Monday, May 02, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Semifinals: Capitals vs. Lightning, Game 3

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The saying in the ads goes, “History will be made,” but for the Washington Capitals the question is, “will history be repeated?” The Caps go into Game 3 tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning down two games to none, having lost both games at home. It is not unlike the situation the Caps faced two years ago, having dropped Games 1 and 2 to the New York Rangers at home. Then, like now, things looked bleak. More so then, because the Caps had never come back from an 0-2 deficit, not in four tries, never having so much as extended a series to a sixth game in any of the four instances.

But in 2009, the Caps went to Madison Square Garden down two games to none under similar circumstances as what face them now. They lost two one-goal games (Game 1 of the 2011 series being essentially a one-goal game, Tampa getting an empty netter late), an indication that there was not much difference between the teams. One of those games, like one of the game in the pair at Verizon Center this year, was settled in overtime. The Caps struggled to score (three goals in two games then, four in two games now). They were facing a goaltender who looked capable of stealing a series.

Then the Caps went on the road. Maybe there is something in that Game 3 from two years ago that can offer up some hints on what to look for as the Caps try to crawl back into the series…

Shoot early, shoot often…

Four shots on goal in the first 2:39, 14 in the first period of that 2009 Game 3 against the Rangers. The Caps actually did this in Games 1 and 2 (14 and 13 shots, respectively, in this first period of those games). But they did a better job of getting in close. In Games 1 and 2, shots came from an average of 36 feet and 40 feet in the first period, respectively. In Game 1, only three of 14 shots came from inside of 30 feet. In Game 2, it was better – seven of 13. But in Game 3, the Caps unleashed 14 shots at goalie Henrik Lundqvist in the first 12:30 of the game, those shots coming from an average of 23 feet – only two shots came from outside of 30 feet. More important, both goals the Caps scored in that period (both by Alexander Semin) came from inside of 20 feet. Shoot early, shoot often…and by all means, get shots on goal from in close.

Big time players play big…

The Young Guns – Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green – were a combined 1-5-6, minus-1 in Games 1 and 2 of that Rangers series. Not bad, certainly, but not quite good enough, either, especially in Game 2 when the Caps were shutout (no points, minus-3). In Game 3, though, the four went a combined 2-6-8, plus-6. So far in the Tampa Bay series they are a combined 2-1-3, minus-4. The Caps have to get these guys going.

There is another thread of history that might have some bearing on this game. Three Capitals have some recent and vivid memories of losing Games 1 and 2, and coming back to win a series. Eleven months ago, Michal Neuvirth, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner skated for the Hershey Bears in the AHL Calder Cup final against the Texas Stars. The Stars shocked the Bears on Giant Center ice, 2-1, in Game 1 behind a 26-save performance by Matt Climie, a backup goaltender manning the nets because of an injury to Brent Krahn. Like the Caps in Game 1 of the Tampa Bay series, the Bears were rusty after a long layoff (12 days) after winning their previous round and looked it with only two shots on goal in the first period of that Game 1. They never got untracked.

Texas duplicated the feat in Game 2, winning by another one-goal margin, 4-3, getting the winner in the last minute. And at that point it looked bleak as the Bears headed south for the next three games (the AHL playing a 2-3-2 seven game format). It got worse at the start of Game 3 as Texas scored a power play, an even strength, and a shorthanded goal in the first period of the game to take a 3-1 lead and threaten to blow the Bears out of the building and the series. But Hershey crawled back into it with a pair of second period goals to tie the game, then three third period markers made the comeback complete in a 6-3 win.

The Bears ended up sweeping the Stars in Texas, punishing the Stars with their power play (4-for-12) and getting good goaltending from Neuvirth, who stopped 80 of the last 83 shots he saw (.964 save percentage) in the last eight periods plus overtime in Game 5 in Texas. What is more, in outscoring Texas by 11-3 in those last eight-plus periods in Texas, the Bears got production from the guys who had to produce. Alexandre Giroux had two goals and an two assists. Mathieu Perreault had a pair of goals and a pair of assists. John Carlson was 1-2-3. Keith Aucoin had a goal and four assists.

And that is what the Caps need now. We made a point of it before Game 2, and it is no less true now that the Caps are on the road down 0-2. The guys who are expected to produce offensively have to do just that. Two goals among the Young Guns (Ovechkin, Semin) in two games is probably not going to be enough. The Caps have to remember a little bit of their own history and rip a page out of the Hershey history book to scratch their way back into this series. They can do this…they have done this.

It can be done, just by winning one game at a time.

Caps 3 - Lightning 1

Programming Note: We are going to be away for a few days. You can catch up with the usual suspects by clicking on the links to the right. We hope to be back before the Caps head off to the third round.

Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 2: Lightning 3 - Capitals 2 (OT)

There is not so much as a sliver of daylight separating the backs of the Washington Capitals and the proverbial “wall.” They are up against it now, heading to Tampa down two-games-to-none after dropping tonight’s Game 2 at Verizon Center, 3-2 in overtime.

Vincent Lecavalier sent the Lightning home happy at 6:19 of the extra session when he buried a feed from Teddy Purcell behind goalie Michal Neuvirth after the Caps got caught with too many men too far from the play (the result of a line change that was painful to watch), Mike Green being the only Cap in the defensive zone as the play unfolded.

It was Lecavalier opening and closing the scoring, his first goal of the game coming in the last minute of the first period, one-timing from the right wing circle a feed from Martin St. Louis. Brooks Laich got it back in the fifth minute of the second period, the play being a product of something the Caps just haven’t seemed to do quite enough of – pass bodies in front of goaltender Dwayne Roloson. Nicklas Backstrom skated the puck into the Tampa Bay zone leading a 3-on-2 rush. He crossed behind Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin as the latter two headed to the net. Backstrom wristed the puck on goal, and with the Caps enjoying an advantage of numbers low, Laich steered the puck past Roloson to tie the game.

Martin St. Louis gave the Lightning the lead once more early in the third period when a snap shot he took from the left wing circle looked to deflect off the skate of Mike Green and behind Neuvirth. Roloson almost made the one-goal lead stand up, but with goalie pulled and the Caps having six attackers on the ice, Alex Ovechkin converted a feed from Jason Arnott at the goal mouth with 68 seconds left to tie the game and send it into overtime. The Caps could not find that last goal on any of the five shots in overtime, and it took just one defensive breakdown to send the Caps’ backs hard by that proverbial wall.

Other stuff…

-- Tampa Bay has six goals in regulation in this series, three of them scored in the last minute of a period (one an empty netter)

-- 2-for-9…0-for-11. Eight shots… 17 shots. Tampa power play… Caps power play. How utterly fitting that what held the Caps back on offense all year (which, frankly has virtually nothing to do with their “defense-first” approach to five-on-five play), killed them in the first two games in this series. Tonight it was 0-for-6 and 12 unproductive shots on goal for the Caps power play.

-- We are going to live a long time and never figure out why the most dangerous goal scoring machine since the lockout is sitting 60 feet from the net at the point on the power play…it didn’t work in the regular season, and it hasn’t worked in this series.

-- We focused on the “Young Guns” in the pregame, so what did they do? Eighteen shots on goal (34 attempts), one goal, one assist. That’s two goals, one assist, and a combined minus-4 in two games. We’ll leave it to you, dear reader to conclude whether that is good enough.

-- Meanwhile, the Lightning big guns – Lecavalier, St. Louis, and Steven Stamkos… 4-3-7, even, in the two games.

-- 89 games into the season, and the simplest of things – a line change – was all the break the Lightning needed to spring a two on one in overtime. Yes, it was the “long” change, but that’s part of the game.

-- Tough night for Jeff Schultz. He was on the ice for all three Lightning goals, although he was on for all of five seconds for the last one.

-- The irony of it… it was the substitute for the injured Pavel Kubina – Randy Jones – who got the last play started from deep in the Tampa Bay end with the quick up to Purcell at the Caps’ blue line. Jones played a grand total of 6:25 in the game.

-- Trip down Memory Lane…the Caps won Games 1 and 2 in Tampa in 2003 rather handily (3-0 and 6-3). They then went on to lose Games 3-6 and the series. On the other hand, the Caps were 3-for-9 on the power play in Games 1 and 2 in that year (all the goals in Game 2). They were 2-for 18 in Games 3-6.

-- There is a disturbing theme emerging in this series, one that has nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with attitude. Entirely too much attention – bordering on fear, in fact – is being paid to the “intimidating” 1-3-1 defense of the Lightning. When did the Tampa Bay Lightning become the NHL version of the Steel Curtain defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The concept seems to have gotten into the minds of fans, if not those of the team. The fact is, the Caps are a more talented, deeper team than the Lightning, but they seem to lack the “swagger” gene that imposes that knowledge on their opponent.

In the end, there are two elements of this series that are intertwined, neither of which is good news for the Caps. First, there is the matter of the Caps Young Guns getting out produced by the Tampa Bay big guns. Backstrom might still be injured or re-injured, Green isn’t long back from injury and has had an interesting playoff so far (if taking a puck off the side of your helmet in an earlier playoff game confirms your notion of “interesting”).

The other is that the Caps don’t seem to have an answer, or at least a push-back for the style Tampa Bay is playing, and more than the execution of it, the notion of it seems to be in the Caps’ heads. But keep this fact in mind. The Caps scored 154 goals at even strength during the season (145 at 5-on-5, nine at 4-on-4). That is an average of 1.88 even strength goals per game. Thus far, the Caps have scored four even strength goals in two games – an average of 2.00 a game (6-on-5 goals, for purpose of league statistics, are even strength goals). This notion of the 1-3-1 being the be all and end all of the Lightning success is overstated. This series is turning on special teams. Tampa has two one-goal wins (yes, there was the empty netter in Game 1, but it did not influence the decision). They have two power play goals, the Caps have none. If that doesn’t change in Games 3 and 4 in Tampa, well…

This series marked the 17th time that the Caps opened a seven-game series with Games 1 and 2 at home. It is only the second time that the Caps dropped both home games to open the series. Let’s hope things end as happily as the first time it happened (in 2009 against the Rangers), although at the moment it is hard not to think upon the fact that tonight’s game might have been the last game at Verizon Center this season, and if it was, it will be a very, very unpleasant summer ahead.