Saturday, October 23, 2010

A TWO-point night -- Game 8: Caps 4 - Thrashers 3 (OT)

It’s not how, it’s how many.

It might not have been especially pretty, but the Caps plugged away tonight after the Atlanta Thrashers got out to a lead twice, and then weathered a late tying goal to win in overtime tonight, 4-3, courtesy of a Tomas Fleischmann put back 97 seconds into the extra session.

As we said, it was not especially pretty. And that was courtesy of Evander Kane, who added two goals tonight to the two goals he scored in the season opener. That’s four goals against the Caps on 14 shots in two games for the youngster, one on 17 shots against the rest of the league in six games.

That was offset by Alexander Semin, who recorded a hat trick for the Caps. And it is worth noting that the three goals came from shots that in total were 54 feet from the net. While not Knublesque in terms of getting garbage, those goals were in close by Semin standards. What was even better was his quick hands. His first goal came when Thrashers’ goalie Chris Mason circled behind his own net to play a puck, then did so through the legs of defenseman Tobias Enstrom. Semin picked up the puck along the boards, and before Mason could get back into his net Semin rifled the puck off the far post and in.

After getting his second goal on a wrister with an assist to Mathieu Perreault, the goal to complete the hat trick for Semin came on a fine effort by Perreault once more, who pulled three Thrashers to him as he was circling in front of the Atlanta net. When the three converged on Perreault, he flipped the puck to Semin on Mason’s left, and Semin had only to lift a backhand over Mason’s glove to give the Caps what was then a 3-2 lead.

On the other side, Evander Kane had what one might call a pair of lucky goals. But it was just basic stuff. On the first, he had his stick on the ice when the puck was centered from behind the net by Rich Peverley. The puck struck Kane’s stick and was redirected under Caps’ goalie Michal Neuvirth. His second goal – the one that tied the game with 33 seconds left in regulation – was a product of excellent hand-eye coordination, batting a Tobias Enstrom miss out of the air and past Neuvrith to tie the game and send it to overtime.

But from there, it was pretty basic stuff. Eric Fehr pounded a puck at Chris Mason that handcuffed the goalie, the puck coming back out up the middle. Tomas Fleischmann might have been tied up by Enstrom, but he got his stick on the puck and lifted in over Mason’s blocker for the winner and a two-point night.

Other stuff…

- Mathieu Perreault did not get a star tonight. Pity. He might have been the best player on the ice. Well, OK, hat tricks matter, but the diminutive one was in the middle of a lot of stuff. From mixing it up with Dustin Byfuglien early, giving away about a quarter ton to the Thrasher defenseman, to getting two assists, to winning nine of 14 faceoffs. He was generally being a plucky sort all through the contest, and he made a statement about his value to this team going forward. Yeah, he has the moveable contract, we get that. But the Caps are not necessarily better in the lineup with him being in Hershey.

-- The first line continues to struggle to produce. Yes, they did have 13 shots on goal (25 attempts), but once more they had no points.

-- Power play…0-for-three, but they did have eight shots on goal in three power play tries. Seven different players had shots. A little better.

-- Mike Green played 5:39, all but 25 seconds of that on the power play. He has skated fewer than six minutes on two other occasions in his career, but on both occasions he left the game early to injury.

-- The Caps had 87 shot attempts. Scoring four goals on so many attempts cannot be thought of as good, but given the Caps’ difficulty in scoring goals when goalies don’t turn the pucks over lately, this has to be considered progress.

-- Caps’ defensemen, take a bow. With Green skating only 5:39 for the game, the other five defensemen had to take on additional ice time and responsibility. John Carlson led the blueliners with 26:32. Jeff Schultz, 25:31. John Erskine, who quite frankly has played quite well given the added time he is getting lately, skated 24:44.

-- When the flashy stuff isn’t going well, you’d better to the grinding stuff well. Tonight the Caps out-hi Atlanta, 29-15. They won the faceoff battle, 41-23. David Steckel was 13-for-16 in the circle, including 9-for-11 in the defensive zone.

-- For the record, we think the Mike Green goal should have counted, and here is why. First, Rule 49.2 states that a goal cannot be scored by an attacking player who kicks a puck that deflects into the net off any player, goalkeeper or official. That meant that the puck deflecting off a Thrasher would not have mattered, given that the puck was propelled by Green. But Rule 38.4(iv) says that a distinct kicking motion is one which, with a pendulum motion, the player propels the puck with his skate into the net. Where was the “pendulum” motion? Green turned his skate, it was not a motion hinged from the knee that would have been the “pendulum” motion.

-- Another game without a first period goal. The Caps have been outscored 9-3 in the first period of eight games so far this season.

-- That’s 0-for-11 on the power play over the last three games for the Caps, 4-for-33 overall (12.1 percent).

-- The Caps outshot Atlanta 40-19 after the first period. A wake-up call?

-- Kudos to John Erskine for stepping in when Dustin Byfuglien ran Michal Neuvirth. But he was the third man into the frame, David Steckel and Jason Chimera having their chances to make their displeasure known, but not doing so. In the end, it was best that Erskine take on the responsibility in that he did a fair job of pummeling Byfuglien.

In the end, the Caps squeaked out a win that they should not have had be so tight. The offense is still sputtering, especially the top line. But they have shown an ability to grind out wins when (as has been alarmingly common) the top end guys are struggling. Tonight it was the second line – Perreault and Semin – doing the damage. This is not necessarily a formula for long-term success, but for now it will do.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Thrashers, October 23rd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!

The Caps return home tonight to host the Atlanta Thrashers in a rematch of the season opener, a 4-2 loss for Washington. The Caps lost two games in regulation to only one Southeast team all of last season (to Tampa Bay) and are in danger of doing so in only their eighth game of this season. And, to make matters worse, one rather important party opined, “we aren’t a very good team right now.”

What’s wrong?

“I heff a theory or two.”

Professor! Well, right now the boys might use the help. Whaddya got?

“Vell, vurst uff all, at vutt do you call it zees days… ze thirty-thousand voot level… no goals.”

No goals?

“Nein. Seven games last year, 26 goals. Zo far ziss year, 19. A whole goal a game vurse.”

I take it there is more.

“Ja. Ze power play…gans kaput. Last year, seven for 34 in seven games. Zey had power play goals in six of ze seven games. Ziss year, vutt? Four for 30? Thirteen percent? None for last eight. Not enuff power for an appliance bulb.”


“Vutt’s up mit Ovechkin? Last year, seven goals. Ziss year four. Same mit assists…seven, four. Plus-9 zenn, minus-1 now. And he’s taken 20 fewer shots through ze seven games zenn he did in his first seven last year. Backstrom, too. Other zide of same coin. Last year, nine azzists. Ze nine azzizts… four of zem on goals by Ovechkin. Three more on goals by Semin, two of zem on power play. Two udder azzizts on power play scored by Laich. Backstrom is vutt ve call ze independent variable. As he goes, so goes, it zeems, ze Caps. Last year he gets lots of azziztz for Ovechkin and on ze power play. Ziss year zo far, not zo much.”

Anything else, Doc?

“Be heppy mit ze defense zo far. Right now, ze Caps heff only four defensemen zat played in all seven games. Two of zem are rookies – Alzner und Carlson. Ze udder is Erskine. Green und Poti heff missed six man-games already. Zat means Carlson plays 21 minutes, Erskine 17. Zat’s pr-r-r-robably three minutes or zo more zen each should have. But mit all zat, not too shabby zo far.”

But the goalies have a hand in this, too.

“Ja…und if you take out ze bookend games by Neuvirth – ze first he vuss not zo goot, und ze last he vuss sick – he was really, really goot. All four vinns, 1.71 goals against and .945 save percentage. He hass 27 saves on 27 shots venn ze Caps are shorthanded, part of ze reason why ze Caps are perfect on ze penalty kill in six of seven games.”

Any last conclusions or advice?

"Ja... "

So…when Backstrom’s numbers start to look better, so will Ovechkin’s and the power play. The defense needs to get healthy, and the goalies – well, Neuvirth – are playing really well when they’re not sick. It all seems fixable. The trick is, well… to fix it.

And that brings us to the opponent. Altanta looked like a very capable team in their 4-2 win over the Caps on opening night. They scored early (three minutes in on a goal by Evander Kane), late (with five minutes left on a goal by Fredrik Modin to clinch it) and in-between (including a penalty shot by Kane) to leave a bad taste in the Caps’ mouths after one game.

Since then, Atlanta has alternated wins and losses – two losses, two wins, and two losses, the latter of those recent losses last night against Tampa Bay in a 5-2 decision. The Thrashers have certainly not been as good defensively as they were against the Caps on opening night. In the six games since they have allowed 23 goals, nine of them power play goals to their opponents (in 31 shorthanded situations). If the Caps are to get healthy on their power play, you would have to think it possible against a team that has killed off only 70 percent of its shorthanded situations in its last six games.  Their overall numbers look like this...

On the other side, Evander Kane’s production has largely dried up since his two goal effort on opening night. In six games since he is 1-0-1, minus-3, and has only 17 shots on goals (he had seven against the Caps).

The goals scoring for the Thrashers is led by Anthony Stewart, an under-the-radar free agent signing last summer, lost in the wash of former Blackhawks obtained by Atlanta. But Stewart’s scoring has lacked consistency. He had a hat trick against Anaheim in a 5-4 Gimmick win on October 15th, but he has only one goal in his other six games. Even as the leading goal scorer and leading points-getter overall, he is a minus-4 in seven games. In ten career games against the Caps Stewart is 1-1-2, even. His goal came in the 2005-2006 season in his first career appearance against Washington.

What to make of Dustin Byfuglien. Brought to the Thrashers in the Great Blackhawk Migration of 2010 (Andrew Ladd, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager, and assistant coach John Torchetti were also in the migration), Byfuglien is second on the club in scoring (2-4-6), but he has also been on the ice for seven of the 25 goals allowed by the Thrashers so far (minus-4 overall). He has been as advertised in one aspect, though. As a big body who can create traffic on the power play he has been effective. Five of his six points, and both goals so far, have been recorded with the man advantage.

Alexander Burmistrov was selected eighth overall in last summer’s NHL entry draft. He is the only Thrasher having skated in all seven games that has not yet recorded a point. This is not necessarily surprising, given that he is: a) skating about 14 minutes a night, and b) skating many of those minutes between Ben Eager and Chris Thorburn, who between them have a total of 108 points in 533 combined games of NHL experience.

In goal, Ondrej Pavelec continues to recover from his nightmarish experience in the season opener, fainting on the ice and sustaining a concussion when he collapsed. In his stead – both in the opener and since – Chris Mason has taken up the responsibility almost full time as the number one goalie. He hasn’t lacked for work. Since his fine relief effort against the Caps when he saved 29 of 31 shots in the 4-2 win, he is 2-4-0, 3.72, .904. The problem he has been facing though is that too much rubber is getting to him. Since the game against the Caps he has faced 38.7 shots per 60 minutes played. That is entirely too many shots on goal for any goaltender to contend with. If the Caps hit that level of shot-making tonight, it could be ugly for the visitors.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Atlanta: Andrew Ladd

Ladd is familiar to Caps fans for his work as a Carolina Hurricane for three seasons before moving to Chicago. He is in the midst of a four-game points streak (1-4-5). Against the Caps he is 6-5-11 in 18 career games, including a goal in the opener this season. He is something of a jack of all trades, playing at both ends on special teams. He has a couple of power play assists so far, and he has the Thrashers’ only shorthanded goal of the season. If he is putting up crooked numbers on the score sheet, chances are the Thrashers are making things difficult for the Caps.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

So much goes through Backstrom on this club, both in terms of centering the top line and in his role on the power play. That the Caps have only 19 goals overall in seven games and only four of those on the power play is a reflection of his slow start. There is a chicken and the egg quality to the problem. Is it because Backstrom is having his own troubles or because teammates aren’t finishing? Last year he had only two goals in his first seven games on his way to a career high of 33. But he had 11 assists in those seven games, too. So far this season he has only one goal in seven games, not inconsistent with last year’s production. But he has only three assists. Playmakers need guys to finish, and so far we have not seen that. If Backstrom’s numbers improve tonight, it is a broader signal that things are going better for the Caps.


1. Penalties. For the Thrashers, that is. The Thrashers have taken 39 penalties so far this season. 17 of those have been taken in the first period of games. In their last four games the Thrashers have been whistled for a dozen penalties, five in last night’s game against Tampa Bay. If the Thrashers are having that kind of night, it could be just the tonic for the Caps’ power play to return to health.

2. Home cooking. The Caps were a tough team to play at home last season (well, in the regular season), posting a 30-5-6 record. No team had more home wins, and the Caps had the fewest losses in regulation. The Caps got off to a slow start at home last year – 1-1-1 in their first three games. In fact, the Caps were only 4-1-3 through November 1st on Verizon Center ice. But the Caps have won 29 of 37 games since then at home. Having lost to the Bruins in the last game at home, it’s time to avoid bad habits from creeping in at home.

3. Penalty killing. Having seen their 25-for-25 start go up in a spray of ice at TD Garden the other night, the Caps cannot sink into the production they had last year when they finished 25th in penalty killing. They have been aggressive and opportunistic. If they are neither tonight, just standing around waiting for Thrashers to make plays, it will not end pleasantly for the home team.

In the end, the Caps did not play very well against the Thrashers in the opener, yet were still in the game until Fredrik Modin scored an insurance goal with five minutes left in the 4-2 Atlanta win. Since then the Thrashers have been uneven in their play but for one thing. They have allowed at least 33 shots on goal in each of the six games since then and allowed more than 40 shots in two of their last four games. This is a chance for the Caps to regain some of their swagger after being tamed by Tim Thomas in the home-and-home with Boston this week. Bombs away, boys.

Washington 6 – Atlanta 2