Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Path to the Top-Eight

If things go like sane people think, the Capitals could be starting 2012 with a record of 18-17-2 (this assumes they lose to the Rangers and Buffalo – teams that have already dominated the Caps this season – and beat Columbus).

That is going to leave the Caps a deep hole from which to dig to make the playoffs (but not as deep as you might think…we’ll get to that). How might they get into the top-eight you ask? Well, there are things to look for as the months of the 2012 calendar flip over…


The Caps have six home games and six road games in the month, with the hard part coming early and the sneaky part coming late. After the Caps host Calgary to open 2012 they go on the road to San Jose and Los Angeles. The Caps do not do well on the left coast in the best of times, and a split of those games would have to be thought of as “better than expected.” That makes the ensuing home stand the critical part of the month. It is a four-gamer that starts with Pittsburgh, followed up by Tampa Bay, Carolina, and the Islanders. Given where the Caps are likely to start the 2012 portion of the season, winning three of these four is critical.

The four-game home stand is followed by a three game road swing to Montreal, Carolina, and Pittsburgh. The Caps have sucked on toast on the road this season, and they need to show an ability to at least hold their own away from Verizon Center. They will be getting two teams below them in the standings (as of today, December 28th) and a team they have not lost to on enemy ice in quite some time (December 27, 2007 in overtime; February 18, 2007 in regulation). Splitting the six points here should be regarded as the minimally acceptable outcome.

By our reckoning, if the Caps split the last two games of the month between Boston and Tampa Bay, January works out to a record of 7-4-1. Season record: 25-21-3/53 points


This is not just a month that is a run-up to the trading deadline, it will be the make or break month for the Caps in an important respect. Of the 14 games they will play in February, six will be played against Southeast Division opponents (teams they have dominated in recent years), three others will be against teams currently below them in the standings (Montreal twice and the Islanders), and another will be against a team they are battling with for a playoff berth (Ottawa). Given that three of the other four games will be played against current powerhouses Boston, the Rangers, and San Jose, the Caps need to make hay while the sun shines on those ten games against lesser opponents.

The Caps will open the month by closing a three game road trip. From Tampa Bay to close January, the Caps will visit Florida and Montreal. We are not convinced that the Panthers are all they have been in the 2011 portion of the season. In fact, they are 3-3-3 in their last nine games and have allowed 31 goals in doing so. We have to think that even on the road, three points in those two games is more than doable.

The Caps then return for a three-game home stand with Boston opening it and closing it with Florida and Winnipeg. The Caps were once – and are still, to some degree – a formidable home team. Winning all three should not be considered impossible, but we would set a floor under four points for the three games.

The six-game stretch that follows is what could make or break the season. The Caps travel to New York to take on the Rangers, come home for one game against San Jose, then go on the road for four. By mid-February, the Caps should be favored in all four of those road games – Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Ottawa. But it sure would be nice to gain a split in those first two games of this critical six-game split. It is here that the Caps need to start (if they haven’t already) their finishing kick to end the season on a roll heading into the playoffs. If they stumble here, they will have serious problems. Complicating the matter for the Caps is that in this six-game run they will have two back-to-back series: the first two (at the Rangers and home to San Jose) and the next two (at Florida and at Tampa Bay).

It is a tough month, but 19 points looks reasonable – a 9-4-1 record. Season record: 34-25-4/72 points.


By now, the roster will be set. Whatever tweaking George McPhee and his team will do will be done. And it is good thing, too, because March will be a long month. Sixteen games in 31 days, three back-to-backs. The best to be said about this month is that the Caps have nine home games. But there is a five-game road trip in the middle of the month that could kill them.

Before that road trip, the Caps will open the month with four home games – New Jersey, Philadelphia, Carolina, and Tampa Bay. Six points, minimum. The Caps have to bank these points for what awaits them later in the month. Right before the big road trip the Caps will visit Boston for the first time this season and will return home to finish their season series against Toronto. Split. That will make the Caps 4-2-0 as they head out for the five-game road swing that will take them to Long Island, Winnipeg, Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. One would have to think the Caps have to win the first two of those games, grab at least two points out of the other three. A 3-2-0 road trip would be a big boost heading into the last two weeks of the season.

But booby traps will remain in March. The Caps will play four of their last five games of March at home, but Minnesota and Buffalo certainly have the capacity to give the Caps fits. Add in that the lone away game is the Caps’ second visit to Boston of the month, and the end of March looks daunting. Of course, if their five-game road trip was unsuccessful, it might not matter much how they end March. 3-2-0 would not be the worst way to end the month, finishing March up at 10-6-0. Season record: 44-31-4/92 points.


We are left with three games in April to close the season – on the road at Tampa Bay and the Rangers, with a home date against Florida splitting the road games. By this time Tampa Bay should have long been eliminated, and we have our doubts that Florida would be a strong team by this point of the season. Wins there offsetting a loss to the Rangers in the season finale would not be the best way to end the season, but the loss to the Rangers also presumes that the Caps will have clinched a playoff berth. The 2-1-0 April record would leave the Caps at 46-32-4 and 96 points.

There are those who will look at this scenario and the Caps’ 28-15-2 record in the 2012 portion of the season and think that Cheerless thought this up. The fact is, it would resemble last year’s post-New Year’s record (26-11-6) and would result in fewer wins and standings points in that portion of the season than two of the previous three seasons.

The flip side is that the Caps have to start playing more like the team they were the last four seasons than the one they have been through the 2011 portion of the season so far. What helps them out is that looking at the standings, standings points, and games played, the “Mirtle Threshold” of 92-points to make the playoffs might be high. At the moment, Winnipeg is on a pace to finish with 89 points and finish eighth in the Eastern Conference. The Caps are on a pace to finish ninth with 87 points. It would not take much of a bump to push the Caps ahead of the Jets and into the top eight. It is still a situation that merits concern. It is still not the time for panic.

Just play a little bit better, boys.

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 9: "The Streak II"

On March 3, 2009, the Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Washington Capitals, 5-2, at Verizon Center. On that Tuesday night, the Caps found themselves suffering the second of what would become a four-game losing streak. But the story within the story was that paid attendance was 17,903.

It was the last game the Caps did not sell out.

Tonight, the Capitals will welcome 18,506 fans to Verizon Center (whether all of them will show up is another matter). It will be the 124th consecutive sellout for the franchise, regular season and playoffs. That is 2,276,436 tickets sold over that span of time, a number that if you brought them all together in one place would constitute the fourth largest city in the United States.*

It is a far cry from the spring of 2003, when one well-connected observer of the local hockey landscape opined:

"The market has spoken. The truth of the matter was that we worked very, very hard to expand our fan base, and it was apparent we didn't capture the imagination of a broader base of fan…We're certainly not going to increase our payroll, because there doesn't seem to be a correlation between wins and losses and attendance.''

Well, even the most astute of businessmen can be wrong from time to time, because you see, over those 123 games heading into tonight’s contest, the Caps have compiled a record covering both regular seasons and playoffs of 78-28-17. In the last three regular seasons preceding this one the Caps’ home record ranked third, first, and second last year in standing points earned. Winning and attendance seems to have gone hand-in-glove.

That unbroken string of sellouts continued over the entire calendar year about to end. But nothing lasts forever. Just ask the Colorado Avalanche. Although there are those who will contend that the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens have not played to an empty seat at home since the discovery of ice, the Avalanche are credited with the longest streak of sellouts in the NHL at 487 games, from November 1995 to October 2006. From the 1995-1996 season through the 2005-2006 season, the Avalanche won two Stanley Cups, four times lost in the Western Conference finals, and otherwise qualified for the playoffs in each of those seasons. It was the Golden Age of Avalanche hockey with players such as Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg firing pucks into nets and goaltender Patrick Roy keeping them out.

Any of this sound familiar (without the Stanley Cups, that is)?

In that 2006-2007 season in which the Avalanche sellout streak ended early on, Colorado did not qualify for the playoffs, the first time they failed to do so since they moved from Quebec to Denver in 1994. Over the last five seasons the Avs have seen their wins dwindle and their crowds do likewise. They currently rank 22nd in attendance, between Florida and Carolina, two locales not generally associated with being hot beds of hockey.

The sellout streak for the Capitals that started in 2009 and continues today is a combination of hard work by the front office in marketing the team, a community with considerable disposable income, and perhaps most important a team that has won more often than any Capitals team in franchise history. Three consecutive 100-plus point seasons (the first time that has been accomplished by the Caps in 25 years), a Presidents’ Trophy, and one of the best win-loss records at home over the past three seasons will go a long way to bringing fans to the stands.

The Capitals also have had the benefit of misfortune – of others, that is. Consider this. From 2009 through this past weekend the Redskins – the flagship sports franchise in these parts – posted a record of 15-32. They have not qualified for the playoffs since 2007 and have not won a playoff game since 2005. Only the most burgundy-and-gold addled fan would see a Super Bowl in that team’s near future. The Nationals have a record of 208-277 over the same span and have neither qualified for the playoffs nor posted a record above .500 since moving to D.C. from Montreal before the 2005 season. The Wizards? Over the last three full seasons they have a record of 68-178. They have not won a playoff series since 2005 and won their only championship when Jimmy Carter was President. When you are the only major professional sports team in town winning at all, and the Capitals have been that, people will notice.

Hard work and good fortune have made the Caps the “must see” sports franchise in Washington the past few years. But one has to wonder whether the winning window for the team on the ice is starting to close (they would not qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today) and whether the slippage in on ice performance coupled with the bitter disappointment of recent playoff experience would be mirrored by one in the stands, just as winning begat big crowds.

Then there is the matter of other professional teams in the area. The Redskins are still dysfunctional but draw on a reservoir of good will that might not be bottomless, but it sure is deep. The Wizards have their work to do. The Nationals, though, did show some improvement last season and could – if things break right for them – contend for a wild-card playoff berth next season. In a year or two, the Nats might be the must-see team in these parts.

The preceding discussion should not, and it does not diminish the accomplishments of the Capitals to sustain a sellout streak well over 100 games over the past few seasons. That is especially true given that this area is not nearly the hockey hot bed that places such as Boston, Detroit, Chicago, or New York might be, let alone Canadian teams. It merely points out that these things have a shelf life, and the expiration date is likely to come when it becomes clear that the on-ice product is not what it might have been a couple of years ago. But that the Capitals can sustain and did sustain that streak throughout the course of 2011 makes it one of the top stories of the year for the team.

* All numbers based on NHL game reports.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 35: Rangers at Capitals, December 28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Today – December 28th – is the fourth day of Christmas, and that being the case...what the…uh, Cheerless, what do you have there?

“Four colly birds.”

Four what?

“Colly birds, like in the song.”

Isn’t that “four calling birds?”

“Nope…somebody screwed up when they made up the words to that song – I’m guessin’ it was Fearless – it’s ‘colly’ birds. Blackbirds…it has somethin’ to do with coal. Y’know… black… coal… coal mine… colliery… colly. It’s pretty simple.”

Well, you’d know simple. So, are you giving those to your “true love?”

“Hell no! I’m gonna find 20 more and bake ‘em in a pie!”

Merry Christmas, cousin…

Well, tonight the Caps celebrate the fourth day of Christmas by hosting the New York Rangers in the second meeting of the teams this season. In the first one the Rangers, as they have frequently lately in the regular season, pasted the Caps, dropping them by a 6-3 score. That one ended in a manner not suggested by the early going, as the teams played to a scoreless first period. But the Rangers scored three goals in the second period in a span of 4:22, and the competitive portion of the contest was over.

The Caps will try to make things more competitive this time around, but they will be facing a team that has won five games in a row. Not only that, the Blueshirts have allowed more than two goals only once in their last ten games. For a team like the Caps trying to find its offensive rhythm, this is a tough opponent to try to find it against. For the season, here is how the teams compare to one another:

(click pic for larger image)

The Rangers are a formidable bunch that is highly ranked in most team statistical categories. But they are considerably less formidable away from home, especially when it comes to the matter of special teams, where instead of being truly “special,” they are merely pretty good or, in the case of their power play, pretty bad.

1. In the first six years since the lockout, the Rangers were an underrated defensive team. Three times they finished fourth in goals allowed per game, and on one other occasion – last season – they finished fifth. That is largely the product of having a world-class goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist. So far this season they have turned it up a notch, ranking second in goals allowed per game (2.03). Twenty-four times in 34 games they have allowed two or fewer goals, and their 2.17 goals allowed per game on the road is third best in the league.

2. John Tortorella has found Marian Gaborik’s “on” switch. He has goals in 11 of his last 16 games over which he has a total of 13 goals (a 67-goal pace). He is shooting at a 33.3 percent pace (13-for-39) in those 16 games. Only twice has he had as many as four shots in a game over this run. He is, at the moment, the very definition of “sniper.”

3. Little things…the Rangers rank third in the league in hits recorded on the road, seventh in blocked shots, and 11th in takeaways.

4. If the Rangers score first, they win. Only Chicago has fewer losses when scoring first (an overtime loss) than New York (two, one in regulation and one in extra time).

5. The Rangers are on a five-game winning streak, but it has been accomplished without much in the way of contributions on offense from Brad Richards. The most sought-after player in the 2011 free agent class is 1-0-1 in those five games (although he is a plus-3). He has not lacked for trying though, that one goal coming on 17 shots in the five games.

1. The Caps have not been especially hot or cold under Dale Hunter thus far. Two losses, a win, a loss, two wins, loss, win, loss, win, Gimmick loss, and a loss to go 5-6-1.

2. The Caps have lost four straight regular season games to the Blueshirts, giving up 20 goals (not including a Gimmick game-winner) in the process. In the last 12 playoff games the Caps have played against the Rangers they allowed a total of 19 goals and shut them out three times.  We will take the former to get the latter.

3. The Caps have a middle-of-the-road power play (at best) overall, but they are third in the NHL in power play efficiency at home (22.6 percent). The trouble is, the Caps rank only 22nd in total power play opportunities at home and 20th in home power play opportunities-per-game.

4. The Caps are minus-8 (goals scored to goals allowed) in the first period, minus-9 in the second period. But they are plus-8 in the third and plus-5 in overtime.

5. No team has scored more four-on-four goals than the Caps (seven). Of course, that is probably a product of going 5-0 in overtime games when the teams are 4-on-4.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Ryan Callahan

Sure, Marian Gaborik gets a lot of goals. Brad Richards gets a lot of points. They are one-two on the Rangers power play scoring list. But Ryan Callahan leads the team in power play goals (six). He is tied for eighth in the league in that statistic. Starting with a three-assist night against the Caps on November 25th, Callahan is 5-10-15 in his last 16 games. He is on a pace (31-31-62) to shatter his personal bests in goals (23), assists (25), and points (48) set last season. He is 7-6-13 in 15 career games against the Caps.

Washington: Jason Chimera

Jason Chimera might have saved the Caps season, at least for a while, last spring when he scored a goal in the second overtime of Game 4 to give the Caps a 4-3 win. The Caps, who were down 3-0 in that game before coming back to win, could have returned to DC tied 2-2 in games, but Chimera’s heroics sent the Caps home up 3-1, and they would clinch in Game 5. This season Chimera is on a pace to finish with a career high 31 goals. Of the 13 goals he has so far, five of them have come in nine games against Atlantic Division opponents. OK, four of them have come against New Jersey, but he does have three in 12 career games against the Rangers.


1. Kill ‘em all. Since the seven-game winning streak to open the season ended, the Caps are 2-8-1 in games in which they allow a power play goal. The Rangers are 14-1-2 when they score one. Not hard to figure out where the fault line on this game lies.

2. Shoot, don’t get shot at. The Rangers are 11-2-0 when outshooting their opponents, the best such record in the league. The Caps are 6-10-2 when they are outshot. Only five teams have a lower winning percentage in such games.

3. Keep it close. The Caps have the seventh best record in the league in one-goal games. Meanwhile, the Rangers are only 6-2-4 in such games. They are 16-6 when the games are decided by two or more goals.

In the end, the Rangers have the best record in the East, and it is not a fluke. They have 11 wins at home, 11 wins on the road. What they are, though, is streaky. They have a seven-game winning streak and two five-game winning streaks (including the one they bring into this game). But the Rangers have avoided the long losing streak. Since losing their first three games of the season (0-1-2) they are 22-7-2 and have not had a losing streak longer than two games. They are 11-4-0 in their last 15 road games. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist is 4-2-1, 1.42, .951 with a shutout in his last seven games. The Rangers are coming to town humming on all their cylinders.

On the other hand, the Caps can’t seem to get their machine to turn over with any consistency. They are 3-3-0 in six home games under Dale Hunter. What they have been able to do, however, in those seven home games is to play pretty good defense. In five of the six games the Caps allowed two or fewer goals. But scoring only 14 goals in those six games has kept the Caps from winning an extra game or two (two of the losses came by 2-1 scores), thereby keeping them on the wrong side of the playoff-eligible divide. This is not going to be a high-scoring game, the Rangers’ propensities for laying the lumber lately to the Caps notwithstanding.

Capitals 2 – Rangers 1