Sunday, March 14, 2010

One Play, Two Points of View

Earlier today, the Washington Capitals defeated the Chicago Blackhakws, 4-3, in overtime.  But the incident that has tongues a-wagging and keyboards a-clacking is the hit by Alex Ovechkin on Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell.  On the one hand, it was an incidental hit -- a "hockey play" -- that merely had an unfortunate result.  On the other, it was a premeditated attempt at injury that was borderline felonious.  We've obtained exclusive footage (ok, screen shots from the NBC feed) of the sequence of events, and commentary from each side of the debate...

OK, here is Campbell getting control of the puck at the Chicago blue line, and there is Ovechkin doing what he's supposed to do as the first man in on the forecheck -- go after the puckcarrier.

What you see here is Brian Campbell in open ice about to get control of the puck and start the other way.  Unbeknown to him, there is lurking in his wake -- like the merciless Great White Shark (no coincidence he's wearing a white jersey, better to camouflage himself) -- Alex Ovechkin drawing a bead on his unsuspecting prey.
* * * * *

Here is Campbell tracking down the puck sliding through the faceoff circle.  Ovechkin is skating after him to force Campbell to make a quick decision of what to do with the puck, which is what you want the player to do in that instance.  Duncan Keith is quietly thinking, "uh-oh..."

Here is Campbell, skating after the puck while Ovechkin has locked onto his target, fully armed and ready to inflict maximum damage.  Duncan Keith is like the Secret Service agent walking along with the limousine in Dallas, powerless to prevent what is about to happen a mere feet in front of him.
* * * * *

Campbell is sweeping the puck to the side boards, leaving it for Duncan Keith, but his body is blocking Ovechkin's view.  Ovechkin can't be sure Campbell doesn't have the puck.

Campbell is sweeping the puck to the side boards, thinking his role in this play is over for the time being.  But he cannot know the malice that lurks in the beating heart of Ovechkin as his prey lies vulnerable to what is about to unfold.
* * * * *

Campbell turns away from his pass, taking him into the path of Ovechkin and leaving him in no position to fend off a collision.  He is leaning into the play, precariously perched in such a fashion that perhaps the slightest nudge will knock him off his skates entirely.  Antti Niemi appears to be shouting "LOOK OUT," but Campbell not understanding Finnish, thinks he is saying "NICE PASS."

Campbell is circling away from the puck, no longer a part of the play, but Ovechkin trains his sights on him, determined to finish the kill shot.  Goalie Antti Niemi can only watch helplessly as the assassination takes place.
* * * * *

Ovechkin makes contact with Campbell, who is still leaning in the opposite direction from the pass he made, leaving him unable to brace himself from any hit that might come.  Duncan Keith is quietly thinking, "yup...uh-oh."

The kill shot -- Ovechkin delivers his 235 pounds of mayhem directly to the numbers of Campbell, a shot from which Campbell has no hope of recovering.  Duncan Keith is spellbound by the horror unfolding.
* * * * *

Unable to brace himself from contact, Campbell falls forward awkwardly, landing in the end boards shoulder first.  Ovechkin is not in what one might think of as the sort of stance that would indicate a desire to drive the player into the boards.

Ovechkin is leering over his target, completing the kill shot.  Our Russian is bad, but one could almost hear him freakishly shrieking, "DIE BLACKHAWK SCUM...DIE!!!"  Or maybe, "oops..."  Like we said, our Russian is bad.
* * * * * 

Ovechkin is trying to avoid the fallen Campbell, who he knows has taken a bad fall. 

Ovechkin is about to provide the piece-de-resistance, trying to cut Campbell in two with his skate as he passes over him.  The Morton's the Steakhouse advertisement provides one last bit of cruel irony, for Ovechkin has just feasted on the carcass of Brian Campbell in one of the most dastardly displays of on-ice violence in the history of the sport.
* * * * * 

We do not mean to make light of an injury -- it is never a trivial matter.  It's just that in the last eight hours or so we have read some strange reactions to it.  From, "what's the big deal?" to "When is the date for execution?"  We are inclined to think the play was justly penalized, but whether it merited the five-minute major and game misconduct, we're not entirely in agreement with that. 

Looking at it, there is the hit, and there is the effect. What Ovechkin did was not an especially egregious play, physically. He pushed Campbell. In open ice, Campbell gets up and skates away. It’s the circumstance — Campbell was vulnerable and had no opportunity to brace himself for a full-on hit into the boards. And that led to the unfortunate effect.

This isn’t Ovechkin trailing Campbell and running his head into the boards (or, to repeat the verb one wag I saw using on Twitter, Campbell was "rammed" into the boards). It was a shove. The effect was much greater than the hit.

Is Ovechkin to blame? That’s a tough call. In real time, does a player have time to process an answer to the question, “should I hit this guy?” When Ovechkin shoved Daniel Briere into the Sabres' bench door frame a couple of years ago, you could fault Ovechkin for that. To me, this is a much tougher call. Campbell had just played the puck (although it was well off his stick when Ovechkin made contact).

If Ovechkin is suspended, I think I will be able to understand the reasoning, even if I don't agree with it.  But on its face it is not a clear cut call and perhaps merely one player getting into an unfortunate position based on the play he made.  Not to make it Campbell's fault, not at all; he made the smart play there.  But at the speed of this game, even the smart play -- or something as simple as a shove -- can have unfortunate results.

A TWO-point afternoon: Caps 4 - Blackhawks 3 (OT)

Here is what the first paragraph of this was going to read at, oh, about 2:00 on Sunday afternoon…

“If you’re not going to do the little things, and if you’re going to play stupid, this is what happens against a good team that is motivated… you get run out of the building.”

Well, that was at about 2:00 on Sunday afternoon, or about the time at which the Caps found themselves down after 40 minutes by a 3-0 score to the Chicago Blackhawks after taking five first period penalties, getting only 18 shots on goal (actually, a lot by Blackhawk standards for shots allowed), watching as Alex Ovechkin was tossed for pushing Brian Campbell into the end boards head first, and generally giving voice to those who might think that the Caps are more the product of a weak Southeast Division than truly a ready for prime time championship contender.

Then they dropped the puck for the third period. And it was the Caps doing the running and the Blackhawks playing dumb. The first 3:50 of the period went uneventfully, with the Caps recording the only shot on goal – that by Brooks Laich. It looked for all the world like the beginning of a period in which the Caps and Blackhawks would play out the string – the Caps doing what they could against a very good defensive team bent on playing prevent defense.

Then Jordan Hendry took a double minor for high-sticking Alexander Semin.

Way wrong move. Brooks Laich made the Blackhawks pay after he whiffed on an attempt. The puck came back to him in the slot, and after Mike Green sent a shot to goalie Antti Niemi, he batted the rebound past Niemi to get the Caps on the board. As important as the goal, Colin Fraser was sent off for high-sticking that left the Caps again on the power play. Nicklas Backstrom used the opportunity to find the back of the net on an odd play. Mike Green started it as he drifted down to the Blackhawk goal line holding the puck. That’s right, defenseman Mike Green holding the puck at the Blackhawk goal line. He sent it out to Joe Corvo, who fired a shot at the Chicago net. Brooks Laich waved at it, trying to deflect it in, but the puck eluded him and hit the end boards. The puck rebounded hard off the boards and past Laich once more, but right onto the stick of Backstrom, who shot it past Niemi, and the Caps were within one.

Not for long. On the next shift, David Steckel won a race to the puck with Nicklas Hjalmarsson to prevent an icing call. Then he outfought Hjalmarsson to get control of the puck, sending it out to Eric Fehr between the hash marks. Fehr wasted no time snapping the puck past Niemi to tie the game.

From an 0-3 deficit and looking like a team checking departure times from O’Hare International Airport, the Caps scored three goals on five shots in a space of 2:16 to tie the game. The teams fought to a draw over the last 12:15 of regulation, neither team getting a goal.

In overtime it was Nicklas Backstrom who was very nearly the goat. As the clock ticked down to the two-minute mark, Backstrom tried a cross-ice pass from just outside his own blue line. But the puck hit Troy Brouwer, who collected it on his stick and skated in on goalie Jose Theodore. Mike Green got back to impede Brouwer’s path to the net while Backstrom was getting back into the play. It was enough to allow Backstrom to sweep the puck off Brouwer’s stick and off the boards, where he picked it up himself. He carried the puck down ice into the Chicago end where he faked Brent Seabrook to the ice, pulling the puck inside to his backhand. Before Duncan Keith could close on him, Backstrom pulled the puck back to his forehand and whipped it between Niemi’s pads for the game winner, capping one of the more improbable comebacks of the season.  The irony of Green making a play at one end and both Seabrook and Keith victimized at the other end seconds later is not lost on us.

Other stuff…

-- All four Caps goals were scored from approximately a five-foot square portion of the ice between and below the hashmarks. For you fans of the Chicago defense, that is as close to unacceptable as it gets. One? OK. Two? Maybe. But four? Bad day for the Blackhawk blueliners.

-- Will Ovechkin be suspended for his hit on Brian Campbell? Well, here is the rule…

23.5 Fines and Suspensions – Stick Infractions, Boarding and Checking from Behind Category - In regular League games, any player who incurs a total of two (2) game misconduct penalties for stick-related infractions, Boarding – Rule 42, or Checking from Behind – Rule 44, shall be suspended automatically for the next League game of his team.

Ovechkin received a boarding major and a game misconduct on November 25th against the Sabres. Under the rule, it would seem he would sit for the game against Florida on Tuesday, at a minimum. Ah, but read further from the rule…

When a player has played in 41 consecutive regular League games without being assessed a stick-related major and a game misconduct penalty according to Rule 20 – Major Penalties or Rule 22 – Misconduct Penalties, he will have the previous game misconduct penalties removed from his current record. They will remain part of his historical record.

The game against Buffalo was Game 25 of the season. This was Game 69. 44 games having passed, Ovechkin will not face an automatic suspension. And if Matt Cooke gets off for ending a player’s season (if not more), then what is going to be the basis for issuing supplementary discipline to Ovechkin?

-- Give Backstrom credit. He really stepped up in this one after Ovechkin’s exit. Two goals, an assist, three hits, two takeaways, two blocked shots, not turnovers. He could have had all three stars for his effort.

-- Although, once more we have to ask… home town scoring? The two teams combined for nine giveaways, total.

-- Please note for future reference… with the game tied, and the clock winding down in regulation, who was on the ice for the last shift for the Caps? John Carlson. He’s not going back to Hershey… ever.

-- Every Chicago center won a majority of draws. Only Eric Belanger kept the Caps from the reverse being true. In fact, Belanger won six of eight draws against Jonathan Toews, no mean feat. Toews won eight of nine against the rest of the Caps he faced. The good thing, though…only 11 draws taken in the Caps’ end.

-- Chicago had one shot on goal in the third period, and that one came with two seconds left in regulation. They had only eight attempts in the period. The Caps ripped a page out of the Blackhawk playbook, allowing only nine shots on goal in the last two periods combined.

-- OK, Backstrom I get… Toews, I get. But how is it that a guy who had a clean scoresheet (but for a first period assist) and who was on the ice for the game tying goal, having been outfought for the puck on a potential icing call, with the scorer all alone in the slot get named third star of the game?

-- Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby get all the ink, it seems, but Jonathan Toews is, for my money, the most underrated player in the NHL. We heard someone before the game liken him to Steve Yzerman. It is not an idle or farfetched comparison.

-- Shaone Morrisonn… five hits, three blocked shots, and he wasn’t on the ice for any of Chicago’s goals. Oh, and he was on the ice with Carlson in that last shift in regulation. A solid, solid game. And he’s been putting together a solid second half, too. Since he was minus-3 in a 7-4 loss to the Lightning on January 12th, he is 1-5-6, plus-16 in 22 games.

-- Mike Knuble will be credited with no points and an “even” game. It doesn’t nearly do justice to the game he had. Eight shot attempts, four on goal, five hits, and a takeaway in just less than 18 minutes. He was making things very tough for Blackhawk defensemen. Keep that in mind for future reference, too. These teams could meet again.

-- The biggest difference between Jason Chimera and Chris Clark is rather simple – speed. Chimera has it and demonstrated it on a few occasions with rushes down the wing. That is a dimension that makes the Caps’ third line more dangerous than it was earlier in the season.

-- 75 hits? They don’t have that many at Soldier Field in November. The Caps were credited with 43 of them (David Steckel with seven). If Ovechkin had hung around, the teams might have broken a hundred.

-- The Caps will be charged with giving up a goal in three shorthanded situations. But we really can’t fault the Caps too much on the goal. A 5-on-3… Toews won a faceoff in the Caps end, then converted a feed while all alone on the doorstep to Jose Theodore’s left. Good teams are supposed to do that.

This game was not an aesthetic masterpiece. The Caps played did not play well in the first 20 minutes, and the Blackhawks were ghastly in the first ten minutes of the third period. The Blackhawks learned a bitter lesson that teams in the East have spent a season learning, that the Caps are not out of games, even when they have to make up multi-goal deficits. The Caps had allowed the first goal 26 times in 68 games and trailed at the intermission in only 13 games heading into this game. But they came back 15 times to win when giving up the first goal and seven times when trailing at the first intermission, both contributing to league leading winning percentage in those items. They improved on both today, to the shock of the Blackhawk faithful.

Now it’s off to take a tour of the Southeast Division – Florida, Tampa Bay, and Carolina – before heading home to meet the Penguins in ten days. It is an opportunity to slam the door on the Eastern Conference race (if they haven’t already) and put distance between themselves and the Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks for the President’s Cup. But this one is worth savoring.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Blackhawks, March 14th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

So here we are, a preview of what could be a Stanley Cup final matchup as the Caps visit the rabid confines of United Center to take on the Chicago Blackhawks in a matinee offering. And since the Caps don’t play Chicago often, we bring you another in a series of “Know Your Opponent.” For example, did you know…

-- The name “Chicago” is the French interpretation of the Miami-Illinois word, “shikaakwa,” which means “wild leek.”

-- Chicago is the home of the first “cafeteria” (at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition)

-- Chicago is the birthplace of “Cracker Jacks”

-- Chicago is the first city in which the term “jazz” refered to a musical genre.

-- Chicago was the home of the “Lager Beer Riot” (we are not making this up). The Lager Beer Riot took place in Chicago in 1855. It seems that the mayor at the time – Levi Boone (who happened to be a great-nephew of Daniel Boone) – thought it would be a great idea to enact a local ordinance that would close taverns on Sundays and raise the cost of a liquor license, part of a broader anti-immigrant wave sweeping the city. Some tavern owners defied the ordinance, and this resulted in a clash of protesters and police when the perpetrators were brought to court. The riot, such as it was, lasted mere minutes, but the next year Boone was turned out of office, and the ordinance was repealed, thus giving grateful Chicagoans something to drink at hockey games (where, if they have too much, might result in their rushing to the rest room to take a "shikaakwa").

Speaking of hockey games, this one matches two of the most dominant teams in the league, measured by average margin of victory. The Caps lead the league in that measure, beating their opponents by an average of 1.09 goals per game. Chicago is third in the league at 0.79 goals per game. How they accomplish the trick differs. Washington has done it with overpowering offense, scoring almost 19 percent more goals than the second highest scoring team in the league (Vancouver). Here is how dominant the Caps have been. If the Canucks score their average of 3.24 goals per game over their last 15 games and the Caps were to be shutout in all of their last 14 games, Vancouver would barely squeak by the Caps in goals scored, 266-262.

On the other hand, Chicago has done it with balance. They are top-five in both offense and defense, top-ten in both power play and penalty killing, top ten in winning percentage whether scoring first or trailing first. Here is how the overall numbers for the teams compare…

These are two teams that are, in part, mirror images of one another in offensive balance. The Blackhawks have 18 skaters with at least ten points this season; the Caps have 17. Chicago has nine players with at least ten goals; Washington has nine, too. But that balance only extends so far. The Caps have two players with at least 80 points; the Blackhawks have none. Washington has two players with at least 30 goals; Chicago has none. The Caps have two players with more than ten power play goals, the Blackhawks have none. Washington has 13 players at plus-ten or better; Chicago has nine.

But the Blackhawks are the superior defensive team. It is a team that just doesn’t allow many chances. Having allowed only 24.4 shots against per game, that number is more than ten percent better than the next team in line (New Jersey at 27.4 shots allowed per game). By way of comparison, the Caps have allowed 30.9 shots a game (18th in the league). Think this doesn’t matter? Then consider this – for all the talk of the Caps’ goaltending problems, they have a combined save percentage this year that is better than that of the Blackhawks’ netminders (.911 to .902). If the Blackhawks goalies faced as many shots this year as Caps goalies have faced with the same save percentage, their goals against average would be 3.08.

So, what about these Blackhawk goalies? Antti Niemi appears to be the one to get the call for this game after Cristobal Huet played in a 3-2 loss to Philadelphia yesterday. Niemi certainly has done his part in giving the Blackhawks a chance to win. He is 18-5-1 this season and has yet to lose consecutive games in regulation (he does have one set of consecutive losses, one coming Gimmick early in the season). In three appearances since the break, he is 1-1-0, 3.17, .880, and he was relieved once, getting a no-decision in a 5-3 loss to the Islanders in which he allowed three goals on 12 shots in 23 minutes. Niemi has never faced the Caps.

Moving out from there, the defense for the Blackhawks is perhaps their strength. As a group, it is deep, solid, and efficient. The best of the lot is Duncan Keith, who seems to be this year’s reason Mike Green will finish second in the Norris Trophy voting. He ranks second points among defensemen (to Green) and is tied for second in goals. He is plus-20, and he is second in the league among defensemen in ice time. He has points in seven of his last eight games (2-7-9).

That Keith doesn’t get more responsibility is the product of the depth the Blackhawks have on the blue line – enough that they could move Cam Barker (a former number three overall draft pick) to Minnesota for Kim Johnsson. In fact, Johnsson is a part of that depth, providing a more veteran presence than the 23-year old Barker could provide. The 33-year old has played in eight games for Chicago since the trade and is 1-2-3, plus-7 in eight games while getting an average of 16:24 of ice time.

Up front, the scoring load has been taken up primarily by the Patricks – Kane and Sharp. Kane leads the team in goals (26) while Sharp is second (21). Kane does not appear to have suffered a letdown from having participated with Team USA in the Olympics. Since the break he is 1-7-9 in six games. But in doing it he is also a minus-1. Teams are scoring when he’s on the ice. He has played only two games against the Caps in his career, recording one point on an assist.

As for Sharp, he had a two-goal game against the Kings last Wednesday, but has been otherwise rather dormant since the break (2-2-4, even, in six games). That is unfortunate for him and for Blackhawks fans, since he was 3-6-9, plus-8 in four games leading up to the break. He has a goal in seven games against the Caps in his career.

Perhaps the best all-around player on the squad, though, is the captain – Jonathan Toews. He was named captain last season, becoming the third youngest captain in the history of the league (only Vincent Lecavalier and Sidney Crosby were named captain of their teams at a younger age). He is third on the team in goals and assists, fourth in points, and second in power play goals. But he also kills penalties (1:36 in PK time per game) and has won more than 57 percent of his draws while leading all Blackhawk forwards in ice time. He might be hitting a wall, though, after participating in the Olympics, where he was arguably the best skater of the tournament. After coming out of the break with two points in each of his first three games (1-5-6), he is scoreless in his last three and is minus-5. He is 1-1-2 in two career games against Washington.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Chicago: Marian Hossa

Hossa does not rank among the top-100 scorers in the league this season. Of course, that is a product of his missing 24 games to injury this season. His magic number for the moment is “20.” In 43 games so far this year he has 20 goals, 20 assists, and is plus-20. Perhaps most remarkable, he is tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals (five, with Vancouver’s Alexandre Burrows). He is another Olympian (Team Slovakia) who seems not to be the worse for wear in Vancouver, going 3-3-6 in his last five games. He has been an especially sharp thorn in the sides of the Caps – 23-27-50 in 43 career games.

Washington: Alexander Semin

Going into the Olympic break, Semin was 4-3-7 in the last three games. Since the break, he is 1-2-3 in six games. In fact, if the second line for the Caps was Semin, Brendan Morrison, and Brooks Laich, that trio has a total of two goals since the break. In many ways, though, Semin is the catalyst. If he’s on, the whole enterprise works. He can be a puck-handling wizard (but can suffer the odd moment of just leaving the puck behind). He can be an extraordinary passer (except for the moments when you wonder if he wasn’t passing it to the cotton candy vendor), and he can be an efficient sniper (when he isn’t passing up a shot for a higher risk pass). He is an amazing talent – when he’s on he is the best offensive talent on the team. But when he’s not… and the Blackhawks are a team that can make an opponent pay for not being careful with the puck, especially on the power play; they lead the league in shorthanded goals.


1. Fire at will. The Blackhawks’ goaltending is not very good, plain and simple. If either Niemi or Huet face a high volume of shots, they will have their adventures. But Chicago has allowed more than 30 shots this year only 10 times in 67 games. They are 6-4-0 in those games.

2. Get a lead. No team in the league has won more games when scoring first than has Chicago (34 wins). And that is a product of Chicago being second in the league in goals scored in the first period (72). The Caps, it is worth noting, lead the league in first period goals (78).

3. Win the turnover battle. Chicago is a top-five team in takeaways at home. The Caps have committed the fifth highest number of giveaways on the road this season. If this pattern plays out, it plays into the hand of Chicago’s game of playing keep-away and not permitting goals to get through to expose their weak underbelly of goaltending.

In the end, this is one of the big down-the-stretch tests that the Caps didn’t have last season. In the last 15 games last season the Caps did not face an opponent of nearly the quality of the Blackhawks. This year they will get Chicago and Pittsburgh (twice) down the stretch. They will not lack for tests. In this one it is another instance of the irresistible force (the Caps’ offense) against the immovable object (the Blackhawks’ defense). The number to watch is shots. If the Caps go north of 30, that will be a really good sign. As the magic 8-ball says…

Caps 3 – Blackhawks 2