Sunday, February 07, 2010

A TWO-point afternoon: Caps 5 - Penguins 4 (OT)

Well, if that’s the last home game for the Caps until March, fans will have a ton of memories to re-live in the meantime.

The Caps spotted the Pittsburgh Penguins a 4-1 lead, then came back like, well, rampaging beasts to claim a 5-4 overtime win and their 14th consecutive win that ties them with the 1929-1930 Boston Bruins for the third longest such streak in NHL history.

There was something for everyone in this one – goals by the stars, goals by the grinders…iffy goaltending, clutch goaltending… big hits, big scrums…

But it all came down to an errant stick, that being the one held by Penguin defenseman Brooks Orpik, who used it to pop Alexander Semin in the chops 2:26 into overtime and earn a seat in the penalty box. With the Caps skating on a 4-on-3 advantage, Mike Green slid the puck over to Alex Ovechkin for a one-timer that worked through goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to hit the far post. With Fleury unable to locate and smother the puck, Mike Knuble pounced, backhanding the puck back through Fleury’s legs and into the net for the win that sent the hearty, blizzard-weary crowd into a frenzy.

Before that, though, the matchup between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby didn’t let the folks at NBC, or in the arena for that matter, down. Crosby scored a pair of goals three minutes apart in the first period to stake the Penguins to a 2-0 lead (the fourth straight game the Caps have allowed the game’s first goal), but then Ovechkin put the Caps on his shoulders and brought them back, halving the lead midway through the second period, then scoring a pair just over four minutes apart in the third to record his – and the Caps’ – first hat trick of the season.

But those two weren’t the whole story, wither. Jordan Staal netted a pair of goals 1:24 apart in the second period that seemed to put the game out of reach of the Caps at 4-1. Eric Fehr bull-rushed his way to a goal, flipping a backhand shot at Fleury, then following his own shot to pot the rebound that Fleury allowed.

And despite the snow that blanketed the region (we didn’t make it to this game, barely getting our driveway cleared in time for the noon faceoff), it seemed like a playoff-volume crowd at Verizon Center. You really couldn’t have asked for a more entertaining game (well, maybe you could if you were a Penguin fan).

Other stuff…

-- Mike Knuble didn’t get a star, but he should have gotten something (if only a lick of the face from Kanoobie). In addition to the game-winning goal, itself a product of sticking with the play, it was his following up in the faceoff circle on a faceoff between Nicklas Backstrom and Sidney Crosby, getting to the puck and moving it to Ovechkin for the game-tying hat trick goal.

-- The Caps once more displayed a finishing kick, outscoring the Penguins 2-0 in the third and 1-0 in overtime. In the streak the Caps have outscored the opposition 30-6 in the third period, 23-14 in the second. They have scored in each and every one of the 14 second and third periods.

-- The Caps have outscored the Penguins 5-0 in the third period in two games this season, not including the overtime winner today.

-- Think this was a game that players took seriously? Mike Knuble had his first fight since squaring off with Mike Fisher in November 2002. Kanoobie was really howling over Knuble getting the GHHT (Gordie Howe hat Trick)..

-- Think this was a game that players took seriously, II? 15 skaters for the Caps were credited with hits. Brian Pothier had four (including one particularly picturesque one on Brooks Orpik in the second period), Jeff Schultz had three.

-- It was an amazingly clean game from a turnover standpoint. Combined the teams had only a total of 21 turnovers while registering 152 combined shot attempts. Neither Crosby nor Ovechkin had a giveaway.

-- OK, I realize that this being an NBC national game, Crosby had to get the second star, but on my scoresheet it was Jordan Staal. Despite being the sort of player who draws a considerable amount of defensive responsibility, he was on the ice for only one Caps goal (while getting two of his own). His misfortune was that the goal he was on the ice for happened to be the last one.

-- Lost in all this is a “game within a game” item. One of the reasons the Penguins were able to pound shots at the Caps so effectively in last spring’s playoff was that they abused Mike Green mercilessly in the Caps end. Green had no giveaways in more than 27 minutes of ice time.

-- Five Caps defensemen had 16 of the total of 22 blocked shots (Shaone Morrisonn was the only defenseman not to have one).

-- I’m guessing Bill Guerin was complimenting Alexander Semin for having mastered the “Crosby head snap” for which he drew the high-sticking call from Orpik in the overtime. That a Penguin – any Penguin – could complain about that, having spent several years watching the master of the “head snapping back” move, is rather bizarre. They should recognize art when they see it, and besides, imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.

-- “Tyler Kennedy would obliterate Nicklas Backstrom.” He’s “a little ball of hate.” Maybe, Pierre, but it seemed Backstrom acquitted himself pretty well. Yes, by holding on for dear life. But truth be told, Backstrom has a little bit of the Forsberg in him, too, when it comes to nastiness.

-- Here is an indicator of the kind of pressure that the Caps’ skill at forward provides for an opponent – of the five minors taken by the Penguins, four were taken by defensemen.

-- Alex Ovechkin had six shots on goal in 25:36. Ok, he does that. Mike Green had five shots in 27 minutes and change. OK, that’s not unheard of. Alexander Semin, five shots in 19 minutes. He’s had games like that. But Eric Fehr, five shots in 11:59? He must have been channeling the days when he was at Hershey playing the Baby Pens.

-- Speaking of which, Hershey also came back from a three-goal deficit, also against the Penguins (The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton version), and also had a hat trick (Mathieu Perreault). Hershey is 39-9-2 for the season. Caps are 41-12-6. 80 wins combined for the teams and it’s barely February?

-- Did Jose Theodore have his best game? No. But he did stop the last 17 shots he saw to give the Caps a chance to claw back into it.

-- At the other end, Marc-Andre Fleury started well – he stopped the first 16 shots he saw. But he wilted rather badly in the second half of the game, allowing five goals on the last 18 shots he faced.

-- One thing that has characterized the streak so far is the balance the Caps have enjoyed from the top three forward lines. Not today. This was a day for the top line. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble went a combined 4-4-8, including the game-tying and game-winning goals.

-- (edit: we thought we'd better delete the link in this item in that many are reporting being infected with viruses as a result of accessing it). Apparently, one of the NBC telent wasn't in a happy mood after the game, either.

-- Oh, Doc Emrick... if you're going to plug the restaurant a team stops at in the middle of a snowy night for some food, it's probably better for marketing if the team actually wins the game.

OK, be honest. When it was 4-1, you were thinking, “maybe that ESPN Super Bowl pregame show won’t be too bad after all.” But the Caps have owned third periods in this streak – they’ve been outscored in a third period only once in the previous 13 games. And today, they did it again. And it couldn’t be a better way to end the home portion of the pre-Olympic part of the season. The Caps take to the road now with games in Montreal, Ottawa, and St. Louis before splitting up to join their respective national teams or getting a well-earned break. For Caps fans it was a welcome respite from a hard weekend of work dealing with Mother Nature’s haymaker of a punch. And for that, boys, thanks.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Penguins, February 7th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

We are coming to you live from Peerless Central, otherwise known as McMurdo Station. Well, not really, but it sure seems that way. Here in Loudoun County, Virginia, we have 29 inches of snow, and in Washington we are hoping that there will be a hockey game played against the Pittsburgh Penguins. NBC, the NoBody Cares network, really wants this game played, and so the Penguins are having to make the trek from Montreal, where they played – and lost – a game to the Canadiens yesterday afternoon, to Washington for a noon start today.

The Penguins’ trek apparently included a plane ride to Newark, and then a bus ride to Washington. Well, The Peerless has an exclusive from the bus driver, himself… meet Clark Griswold.

“It’s a pleasure.”

Now Clark, you had a bunch of guys on a bus fresh off a hard loss, having just taken a plane ride to Newark, of all places, then having to get on a bus for a God-knows how long of a ride to DC. How in heaven’s name do you handle a crowd like that?

“Well, I just tell ‘em, ‘hey, hey, easy kids. Everybody on the bus. Boat leaves in two minutes... or perhaps you don't want to see the second largest ball of twine on the face of the earth, which is only four short hours away?’”

You stopped to see a ball of twine?

“No, but hey, they’re from Pittsburgh – not the sharpest knives in the drawer, if you catch my drift.”

Did you have any problems along the way?

“Well, we did get pulled over by a Jersey trooper.”


"No… we had a problem at a rest stop. When the trooper pulled me over, he came up to the window. I said, ‘Hi officer, what's the problem?’ He said, ‘ Get out of the bus!’ He was pissed. When I asked if I was speeding, he cut me off – ‘Shut your mouth, sir!,’ he said. Then he went on -- 'You know, if I weren't in uniform, I'd split your skull with the butt of this revolver faster than you can say, 'police brutality!’ Then he pointed to the back of the bus. ‘Explain this, you son-of-a-bitch!’ he said.”

Oh my God...

“That’s what I said.”

What was it?

“Seems Guerin wouldn’t quit yappin’ about getting an instigator, a fighting, and a game for his kerfuffle with Ryan White, and the guys wanted to get some sleep on the bus ride, so they tied him up on the bumper, and… well, you know.”

Oh my God!

“Oh, he’s okay. Just nicked up a little, but hey… he’s a hockey player. They’re used to that.”

So, it took you quite a while to get here. Did it seem like you’d never find DC?

“For a while it was dicey, and the boys were getting antsy to find a place to get some sleep. But then I told them, ‘I think you're all f*cked in the head. We're ten hours from the f*cking arena, and you want to bail out. Well I'll tell you something. This is no longer a bus ride. It's a quest. It's a quest for fun. I'm gonna have fun and you're gonna have fun. We're all gonna have so much f*cking fun we'll need plastic surgery to remove our goddam smiles. You'll be whistling 'Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah' out of you're assholes! I gotta be crazy! I'm on a pilgrimage to see a hockey game. Praise hockey! Holy Sh*t!”

One for the books, I’d say.

And that might be what we’re seeing here – the “Great Hockey Game of Twenty-Ten.” The sort of game fans will tell their grandchildren about – “why, when I was your age, I shoveled 18-foot snow drifts out of my 500-foot driveway just so I could see Alex Ovechkin kick Sidney Crosby’s ass all the way back to Pittsburgh.” That sort of thing.

But as for the ass-kickin’, we’ll just have to wait and see about that. The Pens and the Caps are two very skilled teams, two very accomplished teams, but not two equally effective teams this season, as the overall numbers indicate…

Pittsburgh has, however, had some success after taking one in the chops back on January 21st, a 6-3 Caps win. Since then, the Pens are 4-2-0. But even here, they’ve been all over the place. They have a pair of 2-1 wins (one in a Gimmick), and they have a couple of wins where they’ve had some offense (4-2 over the Rangers, 5-4 over Buffalo). Then there are the stinkers – a 4-1 loss to Ottawa (ok, they were in the midst of a winning streak) and a 5-3 loss to Montreal.

The fact is, the Pens are a strange team. No team has been involved in more three-or-more goal games this season. Perhaps fittingly, they’ve split 26 of those games (13-13). Perhaps ominously, they are 2-5 in such games since the start of the year.

None of them, though, have come in the six games since the last time these teams met. The Pens have been outscored by the opposition 17-16 in that span. Here, again, there is the good and the bad for the Penguins. On the good side, they are getting points from the guys who have to get them. Sidney Crosby is 4-4-8, Evgeni Malkin is 2-6-8, and Sergei Gonchar is 1-4-5. But after that, the Penguins have as many as two goals from only two other players, one of whom is back at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Chris Conner, Pascal Dupuis is the other).

Good and bad, again – the power play, a problem all year for the Penguins, is 4-for-19 over the last six games (21.1 percent). But it is 2-for-13 in the last five (15.4 percent).

Of particular concern for the Penguins might be goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who is not having a very good 2010 so far. Since the start of the new year he is 6-5-0, 3.04, .908. Five times in 12 appearances he has allowed at least four goals, and he has been pulled twice, including yesterday in Montreal (perhaps to give him a head start in getting ready for this game, seeing as how the score was 4-2 for Montreal when he was relieved).

If Crosby, Maklin, and Gonchar are getting things done lately, and the Penguins still have only 16 goals in six games, then you might think there are problems down the roster. Well, one problem is that Chris Kunitz – who spends a lot of time on Crosby’s left wing – has been out since January 3rd, recouperating from abdominal surgery. He could return against the Caps today.

The guy on Crosby’s right – Bill Guerin – is 5-3-8 in 16 games since the start of the year, but he has only a goal (no assists) in the six games since the Pens met the Caps. Ruslan Fedotenko hasn’t scored a goal since netting the game-winner in a 5-2 win over Atlanta on January 5th. He has a couple of assists since the January 21st meeting with Washington, but he’s a minus-4 in those six games, too. Pascal Dupuis is 4-6-10 in 16 games since the start of the year and is 2-2-4 in the last six (plus-6 in that span). He’s playing respectably, which is a compliment as far as the secondary scoring for the Pens is concerned at the moment.

The problem often cited with respect to the Penguins is a lack of punch on the wing. Bill Guerin is the only winger with more than 15 goals (the Caps have four wingers with more than 15), so this argument has some merit. But what the Penguins do get is contributions from the defense. Six defensemen have at least ten points (that would be all of them who have played in at least 40 games). As a group, they do not have outsized goal totals (combined the Penguin defense has 24 goals), but they do contribute helpers – four blueliners have more than 15 assists (the Caps have two – Mike Green and Tom Poti).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Pittsburgh: Jordan Staal

Staal is probably the best third-line center in the game. And at not yet 22 years of age, he is the youngest player ever to appear in 300 NHL games. He has struggled some with scoring lately (1-1-2 in his last eight games), but the key here is his defense. He’s going to have to play hard and well against the Caps big guns for the Penguins to improve their chances of winning. In 13 career games against the Caps he is 1-3-4, minus-3. However, he is 0-0-0, minus-5 in his last five games against Washington.

Washington: Mike Green

He was our player to ponder the last time these teams met, then he didn’t play. But the same argument applies, so we’ll just restate it…

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. Fast out of the gate, Part 1. It’s one thing to fall behind a goal against Boston, the Rangers, or Atlanta (as the Caps have done the last three games). Those teams are not especially gifted offensively. This is a move up in weight class. The Penguins, despite their troubles lately, have to be taken seriously as an offensively gifted team every time out. Falling behind could have, excuse the pun, a “snowball” effect.

2. Fast out of the gate, Part 2. OK, you’re facing a team that played yesterday and had to endure what had to be an uncomfortable bus ride that gets them to the next city sometime early the following morning. Think pressing them early might be a good idea to take their legs away?

3. Set the alarm clock. In three day games this year, the Young Guns are a combined 5-6-11 (Mike Green missed one of them). They are the guys who need to step up in this one for that "fast out of the gate" thing.

In the end, you’d have to think the Caps have a considerable advantage here. A full day off between games, sleeping in their own beds, playing in their own arena – against a team that played yesterday, had a difficult travel itinerary, and will get some sleep at a hotel. But the Penguins aren’t champs for nothing. They can handle adversity, and they – like 13 teams before them – will be motivated. Still, the Caps are coming in hot, and the Penguins are coming in… not.

Caps 5 – Penguins 3