We’re back, after a brief hiatus, pretty much where we left things when we last posted a preview for Game 54. In fact, it’s worse. We go away for a few days and…
-- The Caps lose two in a row.
-- The team’s cornerstone is likened to a “rock star” by an associate coach who isn't normally with the team on a regular basis, and not in a good way.
-- The cornerstone gets into a bit of a scrap with one of the team’s few remaining healthy and moderately productive defensemen, and the GM jokes that it was “the rock star against the all-star.”
-- The team calls up the prospect goalie to play because the number one has the flu and the number two isn’t standing on his head when he is in the lineup (he’s had three starts in the last four weeks, all losses).
-- Oh, and the team is raising ticket prices, as if McDonald’s decided that a stale bun, limp lettuce, rancid sauce and a cheap grade of meat merited a $5 price for their Big Mac (drive thru special handling price extra).
And now, the team heads off on the road to play five of their next six games away from Verizon Center leading up to the trading deadline at the end of the month.
We missing anything?
Meanwhile, in sunny south Florida, the Panthers are 5-3-0 in February. It’s not scorching the earth with their hot play, but it has been good enough to open a little room – four points – between themselves (65 points) and the Capitals (61 points). The 5-3-0 record has come in rather typical fashion for the Panthers. They have been outscored, 22-21 in those eight games, all three losses coming by at least three goals. When they stink, they reek. Or is that the other way around?
Here is how the teams stack up against one another in their numbers…
(click pic for larger image)
2. Speaking of trick shots, the Panthers really stink at this at home. At least their goalies do. Scott Clemmensen… 0-2, .571 save percentage (26th in the league). Jose Theodore… 2-3, .647 save percentage (23rd). Jacob Markstrom… 0-1, .667 (T-18th). Combined, the Florida goalies have a save percentage of .630 in home trick shot competitions.
3. Their skaters aren’t much to brag about, either. The Panthers have only seven goals on 32 shots in nine après-overtime decisions. Only Stephen Weiss has more than one (two).
4. Florida has not yet played past the 60 minute mark in any game in February. The last time the Panthers went a full month (not including the abbreviated April schedule) without an extra time game was October 2010.
5. If Florida scores first, it is a virtual guarantee of a standings point. They have earned at least one standings point in 24 of 25 games in which they scored the first goal (18-1-6).
2. In this unlucky 13 stretch the power play hasn’t been able to light an appliance bulb – 4-for-36 (11.1 percent).
3. Washington ranks 28th in the combined road power play/penalty killing efficiency index (88.9). Only Buffalo and Columbus are worse.
4. If Florida stinks at shootouts, the Caps…well. Their shooting percentage among the skaters isn’t bad (4-for-12), but the goalies? Six goals on 11 shots (.455 save percentage).
5. For all the Caps’ woes on offense this season, only two teams have been shutout fewer times (Detroit, New Jersey) than the two occasions on which Washington was blanked. Those two shutouts came in a four-day period last month in losses to the Islanders and Carolina by 3-0 scores.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder
Florida: Kris Versteeg
It really gets simple from here on out. The best players need to play like the best players down the stretch. Kris Versteeg seems to be keeping up his end of the bargain for the Panthers. He has five goals in his last ten games, including two in his last three. But despite being 5-4-9 in those games Versteeg is a minus-3.
Washington: Alex Ovechkin
Same goes for the Caps…their best players have to be their best players. Ovechkin is 5-4-9 in his last nine games (and plus-1), but something he has not seemed able to do with any regularity this season are two things – have a singularly dominating performance against a quality club, and to be able to pull his teammates along with him when he is having a good game. Those 23 goals he has is one thing – goal scoring is down in the NHL, and his goal-scoring slump has been prolonged. But those 21 assists in 53 games. He is on a pace to finish with 31 assists, which would be 15 below his career low (46 in 2006-2007).
1. Score First. Duh! No team has fewer losses in regulation than the Panthers (one) when they score first, and the Caps can’t afford to be giving away even stray standings points.
2. Beware the middle 20. Florida is not an especially high-scoring team in the second period, but if the Caps slip up here, it matters. Washington is one of only three teams not to have lost at all when leading after two periods (17-0-0), and Florida has not lost such a game in regulation (16-0-4).
3. Special delivery. If the Caps do not start winning on the road, they can kiss their playoff chances goodbye. They stink on the road largely because their special teams are awful on the road. So…better special teams, more wins. Logic.
In the end, this is as “must win” as a game can be with this much time left in the season. The Caps get no handicap for playing without key players, and those who remain healthy (Alex, Alexander, Brooks…this means you) have to dig deeper. Maybe it is still hard to take Florida seriously, given their recent history and their penchant for scraping together standings points by losing in extra time. But there the Panthers sit, four points ahead of the Caps. If they make it six, with 25 games left, the easiest path to the playoffs for the Caps – winning the Southeast – becomes so much harder.
Caps 4 – Panthers 2