Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 33: Capitals at Devils, December 23rd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

‘Twas the night before the night before Christmas, and the cousins are as happy as a ‘coon in a cornfield with the dogs all tied.

“Please, cousin…do not compare me to a raccoon.”

Fine, you’re as merry as a schoolboy…happy?

“Ah, a fine and proper use of Dickens in this festive season.”

“D’you ever get tired of havin’ that broomstick lodged so furr up yer backside?”

Guys? It’s Christmas. And what is it you want for Christmas for the Caps?

“A new Ovie?”

“A vintage one would be nice.”

“More wing nights!”

“A healthy Mike Green…”

“An Alexander Semin Action Figure that actually..uh, acts?”

“More minutes for Mike Knuble.”

"A Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model power play with a compass telling which way to shoot the puck and this thing which records shots on goal built right into Wideman’s stick!"

Getting an early start on “A Christmas Story,” Cheerless?

“I ain’t stopped from last year.”

“He keeps replaying the scene when they open the crate and find that lamp.”


Well, if there is only one thing in the world could've dragged Cheerless away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window, it would be the chance to see the New Jersey Devils hosting the Washington Capitals in Newark.

“Yeah…hang onto that dream, cuz.”

Anyway, the Caps begin another one of these two-game absences from D.C., this one starting at Prudential Center in Newark, where the Devils await them. The Devils, like the Capitals, have been off since Tuesday. But unlike the Capitals, the Devils are on a bit of a run. They are 6-2-0 in their last eight games. In that stretch they scored 27 goals and have three games in which they scored at least five goals. They also allowed 24 goals in those eight games, three times allowing four goals (winning two of them). Quite uncharacteristic for a team that more or less brought the term “trap” to hockey (or at least refined the concept). As for the season, here is how the two teams stack up against one another:

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1. Is Zach Parise merely experiencing a hiccup in a sustained run, or is it coming to an end? Over a ten-game stretch from November 26th trhough December 16th, Parise was on fire: 5-11-16, plus-3. He had only one game in those ten in which he failed to record a point. But he is without a point in each of his last two games, despite almost 48 minutes in combined ice time. He was held without a point in the only game he has appeared in against the Caps this season and is 5-9-14, minus-5 in 23 career games against the Caps.

2. Ilya Kovalchuk had been moderately successful as a Devil since the trade in 2010 that sent him from Atlanta to New Jersey. In 108 games as a Devil coming into this season he scored goals at a 31-per-82 game rate. He came out flat to start this season, though. He had two goals in his first four games, then had a total of two in his next 13 games. However, since getting the Devils’ lone goal in a 6-1 loss to Colorado on November 30th, he has six goals in his last 11 games. Kovalchuk missed both of the teams’ first two meetings of the season (a home-and-home on November 11-12), but he is 24-28-52, plus-4 in 48 career games against Washington. What he has not yet done, though, is record a point against the Caps as a Devil. He is without a point in his last five games against the Caps, four of them with New Jersey.

3. If New Jersey wins games, they do it in the middle period. They are a minus-6 in the first period, goals scored to goals allowed (their 21 first period goals is tied for 27th among all NHL teams), and they are a minus-17 in the third period (their 42 goals allowed is fourth-most). But the Devils are a plus-10 in the second period of games thus far.

4. The Devils are dead last in the NHL in scoring at home (total goals: 33). They are 26th in scoring average at home (2.36).

5. Where’s a “Steckel” when you need him? The Devils do not have any player having taken at least 100 draws who is at 50 percent or better (the Caps have three such players).

1. Through 32 games last season the Caps were 18-11-3 (39 points) and were coming off their sixth straight loss in an eight-game losing streak (0-6-2) – a 7-0 pasting by the Rangers. They are one win and four points behind that pace at the moment. Caps fans no doubt would have thought it was worse.

2. John Carlson is 2-6-8, plus-9 in six career games against the Devils. He has one point in his last four games after going 1-7-8 in his previous four. Maybe the Devils will bring out the offense of Carlson.

3. The Capitals have one shorthanded goal scored so far this season (Jason Chimera). The Devils have four…in their last seven games.

4. Dennis Wideman is tied for ninth among NHL defensemen in power play points (3-7-10).

5. The Caps have not suffered a loss in regulation in the game before Christmas in the new millennium. The last time they did was a 6-3 loss at Vancouver on December 22, 1999 (including the Caps’ James Black’s only two-goal game of his career). The Caps are 7-0-2-1 since then in the game before Christmas.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New Jersey: Martin Brodeur

We are getting to the end of one of the most storied careers in NHL history. And as it happens for legends more often than fans like, it does look as if it will end well. Martin Brodeur is currently 34th of 44 qualifying goaltenders in goals against average (3.08), and he is 42nd among that same group of 44 in save percentage (.885). He can occasionally muster the big night, but too often those nights come against weak opponents – a 35 save effort against Columbus in a 2-1 Gimmick win, a 29-save effort against a slumping Toronto team in a 3-2 overtime win on December 6th. Only seven times in sixteen 60-minute appearances has he allowed fewer than three goals. Eight times in those 16 appearances he finished the game with a save percentage under .900. He is arguably the greatest goaltender in the history of the sport, or at least on a very short list. It is not clear that he is now the best goaltender on his own team.

Washington: Dennis Wideman

Dennis Wideman has seven goals in 23 career games against New Jersey. That’s a 25-goal scoring pace. He is also 2-6-8 in his last eight games. But he is also even in those eight games and is a minus-6 on the road in 15 games so far. There is something of a risk and reward aspect to his game that could make him vulnerable against an opportunistic team such as New Jersey that looks to counterpunch off opponents’ mistakes.


1. Shoot the #@$% Puck! The Caps played the first two games largely on the Devils’ terms, or at least that of the Devils we have come to know. In the first game between the teams – a 3-1 win for the Caps – Washington managed a grand total of 30 shot attempts, only two Caps with as many as four (Alex Ovechkin and Jason Chimera, both of whom scored goals in that game). In the second game the following night, the Caps did better – 50 shot attempts (only 17 on goal) – but that is hardly steady offensive pressure. They lost in a Gimmick, 3-2. They ended up with a total of 37 shots on goal for the two games (five goals – a 13.5 percent shooting percentage – is rather respectable in that context). Say what you want about “scoring chances” (and it has merit), but if you are getting that few shots on the net, how many chances can the opponent be giving up?

2. Possession from the Drop. The Caps have to do a much better job of exploiting the Devils’ faceoff weaknesses to establish and maintain possession than they did in the first two games. Overall, the teams split 114 faceoffs right down the middle in the home-and-home (the Caps with a two-draw advantage in the first game, the Devils with the two-draw edge in the second).

3. Feel the Power. New Jersey started the year 38-for-38 in home penalty killing over ten games. In their last four games they are 14-for-16 (87.5 percent) – still good, but not the otherworldly numbers they put up early. The Caps power play on the road has been, to be charitable, brutal – 1-for-33 over their last nine road contests. The Caps have to perform better on the road if they are to secure a playoff spot. One way to assure that is to do better than 3.0 percent on the power play away from Verizon Center.

In the end, it’s easy, right? Do not let New Jersey make you play their game. The Devils, despite their six-goal and five-goal explosions last week against Dallas and the Rangers, are not that kind of team – they are 6-5-1 when the they and their opponent combine for seven or more goals in a game.

For the Caps it is still that elusive search for a winning streak. They have still not won more than two games in a row since their seven-game winning streak to start the season came to an end. At the moment they have won exactly one in a row. And you cannot get to three until you get to two.

Sounds like a score…

Capitals 3 – Devils 2

Slow and Steady...But Good... Wins the Race

It goes without saying that a Stanley Cup champion has to be hot at the right time. Whatever else a team might do in the season, failing to be at one’s peak is not a recipe for winning 16 games over four grueling playoff rounds.

But what about the journey in getting there? Can a team “turn it on” late in the season and ride the wave to a championship? The evidence since the lockout suggests that fans should not bet on that scenario unfolding. We are not interested here in goals, saves, plus-minus, Corsi, Fenwick, or partridges in pear trees. This is a matter of wins and losses, plain and simple. Can a team that struggles to win early, win late?

We looked at this simply. For each of the Stanley Cup champions since the lockout we plotted the cumulative standings points earned and compared that to a 100-point pace trend line. We also plotted the Washington Capitals’ performance to date against those teams and that 100-point pace line. Here are the results:

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First, the Champions. Almost without exception, these teams were winners from the get-go. Two teams – the 2006-2007 Anaheim Ducks and the 2007-2008 Detroit Red Wings – maintained a 100-plus point pace from the first game of the season through the last. It is probably no surprise that these teams also dominated their post-season opponents. Anaheim went 16-5 in their four series, and the Red Wings went 16-6 in theirs. Neither team faced a “Game 7” in any series.

Carolina took only seven games to get their “100-point pace footing” in 2005-2006. Over the last 76 games of that season the Hurricanes played at a 100-point plus pace and finished with 112 points. They were tested in the post-season, facing (and winning) two “Game 7’s.”

Things get a bit more interesting in the most recent three years. In 2008-2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins stumbled out of the gate. They were on less than a 100-point pace for much of their first dozen games. They righted themselves from Game 13 through Game 29 to jump over and stay over the 100-point threshold. Then, they hit a prolonged skid. From Game 29 through Game 57, the Penguins slipped from a 102-point pace all the way to an 85-point pace. An 85-point season would have meant a tenth-place finish for the Pens, based on final Eastern Conference standings. It was after Game 57 that Pittsburgh made a change behind the bench, relieving Michel Therrien of his duties and promoting Dan Bylsma from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. In the last 25 games of the regular season the Penguins nearly made up all the lost ground in terms of playing at a 100-point pace. They finished the season with 99 points, but it bears noting that over those last 25 games they played at a 131-point pace (18-3-4). But it would not be quite as easy for them in the post-season. They faced two Games 7 – in the second round and in the Finals – winning both.

Chicago had a bit of a roller-coaster start to the 2009-2010 season, starting fast, but then slipping to a 97-point pace as late as Game 22 of the season. But they played like gangbusters over the middle third of the season and finished the last 60 games of the season playing at a better than 100-point pace throughout. They would not face a Game 7 in any of their four series on the way to a Stanley Cup.

Boston’s path to a Stanley Cup last year is somewhere between Pittsburgh’s and Chicago’s. They had the stumbling part of the Penguins in the first half – below a 100-point pace as late as Game 33 and otherwise flirting with it for much of those first 33 games, then dropping below it again as late as Game 57 – only without the coaching change. But like Chicago, they righted themselves and played at a consistent 100-105 point pace over the last 25 games of the season. They were a comparatively weak team, perhaps the weakest of the six post-lockout champions as the tournament began, at least based on regular season results. And it might have been reflected in the fact that the Bruins had to face three Games 7 in their four rounds to the Cup, beating Montreal, Tampa Bay, and finally Vancouver to raise the chalice.

As for the Caps, the prospects through 32 games do not look good. They are on a 90-point pace at the moment, which would have been good enough to qualify for the playoffs in only one of the six seasons since the lockout (90 points would have been seventh-best in the 2009-2010 season). They have been below the 100-point pace threshold for the last dozen games or so, although the spread between their point totals and the 100-point pace line isn’t widening any more.

Still, they are going to have to accelerate their climb and perhaps start it quickly. The only team of the six examined here that the Caps resemble, at least in terms of their points-earned profile, is the 2008-2009 Penguins. And, that team was the only one to change coaches in mid-season. None of the other five coaches won in the first year with their respective teams.

A team does not have to win wire-to-wire, and they do not have to cross the finish line first in terms of points earned in the regular season to win a Stanley Cup. Only Detroit among the six post-lockout Stanley Cup winners won a Presidents’ Trophy for most standings points in the regular season. But there are some common characteristics:

- Five of the six winners were division champions (only Pittsburgh failed to do so, finishing second in the Atlantic Division in 2008-2009). The Caps are currently second in the Southeast.

-- All of the champions won at least 45 games (three of them won more than 50). The Caps are on a pace to win 44 games.

-- For five of the champions, only one team had one game in which it was on a lower than 100-point pace after Game 33 of the season (Boston, a 99-point pace after Game 57). The Caps, through Game 32, are on a 90-point pace.

Most of all, to reiterate a point we made early on, these champions were for the most part winners from start to finish, based on the rate at which they earned standings points. The exception was the Pittsburgh Penguins, who faltered, made a change behind the bench, and demolished their opposition over the remainder of the regular season before grinding their way to a Stanley Cup. It is the path the Capitals have followed so far. It remains to see if they can stay on that path – accelerating their points pace – as the calendar turns over into a new year.