The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
In case you haven’t heard, the Caps and Penguins are playing tonight. Except for the execs at NBC, this is now the must-see matchup in the NHL, and this is the first of four such meetings this season. The matchup is like the latest installment of a movie franchise that stars…
“Hey, babe. I have a movie idea for you.”
Let me guess, you’re in movies.
“Oh, sure, sure… you ever hear of ‘Par Wars?’”
“Par Wars… about a race of furry little creatures that tend golf courses on the grassy moon of Avenel?”
Uh, no…but about this movie?
“Uh, yeah… well in the future the corporation is mining this ice moon in a star system far, far away…"
“And this moon in inhabited by these creatures that kinda look like humans, but they’re not… sort like…”
“Right!...Cats, only bigger, stronger and faster, with feet that look like they have blades on the bottoms so they can get around on this ice moon.”
I kinda see where this is going…
“…and the atmosphere will kill humans, so to work on the moon, they have to grow these bodies that look like the ones on the moon, see, and then they get linked up mentally with a human that operates them remotely.”
Isn’t this movie out already?
“No, no, no. This one’s completely different.”
Uh-huh… and what are you calling this movie?
O V I T A R
Yeah, completely different.
But back to the business at hand. The Caps and the Penguins come into tonight’s game comfortably on course to reach the playoffs and perhaps meet again in the second round again, given their respective place in the standings and assuming all the higher seed win in the first round.
As you would expect of two teams that are often compared and that resemble one another in many ways, their performances this year mirror one another in many respects. The overall numbers look like this:
Both teams are playing well recently, too…
-- The Caps are 7-1-0- in their last eight games, the Penguins are 5-3-0.
-- The Caps have 39 goals in their last eight games, the Penguins 31
-- The Caps have converted nine of 25 power play chances (36.0 percent), the Penguins eight of 33 (24.2%, but four of those goals came in their last game)
They have even struggled in the same thing – penalty killing. The Caps are 28-for-37 (75.7%), the Penguins 22-for-29 (75.9%).
The similarities even extend to the nature of their important injuries, too. Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov has been out for the last nine games with groin and knee injuries, while Marc-Andre Fleury has missed the last two contests with a broken finger on his glove hand.
So with Fleury ailing, Chris Kunitz out (abdominal surgery), and a few other aches and pains down the roster – Maxime Talbot, Brooks Orpik, Pascal Dupuis, and Brent Johnson among them – the Penguins are ripe for the taking, right?
Well, they still have Sidney Crosby (8-6-14 in this 5-3-0 run for the Penguins) and Evgeni Malkin (4-5-9), so they’re not too bad off. And it isn’t as if the Penguins are entirely a two-man show. Bill Guerin is still productive at age 39. He is the Penguins’ third-leading scorer overall (16-19-35) and is 3-3-6 in the last eight games for the Penguins. He is tied for second on the club in power play goals (eight) and is tied for first in game-winning goals (four). He is even getting mellow with age. His 28 penalty minutes puts him on a pace to finish with the lowest total (45 PIM) of his career (previously 63, in his rookie year). In 48 career games against the Caps he is 24-13-37.
Jordan Staal has grown into a top-notch third-line center. He is currently fourth on the team in scoring (13-21-34), leads the team in plus/minus (plus-14), and leads the team in penalty killing ice time per game. He comes into this game with a pair of goals and six assists in the over the past eight games, and he is a plus-6 to boot. He is 3-1-4 in 12 career games against the Caps, although he was scoreless in four regular season games against Washington last year (ok, he was also 2-2-4 in the second round playoff series, all of it coming in the last four games of the seven game series).
Pittsburgh gets considerable scoring support from its blue line, too. Nine defensemen have registered points this year, six of them also having scored goals. Five defensemen have at least 10 points. Two of those defensemen are particularly important for the Penguins, both for what they are contributing this season and what they mean to the club’s future. Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski are the youngest of the nine defensemen having dressed for the Penguins this year. Combined they have fewer than 300 regular season games of NHL experience but already fill important roles. Goligoski is second among defensemen in scoring (6-17-23), while Letang is third (2-14-16). They have also contributed a combined 13 points on the power play and are a combined plus-10 for the season. Letang is 0-2-2 in six career regular season games against the Caps, while Goligoski has a goal in two games against Washington.
In goal, it’s pot luck. Marc-Andre Fleury has the broken finger. Brent Johnson had a lower body injury, although he did return to play against the Islanders in a 6-4-win. It is worth noting that the Islanders scored all four goals in the last 29 minutes of that game. A product of the Penguins already having a 3-0 lead when the scoring began? Or a product of his fading as a product of his injury? He did, however, hold the Islanders off the scoreboard in the last 12 minutes after they tied the game. Fleury is 8-3-0, 2.90 in 11 career games against the Caps, while Johnson is unbeaten against the Caps in his career – 4-0-0, 1.15.
If these two are unable to go (or last 60 minutes), perhaps John Curry will see action. Curry has been in one game this year, lasting less than 25 minutes in a 6-2 loss to Vancouver in which he allowed five goals on 14 shots.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Pittsburgh: Sergei Gonchar
Pittsburgh has had a rough time on the power play this year. It is one of life’s great mysteries that a club employing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could rank 26th on the power play. One reason might be this – Gonchar has missed 16 games this year. Still, he has had a hand in 16 of the 34 power play goals the Penguins have scored this season.
Washington: Mike Green
Green has never scored a goal against the Penguins, regular season or playoffs. But that’s not why he is a player to ponder here. In last year’s playoff series against the Penguins, Green was harassed constantly by Penguin forwards on the forecheck. It played a role in the Penguins’ ability to hammer the Caps with shots on goal. He should expect to suffer similar abuse tonight to the extent the Penguins can apply it. If he handles it well, the ice gets tilted more in the Caps’ favor, and the Caps are the superior offensive team.
1. I think I can, I think I can. Sometimes, and maybe this is just a fan’s view, one gets the feeling that the Caps aren’t 100 percent convinced that they are on the same competitive level with the Penguins. Even despite the 3-0-1 record last year, there just always seems to be that sliver of doubt. Uh, guys? You can do this.
2. By now, you are what you are. You might think this refers to the 26th-place ranking the Penguins have on the power play. Well, not exactly. What the Penguins are is a lot better on the power play with Sergei Gonchar in the lineup, and they are tied for ninth in the league in home power play conversions. Don’t let numbers fool you – this is a fine power play when playing in The Igloo. Keep it in mind.
3. Ready (fire), aim (fire), fire (again). In last spring’s playoff series the Penguins averaged almost 37 shots a game against Washington. It wasn’t a surplus of skill or talent that enabled Pittsburgh to win, it was the result of unrelenting shot pressure that finally caused the Caps – and their young goalie Semyon Varlamov – to crack. If the Penguins go north of 35 shots on goal tonight, it likely isn’t going to end well for the Caps.
In the end, the Penguins are – and will remain – the standard to which the Caps are compared, at least until the Caps win a Cup of their own (and then maybe the Penguins will be compared to the Caps – it is not a subtle difference). Sure, this is Ovechkin/Crosby, Part 134, or whatever it is. It’s Caps/Penguins, with all the emotional baggage that gets carried around (primarily by Caps fans). But the real competition is yet to come, probably in May. This one is more for bar talk and bragging rights than it is for benchmarking. Still…
Caps 5 – Penguins 3