Monday, November 29, 2010

Brooks, Brodeur, and Bad Trade Ideas

We find ourselves agreeing more often than we used to with our favorite crazy columnist, Larry Brooks of the New York Post. We attribute this to either the advancing years or wood beetles boring into our cranial spaces. But Brooks wrote a column published on Sunday that really had us wondering how much he really pays attention to teams not in the greater New York metropolitan area.

The argument concerned the current plight of the New Jersey Devils and the possibility that in order to save their future they might have to trade much of their present, including perhaps Martin Brodeur. The context in which Brooks makes this argument is the experience of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 2006-2007 season. The Flyers of that season were skating their way to a 22-48-12 season, the 22 wins representing the third lowest total for a Flyers team in club history.

In an effort to minimize the damage, Flyer general manager Paul Holmgren traded a legendary, but aging star – Peter Forsberg – to Nashville for Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent, and Nashville’s first and third round picks in the 2007 draft (that third was eventually traded to the Caps and became Phil Desimone).* Upshall later was traded to Phoenix with a 2011 second round draft pick for Daniel Carcillo. Parent was traded to Nashville for Dan Hamhuis and a conditional pick in the 2011 draft. Hamhuis, a pending free agent, did not come to terms with the Flyers and was traded to Pittsburgh for a third round choice in 2011.

The point Brooks is trying to make here is that the Flyers saw the problem looming in their future – a team that would struggle with aging players – and sought to mitigate that damage by moving an asset for youth (never mind that he got the particulars wrong).

The relevance to the Capitals comes later in the column…

“What [Devils’ GM Lou Lamoriello] has on his team are nine players with no-trade clauses who would have to be massaged in order to be moved -- impending free agents Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott are worthy -- and what he has is Martin Brodeur.

“Understand, the only way a Brodeur trade becomes a part of the conversation is if the all-time goaltender himself initiates the conversation with Lamoriello.

“If that were to happen, if Brodeur, 38 and on the penultimate season of his contract, were to tell Lamoriello that he'd be OK with a trade to a blue-chip contender in need of a blue-chip goaltender, oh, and let's just say he names Washington, then Lamoriello might well have his Forsberg and the Devils might well have John Carlson or Karl Alzner -- or Mike Green? -- plus a young forward along with a critically needed No. 1.”

Let us see if we have this right. The Devils, hypothetically, would move Martin Brodeur to Washington for one of John Carlson, Karl Alzner, or Mike Green; a young forward (Eric Fehr? Tomas Fleischmann? Marcus Johansson?); and a number one draft pick?

Are you kidding me? Let’s say, for the sake of argument that this deal looks like Brodeur for Alzner, Johansson, and a number one pick. This year, Brodeur’s cap hit ($5,200,000; annualized) is twice that of the combination of Alzner and Johansson ($2,575,000, including bonuses; annualized). Even with the season almost one third completed, the difference in cap hit (assuming the deal was to be made soon) would be between $1.5 and $2.0 million. And, the Caps give up a top-four defenseman from a roster already thin in NHL-capable defensemen and a center who could very well be a reliable third-line center (if not a second) by the spring in an organization that doesn’t have a lot of center options (well, good ones) after Nicklas Backstrom on the top line. Further, assuming the marginal cap hit that Brodeur brings would constrain the Caps’ ability to fill defenseman and/or center needs in the spring via trade.

Then there is next season. The full brunt of the last year of Brodeur’s contract would hit the Caps’ books, and this would be coming in the midst of other important salary decisions – Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble, Tomas Fleischmann, and Brooks Laich (among others) would be unrestricted free agents; Semyon Varlamov would be a restricted free agent.

Which brings up the matter of a decision point – one of Neuvirth or Varlamov would almost have to be moved. And the Caps had better pick correctly, since Brodeur would not be with the team after the 2011-2012 season. The Caps could find themselves depleting much of their future for the sake of a goaltender who has had iffy playoff performances over the past four seasons (failing to get out of the first round in the last three) and who had a sub-par start to this season before sustaining an injury.  You could argue that moving Varlamov or Neuvirth could bring back that center or defenseman the Caps need, but will that player fit under the salary cap?

It is in this respect that we just do not suspect Brooks has been paying attention, at least to how the Caps have been doing business since the great selloff. The club has taken great pains and has exhibited great patience in assembling a roster by building from within. The club has not been entirely averse to signing free agents (Mike Knuble, Tom Poti) or making trades (Jason Chimera). But the important pieces are home grown, including the three goalies who have dressed for the Caps this year, none of them older than 22.

For the Caps to mortgage a significant chunk of their future for an aging star – even a hall of famer in waiting – would not be consistent with their behavior the past five years. To do it for an aging star giving indications of being in decline would border on insanity. This is the sort of trade the folks at Puck Daddy might highlight. Oh wait… they did. Well, sorta.

* Brooks actually gets the deal here incorrect, at least in the particulars. He stated that “[Forsberg’s] trade to Nashville that ultimately brought back Scottie Upshall, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell represented the underpinning of the immediate 2007-08 revival.” In fact, Forsberg was traded to Nashville in February 2007; Hartnell and Timonen were obtained in June for a first round draft pick in 2007 (Jonathon Blum), which previously belonged to Nashville, obtained in a separate deal. OK, it was the Forsberg deal, so we guess the two are related.

That Was The Week That Was: November 21-27, By the Tens

The last full week of November is in the books, and here is how it went …

Record for the week: 2-1-0

After riding over some bumpy road early this week that started late in the previous week, the Caps found their stride again to close the week. The 5-0 shutout loss to the New Jersey Devils on Monday was the Caps’ second 5-0 whitewashing in three games, and it had the potential to become a worse situation when after the game, during the press conference outside the Caps locker room, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and the Devils’ Ilya Kovalchuk were close enough to coach Bruce Boudreau to raise his hackles a bit when one of the players could be heard laughing. While this stuff probably goes on in 30 of 30 rinks in the NHL, having it happen within the range of open microphones had the makings of an embarrassing situation for the Caps. What it did, though, was signal the low point of the season, from which the Caps rose to beat Carolina in Raleigh (3-2), then swatted away the upstart Tampa Bay Lightning back in D.C. (6-0).

Offense: 3.00/game

If the average was somewhat low for the Caps, one had to like the progression – none, three, and six goals in the three games. This week it was the second period in which the Caps dominated. Yes, they were outscored 2-0 in the second period in the 5-0 loss to New Jersey, but they outscored Carolina, 1-0, and Tampa Bay by a 4-0 margin in the other two middle frames in the week. It was a bit of an odd week in that the Caps managed no goals on 30 shots against the Devils and only two goals on 38 shots against Carolina, but they torched Tampa Bay for half a dozen on only 29 shots in the third game of the week. Alex Ovechkin was the top point-getter of the week with five points, all of them coming on helpers. Alexander Semin led the Caps in goals, getting all three in his third hat trick of the season, this one in a 6-0 win over Tampa Bay. A couple of firsts this week – Brian Fahey registered his first NHL point with an assist in the Tampa win, and Marcus Johansson recorded his first multi-point game with a pair of assists in the Tampa win.

Defense: 2.33/game

Again, it’s the progression – five, two, and no goals allowed. You get the sense, though, that they can be better. Allowing five goals to one of the least productive offenses in the league (and none of those goals coming off the stick of Ilya Kovalchuk) has to be disappointing. But to the Caps’ credit they clamped down hard on the Hurricanes and Lightning to close the week. They allowed only 45 shots combined in the last two games of the week, the second lowest two-game total of shots allowed so far this season.

Goaltending: 2.34/.903

The big story this week was the return of Semyon Varlamov to the nets. And a fine return he had, not that he had an especially high volume of shots to face. In the two games he played last week he faced a total of 49 shots, stopping 47 of them (.959). Although it has been interrupted by a lengthy (34-day) stretch on the shelf due to injury, his start is looking better than last year’s. In his first four appearances this season he is 2-1-0, 1.88, .928, with one shutout. In his first four appearances last season he was 3-0-0, 3.01, .895. What should not be lost in this week was a gutty performance by Braden Holtby to open the week. Not that he was good, he wasn’t. But he gritted it out, taking a shellacking for the team (five goals allowed on 23 shots faced) with Michal Neuvirth injured and Varlamov on the bench, but almost unavailable for play given that he was coming back from an injury and had just played two games in the previous two nights in Hershey.

Power Play: 3-11 (27.3 percent)

One more time… the progression. No power play goals in the game last Monday against the Devils, one against Carolina, and two against Tampa Bay. Alexander Semin had two as part of his hat trick against Tampa Bay, but it was just as nice to see Brooks Laich get one against Carolina, breaking a seven game streak without an extra man goal. Hopefully it will spring him loose in that regard. The marker against the Hurricanes was Laich’s third power play goal of the year. He had 12 such goals last season. Overall the Caps recorded three power play goals on 22 shot attempts covering 11 power plays. The 11 power plays in three games is getting a little closer to the average number of opportunities per game the Caps had last season (3.82), but 3.67 for the week still leaves the Caps short of maximizing their potential, given the efficiency the power play unit continues to demonstrate.

Penalty Killing: 10-12 (83.3 percent)

A solid week from the Caps on the PK. They allowed a goal on the first power play they faced, the first goal in a 5-0 loss to New Jersey. After that they skated off 10 of 11. The success was earned, in part, by denying opportunities to opponents. In 12 power plays faced the Caps allowed only 12 shots on goal. The Caps also had five shorthanded shots on goal, all coming in the last two games of the week. The ability to make teams defend when on their own power play goes a long way to making for a successful penalty killing unit.

Paying the Price: 77 hits/40 blocked shots

What might have seemed like a light week in blocked shots might be a product of scoring peculiarities in New Jersey, where the Caps were credited with only three blocks (the Devils were credited with only six). But in each of the three games the Caps finished with more hits than their opponent and were credited with more blocked shots than their opponent in each of the last two games of the week. If you accept the notion that any scoring bias (e.g., toward underreporting hits or blocked shots) is evenly applied to the teams in a game, then the Caps being on the long end of hits and blocked shots more often during the week can be recorded as a good week.

Faceoffs: 93-172 (54.1 percent)

The Caps did even or better in all three games for the week. It allowed them to climb to 11th in the league in faceoffs and within another good week of jumping up several more places. It was a case of taking advantage of weak teams in the last two games of the week, Tampa Bay ranking in the lower half of the league standings and Carolina being the worst in the league on draws by a fairly wide margin (barely 40 percent as a team). It was nice having Boyd Gordon back to take draws, too. He was 20-for-29 for the week.

Turnovers: Plus-3

It was a lot better week in protecting the puck than the previous week’s minus-14. The Caps were even or better in each of the games. Noteworthy was the reduction in “unforced” turnovers – giveaways. The Caps had only 19 giveaways in three games last week, compared with 41 the week before in four games.


Two wins in a week might not seem like much, but if the Caps average that over the remainder of the season they will add 38 wins to the total of 16 with which they finished the week, tying last season’s franchise record-setting 54 wins. Laughter-gate seems to be shrinking in the rear-view mirror with the two wins to close the week.

Getting points from 11 players is approaching the sort of balance you would like to see over a stretch of games, and this past week’s scoring lines are impressive in that none of the nine goals were recorded by Alex Ovechkin, and three defensemen had goals, none of them named “Mike Green.” Green, in fact, did not record a point this past week. What it suggests is that even with the Caps scoring six on Tampa Bay, it is a team that has not yet really put it all together for a stretch of games. And for a team that is in the midst of a 9-2-2 month at the end of this past week, not to mention leading the league in standings points, the league should be on guard that the day is coming when the Caps do start putting it all together. For the teams having to face that Caps team, it will not be pleasant.

A TWO-point night -- Game 25: Caps 3 - Hurricanes 2 (OT/SO)

For the Carolina Hurricanes tonight goaltender Cam Ward was their best player. It was not enough, though, as the Washington Capitals shook off a tying goal with 2.2 seconds left in regulation to beat the Hurricanes, 3-2, in a Gimmick-decided result.

It did not look as if the Caps would have to worry late, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first period and outshooting Carolina 17-7 in the first 20 minutes. Marcus Johnasson started and ended the play that resulted in the first goal, beginning the sequence by sending the puck deep and around the boards from just inside the Carolina blue line. Eric Fehr then took advantage of Joni Pitkanen’s inability to control the puck cleanly coming around to the right wing corner. Fehr picked Pitkanen’s pocket and slipped the puck out to Johansson, who had moved to goalie Cam Ward’s left. Johansson turned and pulled the puck across the crease, just outside Ward’s reach to poke it away, then tucked it under Ward’s right pad to open the scoring.

Alexander Semin staked the Caps to a two-goal lead late in the first period when he converted a ice feed from Alex Ovechkin, who worked his way down the left side on defenseman Tim Gleason. Ovechkin had options as he was moving in on Gleason – shoot through the legs, turn and cut to the center, go wide around him. But what Ovechkin did was something he might not have attempted, let alone converted before this season. He feinted as if cutting to the middle, then cut wide, reaching around Gleason to snap the puck across to Semin coming down the right side. The pass caught Semin right in stride, and all that was left to do was to flick the puck high over the sliding goaltender and into the back of the net.

Carolina evened the game with goals early in the second – a doorstep goal from Erik Cole 50 seconds into the period – and late in the third period. The late goal came on a goal-mouth scramble in the last eight seconds of regulation. It started in the most improbable way. Eric Staal and David Steckel skated in to take a faceoff in the Caps’ defensive zone with eight seconds left. Staal came into the game with one of the worst faceoff winning percentages in the league (42.8 percent ), Steckel with one of the best (64.3 percent). And in this game Steckel had already won eight of ten, while Staal won only 10 of 23. But no one wins them all, and Steckel lost this one cleanly to Staal. That started a flurry that ended in front of the Caps’ net and Staal flipping a loose puck in the paint over goalie Semyon Varlamov to tie the game with 2.2 seconds left.

Overtime passed without a goal, but not without its dicey moment. Varlamov kept the Hurricanes from enabling the Caps to get to the skills competition with a chance to get the second standings point they could not secure in the hockey phase of the contest. After Jeff Skinner failed on his attempt to start off the proceedings, Alex Ovechkin converted the first chance for the Caps by going wide, circling in, patiently waiting for Cam Ward to commit, then and lifting the puck over Ward’s left pad. The Caps would not score again, but at the other end Semyon Varlamov didn’t allow the Hurricanes even a crack in the door of opportunity. He stymied Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu to seal the win, the Caps’ third in a row after their three game losing streak.

Other Stuff…

-- At the 25-game mark the Caps are two points ahead of last year’s franchise record-setting points pace (36 points to 34) and three wins ahead of its record-setting wins mark from a year ago (17 to 14). Of course, last year featured a 14-game winning streak, but even in the absence of that in this season the Caps are on a pace to finish 56-20-6, a 118-point pace.

-- Late in the game, Darren Pang tweeted…

OK, fair enough. Staal won the faceoff late and scored the game tying goal. Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin gave up a shooting opportunity for a better chance on the stick of Alexander Semin in the first period and buried the game-winning goal in the skills competition. If you are not aware, the assist was Ovechkin’s 22nd of the season, putting him atop the list of wingers in the assist column. And to reduce more finely by position, he has a whopping lead (22-16) in assists over his closest competitor at left wing.

-- The Caps have scored 84 goals in 25 games. The 3.36 goals/game is down from last year’s full-year mark of 3.82. However, it is almost exactly the number of goals they scored through the first 25 games last season (85).

-- Eric Staal might not be the best faceoff guy in the league, and he did have a losing record in this game (12-for-25), but Tuomo Ruutu… oh-for-10? Small wonder he is 88th of 90 skaters on the faceoff leader tables. In fact, Carolina has three of the worst seven players among faceoff leaders – Staal (84th of 90), Ruutu (88th), and Brandon Sutter (89th).

-- Tom Poti would have had a really nice game…except for those last eight seconds. Jeff Schultz was able to get inside position and tie up Jussi Jokinen in the pile-up in the final seconds, but Poti could not tie up Staal’s stick, despite having inside position on him on the play. The play started with Poti on the goal line to receive the draw from Steckel, were he to win it (pictures captured from highlights on…

When Steckel did not, Poti tried to cut Staal off from getting position driving to the net, which he appeared to do…

…but he could not tie up Staal’s stick, and Staal’s reach allowed him to flip a backhand past Varlamov to tie the game…

-- Ovechkin had 12 shot attempts for the game, seven of them on goal with none of them finding the back of the net. But there didn’t look to be an easy save in the bunch for Ward.

-- Not often you see the losing goaltender get the game’s first star, but it was deserved. A lesser goaltending performance – against Ovechkin alone – and this game would have been over at the first intermission. If it was against a different opponent, we would say that Cam Ward deserved a better fate.

-- We are starting to get the feeling that there is no “number one” defensive pairing. The top two pairs of defensemen – Mike Green and Jeff Schultz, and John Carlson and Karl Alzner – had almost identical ice times, ranging from 23:08 (Alzner) to 25:09 (Carlson). Part of that was Mike Green going off after blocking a shot, but the rookies (we still think of Alzner as a rookie) are taking their place in the rotation of responsible minutes and doing good things with those minutes. Carlson had four hits, four shots, and three blocked shots; Alzner had four blocked shots and a takeaway.

-- Tomas Fleischmann had two shots on goal in the first minute of play… one over the last 64 minutes. He did, however, win nine of 13 draws. But it is worth noting that he started the game getting more than five minutes of ice time in the first period, almost four in the second, and just over three in the third (also a 40 second shift in overtime).

-- The Caps have a very efficient power play, but the continuing problem with it is not having the opportunity to unleash it often enough. Tonight they had one – one! – power play. They should have had one in overtime when Erik Cole upended Alex Ovechkin, but...

-- As it was, the Caps managed twice as many shots on goal on their lone power play (four) than Carolina had on the three power plays they had (two). In fact, the Caps had as many shorthanded shots on goal (two) as the Hurricanes had on their own power plays.

-- It is also worth noting that Semyon Varlamov has faced only 77 shots in the three games since his return (25.7/game). That he has a save percentage of .948 in those three games suggests that for the moment he has moved ahead of Michal Neuvirth in the goaltending order. But with 57 games to go, this is likely to be a back-and-forth thing, hopefully of the sort that finds one or the other turning in fine performances when called upon.

-- The Caps blocked 25 Carolina shots tonight. Jeff Schultz had almost a third of them (seven).

In the end, it was another one-goal win (eight, tops in the league), another extra time win (six, most in the league). Precisely the testing ground this club might need to prepare for closer-to-the-vest games that they will see in the playoffs. What is more, these one-goal games are not fire wagon games with lots of goals. Of the 11 one-goal decisions the Caps have had (8-1-2), they allowed only as many as four goals in regulation twice. They allowed two or fewer in regulation in eight games.

You could look at the 42 goals allowed in 14 games this month and conclude that the Caps haven’t done a very good job on defense. But remember, too, that 14 goals were allowed in a three-game stretch. Otherwise the Caps have allowed 28 goals in 11 games, a respectable 2.55 per game. That three game stretch has to be looked at as an anomaly. In their last 18 games the Caps have allowed more than three goals five times, three of them coming in that three-game stretch. There isn’t likely to be a Jennings Trophy at the end of this for the Caps’ goaltenders having allowed the fewest goals in the league, but it is a defense that is improved over last season.

Now the Caps go on the road, first to a place where few teams (well, two) have visited and won this season – St. Louis – then to a city where the Caps have had difficulty winning (13-22-8 overall, 2-7-1 in their last ten visits). It will be quite a test for a club looking to hold off the Philadelphia Flyers and the charging Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in the East. But they got off to a good start with a good getaway game tonight for their league-leading 17th win.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Hurricanes, November 28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Thanksgiving weekend comes to an end this afternoon with the Caps hosting the Carolina Hurricanes, where…

…what in heaven’s name is THIS?!


And what road did you scrape them off of, Cheerless?

“No roadkill, cuz…I’m savin’ that fer Christmas.”

You mean you already…

“Don’t ask, cousin. It’s better you don’t know.”

Yeah, alright Fearless, but what in great Caesar’s ghost is THIS?!

“Ain’t you ever heard of ‘cobbler?’”

Yeah, but…

“Well, this is ‘gobbler cobbler.’”

Turkey and vegetables in a pie crust?

“No, cranberries and gravy.”

Well, at least we have an excuse for passing on that family recipe. We have a game tonight. The Caps and the Hurricanes played just this past Wednesday in Raleigh, and not much has changed in the numbers since we previewed that contest. But here are the updated numbers…

This is the third game in the season series between these teams, the Caps having won the first two. In those two games the Caps have seen a reversal of roles between two of their most important players. In the normal course of events you would expect that Nicklas Backstrom would set the table, and Alex Ovechkin would score the goals. Not so in this series. It is Ovechkin with four assists in the two games and Backstrom with four goals evenly split between the two contests. Ovechkin comes into this game with five points in his last two contests, all assists. Meanwhile, Backstrom is 2-2-4 in his last two games.

If there is a surprise among the scorers in this series for the Caps, it would be Alexander Semin. So far this season Semin has faced seven opponents in at least two games, and Carolina is the only one against which he has yet to register a point. That is especially surprising in that coming into the season Semin scored more goals and points against the Hurricanes than he had against any other NHL team (23 and 38, respectively, in 23 career games). He had a hat trick in his last game, a 6-0 Caps win over Tampa Bay (his third of the year, all recorded in the last 17 games). The hat trick follows a four-game streak in which Semin did not record a goal.

Mike Knuble returned to the lineup after a three-game absence, courtesy of a puck to the jaw in the second period of a 5-0 loss to Atlanta on November 19th. He is the only other Cap with more than one point against the Hurricanes this year, picking up a pair of assists in the 3-0 win over Carolina on October 27th. It is the only multi-point game among the 21 contests in which Knuble has participated so far this season in what has been a disappointing 3-5-8, plus-4 start. He has not had a lot of success against the Hurricanes in the past – 6-14-20 in 45 career games against Carolina to date.

In case you haven’t noticed, and chances are you haven’t, defenseman John Erskine has already set a career high in goals for a season (three). And if that was not enough, he scored those three goals over the past ten games. That ten-game total would equal that of his blueline teammate Mike Green. It is part of a larger contribution among the defensemen through 24 games. Only one defenseman among the seven that have played in more than five games has not recorded a goal (Jeff Schultz). The defense has 18 percent of the Caps’ goal total so far and is on a pace to score 62 goals, an increase of 25 above the total they put in the books last season.

The Caps have used three goaltenders so far, and all of them have at least four appearances in the 24 games played to date. For those Caps fans who spent the last couple of years opining about whether the Caps should move Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov, or Braden Holtby, how is that depth thing working for you these days? Holtby had a cup o’ coffee with the team lasting for five appearances. He showed the promise he has in shutting down Boston and Philadelphia in his first two NHL appearances, one a relief appearance against the Bruins in which he held the Bruins off the scoreboard in the last ten minutes for his first NHL win, and the other a 23-save effort in a a 3-2 overtime win over the Flyers.

Neuvirth has been the rock for the Caps so far, appearing in 19 of 24 games and posting a 12-3-1 win-loss record and a 2.63 GAA and .912 save percentage to go along with it. Neuvirth has not lost in regulation in a month, a 2-1 loss in Minnesota on October 28th.

Semyon Varlamov was supposed to be the starter when the season began, but the annual groin injury arrived early. He has appeared in only four games so far, only two this month. But those two games so far in November have enabled him to stake a claim for regular duty – 2-0, 1.00, .959 and a shutout in his last game, a 6-0, 17-save win over Tampa Bay.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Carolina: Eric Staal

Eric Staal has one of the two goals in this series so far, but it was one of 11 shots on goal he has recorded so far. He is also a minus-2 (the goal came on a power play). Staal is the leading goal scorer (ten so far), leading playmaker (15 assists), and top point-getter (25). But he has been less than effective on the road. In 12 road games he is 3-8-11, minus-5 and has only 35 shots on goal (compared to 49 in 10 games at home). He is 19-26-45 in 44 career games against the Caps.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

That Ovechkin has five points in two games is not surprising. That all of them are assists is. Ovechkin has two goals in his last 11 games. He also has 14 assists in those 11 games. It is worth noting that the Caps are 7-2-2 in those 11 games (that is a 119-point pace for those of you not wanting to do the math). Known as a prolific shooter, Ovechkin has “only” 39 shots in the last 11 games (ten of them came in the 3-2 win over Carolina on Wednesday). Great players find a way to contribute, and Ovechkin finds himself among the league scoring leaders still by expanding his game. It is also a measure of how much the team has grown up around him that they are finishing the opportunities that led to Ovechkin getting those 14 assists over the last 11 games.


1. Non-Nonchalance. The Caps have the best home record in the league (11-1-1). In fact, if they had not yet played a road game, their 23 home points would still have them ninth in the East and knocking on Atlanta’s door for eighth. The Hurricanes are 1-3-1 on the road so far this month. But Carolina did shut out the Bruins in Boston in their last game on the road and took Pittsburgh to a shootout in the road game before that. The Hurricanes should not be taken lightly.

2. Balance. It has only been two games, but the series so far has been the “Nick and Alex Show.” Backstrom has four of the Caps’ six goals, and Ovechkin has four of the team’s 11 assists. Neither Alexander Semin nor Mike Green have a point yet. It would be nice to see the second or third lines have a multi-goal game.

3. Score first, trail first…it just doesn’t matter. Carolina is 24th in the league in points percentage when scoring first, 24th when trailing first. It hardly seems to matter. And part of that problem is really bad finishes. The Hurricanes have allowed 20 goals in the first period of 22 games so far (tied for 17th lowest), but they have allowed 29 goals in the third period, tied for worst in the league. That average of 1.32 goals allowed in the third period of games is by far the league’s worst mark (Ottawa and Tampa Bay allow an average of 1.17 goals in the third period).

In the end, the real danger here is that this is a getaway game for the Caps. After this one they head on the road for games in St. Louis and Dallas. If they can keep their heads away from the boarding area, this is a game the Caps should win, even if Cam Ward comes into it having a 2-0-1, 0.68, .977 record in his last three appearances, including a shutout of the Bruins in his last game. The Caps are 9-2-2 this month, 9-0-2 in games in which they actually scored a goal. It suggests that Ward might have to pitch another shutout to have Carolina head out of Washington a winner.

He won’t.

Caps 4 – Hurricanes 2

Saturday, November 27, 2010

From the Bowels of Broad Street: A Caps Fan in Philly

The business-like voice of the GPS announced the Broad Street exit in south Philadelphia, although you need not have listened. The line of cars would have been enough of a hint of a hockey game to be played at Wells Fargo Center on Friday. We were visiting family in the City of Brotherly Love for the holiday, and rather than brave the mobs of shoppers at the local mall on “Black Friday,” we decided to make an “Orange Friday” of it, taking in the Calgary Flames and the Philadelphia Flyers for a matinee contest.

I could say that this is what I have been reduced to, having to fill my hockey need even when on vacation and doing so by watching the – ugh – Flyers. But it wasn’t my idea. My sister and her husband thought it would be a fun time for my father, who happens to be a hockey fan (a Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins fan, a fact for which I bear no small amount of blame).

So there we were, the five of us (my nephew rounding out the party) sitting in Section 121 of Wells Fargo Center, me looking on with a perverse sense of anticipation, waiting for what indignity the Flyer fans in attendance might rain down upon the sprinkling of Calgary fans in attendance, on the Flames skating on the ice, or on the officials trying to keep the peace between the teams.

We were not disappointed, at least not in the end.

But it did not start that way. About 15 rows below us there were what looked to be a dozen or so Calgary fans wearing Flames jerseys. I didn’t detect a beer stain or streaks of nacho cheese on any of them. What is with Philadelphia fans?! Have they mellowed since the days of booing Santa Claus across the street at the old Veterans Stadium? These folks were… civil.

Then there was the hockey. The first period was as dull a 20 minutes of hockey as I’ve seen this year, and that was much to the liking of the Flames, no doubt. No goals were scored, and there were few chances had by either team. Philly did have some decent looks on a power play, but Miikka Kiprusoff had good looks at them, too. But what we noticed was a distinct lack of… noise. Perhaps it was a product of the day – folks still digesting their Thanksgiving dinner – but it was not the lively crowd we were expecting.

Things got a little more energetic in the second period when Nikolai Zherdev showed why he is one of the most frustrating players in the league. Zherdev collected a loose puck behind the Calgary net and circled all the way around the boards with it, completing the circuit by cutting to the middle above and between the circles. At that point he encounted Niklas Hagman trying to force Zherdev to give up the puck. Rather than pass off or skate into Hagman’s path, Zherdev opened the blade of his stick as if to send the puck to Braydon Coburn along the right wing boards. The move froze Hagman, upon which he curled his stick blade around the puck, took another step, then wristed the puck past Kiprusoff for one of the prettier goals you’ll ever see.  He just doesn't do it often enough, and intersperses his artistry with too frequent nights and shifts taken off.

The Flyers gave the goal back, though, in one of those moments a Caps fan lives for. The puck was sent around the Calgary net with the Flyers on a power play, coming to Mike Richards along the right wing wall at the top of the circle. What Richards didn’t appear to recognize as the puck was coming around, though, was Curtis Glencross stepping out to challenge him. Richards had his head down as he collected the puck, and he tried to sweep it to Chris Pronger at the blue line. Way bad move. Glencross had a step or two on Richards, but Pronger was in a position to stop him (even if it meant an interference call, since Glencross had not yet collected the puck). Pronger chose to matador the play (ole!), leaving Richards to sprint back as best he could. Glencross had too much of a head start for Richards to make up, and it was enough room for him to skate in on goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, pull the puck to his backhand, and lift it over Bobrovsky’s pad to tie the game.

Late in the second Calgary was guilty of a bonehead play of their own, courtesy of defenseman Robyn Regehr. Braydon Coburn sent the puck up ice with Richards skipping it the rest of the way deep behind the Flames’ net. Regehr got to the puck first, but then looked to have no clue what he should do next. The moment’s worth of indecision was enough for Andreas Nodl to pick Regehr’s pocket. Richards flicked the loose puck to the middle where James van Riemsdyk was coming down the middle. Van Riemsdyk had virtually an open net to shoot at, and he did not miss, giving the Flyers the lead.

Calgary tied the game in the third period in a classic case of the third man coming late that wasn’t picked up. In this case it was Jarome Iginla finding Alex Tanguay heading down the right side, whereupon Iginla drove to the net. Tanguay opened up and found Steve Staios coming down the path that Iginla paved and Darroll Powe not getting back quite quickly enough to bother Staios’ shot. Staios buried the puck in the middle of the net before Bobrovsky could reset himself, and all that was left was the real entertainment…overtime.

The extra session looked from the opening draw as if it would go without a score, neither team doing much in the first two minutes but probing around the outside of the defense looking for openings that weren’t there. Then, Mark Giordano was whistled off for holding the stick, and it looked as if Philly finally had their break – lots of open ice and a more nimble team than Calgary.

Barely a half minute into the power play, Mike Richards circled out and around the right wing circle and found a shooting lane. He wristed the puck through a crowd in front of Miikka Kiprusoff, sending the Flyers fans into ecstasy. Except…

There was the referee, immediately waving off the goal. And there was Chris Pronger in the middle of it, shouting at the referee. From our vantage (at the other end of the rink) I thought it was a case of Pronger knocking the puck in with a high stick, but the replay didn’t seem to indicate that his stick was over the crossbar or that he even touched the puck. He didn’t, as it turned out. Pronger was sent off for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (essentially a variation of the Avery Rule), a product of his waving his glove in Kiprusoff’s face moments before the puck came through.

It was quite a sequence – Pronger waving his glove (no doubt about that, although the party line was that he was directing traffic), Kiprusoff whacking Pronger in the back of the legs, the shot hitting the back of the net, Pronger’s liberal use of adult language in the direction of the referee when the goal was waved off (we thought this was the reason for the penalty), the fact that there was still a 3-on-3 situation Calgary had to negotiate that would last almost to the end of the overtime, and a power play that Calgary would have for the last 17 seconds.

It was almost surprising that overtime ended without some sort of odd goal scored off a referee’s skate or something, but end it did, leaving it to the shootout. Claude Giroux gave the home fans hope when he opened the skills portion with a backhand goal that looked almost too easy. After Alex Tanguay and Danny Briere exchanged unsuccessful attempts, Niklas Hagman redeemed himself for his being the victim of Zherdev’s goal by snapping the puck past Sergei Bobrovsky to tie things up. Mike Richards tried to end it with a backhand, but Kiprusoff was up to the task. That left things up to Rene Bourque, who skate in, froze Bobrovsky with a fake to his backhand, then snapped the puck past the goaltender, leaving him to look on either side behind him for the puck. It came to rest up in the netting above the skirt, and the game was finally over.

Things we noticed…

-- We were somewhat surprised all game long at the seeming lack of noise on the part of the Flyer crowd. Sure, they whooped it up for the two goals, but otherwise were rather docile. That is, until the overtime goal was waved off. And then we understood… no one, and we mean “no one” boos like a Philly crowd. There isn’t even a second place in this contest. That was the loudest, most sustained booing we’d heard, well, perhaps ever. It was almost constant from the moment the goal was wave off until Giroux potted his shootout goal, whereupon it started up again.

-- We have not seen Robyn Regehr much this season, but we were thoroughly unimpressed, and that doesn’t even include the gaffe behind his own net. He looked to have trouble keeping up with the speedy Flyer forwards.

-- Sergei Bobrovsky might be the real deal, but the one thing we noticed about him in this game was that he was not challenged high. It seemed every save he made was within 12 inches of the ice surface. On the few shots that were sent high, he did not defend them cleanly.

-- Pronger is a study in economy. OK, he looked like he jaked it on the Glencross shortie, but otherwise he knows when to coast and when to haul it. He isn’t a fast skater by any means, but he certainly does get to where he needs to be more often than not.

-- Perhaps it is a product of the fact that until recently the Flyers wore black as their home jersey, but we detected a discernible lack of “orange” in the stands. Not nearly the sea of home color one might see at Verizon Center.

-- Spectrum II/Core States/First Union/Wachovia/Wells Fargo Center is a big place, but it is uncommonly dark, and the seats in the upper bowl look to be a good deal further from the ice than those at Verizon Center.

It’s never a bad day when there is hockey, especially with family. And we can take some perverse glee in the Flyers taking one in the loss column, especially when the outcome was iffy in terms of an official’s call. But all things considered, we’ll be glad to get back to Verizon Center and watch the best team in the league… not the second best one.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Hurricanes, November 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!

The Caps try to right the ship tonight as they visit the Carolina Hurricanes in the latest in the storied rivalry between these hotbeds of hockey. It is the last contest before Thanksgiving here in the States, as families gather around the table to wolf down turkey and stuffing before the football games start. Our family is no different. In fact, the cousins are already busy cooking up a storm – a “Hurricane” in fact. Every family has its specialties at this time of year, and we’re no different, are we cousins?

“You betcha.”

“Been watching that new show about Alaska on The Learning Channel, Cheerless?”

“Heck yeah…my mouth was just waterin’ looking at all them critters.”

Tell us, Cheerless, what are you horking… uh, cooking up for us this year?

“Well, we’re gonna start with hambrosia.”

“Don’t you mean ‘ambrosia?’”

“Nope… we improved on it.”

Oh, this oughtta be good.

“You bet… with ambrosia you get whipped cream and all that fruit..yuck! We’ve got ham and bacon and ham and gizzards and ham and chicken livers and ham in whipped cream. Now that’s good eatin’ right there.”

Uh-huh… what else?

“Cranberry relish.”

Well, that wounds norma…I mean pretty good.

“We mix cranberries with pickle relish, but we add our own special touch to make it ‘Cheerless.’”

And that is…

“Beer, to give it that sparkle.”

And your main course?

“Well, we were thinking about a Cajun theme and one of those turducken things. But with all the bounty of the forest right here, we thought we’d do something different.”

I don’t want to know…


This isn’t going to end well, is it?

“Probably not…”

“It’s a squirrel inside a raccoon inside a wild turkey, with deer meat and saltine stuffin’”

The sort of meal from which diets are born.

Tonight’s opponent has perhaps the strangest record in all of the NHL. The Carolina Hurricanes come into the contest with a 9-9-2 record, but how they got there is evidence that they should be signed en masses to next season’s Dancing With The Stars for their ability in the two-game two-step.  Their dance routine has been as follows...

Win (cha cha cha)
Loss (cha cha cha)
Win (OT)
Loss (cha cha cha)
Win (cha cha cha)
Loss (and…turn)
Loss (SO)
Loss (SO)

That is how they arrived at a 9-9-2 record, earned largely by alternating wins and losses and avoiding streaks of any kind. Having lost their last two games via the Gimmick, that does not bode well for the Caps. But there is more. Not only are the Hurricanes alternating their wins and losses with uncommon frequency, but they are all over the place in terms of scoring goals and allowing them. This month alone they have scored seven goals in a game three times. And three times they have allowed at least seven goals in a game.  Here is the overall numbers picture...

The scoring part for this month has been supplied in large part by Eric Staal. After a slow October (3-4-7, minus-3) Staal has come on in November, posting five multi-point games in going 6-10-16, plus-1 in ten games. If there has been a crack in his game this month it is at even strength. Here is a hint – in the four games this month in which he has not registered a point he is minus-5. In fact, in the ten games this season in which Staal has not registered a point he has been a minus player in seven of them, a plus player in none of them, and a minus-10 overall. Something else to note; among eligible players Staal ranks 85th of 93 players on faceoffs.

Jussi Jokinen had a three-game multi-point streak (2-6-8) snapped on Saturday in a 2-1 shootout loss to Nashville. He has had four multi-point games this month and is 2-9-11, plus-2 for the month. Speaking of shootout, this season has been something of a dry spell for the Gimmick specialist. Coming into the season he compiled a career record of 26 goals in 50 attempts in the skills competition. So far this season he is 0-for-3.

Ian White will make his debut against the Caps in a Carolina uniform. A week ago he was traded from Calgary to the Hurricanes with Brett Sutter for forward Tom Kostopoulos and defensemen Anton Babchuk. It was the second time in 2010 that White was traded. On January 10th he was part of a seven-player deal between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Calgary Flames. White, along with Jamal Mayers, Niklas Hagman, and Matt Stajan, were traded by Toronto to Calgary for Dion Phaneuf, Fredrik Sjostrom, and Keith Aulie. White dragged his team-worst minus-10 out of Calgary to Carolina. It’s only two games into his stay in Carolina, but he is even so far. White is described as a “skilled puck-moving defenseman.” Of course…how else would you describe a 5’10”, 191 pound defenseman? He might not have been the centerpiece of the deal with Calgary, but he did record 38 points with Toronto and Calgary last season in his second full year in the league. Attention should be paid.

Cam Ward is among the top ten in the league in wins (nine) among goaltenders. That should not be confused with having an especially good season. His goals against average (2.84) ranks in a tie for 26th in the league, and his save percentage (.914) is tied for 15th. Part of the problem is his having faced 33.1 shots per 60 minutes, but he also has been inconsistent. Ward allowed either one or four goals – no other result – over his last five games (one three times, four twice) and has allowed at least four in three of his last seven games. He brings a 13-6-3, 2.60 career record against the Caps into this game.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Carolina: Joe Corvo

The Capitals were treated to the full Corvo in the first meeting of these teams – seven shot attempts, two hits, a giveaway, a takeaway, three blocked shots… and a minus-2. He was not nimble enough to slow the momentum of Mike Knuble skating down the right wing as Knuble wristed the puck to the net, creating a rebound that Nicklas Backstrom converted. He also lost a battle with Knuble along the right wing boards trying to keep the puck in the offensive zone late in the game. Backstrom was again the beneficiary, collecting the puck and sending it off and into the empty Carolina net for the final 3-0 margin. He is 3-5-8 in 22 career games against Washington.

Washington: Michal Neuvirth

The rookie goaltender returns to the scene of his first NHL shutout, earned in that 3-0 game earlier this season. Since then, Neuvirth is 6-1-1, but his GAA is 2.96, and his save percentage is .898. The elevated GAA is a matter of concern because of the consistency embedded in it. He has not had the occurrence of allowing five or more goals in any game in the ten appearances since his shutout. Rather, he has allowed three or four in six of his last eight appearances. Fortunately, the Caps have had a bountiful harvest of goals in November (39 in 11 games), but at some point the goaltender is going to have to be the one to steal games here and there, and Neuvirth hasn’t been that goaltender since the first Carolina game.

Note: Neuvirth was injured on the morning of the last game, and if he cannot go, then it could be Braden Holtby returning to the nets. He could use a confidence-builder, having gone 0-2-1, 4.98, .800 in his last three games.


1. Quiet, please. Carolina can be a loud place to play (RBC Arena was where a record for crowd noise was set at a professional sports event – 138 decibels in a Stanley Cup Finals game in 2006). It can be especially loud when the home team gets out of the blocks fast. And Carolina ranks fourth in goals scored in the first period. If the net behind the Caps’ goalie is quiet, so too will the crowd be, and that source of inspiration could be denied the Hurricanes.

2. Make sure the blowout preventer works. We’re not talking offshore oil wells here, we’re talking three-goal games. Carolina has been involved in the second highest number of three-or-more goal margins in the league so far and has been involved in the third highest number of three-or-more goal losses. Six of the Hurricane’s nine losses in regulation have come by the three-or-more goal margin. On the other side, four of their nine wins have come by that margin. And in those four wins they scored two, three, four, and four first period goals.

3. Give Neuvy a chance. In his last five appearances Michal Neuvirth faced an average of 34 shots per 60 minutes played. That is too much rubber to face. Carolina is ninth in the league in shots on goal per game (32.0). The Caps need to tighten up their defense all around and give their goaltender a chance to give them a lift.

In the end, Carolina always seems to pose a difficult test for the Caps. Since the lockout the Hurricanes are 20-13-4 against Washington. Visiting Carolina in the midst of a slump is a particularly difficult task. But the 5-0 whitewashing at the hands of the New Jersey Devils might have been the slap in the face this team has needed for the past few weeks. Despite winning games, they were giving up goals and looking a little too much like the Gashouse Gang sort of team that ran up and down the ice last season. Then there was the post-game hijinks involving two Caps players and a Devil, yukking it up just yards from the post-game press conference with coach Bruce Boudreau. That might not have merited attention but for the fact that it: a) involved the captain, and b) took place after getting torched on the ice.

That post game incident might be characterized as a “non-story,” the sort of thing that goes on after games in every NHL rink. Maybe, but if the Caps lay an egg on the ice in Carolina tonight, then next news cycle – coming as it will with only one game played in the NHL tomorrow – could make for quite a bit of discussion about the Caps’ – and The Captain’s – woes that will make it a “Black Friday” indeed when the Caps return home.

Of course, that ain’t gonna happen…

…is it?

Caps 3 – Hurricanes 2

Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 22, 2010

A NO-point night -- Game 22: Devils 5 - Caps 0

“In the end, there is no plausible excuse for losing this game. None. The Devils cannot compete offensively with the Caps, unless Ilya Kovalchuk goes absolutely nuts, and the Caps can put out any goaltender in their system at the moment and likely get a better performance than what the Devils have gotten from the backups. You could say, like they do in football, that 'on any given night' any team can beat any other, but that just should not be the case in this game.”

OK, what idiot said THAT?!

Guilty as charged.

The Caps did lose their game tonight against the New Jersey Devils, 5-0. And no, there is no excuse… not Michal Neuvirth’s pre-game injury, not Semyon Varlamov’s late-arriving skates, not Braden Hotlby’s rebounds. The Caps didn’t even mail this one in; they called it in collect, avoiding the cost of a first class stamp.

You could say that the game might have gone very differently had the Caps not been guilty of two horrendously bad plays late in the first period. With the Devils ahead 1-0 on a goal by Patrik Elias in the game’s sixth minute, New Jersey won a faceoff in their own end in the 17th minute of the period. After getting the puck out to the neutral zone, John Erskine got tied up with Mattias Tedenby at the Caps’ line. Erskine lost his footing, then swept the puck toward the right wing boards. Unfortunately, that is the lane Jason Arnott was filling, and he picked up the puck in stride. Erskine tried to get back into the play but was able only to trail Arnott as he skated deep. As Arnott started to wind around the net, goalie Braden Hotlby came out to challenge and dropped to his butterfly well outside the crease. Defenseman Tyler Sloan then got tied up with Holtby, leaving the net unoccupied as Arnott swept around the net and wrapped the puck in the far side for the Devils’ second goal.

John Erskine would figure prominently in the third Devil goal in the 19th minute of the period, too. He was worked over by Tedenby on a rush to the net that resulted in Erskine hauning Tedenby down on his way to the net. A penalty shot was called, and Tedenby converted it, depositing a backhand past Holtby in confident fashion, and instead of a manageable 1-0 deficit at the first intermission, the Devils had a choke hold on the game, 3-0.

That did it for the competitive portion of the game. New Jersey added two goals in the second period, but for all intents and purposes, it was over when Tedenby netted his penalty shot.

Other Stuff…

-- New Jersey came into the game having scored a total of nine first period goals this season. They had not had a multi-goal first period since Game 2 (against the Caps). They had three in the first period tonight, their high in the first period this season.

-- By the end of the game the Caps were down to four defensemen, Tyler Sloan having gone out late in the first period and Mike Green departing at the 7:10 mark of the third period.

-- The mystery of where Alex Ovechkin’s game has gone continues. No points, five shots on goal (all of them coming after the Devils had built a 4-0 lead early in the second period), and his game seems to lack any spark. He is 1-2-3, minus-3 in his last six games.

-- If there was a bright spot for the Caps, it would be John Carlson. With Sloan and Green going out, he stepped up and skated more than 27 minutes, had three shots on goal and was not on the ice for any of the Devils’ goals.

-- The Streak is over. The Caps lost with Boyd Gordon in the lineup, the first such loss in regulation this season.

-- The Devils came into this game having scored three power play goals in 20 chances in November. Now they have four, a product of Patrick Elias beating Mike Green down the middle and deflecting a shot by Mattias Tedenby.

-- The Caps pounded Calgary, 7-2, in the last game of October. Since then they have scored 39 goals in 11 games in November… and allowed 38.

-- Johan Hedberg stopped all 30 Caps shots for his 15th career shutout. It was the first time that the Devils shutout the Caps since dropping a 3-0 decision on December 4, 2003. It was the first time a Devils goalie not named “Brodeur” shut out the Caps since Craig Billington shut out the Caps, 3-0 , on November 13, 1992.

-- How many games can the Devils win with Ilya Kovalchuk registering only one shot on goal? Well, one anyway.

-- Jeff Schultz (minus-2 tonight) is now minus-6 in his last four games and is a minus in each of those games. Last season he had consecutive minus games only twice all season. Four in a row is his career high (he had three in a row October 28-November 4, 2008).

-- We’re having a hard time wrapping our head around the idea that the Caps could not solve a defense that included such household names as Matt Corrente and Mark Fayne (playing in his first NHL game), and that included a goalie with a goals-against average north of four-and-a-half goals a game.

-- If there was a turning point, it might have come mid-way through the first period. First, Matt Hendricks and Adam Mair had a kerfuffle that got them five minute each in the penalty box. As the story goes, such a thing could be an inspiration for a team. Well, nine seconds later the Devils took a penalty, Travis Zajac going off for holding. The Caps might have parlayed the bout and the power play into a tying goal that might have propelled them forward. Instead, the Caps went the entire power play without a shot on goal and in fact had only one shot attempt (a miss on a deflection try by Nicklas Backstrom).

In the end, the Caps are now losers of three in a row (0-2-1) and have allowed 14 goals in recording those losses. The last three weeks have served only to fuel impressions that the early take on the Caps – weak on defense and in goal – was right all along. Braden Holtby appeared not to be ready for action tonight, having been named the emergency starter when Michal Neuvirth was injured in the morning skate. He couldn’t find a rhythm, was guilty of bad positioning, left too many big rebounds, and after having done so left himself in positions where he could not recover. To his credit, he fought back to play respectably well in the last 30 minutes. Of course, by that time the Devils were in shutout protection mode for their own goalie and easing off the gas in the offensive end.

But Holtby was not the only Cap to struggle tonight. You would be hard pressed to find a player who had even a fair game. The defense was forced into some odd rotations (swapping out one at a time by game’s end with only four defensemen to pick from) and pairings (Schultz/Alzner, Erskine/Carlson being featured), but it wasn’t as if they played well early, either. The forwards just didn’t have anything at either end of the ice, and not even some fisticuffs and a power play could get them out of their funk when the game was still competitive in the first period.

It doesn’t take long to go from one end of the momentum continuum to the other. Less than a week ago the Caps were riding high on an 8-0-1 run. Tonight they are in the midst of an 0-2-1 streak with divisional games coming up to close out the month (twice against Carolina wrapped around a game with Tampa Bay).

There isn’t an aspect of the game that doesn’t need improvement at the moment. The offense has deserted the Caps (shut out twice in the last three games), and the defense and goaltending has been grisly, to say the least (14 goals allowed). The best that can be said about a game like this is that after being shut out by a team tied for the fewest points in the league, there is nowhere to go but up.

Well, we’ll see Wednesday night, won’t we?

The NHL's Great and Good Fortune

This post caught my attention on one of the Caps' flagship blogs, "On Frozen Blog." Elisabeth Meinecke has been credentialed to cover the Winter Classic game between the Caps and Penguins on January 1st. By itself, it is a nice story for Ms. Meinecke and quite a feather in the cap of the OFB folks. But it is an element in what might be a bigger story that could unfold in the run up to the game itself on New Year's Day in Pittsburgh.

The Capitals are the state of the art when it comes to coverage of the club by "new media." You could say it is a product of the sponsorship and promotion of blogs by The Boss, and to a large extent you would be right. Ted Leonsis was far out in front of his peers in the NHL is seeing the possibilities of other perspectives in the coverage of the Capitals by motivated, independent voices.

But that explains only a part of the story. That the Caps are the state of the art in new media coverage of the team is also a product of those motivated and independent voices such as those at OFB, Japers' Rink, Russian Machine Never Breaks, and so many others that would take too much time and space to name. The dedicated folks who invest their time and talent to covering the Caps have been welcomed into the Capitals' community in many cases as credentialed media with the sort of access to the team, its players, and its coaches in a manner that for years was the exclusive province of mainstream media.

The access afforded these individuals and blogging teams has further motivated them to expand their coverage into weekly radio segments, dedicated coverage of the AHL Hershey Bears, and video segments. That is what helps makes the Caps' brand of new media the state of the art.

The NHL is about to get a bonanza of coverage of its young "classic" format. It is an opportunity to show the less visionary or more skeptical among NHL franchises that bloggers are not the enemy as much as an increasingly integral element to providing their respective communities with comprehensive coverage of their teams.  We hope that the league appreciates the bonanza it is about to realize and welcomes the deluge of coverage with the sort of open arms that could prove a tipping point in the very nature of hockey reporting.

It would be easy to counsel the bloggers to be on their best behavior, to take their roles as media representatives seriously. Well, we think that sort of advice and concern is ill-placed. For you see, the folks who have been blogging about the Caps have been doing it for a while. They have been covering the club closely -- at Kettler, at Verizon Center, even appearing on other local media outlets -- for awhile. They know their stuff, and they take their responsibilities seriously.

No, the onus is on the NHL -- to realize the opportunity that is presenting itself with this year's Winter Classic, to work with those new media representatives as partners in promoting and covering the event, and to use this event and the potential for a much broader exposure to expand their sport.

We would be so bold as to advise the NHL... don't blow it.

And to Ms. Meinecke, congratulations.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Devils, November 22nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

We are here at Peerless Central joined by a very special and, as it turns out, timely guest. Hockey is a sport that has an all too often unfortunate by-product of injuries to its players, and no team has had more misfortune land on it than tonight’s opponent, the New Jersey Devils. And who better to diagnose the problem than the eminent diagnostician, Dr. Gregory House of the Princeton‑Plainsboro Teaching Hospital here in New Jersey. Dr. House, welcome.

“My life is just one horror after another.”

Well, speaking of horror, this season has been one horror after another for the Devils as well.


The Devils.

“A biker gang?”

No, hockey team. They play in Newark.

“And you wonder why their season has been a horror?”

Be that as it may, the Devils are having what looks to be an epidemic of injuries. Zach Parise, Martin Brodeur, Jamie Langenbrunner…

“Are these real names, or are you making them up?”

No, they are real hockey players with real injuries, but the question is, why so many in so short a time on one team? Can you shed any light on this, Dr. House?

“Well, we would have to conduct a battery of tests to try to identify the likely problem, which we will then dismiss in favor of more tests 30 minutes later, then stumble upon the cause when two of my lackeys go through their locker room to find some unpronounceable bug when no one is around.”

I see. Well, what sort of tests are we talking about here?

“We could perform a blood urea nitrogen test, an erythrocyte sedimentation rate test, a radionucleotide cisternogram, a visual evoked potential test, and a technetium sestamabi, for starters.”

Are these real tests, or are you making them up?

We might never get an answer to that question, so let’s get on with the game at hand. The Capitals will travel to Newark tonight to take on the Devils, although many of the players that will take the ice for the home team do not resemble what we have come to know over the last decade and a half as “The Devils.” Already the Devils have dressed 28 skaters this season, including such as Alexander Vasyunov, Stephen Gionta (not to be confused with his older brother and former Devil Brian Gionta), Olivier Magnan, Bradley Mills, and Tyler Eckford. Injuries and poor performance have combined to leave the Devils gasping for air at the bottom of the league standings, a place they share with the punch line of the league these days, the New York Islanders. Overall, their numbers look like this (have the children leave the room before reading on)…

Here is how bad it is for the Devils. Through 20 games they have scored a total of 36 goals. Last season – one in which the Devils finished 19th in total scoring – they scored 52 goals in their first 20 games. A 31 percent drop off in scoring is bad enough, but the defense. Oh, the defense.  So far it has allowed 64 goals in 20 games. Last season the Devils did not allow their 64th goal until Game 30. At the moment New Jersey is allowing more than a full goal per game (3.20) more than they did through 20 games last season (2.15). How bad has it been overall? Well…

-- The Devils have not won consecutive games yet this season, but
-- They have three losing streaks of three games (including their current predicament)
-- The Devils scored fewer than two goals in ten of their first 15 games.
-- They have scored more than three goals in regulation only twice in 20 games.
-- They have allowed more than five goals twice. They didn’t allow any team more than five goals in a game last season.
-- They have only six power play goals for the season (only one in 39 chances on the road). By way of comparison the Caps have 11 power play goals this month.
-- The Devils’ leading scorer (Patrik Elias) has 12 points. Alexander Semin has 15 points in November. Alex Ovechkin, who has had a less-than-Ovechkinesque month, has 13 points this month.
-- The Devils’ leading goal-getter (Jason Arnott) has six goals. Semin has eight in November.
-- Mike Green (5-8-13) – a defenseman who has played in only 18 of 21 games – would lead the Devils in scoring with his total.
-- Only one Devil is on a pace for as many as 20 goals (Jason Arnott). Only two are on a pace for as many as 15 (Ilya Kovalchuk being the other).
-- The Devils have been shut out in three of eight games this month.

It’s been brutal on offense, perhaps no more so than on defense, though. It is little wonder why the Devils have struggled on the defensive side of the ledger, given that they have already dressed 10 defensemen this season (only two have played in all 20 games) and three goaltenders.

Lost in the wreckage of the season so far is the performance of Ilya Kovalchuk. And here is how bad that has been – he is on a pace for a 17-26-43, minus-43 season. He has one goal this month (one in his last 11 games, in fact). He has had one multi-point game since October 15th. In those 14 games he is 2-3-5, minus-9. And he is the third-leading scorer for New Jersey. His four goals and six assists total is matched on the Caps by the four goals and six assists of – drum roll please – Jason Chimera.

More was expected of Ilya Kovalchuk, and he has a bank safe of pressure on his back (to carry that $100 million contract) weighing him down. But more might have been expected of Travis Zajac, too. After registering 60-plus point seasons in each of the last two years, Zajac might have been expected to take the next step forward in his career development. Instead, he is stuck at 2-7-9 through 20 games (although he is one of four players on the team on the plus side of the ledger at plus-1). Of those two goals, only one has come since opening night, and he is on a six-game streak without one.

By current Devils standards, Jason Arnott is an offensive juggernaut. That’s what three goals in November means to a team that has only 16 in eight games this month. But those three goals represent Arnott’s grand total over his last 13 games. His six goals for the season is as many as Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, and Dainius Zubrus combined.

Speaking of Zubrus, he has two goals. That total ranks him seventh on the club this year, but it puts him on a pace to finish with eight tallies. That would be his lowest total for a full season since the 1998-1999 season when he had six split evenly with Philadelphia and Montreal.

With Martin Brodeur out resting his elbow for the next couple of weeks, the Devils’ goaltending situation is nothing short of a mess. Not that Brodeur was having a “Brodeur” sort of year. His 2.74 GAA, were he to finish with that number, would be higher than in any season since he got a four-game look and see in 1992 (3.36). His save percentage of .901 would be the lowest since that same season.

But with Marty on the sideline, well, welcome to the future Devils fans. It is coming faster than you all might like. In Brodeur’s place for the time being we have our first contestant, Johan Hedberg. At the moment, Hedberg is 1-2-1, 4.53, .855 in six appearances. He has one appearance in which his save percentage was over .900, two in which it was below .800. This is not a long-term solution.

Then we have Mike McKenna. No, not the Canadian musician, but the goalie from St. Louis, MO. He had his baptism this season in the Devils’ last game, coincidentally played in McKenna’s hometown. He lost to the Blues, 3-2, stopping 24 of 27 shots. He has, however, seen the Caps before. Three times, in fact, all in the 2008-2009 season with Tampa Bay. They were not pleasant memories. In the first he lasted 20 minutes, allowing three goals on 12 shots in a 5-1 loss to the Caps. Giving up goals to each of the Alexes is one thing, but he also allowed Shaone Morrisonn to rustle the twine. In the second he lasted all 60 minutes, but he did give up five goals on 30 shots in a 5-2 loss, including the next to last goal Michael Nylander would score for the Caps. His last appearance featured allowing four goals on 38 shots in a 5-3 loss, including Brian Pothier’s first goal in 15 months.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New Jersey: Anton Volchenkov

Volchenkov played 6:21 into his second game as a Devil when he has his nose broken on a shot by Nicklas Backstrom in the first meeting of these teams. He missed 12 games, but has returned to play in the last six Devils’ games. In those six games he is averaging more than 22 minutes and has been on the ice for only five of the 19 goals the Devils allowed in those games. He is likely to draw the big assignment of ensuring that Alex Ovechkin remains as quiet as he has been lately.

Washington: Jeff Schultz

“Mr. Plus-50” is minus-4 over his last three games and has had “minus” games in five of his last seven contests. The Devils have not posed a consistent threat on offense this season, but a team with Ilya Kovalchuk patrolling the wing cannot be taken lightly. Schultz is – and will be in this game – something of an indicator of the larger matter of whether the Caps are taking this game seriously. He isn’t going to put up points (he has no goals and five assists), but he is on the ice for a fair number of goals, being paired with Mike Green, and – when he and his teammates are on their respective games – is not on the ice for many goals. No Caps defenseman has been on the ice for more goals so far than Schultz, and this needs to change. No time like the present.


1. Hit the “trail.” Only one team in the entire league has scored the first goal of the game less often than New Jersey (Nashville). Only eight times have the Devils lit the lamp first. They are a .500 team when they do so (3-3-2).

2. Kill, Cappies, Kill. The Devils have only three power play goals this month in eight games. They are 4-for-46 in their last 15 games. Don’t be making things interesting by letting the power play off the hook.

3. Ready, aim…oh, heck, just SHOOT! For such a high-powered offense, you would think the Caps shoot a lot. Well, not really, at least as those shots get on net. Washington is tied for 12th in shots on goal per game. The Devils, whatever their other ills, can still hold teams off in getting pucks to the net. They have the seventh-lowest shots per game total in the league. But considering that the team save percentage is .878 (.861 by goaltenders not named “Brodeur”), the Caps need to get pucks on net, and good things are likely to happen.

In the end, there is no plausible excuse for losing this game. None. The Devils cannot compete offensively with the Caps, unless Ilya Kovalchuk goes absolutely nuts, and the Caps can put out any goaltender in their system at the moment and likely get a better performance than what the Devils have gotten from the backups. You could say, like they do in football, that “on any given night” any team can beat any other, but that just should not be the case in this game.

Caps 5 – Devils 1

Sunday, November 21, 2010

That Was The Week That Was: November 14-20, By the Tens

It’s time to take a look at the week that ended last night, so let’s get to it…

Record for the week: 2-1-1

The week started relatively smooth and ended with hitting a few potholes. Wins over Atlanta and Buffalo on home ice extended the home ice record to 10-1-0 and the points streak to nine games. But all good things do come to an end, and they did in a big way in Atlanta in the rematch of the first game of the week. Three goals on five shots put an end to the competitive portion of the evening early, so it was left to the week’s last game – against Philadelphia – to make the week one of greater separation between the Caps and the rest of the East or one of decent (if unspectacular) production. In the “glass half empty” interpretation of the Flyers game, the Caps lost for the second time on home ice, the Young Guns managed only one goal and two assists, and Michal Neuvirth was not consistently sharp. In the “glass half full” interpretation, the Caps fought back from a two-goal deficit against a team that clamps down on the road, then they came back again to tie the game late in the third period after allowing a goal. In the individual pieces, you can find faults. From the “team” perspective, you can see things to make this game – and the week – seem a lot more tolerable.

Offense: 3.50/game

If there was one word to describe the Caps’ offense this week, it might be “donut.” Six first period goals, six third period goals…two in the second period. Balance was the word of the week for Caps scoring. There were 17 skaters who registered points in the four games (John Carlson and Boyd Gordon the only skaters not getting on the score sheet). Three players had four goals, and another four had three points apiece. Let’s take a look at those three players with four points – Matt Bradley, Jason Chimera, and Alexander Semin. This is not generally the group one might expect would lead the team in scoring over a week’s worth of games. As for the other Young Guns, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom finished with three points apiece, Mike Green with two. There was some order in the goal scoring with Backstrom and Semin getting two apiece. But then again, so did David Steckel (the first time in his career he had goals in consecutive games). Ovechkin had one, and by the end of the week had three in his last ten games.

Defense: 3.75/game

If last week was not an especially good week for on the defensive side of the ledger, this one was rather grim. The Caps allowed four or more goals in three of the four games and now have allowed 33 in ten games in the month of November. This qualifies as a matter of concern, especially since there is some consistency in the volume of goals the Caps are allowing. In addition to the three games in four that the Caps allowed four or more goals this week, they have allowed three or more eight of the ten games so far this month. And here is something rather ominous in the week’s defensive numbers. No one was shutting anyone down on the blue line. A lot might be made of Tyler Sloan being on the ice for four goals in the 5-0 loss to Atlanta on Thursday, but Jeff Schultz was on the ice for seven of the 15 goals scored against the Caps this past week, Mike Green for six. John Erskine was on the ice for the fewest number – three. At first blush the thought is that the Caps miss Tom Poti, but the fact is that the in five games Poti had played this season (only one since (October 21st) the Caps allowed 16 goals (3.2/game). In 16 other games the Caps have allowed 42 goals (2.63/game). The population of games is not large enough to draw any conclusions about Poti’s value to the team so far this season on defense, but one thing we can say is that this team really needs to play better with or without him on the blue line. At the moment the other defensemen are regressing, not to mention...

Goaltending: 3.44/.893

Not a good week. The difficult time that Braden Holtby had to open the game in Atlanta dragged the save percentage under .900 for the week, but it was not as if Michal Neuvirth was making anyone forget Olaf Kolzig… or the Michal Neuvirth of October, either. If anything, Neuvirth’s week was inconsistent. The bookends of the week were not very good; he stopped only 54 of 62 shots in the two games (.871). In the middle two games he stopped 60 of 64 shots (.938). But the differences between the October and November versions of Neuvirth are rather stark:

October: 7-3-0, 2.15, .927
November: 5-0-1, 3.19, .895

Power Play: 5-15 (33.3%)

Another 33.3 percent week. That’s the good part. Getting three more chances over the four games compared to the previous week. That’s good, too. Power play goals in three of the four games…good again. Spreading the power play scoring around… Nicklas Backstrom had two of the five, Eric Fehr, Jason Chimera, and Mike Green getting the others. But where is Alex Ovechkin in all of this? So far this season he has two power play goals, both scored in the same game October 30th in a 7-2 win over Calgary. We are one-fourth of the way through the season, and Ovechkin doesn’t have a power play goal on Verizon Center ice? Odd, indeed.

Penalty Killing: 14-17 (82.4%)

The Caps allowed three power play goals in four games for the second consecutive week. The best teams on the penalty kill generally allow one or fewer in every two games (there are five such teams in the league this morning – Boston, Florida, Montreal, Tampa Bay, and Pittsburgh). Allowing power play goals to Atlanta and Philadelphia is not the worst thing to happen to a team; they rank sixth and 11th on the power play so far this season. But allowing one to Buffalo? The Sabres scored an extra-man goal in each of the two games played against the Caps so far. They rank 26th in the league on the power play. Overall, though, the Caps allowed a total of three goals on 34 shots on 17 power plays against. They allowed only two goals on 29 shots at 4-on-5 (a .931 save percentage). They certainly have the capacity to bear down and kill off these situations, and even in terms of the situations, nine of the 17 shorthanded ones came last night in one of the more curiously officiated games that the Caps have had this season. Limiting the other three opponents to a total of eight this past week is a good sign. It’s nice to be able to kill off penalties, better if you don’t have to face too many of them.

Paying the Price: 95 hits/61 blocked shots

A better week in this regard, but the blocked shots number is odd in this respect. While the Caps did record more blocked shots this week than last week, they also allowed more shots to get to the net (121). Ten shots more this week than last means, on average, giving up one more goal than you would expect (based on the usual save percentage statistics). Had that goal not allowed come last night, we would have a different tone to this post this morning.

Faceoffs: 132-257 (51.4%)

It was a bit of a drop off this week, which is an unexpected result owing to the fact that none of the three teams the Caps faced this week (Atlanta being faced twice) is over 50 percent on faceoffs for the season. In fact, if not for David Steckel (44-for-62, a 71.0 percent winning percentage), the Caps would have been 45 percent for the week against some weak teams in the circle.

Turnovers: Minus-14

If last week was not a good one in this measure, this one was just plain bad. Every turnover – a giveaway or the other team’s takeaway – is a potential scoring opportunity, and the Caps allowed more than one more per period than they had for themselves. Among the turnovers was a total of 41 giveaways for the week, leaving the Caps a little too close to the top of the league for comfort in this regard (fifth highest number, but only two from the second highest spot).


2-1-1 isn’t necessarily a bad record, but being shut out by a team that ranked 29th in the league in goals allowed per game (Atlanta) does not get a pass. It earned Bruce Boudreau’s comment that it was “as bad of a defeat I think I have had since I’ve been here.” In an 82-game season those games are going to creep in from time to time, even among very good teams. It is one thing to acknowledge that fact and another to accept it uncritically. To their credit the Caps fought hard the next night against the Flyers, rallying twice to send the game to overtime and, eventually, the Gimmick. For good teams, bad games come in groups of one. They do not form clusters that take up a week on the season’s schedule.

Although there are those Caps fans who will look upon this week as something of an opportunity lost (and it is reasonable to think the Caps should have beaten Atlanta and not fallen behind the Flyers twice), there is some simple arithmetic that merits mention. The Caps played four games this week and earned five points. It is a small number of games but five points in every four games will earn you 103 points in a season. There are things the Caps need to improve upon, but if that pace is the worst the Caps post in any week this season, it’s going to be a fine regular season.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A ONE-point Night -- Game 21: Flyers 5 - Caps 4 (OT/SO)

Well, it could have been better, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The Washington Capitals dropped a 5-4 decision to the Philadelphia Flyers in extra time this evening, yielding the extra standings point when Danny Briere potted a goal in the Gimmick phase of the proceedings.

If anything, this was the sort of game that reveals the Gimmick to be a worthless appendage on the end of a hard-fought game. The Capitals “played” a very good game in many respects, but were not rewarded for their efforts. More iron was rung by Capitals (including by Alexander Semin in the Gimmick) that you’ll find in most belfries.

And then there were the power plays. Philadelphia had nine power plays, the most the Caps have allowed since allowing nine to – well, looky here…Philadelphia – on October 9, 2009 in another extra time loss, a 6-5 overtime decision in Philadelphia. It was the most power play opportunities allowed at home since the Caps allowed (and killed off) ten power play chances to the Florida Panthers on January 20, 2007 (a 4-1 loss).

The Flyers gagged again on a two-goal lead, the fourth time they have done so in the last two games. And, they gave up a third period lead, the first time they have done so this season in 12 games. In that respect, earning a point tonight wasn’t the worst thing that could happen for the Caps.

But the Caps had so many opportunities. The game really turned on the Caps inability to finish, whether it was Alex Ovechkin failing to convert a breakaway opportunity in the first period or Alexander Semin hitting a post and the crossbar in an effort to extend the Gimmick another round and everything in between.

Other stuff…

-- You would like to think that tonight, Alex Ovechkin looked like that hitter in baseball who has been in a slump but starts spraying line drives all over the place into fielders’ gloves. It doesn’t show up in the box score, but you know something is going to break. You would like to think that.

-- Marcus Johansson probably had his best game as a Cap. In addition to the goal, he was really up on his skates, creating chances for himself and others with his ability to find holes in the defense.

-- Jason Chimera probably deserved a star for his effort in this one. A goal and an assist, and he skated 2:50 on the penalty kill (which was 8-for-9 on the night).

-- A breakaway, hitting the post, and breaking his stick on a one-timer in the first period. Right now, Alex Ovechkin can’t catch a break.  But he looked a lot better in this game than he has for most of this month.

-- You have to like Marcus Johansson, Eric Fehr, and Jason Chimera getting goals tonight. It made up for the absence of Mike Knuble, and it took some of the heat off the top line, which did manage a goal (Nicklas Backstrom) and two assists (the Alexes).

-- The Caps’ power play was quite efficient tonight. 15 shots in seven opportunities and three goals. But the odd part of it was probably that only four shots came off sticks of the Young Guns. Brooks Laich had three, Matt Hendricks had a pair, and Eric Fehr had a pair. You would like to think this could bear dividends down the road.

-- Did anyone have Tyler Sloan leading all skaters in hits (five)? Didn’t think so.

-- And give Sloan credit. A night after going minus-4 he was not on the ice for any Flyer goal.

-- You can get a book on referees in a game like this. Of the 16 penalties called, nine of them were stick fouls (two hooking, four slashing, two tripping, one high-sticking).

-- Eric Fehr and Tomas Fleischmann led the Caps in shots (six and five, respectively). How many times will we say that this season?

-- Mike Green skated 9:55 of the third period. That would be amazing in itself, but Green also skated 10:03 in the second period.

-- With this win, the Flyers are only 5-6-2 against teams with a winning record, 8-0-0 against teams with a .500 or worse record.

-- Think about who figured prominently in this game… Johansson getting a goal and playing perhaps his best game as a Cap. Michal Neuvirth stopping 31 of 35 shots and keeping the Caps in it when they could have folded when down 3-1, John Carlson skating more than 22 minutes, Karl Alzner more than 21. These are rookies. The dues they pay now could very well pay dividends down the road… like in June.

In the end, this was a game the Caps really should have lost in regulation. Between the puck hitting iron all over the place and the Flyers spending 14:29 on the power play, it was a game that offered little chance for the Caps to find their way clear to put the Flyers in a hole. But to their credit, the Caps fought hard for 60 minutes. When the Flyers took a two-goal lead, they came back to tie. When the Flyers took a lead late, with less than ten minutes left in regulation, the Caps found a way to tie the game.

It was a standings point the Caps seemed destined to lose, but they gritted their way to the Gimmick, where anything can happen. Not getting a win in either of the past two games is not the way to end the week, but given the forces that seems stacked against the Caps tonight, getting that standings point was not the worst thing that could happen.

Coupled with the 5-0- shellacking against the Thrashers on Friday night, this makes for a less-than-happy weekend, hockey wise. But in playing that second of back-to-back games, coming back not once, but twice, and gritting out a standings point… it wasn’t as bad as all that. The Caps still have the best record in the league ( a 117-point pace) and now finish the month of November with games against New Jersey, Carolina (twice), and Tampa Bay.