Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Hurricanes, March 10th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s the fourth of a five-game home stand for the Caps, and tonight’s contestant is a familiar one to Caps fans. The Carolina Hurricanes visit Verizon Center for the fourth meeting of the clubs this season and the last one to be held in Washington. So far, the Caps are 2-1 against the ‘Canes, but they dropped the last meeting between the clubs – 6-3 – last December 28th. Speaking of Carolina, we’ll bet you didn’t know…

North Carolina is the birth place of Pepsi-Cola. That’s right. Pepsi, like Coca-Cola, was first made in a southern state (Coke in Georgia). And, like Coke, Pepsi was first made by a druggist (James Pemberton in Columbus, Georgia; Caleb Bradham in New Bern, North Carolina). Lots of sick folk in the south apparently in need of caffeinated drinks made from nuts that frow on evergreen trees in African rain forests, I guess.

North Carolina is the birthplace of Krispy Kreme doughnuts (we’ll pause as you give thanks…). Yup, the first KK store opened in Winston-Salem, NC, in 1933. We’ve been getting fatter ever since.

The Hardee’s fast food chain got its start there, too (we’ve noticed that food franchises like those selling fruit smoothies aren’t started in these parts). There really is a “Hardee” – Wilbur Hardee (of course… it had to be a “Wilbur”) in Greenville started things up in 1960.

Of course, food needs spice, and North Carolina is the home – we are not making this up – of “Texas Pete” hot sauce. “Texas Pete” was picked as its name over “Mexican Joe.” We’re not making that part up, either.

And if you’re thinking Milwaukee is the beer capital of the United States?... nope. Asheville, North Carolina. It has the largest number of breweries, per capita, in the country. Why, I could go for a “Weeping Radish” right now…

While we’re putting a head on that, tonight the Caps host the Carolina Hurricanes, a team they haven’t seen since the Hurricanes embarrassed the Caps on Verizon Center ice, 6-3, on December 28th. The Hurricanes, while they haven’t had as strong a run as the Caps since (20-4-3), have climbed back to respectability from a rough start. The Hurricanes are 17-9-0 since that win and have climbed to within eight points of a playoff spot.

The eight-point deficit Carolina has to make up might be too daunting with 17 games left to play, but the way the Hurricanes are playing puts them squarely in the role of spoiler for those teams that are on the playoff bubble. And the Hurricanes can be more than an annoyance to a divisional foe such as the Caps. The overall numbers for the two clubs look like this…

But what has distinguished the Hurricanes in the last 26 games since beating the Caps is their defense. In those games, Carolina allowed an average of 2.19 goals-per-game. You would think that such a record would be a reflection on goalie Cam Ward, but he has been out with an upper body injury since he took loss in a 4-1 decision against Calgary on February 3rd. Since then, it has been goaltender-by-committee with Manny Legace and Justin Peters.

Losing Ward could have been the last nail in the coffin of the Hurricanes’ season, inasmuch as he was 9-5-0, 2.02, .929 in January before stumbling in his two February starts before going out. Legace is 5-0-0, 1.59, .941 in five appearances since Ward’s departure. Peters has been right behind him – 3-1-0, 1.76, .943. Those four games for Peters represent his first four games in the NHL. He was the sixth goaltender selected in the 2004 entry draft (38th overall)

While the goaltending has been superb, credit needs to be given to the skaters, too. In nine games since Ward left the lineup, the Hurricanes have allowed an average of only 28.8 shots per game. That would rank them with the seventh fewest shots-per-game if sustained over the entire season (by way of comparison, the Caps have allowed 32.4 shots-per-game over their last nine games).

Offense hasn’t been scarce for the Hurricanes since last facing the Caps, either. Their average of 3.19 goals-per-game over that span would rank them fourth in the league in scoring if carried over the course of the season. Part of that is the performance of Eric Staal. He was 2-3-5 in that last meeting between these teams, which was the springboard for him going 12-14-26 in 24 games since. However, he might be suffering the same post-Olympic letdown that a number of other Olympians are suffering. He is 0-2-2 since returning, and he hasn’t had a goal in eight games dating back to February 5th.

While Staal has become the face of the franchise and has had a good 2010 portion of the season, the leading scorer for the Hurricanes is Jussi Jokinen, who has put together a nice set of numbers since the last time these teams met. Since that meeting, Jokinen is 15-13-28 in 26 games and has three game-winning goals in that span. In fact, the 15 goals have come in his last 19 games, and he has not gone consecutive games without a goal in that span. In 11 career games against the Caps, Jokinen is 3-5-8. This year he is 1-3-4 in three games.

Ray Whitney is still with the Hurricanes. You probably would have made a tidy pile of money had you bet that on March 2nd. Whitney, who was the subject of so many trade rumors he had his own index on CNBC, was not moved to a contender. Whether it disappointed him or not that he wasn’t moved, his production since the trade deadline hasn’t been there – 0-0-0 in three games after a six-game points streak leading up to the trading deadline. If there is a team against which he might come out of that funk, it is Washington. There is no team in the NHL against which he has more points (18-31-49 in 55 games).

The Peerless’ Player to Ponder

Carolina: Brian Pothier

Since being traded to Carolina, Pothier had seen a jump in his ice time. In three games he hasn’t played less than 22:17 (he topped that mark only twice in 41 games with the Caps). He has been called upon to skate more on special teams than was the case in Washington – more than three minutes a game on the penalty kill after getting barely a half-minute a game with the Caps this year and almost four minutes a game on the power play after getting a minute and change per game with Washington. He has a bigger role with this team, so he is going to get all the opportunity to make the Caps wish they never made the trade for…

Washington: Joe Corvo

Corvo has been called upon to skate more than 20 minutes in each of his three games with the Caps since the trade. And while his 1:59 in average power play time doesn’t put much of a dent in Mike Green’s lead in average power play ice time (5:03), it is second on the team among defensemen. He has provided, and will continue to provide, some relief for Green on that score. But perhaps more important, Corvo led the Hurricanes in penalty killing ice time before the trade (4:38). He is not getting a lot in that role (1:35) so far, but one would expect that as he becomes more acclimated to the Caps’ systems, he will see that total increase. Hopefully, it will be accompanied by an improvement in the Caps’ overall penalty killing performance.


1. Score first. There is no other indicator that has a greater bearing on this game, at least as far as the Hurricanes are concerned, and here is why. Carolina has 27 wins this year. 22 of them came in games in which they scored first. With 81.5 percent of their wins achieved in that fashion, only Philadelphia has a higher percentage of wins (85.3) achieved while scoring first.

2. Be special. The Caps have had mixed success against the Hurricanes this year when it comes to special teams, but not in the way you might think. In three games, the Caps are 2-for-13 on the power play (15.4 percent), while allowing the same number of power play goals in the same number of attempts on the penalty kill. Since the Caps have a considerable advantage in 5-on-5 play, you might think that they could cope with not getting a lot of power play success here. But penalty killing has been a problem – 68.9 percent in 11 games since February 1st. That has to change, or it will make this a difficult evening for the Caps.

3. Mo’ Momentum. And that speaks to the play of Jose Theodore. He was the victim of the Hurricanes' onslaught at the end of December, allowing five goals on 25 shots (Carolina also had an empty-netter). Since then he is 13-1-2, 2.46, .926, and one shutout. Theodore hasn’t had especially noteworthy numbers against Carolina this year – 2-1-0, 3.33, .881 – but he is on top of his game right now.

In the end, the Hurricanes are not a team to be taken lightly. On a wins-losses basis alone, they are 17-9-0 since the last time the teams met, the Caps are 20-7-0. In getting to that record, the Hurricanes haven’t been flukes, either. Along the way, they defeated Chicago, Ottawa (twice, by identical 4-1 scores), Buffalo (twice, also by identical 4-3 scores), and New Jersey. There hasn’t been a lot of distance between these teams in performance over the past couple of months. But the Caps have dominated the Southeast Division to the tune of 14-2-0 this year. All other things equal, they are still the big dog on the block. It might be closer than Caps fans would expect, but the Caps will get to 99 points…

Caps 4 – Hurricanes 3

A ONE-point night: Stars 4 - Caps 3 (OT/Gimmick)

Well, it wasn’t ALL bad.

The Caps saw their 13-game home winning streak come to an end, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Or more accurately, a puck that crawled over the line in the Gimmick, as the Dallas Stars took away a 4-3 skills competition win over the Capitals last night.

The not all bad part…

-- The Caps launched 52 shots in the hockey portion of the program at Dallas goalie Marty Turco, a season high in shots on goal.

-- Alex Ovechkin got off the schneid with a pair of goals to tie Sidney Crosby for the league lead.

-- David Steckel and Tom Poti collaborated for a nice goal when Steckel fished the puck from along the boards, heard Potio tapping his stick from the middle of the ice, and sent a pass to Poti all alone down the slot for a goal.

-- The Caps got a standings point.

-- No one got hurt.

That about covers the “not bad.” After that, this game turned on two things. First, Turco. If that wasn’t his best game of the season for the Stars, it was in his top three. He wasn’t often spectacular, even as the 49-save total might suggest. But he gave the Caps nothing in the way of second chances. Frankly, he should have sued his skaters in front of him for non-support. For 40 minutes, the Caps had free reign in the Stars’ zone, launching shots from everywhere. What Turco didn’t give the Caps was second chances.

Think of it this way… for all the shots the Caps had, Mike Knuble had a total of… one. There wasn’t any garbage laying around for Knuble to whack at. And even though Brooks Laich had seven shots, you couldn’t say he had a lot of put-back opportunities, either.

The other thing was the penalty killing. Folks talk about the Caps’ goaltending (and we’ll get to that), but the Caps’ skaters on the penalty kill were awful. Too much standing around, too much letting Dallas set up in front to screen Caps’ goalie Semyon Varlamov. Of note, Joe Corvo was on for both Dallas power play goals, which was part of a larger problem that he just doesn’t yet look comfortable in this scheme (there was another occasion, not on a power play, in which he abandoned coverage in the middle of the ice on a Dallas rush that left two Caps defensemen on the same side of the ice, leaving room for a Star to skate free down the opposite side for a scoring chance).

But about that goaltending. First, the Stars took three shots, scored on two of them. True, both of them involved traffic in front, but Varlamov did not look to be establishing himself to be in position to stop those pucks, either. And the third goal for the Stars… that wrist shot by James Neal was more the kind you see in pre-game warm-ups. It didn’t look to have a lot of mustard on it, but Varlamov just wasn’t in its line of flight. Right now, this isn’t the goalie who had two shutouts in four games before he was injured. This isn’t a goalie you want to go into the playoffs with. He’s shown himself to be better than that – he needs to start showing that form.

Look, it’s not as if Dallas played well. They didn’t. Their offense, such as it was, wouldn’t scare anyone. The Caps had more shots blocked (27) than the Stars had on goal (26). Their scores came on poor play by Washington, not on superior effort with the puck. You had to think that against this team, Jose Theodore might have had a second straight shutout.

The Caps – shoot, the whole arena – looked dead. It was just too stereotypical of a game against a rarely-seen opponent on a weeknight. There were a fair number of empty seats, there didn’t seem to be a lot of energy in the building. Even Ovechkin, in scoring the two goals, looked for long stretches as if he was coasting (or tired).

Ovechkin did try to drag the Caps along on his shoulders after a lethargic first 30 minutes. Both goals were from the standard catalogue. The first came on a feed from Alexander Semin from the far edge of the left wing circle. From the top of the right wing circle, Ovechkin let fly with a wrist shot that beat Turco clean over his right pad.

The second came when Nicklas Backstrom stepped around Mike Ribeiro at center ice, then slid the puck over to Ovechkin. Cutting down the left side, he cut to the middle, leaving Stephane Robidas guarding air. Another step later, he wristed the puck past Turco to tie the game at three goals apiece. After that, it was an uneventful overtime, then trick shot time, where Loui Eriksson put the Caps and their winning streak out of their misery with a deke and a shot past Varlamov’s right pad that just had enough to get through.

A few other things...

-- Two power plays for the Stars, only 1:32 of total time in getting the two goals on three shots.  That is beyond bad.

-- Watching the stylings of Alexander Semin is like watching the artist who can paint the masterpiece one moment, then can't keep inside the lines in paint-by-numbers the next.  He had some wonderful opportunities in dangling the puck on a string and snapping wrist shots (16 shot attempts in all).  Then there was the shootout.  We didn't see it, but we understand even Marty was shaking his head at that one.

-- Mike Green sometimes just has the air of the teenager who is smart, but can't be bothered doing his homework -- the kid who will make you tear your hair out with his "whatever" attitude.  It's not that he doesn't care, it's just that sometimes he skates himself into positions he can't get out of, then does something really, really bad with the puck.  There was a lot of that last night.  He was charged with only one giveaway.  The scorer must have been at the concession stand often when Green had the puck.

-- Nicklas Backstrom probably had his best game since the break, but that isn't saying a lot.  He still seems to be getting separated from the puck more often than was the case before going to Vancouver.

-- It was a night in which the Caps couldn't fire on all cylinders (again) in this respect -- they got two goals from Ovechkin, but this was the night the secondary scoring was absent. 12 shots on goal from the third and fourth lines, no goals, two points (Steckel and Bradley assisting on the Poti goal).

The Caps can't even be said to play down to the level of opponent in this one.  They had the look of playing in a whole other game.  They just didn't look engaged; there wasn't any energy there.  All in all… just a blah sort of night…