Thursday, January 21, 2010

A TWO-point night: Caps 6 - Penguins 3

Capitals 6 – Penguins 3

OK, so what does it mean? It means that Caps Nation is feeling really good with itself tonight. The beer tastes a little better, the air smells a little fresher, and the sun shines a little brighter.

For two teams that possess high end skill sets, this was as dominating as it gets in the regular season. It is the third time in the last four regular season games that the Caps have skated off from a contest with the Penguins with a three-goal win, twice on Mellon Arena ice.

And although the story line will probably emphasize that Alex Ovechkin outdueled Sidney Crosby on this night, the story was that the Caps employed a balanced attack and smart play late to secure the win. Balance, you say? Well, if 11 players getting points is balance, the Caps had balanced scoring.

On the other hand, the Penguins were essentially a one-line team tonight. Sidney Crosby got a gift goal when Jose Theodore tried to play the puck and lost it in his skates, but other than that was largely a non-entity – the goal, minus-1, 33 percent on 30 (30?!) draws. It was Ruslan Fedotenko (who should have had the third star of the game), Evgeni Malkin (who was named the third star), and… well, not much else. Those two assisted on all three Penguin goals. The Pens got points from only three other players – the goal scorers (Crosby, Kris Letang, and Nick Johnson, getting his first NHL goal in his first NHL game).

Other stuff…

-- Shaone Morrisonn recorded his first multi-point game (two assists) since March 19, 2009 – two assists in a 5-2 win over Tampa Bay. Add to that he was a plus-3, had two blocked shots, two hits, and no turnovers, and he had a nice night in 20 minutes of ice time.

-- Power play… two opportunities, two shots, two goals, a total of 1:03. You’ll see a lot of games before you see that kind of efficiency on the power play.

-- On the other side of that equation, holding Sidney Crosby without a shot on four power plays speaks to a fine penalty killing effort – the Pens were 0-for-4.

-- We said that if the Caps allowed something north of 35 shots on goal, it probably wouldn’t end well for the Caps. Jose Theodore, thanks for proving us wrong. Theodore saved 35 of 38 shots, and if you discount the odd circumstances surrounding the first Penguin goal, he had a whale of a night… again.

-- The Penguins outhit the Caps, 41-24? Home-town scoring, that.

-- Like that pass from Alexander Semin to spring Tomas Fleischmann in alone on Brent Johnson for a goal?

-- What’s with Evgeni Malkin? Yeah, he had three assists, but he looked like he was skating at 75-percent speed. We don’t see Malkin enough to think this is a pattern, but he didn’t look nearly ready for this game tonight.

-- The Caps were credited with five turnovers (three giveaways, two Penguin takeaways). That, kids, is an obscenely low number. Local scoring?

-- Brendan Morrrison… eight up and none down in the circle, an assist, and a couple of hits (I think Mario Lemieux was credited with three hits tonight).

-- Matt Bradley was the only Cap forward not to be credited with a shot tonight.

-- Tyler Sloan, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner – a combined total of 106 games of NHL experience – acquitted themselves pretty well. Alzner was the only one of that trio to be on the ice for any Pengins goals (he was on for two).

-- Alex Ovechkin came to play; he led all players in goals (two), shots (eight), shot attempts (12), hits (seven), tied for the most points (three), was plus-2 (to extend his league lead).

-- Eric Godard… one shift. One freakin’ shift? Why bother dressing him?

-- Four goals in 23 minutes after the Pens took a 3-2 lead, the first three of them coming in six minutes of running game time. Yes, the Caps can be fairly described as “explosive.”

-- At 32-12-6, this is the fastest the Caps have ever gotten to 20 games over .500 (50 games). They are on a 115-point pace.

-- This was only the 19th time in 50 games that the Caps surrendered the first goal, but they are now 11-6-2 when they do. The Caps are the only team in the NHL with a winning record when giving up the first goal.

-- Jose Theodore has now won his last five decisions. He is within one of his longest winning streak as a Cap – six wins from December 23 – January 6 in the 2008-2009 season.

-- In those five decisions, Theodore has saved 152 of 161 shots (.944).

OK, it’s always satisfying to see the Caps beat the Penguins. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are three more regular season games and perhaps a playoff series to work through with that team. But this was nice. The Caps took a punch in the nose early on an odd play, came back, then came back again after the Penguins took their second lead of the game. Even if this was a game where neither team fielded its best complement of players (the Pens missing Marc-Andre Fleury and Chris Kunitz; the Caps missing Mike Green and, if you think he’s the number one goalie at the moment, Semyon Varlamov), the Cap showed that at the very least, these teams are more or less equal. In fact, the Caps looked to have more and deeper firepower than the Penguins, who looked very ordinary at forward past Crosby and Malkin, and looked a bit overmatched on their blue line.

The Caps now have the longest active winning streak in the league (five games, tied with Ottawa) as they head home to host Phoenix. That game will take care of itself. For now, enjoy this one. You earned it, boys.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR - Caps vs. Penguins, January 21st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

In case you haven’t heard, the Caps and Penguins are playing tonight. Except for the execs at NBC, this is now the must-see matchup in the NHL, and this is the first of four such meetings this season. The matchup is like the latest installment of a movie franchise that stars…

“Hey, babe. I have a movie idea for you.”

Let me guess, you’re in movies.

“Oh, sure, sure… you ever hear of ‘Par Wars?’”

Star Wars?

“Par Wars… about a race of furry little creatures that tend golf courses on the grassy moon of Avenel?”

Uh, no…but about this movie?

“Uh, yeah… well in the future the corporation is mining this ice moon in a star system far, far away…"

Sounds familiar…

“And this moon in inhabited by these creatures that kinda look like humans, but they’re not… sort like…”


“Right!...Cats, only bigger, stronger and faster, with feet that look like they have blades on the bottoms so they can get around on this ice moon.”

I kinda see where this is going…

“…and the atmosphere will kill humans, so to work on the moon, they have to grow these bodies that look like the ones on the moon, see, and then they get linked up mentally with a human that operates them remotely.”

Isn’t this movie out already?

“No, no, no. This one’s completely different.”

Uh-huh… and what are you calling this movie?


Yeah, completely different.

But back to the business at hand. The Caps and the Penguins come into tonight’s game comfortably on course to reach the playoffs and perhaps meet again in the second round again, given their respective place in the standings and assuming all the higher seed win in the first round.

As you would expect of two teams that are often compared and that resemble one another in many ways, their performances this year mirror one another in many respects. The overall numbers look like this:

Both teams are playing well recently, too…

-- The Caps are 7-1-0- in their last eight games, the Penguins are 5-3-0.
-- The Caps have 39 goals in their last eight games, the Penguins 31
-- The Caps have converted nine of 25 power play chances (36.0 percent), the Penguins eight of 33 (24.2%, but four of those goals came in their last game)

They have even struggled in the same thing – penalty killing. The Caps are 28-for-37 (75.7%), the Penguins 22-for-29 (75.9%).

The similarities even extend to the nature of their important injuries, too. Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov has been out for the last nine games with groin and knee injuries, while Marc-Andre Fleury has missed the last two contests with a broken finger on his glove hand.

So with Fleury ailing, Chris Kunitz out (abdominal surgery), and a few other aches and pains down the roster – Maxime Talbot, Brooks Orpik, Pascal Dupuis, and Brent Johnson among them – the Penguins are ripe for the taking, right?

Well, they still have Sidney Crosby (8-6-14 in this 5-3-0 run for the Penguins) and Evgeni Malkin (4-5-9), so they’re not too bad off. And it isn’t as if the Penguins are entirely a two-man show. Bill Guerin is still productive at age 39. He is the Penguins’ third-leading scorer overall (16-19-35) and is 3-3-6 in the last eight games for the Penguins. He is tied for second on the club in power play goals (eight) and is tied for first in game-winning goals (four). He is even getting mellow with age. His 28 penalty minutes puts him on a pace to finish with the lowest total (45 PIM) of his career (previously 63, in his rookie year). In 48 career games against the Caps he is 24-13-37.

Jordan Staal has grown into a top-notch third-line center. He is currently fourth on the team in scoring (13-21-34), leads the team in plus/minus (plus-14), and leads the team in penalty killing ice time per game. He comes into this game with a pair of goals and six assists in the over the past eight games, and he is a plus-6 to boot. He is 3-1-4 in 12 career games against the Caps, although he was scoreless in four regular season games against Washington last year (ok, he was also 2-2-4 in the second round playoff series, all of it coming in the last four games of the seven game series).

Pittsburgh gets considerable scoring support from its blue line, too. Nine defensemen have registered points this year, six of them also having scored goals. Five defensemen have at least 10 points. Two of those defensemen are particularly important for the Penguins, both for what they are contributing this season and what they mean to the club’s future. Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski are the youngest of the nine defensemen having dressed for the Penguins this year. Combined they have fewer than 300 regular season games of NHL experience but already fill important roles. Goligoski is second among defensemen in scoring (6-17-23), while Letang is third (2-14-16). They have also contributed a combined 13 points on the power play and are a combined plus-10 for the season. Letang is 0-2-2 in six career regular season games against the Caps, while Goligoski has a goal in two games against Washington.

In goal, it’s pot luck. Marc-Andre Fleury has the broken finger. Brent Johnson had a lower body injury, although he did return to play against the Islanders in a 6-4-win. It is worth noting that the Islanders scored all four goals in the last 29 minutes of that game. A product of the Penguins already having a 3-0 lead when the scoring began? Or a product of his fading as a product of his injury? He did, however, hold the Islanders off the scoreboard in the last 12 minutes after they tied the game. Fleury is 8-3-0, 2.90 in 11 career games against the Caps, while Johnson is unbeaten against the Caps in his career – 4-0-0, 1.15.

If these two are unable to go (or last 60 minutes), perhaps John Curry will see action. Curry has been in one game this year, lasting less than 25 minutes in a 6-2 loss to Vancouver in which he allowed five goals on 14 shots.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Pittsburgh: Sergei Gonchar

Pittsburgh has had a rough time on the power play this year. It is one of life’s great mysteries that a club employing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could rank 26th on the power play. One reason might be this – Gonchar has missed 16 games this year. Still, he has had a hand in 16 of the 34 power play goals the Penguins have scored this season.

Washington: Mike Green

Green has never scored a goal against the Penguins, regular season or playoffs. But that’s not why he is a player to ponder here. In last year’s playoff series against the Penguins, Green was harassed constantly by Penguin forwards on the forecheck. It played a role in the Penguins’ ability to hammer the Caps with shots on goal. He should expect to suffer similar abuse tonight to the extent the Penguins can apply it. If he handles it well, the ice gets tilted more in the Caps’ favor, and the Caps are the superior offensive team.


1. I think I can, I think I can.
Sometimes, and maybe this is just a fan’s view, one gets the feeling that the Caps aren’t 100 percent convinced that they are on the same competitive level with the Penguins. Even despite the 3-0-1 record last year, there just always seems to be that sliver of doubt. Uh, guys? You can do this.

2. By now, you are what you are. You might think this refers to the 26th-place ranking the Penguins have on the power play. Well, not exactly. What the Penguins are is a lot better on the power play with Sergei Gonchar in the lineup, and they are tied for ninth in the league in home power play conversions. Don’t let numbers fool you – this is a fine power play when playing in The Igloo. Keep it in mind.

3. Ready (fire), aim (fire), fire (again). In last spring’s playoff series the Penguins averaged almost 37 shots a game against Washington. It wasn’t a surplus of skill or talent that enabled Pittsburgh to win, it was the result of unrelenting shot pressure that finally caused the Caps – and their young goalie Semyon Varlamov – to crack. If the Penguins go north of 35 shots on goal tonight, it likely isn’t going to end well for the Caps.

In the end, the Penguins are – and will remain – the standard to which the Caps are compared, at least until the Caps win a Cup of their own (and then maybe the Penguins will be compared to the Caps – it is not a subtle difference). Sure, this is Ovechkin/Crosby, Part 134, or whatever it is. It’s Caps/Penguins, with all the emotional baggage that gets carried around (primarily by Caps fans). But the real competition is yet to come, probably in May. This one is more for bar talk and bragging rights than it is for benchmarking. Still…

Caps 5 – Penguins 3