Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Lightning at Capitals, January 4th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, it’s back to the old grindstone for the Caps. HBO has left town, the Winter Classic is over, and the Tampa Bay Lightning await on a cold January night. What is a team to do to keep the magic of the past few weeks going? Well…

-- Hang a tennis ball from the end of a broom stick and walk around with it like it is a boom microphone to pick up all the practice banter for HBO.

-- Place ketchup bottles around the practice rink to give it that “Heinz Field” feel.

-- Have coaches and staff on the bench and on ladders next to the glass with water guns to spray water on players as they skate along the ice.

-- Put a hat rack on the visitors’ bench at Kettler with a varsity jacket and a trilby hat on it. Oh wait…that will be more animated than Dan Bylsma.

-- Someone get Coach Boudreau a copy of the book, “1001 Uses of the Word #@$%!”

Well, try as one might, we are about to enter what amount to the dog days of the hockey season, those weeknight games against whomever that sort of get lumped together in one big clump of hockey. But this game has meaning in that it is a chance for the Capitals to regain the Southeast Division lead from the team immediately ahead of them, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Lightning might not be the hottest team in the NHL at the moment (that would be the Vancouver Canucks at 9-0-1 in their last ten games), but they are probably next in line. Tampa Bay is 8-1-1 in their last ten games. Numbers can be misleading, though. In assembling that impressive record over the past three weeks, the Lightning have been living on the edge. Of their eight wins in this span, five of them have come in extra time, two of them via the Gimmick. But win they have, and they have been doing it in a surprising way – with defense. Over the last ten games the Lightning have allowed a measly 20 goals. Six times they allowed only a single goal in regulation time (5-0-1).  The overall numbers look like this...

You might have thought that the recent run of defensive effectiveness would leave the Lightning quiet on the matter of goaltending. You might have thought – ok, a bunch of hockey writers who don’t really seem to follow the Caps all that closely might have thought – that the Caps would be looking for some veteran netminding to carry them down the stretch and into the playoffs.

Wrong and wrong.

Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman pulled the trigger on a trade to serve two purposes. Yzerman acquired goalie Dwayne Roloson from the New York Islanders for defenseman Ty Wishart, who isn’t even be the best player in the league named “Ty” (Ty Conklin). More to the point, Wishart isn’t even in the league at the moment, having played until now this season with the Norfolk Admirals in the AHL (presumably, he will now move to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers).

The first purpose in obtaining Roloson is to inject some veteran dependability between the Tampa Bay pipes. Even with their recent run of stinginess, the Lightning rank 26th in the league in goals allowed per game. And with one of Tampa Bay’s goalies (Mike Smith) on injured reserve, the Lightning need that sort of help just that much more.

The second purpose in obtaining Roloson might have to do with the team the Lightning visit tonight. Against the Capitals, Dwayne Roloson has enjoyed more than his share of success, or at least effectiveness. This year with the Islanders he faced Washington once and allowed only two goals on 26 shots in a 2-1 loss on October 13th. Last year was a bit rocky for Roloson against the Caps (1-1-2, 4.06, .880), but over the past eight seasons he has a record of 6-3-3, 2.46, .908, and one shutout against the Caps.

Roloson comes to a team that can score goals. Two players have at least 50 points – Steven Stamkos (31-25-56) and Martin St. Louis (16-34-50) – and have 13 players with double digits in points (the Caps have 11). Perhaps the most surprising among those 13 players is defenseman Brett Clark. Caps fans might not be particularly familiar with Clark, since he spent the past six seasons in Colorado. But before that he was an Atlanta Thrasher for three seasons and a Montreal Canadien for two seasons before that. Now in his 12th NHL season, Clark has assembled a solid, if unspectacular resume. But this season (currently 7-10-17) he is on a pace to threaten his career marks in goals (ten) and points (39), both set with Colorado in the 2006-2007 season.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Tampa Bay: Steven Stamkos

Let’s face it, as Stamkos goes, so go the Lightning. His 56 total points means he has been involved in 47 percent of the total goals scored by Tampa Bay this season. He has 25 of those goals in 23 wins for the Lightning, only six goals in 16 losses, and only two of those at even strength.

Washington: Semyon Varlamov

Presumably, Bruce Boudreau will continue to ride the hot hand in goal, and that means Varlamov gets the call again. Since blowing a tire against the New York Rangers and allowing seven goals on 20 shots, he is 3-0-1 with a goals against average of 1.23. He has turned away 112 of 117 shots (.957) in those games with a shutout included. Coming off a “first star of the week” performance and a glittering stint in the Winter Classic, the obvious concern is a let down.


1. Even Steven. Tampa Bay, and Steven Stamkos in particular, are deadly with the man advantage. The Lightning are fourth in power play efficiency, and no player in the league has more power play goals or power play points than Stamkos. At even strength, the Lightning are much more manageable, ranking only 24th at 5-on-5 effectiveness. The key here is to limit the power play opportunities the Lightning get.

2. Inspiration, not Deflation. Coming off not only the biggest regular season game of the year on the biggest stage, but living through the build-up for it over a month with HBO cameras in their faces, the Caps (not just Semyon Varlamov) will be confronting the matter of a let down. If they can take inspiration from the last month and how they handled the distractions, the hype, and the game itself, they can start the “regular” regular season of 2011 well. If they are sluggish, though, the Lightning will be all over them.

3. Spread it around. Much has been made of the scoring slump in which Alex Ovechkin finds himself. But the flip side of this is that in posting a 5-0-1 record since the eight-game losing streak, the Caps have spread things around nicely on the score sheet. Ten different players have goals in the last six games (none with more than three), and 19 different skaters have recorded points (none with more than four, and that player – Brooks Laich – has all of them via assists). Keep that up, and the Lightning really don’t have an answer; they are not as deep.

In the end, this is as stiff a test as was the game Saturday against the Penguins, for different reasons. The Penguins were skilled and battle tested in big games; the Lightning aren’t as skilled, but they are hungry. The Penguins had the Caps’ full and devoted attention; this has the potential of being a let down game. Veteran teams, teams with mental discipline, fight through games like this and find ways to win. That will be the game within the game tonight.

Caps 4 – Lightning 2

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