Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 37: Capitals at Blue Jackets, December 31st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s New Year’s Eve, and we are about to ring out the old year. Can’t say that it has been a great one to be a Washington Capitals fan, not when the high point came on the first night of the year (the 3-1 win over Pittsburgh in the Winter Classic). But here we are ready to toast our hope for health and good fortune for the year to come. It is…

“Why do they sing hockey carols on New Year’s Eve, cuz?”

Cheerless, after locking me in that closet trying to hijack the prognostications…I wouldn’t think you’d want to see me right now.

“C’mon, cuz…we wuz only tryin’ to help, and look… the Caps won, right? You even got the score right.”

Yeah, yeah, ok. Now, what about this “hockey carol” thing?

“Well, why do we sing about a backup goalie and a retired forward on New Year’s Eve?”


“Alex Auld and Robert Lang.”

You mean…


Cheerless, it’s a tune set to an old Scottish poem. I don’t suppose you ever heard of Robert Burns.

“Yeah, he plays for San Jose, right?”

No, that’s Brent Burns. Robert Burns was a Scottish poet, and he wrote the words of “Auld Lang Syne.” It means, “old long since.” Sort of like “long, long ago.”

“In a galaxy far, far away.”

Not exactly.

“I still like to think of it as a hockey carol, cuz.”

You know? You might be on to something there, cousin.

Before we sing the hockey carol at midnight, the Washington Capitals have one more order of business for 2011 – a visit to Columbus to take on the Blue Jackets. The Jackets are having a devil of a time trying to find any momentum whatsoever this season. They started the 2011-2012 campaign with eight straight losses (0-7-1) and they lost six in a row (0-5-1) before turning aside the Dallas Stars, 4-1, on Thursday.

In between, Columbus has managed to string together consecutive wins only one this season – a 4-3 overtime win at Nashville on November 19th and a 4-1 win over Calgary on November 21st. Not exactly a season to toast so far. Here is how the teams stack up against one another:

(click ic for larger image)

Clearly, Columbus has not come upon their standings position by fluke or bad luck. That many rankings in the 20’s, they earned it.

1. One bit of good fortune befalling the Blue Jackets is this. They have the fourth largest difference of power play to penalty killing time in the league. Only three teams have more power play time at home (Carolina, Montreal, Buffalo). Given how poorly the Jackets are at 5-on-5 (28th) and penalty killing (29th), the more time they spend with the man advantage is more time they are not likely to give up goals.

2. Columbus actually has a better record when they are outshot by the opposition (5-8-0) than when they outshoot their opponents (5-12-5). This should not be a mystery. Columbus’ 7.55 percent shooting percentage is 28th in the league (by way of comparison, Washington’s shooting percentage of 10.11 percent is seventh).

3. If Columbus is going to win this game, it is likely to be from what they do early. They are only a minus-7 (goals scored to goals allowed) in the first period and minus-3 in the second). They probably will not do it late – they are minus-22 in the third period. More to the point, the Blue Jackets are 8-5-2 when leading after two periods (although that record is worst in the league), 1-11-1 when trailing after 40 minutes.

4. One thing the Blue Jackets to happen to do reasonably well is avoid penalties. Well, some of them. Only four teams have fewer minor penalties taken this season. By the same token, only three teams have taken more majors. Columbus is second in the league in fighting majors with 26 (the Rangers have 31).

5. It might be particularly significant sign of futility that a team could score four power play goals in a game and lose. The Blue Jackets did just that is a 6-5 loss to Nashville on December 22nd. Columbus has recorded multiple power-play goal games three times this season and has yet to win a game in regulation (1-2-0), In addition to the loss to Nashville, Columbus dropped a 6-3 decision to Chicago in which they had two power play goals, and they beat Nashville, 4-3, in overtime when they recorded a pair of power play goals.

1. The Caps have played on New Year’s Eve six times in franchise history. They have a record of 3-3-0 in those games. The last time the Caps played on December 31st, they beat Philadelphia, 4-3, on December 31, 2005, in a trick shot competition, Brian Willsie potting the winner after scoring the tying goal in the third period.

2. The Caps are 17-14-4 in year-ending games over their history, 4-2-0 since the lockout.

3. A win in this game would give the Caps an eight-win December. It would leave this edition of the Caps tied for the second-most wins in the month (with the 2009-2010 team), behind only the 2008-2009 Caps, a team that went 11-3-0 in December 2008.

4. The Caps are tied for the sixth-most number of third period goals this season (42). Given that Columbus has allowed the third-most number of third period goals, this could be a productive 20 minutes for the Caps.

5. Only one team has allowed more power play goals on the road than the Caps. The 17 allowed in 17 road games is surpassed only by Toronto (24 in 20 road games).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Columbus: Steve Mason

Once upon a time, Steve Mason was a goalie on the rise. In his rookie year he was 33-20-7, 2.29, .916, and had ten shutouts. He had a string of three consecutive shutouts, blanking Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Anaheim. He had shutouts in both of his appearances against the Caps. Since then, however, Mason has been more or less solved. In the two-plus seasons following his Calder Trophy-winning season, he is 49-62-18, 3.09, .899, with eight shutouts in 134 appearances. This season he is 5-15-2, 3.29, .887, and is still without a shutout. He ranks 45th among 46 qualifying goalies in goals against average and is tied for 44th in save percentage. In 22 appearances this season he has allowed four or more goals 10 times. He has, however, showed signs of emerging from his long slumber. In his last two starts he stopped a total of 61 of 63 shots in backstopping Columbus to a win over Dallas and a Gimmick loss to Calgary.

Washington: John Carlson

The graduate of the Dale Hunter College of Hockey Knowledge in London has recorded 16 consecutive games of at least 20 minutes of ice time, 14 of those under Hunter. Seven times in those 14 games he finished the game with more than 25 minutes. It does not seem to have overly hampered his production. Carlson is 1-9-10, even, in those 14 games since the coaching change. What he is doing less of, however, is getting shots on goal from the blue line. In his first five games under the new coach Carlson had 18 shots on goal. In his last nine he has a total of five and did not record a shot in five of those nine games. The Caps have gotten contributions from the Young Guns lately, but it would be nice to see Carlson activating a bit more in the offensive end to provide another threat, at least to get shots to the net.


1. Patience. Columbus is not a team that seems to be able to construct full 60-minute efforts. Their third period record is gruesome. If the Caps don’t get them early, they are likely to get their opportunities to get them late.

2. One is the loneliest number. The Caps have seen the trio of Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom turn it up a notch as of late. But a one-line team is not a long-term recipe for success. A second line of Jeff Halpern, Troy Brouwer, and Marcus Johansson has to do more than, say, the three shots on goal and no points they recorded in the Buffalo game on Friday. And the third line of Joel Ward, Brooks Laich, and Jason Chimera has a total of three even-strength goals in their last ten games. Ward has not had a goal of any kind in his last 23 games, dating back to a November 5th game against the Islanders when he had his last one.

3. No celebrating early. This has the daily-double of distractions. It is a game on New Year’s Eve, and it is a game against a struggling opponent. The temptation here is to go the full cute and try for the fancy finish instead of the gritty goal. It’s a road game. Play it like one. Simple, without all the efforts at high-wire pyrotechnics.

In the end, this is one of those games that on paper should be over by the first intermission. But these are the Caps, and they don’t often display that ruthless gene successful teams express against such opponents. It is an especially tricky game in that the Caps: a) beat a team that has beaten them like a drum in the regular season (the Rangers), and b) beat a team that even when depleted handled the Caps rather easily this season in their first two games. This game might seem like a night off. The Caps will think that at their peril. We think they will avoid that fate.

Capitals 4 – Blue Jackets 2

A TWO-point night -- Game 36: Capitals 3 - Sabres 1

Once upon a time, it was Ovi’s world, and we just smiled and watched.

Last night, Caps fans got a glimpse of what that was like once more as Alex Ovechkin potted a pair of goals, Nicklas Backstrom had one of his own, and Tomas Vokoun showed fans why he was such a steal when he was signed as a free agent as the Washington Capitals defeated the Buffalo Sabres, 3-1, at Verizon Center.

OK, so one of Ovechkin’s goals was fluky, but such is the way of all top end performers. The .350 hitter in baseball gets the check-swing single. The 30-point scorer in basketball has the shot go high off the iron and drop in once in a while. The quarterback has his past deflected into the hands of an unintended receiver in the end zone. It happens.

In Ovechkin’s case, it was a harmless enough looking play that got him and the Caps started. With Mike Weber off for boarding 27 seconds into the game and the Caps on a power play, Tomas Vokoun dropped the puck for Ovechkin at the side of the Caps’ net. Ovechkin wheeled around the cage with the puck and headed up the right side. Allowed to build a head of steam as the Sabres were changing personnel on the fly, Ovechkin charged into the Buffalo defensive zone, eluding an attempt at a hip check by Braden McNabb. When Christian Erhoff slid over to try to interrupt Ovechkin’s progress, Ovechkin spotted Brooks Laich steaming down the middle with position on Paul Gaustad. Ovechkin sent a pass to Laich, but the puck clicked off Erhoff’s stick and fluttered past goalie Ryan Miller into the back of the net for Ovechkin’s lucky 13th goal of the season.

Nicklas Backstrom got what would be the game-winner in the second period by closing the deal on an amazing passing sequence. It started with what every coach tears his hair out over – a turnover at the opponent’s blue line. Lindy Ruff was doing the hair pulling when Derek Roy made a lazy pass from the right wing boards in hopes of finding Robyn Regehr at the other end of it. But Alexander Semin intercepted the pass and started the other way:

When Semin reached the red line, he dropped the puck for Alex Ovechkin crossing behind him:

Ovechkin headed into the Buffalo zone with three defenders closing on him:

With the three defenders about to swallow him up, Ovechkin fed Roman Hamrlik on the left side:

With two defenders still marking Ovechkin and Mike Weber sliding over to the puck-carrier, Hamrlik centers the puck to Alexander Semin trailing the play:

Semin one-times the puck to Nicklas Backstrom between the hash marks, and although the Sabre defenders have created what looks like a defensive halo around Backstrom, none are in a position to defend what comes next:

Backstrom flicks the puck past an out-of-position Ryan Miller:

After Jochen Hecht got the Sabres within one before the second intermission, Ovechkin got the insurance goal after the break. It was more spiffy passing, this time an oldie but a goodie. Folks will probably remember the pass from Nicklas Backstrom to Alex Ovechkin for the one-timer that rocketed past a lunging Ryan Miller, and that was sweet. But what set it up might have been sweeter. Dmitry Orlov collected a loose puck at the boards in the Caps end and shuffled it up and out of the zone. When the puck found its way to Alexander Semin at the red line, Semin gently nudged a backhand pass to Backstrom heading the other way, just as Robyn Regehr was about to drill Semin from behind. Semin took the hit, Backstrom took the puck, and the Caps were off and running with Ovechkin sealing the deal on the win.

Other stuff:

-- It was the first time in 27 games that Ovechkin recorded a multi-goal game, the last coming on October 29th against Vancouver. He now has points in his last five games (4-3-7).

-- Nicklas Backstrom just keeps plugging along. His goal and assist makes him 2-4-6 in his last five games and leaves him in a tie for 12th in league scoring (13-25-38). He also wins the coupon for the all-you-can-eat buffet – a goal, an assist, plus-2, three shot attempts, one shot on goal, two takeaways, three blocked shots, and he won 10 of 18 draws.

-- And there is Alexander Semin, who is quietly finding a rhythm in his game. His two assists on the night make him 4-4-8, plus-6 in his last six games. He could have had two assists on the Backstrom goal, getting Ovechkin started with momentum into the Buffalo zone to start things, then setting up Backstrom in the slot for the goal.

-- It was a matter of skill in this one, the Caps taking advantage of opportunities from Sabre defensive breakdowns, just as they took advantage in the game against the Rangers on Wednesday. They managed only 40 shot attempts in 60 minutes, but they did get a good percentage of those attempts on goal (53 percent). And of the eight missed shots the Caps had, Ovechkin had four of them. His nine attempts reflected an increasing willingness to shoot the puck.

-- At the other end, the Caps blocked almost as many shots (23) as the Sabres directed on net (26). Thirteen different skaters recorded at least one blocked shot, led by Karl Alzner with four. But the forwards made their contributions, too. Backstrom had three, Troy Brouwer had three, Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera each had a pair.

-- Maybe one of the Caps goalies is grabbing the number one job by the throat. In making 25 saves on 26 shots in the win, Tomas Vokoun has won two in a row (he has not had more consecutive wins since opening the season with six straight victories) and has stopped 72 of the last 75 shots he has faced (.960 save percentage).

In the end, the Caps are now 6-3-1 in their last ten games and have allowed only 22 goals in those games. Since dropping a 5-1 decision to Philadelphia, the Caps have allowed only 12 goals in seven games. And now, the Young Guns are making more consistent contributions with the return of Mike Green on the horizon. The Caps are going to need to get some more out of the third and fourth lines and will need to solve that second line problem. But the best players have to be the best players, too. This week, they have been.