The Caps return home from a successful 4-2-0 road trip to host the Carolina Hurricanes tonight. In doing so, the Caps will be facing a team on the edge. Carolina is sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, five points behind the eighth-place Buffalo Sabres and the last playoff spot in the East. With seven games remaining, Carolina almost has to win out to qualify for the post season. Why? Well, they have three fewer wins than do the Sabres. But in Bettman math, that number becomes “two” as a product of “regulation plus overtime wins” (i.e., total wins less those obtained via the Gimmick). If Buffalo was to win half of the standings points available (seven), Carolina would have to win 13 of 14 to pass them.
In other words, the Hurricanes come to Verizon Center a desperate team whose season likely hangs in the balance in this game. Here is how the desperate team stacks up with the Caps (going into Monday's games):
“Desperation is sometimes as powerful an inspirer as genius.” -- Benjamin Disraeli
Eric Staal might not quite qualify as “genius,” but he is the captain, the leading scorer, and the single player who has to perform in this seven-game sprint to the finish for the Hurricanes. Staal has begun to pick up his scoring pace, going 2-3-5, plus-1 in his last five games, including the game-winning goal in a 4-3 win at Tampa Bay last Friday. It has been a little bit of time coming in that Staal has had a sluggish month, scoring-wise. In March he is 4-5-9 in 12 games. Staal has had the faint air of underachiever since posting a 100-point season in Carolina’s Stanley Cup year (2005-2006). In four full seasons since he has had good numbers – an average of 34-40-74 – but it still seems to have fallen short of the promise that 2005-2006 season had. In 31 games against teams that would qualify for the playoffs in the East, Staal is 8-16-24, minus-6. But four goals and four assists of that total have come in five games against Tampa Bay. Against the Caps this year he is 2-1-3, minus-1 and is 20-27-47 in 47 career games against the Caps.
"Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate." — G.K. Chesterton
If these are desperate times in Carolina’s 2010-2011 season, they have hope for the future in rookie Jeff Skinner. Although he was drafted only last June and will not turn 19 until May, Skinner is second on the Hurricanes in scoring (26-28-54), and he leads all rookies in total points. He has been plugging along the last month, going 4-4-8 in 13 games, which might not seem like a flood of points, but he is still contributing when a lot of 18-year olds might be hitting a mental or physical wall after having played so many games (he has not missed a game this season). He has not been flashy (unless you think an 18-year old with 54 points in the NHL is flashy, and you’d have a point), but he has been consistent. Only once this season has he gone more than three games without a point. Against the Caps this season he has a pair of assists in five games.
“There is nobody more terrible than the desperate.” – Alexander Suvorov
One supposes there are different ways to take that. But one way you don’t want to take it is in being last among your team’s defensemen in plus-minus and minus-6 in the last full month of the season as your team is fighting for a playoff spot. It is not that Joe Corvo is an awful defensive defenseman (although he has been on the ice for 89 goals against this season – with Dennis Wideman, it should be pointed out – tied for tenth highest in the league), but that he is such a one-trick pony. Corvo is 5-16-21 this season on the power play, which puts him among the top-15 defensemen in the league in that scoring category. He is otherwise a minus-17 on the season, where he is tied with Los Angeles’ Jack Johnson for 287th out of 295 defensemen dressing for games this season. And it is a part of his game that has gotten progressively worse over the years. In 2007-2008 he was a combined plus-17 with Ottawa and Carolina. The following season he was minus-1 with the Hurricanes. Last season he was a combined minus-10 with Carolina and Washington (that included a minus-4 in 18 games with the Caps, so maybe it is not just the team playing around him), and he is minus-17 in 75 games this season. Is it a case of playing with progressively worse teams that drag his plus-minus numbers south, or is he just not an especially accomplished two-way defenseman at this point in his career? It is always a sliding scale on such things, but we are inclined to think more the latter. And at 33 years of age, he’s not likely to get better. The Caps have been exposed, if not to the full Corvo, at least to the unpleasant parts of it. He did not register a point in any of the five games he played against the Caps to date, but he is a minus-5 overall. He is 3-5-8, minus-7 in 26 career games against the Caps.
“A dog in desperation will leap over a wall” – Chinese proverb
Cam Ward is no dog, but he seems to get that kind of play in front of him too often. Ward is tied with Tim Thomas in wins among goaltenders with 32 (albeit in 15 more appearances), and his .920 save percentage is tied for 11th with Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury (who was named by his teammates as the Penguins’ most valuable player). However, Ward’s 2.64 goals against average is 25th in the league. The problem? Ward has faced more shots than any goaltender in the league, and it is not close for second. In 67 games Ward has faced 2,139 shots – an average of 33.0 per 60 minutes played and 138 more shots than the total faced by Montreal’s Carey Price (a 6.9 percent gap). In a league where goalies bunch up in the save percentage rankings (goalies ranked second through 12th are between .929 and .920 – Tim Thomas is in a league by himself atop the rankings at .939), the number of shots a goalie faces starts to come into play, and Ward has faced far too many for comfort. Consider that Marc-Andre Fleury, with whom Ward is tied in save percentage, has faced only 28.4 shots per game (4.6 per game fewer than Ward). That is why Fleury’s GAA is 2.28 and Ward’s is 2.64. Ward’s record against the Caps this year stands as stark testimony to playing well with less support than he probably deserves. In four appearances against the Caps this season Ward is 0-3-1, despite having a 2.25 GAA and a .930 save percentage. As has been the case this year, he has faced too many shots, 32.0 per game against Washington so far, and it has been just enough for the Caps to carve out four wins at his expense, three by one goal, one of those in a Gimmick. He is 13-8-4 in 26 career appearances against the Caps with a 2.57 GAA and .920 save percentage with three shutouts. Ward might not have to jump over a wall, but he is going to have to stand on his head if the Hurricanes are to make the dance.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Carolina: Erik Cole
Erik Cole is warming to the task of helping get the Hurricanes into the playoffs. He has four goals in his last four games (4-15 over that span). Carolina is going to need his scoring ability, especially in getting the tough goals from in close. Having averaged only 2.25 goals per game for the month of March, it is the kind of contribution the Hurricanes absolutely have to have.
Washington: Marco Sturm
Well, he got his first goal as a Cap against Montreal on Saturday. It still leaves him competing for ice time as the playoffs approach. With Jason Arnott and Alex Ovechkin due to return to the lineup, perhaps by week’s end, Arnott, Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble, Alexander Semin, and either Eric Fehr or Brooks Laich looks like a top-six group. A third line of, say, Laich, Marcus Johansson and Sturm has a certain charm to it, but you would like to see some more punch from a player who topped 20 goals in seven of the last eight seasons (the eighth being one in which Sturm played in only 19 games). If getting the first is the hardest, and Sturm can contribute at a goal every four game pace (a 20-goal annual pace), a merely average Caps offense becomes more formidable.
1. Home sweet home. The Caps are 11-4-5 at home following a road game (.675 points percentage), not too far off their winning percentage in other home games (11-4-2, .706). But the last time the Caps came home off an extended road trip – a five gamer in late February – they were slapped around by the Rangers, 6-0. Don’t want to see all the good work achieved in the road trip burned up in a result like that.
2. Score first. It goes without saying that scoring first is an excellent indicator of who wins games in the NHL. Only one team in the NHL has a below-.500 record when scoring first, and it’s not Carolina (it is Atlanta). But the difference between records scoring first and trailing first are so stark for the Hurricanes – 12th in winning percentage when scoring first, 22nd when trailing first – that scoring first will go a long way toward determining a winner here.
3. More power to ya. The Caps are 24-3-4 this season when scoring a power play goal. Carolina has killed off only 13 of 18 shorthanded situations in their last five games (72.2 percent). Not hard to figure out the importance of the power play here.
In the end, the Caps can play that role of “reverse spoiler” that they played when they faced New Jersey on the road trip. They can effectively end what dim playoff hopes remain for Carolina, just as they did New Jersey’s when beating the Devils 3-0. On the other hand, Carolina hasn’t exactly set the schedule on fire like a playoff hopeful needs to, going only 6-5-1 in March, with two of their wins coming in extra time. Carolina should be a desperate team, and perhaps having won three of their last four are finally playing like it. The Caps can put an end to that by getting on them early and showing some power play prowess. Sounds like a plan.
Caps 4 – Hurricanes 2