The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
So here we are, a preview of what could be a Stanley Cup final matchup as the Caps visit the rabid confines of United Center to take on the Chicago Blackhawks in a matinee offering. And since the Caps don’t play Chicago often, we bring you another in a series of “Know Your Opponent.” For example, did you know…
-- The name “Chicago” is the French interpretation of the Miami-Illinois word, “shikaakwa,” which means “wild leek.”
-- Chicago is the home of the first “cafeteria” (at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition)
-- Chicago is the birthplace of “Cracker Jacks”
-- Chicago is the first city in which the term “jazz” refered to a musical genre.
Speaking of hockey games, this one matches two of the most dominant teams in the league, measured by average margin of victory. The Caps lead the league in that measure, beating their opponents by an average of 1.09 goals per game. Chicago is third in the league at 0.79 goals per game. How they accomplish the trick differs. Washington has done it with overpowering offense, scoring almost 19 percent more goals than the second highest scoring team in the league (Vancouver). Here is how dominant the Caps have been. If the Canucks score their average of 3.24 goals per game over their last 15 games and the Caps were to be shutout in all of their last 14 games, Vancouver would barely squeak by the Caps in goals scored, 266-262.
On the other hand, Chicago has done it with balance. They are top-five in both offense and defense, top-ten in both power play and penalty killing, top ten in winning percentage whether scoring first or trailing first. Here is how the overall numbers for the teams compare…
These are two teams that are, in part, mirror images of one another in offensive balance. The Blackhawks have 18 skaters with at least ten points this season; the Caps have 17. Chicago has nine players with at least ten goals; Washington has nine, too. But that balance only extends so far. The Caps have two players with at least 80 points; the Blackhawks have none. Washington has two players with at least 30 goals; Chicago has none. The Caps have two players with more than ten power play goals, the Blackhawks have none. Washington has 13 players at plus-ten or better; Chicago has nine.
But the Blackhawks are the superior defensive team. It is a team that just doesn’t allow many chances. Having allowed only 24.4 shots against per game, that number is more than ten percent better than the next team in line (New Jersey at 27.4 shots allowed per game). By way of comparison, the Caps have allowed 30.9 shots a game (18th in the league). Think this doesn’t matter? Then consider this – for all the talk of the Caps’ goaltending problems, they have a combined save percentage this year that is better than that of the Blackhawks’ netminders (.911 to .902). If the Blackhawks goalies faced as many shots this year as Caps goalies have faced with the same save percentage, their goals against average would be 3.08.
So, what about these Blackhawk goalies? Antti Niemi appears to be the one to get the call for this game after Cristobal Huet played in a 3-2 loss to Philadelphia yesterday. Niemi certainly has done his part in giving the Blackhawks a chance to win. He is 18-5-1 this season and has yet to lose consecutive games in regulation (he does have one set of consecutive losses, one coming Gimmick early in the season). In three appearances since the break, he is 1-1-0, 3.17, .880, and he was relieved once, getting a no-decision in a 5-3 loss to the Islanders in which he allowed three goals on 12 shots in 23 minutes. Niemi has never faced the Caps.
Moving out from there, the defense for the Blackhawks is perhaps their strength. As a group, it is deep, solid, and efficient. The best of the lot is Duncan Keith, who seems to be this year’s reason Mike Green will finish second in the Norris Trophy voting. He ranks second points among defensemen (to Green) and is tied for second in goals. He is plus-20, and he is second in the league among defensemen in ice time. He has points in seven of his last eight games (2-7-9).
That Keith doesn’t get more responsibility is the product of the depth the Blackhawks have on the blue line – enough that they could move Cam Barker (a former number three overall draft pick) to Minnesota for Kim Johnsson. In fact, Johnsson is a part of that depth, providing a more veteran presence than the 23-year old Barker could provide. The 33-year old has played in eight games for Chicago since the trade and is 1-2-3, plus-7 in eight games while getting an average of 16:24 of ice time.
Up front, the scoring load has been taken up primarily by the Patricks – Kane and Sharp. Kane leads the team in goals (26) while Sharp is second (21). Kane does not appear to have suffered a letdown from having participated with Team USA in the Olympics. Since the break he is 1-7-9 in six games. But in doing it he is also a minus-1. Teams are scoring when he’s on the ice. He has played only two games against the Caps in his career, recording one point on an assist.
As for Sharp, he had a two-goal game against the Kings last Wednesday, but has been otherwise rather dormant since the break (2-2-4, even, in six games). That is unfortunate for him and for Blackhawks fans, since he was 3-6-9, plus-8 in four games leading up to the break. He has a goal in seven games against the Caps in his career.
Perhaps the best all-around player on the squad, though, is the captain – Jonathan Toews. He was named captain last season, becoming the third youngest captain in the history of the league (only Vincent Lecavalier and Sidney Crosby were named captain of their teams at a younger age). He is third on the team in goals and assists, fourth in points, and second in power play goals. But he also kills penalties (1:36 in PK time per game) and has won more than 57 percent of his draws while leading all Blackhawk forwards in ice time. He might be hitting a wall, though, after participating in the Olympics, where he was arguably the best skater of the tournament. After coming out of the break with two points in each of his first three games (1-5-6), he is scoreless in his last three and is minus-5. He is 1-1-2 in two career games against Washington.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Chicago: Marian Hossa
Hossa does not rank among the top-100 scorers in the league this season. Of course, that is a product of his missing 24 games to injury this season. His magic number for the moment is “20.” In 43 games so far this year he has 20 goals, 20 assists, and is plus-20. Perhaps most remarkable, he is tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals (five, with Vancouver’s Alexandre Burrows). He is another Olympian (Team Slovakia) who seems not to be the worse for wear in Vancouver, going 3-3-6 in his last five games. He has been an especially sharp thorn in the sides of the Caps – 23-27-50 in 43 career games.
Washington: Alexander Semin
Going into the Olympic break, Semin was 4-3-7 in the last three games. Since the break, he is 1-2-3 in six games. In fact, if the second line for the Caps was Semin, Brendan Morrison, and Brooks Laich, that trio has a total of two goals since the break. In many ways, though, Semin is the catalyst. If he’s on, the whole enterprise works. He can be a puck-handling wizard (but can suffer the odd moment of just leaving the puck behind). He can be an extraordinary passer (except for the moments when you wonder if he wasn’t passing it to the cotton candy vendor), and he can be an efficient sniper (when he isn’t passing up a shot for a higher risk pass). He is an amazing talent – when he’s on he is the best offensive talent on the team. But when he’s not… and the Blackhawks are a team that can make an opponent pay for not being careful with the puck, especially on the power play; they lead the league in shorthanded goals.
1. Fire at will. The Blackhawks’ goaltending is not very good, plain and simple. If either Niemi or Huet face a high volume of shots, they will have their adventures. But Chicago has allowed more than 30 shots this year only 10 times in 67 games. They are 6-4-0 in those games.
2. Get a lead. No team in the league has won more games when scoring first than has Chicago (34 wins). And that is a product of Chicago being second in the league in goals scored in the first period (72). The Caps, it is worth noting, lead the league in first period goals (78).
3. Win the turnover battle. Chicago is a top-five team in takeaways at home. The Caps have committed the fifth highest number of giveaways on the road this season. If this pattern plays out, it plays into the hand of Chicago’s game of playing keep-away and not permitting goals to get through to expose their weak underbelly of goaltending.
In the end, this is one of the big down-the-stretch tests that the Caps didn’t have last season. In the last 15 games last season the Caps did not face an opponent of nearly the quality of the Blackhawks. This year they will get Chicago and Pittsburgh (twice) down the stretch. They will not lack for tests. In this one it is another instance of the irresistible force (the Caps’ offense) against the immovable object (the Blackhawks’ defense). The number to watch is shots. If the Caps go north of 30, that will be a really good sign. As the magic 8-ball says…
Caps 3 – Blackhawks 2