The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The Caps complete the back-to-back set of their three-game road trip tonight as they travel to Minnesota to take on the Wild for the only meeting of the season between these clubs. The Caps and the Wild are comparative strangers to one another. They have played one another only ten times (the Caps holding a 4-5-1 record against the Wild), making this the least frequently repeated rivalry between the Caps and any other NHL opponent. In fact, its frequency is now only tied with that between the Caps and such defunct franchises as the California Seals (3-6-1) and the Cleveland Barons (3-7-0).
So, to acquaint you with the opponent, in a manner of speaking, we bring you some fast facts about the “State of Hockey,” the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” – Minnesota:
• Minnesotan baseball commentator Halsey Hal was the first to say 'Holy Cow' during a baseball broadcast.
• The Mall of America in Bloomington is the size of 78 football fields --- 9.5 million square feet.
• Minnesota Inventions: Masking and Scotch tape, Wheaties cereal, Bisquick, HMOs, the bundt pan, Aveda beauty products, and Green Giant vegetables
• The original name of the settlement that became St. Paul was Pig's Eye. Named for the French-Canadian whiskey trader, Pierre "Pig's Eye" Parrant, who had led squatters to the settlement.
• Minneapolis has more golfers per capita than any other city in the country.
• Minnesota has 90,000 miles of shoreline, more than California, Florida and Hawaii combined.
• Madison is the "Lutefisk capital of the United States".
• The stapler was invented in Spring Valley.
• The first practical water skis were invented in 1922 by Ralph W. Samuelson, who steam-bent 2 eight-foot-long pine boards into skis. He took his first ride behind a motorboat on a lake in Lake City.
• Rollerblades were the first commercially successful in-line Roller Skates. Minnesota students Scott and Brennan Olson invented them in 1980, when they were looking for a way to practice Hockey during the off-season. Their design was an ice hockey boot with 3 inline wheels instead of a blade.
• Alexander Anderson of Red Wing discovered the processes to puff wheat and rice giving us the indispensable rice cakes.
As for the Wild, this is the tenth season they have skated on Minnesota ice, and their history has not been kind to their fans. In nine seasons coming into this one the Wild have reached the playoffs only three times and advanced past the first round of the playoffs only once, reaching the conference finals in 2003.
This season the Wild is a most strange team. With a record of 3-3-2 entering this game they are among the also rans of the league, but the numbers they bring to this contest reveals a team of multiple personalities…
The first thing to notice is that the Wild power play is amazingly efficient. With an overall mark of 34.3 percent and a home power play mark of 43.5 percent, the Wild top the league in power play success. But here is what is especially relevant about this game and the Wild power play. Minnesota is 0-for-10 on their last ten man-advantage opportunities over the past eight periods of hockey dating back to theeir 4-2 win over Edmonton on October 21st.
The flip side of this is that Minnesota is not an especially adept on the penalty kill. Over those same ten periods of hockey they are a rather average 15-for-18 in shorthanded situations (83.3 percent). What’s more, the Wild have allowed fewer than five power plays to their opponent only once in eight games. They have the third highest number of minor penalties so far this season. You would have to think the Caps’ power play will get its chances.
While the Wild have the most efficient power play unit in the league at the moment (and 12 goals to show for it), they have been dreadful at even strength. No team in the NHL has fewer even strength goals so far than does Minnesota (11 in eight games). Six of those goals come off the sticks of only three players – Guillaume Latendresse, Kyle Brodziak, and John Madden (no one’s idea of a Murderer’s Row of goal scorers) have two apiece.
One home-grown and one free agent are currently tied for the team lead in scoring for the Wild. Mikko Koivu was a sixth-overall pick of the Wild in 2001 and has made himself into one of the top two-way centers in the game. Except for the 2007-2008 season, when he missed 25 games to a knee injury, Koivu’s improvement on offense has been steady since his rookie season in 2005-2006. Last season he set career highs in goals (22), assists (49) and points (71). On the other side of the ledger he has been over 50 percent on faceoffs in each of the past four seasons (and currently), and he had seven shorthanded goals in the four seasons leading up to this one. He is also responsible with the puck, recording more takeaways than giveaways in three of the past four seasons (and currently). In four career games against Washington he is 0-2-2, minus-3.
Matt Cullen was signed by the Wild to a three-year/$10.5 million contract this past summer, giving Cullen an opportunity to return home (he was born in Virginia, Minnesota). He has been a reliable 40-45 point player over his 12-year career coming into this season, but he is off to a better than a point-a-game start (3-6-9 in eight games), a pleasant homecoming so far. He is certainly no stranger to the Caps, having played a total of 352 games in the Southeast Division over his career (Florida, Carolina). In 42 career games against the Caps he is 9-18-27, plus-1. After recording points in five of his first six games this season, he is scoreless in his last two contests.
But for the unpredictable bounces of a ping-pong ball, defenseman Cam Barker might have been a Washington Capital. He was the third overall pick of the 2004 draft, the slot that the Caps would likely have occupied had not that ping pong ball come up “Washington,” and the Caps won the rights to select Alex Ovechkin. His getting a foothold in the NHL has been a struggle. Drafted by Chicago with that number three pick in 2004, he did manage to see his first NHL action in the 2005-2006 season, but one game was all the look he got. He played in 35 games with the Blackhawks the following season and 45 the season after that. He has dealt with intermittent injuries, but the fact remains that Barker has appeared in as many as 70 games only once in his young career (last season, split between Chicago and Minnesota). He has faced the Caps only once in his career withough having recorded a point.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Minnesota: Niklas Backstrom
“No-C’” Niklas would seem likely to get the call tonight. He has appeared in seven of the eight games played by the Wild to date (3-2-2, 2.25, .926). He has been on a roll. In his last three games he is 2-0-1, 1.95 .938, and he has allowed only one goal at even strength. His magic number thus far is “two.” In the seven games in which he allowed two or fewer goals he is 3-0-2, while going 0-2-0 when allowing three or more. OK, so it’s a small sample. And speaking of small samples, he has appeared in only two games against the Caps in his career, posting a record of 1-1-0, 3.50, .870.
Washington: Nicklas Backstrom
“Hi-C” Nicklas potted two goals last night (giving him three on the year), breaking a three-game streak in which he failed to register a point. The two goals represented his first two goals of the season scored in regulation time, his first two-goal game of the season, and his first two-goal game (regular season) since getting a pair against Atlanta last April 9th. Keep in mind that last season – one in which Backstrom scored 33 goals – he didn’t get his third goal of the season until Game 11 (part of a four-point night against the Flyers on October 27, 2009). That night set him off on an eight-game run in which he went 2-9-11, plus-4. In three career games against the Wild, Backstrom is 1-0-1.
1. Kill, Kill, Kill. The Caps have killed off 36 of 40 shorthanded situations so far. The Wild have scored on 12 of 35 power play opportunities. If the Caps can keep that number at “12” when the final horn sounds, it should be a good night. But the Wild get contributions from everywhere on the man advantage. Eight different players have at least one power play goal. All of the penalty killers will be tested, so short shifts seem to be the rule here. And, that “kill, kill, kill” theme can’t turn into “kill, kill, kill, kill another, kill one more, kill again, what the $#@% is going on here?” Keep it to three or fewer.
2. Traffic. Niklas “No-C” Backstrom is in a zone at the moment. One cannot let such a goalie get too comfortable right off the opening face off. It’s not so much getting shots on him early as much as it is getting shots he can’t see, or at least shots where he has to contend with bodies crossing his field of vision. Don’t make it easier on him than it needs to be.
3. Change Lanes. Alex Ovechkin had four goals in his first four game. He has none in his last five (and only two points). He hasn’t gone this long without a goal since going six games without one in the three games immediately before and the three games immediately after the Olympic break last season. Teams seem to have figured him out for the moment. The sorts of goals he might have scored more frequently last season – skating down the left side and firing the puck through a defenseman or cutting to the inside and getting goalies to move across the crease – aren’t finding their mark lately. Changing things up might be in order here. Every magician needs to introduce a new trick to the act occasionally.
In the end, this game would seem likely to turn on how often the Caps go to the penalty box. If the number climbs north of four, it will not be a good sign for the Caps, even if the Wild power play has dimmed some in the last few games. At the other end, the first line looked better last night in the 3-0 win over Carolina. Not quite all there, yet, but getting Backstrom off the schneid and Knuble back in the points column was a good sign. Ovechkin likes a stage, and a national television audience might be the ticket to get him rolling once more. Last night was a very efficient road win. Crisp, simple, and smart. It would be a good recipe for tonight, too.
Caps 3 – Wild 2