Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A TWO-point night: Caps 4 - Penguins 3 (OT/Gimmick)

If tonight’s game between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins was “just another game,” then God help us in May if these teams meet again. The Caps took a lead, lost it, took it back, then lost it again to send the game into overtime. Five minutes of scoreless hockey later, the Caps spotted the Penguins what looked to be an insurmountable 2-0 edge in the Gimmick, then roared back with three straight goals to take the trick shot competition and the game, 4-3, tying the club record for standings points (108) in the process and eliminating the Penguins from contention for the Eastern Conference title.

This one was "Game 0" of the playoff series these teams seem destined to play in a couple of months. It had that kind of intensity to it from the drop of the puck. And one of the ways in which this looked like a playoff game is that it was not a game where the stars could have their way. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin each contributed an assist to their respective causes, but were otherwise rather quiet in splitting eight shots on goal between them without success.

This was more a province of the support players, all of whom seemed to be fully engaged for both squads. There were six different goal scorers tonight (three for each team); nine different players recorded a point for the Penguins, and seven different players collected a point for the Caps.

If there was a difference, it was in goal. Jose Theodore stopped 39 of 43 shots in earning the game’s first star, while Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 29 of 32 (but only 16 of the last 19 he faced in regulation). In the end, it proved to be the narrowest of differences…

Other stuff:

-- Faceoffs… 28-28. Blocked shots… 18-18. Giveaways… 12-12. In the nitty-gritty, there wasn’t a hair’s width of difference between these teams tonight.

-- Like that hunch coach Bruce Boudreau has to put Mike Knuble out there for the Gimmick? Call it an educated guess – Knuble had three goals in three games this year (including one tonight), he had four in six games against the Penguins last year, he had five in eight games the year before that. Kanoobie knew all along what was going to happen. He even called the shot… (wait for it)… ROOF!

-- You would have thought that one avenue the Penguins would explore would be one that worked so well for them last year – tenderize Mike Green and then wait for the turnovers. Green played 25:02, had an assists, was plus-3… and had NO giveaways.

-- OK, how is it that: a) Alexander Semin is allowed to walk the puck 175 feet up the ice on Pittsburgh’s power play, skate unchallenged into the Penguin zone, cut freely across the grain past Alex Goligoski, and fire the puck past Fleury while Kris Letang was… well, we don’t exactly know what Letang was doing (backing off to cover a Cap who had no angle to shoot if he received a pass?). Not to single out Letang; he was merely the last guy in a play where all five Penguins on the ice had a brain cramp.

-- While the teams were at mid-playoff season intensity, it was unfortunate that the officials were a few notches lower. Sometimes you get a feel about a crew, that they will call the stick penalty, but not the rough stuff; that they will call the obstruction infractions, or that they will let the guys play, as they say. If anyone in that arena could read what Paul Devorski and Ian Walsh were or were not calling (except five penalties on the Caps, one on Pittsburgh), you’ve got better eyes than mine (or drink better scotch).

-- We said it before, and we’ll say it again. Eric Fehr might not be the most efficient offensive player in the league, but he can see that spot from where he stands. Another less-than-12-minute night, and another goal (on three shots). Coming into the game, Fehr was fifth in the league among forwards at goals-per-60-minutes (minimum 40 games and 10 minutes TOI/60 minutes, according to He didn’t do anything but improve his standing tonight.

-- Every Penguin skater except Jay McKee registered a shot on goal.

-- Shaone Morrison had nine hits. He spread it around, welcoming seven different Penguins to Verizon Center.

-- With two goals in the third period tonight, the Caps have outscored the Penguins 7-1 in the third period of the three games played this year. Over the last two years, the Caps have outscored the Penguins 16-2 in the third period of seven games. In those seven games over the past two years the Caps trailed the Penguins going into the third period of a game four times and are 3-0-1 in those games. In two other games in which the teams were tied, the Caps won the third period and the game.

-- Brendan Morrison… three hits? Tomas Fleischmann… three hits? Sure, just another game.

-- Ovechkin does get the all-you-can-eat-buffet coupon for this one. His scoresheet looked like this… an assist, plus-2, four shots, two attempts blocked, four misses, five hits, three giveaways, a blocked shot, and he won his only faceoff (against Sidney Crosby).

-- 14 of the 18 skaters for the Caps were credited with hits, 12 of the Penguin skaters. Yeah, just another game.

-- 11 skaters for each team were credited with at least one blocked shot. Uh-huh… just another game.

-- If you had Tyler Kennedy under “Penguin Leader in Shot Attempts,” go buy a Powerball ticket.

-- Crosby had what for him was a difficult night in the circle (11 up and 14 down), but he was a combined 9-for-13 in the offensive and defensive zones. He was 6-for-8 against David Steckel in the offensive zone.  It's called "bearing down."

-- Caps had one power play shot… they had two shorthanded shots.

This was a solid, tight, chippy game with every bit of the 200-foot ice sheet contested. In other words, a playoff game. The Caps have proven now three times this season that they own the third period. It has been the difference between the clubs so far. Now, if they can just do that in the post season…

The Peerless' Top Ten Games in Caps History

Caps fans know by now that a compilation of the ten greatest games in team history is now available on DVD. A great idea in concept, but we think it comes up a bit short on execution. There are only three games in that series that pre-date Alex Ovechkin’s arrival with the club, and only one from the “original” red-white-and-blue days. It also omits two of the most compelling games in Caps history, both four-overtime losses. So, with that in mind, we bring you The Peerless’ top ten. We even put a bonus selection in our anthology…

1. January 8, 1984 – Capitals Defeat the Flyers, 7-1.

Significance: Bengt Gustafsson scored five goals on five shots in Philadelphia against Flyer goalie phenom and fellow Swedish countryman Pelle Lindbergh. It was within one of the modern record for goals scored in a game (six), last reached by Darryl Sittler (in 1976), who was on the ice for the Flyers that night. The five goals would stand as a club record until Peter Bondra scored five in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1994.  Sittler said afterward, "the game itself is one only Washington and Gustafsson will remember."  We remember it, too.

2. April 18/19, 1987 – Happy Easter

Significance: The Capitals’ loss to the New York Islanders on Easter Sunday morning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in four overtimes, 3-2, was one of the most gut-wrenching games in franchise history. It was the longest playoff game in Capitals history (and fifth longest in league history) to that time. Islander goalie Kelly Hrudey made 73 saves, a playoff single game record that still stands. New York had “only” 57 shots. Mike Ridley twice hit posts in the second period with the Caps leading 2-1; the Islanders tied the game with barely five minutes left in regulation. The Capitals were not shutout in that season, but they did not score a goal in the last 90:02 of that game. It was the first time the Caps appeared in a seventh game of a playoff series.

3. April 16, 1988 - A shot and a goal

Significance: It would be the first time the Caps had ever won a Game 7 of a playoff series, coming back from a three games to one deficit and a 3-0 deficit in Game 7. Philadelphia had a comeback of their own in that game, tying the contest after the Caps took a 4-3 lead early in the third period. But the game ended on what is probably the most famous call by a broadcaster in Caps history, by Mike Fornes… “…Murphy starts the rush… he hits Hunter…he’s in alone…a shot…and a goal!!!!!" Caps 5 – Flyers 4… Ron Hextall flat on his back staring into the rafters.

4. April 24/25, 1996 – The shot that couldn’t tear tissue paper

Significance: The longest game that the Caps have played to date came in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was a wild game that saw Mario Lemieux tossed from the game after earning slashing, instigator, fighting, and game misconduct penalties after having his sensibilities offended by Todd Krygier. Dale Hunter would get one of the more remarkable assists of his career, one-handing the puck from the seat of his pants at the top of the Penguin crease to Michal Pivonka. Joe Juneau would get two chances to win it – the first in the second overtime when he followed up his own shot and with the puck lying open in the crease, having a chance to sweep it the last six inches as he was about to skate around the net…he missed. The second chance came immediately thereafter when the Penguins were whistled for removing the net on the play. It was the first penalty shot in Stanley Cup overtime history. Juneau missed that one, too, as the deteriorating ice betrayed him, not giving Juneau the chance to settle the puck down before sending a weak shot at goalie Ken Wregget. In the fourth overtime, though, with the Caps killing a penalty late in the period, Petr Nedved stepped around defenseman Mark Tinordi and sent as harmless looking a shot as there was in this game toward Kolzig. He never saw it. The seeing-eye puck avoided several players screening Kolzig and fluttered over Kolzig’s left shoulder into the back of the net. The longest game in Capitals’ history was over at 179:16…a 3-2 loss.

5. June 4, 1998 – Caps defeat the Sabres in Game 6, Eastern Conference Final

Significance: The 3-2 overtime win propelled the Caps to the Stanley Cup final for the first – and only – time in club history. Oddly enough, the Caps won all three games played in Buffalo in that series, winning Game 3 (4-3 in overtime) and Game 4 (2-0). Three of the games of that six-game series went to overtime, the Caps winning all three. Only two games of that series were not one-goal games, and both were 2-0 shutouts, one for each team. In Game 6, Joe Juneau (the Caps’ leading playoff scorer that year) got the game/series-winner 6:20 into overtime and Olaf Kolzig stopped 39 of 41 shots for his 12th win of the playoffs against only five losses.

6. March 11, 2001 – Capitals erase three-goal third period deficit behind backup goalie

Signifiance: The Caps were playing the Eastern Conference leading Ottawa Senators at home and fell behind early, eventually trailing 5-2 at the second intermission. Coach Ron Wilson decided that with the result a foregone conclusion, he would rest Olaf Kolzig for the third period. That normally would have meant backup goalie Craig Billington getting the mop-up duty, but he was injured. The job fell to Corey Hirsch, just called up from Portland. Then Andrei Nikolishin scored a goal. Then, Trent Whitfield scored one. Then, Sergei Gonchar netted one to tie the game. Finally, with 1:28 left to play, Steve Konowalchuk made the comeback complete with a goal to give the Caps an improbable 6-5 win, and Corey Hirsch got the win by stopping all eight shots he faced in the final 20 minutes. It was the only appearance Hirsch would make for the Caps.

7. November 23, 2007 – Bruce Boudreau coaches his first game for the Caps

Significance: The Caps had just fired head coach Glen Hanlon – on Thanksgiving, no less – after compiling a 6-14-1 record and doing it in especially ugly fashion (scoring only 47 goals in their first 21 games, seven of those in one game against Toronto). The Caps raced out to a 3-0 lead midway through the second period, but the Flyers came back to tie the game on a goal by Mike Richards with just over four minutes left in regulation. In what would be a harbinger of good things to come, though, Alex Ovechkin set up Nicklas Backstrom for the game-winner less than two minutes into the extra session. The Caps would finish the year 37-17-7 and secure a playoff spot in one of the most remarkable in-season turnarounds in league history.

8. January 31, 2008 – Alex Ovechkin breaks nose, then breaks Montreal

Significance: The Caps and Canadiens were playing the second of a home-and-home series. Montreal shutout the Caps in the first half of the set, 4-0, behind goaltender Cristobal Huet in Montreal. Alex Ovechkin, who went into that game with 39 goals, said “he just stopped everything.” The second half of the set was different. The Caps jumped to a 3-0 lead behind a pair of goals by Ovechkin and one by Viktor Kozlov. But Ovechkin was paying a price. He already had a cut under his eye from a high stick in the previous game, but in this one he would get his nose broken when checked from behind into the boards by Montreal’s Francis Boullion, then would have his lip sliced by an errant puck. It didn’t stop him. He completed the hat trick 12:30 into the third period to give the Caps a 4-2 lead. But after squandering that lead, Ovechkin saved the day with a fourth goal 3:34 into overtime to give him 43 goals on his way to a 65-goal season and the Caps a 5-4 win.

9. April 5, 2008 – The comeback is complete

Significance: The Caps had accomplished a remarkable turnaround after changing coaches at Thanksgiving. But with 12 games remaining and coming off a crushing loss to Pittsburgh when Nicklas Backstrom scored into his own net in the final minute of a tied game, the Caps still found themselves seven points behind Carolina in the Southeast Division. The Caps then proceeded to win ten of their next 11 games, and with Carolina faltering just enough – losing their season finale to Florida on April 4th – the Caps were set up to clinch the Southeast Division title and a most improbably playoff spot with a win over those same Panthers. After exchanging early goals, the Caps put any doubt to rest on goals by Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin, and a 25-save effort by Cristobal Huet, obtained from Montreal at the trading deadline, in the 3-1 win.

10. May 4, 2009 – Dueling hat tricks

Significance: Counting the last three games of the first round playoff series, the Caps were on a four-game winning streak after taking Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Game 1 was a story of goaltending, as Semyon Varlamov stopped 34 of 36 saves (including the save of the year on Sidney Crosby with nothing but an open net in front of the shooter). Game 2 became a personal battle between the stars – Alex Ovechkin and Crosby. Crosby opened the scoring with a goal in the game’s seventh minute. Ovechkin matched him early in the second. Crosby one-upped him eight minutes later with his second goal. Ovechkin then called, then raised with two goals, the second coming with less than five minutes left to complete the hat trick. Good thing, too, because Crosby completed his own hat trick with a goal coming in the game’s last minute of a 4-3 Caps win. And for that, we can thank David Steckel, the only goal scorer in this game not named “Ovechkin” or “Crosby.”

Bonus selection: May 11, 2009 – So close, you can taste it

Significance: Game 6, Eastern Conference quarterfinal, and the Caps are down three games to two to the Penguins. And the Penguins can close out the series at home after dropping the first two games of the series to the Caps in Washington. Caps fans have heard it all… can’t win an elimination game, can’t win an elimination game on the road, Curse of the Penguin, blah blah blah. And it looked that way when the home team scored less than six minutes into the game. But Viktor Kozlov and Tomas Fleischmann scored in the second to give the Caps a lead… only to be leap-frogged when Mark Eaton scored late in the second, and Kris Letang scored early in the third. Then it was the Caps doing the leap-frogging, courtesy of goals by Brooks Laich and Kozlov again. This being a Penguin game, though, the home team would get the last laugh when Sidney Crosby scored with barely four minutes left. But was it the last laugh? David Steckel would deflect a Brooks Laich shot past Marc-Andre Fleury 6:22 into overtime for the game-winner, sending the series back to Washington, and atoning for missing an open net with the game on his stick in Game 5 that Pittsburgh would win in overtime.

OK, there are my ten. There are probably games you’d like to remove and replace (we struggled with putting in the March 20, 1987 game against the Penguins, for example, one won by the Caps 4-3, but perhaps best remembered as the night Bob Gould one-punched Mario Lemieux into happyland), but here is a start.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Penguins, March 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Caps… Penguins. That’s about all that needs to be said…

“cough, cough”

It’s the third meeting of the year between these bitter ri-


Excuse me, but may I help you?

“You know, the origin of the word ‘penguin’ is rather interesting.”

You don’t say. And you are…

“Thologie… Ernie Thologie, Professor of Ornithology at Antarctic Normal U.”

Oh… Ernie Thologie, the Ornithol—

“Yeah, the Ornithologist… I get it.”

About the word, “penguin?”

"Well,the first known instance of the name is a reference to the great auk…”

Like the sound Sidney Crosby makes when you hit him?

“No, like the extinct bird that was native to the North Atlantic. It appears to be of Welsh derivation, coming from the words, ‘pen gwyn,’ which means 'white head.'”

Like Gary Bettman’s pasty white head.

“Yeah, sure, like that. There has been a suggestion that the name comes from the Latin word ‘pinguis,’ or ‘fat.’”

Like the dumpy skating Penguin logo?

“I suppose so… but in point of fact, the name 'penguin' was first reliably reported from Newfoundland in the 16th century, but in Newfoundland the name is said usually to have been pronounced 'pin-wing'. This is consistent with a companion theory, that the bird was originally called the 'pin-wing', with reference to its curiously rudimentary wings.”

Like Pascal Dupuis or Chris Kunitz on the Penguins’ top line?


And so here we are with Game 3 in this year’s edition of Capitals vs. Penguins. The Caps won the first two games of this year’s series, the first when they exploded for three goals in the third period to break a 3-3 tie to win 6-3 in Pittsburgh, then coming back from a three-goal deficit to beat the Penguins 5-4 in overtime at Verizon Center.

The teams come into this game as the heavy favorites to meet in the Eastern Conference half of the Stanley Cup playoffs for a second straight season, which makes this game, if not meaningless, then a mere prelude to what is expected to unfold in perhaps a couple of months. For now, though, the overall season numbers for these two teams break down like this…

The Penguins come into this game stumbling toward the finish. After starting March with a four-game winning streak, they are 2-3-2 in their last seven games. And except for a 3-0 shutout of Boston last Thursday, the Penguins haven’t been as impressive as even their 2-3-2 record in those seven games suggests. They have been outscored in those games by 19-14 and have not managed more than three goals in any of those games. The power play has struggled as well, going 3-for-23 (13.0 percent). The penalty killers have shined, though, skating off 24 of 25 shorthanded situations over those last seven games, including the last 24 in a row.

We begin our look at the Penguins’ players with their most valuable player – Evgeni Malkin. Whether he will play tonight is still iffy, but if he doesn’t it will be really bad news for Pittsburgh. Why? Consider that in the ten games he has been out of the lineup, the Penguins were…

- 3-7-0
- outscored 33-18
- 0-for-34 on the power play
- beaten by at least three goals six times

It isn’t as if Malkin is having his best year, but his absence appears to so utterly discombobulate the Penguins’ forward lines as to render them impotent. You could make an argument that under the strict wording of the Hart Trophy, Malkin is the most valuable player in the league.

Which brings us to Sidney Crosby. In Malkin’s absence, Crosby is 0-3-3, minus-5. There is an inconvenient truth that pollutes the narrative surrounding Crosby these last two years. He is not, by any measure you care to raise, the best player in the game. He has had the benefit of playing on the best teams. Although certainly not a product of his own doing, he was not on the ice for the last ten minutes of last year’s Stanley Cup clinching Game 7 against Detroit, and Evgeni Malkin was the most valuable player of that tournament. This year, he had the benefit of playing on perhaps the most gifted assembly of talent in the history of the sport when he skated for Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympic Games (where Alex Ovechkin was deemed a "failure"). With the Penguins this year he has a significant performance differential between playing in the friendly confines of Mellon Arena (30-27-57, plus-18, in 34 games) and the road (15-16-31, minus-11, in 38 games). In this recent seven-game slump for the Pens, Crosby is 1-3-4, minus-7. Perhaps the accumulation of games over the past three years (two Stanley Cup finals, an Olympic tournament this season) and the pressure under which he constantly plays is finally catching up with him, But it is growing increasingly difficult to make a case for Crosby being a Hart finalist, let alone the winner.

As brightly as the light shines on Sidney Crosby, it seems to avoid Jordan Staal. But Staal is quietly putting up a very fine year. He is third on the club in goals (20), third in points (47), leads the Penguins in plus-minus (plus-20), and is among the better defensive centers in the game. He has a pair of goals against the Caps this season in two games and is 5-1-6 in 14 career games against Washington. He will be fighting a bit of a slump, though, as he comes into this game. After abusing the Rangers and Dallas for two goals and three assists in consecutive games earlier this month, he is 2-1-3 in eight games since.

Two French-Canadian goaltenders are likely to start tonight. We have to think that Jose Theodore will get the call for the Caps (despite it being Semyon Varlamov’s “turn”), and Marc-Andre Fleury appears likely to get the call for Pittsburgh. Their ancestry isn’t the only thing they share. Where Jose Theodore has had a sign emblazoned with the word ‘INCONSISTENT’ hung around his neck since joining the Caps (despite his 16-0-2 run), Fleury has, in fact, been the more inconsistent goaltender this year. Fleury is 33-19-5 this season, but imbedded in that are a six-game winning streak and an eight-game winning streak, both occurring before Christmas. Since Christmas, Fleury is 11-10-4, 2.99, .901. Perhaps most disconcerting is his unpredictability from game to game. In those 25 games since Christmas, he allowed one or no goals eight times, but he allowed at least four goals ten times. He allowed five goals in his only appearance against the Caps this year, three of them by Alex Ovechkin in a 5-4 overtime loss to Washington on February 7th.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Pittsburgh: Sergei Gonchar

Gonchar will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, and he is not closing with a rush to a big payday. Since the Olympic break, the defenseman is 2-5-7 in 11 games. That scoring line isn’t bad, but he carries a minus-6 with that. In this 2-3-2 slump the Pens are in, Gonchar has one even-strength point. This could be a fair test for him. In 17 career games against the Caps he is 4-14-18, although he is without a point in two games this year.

Washington: Mike Knuble

With Brooks Laich dinged up, Knuble might be counted on a bit more for making Marc-Andre Fleury’s night a long one, either by setting screens or in picking up loose change. He is 2-2-4 in two games against the Penguins this year and picked up a 17-penalty minute afternoon the last time these teams met, a product of a kerfuffle with Craig Adams. Knuble is in the midst of an eight-game streak without a goal. No time like the present to make sure it doesn’t reach nine.


1. Score early. The Penguins have started and ended poorly in games in the recent 2-3-2 run, getting outscored 7-4 in the first period and allowing goals in both overtime games they played. Here is your Penguin stat for the night… in the last seven games for the Penguins, five times they allowed at least one goal in the first period. They lost each game, either in regulation or in overtime. The two times they did not, they won.

2. Don’t let ‘em feel happy. The Pens are 1-for-10 on the power play against the Caps in two games this year. They also happen to have the 25th-ranked road power play unit and have that 3-for-23 success rate over their last seven games (13.0 percent). Ignore the individual talent, this is not a good power play team. Don’t “over-respect” that talent, make it hard for them.

3. Turn down the order of wings. Sidney Crosby might or might not get his points against the Caps, but the key here is not letting the Ponikarovsky’s or the Fedotenko’s of the world beat you. The Penguins have only one winger with as many as 40 points (Bill Guerin) and do not have a 20-goal scorer at the position. Ruslan Fedotenko, Pascal Dupuis, Bill Guerin, and Chris Kunitz have combined this year for exactly zero goals against the Caps. Keep it that way, and the Caps win.

In the end, this is another of those games for the fans. These teams both have bigger things ahead of them, including perhaps each other in a playoff series. The game isn’t quite as “meaningless” as we suggested at the top, but whether the Caps win or the Pens do, it’s May that counts if these teams meet, not March. Still…

Caps 4 – Penguins 3