Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 6: Capitals vs. Canadiens

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Game 6

And the only thing you need know about Game 6 is this. Nine times in Capitals history they lost Game 6 of a playoff series. They won none of those series. Six times it was the clinching loss, and on three other occasions the Caps went on to lose Game 7.

Now that we've told you the only thing you need to know, we'll give you a thousand or so more words on what you might think about in this game.  As the Caps prepare for Game 6, the good thing is that the Caps have won each of the last three Games 6 they have played – a 4-2 win against the Flyers in 2008 to force a Game 7, a 5-3 win over the Rangers last year to force a Game 7, and a 5-4 overtime win against the Penguins to force – again – a Game 7.  Win a fourth in a row, and there is no Game 7 to have to worry about.

The last time the Caps won a Game 6 to clinch a series was the 3-2 overtime win in Buffalo in 1998 to send the team to the Stanley Cup finals. The Caps also closed out Boston that year in the first round to advance to play Ottawa in the second round. There is something to be gained in thinking about that… the Caps closed out the B’s on the road, just as they will play the Montreal Canadiens tonight on the road. We just hope it doesn’t go to two overtimes the way that 1998 first round Game 6 did against the Bruins.

Tonight’s Game 6 might be the sort of game in which you expect the Young Guns – Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green – to shine. And in the three Games 6 win which this quartet played, they have largely done just that…

Alex Ovechkin: 3-3-6, +5
Alexander Semin: 1-4-5, +3
Nicklas Backstrom: 1-2-3, +4
Mike Green: 1-0-1, +2

But that is six of the 14 goals scored by the Caps in the last three Games 6 played before this season. Is there a hint where the other goals might come from? Well, the departed Viktor Kozlov had three of the other eight goals, and Milan Jurcina (who is injured and will not play tonight) scored another, leaving four unaccounted for. Those four were scored by Tom Poti, Tomas Fleischmann, Brooks Laich, and David Steckel. Unless Boudreau includes Steckel as part of his possible lineup shakeup, he will not be on the ice at Bell Centre tonight. But there are Fleischmann and Laich, they of the 48 goals between them in the regular season (one in the playoffs) who can, and perhaps have to, come up big tonight.

Through five games, the results have had a certain predictability in them, despite the fact that the Caps didn’t close out the Canadiens by now. For example…

-- The Caps have outscored the Canadiens 15-10 at 5-on-5. The 1.50 ratio of goals scored to goals allowed is consistent with how the Caps fared in the regular season (1.57).

-- The Caps have averaged four goals a game, right in line with their 3.82 average during the regular season.

-- Against the vaunted Montreal power play the Caps are killing penalties at an 81.8 percent rate, slightly better than their 78.8 percent rate for the regular season.

-- Allowing 2.80 goals a game, the Caps are right there compared to their regular season average of 2.77 during the regular season.

In the big things (well, almost all of them), the Caps are performing in a manner consistent with their regular season performance. But two things are getting in their way – a number and a trend.

First, to the number. The power play, to use Bruce Boudreau’s term, “sucks.” At 4.2 percent (1-for-24), the Caps are 14th among 16 playoff teams. What is particularly aggravating about this statistic is that it is probably the single reason why this series is still going on. In the two one-goal losses the Caps are a combined 0-for-9 on the man advantage. Looking at the power play overall, they are not getting shots. In 24 power plays so far, the Caps have a total of 37 shots on goal. What’s more, they are not getting power play shots from players who need to take them. Alex Ovechkin has three shots on goal with the man advantage (one goal, and that was scored from the doorstep). Nicklas Backstrom, likewise, three shots. Brooks Laich, one shot on goal on the power play (none in the last four games). These three players combined for 36 power play goals in the regular season, almost half the Capitals’ league-leading total (79).

The good news on the power play is that there has been a consistent improvement in shots on goal over Games 2-4, ending with 11 shots on goal in Game 5. But even here, there weren’t a lot of quality chances. The power play shot chart indicates that five of the 11 shots came from what might be called “scoring areas,” while the others were the result of being pushed far to the outside for shooting opportunities (courtesy of the Washington Post interactive shot chart)…

The other thing is a trend, and that one is more ominous for the Caps. The Caps dominated the latter part of Game 2 and had flurries in Games 3 and 4 to win three games by a combined score of 17-9. The Canadiens got an overtime goal in Game 1 and held on for 50 minutes after getting a couple of early goals in Game 5 to snatch a couple of one-goal wins. To sports fans, there might be an uncomfortable parallel that does not come from hockey. Pardon us our Stan Fischler “back in my day when dinosaurs roamed the earth” moment, but in the 1960 World Series, the New York Yankees won three games by pummeling the Pittsburgh Pirates 38-3 (that’s not a typo). They also lost three games by letting the Pirates hang around and getting outscored 14-8. That left things up to a Game 7, and the Pirates won the thing with the equivalent of an overtime game-winning goal, a bottom-of-the-ninth home run by Bill Mazeroski.

If a team lets an inferior opponent hang around long enough, strange things can happen, in a game or in a series. And keeping the Canadiens from hanging around for a Game 7 means getting the power play back on track and getting guys who have produced in a Game 6 setting to repeat their history. Of course, we think that will happen…

Caps 4 – Canadiens 2

Built Hockey Tough

Pick up trucks named for male sheep have nothing on hockey players when it comes to toughness.  You could argue that athletes in other professional sports have nothing on hockey players when it comes to toughness, either.  This spring has already seen exhibitions of toughness that would leave mortals such as thee and me cringing in the fetal position in our own beds (or in emergency rooms).

The Stanley Cup playoffs breed their own sort of toughness, a mix of fearlessness, desperation, and wanting to do everything humanly possible to push their club to a championship.  There is already a "Conn Smythe Trophy" for the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup tournament.  Maybe there should be one for the player who exhibits the most selfless disregard for his own health and well-being in the tournament in service to his team.*  It's only Round 1, and there are stellar (if you want to call it that) candidates already...

Ian Laperriere, Philadelphia Flyers

From Mike Morreale's recap on of the series-clinching Game 5 of the Flyers/Devils series...

"The Flyers were up 3-0 but in the midst of killing off yet another Devils power play when Laperriere decided to step in front of a slap shot by defenseman Paul Martin three minutes into the third period. By the time he realized he had slid too early, the puck slammed into his forehead at top speed, opening his face to the point where a trail of blood followed him as he skated blindly on the ice before getting medical attention.  "When I grabbed (athletic trainer) Jimmy (McCrossin), I asked him if my eye was still there," Laperriere told reporters after taking between 60-70 stitches along his right eyebrow. "He said 'Yeah, there was just so much blood.'"

Reports are that he suffered a nondisplaced fracture of the orbital bone that will not need surgery, and he will be available to the Flyers in Round 2.

He will, however, wear a protective shield.  Dont' think we can begrudge him that.

Eric Belanger, Washington Capitals

From Tarik El-Bashir's blog entry on Capitals Insider at the Washington Post...

"With about 7 minutes 30 seconds remaining in the first period of Friday night's 2-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, Washington Capitals forward Eric Belanger approached Canadiens defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron near center ice. Bergeron passed the puck away, and his stick came up and smacked Belanger in the face, causing him to double over in obvious pain. There was no penalty called, the sell-out crowd at Verizon Center responded with boos, Belanger made his way to the bench - and returned to play more than 10 minutes in the game.  That brief synopsis, though, masks what actually happened. The sum total: Belanger lost "seven or eight" teeth, he said, had some exposed roots in his teeth trimmed in between periods -- serious dental work -- and he arrived Saturday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex with a fat lip that had been stitched back together. He believes he will be available for Game 6 Monday night in Montreal, but between now and then he faces several hours in a dentist's chair."
I had a root canal on one tooth ten days ago and thought about not watching a hockey game.

These guys are not just in another league of toughness, they're on another planet.  And they'll no doubt have a lot of company before this tournament is over.

*  Who would you name it after?  Mario Lemieux, for taking only two months off for treatment of Hodgkin's Disease, then going out an scoring a goal in his first game back -- a day on which he received his last radiation treatment?  Bob Baun, for blocking a shot in the 1964 Stanley Cup finals, shattering his ankle in the process, limping off the ice for a few minutes, getting the ankle wrapped, then coming back on the ice for overtime and scoring the game-winning goal?  Gordie Howe, for having his own "hat trick" named after him -- a goal, and assist, and a fight?  There appear to be no shortage of candidates.

"Homer" isn't just a Simpson

Over at Japers’ Rink, there is a link to an article penned on the subject of Mike Green and his suitability as a Norris Trophy candidate. The author – Anthony J. SanFilippo – titled his article, “Embarrassed to be a Hockey Writer.”

As you can probably tell, this is not going to go well for Mike Green.

SanFilippo leads off with the measured praise, “look, this guy is very talented.” Then he goes on to write about how…

-- his “fellow scribes” probably failed to read the citation of the Trophy (“"given to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position" – emphasis his)

-- “Any person who chooses to put the word greatest with Green's defensive resume should turn in their Professional Hockey Writers' Card post haste.”

-- “There's a reason Green was left off the Canadian Olympic Team. As good as he is at one end of the ice he's certifiably scary at the other end.”

-- “it's becoming painfully obvious that many of my colleagues have grown lazy and decide to vote just for the numbers they see on the leader board and take no consideration into the actual definition of the award.”

Then he hints at a dark conspiracy against Philadelphia writers (one supposes an effort to diminish the chances for the Flyers’ Chris Pronger)…

“Part of the problem may be that not all of the writers, who before today I thought were a lot more clued in, were able to vote. I've begun an inquiry into this belief, because I know not all of the beat writers in Philadelphia were afforded the chance to vote this season, whereas in previous seasons they were.”

SanFilippo then shares with his reader his ballots for league-wide awards, including the Norris…

1. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
2. Chris Pronger, Philadelphia Flyers
3. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks
4. Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings
5. Christian Ehrhoff, Vancouver Canucks

One could build an argument for Doughty or Keith being more deserving candidates than Green for the Norris, but Lidstrom has had (for him) a somewhat uneven year. Pronger? That’s a hometown vote. His post Olympic performance (2-11-13, even, in 22 games) was hardly the stuff of Norris Trophies. But Christian Ehrhoff? That’s beyond a headscratcher.

Look (to borrow a phrase from SanFilippo), Ehrhoff had a fine season. At the risk of letting numbers dictate the perspective, Ehrhoff and Green compare in the raw numbers like this…

Those plus-minus numbers got us to thinking. Not much difference there, but apparently Ehrhoff’s plus-36 means more than Green’s plus-39 in SanFilippo's calculus. Perhaps Green’s plus-39 was padded in the weak “Southleast” Division. Not so. Green was a plus-4 in 22 games against Southeast Division opponents, but he was a plus-17 against teams in the Northeast and a plus-16 against teams in the Atlantic Division (Flyer-centric writers, take note that he was plus-7 against the orange and black). And if you’re thinking that being plus-4 in 22 games against a weak division is a problem for Green, Ehrhoff was plus-1 against the Southeast in five games.

But digging past that (with the help of the fine folks at who compile such detailed statistics), it becomes clearer that Green comes by his place among the finalists honestly (at the expense of Ehrhoff). At 5-on-5 (according to, the delta of plus-minus, on ice vs. off ice, are almost equal (+1.40 for Green to +1.33 for Ehrhoff). Green played against a generally higher quality of competition and had a higher Corsi rating relative to quality of competition.  He is ranked second among defensemen in "goals-versus-threshold" (a measure of the value of a player -- in goals, above what a replacement player would have contributed -- created by Tom Awad at Puck Prospectus).

If the award is, as SanFilippo points out, a reflection of the greatest all around ability at the position, then offense cannot be discounted any more than it can be a safe way to rank Norris candidates. Green is the best offensive defenseman of this era, and his offensive statistics compare favorably to last year’s in an important respect. Last year’s results were influenced by Green’s record-setting performance over an eight-game streak in which he had 10 goals and seven assists, setting an NHL record for consecutive games with a goal by a defenseman. If that streak is taken out of the mix, Green’s numbers for the 2008-2009 season project out to a 29-48-77, +18 season. Compare that to this year’s results that project out to 21-62-83, +43 over a full 82-game season.

None of the finalists can be said to hold as lofty a position as a “defensive” defenseman as Mike Green holds on the offensive side of the ledger. The citation is for the top “all-around” defenseman, which is not to say “most balanced” between offense and defense. It is nice to see that voting in recent years (ok, for Nicklas Lidstrom) has struck a balance between offense and defense, as opposed to the “Paul Coffey” years that represented a drastic swing of the pendulum after defensive specialist Rod Langway won consecutive Norris trophies. But Green is not (or was not) entirely a slug in his own end this season. That plus-39 didn’t come entirely from the prolific offense with which Green played. In fact, Green was especially productive on the power play (he was 10-25-35 on the power play, which does not factor into his plus-minus numbers). The Caps were the best 5-on-5 team in the league by a wide margin. Green was a part of that, an important part, in fact.

Sometimes, uncovering a gem in the rough in voting like this is a product of a keen eye for what one sees on the ice and a diligent approach to reviewing the numbers. Sometimes, it is just a silly attempt to make one's self look smarter than everyone else, or to use a false comparison to puff up the value of another player who is really the object of the exercise. SanFilippo appears guilty of the latter, including Christian Ehrhoff on his ballot, less as a reflection of Ehrhoff’s superiority as a defenseman in 2009-2010 than to point out that Chris Pronger should be the one taking Green’s place on the ballot.

Frankly, we think he should be embarrassed to be a hockey writer, just not in quite the way he might have intended.

* Oh, and not to scoop ourselves (since we’ll have our own trophy handicapping later), but Green isn’t our choice for the Norris.

They Can Do This

In our last entry we highlighted some unexpected unpleasant results on the part of the Caps in this opening round series, but there is a well of production that hasn’t yet been tapped, too. Such is the nature of a team that hit so many clear high notes during the season. For example…

-- Alexander Semin had 27 multi-point games this season, 11 mutli-goal games.

-- Mike Green had six different points streaks of at least five games, including a pair of nine-game streaks.

-- Brooks Laich had only four “minus” games his last 32 games the regular season.

-- Tomas Fleischmann went more than consecutive games without a point only three times this year and never more than four games (he in the midst of a three-game streak at the moment).

-- Semin was 2-1-3 against the Canadiens this season, and has ten goals in 13 career regular season games against Montreal.

-- Green had five points in four games against Montreal this season and has 14 in 14 regular season games for his career.

-- Laich was 3-2-5 in four games against the Canadiens this year; he scored his first NHL goal against Montreal at Bell Centre.

-- Fleischmann had five points in four games against Montreal this season and had seven in his last seven games over the past two seasons.

Clearly, this quartet has it in them to do better than a combined 1-5-6, even. They were a combined 7-11-18, plus-7 against Montreal this season in 14 man-games. No time like now to bring back some of those memories.

Sittin' at the end of the bar...

Things we bet you wouldn’t have expected…

-- Sure, you might not have expected that Alexander Semin would have no goals in this series, but he’s also been on the ice for a grand total of one goal scored against. Still, we would like to see him break out of that goal-scoring schneid in a big way tomorrow night.

-- One other Cap has played in all five games and has been on the ice for only one goal against. I’d tell you who it was, but it wouldn’t be Fehr to give it away.

-- Which Cap has been on the ice for the most goals so far? Mike Knuble, don’t sit down.

-- Mr. Plus 50 and Mr. Plus 39 each have been on the ice for eight goals against of the 16 total scored by Montreal.

-- Speaking of Green, that’s 13 straight games without a goal (one in 19 career playoff games... edit: as Red Army Line points out in the comments, that's 1 goal in his last 19 playoff games; Green has four in 26 career playoff games... the perils of writing at two in the morning from the end of the bar).

-- And speaking of Schultz, he has six career playoff games and is a minus player in four of them.

-- Still, the Caps have three of the top four players in plus/minus (Tom Poti, John Carlson, and Nicklas Backstrom) and four of the top seven (Alex Ovechkin adding to the list).

-- Look, we love Carlson, and he is going to be a whale of a defenseman in due time. But no player in the playoffs has coughed up the puck as many times so far (12).

-- Carlson seems able to outskate his mistakes, though… he’s only been on the ice for two goals against.

-- In fact, the Caps have two of the “top” four defensemen in the giveaway category (Green has seven). But in the “bad news for Norris finalists” category, only five defensemen have a worse “plus/minus” at home than Drew Doughty, and only two have a worse one than Duncan Keith.

-- Caps fans, when you’re watching Game 6, you will be forgiven if your mouths start to water when Marc-Andre Bergeron takes the ice. Bad things happen to the Habs when he’s on Bell Centre ice in this series. No defenseman has a worse plus/minus than his minus-6.

-- 33 players have more shots on goal than Alex Ovechkin. Mike Grier is one of them. We are not making that up.

-- Eric Fehr has as many shots in almost exactly half the ice time (11:46/game versus 22:31/game).

-- Only six players have a higher shooting percentage than Ovechkin’s 31.3 percent. Daniel Carcillo is one of them. We are not making that up, either (OK, he’s only taken six shots, but still…).

-- Alexander Semin does NOT have the most missed shots so far in the playoffs. But he can see the top from where he is (13). Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrick Marleau each have 14.

-- Caps fans, you’re going to want to watch Mike Cammalleri. Twice he has scored the first goal of the game. Both times, the Canadiens won.

-- If you toss out that Game 7 Semyon Varlamov had against the Penguins last year, he has a career playoff GAA or 2.19 and a save percentage of .924 in 16 appearances.

-- Over the past three seasons, including this one, the Caps are averaging scoring more than a goal a game better on the road (3.73) than they are at home (2.67).

What it all really boils down to is, if the Caps put forth the effort they did on Saturday, then there will be hockey on Wednesday, and it will not be against the Flyers. But if they play to an effort level commensurate with their skill, then there won’t be any need to use those Game 4 tickets for a game against the Canadiens at Verizon Center.