Sunday, January 16, 2011

A TWO-point night -- Game 46: Caps 3 - Senators 1

The Washington Capitals put an end to their three-game losing streak by defeating the Ottawa Senators this afternoon, 3-1, at Verizon Center in a contest in which fans got three games for their money. We are not arguing that all three were to Caps fans’ liking.

The first game was the first 20 minutes, in which Ottawa took advantage of some rust on goalie Michal Neuvirth (he had one appearance before this game since December 23rd) to score a goal 72 seconds into the game. Nick Foligno started the play by dumping the puck from the Capitals’ blue line into the opposite corner where Ryan Shannon tracked it down. Shannon fired the puck across toward the Washington cage, where Neuvirth blocked it aside. Foligno tried to poke it in, and Neuvirth tried to cover it up, but it was Mike Fisher who nudged it past Neuvirth before he could control it to give the Senators the early lead.

Even after that early goal the Caps looked rather lethargic, recording only one even-strength shot on goal in the first 15 minutes against one of the least effective even-strength teams in the league. Washington managed only five total shots on goal in the period. Not included among them were two golden opportunities for Marcus Johansson who found himself on both occasions standing in front of the Ottawa goaltender with the puck on his stick and nary a Senator in the same area code, and he missed the net on both occasions. Add to that a third opportunity he had when crossing through the low slot with a scoring chance on his stick, and it was a perverse sort of “hat trick” of missed opportunities.

The second period (or the second "game" for the fans) was a lot livelier for the Caps, if not satisfyingly productive. The Caps managed 12 shots at goaltender Brian Elliott, but there was still the disturbing notion of getting one shot on goal, but not getting any follow-up opportunities. The Senators seemed content to play the game outside the faceoff dots and along the wall in a sort of rope-a-dope effort that left the Caps with unappealing shot opportunities save for one occasion when it seemed the entire Washington bench crashed the net in an effort to get the equalizer.

The Senators are in 13th place in the Eastern Conference for a reason, and it manifested itself in the eighth minute of the third period (the bet "game" of the afternoon for Caps fans). Mike Green reached the Ottawa line and sent the puck hard around to the other corner where Senator defenseman Erik Karlsson collected it. As he was absorbing a hit from Alex Ovechkin, he nudged the puck over to his partner, Chris Phillips. Phillips tried to hit Daniel Alfredsson with a pass, but there were two things wrong with that idea. First, Alfredsson was circling six feet from his own goaltender, which meant that Phillips was trying to clear the puck from behind his own goal line up the middle of the ice. Way bad idea. The second thing that was wrong with the idea was that he ended up executing a bad idea poorly, missing Alfredsson and putting the puck on the stick of Brooks Laich, who took advantage by wrong-footing a wrist shot past Elliott to tie the game.

Forty-five seconds later the Caps did precisely what you are supposed to do when a team takes liberties with one of your players. Milan Michalek, who had no play in front of him as the puck was sliding down the boards, pushed Karl Alzner head first into the half-wall near the Caps bench. He was sent off on a two-minute minor for cross-checking at 7:58. On the ensuing face off Nicklas Backstrom won the draw cleanly to John Carlson who fired the puck past Elliott to give the Caps the lead. Elapsed time of power play: two seconds.

Jason Chimera closed the scoring on a play you never expect an NHL goaltender to surrender, although it probably happens several times a year. Chimera had the puck just below the goal line in the left wing corner. He stepped out and walked the line for a few steps, just enough for Elliott to cheat on the pass he was expecting. That left a perfect opening for the left-handed shot of Chimera, who scooped the puck off Elliott’s back and into the net. Three goals in the space of 6:16, and the Caps’ losing streak was over.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps won the dot 43-19. 43-19? Winning 69 percent of the draws is hard to do in this league. They were a combined 36-14 (72 percent) in the offensive and defensive zones.

-- Alex Ovechkin “played” his best game in at least a month (even though he did not record a point). Not only did he have several excellent looks at the net, he created many of those opportunities on his own with an explosiveness not often seen lately. Then again, it was Ottawa, not Vancouver and not the next team the Caps are playing – Philadelphia.

-- You would have needed a supercomputer to keep up with the line juggling from Bruce Boudreau …Johansson-Ovechkin-Laich…Backstrom-Knuble-Hendricks…Backstrom-Andrew Gordon-and who knows who?

-- Another guy who “played” well (if his being shut out in points didn’t reflect it) was Mike Green. Eight shot attempts, (three on goal), five hits, and three blocked shots. And he was skating very well, not prone to the occasional leaving of the puck behind that seemed to creep into his game lately.

-- If there was a “buddy movie” to be made about hockey players, it might feature Karl Alzner and John Carlson. Alzner gets leveled against the boards to draw a penalty, Carlson picks up his partner two seconds later with a bomb from the point on the power play. Someone messes wit my partner, he messes wit me.

-- Not much on John Erskine’s score sheet – a couple of shots, a takeaway, a blocked shot, but he was making good decisions with the puck deep in his own end, and he was making sure Chris Neil wasn’t getting away with free shots at teammates.

-- Michal Neuvirth stopped the last 20 shots he faced over the last 58:48. That is called “slamming the door.” That is 15 wins in 28 games in this, Neuvirth’s rookie season. He is within shouting distance of the club record for wins by a rookie goaltender (18) set by Jim Carey in 1995.

In the end, the Caps “played” a lot better than the 3-1 final suggests. If Marcus Johansson and Alex Ovechkin cashed in on half the looks they had, it might have been a five or six goal game for the Caps. The giving up goals early is still a problem, though. And that is something that can get the Caps in a world of trouble on Tuesday, when they jump up several weight classes to visit the Flyers in Philadelphia.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Senators, January 16th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Over the past nine games the Washington Capitals have played their arch rivals twice (Pittsburgh), their closest competitors in the Southeast Division twice (Tampa Bay), another Southeast Division rival twice (Florida), a team fighting to hold onto a playoff spot (Montreal), a team fighting to get into a playoff spot (Carolina), and the best team in the league at the moment (Vancouver).

You could say that the last three weeks have been somewhat eventful.

The Caps get a change of pace in hosting the Ottawa Senators at Verizon Center this afternoon. Ottawa is not a rival (they’re in the Northeast Division), not fighting for a playoff spot (11 points out of eighth place), and are far from being the best team in the league (24 points behind Vancouver).

What the Senators are is a team that might be fighting for their coach’s continued employment…

"If we get fired, it's not failure; it's a midlife vocational assessment." – P.J. O’Roarke

The speculation on Clouston’s job ranges from the “it is widely believed” sort of lead to the more emphatic “Clouston must go” sort of statement.

"When I find an employee who turns out to be wrong for a job, I feel it is my fault because I made the decision to hire him." – Akio Morita

The swirl of speculation even goes so far as to question whether Bryan Murray will be re-upped as Senators’ general manager.

"In the end we are all sacked and it's always awful. It is as inevitable as death following life. If you are elevated there comes a day when you are demoted." – Alan Clark

But in the end, just about everyone in that line of work is informed that their services are no longer required. Whether Clouston will get that message might come down to how well his Senators fare against the struggling Capitals this afternoon.

Things were not always such. The Senators started the month of November with four straight wins, part of a six-wins-in-seven-games run that left them with an 8-6-1 record on November 9th. But then they took one in the teeth, courtesy of the Vancouver Canucks – a 6-2 beating at home. Starting with that game the Senators’ have been plummeting through the standings. Since their four-game winning streak they are 9-16-5 over their last 30 games and managed consecutive wins only once – wins over Nashville and Pittsburgh in the games immediately before and after Christmas. Since those wins, the Senators have lost seven of eight games (1-5-2), have been outscored 30-15, and were shut out twice.  Overall, here are the numbers:

If the Caps are going to snap out of their offensive doldrums, this could be team against which it happens. First, number one goaltender Brian Elliott has not been on top of his game of late. He is winless in his last seven decisions (0-5-2), has a 3.83 goals against average and a .862 save percentage, and was pulled twice over that span. And it is not as if Elliott has been especially productive against the Caps over his career. He has a 4-1-0 lifetime record against Washington, but in compiling that win-loss mark he has a 3.86 goals against average and a .864 save percentage. He lost his only decision against the Caps this season, a 3-2 loss in Ottawa on December 19th.

Elliott’s ability to win games against the Caps stems from his receiving considerable goal support from his teammates. Not so these days. Here is an idea of how much the Senators have struggled on offense. Jason Spezza hasn’t played a game since December 26th and he is still third on the team in total scoring (20 points).

Daniel Alfredsson leads the Senators in scoring these days, but these things are relative. Alfredsson’s 14-13-27 line has him in a tie for 98th place in the NHL scoring rankings. He has been cold of late, going 3-2-5, minus-5 in his last 11 games. But the Caps might beware in this sense. Alfredsson has 11 of his 14 goals and 18 of his 27 points in 21 games on the road this season. Despite not having a point in either of the two games Ottawa played against the Caps so far this season, he is 32-28-60 in 52 career games against the Caps.

With Spezza out of the lineup, the next highest scoring forward on the club is Mike Fisher (11-7-18). But then again, he is 2-3-5, minus-6 in his last 15 games. He might want to imagine he was playing against Toronto, against which he is 3-1-4 this season. Against the Caps? No points in two games, but he is 9-9-18 in 30 career games against Washington.

If the Senators have reliable scoring, it comes more from their defense, with Erik Karlsson (8-18-26) and Sergei Gonchar (5-15-20) each with at least 20 points. Karlsson – a 20-year old with considerable promise – had a pair of goals and an assist against Pittsburgh on December 26th, but has not registered a goal since (he has three assists in his last eight games). He seems to play favorites, though. Against Montreal, Toronto, and Pittsburgh he is 4-7-11 in 11 games. Against the rest of the league he is 4-11-15 in 32 games. None of those points have come at the expense of the Caps in the two games against them this year.

Gonchar was brought to Ottawa to help on the power play, and he has been as advertised. His 3-12-15 leads the Senators in total power play points, and he is 12th among all NHL defensemen in power play points. But he has been on the ice for 42 of the 103 even-strength goals scored by opponents against Ottawa so far this season. He is a minus-16 for the season, and that is after a freakish plus-5 he put up against the Islanders in a 6-4 win last Thursday.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Ottawa: Chris Campoli

Who? Gonchar is a minus-16, and Eriksson is a minus-13, but it was Campoli who was the defenseman given a seat in the press box for the last two games for Ottawa. Maybe it was his minus-4 against Boston in his last game. For a guy who doesn’t contribute much on the offensive end (he is 1-6-7 this season), being on the ice for four goals against isn’t a way to endear yourself to your embattled coach. He will return to the lineup against Washington and will be counted upon to help keep the Caps’ offensive troubles from finding a solution against the Senators.

Washington: Mike Knuble

While much time and space has been devoted to the woes of other individual Capitals, Mike Knuble has been the one Cap who has been scoring at something at or above his expected pace. He has seven goals in his last 19 games, which works out to a 30-goal season pace. He is not a big assist guy, but the fact that he has only three assists in that span is evidence that his running mates on the first line (when he is playing on it) aren’t turning on the red light lately. He has not had an especially productive career against the Senators – 10-7-17 in 48 career games – but while the Caps are struggling to find something of their offensive flair, Knuble has been quietly contributing some grit and greasiness, much to the satisfaction of Kanoobie.


1. Find Your Inner Grinder. In the movie “Miracle,” Herb Brooks said, “You don't have enough talent to win on talent alone.” The Caps might take that to heart, because despite all their “talent” they are getting very little production. Find your inner grinder and get the ugly goal or three.

2. Gimme five. On five, that is. Only two teams have allowed more five-on-five goals than have the Senators (Tampa Bay and New Jersey). No team has allowed more even-strength goals of any number. Only the Islanders and Devils have a worse five-on-five goals scored to goals allowed ratio than does Ottawa. The Caps have to make hay while the sun shines at even strength.

3. Early Bird Special. The Caps are dead last in first period goals scored (28). The top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble have a total of six first period goals all season and are on a pace to finish with 11. Last season they had 35 such goals. Folks might talk about this or that reason for the Caps’ struggles on offense, but getting off to good starts – or the lack of it – says a lot about the problems they have had.

In the end, this game will say as much about the Caps as games against teams like Pittsburgh or Vancouver. In this instance, it will be a case of how effectively the Caps can put the Senators down and stand on their throats. The first two games against Ottawa this season were by no means easy – a pair of 3-2 wins, one coming in overtime. But we are getting to that point in the season where the Caps need to start looking like a contender, and Ottawa is sinking in the standings, a team for which there is as much attention focused on who is or will be behind the Senator bench as to what is happening on the ice. The Caps need to take advantage of that.

Caps 5 – Senators 1