Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A ONE-point night -- Game 41: Lightning 1 - Caps 0 (OT)

Well, it could have been worse. But it could have been a whole lot better, too. The Caps got off to a sluggish start tonight in hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning, but fought through the fog of the first period to dominate the middle frame. In neither period could the Caps score, though, but then again, neither did Tampa Bay. The third period was played as if each team was looking to ensure at least one standings point. That would be all the Caps would get as Martin St. Louis sent a rebound of a Vincent Lecavalier shot through the legs of defenseman Tom Poti and into the back of the net to give the Lightning a 1-0 overtime win and sole possession of the Southeast Division lead.

We heard a number commentators after the game expressing surprise at the fact that this game – featuring two teams in the top ten in scoring – would end regulation scoreless. We fail to see the mystery. The Caps came into this game having allowed only 13 goals in their last eight games, while Tampa Bay came into the contest having allowed only 16 goals in their last nine contests. Both teams were having considerable success keeping pucks out of their own nets. And what added another dimension to the situation was Tampa Bay having added Dwayne Roloson in goal, obtained in a trade with the New York Islanders on New Year’s Day.

This had all the makings of a potential low-scoring affair, but the pace of the game seemed more that of a 4-3 or 5-4 game. Tampa Bay came out flying (or the Caps came out flat, depending on your perspective). Tampa outshot the Caps 5-0 in the game’s first eight minutes, the Caps not getting their first shot on goal until the 8:06 mark of the period. From that point forward through the end of regulation, the Caps caught and passed the Lightning in shots on goal, finishing the last 42 minutes with a 34-28 lead after allowing those first five shots. The Lightning dominated the extra session, though, outshooting the Caps 5-0 over the 2:54 played. It was just enough to earn them the second standings point.

Other stuff…

-- Semyon Varlamov certainly wasn’t sluggish. He was sharp from the get go, turning away 37 of 38 shots. That makes of 149 saves on 155 shots, a .961 save percentage over his past five games.

-- Vincent Lecavalier didn’t get a star, but he wins the buffet award, sampling the entire score sheet: an assist, plus-1, a minor penalty, six shots on goal, one shot blocked, two misses, three hits, a giveaway, a takeaway, a blocked shot, and 18 faceoffs taken (of which he won only four).

-- Alex Ovechkin had eight shots on goal and 16 total attempts. But of the eight shots on goal and the five misses he had, they were taken from an average of 36 feet. Not exactly getting chances from in close.

-- If Alexander Semin was, say, Bob Smith, he would have one foot in the press box and the other about to take the last step into it. He was sloppy with the puck and posed almost no threat in the offensive zone tonight. Since scoring four goals in two games to end the month of November, he is 0-5-5, even, over his last 13 games.

-- On the game-winner, Tom Poti was in a no-man’s land trying to defend against the rebound shot of Martin St. Louis. He had already been on the ice for 1:03 when he could only wave at the St. Louis drive as it rocketed through his legs.

-- We get that Mike Green is filling out his game by being responsible and even at times dominating in his own end. But he had one shot attempt tonight (blocked) and four hits. Is that an effective mix?

-- So, you pull the other guys sweater over his head, and you STILL lose the fight? Ladies and gentlemen, Steve Downie.

-- Marcus Johansson was one guy with jump in his step tonight. He is skating with a good deal more confidence. When he adds some bulk over the next couple of years he is going to be a force out there.

-- Funniest sight of the night…Mathieu Perreault, giving away nine inches and about 50 pounds, going into the corner against Victor Hedman and pestering him off the puck.

-- Nicklas Backstrom has now gone 15 games without a goal and has only seven assists over that span. Right now, there is no Backstrom-Ovechkin magic. The Caps will need it.

-- The Caps had two power play goals against the Lightning the last time the teams met, on November 26th. Since then the Caps are 7-for-64 (10.9 percent) and have not had any multiple power-play goal games. They were 0-for-3 tonight.

-- On the other side of special teams the 3-for-3 night makes the Caps 29-for-30 on the PK over their last eight games (96.7 percent).

In the end, the Caps “played” a fairly decent game, especially considering that: a) they played the biggest regular season game in franchise history the last time out, and b) they sleepwalked their way through the first ten minutes. If there was one consistent shortcoming tonight, it was that they appeared a half-second slow pulling the trigger on shots, allowing goalie Dwayne Roloson to look a lot better than he might really have been. In that respect, this might be as good as it gets for Roloson and the Lightning, although a shutout of one of the league’s best home teams is quite a way to start one’s career in a new uniform.

For the Caps, this was the first 1-0 overtime loss in team history, so you can call this game memorable, if not ultimately satisfying. But the Caps are 5-0-2 in their last seven games and have allowed as many as three goals in a game only once in the last nine contests. All things considered, it is hardly an end-of-the-world night, although there might be a few Caps fans to think otherwise, preferring to wallow in the belief (misbegotten though it might be) that a changing of the guard has taken place. It hasn’t. Dwayne Roloson upgrades the Lightning in goal, but can he carry a number one load over the last 45 games or so? Over the previous eight seasons Roloson has topped 50 games played twice, so we’ll see.

For now, the Caps just need to keep plugging through the dog days of their schedule that now enters a dangerous phase with six of their next ten on the road and four of them against Southeast Division opponents. If they keep playing defense like they did tonight and the way that they have been over the past few weeks, they should be successful.

One Rivalry or Another

Ever since the two came into the league – Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby – the comparison of comparisons has been, “are these two the next generation ‘Magic versus Bird’ rivalry?” It certainly was an easy leap to think of their emerging rivalry in those terms.

Alex Ovechkin might have been the “Magic” in this tale. Like Johnson, he came to his professional league at the age of 20, a rambunctious, irrepressible, effervescent soul with an outsized talent and flair for the dramatic. He would put up numbers in such a prolific fashion as to almost redefine the importance and impact of a left wing in a manner similar to that which Johnson redefined the position of “point guard” in the NBA.

Sidney Crosby would be the “Bird” in this rivalry, a prodigy from a small town who had been noticed as a generational talent from the time he was a youngster. Giving the appearance of being wary of the spotlight that was constantly trained on him, Crosby would be as uncontroversial in his public persona as Bird was in his. Despite his considerable talents he, like Bird, might have seemed dull in comparison to Ovechkin, as Bird might have been when compared to Johnson.

But with Ovechkin and Crosby, there was no denying their talents any more than there was when Bird and Johnson entered the NBA. It would make their meetings “events” to be chronicled in never-ending lists of who scored how much against the other, and who won more games, more playoff series, or more titles than the other.

But as time goes by, and we get a fuller appreciation of the respective talents and public personalities of the players, there is another “rivalry” that might be more appropriate to use as a comparison to that between Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. After five-plus seasons in the NHL, both have been successful. It is nothing short of amazing that this deep into their respective careers (both having played more than 400 regular season games) that they have precisely the same number of points – 571. They arrived at that mark in very different ways, Ovechkin doing it primarily with goals scored from every conceivable point on the ice and even one on his back. Crosby has done it with the technical precision of a surgeon, relying early on in his career on a host of tricks to thread passes to waiting teammates for a score. More recently – part of his relentless pursuit of fixing technical weaknesses in his game – he has improved his shot selection and shot making, mixed in with a willingness to wade through traffic, to score more on his own.

But the alternative comparison emerges when one looks at their performance in the context of their teams. Ovechkin has been prolific in the extreme in terms of his own numbers – a four-time 50-goal scorer, four times over 100 points, a plus-74 for his career (in only 436 games), a Calder Trophy, First Team All-Rookie Team, five-time First Team NHL All Star, a Ross Trophy, two Richard Trophies, two Hart Trophies, and three Lindsay Awards. What he doesn’t have are “wins” – wins that matter. He has one playoff series win in four tries and was the face of a Russian team that was bounced early and emphatically from the 2010 Winter Olympic Games – by Sidney Crosby’s Canadian team. His lone “win” was a 2008 World Championship gold medal, a year in which Sidney Crosby went to his first Stanley Cup final.

Crosby does not have quite Ovechkin’s personal resume, but his trophy case is still well stocked – a First Team All-Rookie Team, a First Team NHL All Star, a Ross Trophy, a Hart Trophy, a Lindsay Award, and a Richard Trophy. But what he has more of is wins. Crosby has participated in more Penguin playoff wins (38) than Ovechkin has in Washington playoff games (28). He has been to the Stanley Cup finals twice, winning once. He has an Olympic gold medal. You could argue (and in fact, I would) that Crosby has accomplished this with teams that were more talented than Ovechkin’s, but wins matter in the evaluation of developing legends, and Crosby has them.

As the NHL’s 2010-2011 season enters its second half, we seem to be approaching a crossroads in the Ovechkin-Crosby rivalry. Over the first five years Crosby has had the better of it, even with the Caps going 8-0-2 in the last ten regular season meetings with the Penguins. Ovechkin’s teams have won a lot of games that ultimately didn’t mean much, while Crosby’s teams won as much and won when it mattered. As public figures, Ovechkin came into the league as a devil-may-care sort to dove into his new English-speaking culture with enthusiasm. From making commercials to giving interviews in halting (but improving) English to the chronicles of his “rock star” sort of life style (certainly by the more buttoned-down standards of hockey), he was the fresh face, a personality with personality. Even as he seems to have withdrawn some, especially after last year’s Olympic misfortune, he still remains perhaps the most electric personality in the league. Crosby, on the other hand, is the opposite in public temperament. At least for public consumption, his life is hockey, and he has an almost monomaniacal focus on it and improving his performance in it. No one is getting a free peek at the “inner Crosby.” Ovechkin’s is a free-lanced life; Crosby’s scripted to the finest detail.

The differences between the two came into clearer relief in the HBO series, although there were introspective moments from Ovechkin and spontaneous expressions of emotion from Crosby (only on the ice, though). It would be unfair to Crosby to say that Ovechkin seems to enjoy his life more than does Crosby, but we suspect that if folks were asked to choose which one they would rather have, if only for a time, that Ovechkin’s seems the more fun one to experience.

In that respect, we wonder if the apt comparison for these two players is the “Magic/Bird” rivalry. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were very different personalities that made for great drama on the court. But both won, often and often at the other’s expense. Johnson won an NCAA championship against Bird and won five NBA titles. Bird won three NBA titles. That kind of close competition in terms of championships has not yet been a hallmark of the Ovechkin/Crosby rivalry.

If Ovechkin’s Capitals come up short this season, especially if Crosby’s Penguins go deep into the post season or win another Stanley Cup, the closer comparison might then become one between two professionals in another sport. On the one hand, an immensely talented individual who won a lot of titles that didn’t matter much, but came up short too often in important events early in his career; yet an athlete who seemed to lead a rich and varied life away from his place of work. On the other hand, a prodigy, a player whose gifts were evident before his first day of school, a player with an uncommon ability to focus on his craft, seemingly to the exclusion of all else, at least for public consumption. One athlete a great interview, personable, the sort you might like to hang around with. The other given to almost cliché-like answers to interview questions, practiced, scripted, distant.

By the time this season is over, the sixth for both Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the picture might come into clearer focus whether the Ovechkin/Crosby rivalry really is the next coming of the Magic/Bird rivalry, one that had enough success to go around; or merely that of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, one dominated by one rival over the other on the biggest stages.

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