:22 a game) and his lowest point total of his career (a pace of 4-16-20). But he is also on a pace to finish plus-16, which would be quite an improvement over last year’s finish of minus-5.

This will be an opportunity for the Capitals to renew acquaintances with Henrik Lundqvist, who in his last ten games has had “the little girl with the curl” about him. When he’s been good, he’s been very good – a shutout of the Bruins, 35 saves on 36 shots against Ottawa. But when he hasn’t been very good, he’s been bad more often than we’ve come to expect – five goals on 31 shots against Montreal, four in 26 against Atlanta. Overall in his last ten, he is 3-5-1 (one no-decision), 2.77, .908, and a shutout. Against the Caps he is 9-3-3 in regular season games for his career, 2.80, .904, and a shutout.

Oh, and we would be remiss if we didn’t provide this public service announcement in honor of Ranger coach John “Splash” Tortorella. Good Housekeeping offers this rating of BPA-free reusable water bottles that can take dozens of tosses, yet remain “green-friendly.” Think about one of them when you’re in the mood to plunk the odd fan that gets on your nerves, or your significant other.


1. Good Streak, Bad Streak. The Caps haven’t lost consecutive games in regulation since losing on October 8th and 12th. The Caps, starting with this game, will be playing three of four on the road, but they are against beatable teams (Rangers, Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Senators).

2. “Kill-kill-kill!” The Rangers had three power play goals in seven opportunities against Edmonton on November 5th. Pretty impressive. But in nine other games in their last ten, the Rangers are 3-for-30 on the power play. They do, however, have the second best home power play in the league (30.6 percent). The Caps need to keep the Rangers from making this a special teams game.

3. “Play your game… Play your game.” That was the mantra repeated over and over by USA coach Herb Brooks in the dying moments of the 1980 Olympic Games semi-final against the Soviet Union. Well, it applies here to Alex Ovechkin, who might be inclined to bolt like a colt out of the barn in his first game back from injury, and on a big stage to boot. If he just plays his game, without resorting to the too-cute play or the too-big hit that is outside his normal sort of play, he’ll be fine.

Say, Vinnie… you got a pick in this one?



Caps 4 – Rangers 3

Second and Tens -- The Second Ten-Game Segment: The Forwards

Twenty games in, it’s time to take a look at how the forwards fared in their second ten games compared to their first ten…

Alex Ovechkin

The amazing part about Ovechkin’s first twenty games is that despite missing six of them he is still only two points out of second place in the league scoring race. He bolted out of the gate with a 9-8-17 start, then followed it up with a 5-1-6 effort in five games (those five goals coming in the three games prior to his getting injured against Columbus) to finish up the 20 games prematurely at 14-9-23.

His goal scoring has been streaky thus far – five in three games to start the year, four in two games in mid-October, those five in three games before getting hurt. Missing six games (assuming he returns against the Ranger on Tuesday) perhaps prevents him from setting career highs in goals and points this year, but consider this. In 2007-2008, he was 13-9-22 after 20 games (all of which he played) and finished with 65 goals and 112 points. Perhaps the thing to watch is his plus-minus (yes, we know, it’s a useless statistic). At plus-10 for 14 games he was on a pace to surpass his career best (plus-28). It isn’t a signal that he is an emerging Selke candidate, but there seem to be fewer whispers this year about Ovechkin not hustling in his own end.

Brendan Morrison

Morrison has been as consistent in his way as the club has been in its. Two ten-game segments, both of which he finished 3-5-8, one power play goal, one game-winning goal for 6-10-16 after 20 games.

Add in that he has chipped in a pair of power play goals and a pair of game-winners (tied with Ovechkin for the team lead), and he has been a solid number two center. What he does is, as you might expect from a veteran, pick his spots. Among Caps’ forwards having taken at least ten shots this year, he is second in shooting percentage. He averages only 1.4 shots per game, but he makes them count, popping them in at a 21.4 percent clip. And here is another reflection of his consistency. Only once so far this season has he gone consecutive games without a point (he is on a five-game points streak). And, as you might expect from a veteran, he does the little things well – second on the team in faceoff winning percentage (ten games minimum) and he leads all forwards for the Caps in takeaways.

Matt Bradley

“The Professor” is on a pace to top his career best in scoring (9-13-22 in 54 games with the Sharks in 2001-2002) – 12-21-33. He cooled off some in goal scoring in the second 10 games (none, compared to three in his first ten games), but he had three assists – one better than what he posted in the first ten. This might not be a big deal in the larger scoring standings, but for a 3rd-4th liner, Bradley has been about as productive as you could ask for.

He is shooting the puck a bit more – a pace of 106 shots, which would be just short of his career high of 111 in 2007-2008 – but he is another Cap who has found the net with more frequency among the shots he has taken (an 11.5 percent shooting percentage would be his best since the 2001-2002 season with the Sharks). What he has done perhaps less frequently is get into scraps. He has two fights so far this year, while he had nine last year. Then again, he had only two in the first 20 games last year, too. Maybe he’s just getting warmed up. One thing to watch with Bradley; good things seem to happen when he’s down in what we call ‘The Bradley Corner” (at the bottom of Section 103, in the end where the Caps shoot twice). Whether he throws the puck at the net or finds a teammate, something is bound to happen when he is down in that corner with the puck.

Tomas Fleischmann

At the rate he is scoring since his return from illness, Tomas Flesichmann will match his career high in points in Game 44 of the season, against Atlanta on January 9th. Did we mention he’s only played in nine games so far?

In those nine games Fleischmann has points in eight of them (those would be his last eight) and has goals in three of his last four games. He has three power play goals and a game winner on his 2009-2010 season resume. But before we get too carried away, he is minus-6 in his last three games. He has been on the ice for six of the last eight even strength goals scored against the Caps over those three games. Yes, Fleischmann has lit up the scoreboard since his return. He’s been an impact player on just about every shift he takes lately. He is giving indications that he can be a consistent contributor at this level, justifying the faith that Coach Bruce Boudreau has had in him. But there is still work to be done.

Boyd Gordon

There is really nothing to see here, at least in the context of 10-game segments. He has 5:55 of ice time since Columbus Day, all of it in last Saturday’s 5-2 loss to New Jersey in which he was reinjured (back). It is turning out to be a lost season – so far – for Gordon, who has played in seven games and has one assist to show for it.

Eric Fehr

In an odd way, Fehr is a bookend to Gordon in terms of injuries. He missed the first four games of the first ten-game segment – still recuperating from off-season shoulder surgery – and he missed the first six of the second segment with a rib injury. It has depressed his numbers:

But while Gordon languishes in a sort of limbo as to his availability, Fehr has come back to show a glimmer of light. In the four games since he returned from the rib injury to post a goal, two assists, and a plus-2. Fehr had been something of an intermittent tease in his all-too-brief stretches of games with the Caps. He puts forth an honest effort in a third or fourth line role that requires him to forecheck. He has become stronger in fights along the boards, and he has from time to time offered a hint of the goal-scoring prowess he had in juniors and the AHL. But for Fehr, the issue is staying upright. If he can do that for more than a few games at a time, the Caps might have someone to provide reliable secondary scoring.

Chris Clark

In the first ten games, one might have wondered if Clark was going to come as far back as he needed to come from injuries suffered over the previous two years. One goal, one assist, a minus-4. It wasn’t the way the Captain would have wanted to come back. But in the second ten, there has been progress:

Five assists in ten games, doubling his shots on goal, bumping up his hits total. That bad start found him with his ice time being cut, playing less than ten minutes in four of the first five games in this second ten-game stretch. But his performance (not to mention injuries elsewhere on the roster) has led to his ice time being bumped up to more than 14 minutes in each of the last two games.

Nicklas Backstrom

Backstrom has centered just about everyone on the team, it seems, and the effect this has had on his scoring is something of an odd departure from his norm.

He is putting up points, but he’s doing it in bunches – 10 in his first four games, six games with one point, seven points in his next four. He seems to be settling back into a more consistent pattern, though. Those seven points in the first four games of this second ten-game segment is part of a 11 points in eight games run. He is without a point in his last two, but that came against teams that have played very good defense lately (Minnesota and New Jersey). The one thing that still needs work is faceoffs. Only twice in his first ten games did Backstrom win a majority of his draws. That improved to five games in the second ten-game segment, but he remains a work in progress. Yeah, we’re being picky with Nicky.

Keith Aucoin

Aucoin managed to get in four games in his second ten-game segment before being returned to Hershey, during which he doubled his point total and had a couple of power play points for his trouble – his getting time on that squad a reward for a hard working style that provided needed energy.

Brooks Laich

Here is another example of consistent performance.

4-5-9, even, in the first ten; 4-6-10, even, in the second ten. Two power play goals in the first ten; two in the second ten. What he’s done in the second ten is get more shots on goal, perhaps a product of more ice time (three times over 20 minutes in the first ten; six times in the second ten). When Laich imporved from 18 to 37 to 53 points over the past three seasons, one might have thought that being a 50-60 points scorer was where Laich would settle on this club. However, he is on a pace to go 33-45-78, which would be a pretty consistent rate of improvement with that of the last three years. If Laich is that player – a 70-80 point player – he really would merit the Chuck Norris comparisons.

Mike Knuble

How do we know there is an injury epidemic in the NHL? Knuble is out. This is a guy who played 82 games in four of the previous five years. Now, he’s out 3-4 weeks with a broken finger (four weeks from the Minnesota game in which he was hurt will have him out for 12 games and a return on December 11th against Carolina). Until that injury, he had the look of another consistent performer.

Consider that he played in all ten games of the first segment and eight (plus 4:47 against Minnesota) in the second segment, the point totals are pretty consistent. What fell off, though, were the shots on goal, which were almost halved in the second segment (even though he scored more goals). It seemed to be a reflection of Knuble settling into the role for which he was signed. Of the three goals he had in this segment, one was from 12 feet, another was a tip in. Even his injury was a reflection of that, coming as it did when he crashed the Minnesota net, tumbled in over goalie Niklas Backstrom, and broke his finger.

Alexander Semin

What Jeff Schultz has been for the defensemen, Semin is becoming for the forwards – the vessel into which is poured all of Caps fans’ displeasure. Semin did see his offensive production drop off a bit in the second ten game segment…

…but he is still on a pace for a 37-33-70 season. However, the problem might be hinted at in the plus-minus numbers. Semin was plus-25 in 62 games last year. He is plus-1 in 18 games this year and is on a pace to be plus-4. It is not that he is a poor defensive player. When given the opportunity and responsibility – on penalty killing, for example – he is adept and focused. It isn’t his propensity for turnovers – his 15 giveaways in 18 games is a lower giveaway rate than he had last year (66 in 62 games). It isn’t penalties – he has eight minor infractions in 18 games compared to 31 in 62 games last year. It just seems that every time Semin does make a mistake, it is of the head-snapping, eye-rolling variety that leads to either a scoring chance at the other end or a particularly ill-timed penalty. Part of it is that the light is shining more brightly on him after the injury to Alex Ovechkin and the fact that this is a contract year for Semin. He hasn’t done the most with the opportunity presented.

Alexandre Giroux

Giroux played in only one game in the second ten-game segment before returning to Hershey. In his case the relevant comparison – the one that get one scratching their head – is that while he was 1-0-1, plus-1 in three games with the Caps, he is currently 8-13-21, plus-11 in 13 games with Hershey.

David Steckel

Steckel has been consistent, but from an offensive perspective not the sort of consistency that was hoped for…

No goals, one assist in each segment. True, offense is not how he earns his paycheck, but he has one goal in his last 44 regular season games. That qualifies as a slump, even for a “checking” forward. Of course, that goal would be against Tampa Bay, a team he has six of his 13 career goals against. The Caps haven’t played the Lightning yet this year. What Steckel does well – arguably as well as anyone in the league – is take faceoffs. The standard for him isn’t 50 percent, but rather 60 percent. In his first ten games, he won at least 60 percent of his draws seven times; in his second ten games he did so six times. With Boyd Gordon on the shelf, it’s hard to see how anyone else takes an important defensive zone draw other than Steckel.

Quintin Laing

A monument to perseverance, Laing gets a sweater every night as a product of effort. On a team that has more than its share of skill, what he brings should be inspiring. Laing has already matched his career high in goals in the NHL, both of them scored in this ten-game segment.

Perhaps oddly, Laing has not put up large totals in that area in which he is most renowned – blocked shots. His 11 in 17 games has him ranked in a tie for 56th among forwards, but for a guy who suffered a lacerated spleen in his only game with the Caps last year, we’ll not complain. We just like watching him putting forth that effort on every shift to keep other teams from scoring.

Mathieu Perreault

Sixth round draft pick makes good. Perreault has played in only six games, and he is already 12th on the team in scoring (2-3-5). That shouldn’t be too surprising for a kid who had seasons of 119 and 114 points in Canadian juniors, but his ability to survive in what is listed generously as a 5’10”, 174 pound body among the redwoods of the NHL is something to behold. He hasn’t been shy about sticking his nose into situations that call for fighting for the puck, and he has been adept in keeping his nose out of trouble when he has the puck and defenders are trying (and failing) to splatter him into the glass. His has been, so far, the classic example of a player who takes advantage of the opportunity created when other players get injured. It’s called “stepping up,” and Perreault has certainly done that.

Second and Tens -- The Second Ten-Game Segment: The Team

We’re just about to the quarter pole for the season, having passed the 20-game mark. So, it’s time for a look at the first two ten-game installments for the Caps. The Capitals are a team that can cause more than a bit of head scratching. Fans who have observed the team closely over the first 20 games would say that they are an inconsistent team, given to superior performances on some nights (games against San Jose, Boston, and Philadelphia come to mind). On other nights, they win by just getting by (games against Atlanta, Florida, the Islanders). Then there are those nights when you’d like to swap out the Caps for Hershey even up (losses to the Islanders, the Flyers, and Columbus).

But when all is said and done, the Caps have been a pretty consistent team over ten-game stretches so far. They went 6-2-2 in their first ten games, 6-2-2 in their second ten. They scored 36 goals in their first ten games, 37 in their second ten. They outshot their opponents by 20 shots over their first ten games, they outshot them by 21 in their second ten.

If there is an important difference in the ten-game splits for the Caps, it is special teams. In the first ten games the Caps connected on eight of 48 power play opportunities – 16.7 percent. But while they have had many fewer chances on the man advantage in the second ten games, they have been much more efficient, connecting on 12 of 34 chances – 35.3 percent.

The improvement on the power play has, however, been largely given away by virtue of a poorer penalty kill. Again, the Caps benefitted from allowing fewer power plays to the opposition (49 in the first ten, 34 in the second ten), but they allowed more goals in the second ten games (10) than they did in the first ten (8). The result was that the Caps’ penalty killing percentage dropped from a respectable 83.7 percent in the first ten games to 70.6 percent in the second ten.

Looking at their first 20 games this year compared to last year, the Caps are a more formidable offensive team – more goals, more efficient power play. But what is disturbing is the lack of improvement on defense over this time last year. The Caps are marginally better in terms of allowing goals (down a tenth of a goal a game), but their penalty killing is down from what was a mark below the penalty killing equivalent of the “Mendoza Line” after last year’s first 20 games. On the good side, though, the Caps are allowing more than a full shorthanded chance fewer per game this year over last.

On a team-wide basis, you might say the Caps are who we thought they were – an offensively gifted team that has defensive issues, specifically with respect to playing with fewer than five skaters. Of the 61 goals surrendered by the Caps, 23 of them have come with the Caps playing with fewer than five skaters (the Caps have allowed the most 4-on-4 goals in the league – five).

We came at the defensive issues from another direction in another post. But however you slice it, the Caps cannot be called, by any measure, a good defensive team. The numbers simply do not bear that out. But it isn’t as if they can’t be. Holding Boston and San Jose to a goal apiece, the Flyers to a pair, and the Red Wings to three in their own building show that the Caps can play defense when properly motivated. But waiting on the spring for proper motivation on a more consistent basis is playing with fire. It’s one thing to muster up a defensive effort for a game every week or two. It is quite another to do it every other night for two months in the spring. Whether the Caps can find that motivation on a more regular basis will be something that bears watching as the season moves into its third ten-game segment.

We'll look at the players later.