Sunday, November 14, 2010

A TWO-point night -- Game 18: Caps 6 - Thrashers 4

In October the Washington Capitals held opponents to two or fewer goals seven times in 11 games. With tonight’s 6-4 win over the Atlanta Thrashers, the Caps have now allowed three or more goals in six of seven games in November.

Sure, with the win tonight the Caps are 6-0-1 in November, but in the midst of all of that there is the unsettling feeling that this team is looking an awful lot like last year’s team – long on goal scoring, but not tightening up when they need to.

And this was the case tonight as the Caps, for the second straight game, took an early lead, only to give it away in a second period filled with errors. It started well enough as Alex Ovechkin took a pass from Nicklas Backstrom at the Thrashers’ blue line, skated in, and wristed a puck that Atlanta goalie Chris Mason manhandled into his own net to give the Caps an early lead 90 seconds into the game. And after Mike Green scored on a power play eight minutes later, it looked as if the Caps would be cruising.

Trouble is, they played like it. Mike Knuble and Alexander Semin took penalties 1:12 apart midway through the first period to give the visitors a 5-on-3 advantage. Just before the Knuble penalty was about to expire, Tobias Enstrom sent a rocket of a slap shot wide of the Caps’ net. The puck caromed straight back off the end boards where it appeared to hit the top of the net and then goalie Michal Neuvirth. Rich Peverley continued his peculiar abuse of the Caps, getting a stick on the stray puck after it hit Neuvirth and nudging it into the net at the 13:14 mark.

Alexander Semin restored the two-goal lead just before the first intermission, but that merely set the stage for the Caps second straight forgettable second period. Andrew Ladd scored for Atlanta 72 seconds into the period to set the tone. And after Matt Hendricks scored on a pretty goal from the goal line while backing away from the net (sending Chris Mason to the bench in favor of Ondrej Pavelec in goal for Atlanta), Bryan Little tied the game, first with a goal 45 seconds after the Hendricks tally. Then he tied the game with a shorthanded goal after pick-pocketing Alex Ovechkin on a Caps power play, skating in on Michal Neuvirth, and pinballing the puck off several Neuvirth body parts and into the net.

If you were pondering which Cap might be the one to reverse the momentum, you probably would have gone through a dozen or so players’ names before you settled on “John Erskine.” But there he was, taking a feed from, to mention another unexpected name – David Steckel, and stepping into a slap shot that beat Pavelec cleanly on the blocker side to restore sanity to the evening. The Caps clamped down from there and sealed the deal with a Steckel empty netter with 37 seconds left for the final margin. It was another win, but one might be forgiven for feeling uneasy in the manner in which it was earned.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps have mastered the 40-minute effort. Usually this season it has been the final 40 minutes of a contest. Tonight it was the first and last 20 minutes. In the first and third periods the Caps outshot the Thrashers 25-14 and outscored them 5-1. In the middle 20 the Caps were outshot 13-8 and outscored 3-1.

-- This makes two consecutive games in which Alex Ovechkin had no shot attempts in the third period. He had no shots on goal after scoring 90 seconds into the game. And here is an ominous statistic… he skated only 5:47 in the third period of what was a tied or one-goal game for all but 37 seconds of the period (his lowest ice time of the three periods). He just isn’t there right now. Or there is something going on that isn’t seeing the light of day.

-- Ovechkin did have the pass of the night, coming on the goal by Alexander Semin at the end of the first period. Skating with a full head of steam down the left side, he had a chance to use defender Brent Sopel as a screen for a wrist shot. But he saw Semin filling the lane on the other side, and he took advantage, laying a nice saucer pass over the stick of Sopel and out ahead of Semin, hitting his teammate perfectly in stride where he could backhand the puck into what was then an empty net.

-- John Erskine has scored on two of his last four shots on goal. Mike who?

-- Speaking of Erskine, he had less ice time than any other skater tonight – 12:29 – and only two shifts after getting his game-winning goal (one of those after the Caps scored the empty netter to ice the game). Hockey is a ruthless sport.

-- And another note about Erskine. We had bruises just watching his fight with Eric Boulton. Those two were throwing haymakers that made it look like the 15th round of Rocky Balboa against Apollo Creed.

-- OK, one more thing about Erskine. He would have had a Gordie Howe Hat Trick, having been credited with an assist on the Ovechkin goal. But the assist was taken away later. Yes, hockey is a ruthless sport.

-- Steven Stamkos is very good at scoring goals. Tim Thomas is very good at preventing goals. But you would be hard pressed to find someone who performs his specialty better than David Steckel right now. Since sitting out the game against the Rangers last Tuesday, he has won 49 of 69 faceoffs over three games (including 19 of 23 tonight). That’s a 71.0 percent winning percentage.

-- In October, Michal Neuvirth was lights out in the third period and overtime, stopping 68 of the 71 shots he saw (.958 save percentage). In November, no so much. Coming into this game he stopped 35 of 42 third period and overtime shots this month (.833). But perhaps closing the door in turning away all seven of the shots he faced in the third period tonight will signal a return to his stingy ways.

-- OK, so Mike Green had a goal and an assist. But color us just as impressed with his six blocked shots.

-- It’s nice that the Caps had three power plays . Better that they scored on one of them. But we were scratching out head over the fact that the Caps outshot Atlanta on their own power play by only a 4-3 margin and gave up a goal in the process.

-- At the risk of beating a dead horse… 14:22 in ice time (only four minutes in the third period), no points, no shot attempts, one hit, 4-for-11 on faceoffs. Tomas Fleischmann is not having a stretch to remember.

-- Lost in all the noise of Caps goals this month (31 in seven games) is the fact that Eric Fehr has only one of them, his only goal in his last 14 games (he did have an assist tonight).

-- Tyler Sloan had a pair of assists. That is the first multi-point game of his NHL career. He was also a plus-2, the first time he was that high on the positive side in almost a year (November 23, 2009, in a 4-3 overtime loss to Ottawa).

-- Steckel was a plus-3. That is a personal best for him in the NHL.

In the end, it was a win. Months from now no one is likely to remember how it was earned, but folks might remember the trend that seems to be reasserting itself. An ability to score often, but a little too loose defensively and lacking in a full and focused effort. In other words, getting by.

In fairness, as Bruce Boudreau noted in the post game, the team hasn’t practiced in eight days and systems are breaking down. This isn’t any different from any other performance activity. A musician isn’t going to be very good in concert if he or she hasn’t has the chance to put in the time practicing, and the Caps have been performing four of the last six nights and six of the last ten. It is hard to fit in a rigorous practice in that schedule.

But the Caps have a couple of days without a game. Tomorrow will be an off-day, and then they get that day to practice and put the wrenches to their systems to tighten things up. Hopefully it will yield benefits when the Caps get a chance on Wednesday to repay Buffalo for the overtime loss on Saturday.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Thrashers, November 14th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

“Whoa, déjà vu.”

What did you just say?

“Nothing, uh, just had a little..deja vu.”

What did you see?

“I read your blog post, then…and then another that looked just like it.”

How much like it, was it the same blog post?

“Might have been, I'm not sure.”

A déjà vu is usually a glitch in the Matrix… it happens when they change something.

“Dude, what are you talking about? Aren’t you the only one here?”

Yeah…maybe I had too many adult beverages watching the game last night.


And will you stop bending all my spoons?!

Well, it’s not quite déjà vu, but it is a second game for the Caps inside of 24 hours after having dropped a 3-2 overtime decision in Buffalo last evening. Tonight’s opponent is the Atlanta Thrashers, who played a game of their own last evening, losing 4-2 on home ice to the Pittsburgh Penguins. And the Thrashers will, like the Caps, be playing in their third game in four nights. So, the teams are starting even on that score.

The Thrashers are not starting even with the Caps in many other facets, though. They trail the Caps by eight points in the standings and have lost four of their past five games (1-3-1), outscored by their opponents by 17-13. The overall numbers look like this…

In the 1-3-1 run on which the Thrashers find themselves, they have had a difficult time stopping opponents on the power play. They were able to kill off only eight of 14 shorthanded situations over those five games (57.1 percent). The best thing that one can say about the Thrasher penalty kill lately is that they haven’t had to use it much – fewer than three times a game in the last five games (and the fifth fewest power plays allowed per game for the season).

With Ondrej Pavelec having played last evening in goal, it is likely that Chris Mason will have to serve as the Thrashers best penalty killer tonight (if you subscribe to the goalie having to be a team's best penalty killer). Mason was excellent in the first meeting of these clubs on opening night. He came into the game in relief of Pavelec when Pavelec collapsed on the ice less than three minutes into the contest. He stopped 29 of 31 shots to earn the win in the 4-2 final. Since then he hasn’t been as successful – 5-5-1 in 11 appearances with a 3.82 GAA and .900 save percentage. The problem is not entirely his, however. In the 11 games he played after defeating the Caps he faced an average of 38.3 shots per 60 minutes. Way too much for any goaltender to have to handle (by way of comparison, tonight’s goalie for the Caps – Michal Neuvirth – has faced an average of 29 shots per 60 minutes). Mason is 3-1-1 in his last five decisions, though (3.06, .919).

So far this season, Evander Kane likes playing against Washington. In two games against the Caps he has a pair of two goal games – four of the seven he has overall. The flip side of that is that in nine games since last facing Washington, Kane is 2-4-6, minus-9. We was held to a single shot on goal in each of his last two games.

Rich Peverley is 1-1-2, minus-5 in his last five games. Not that it matters. In 12 games against the Caps as a member of the Thrashers, Peverley is 3-7-10, and he has a pair of assists in the two games so far this season. But it probably says something about the state of the Thrashers that Peverley is centering the top line with Andrew Ladd and Niclas Bergfors on his wings. More that he centers the top power play unit. He has only four power play points this season, seventh on the club. That the Thrashers are fourth in the league on the power play suggests he’s more of a space eater who provides cover for defensemen Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byguglien (himself quite a space eater), who are one-two on the club in power play scoring and in the top-ten in the league in man-advantage scoring.

Speaking of defensemen, it is worth noting that only one Thrasher defenseman is a “plus” for the season. Brent Sopel, part of the great Blackhawk southern migration last off season, is a plus-3 in 16 games so far. Sopel is something of an odd duck in the way he is deployed on defense by Atlanta. He is dead last among the eight defensemen having dressed for the Thrashers this year in even-strength ice time per game, suggesting he is more of a third-pairing type of defenseman. But no Atlanta defenseman gets more penalty-killing time per game than Sopel’s 3:38. It is more than Nicklas Lidstrom gets, more than Zdeno Chara gets, more than Mike Green and Chris Pronger get.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Atlanta: Nik Antropov

Last season, his first with Atlanta, Antropov put in a claim to be among the better centers in the league with 24 goals and 67 points in 76 games, with a plus-13 thrown in on what was not a strong club. But he got off to a grisly start this season – 0-1-1, minus-3 in his first eight games. He has shown more of a pulse lately (4-2-6 in his last eight games, but with a minus-7), but it is not the sort of line the Thrashers can afford to have him sustaining if they are to be a playoff contender. He is 7-14-21 in 30 career games against the Caps.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

It says something that the third leading scorer in the league does not look quite right, but subjectively speaking there seems to be a lack of a dynamic aspect to Alex Ovechkin’s game. He is getting his points, but he is doing so in what, for him at least, is a subdued fashion (when was the last time you saw him jump into the glass after a goal?). Perhaps it is maturity, perhaps it is recognizing the wealth of talent around him and forgoing doing most of it by himself, maybe he is just saving himself by parceling out his expenditure of energy to have more left later in the year. But there have been few, if any instances in which he has taken over a game. There will be times when he has to. This game might not be (in fact, shouldn’t be) one of them, but it would be nice to see the old “Ovie” from time to time. Still, it would be hard to feel too bad about a player who had an eight-game points streak snapped last night (5-10-15, plus-8 in those eight games), and he is 28-32-60, plus-6 in 38 career games against Atlanta.


1. Uneven-Steven. The Thrashers have four players in plus territory this season, and only one of them (Brent Sopel) gets more than 15 minutes of ice time a game. Atlanta has three defensemen that get more than 18 minutes of even strength ice time a game (Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom, and Zach Bogosian), and they are a combined minus-12. There is little wonder that the Thrashers have been outscored 38-29 at 5-on-5. The Caps are just about the mirror image of the Thrashers, outscoring opponents 36-29 at even strength.

2. Catch a couple of stripers. No, not rockfish in the Chesapeake, but the guys wearing the orange arm bands. The Caps have a top-ten power play, one that is 9-for-23 (39.1 percent) over its last seven games, but the problem is that 23 power plays number (3.3 a game). The Caps don’t get enough opportunities to take the greatest advantage of that advantage. They recorded only a single power play opportunity in each of their last two games. So, despite the efficient power play and the improved penalty kill, the Caps are still only a plus-2 on special teams (13 PPG against 11 PPG allowed). They need to force the action to draw more fouls.

3. Finish strong. Only Carolina has allowed more third period goals (26) than has Atlanta (23). Only Vancouver has scored more goals in the third period (23) than have the Caps (22). Pittsburgh lit up the Thrashers for three goals in the third period last night. The Caps are certainly capable of doing the same tonight, especially against a team going on the road for its second game in two nights.

In the end, the Thrashers have done the dance of inconsistency, swerving from streak to streak. After defeating the Caps on opening night the Thrashers lost two, won two, lost three, won two, lost, won, lost three, won, lost. Such is life for a .500 team (7-7-3). They will be coming to the hardest rink in the Eastern Conference for the visitor to win. The Caps are 8-1-0 at home and have scored at least four goals in four of their last five home contests. For Atlanta, a team that has allowed the fourth highest total of goals on the road in the NHL so far this season, the task is daunting. The Thrashers played the Caps close and tough in the first two games of this season’s series, winning one and losing the other in overtime. But talent is finding its appropriate level as the NHL approaches the 20-game mark, and the Caps simply have too much for Atlanta to cope with.

Caps 5 – Thrashers 2