Thursday, December 23, 2010

24/7...Becomes Eight: Penguins/Capitals -- Part II

“Previously, on ‘24/7’”…

Adversity makes for a much richer, much deeper narrative, and even in a two-minute recap of Episode 1 this is true. In comparing the Penguins and the Capitals, the only words spoken by a Penguin are those of Sidney Crosby who thinks out loud that he had not seen a run of wins like that the Penguins were enjoying at all in his time in the NHL. Meanwhile, Bruce Boudreau is laying into his team in the locker room (in what might be the tamest – least ‘f-bomb’ laden – portion of his intermission tirade), and Alex Ovechkin is picking himself up off the ice after a fight exhorting his team – “f***ing c’mon for f***’s sake!” – to no avail. Short, sweet – you know where the teams are jumping off from to start Episode 2.

Segment 1 – The Belly of the Beast

Opening the segment with a song made by a group named for a city (Boston) not represented by the game to be featured (Pittsburgh traveling to Philadelphia) was an interesting way to go, but the take away really comes in the first 30 seconds when Max Talbot says that he warns his Dad not to wear his jersey down there (in Philly)… “it’s pretty rough down there.” That might be as close as you will get to seeing a hockey player express trepidation.

But the things you learn in just a few moments, like the etiquette of fighting through the eyes of one not so experienced in it – in this case Sidney Crosby. One is left with the thought that there really might be a Marquis of Queensbury aspect to this whole notion of fighting in hockey – are we going to go?...yeah, we’re gonna go. Helmet, on or off?…whatever, your choice.

The game itself between the Flyers and Penguins leaves two images. The first is the fickleness of the hockey gods. Evgeni Malkin scores the two Penguin goals, but it is his penalty that leads to the game winning goal for the home team that would break the Penguins’ winning streak. The other image is as the horn sounds and the look on Sidney Crosby’s face, which is priceless. Utter disbelief that the streak is over. You can see it in his blank expression – “this isn’t right…”

Segment 2 – Best Left in the Rear View Mirror

That Mike Green is a quirky sort who seems to follow his own drummer and live at his own pace would hardly seem news… but a Vespa? And the cold weather get-up could only be explained as “Biker Geek.” You gotta love this guy. But that was merely prelude to the alternative to “F’n Bruce.” Meet “Caring Bruce,” counseling Matt Hendricks, who looks like a victim in the first minutes of a Law and Order episode, that “you don’t have to fight every game.” And then you learn about one of the things that motivates a player on the edge of the NHL – “comes down to having a job; making a career.” After that, you don’t pay much attention to what Hendricks says, only to his face – blood in his right eye, stitches on his right cheek, a welt under his eye where he thinks (thinks?) his face struck the ice after going down in a fight. After he scored a few goals in a training camp and was sent down to the minors anyway, a friend told him “you gotta fight; if you don’t do it, someone else will.” This is how players not named “Crosby” or “Ovechkin” often have to make a living. Leaving yourself with a face you don’t want to look at in a mirror.

Segment 3 – Not So Large, But In Charge

The cameras follow a Caps practice and Bruce Boudreau trying to get the guys feeling good about themselves again, then moves to Mike Green skating alone on the ice getting himself back in position to return to game action, but the thread here is General Manager George McPhee. This is the “long view” McPhee, the one whose eyes are not focused on the next game but the horizon. He understands that there are hills and valleys in a season and reveals his role in dealing with them, letting folks do their job, giving them space to do it, to “let them work their way out of it…and they will.”

Segment 4 – Stink

We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t get the stink out of hockey pads without using every portable fan in the Three Rivers region. Who knew?

Segment 5 – Just Can’t Say It, Can Ya?

The opening with Penguin Coach Dan Bylsma and his staff – Tony Granato and Todd Reirden – left us with the impression that Bylsma is wound just a bit too tight. There is a fine line between being a perfectionist and dwelling on one game’s worth of mistakes. Bylsma’s body English suggested a man about to fly into a rage. Good thing they have those 1:00 game day skates for the staff.

The theme of that skate was the return to the ice of Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, who was taking a few turns to prepare for the Winter Classic Alumni Game on December 31st. And Lemieux provides enough eye candy for Penguin fans to make the segment compelling. But we were still focused on Bylsma, a guy who was another one of those “on the edge” players in his career who still seems to burn (if not quite as brightly) with that intensity. He swears at himself for missing a scoring chance. But then, like a fan, he looks on wide-eyed as Lemieux moves in on net with the puck…”ohhh boy.” Bylsma might not betray any emotion on the bench in games, but he is in his own way a quite emotional coach.

Segment 6 – Standards

Hockey men are a prideful sort, and that often translates into an expression of defiance. For Bruce Boudreau “it doesn’t matter what they say upstairs” about his performance; he has his own standards, and – as he points out – he’s been successful everywhere he’s been. The message, we might be losing, but I’m not a loser, and we will start winning again.

Then in the locker room before a game against the Anaheim Ducks there is a throw away line that is actually a bit of foreshadowing. Brooks Laich, who has been struggling some of late, turns to Matt Bradley and says, “get me the puck.” This is the shooter in basketball who can’t shoot the ball into the lake and hit water, the pitcher in baseball who couldn’t find the strike zone with a map and a flashlight. But he’s done this before, and he’s been successful doing it. And it is Laich who gets the first goal. But there is that fickleness of the hockey gods swooping in, too, as Laich’s bid for a second goal – a shot that trickles through the pads of Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller – is swept off the goal line by Ryan Getzlaf. It would be the difference, Anaheim eventually getting an overtime goal for the win.

Segment 7 – And?

At this point in the episode, we’re starting to think HBO is running out of Penguin narratives. They start with a brief look at backup goalie Brent Johnson, a former Cap with his fourth club, once a starter in the NHL (with St. Louis) but now a guy who might get 20 appearances or, if things go badly for Marc-Andre Fleury, 30 games. It might have been a more interesting segment to look at the guy whose apparel regularly features a baseball cap instead of a mask, but after cutting to some first period highlights of a game between the Penguins and Rangers, cuts to a look at Jordan Staal’s progress in returning from injury.

The star of the segment isn’t even a Penguin, it is referee Stephen Walkom, who directs traffic when Arron Asham and Sean Avery drop their gloves. Telling players and linesmen to “let ‘em go” and to “give ‘em room,” then moving the net away to keep either fighter from stumbling over it, Walkom takes command of the scene as you might find a law enforcement officer directing traffic around an accident scene, which we guess it is, sort of.

Segment 8 – “Adversity’s a good teacher.”

That’s how the segment opens, with George McPhee and Bruce Boudreau sitting down to talk about the Anaheim loss, but for the players it’s Christmas – a delivery of new hockey equipment, including a brief glimpse of Ovechkin’s new “Gr8” skates and for Jason Chimera a delivery of two left gloves (the hockey equivalent of coal in the stocking?).

Segment 9 – Simple Pleasures

This is the fork in the road point of the series that HBO has to resolve somewhere down the line. To this point we have seen some bland quotes from Sidney Crosby and a surprisingly sparse look at Alex Ovechkin. But with this segment we get a peek into a minor injury Ovechkin is nursing (hamstring), and in fact he seems like a talking version of a too-highly tuned (and temperamental) sports car. Matt Hendricks is walking around the locker room with a face than looks like it was beat with a tire iron, and Ovechkin is groaning during a massage to get the kinks out of his hamstring. But then he is shown at home, where Mom is making stuffed cabbage for lunch. We were wondering though what that sludge was in the glass next to his plate that looked like a glass of peanut butter mixed with turkey gravy. Dad oversees the packing, and Mom gives her boy a kiss goodbye as he heads off to Boston. Hardly the image of the “rock star” that is often offered for public consumption. It is the most revealing piece in the series so far. Even as a Caps fan, we hope we see one similarly revealing for Sidney Crosby.

Segment 10 – Where’s the Dryer?

We see Ovechkin at home, followed by… Dan Bylsma? He is shooting pucks with his son in the family’s basement (where it also looks as if an old Bylsma jersey hangs) and has his “hockey dad” moment when he asks his son if he meant to check another player in a game when he learns of the episode. Unlike the wound-too-tight Bylsma seen earlier, this one is well grounded, with work being work and home being home.

And that leads to the “cute” portion of the show with Craig Adams and his three-year old son Rhys going down the hall of the Penguin offices identifying players in the portraits lining the corridor. The good part is when Rhys identifies “Craig.” “You mean ‘Daddy?’” The “awww” moment.

Segment 10 – Let Matt Be Matt

Interlude… Matt Cooke had to be featured at some point doing something untoward, but in this case it was in the visiting locker room when he cuts former teammate Paul Bissonette’s skate laces. Clever.

Segment 11 – A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

And that picture is of Bruce Boudreau riding in the first row of the bus from the airport in Boston, snoozing while a voice over captures a pundit opining that the Caps look like they have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Subtle enough for ya? The gabosphere searches for new words and phrases to describe the Caps descent into the nether regions of the standings, and the Caps – Bruce Boudreau and George McPhee in particular – just go about their business. And the boys just go about theirs, having a good time at a team dinner and stuffing the remains of a lobster into the jacket pocket of Matt Bradley. If these guys were so uptight, Bradley might have beaten Mike Knuble into a puddle of goo in his chair next to him.

Bradley saved that for the ice and Bruin Adam McQuaid (although he lost the fight), but it was Knuble who took over the narrative after the Caps fell behind 3-0 at the second intermission. Knuble, who otherwise seems a pleasant fellow who mows the grass and takes the kids to hockey practice, got his ogre on in the locker room…”today it is three-zero, and it will not be one of these f***ing laughers again…it will not turn into a f***ing five-zero, seven-zero f***ing laugher…” The Caps get two back in the third, but lose. But maybe it’s the battle you lose to win the war. If it is, this is why a 30-something like Mike Knuble is important to this team and why a locker room rant, not a moment on the ice, might be the turning point.

Segment 12 – The Path Less Traveled Is Routine

Please don’t tell me this is what will pass for getting an in-depth look at Sidney Crosby. He doesn’t pass the visitors’ locker room, he eats a PB&J sandwich, and he wears the same cup he appears to have broken in when he was in pee-wee.

Segment 13 – Digging Deep

Maybe every team has a game award icon. For the Penguins it is a shovel, once belonging to a long-time arena employee and that is bestowed upon the team’s hardest worker after a win. The previous winner – Marc-Andre Fleury – awards the shovel to Evgeni Malkin for his five-point night against Phoenix, and we learn that Malkin’s English isn’t that bad.

Segment 14 – Finally

Bruce is still searching for a key to unlock the cabinet than holds all the wins, and tonight’s is reminding the Caps that Chicago lost nine in a row last year on their way to the Cup. He happens to be wrong (the Blackhawks did not lose more than three games in a row last season, although they did have a stretch in which they lost seven of nine games), but who cares?

At first, it really was a case of “who cares,” as the Caps fell behind again, 2-0, after one period to the Ottawa Senators. But Bruce had one more inspirational quote in him, one that will take its place with those of Rockne, Lombardi, Bowman…

“Now let’s get out of our fuckin’ funk and fuckin’ go and do it right now.”

Applause in the locker room ensues, the Caps score three goals in less than seven minutes of the second period, and then they squeeze the life out of the Senators to end the streak at eight with a 3-2 win. At that point you got a look at just how long the streak was. The Caps have their own tradition after wins, the awarding of the “hard hat” to the player of the game. The last time the Caps awarded the hat, it went to D.J. King, who had an assist in a 4-1 win over St. Louis (King’s former club) on December 1st. He awarded the hard hat to Mathieu Perreault for his two-goal effort, including the game-winner. And all that was left was to blast “(It’s Time To) Beat Dat Beat” at ear-splitting levels in the locker room. Some might have looked at the scene and thought it a bit much, or perhaps playing for the cameras, but it just seemed like a relief. The kids – Karl Alzner, John Carlson – were in the mood, while a couple of the older guys like Jason Chimera and Mike Knuble sat at their lockers with bemused looks on their faces.

As Bruce might say, “it’s about f’n time!”

All in all, if Episode 1 was more “Penguin’centric,” this one obviously spent more time plumbing the depths of the Caps. Not just the angst that comes from a winning streak, but the pride of guys like Boudreau and McPhee, who clearly hate losing and care not a whit for folks who question their hockey smarts. Guys like Matt Hendricks, looking for that edge that will give him a foothold on an NHL roster spot, even if it means fighting outside of his weight class. The Mike Knuble folks would never see if not for this production, who might have unleashed the most effective rant in this club’s history.

Perhaps it is having seen this episode through the eyes of a Caps fan, but the comparison between the treatment of the Caps and that of the Penguins was the difference between steak and cotton candy. I find that a bit disappointing. I’m not interested in propaganda; I’d like to get a better look at the Penguins, too. Maybe they’ll go on a long losing streak leading up to the Winter Classic, and we can get that kind of look.

Here’s hoping.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Penguins, December 23rd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, here we are. Game 1 of what could be, before the season draws to a close, an 11-game series between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. It’s enough to give you goose bumps, and that’s without the HBO series shoved into the middle of it. The Peerless has learned that HBO settled on the “24/7” concept for the run up to the Winter Classic after considering a number of other tried and true formats. HBO was prepared to bring several series names out of retirement to serve as the theme. We have some notes from the executive meetings…

Memo to HBO Corporate

Suggested segment working title: The Sopranos: Pittsburgh Edition

Star player shows his grittier side by working on the speed bag…of opposing player. Boris Valabik perhaps available on loan from AHL to reprise role.

Memo to HBO Programming

Suggested segment theme: American Splendor

Follows the saga of prospect born in Massachusetts, raised in New Jersey, goes to play in Canadian juniors, but then sticks dagger into Team Canada in junior championships with overtime gold medal winning goal. Too unbelieveable?

Memo to HBO Programming

Suggested segment theme: Barbarians at the Gate

In depth look at the history of Matt Cooke, Deryk Engelland, and Eric Godard, and their unique approach to sportsmanship. Added commentary on Lady Byng Trophy chances.

Memo to Vice President/Programming

Subject: Band of Brothers/Coming through the Ranks

Follows Michal Neuvirth, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Mathieu Perreault, Andrew Gordon, and Jay Beagle from their winning a Calder Cup in 2010 as teammates to their joining the Caps in the fall.

Memo to HBO Sports

Subject: Last of the Blonde Bombshells

In depth look at Jordan Staal…concept in development

Memo to HBO Programming

Subject: True Blood

Follows Capital Matt Bradley in his role as a grinder and as “energy” player who will drop the gloves. Issue to be resolved – Bradley has reputation as a bleeder, could be disturbing for new viewers, although hockey fans will likely love it.

Memo to HBO Sports

Suggested segment: Deadwood

Focus on Penguin Mike Comrie, signed to low cost contract with promise of playing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, plays 16 games, records no goals (update: Comrie may need hip surgery).

Memo to Vice President/Programming

Subject: Segment Theme – “Six Feet Under”

Looks at chances of Penguins winning Stanley Cup in 2011.

Good thing we got the 24/7 series, eh? Well, there will likely be some footage from tonight’s game showing up in Episode 3 of the four-part series as the Penguins visit the Caps. And the Penguins will be coming into this game as one of the hottest teams in the league. Their having lost two straight games to end a 12-game winning streak notwithstanding (they stopped that slide with a 6-1 win over Phoenix on Monday), the Penguins have won 13 of their last 15 games (before last night’s action). And if you think it was all a product of Sidney Crosby running away with the scoring race, you’d be wrong. If anything, the Penguins have done it with defense. In those 15 games the Penguins outscored their opponents 51-27. Allowing 1.80 goals per game over almost a fifth of the season qualifies as excellent defense. Overall, the numbers look like this…

The stingy defense might be what Penguin fans were hoping for, if not expecting, when the club went out last summer and signed free agents Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin. Each has done his part in the defensive end. In this 15-game run Martin is 2-3-5, plus-7, and he has logged more than 20 minutes of ice time in 14 of those 15 games. Meanwhile, Michalek is 0-3-3, plus-1, and has topped 20 minutes of ice time in 12 of those games. Neither is an especially productive offensive defenseman, but that role has been assumed comfortably by Kris Letang, who is second in the league in scoring among defensemen (6-23-29) and is a plus-18, also second among the league’s defensemen. If anything, though, Letang has slowed down a bit. Over his last six games he has a goal and a pair of assists (he was 1-1-2 in the Monday win over Phoenix).

Through 34 games the Penguins scored 108 goals. Sidney Crosby had a hand in 57 of them (27-30-57, points on 52.8 percent of the team’s goals). At the moment, the Hart Trophy is a one horse race, and that horse wears “87.” The question is whether he can keep up that sort of pace for another 48 games, because if he cannot, it is an open question where the scoring is going to come from. Only one other Penguin has as more than eight goals (Evgeni Malkin with 13), and no other Penguin has more than 30 points. Crosby shows no sign of slowing down, though. On the 15-game run he is 15-14-29 (he has a hand in 57 percent of the goals scored) with four multi-goal games and two hat tricks.

Malkin could be the key to providing Crosby with some scoring relief. Since he won the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer in 2009 he has 107 points in 96 games, a very fine number, but not one that one would expect from a player who was considered at worst the second best player in the league two seasons ago. He might be lifting his game to a higher level, though. He is 5-3-8 in his last three games, including a five-point game against Phoenix on Monday.

The knock on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has never been his talent, it has been his consistency. Even though he is a Cup-winning goalie and has a 40-win season on his resume, he has had stretches when he allows too many soft goals in too many critical situations. He started the season in much the same way. In his first 12 decisions this season he was 5-6-1, 2.95, .883. Since then, though, he is 10-1-0, 1.54, .948, and only once in those 11 decisions has he allowed more than two goals.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Pittsburgh: Pascal Dupuis

As folks tuning into the first installment of HBO’s 24/7 series learned last week, Dupuis skates on Sidney Crosby’s line. Frankly, 15 points in 33 games as a winger on that line is alarming. Even on this 15-game run he has not produced much (2-4-6). Dupuis is not alone; the Penguins do not have a winger with more than 20 points. That kind of production, with the implication that entirely too much of the Penguins’ fortune relies on the good fortune (not to mention good health) of Sidney Crosby is playing with fire. Guys like Dupuis have to produce more.

Washington: Brooks Laich

The story is that Laich was not answering his phone this past week in fear of hearing he had been traded. That seems highly unlikely. Guys with his pattern of improvement (21, 23, and 25 goals the last three years) with a $2.1 million cap hit might be considered a bargain. But he has struggled of late (1-3-4 in his last ten games). It would be nice if Laich could channel the player who was 2-4-6 in four games against the Pens two years ago (not the one who did not have a point in three games last year). Laich, like Dupuis for the Penguins, is not alone. He and his secondary scoring cohort – Mike Knuble, Eric Fehr, Jason Chimera – need to produce to ensure that the two game mini-streak the Caps are nurturing grows into something more.


1. First things first. The Caps and Penguins have similar goals scored records in the second period (43 and 42, respectively) and third period (36 and 31) this season. The Penguins, however, have 33 first period goals so far while the Caps have 24. What is worse, the Penguins are plus-12 in goals scored/goals allowed in the first period, the Caps are minus-9. If this pattern holds up, it will not be a pleasant evening. This will the the Penguins’ third game in four days, the last two being back-to-backs. It is the Caps who need to have that fast start and make a tired Pens team play catch up.

2. More Power. The Penguins have allowed only six power play goals on the road all season (only Montreal has allowed fewer), but they have allowed one in each of their last three road games. The Caps are 2-for-26 on the power play at home this month. Maybe the Penguins are that good on the penalty kill, but the Caps are certainly better than 7.7 percent on the power play.

3. No-go for Go-Go. Sidney Crosby has 27 goals, but it is defenseman Alex Goligoski who leads the team in game winners (four). Crosby might get his goal (or maybe two), but the Caps can’t let others beat them, especially on the power play (where Goligoski has two game winners).

In the end, these are two teams that are likely to be circling one another all season, just as they have been the past two seasons. Wins and losses now are nice for bragging rights, but for both teams it is a matter of doing things the right way within their respective systems and making sure that good habits are maintained. It might turn on habits. Over the last two seasons Marc-Andre Fleury’s regular season record against Washington is 1-3-2, 4.57, .861. It would be nice to see that habit continue.

Caps 4 - Penguins 2