Saturday, November 19, 2011

A NO-point night -- Game 18: Maple Leafs 7 - Capitals 1

In the larger scheme of world events, a 7-1 loss in a hockey game doesn’t amount to much. But in the world of the NHL, the Washington Capitals losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs by that 7-1 margin was, and yet might be, a significant event.

The Caps were beaten early (a goal 99 seconds into the game), late (a goal in the last minute of each period for the home team), and often (tying the most goals allowed in a game this season). They were beaten on the right side (Tomas Vokoun, he of the right handed catching glove, allowing four goals on 18 shots). They were beaten on the left (the left-handed catching Michal Neuvirth allowing three goals on 11 shots).

We could summarize the carnage, but there are limits to our masochism. Let’s just go to the stuff…

-- In every sport, you learn certain things very early on – like when you’re five years old. In hockey, one of those things has to be “never, ever, pass the puck up the middle from deep in your own end.” But there was Jeff Schultz with Joffrey Lupul gliding in on him with a gentle forecheck, and instead of pulling the puck back and sending it around the boards to Roman Hamrlik at the left wing wall, Schultz tried to lift the puck past Lupul. All he managed to do was flip it into Lupul, who collected the puck and found Tim Connolly for the first goal 99 seconds in.

-- Alexander Semin was whistled for a penalty, the seventh game in a row he has been called for a penalty and the 13th game out of 18 this season. But this was, most assuredly, not his fault and not warranted. It was entirely a “reputation” call (he was called for “diving”), but it was a call that made no sense. A player looking to embellish a call does not do it by more or less boarding himself feet first into the side boards.

-- 28:42. That is how long it took for Alex Ovechkin to register a shot attempt. Not a “shot on goal”… a shot “attempt.” By that time, it was 4-1 Toronto. Ovechkin had ten shot attempts in the last 31:18 (eight on goal), but at that point, as fans at Verizon Center might ask, "WHO CARES?!” The joy looks to have been sucked entirely from Ovechkin’s game. Without that, there is no energy. Without energy, there is no fire in his skating. And without that, there is what you got tonight… a whole lot of nothing.

-- Folks talk about Ovechkin having been “figured out” by opposing teams, but there is something else that has been “figured out” that might have more important ramifications. The Caps miss Mike Green. We get that. But what it means is that Jeff Schultz, John Erskine, and Roman Hamrlik are being exposed for their lack of foot speed. And if John Carlson and Karl Alzner are a steady pair, then two of those three will be paired with one another, the third with Dennis Wideman. One of those three was on the ice for five of the first six Toronto goals.

-- Not that the forwards were doing much to give evidence that they were paying attention on defense. Time and time again, Caps forwards were too high in the defensive zone, looking to high-tail it the other way, leaving the Leafs to pound shots at Caps goaltenders, especially early. Toronto had 32 shot attempts in the first period, 16 of them on goal.

--The flip side of that is that the Leafs had only 25 shot attempts in the last 40 minutes…and scored on four of them. Not shots on goal, shot “attempts.”

-- Jonas Gustavsson allowed a goal on the first shot he faced, a score by Brooks Laich 51 seconds after the first Toronto goal. He stopped the last 40 shots he faced. This was the fourth time in Gustavsson’s career in which he faced 40 or more shots. In each of the other three he allowed five or more goals.

-- The Caps had not allowed seven goals to the Leafs at Air Canada Centre before tonight. The last time they allowed that many in Toronto was on October 13, 1993, at Maple Leaf Gardens. Here is how long ago that is. The goalie of record in that game was Olaf Kolzig. No surprise there. But it was Kolzig’s seventh game in the NHL, and it would be another 14 months before he would earn his first NHL win.

-- Joel Ward was the only Cap credited with a takeaway in this game. Fitting, because there is just nothing to take away from it.

-- Could the hockey gods script things any better than having David Steckel kick the extra point with a shorthanded breakaway in the last minute of play? Still, it seemed like it took him a minute and forty-five seconds to get from one end of the ice to the other. Parenthetically, he lost nine of 16 draws in this game, only the fifth time in 20 games he finished south of 50 percent on faceoffs.

-- There was that Lupul guy carving up the Caps again. Joffrey Lupul came into the game with 13 points in ten regular season games against the Caps, and he had four more tonight (1-3-4).

-- Slump within a slump… Michal Neuvirth did not get the decision tonight, but in allowing three goals on 11 shots he is 0-2-1, 3.85, .856 in his last four appearances.

-- In the “yeah, like it would have made a difference” category… The Leafs scored on two lay-ups that were a case of bad luck for the Caps. Tyler Bozak scored when a pass clicked off defenseman Karl Alzner’s skate right onto his tape at the doorstep. Phil Kessel had similar good fortune, a pass deflecting off John Erskine’s skate onto his blade for a slam dunk.

-- Only one Cap who dressed tonight was not on the ice for any goal. In any other game, you could be sure that such a player is the guy in the baseball cap – the backup goaltender. But with Vokoun and Neuvirth getting multiple helpings of abuse, that player was… Cody Eakin.

In the end, the Caps stunk from the inside out in all directions. There was not a single part of this game the Caps can point to and say, “we did this right,” unless you count “not shooting the puck into their own net” as doing something right. They were bad in all three zones, they were bad at even-strength, on the power play, and shorthanded. And what is worse, they looked as if they did not have even the energy to try to use more physical play to try and scare up some momentum. They had their lunch taken from them, and they were meek in allowing it to happen.

“The room” is going to be a term used a lot in the days to come. Has Coach Boudreau lost “the room?” Will someone in “the room” stand up and make a statement? Will guys in “the room” suck it up and realize that they have a lot of hard work to do? Fans can’t know what goes on in “the room,” but they can see what is going on down on the ice. And at the moment what they see is a team that is 3-7-1 in their last 11 games and a team that looks as if it doesn’t have a clue, let alone an answer.

We are reminded of what we wrote after the Winnipeg game

“[The Caps] head on the road to play that team on a big stage – Air Canada Centre in Toronto with a national television audience in Canada looking on. They do it squarely in a slump, playing indifferent hockey. The last time they faced this situation was on a cold night in New York City, and it ended as perhaps the ugliest game the Caps played all year.

Deja new…”

“Deja new,” indeed.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 18: Capitals at Maple Leafs, November 19th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s Hockey Night in Canada, on which the Washington Capitals will visit the Toronto Maple Leafs with a national television audience tuning in on “Hockey Night in Canada.” It is a big stage on which the Capitals are playing, one on which the Caps have won their last two games. They swept the Maple Leafs in Toronto last season, winning the first contest by a 4-1 margin in January, then winning in a Gimmick by a 3-2 score in April.  Here is how the teams fall out so far...

(click the pic for larger image)

But it is a new season and a new Maple Leaf team. Or is it? The Leafs come into this game as one of the early season surprises, sitting in a tie for the fourth highest standing points total in the East (22 points, with Buffalo). But the hot start has unraveled some, mostly because of injury and ineffectiveness in goal. James Reimer, who announced his presence in the NHL with authority in the second half of last season (20-10-5, 2.60, .921, three shutouts), started this season 3-0-1 in his first four appearances. But in his fifth appearance, against Montreal, he was left dazed after being hit by Montreal’s Brian Gionta as Gionta was cutting across the crease. Reimer did not return after the next intermission, and he has not appeared in a game since. The diagnosis: “concussion-like symptoms.”

Jonas Gustavsson took Reimer’s place, but he has not been the answer. In nine appearances this season he has allowed three or more goals seven times, and in one other he allowed two goals on six shots in 24:45 in a 7-0 loss to Boston.

The goaltending issues have caught up with the Leafs, who have lost their last three games and five of their last six (1-4-1), the only win coming in a Gimmick. In those six games, Gustavsson and the latest contestant in the Leafs’ goaltending sweepstakes – Ben Scrivens – have been the netminders of record as the Leafs have been outscored 25-8 (excluding trick shot goals). Although for different reasons, the Leafs look like the Caps in terms of their recent win-loss history.

1. Phil Kessel is getting a lot of the attention for his early start (13-12-25 in 19 games), and he does have three goals in his last four games. But if there is a thorn to be found in the Caps’ side in this one, it is more than likely to be Joffrey Lupul. In ten career regular season games against the Caps he is 5-8-13. Since the lockout Lupul has faced the Caps nine times in the regular season, and he has points in all of them. He has only one playoff goal in his career against the Caps, but he made it count…

2. Caps fans have not had much of a chance to see defenseman and team captain Dion Phaneuf against Washington. He has only five career games in the books against Washington. Known as a big hitter, he is also an accomplished scorer from the blue line. At least until he arrived in Toronto. After recording 75 goals in five seasons in Calgary, Phaneuf has a total of 12 in 111 games with Toronto. There are only five teams in the NHL he has not scored a goal against, and Washington is one of them. This season he has two goals, both against Montreal.

3. Only three Leafs will dress for this game with as many as five goals for the season. In addition to Kessel and Lupul, there is Clarke MacArthur (6-2-8). He has more career goals against the Caps (six in 16 games) than he has against any other team in the U.S. (he has nine against Ottawa and seven against Montreal).

4. Only Carolina has more losses by three or more goals this season (six) than Toronto (five). It goes a long way to explaining how the Leafs can have a record of 10-7-2 while having a net differential of -11, which is ranked 13th in the Eastern Conference. When the Leafs are bad, they are awful.

5. Toronto has allowed at least one power play goal in 11 of 20 games so far this season, including six of ten home games. They have allowed at least two in seven games.

1. Alex Ovechkin has played at least ten games against 14 of the league’s 30 franchises. Against only one of them has he averaged a goal a game – Toronto. He has 23 goals in 23 career games against the Maple Leafs.

2. The Caps are losing the battle of the third period. When tied or behind after 40 minutes they are 4-6-1 (3-4-1 when tied after two periods). On the other hand, the Caps are dead last in the league when scoring the game’s first goal. They are 3-4-1 in such situations, the only team with a below-.500 record in terms of standings points earned. Silver lining…Washington has the best record in the league when allowing the first goal (7-2-0).

3. Washington has played eight games at home, nine on the road. But they have been credited with exactly 100 more hits at home (219) than on the road (119).

4. From the “Did You Know?” file…Did you know that the Caps are at 50.1 percent on faceoffs?

5. Matt Hendricks has yet to light the lamp in 17 games this season. But he does have one goal against the Maple Leafs in four career games. It came in Toronto as part of a 4-1 win over the Leafs last January 22nd.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Toronto: David Steckel

Of course. This will be Steckel’s first appearance against his former team as a member of the Maple Leafs, or any other team for that matter. When last we left Mr. Steckel, he was a top-notch player on faceoffs, a somewhat overrated penalty killer and defender, and a player not likely to pot a lot of goals (his career high is eight). At the moment he is 61.7 percent on draws (tops in the league), no Leaf has been on the ice for more power play goals against, and he is a minus-4 for the season (18th best on the club). He had a three-game goal scoring streak in late October, but he hasn’t had one since over a span of 11 games.

Washington: Tomas Vokoun

“Stopper.” It is an archaic baseball term and used to refer to a team’s starting pitcher who was most adept at stopping a losing streak. That is what goaltender Tomas Vokoun as to be in this instance. The Caps are 1-4-1 in their last six, and in their last four games have experienced a disturbing progression – one goal, two, three, and four allowed. And none of those games have come against high-flying offenses. Vokoun had a difficult stretch in which he allowed 11 goals in only 141 minutes over three games (a 4.66 GAA), but in his last two starts has stopped 60 of 63 shots on goal (.952 save percentage). His career record hints at his chances to be the “stopper” for the Caps. Vokoun is 8-3-0 against Toronto, with a 2.07 GAA and .933 save percentage along with two shutouts.


1. Keep shooting. Toronto has allowed four or more goals in four of their last six games, all losses. Of the 25 goals allowed in those six games, ten of them have come in the third period (they shut out only one of those six teams in the third period). Only one team in the league has allowed more goals in the third period (Carolina). Keep shooting, and this team will likely crack.

2. Beware the power play. If the Leafs have done one thing right lately, it is scoring on the power play. In their last four games Toronto is 4-for-12 (33.3 percent). The Caps had killed off 15 shorthanded situations in a row until giving up two in their last four situations against Winnipeg on Thursday.

3. Don’t worry about quantity…worry about quality. Phil Kessel has 13 goals, but they come about in an odd way. Seven times this season Kessel has five or more shots on goal in a game. He scored goals in four of them (five total). In nine games in which he had three of fewer shots on goal, he has goals in five of them, five goals in all. It doesn’t seem to matter how many – shots that is – just how.

In the end, we are left with two teams who are in the same place by similar paths. Hot starts followed by a cool down. It might have been expected from one team – the Leafs – and not from the other. The Caps’ problems are matters of process – maintaining focus, paying attention for 60 minutes, being faithful to their systems. Toronto’s problems are more structural. Their best goaltender is out, and they have suffered considerably as a result. If the Caps keep their focus, pay attention for 60 minutes, and do things the right way, they win. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

Caps 4 – Maple Leafs 2

Not so young anymore

On October 6, 2007, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green took the ice together for the first time as Washington Capitals. It was not an especially auspicious entrance. Ovechkin did score the game-winning goal, and Backstrom assisted on an insurance goal by Milan Jurcina in a 2-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes in the Caps’ home opener of the 2007-2008 season.  But it was not an emphatic statement.

You could say it wasn’t an especially impressive first six weeks or so for the foursome, either. As a group they accounted for 19 goals scored and were a combined minus-15 through the Caps’ first 21 games. The last of those games was a grisly 5-1 loss to the Atlanta Thrashers, a game in which Ovechkin recorded his 14th goal of the season to open the scoring, only to have the Thrashers roar back with five unanswered scores. That game was the last straw that broke the back of Glen Hanlon’s tenure as head coach of the Capitals.

Enter Bruce Boudreau. The button-down, three-piece suit look of the Caps’ offense gave way to a tie-dyed, bell-bottom look of freedom. In their first 21 games after the coaching change, the foursome recorded 38 goals and was a plus-9. The “Young Guns” were born.

In that first season the Young Guns finished with a combined total 123 goals, largely fueled by Ovechkin’s historic 65 goals, a record for a left-winger, and were a plus-29. Although the Caps would fall in seven games to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs, the Young Guns recorded 14 of the 20 goals the Caps scored in that seven-game series. Things looked mighty bright for a team that had come so far just to qualify for the playoffs. These guys were young, talented, and with nothing but upside in front of them. Folks would be talking of the possibility, not of “a” Stanley Cup, but of “Cups”…plural, in their future.

It is November 2011. The Caps have not yet won a Stanley Cup. They have not yet played in a final for one. They have not yet played in a Conference final. They have two playoff series wins – both against the New York Rangers – since those heady days of 2007-2008. And the Young Guns? Last season they finished with a combined total of 86 goals and finished plus-76 (score one for improved two-way play). In the playoffs they finished with a total of 10 of the 23 goals the Caps scored in nine games. They were swept out in the second round, another season with the promise revealed in that first year together unfulfilled.

At the moment this foursome is on a pace to record 92 goals and finish a minus-29, not quite what we were expecting when we scribbled a series of pieces about these players a couple of months ago. Only Backstrom is younger than 26; all of them have more than 350 games of NHL regular season and more than 35 games of post-season experience on their respective resumes. These are just numbers, but not the numbers one expects from players who were supposed to grow into dominating roles for an elite Stanley Cup contender. In some respects they have marked time; in others regressed. But more than the numbers, it is the constant beat of disappointment in outcomes.

The Caps have improved upon their regular season records since that first year of the Young Guns, including among them a season in which they won a President’s Trophy and set a record for a non-original six team for standings points in a season. But how much of that improvement has come from the Young Guns, and how much has come from the manner in which Caps management – particular George McPhee – has painstakingly tried to build the parts around that Young Gun core to give the Caps the depth of talent they need to weather the grueling march that is an NHL season? And we are still left with those playoff disappointments that have the look of opportunities squandered.

It has always been our contention that Alex Ovechkin was the easy part of this build. He fell into Washington’s lap, the chance of a ping-pong ball. The matter of building a champion was always going to be in what came after – building a core around Ovechkin, providing sufficient depth in role players to complement the skill and style of that core, finding the talent behind the bench to get the most out of all those parts.

One can opine about the moves George McPhee might or might not have made in terms of personnel, but the fact is that this team is the best group – on paper – ever assembled by this franchise.

One can ponder whether Bruce Boudreau is the right guy to get the most out of this group, but the fact is that Boudreau has won 61 percent of the 324 NHL regular season games he has coached (that wins, not games with points earned), and he has won championships or coached in championship finals at every level of his professional coaching career before ascending to the NHL with the Caps.

One can think about whether this new group of support players is the key to unlocking the door to a Stanley Cup, but the fact is that this group – Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern, Tomas Vokoun, and Troy Brouwer (yes, Roman Hamrlik is having his problems) – is an upgrade over every player occupying a similar roster spot last season.

McPhee might not have found the magic formula for the roster, but he has done his job in assembling the parts to make this a formidable lineup. Boudreau might have his shortcomings at this level of coaching, but his history shows he knows the game and has been a winner. The new guys and the grinders like Matt Hendricks, Brooks Laich, and Jason Chimera are not going to be guys who will give an honest effort just about every night, but they can’t be the best players on the ice with any frequency. There are questions and concerns about each of these actors, but for the most part they have done their jobs and are continuing to do them.

The Young Guns need to do theirs. McPhee, Boudreau, and the other guys in the locker room cannot do it for them. There are still 65 games to sort these things out, to prepare for the post season and its unique challenges. But if they do not do their jobs, there is no Stanley Cup in this team’s future.

Photo: Greg Fiume/Getty Images