The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Washington Capitals take their fun ride on the road this week for three games heading into the Olympic break, the first stop being in Montreal to face the Canadiens at Bell Centre. The Caps begin the week as the top team in the Southeast Division, the top team in the Eastern Conference, the top team in the National Hockey League, and the top rated NHL team in several hockey publications and media…
“Y’know, if you have some computer geek workin’ fer ya, there wouldn’t be any need for any o’ that playoff nonsense. You could just go to the champeenship game like they do in real man sports like college football.”
And you are…
“Bobby… Bobby Peegsken.”
You sound like a football guy.
“Sure am… I am the Eggseckitive Dy-rector of the NC-Two-A Division I Football Bowl Subdivision Office of Information.”
In other words, you’re the BCS BS guy.
“Why do folks always say that?”
So, you think we should just dispense with the playoffs and go right to a “SCCS?”
“A Stanley Cup Championship Series, yeah… Think about it. None of that pesky travel. No waiting until June to get a champ…”
We already wait until June to get a college football champ.
“Funny… but anyway, the Caps wouldn’t have to worry about playing the Penguins in a playoff round. They could just go right to the championship game against the Sharks.”
And how do you folks figure these things out, anyway?
“OK, here’s how it works…
The top two teams in the final SCCS Standings shall play in the NHL Championship Series.
The champions of the Northeast, Atlantic, Central, Northwest, and Pacific Divisions will have automatic berths in one of the participating Stanley “Bowls” – get it?...Stanley ‘Bowls?’
The champion of the Southeast Conference gets an automatic berth in an SCCS ‘bowl’ game if either: a) Such team is ranked in the top 12 of the final SCCS Standings, or, b) such team is ranked in the top 16 of the final SCCS Standings and its ranking in the final SCCS Standings is higher than that of a champion of a conference that has an annual automatic berth in one of the SCCS bowls.
No more than one such team from the Southeast Division shall earn an automatic berth in any year. (Note: a second team may be eligible for at-large eligibility as noted below.) If two or more teams from the Southeast satisfy the provisions for an automatic berth, then the team with the highest finish in the final SCCS Standings will receive the automatic berth, and the remaining team or teams will be considered for at-large selection if it meets the criteria.
Notre Dame will have an automatic berth if it is in the top eight of the final SCCS Standings.”
But Notre Dame is an NCAA team.
“And your point is?... As I was saying, if any of the 10 slots remain open after application of provisions 1 through 4, and an at-large team from a division with an annual automatic berth for its champion is ranked No. 3 in the final SCCS Standings, that team will become an automatic qualifier, provided that no at-large team from the same division qualifies for the NHL championship series.
If any of the 10 slots remain open after application of provisions 1 through 5, and if no team qualifies under paragraph No. 5 and an at-large team from a division with an annual automatic berth for its champion is ranked No. 4 in the final BCS Standings, that team will become an automatic qualifier provided that no at-large team from the same division qualifies for the national championship series.
The Caps are a Southeast Division team you know... does that make them the Boise State of this arrangement?
I think we’ll stick with actually playing the games. And speaking of games, tonight the Caps return to Bell Centre for the last time this season (unless these teams meet in a playoff series). In the only previous appearance there this season – that being the first game after Thanksgiving – the Caps blew a two-goal lead, fell behind, then tied things up in regulation on a goal by Eric Fehr before Nicklas Backstrom gave the Caps an extra standings point with a goal in the Gimmick to seal a 4-3 win.
That loss dropped the Canadiens to 12-12-2 at the time. In the intervening two months and two weeks, things haven’t gotten a lot better, as the Habs come into this one with a 28-26-6 record overall and are hanging onto a top-eight sport for dear life, one point ahead of ninth-place Boston. Montreal simply hasn’t been able to get any traction lately. The Canadiens dropped a more conventional 4-2 decision to the Capitals on January 5th, and since that loss they are 7-5-3 and have neither won more than two in a row, nor lost more than three in a row in that span. For the season, their numbers look like this…
In those last 15 games Montreal has been predictably mediocre in goals scored for and against (37 for, 38 against), and consistent with their season performance on special teams (12-for-49 on the power play – 24.5%; 38-for-46 on the penalty kill – 82.6%). They’ve had trouble breaking out on offense – only three games with more than four goals scored. By the same token, they haven’t allowed a lot in the way of big scores, either – only three times in regulation allowing more than three goals.
No, the Canadien formula this year, and in this 15-game stretch, has been goaltending and special teams. The Habs come into this game with the second-ranked power play in the league (Washington being first). It certainly has been essential to success for Montreal – they are 16-9-5 in games where they score at least one power play goal, 12-17-1 when they do not.
As for that goaltending, you would have to think that Jaroslav Halak has earned the “number one” title. Since the Caps win against Montreal on January 5th, Halak is 6-3-2, 2.15, .936, and two shutouts. In those 11 appearances he allowed more than three goals only once (six in a 6-0 loss to the Rangers on January 17th). He has not, however, faced the Caps in any of the previous three meetings this season. He is 3-2-0, 2.60, .905 against the Caps over his career.
The guy who did get three starts against the Caps this season – Carey Price – has had only four appearances since losing that 4-2 decision to the Caps. He is 1-2-1 in those games, 3.23, .893. In his three starts against the Caps this season, Price is 1-1-1, 2.95, .910. He is 1-1-3, 3.32, .896 in five career decisions against the Caps.
As for the skaters, Montreal has been quite literally “decimated,” and then some. Andrei Kostitsyn, Paul Mara, Mike Cammalleri, Marc-Andre Bergeron, and Benoit Pouliot represent almost 40 percent of Montreal’s goal-scoring production for the season (59 of 149 goals). Perhaps more ominous for the Canadiens, they represent more than 42 percent of the power play goals the team has scored this year (19 of 45 goals) and 12 of the 23 game-winners. All five players are on injured reserve.
The absences place a heavier burden on leading scorer Tomas Plekanec. He has been somewhat uneven over the past 15 games since these teams last met. While he is 5-7-12 in the 15 games, he hasn’t pieced together any substantial streak of games with points, three being his longest in this stretch. He did, however, have a three-point effort (1-2-3) against the Penguins last Saturday in a 5-3 win. The problem Plekanec faces is hinted at in his numbers for the season. He is the Canadiens’ leading scorer (15-43-58), but 24 of those points (3-21-24) have come on the power play. With four of the top six power-play goal scorers on the shelf for Montreal, who is there for Plekanec to dish to on the man advantage? In three games against the Caps this year he is 2-1-3 and is 8-9-17 in 19 career games against Washington.
If Plekanec has been primarily a distributor, especially on the power play, then the goal-scoring burden falls more to Brian Gionta, who is now the Canadiens’ top goal-scorer taking the ice. Since Gionta returned from a broken foot in late December, he is 8-8-16 in 20 games. Half of those markers are power play goals. He faced the Caps only once so far this season, and in 24 career games is 7-10-17 against Washington.
On defense, Bergeron’s absence will be felt keenly on the power play, where he skated 2:46 a game in ice time (of his 14:45 total average). Paul Mara was getting almost 19 minutes a game but was having a hard time at even strength (minus-16 in 42 games). The core of the defense – Roman Hamrlik, Andrei Markov, Jaroslav Spacek, Hal Gill, and Josh Gorges will have the difficult task of trying to hold back the Caps’ offense. Markov – a defenseman of considerable offensive talent (averaging 54 points a year since the lockout) – has had trouble getting going in that regard since returning to the lineup from ankle surgery. He had two goals in his first game back and three in his first three, but he hasn’t had one since in 21 games. He has been limited to six assists in his last 15 games since skating against the Caps on January 5th. He is also minus-5 over that span.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Montreal: Josh Gorges
Gorges is the Canadiens’ ice time leader for the defense on the penalty kill (3:16/game) and he is skating more than 21 minutes a game overall. He is going to be a big piece of the puzzle in keeping the Caps’ offense off the scoreboard. He hasn’t put up much in the way of points lately (none in the 15 games since the teams met last), but he is a plus-4 in his last nine games.
Washington: Alex Ovechkin
The last time these teams met happened to be Ovechkin’s first as captain for the Capitals. Since then Ovechkin is 16-20-36, plus-23 in 17 games. Over an 82-game season at that pace, those numbers work out to 77-96-175, plus-111. However, he has not had particularly extraordinary results at Bell Centre. In nine career games there he is 3-5-8, minus-4 (he is 1-1-2 in his lone game there this season).
1. Stay out of the box. The Caps have been shorthanded 65 times in their current streak (4.64/game). Montreal is 7-3-0 when getting five or more power play opportunities in a game. It should be noted that ten such occurrences in 60 games speaks to an inability to draw penalties, too. Montreal is dead last in the NHL in power play opportunities.
2. Put ‘em in the box. The Caps have had 55 power play opportunities in their streak (3.93/game). They are 22-6-5 in games in which they get at least four power play opportunities. Perhaps it is here we need to mention that Montreal has allowed the sixth most power play opportunities in the league so far this season.
3. Break on through to the other side. That’s a song title from the debut album of The Doors, but it could be the slogan for the week for the Caps as they have three road games before the Olympic break. It is a time for bearing down and taking care of the remaining business before the players head their separate ways. Montreal is a difficult place to play. It is made more so by the circumstances of a team coming in during the midst of a long winning streak and facing a home team bent on ending that run. No need to add to the mix by losing focus.
In the end, this is a good test for the Caps. The Canadiens are a depleted group, but they remain dangerous on their power play, and their penalty killers are efficient (if on the ice too much). They also have the sort of goaltending that can steal a game. Pressure – if you measure that in shots on goal – does not seem to be a factor here. Six of Halak’s losses have come when he faced fewer than 30 shots, for example. The key here is to play smart. Limit the Canadiens’ power play opportunities, and make their penalty killers take the ice often. That, combined with the Caps substantial edge in 5-on-5 play, is the way through to a win.
Caps 4 – Canadiens 2