Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Penguins, March 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Caps… Penguins. That’s about all that needs to be said…

“cough, cough”

It’s the third meeting of the year between these bitter ri-

“COUGH, COUGH”

Excuse me, but may I help you?

“You know, the origin of the word ‘penguin’ is rather interesting.”

You don’t say. And you are…

“Thologie… Ernie Thologie, Professor of Ornithology at Antarctic Normal U.”

Oh… Ernie Thologie, the Ornithol—

“Yeah, the Ornithologist… I get it.”

About the word, “penguin?”

"Well,the first known instance of the name is a reference to the great auk…”

Like the sound Sidney Crosby makes when you hit him?

“No, like the extinct bird that was native to the North Atlantic. It appears to be of Welsh derivation, coming from the words, ‘pen gwyn,’ which means 'white head.'”

Like Gary Bettman’s pasty white head.

“Yeah, sure, like that. There has been a suggestion that the name comes from the Latin word ‘pinguis,’ or ‘fat.’”

Like the dumpy skating Penguin logo?

“I suppose so… but in point of fact, the name 'penguin' was first reliably reported from Newfoundland in the 16th century, but in Newfoundland the name is said usually to have been pronounced 'pin-wing'. This is consistent with a companion theory, that the bird was originally called the 'pin-wing', with reference to its curiously rudimentary wings.”

Like Pascal Dupuis or Chris Kunitz on the Penguins’ top line?

“Precisely.”

And so here we are with Game 3 in this year’s edition of Capitals vs. Penguins. The Caps won the first two games of this year’s series, the first when they exploded for three goals in the third period to break a 3-3 tie to win 6-3 in Pittsburgh, then coming back from a three-goal deficit to beat the Penguins 5-4 in overtime at Verizon Center.

The teams come into this game as the heavy favorites to meet in the Eastern Conference half of the Stanley Cup playoffs for a second straight season, which makes this game, if not meaningless, then a mere prelude to what is expected to unfold in perhaps a couple of months. For now, though, the overall season numbers for these two teams break down like this…



The Penguins come into this game stumbling toward the finish. After starting March with a four-game winning streak, they are 2-3-2 in their last seven games. And except for a 3-0 shutout of Boston last Thursday, the Penguins haven’t been as impressive as even their 2-3-2 record in those seven games suggests. They have been outscored in those games by 19-14 and have not managed more than three goals in any of those games. The power play has struggled as well, going 3-for-23 (13.0 percent). The penalty killers have shined, though, skating off 24 of 25 shorthanded situations over those last seven games, including the last 24 in a row.

We begin our look at the Penguins’ players with their most valuable player – Evgeni Malkin. Whether he will play tonight is still iffy, but if he doesn’t it will be really bad news for Pittsburgh. Why? Consider that in the ten games he has been out of the lineup, the Penguins were…

- 3-7-0
- outscored 33-18
- 0-for-34 on the power play
- beaten by at least three goals six times

It isn’t as if Malkin is having his best year, but his absence appears to so utterly discombobulate the Penguins’ forward lines as to render them impotent. You could make an argument that under the strict wording of the Hart Trophy, Malkin is the most valuable player in the league.

Which brings us to Sidney Crosby. In Malkin’s absence, Crosby is 0-3-3, minus-5. There is an inconvenient truth that pollutes the narrative surrounding Crosby these last two years. He is not, by any measure you care to raise, the best player in the game. He has had the benefit of playing on the best teams. Although certainly not a product of his own doing, he was not on the ice for the last ten minutes of last year’s Stanley Cup clinching Game 7 against Detroit, and Evgeni Malkin was the most valuable player of that tournament. This year, he had the benefit of playing on perhaps the most gifted assembly of talent in the history of the sport when he skated for Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympic Games (where Alex Ovechkin was deemed a "failure"). With the Penguins this year he has a significant performance differential between playing in the friendly confines of Mellon Arena (30-27-57, plus-18, in 34 games) and the road (15-16-31, minus-11, in 38 games). In this recent seven-game slump for the Pens, Crosby is 1-3-4, minus-7. Perhaps the accumulation of games over the past three years (two Stanley Cup finals, an Olympic tournament this season) and the pressure under which he constantly plays is finally catching up with him, But it is growing increasingly difficult to make a case for Crosby being a Hart finalist, let alone the winner.

As brightly as the light shines on Sidney Crosby, it seems to avoid Jordan Staal. But Staal is quietly putting up a very fine year. He is third on the club in goals (20), third in points (47), leads the Penguins in plus-minus (plus-20), and is among the better defensive centers in the game. He has a pair of goals against the Caps this season in two games and is 5-1-6 in 14 career games against Washington. He will be fighting a bit of a slump, though, as he comes into this game. After abusing the Rangers and Dallas for two goals and three assists in consecutive games earlier this month, he is 2-1-3 in eight games since.

Two French-Canadian goaltenders are likely to start tonight. We have to think that Jose Theodore will get the call for the Caps (despite it being Semyon Varlamov’s “turn”), and Marc-Andre Fleury appears likely to get the call for Pittsburgh. Their ancestry isn’t the only thing they share. Where Jose Theodore has had a sign emblazoned with the word ‘INCONSISTENT’ hung around his neck since joining the Caps (despite his 16-0-2 run), Fleury has, in fact, been the more inconsistent goaltender this year. Fleury is 33-19-5 this season, but imbedded in that are a six-game winning streak and an eight-game winning streak, both occurring before Christmas. Since Christmas, Fleury is 11-10-4, 2.99, .901. Perhaps most disconcerting is his unpredictability from game to game. In those 25 games since Christmas, he allowed one or no goals eight times, but he allowed at least four goals ten times. He allowed five goals in his only appearance against the Caps this year, three of them by Alex Ovechkin in a 5-4 overtime loss to Washington on February 7th.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Pittsburgh: Sergei Gonchar

Gonchar will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, and he is not closing with a rush to a big payday. Since the Olympic break, the defenseman is 2-5-7 in 11 games. That scoring line isn’t bad, but he carries a minus-6 with that. In this 2-3-2 slump the Pens are in, Gonchar has one even-strength point. This could be a fair test for him. In 17 career games against the Caps he is 4-14-18, although he is without a point in two games this year.

Washington: Mike Knuble

With Brooks Laich dinged up, Knuble might be counted on a bit more for making Marc-Andre Fleury’s night a long one, either by setting screens or in picking up loose change. He is 2-2-4 in two games against the Penguins this year and picked up a 17-penalty minute afternoon the last time these teams met, a product of a kerfuffle with Craig Adams. Knuble is in the midst of an eight-game streak without a goal. No time like the present to make sure it doesn’t reach nine.

Keys:

1. Score early. The Penguins have started and ended poorly in games in the recent 2-3-2 run, getting outscored 7-4 in the first period and allowing goals in both overtime games they played. Here is your Penguin stat for the night… in the last seven games for the Penguins, five times they allowed at least one goal in the first period. They lost each game, either in regulation or in overtime. The two times they did not, they won.

2. Don’t let ‘em feel happy. The Pens are 1-for-10 on the power play against the Caps in two games this year. They also happen to have the 25th-ranked road power play unit and have that 3-for-23 success rate over their last seven games (13.0 percent). Ignore the individual talent, this is not a good power play team. Don’t “over-respect” that talent, make it hard for them.

3. Turn down the order of wings. Sidney Crosby might or might not get his points against the Caps, but the key here is not letting the Ponikarovsky’s or the Fedotenko’s of the world beat you. The Penguins have only one winger with as many as 40 points (Bill Guerin) and do not have a 20-goal scorer at the position. Ruslan Fedotenko, Pascal Dupuis, Bill Guerin, and Chris Kunitz have combined this year for exactly zero goals against the Caps. Keep it that way, and the Caps win.

In the end, this is another of those games for the fans. These teams both have bigger things ahead of them, including perhaps each other in a playoff series. The game isn’t quite as “meaningless” as we suggested at the top, but whether the Caps win or the Pens do, it’s May that counts if these teams meet, not March. Still…

Caps 4 – Penguins 3

4 comments:

Hooks Orpik said...

"He is not, by any measure you care to raise, the best player in the game."

Except for career points/game, goals this season, OT gold medal winners and faceoffs, I agree.

Hooks Orpik said...

Should have made this one long comment....

"He has had the benefit of playing on the best teams."

Funny you say that after taking a shot at Crosby's wingers and point out (rightfully) how punchless the Penguins look without Malkin, and the defense and Fleury's inconsistencies.

Not just you, Peerless, but it strikes me as odd when people say that Crosby always has a better team, like he's surrounded by a squad of all-stars, or something. (Well with Canada he was, but that's a different story).

No doubt Crosby's been on some solid teams, but teams are composed of individuals. Crosby's been the 1st line center and among the key contributors for every team he's on.

Hockey is a team sport and a forward can only play 20-25 minutes a night, but maybe, just maybe Crosby's teams are good and have success because, you know, him being on it?

Chris said...

I think the point is that the Caps increase their scoring average (to 4.50 goals per game, which is borderline insanity) and are 7-3 in games Ovechkin has missed this year, and Backstrom has increased his scoring in Ovechkin's absence. Without Malkin, its hard to argue the Pens as an elite team. In fact, the numbers show they are quite ordinary.

In the past 3 years, the Penguins have had the better overall team come playoff time, but this year definitely will challenge that notion. This Caps team is historically great thus far. No more excuses. If Crosby pulls the Pens through this year, DC's respect for him will increase substantially (but no one will admit such heresy).

Hooks Orpik said...

"If Crosby pulls the Pens through this year, DC's respect for him will increase substantially (but no one will admit such heresy)."

To be fair, Caps fans have readily and volunatarily given Crosby a lot of props (at least to me) ever since last playoffs, which is cool.

The booing, taunting, and jeering will never end, of course, and it shouldn't -- that's the gamemanship of it all.