Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 79: Canadiens at Capitals, March 31st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals live to skate another game with meaning. Tonight, it will be the Montreal Canadiens who come into Verizon Center to try and dash the hopes of the men in red and their fans. For the Canadiens it is a chance to…

“Bon-jore.”

Cheerless?

“Uh…Bon-jore mon...uh, mone koo-sin.”

Bonjour, mon cousin, comment ├ža va?

“uh…je…je…oh crappe…

You spring for the French version of Rosetta Stone there, Cheerless?

“I just thought since these are the Canadiens and all, that I had to speak ‘en Frenchy,’ as they say.”

I admire a fellow looking to expand his horizons.

“I’ve even started taking classes in, uh… how you say… French cuisine.”

Do tell. What is your specialty?

“Something I call, “Pommes Frites avec le Yoo-Hoo.”

Pass!

The Caps and the Habs wrap up their season series tonight, and the Caps have a chance to sweep the season series. The Caps captured the first three games of this year’s season series, two of them by 3-0 scores and the third by a 4-1 margin. It is part of a long, hard season of pain and intrigue for the Canadiens, a team that could, if they fail to win another game, finish with fewer than 30 wins in a full season for only the second time in 49 years (and back in 1962-63, when they had 28 wins, the league played a 70-game season, not the 82-games season it plays now).

Mediocrity might be a step up for Montreal, and that would be a pretty good description of their play. In their last dozen games going into last night's action they had a record of 4-4-4 (going into Friday’s game against the Rangers). They have been outscored, 31-29 over that span. They have had a decent power play (18.9 percent on 7-for-27) and a respectably penalty kill (37-for-44, 84.1 percent). They have found just enough ways to lose. Of the eight losses, five were by one goal, four of them in extra time. Another was a two-goal loss in which the opponent scored a power play goal in the last minute of the game.

And it has not worn well in Montreal. The Canadiens relieved general manager Pierre Gauthier of his duties on Thursday, and Bob Gainey – Gauthier’s predecessor in the GM position – left his role as team advisor. It did not sit well with Canadiens forward Erik Cole, who sounded as if he might have been a Caps player talking about that team…

“…it just goes to show how poorly we’ve underperformed (performed) this year as a group. Maybe in some other organizations a season like this can be written off or tolerated, but I feel that with the winning tradition and culture here, it’s just unacceptable. And it’s on us as players. We’ve cost several persons their positions in this organization this year, and that’s something that we should all be ashamed of and (should force us to) look in the mirror. It’s up to us to get better and be better as a group.”

Seems as though there are other places in which a team’s play is characterized as “unacceptable.”  Here is how the teams compared before last night's games...

 (click pic for larger image)


1. Montreal is another of those teams that does not seem to finish games well. They play teams relatively even for 20 minutes, being a plus-6 (goals for/goals against) in the first period of games this season. They are just about as good in the second – plus-3. But in the third period the Canadiens are a minus-20 with the seventh highest total of third period goals allowed (81 in 78 games).

2. Montreal can score in one situation. They lead the league in 5-on-3 goals scored (seven). They have allowed only one goal in 3-on-5 situations.

3. Part of Montreal’s problem in the third period is that they hang around, but don’t close the deal, then give up empty net goals. Only five teams have allowed more empty net goals than the Canadiens.

4. The Canadiens are not an especially disciplined team, and by that we do not mean that they drop the mitts much (tied for 20th in fighting majors). No, their problem is more mundane – only two teams have committed more minor penalties. Only Philadelphia has found themselves in more shorthanded situations. The results have been especially hard on Montreal on the road. They are a minus-33 (power plays for/power plays against) on the road, the third worst such mark in the league.

5. Montreal does not play well with a lead, not that they get many. They have the second-worst record in the league when leading after the first period, not that they get many opportunities (only 26 leads in 78 games). They have the third-worst record when leading after 40 minutes (only 31 leads).

1. The Caps are not fast starters. Their 53 first period goals is the sixth-fewest number of such goals in the league. It has contributed to a minus-13 mark (goals for/goals against) in the first period of games. They are no better in the second period (minus-14), but the problem is at the other end of the ice. Their 80 goals allowed in the middle frame is the fourth-highest number of goals allowed.

2. As one might expect, the Caps are an above-.500 team when outshooting opponents (.516) and a below-.500 team when outshot (.478). Their problem? They have outshot opponents only 31 times in 78 games and have been outshot 46 times.

3. The Caps play well with a lead in this respect. They have only one loss in regulation when leading after one period; they have no losses in regulation when leading after two periods. Again, the problem is frequency. In the first period of games they took only 25 leads into intermission while trailing 31 times. In the second period, 24 leads, 34 times they trailed.

4. The Caps didn’t get the memo on the Gimmick. Only two teams have participated in fewer trick shot competitions this season than Washington (seven, with a 3-4 record) – Tampa Bay and Carolina. Only Carolina has fewer wins (none). Maybe it is not a bad thing. The Caps have the third worst save percentage in the freestyle portion of the show (.522).

5. The Caps can lose ugly. Only two teams – Columbus and Tampa Bay – have suffered more losses by three or more goals. Seventeen of their 31 losses in regulation have come by that margin.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Montreal: Max Pacioretty

Max Pacioretty started the month of March as if he was shot out of a cannon. He was 5-7-12 in Montreal’s first seven games, his longest scoring streak of the season. Then... he has not recorded a goal in any of his last ten games and has just one point in his last seven contests. Montreal is 1-3-3 in those last seven games. Pacioretty does not have a point in three games against the Caps this season, and he is 0-3-3 in ten career games against Washington.

Washington: Michal Neuvirth

OK, kid… you have the keys to the car. With Tomas Vokoun having apparently reinjured his “lower body,” it is now Michal Neuvirth’s net. He was solid in relief in the Caps’ 3-2 Gimmick win over Boston on Thursday. He will need to be that, and more, over the last four games if it comes to that. Certainly he needs to be better than his record since shutting out Toronto on March 11th. In five appearances he is 2-1-1, 3.54, .881. Performance has not been his problem against Montreal. He is 2-0-0, 0.50, .984 with one shutout in two appearances against the Canadiens this season and 3-1-0, 1.81, .935 with one shutout in his career against Montreal.

Keys:

1. Pressure. Fifteenth-place teams have nothing to play for but pride. And if a team gets out fast against such teams, there is only just so far pride will take that worn-down team. Watch the first ten minutes for who has the puck in whose end more.

2. More pressure. Carey Price seems to like a nice calm sea of ice. When in his rhythm, there are no acrobatics, no flailing, no demonstrations of displeasure. Get bodies in front of him, whack at his pads when the puck is in close. Maybe he’ll think about shooting the puck at a gaggle of Caps…


3. And still more pressure. The Caps have suffered a lack of power play opportunities. Only two teams have had fewer at home. Keep the heat on, force the Canadiens into mistakes and perhaps penalties. Only one team has been shorthanded more often than the Canadiens on the road. Make them add to that total.

In the end, two points is the only adequate outcome in this game with the Caps playing two of their last three on the road. They should not lack for motivation. It is Fan Appreciation Day with what should be a good crowd. The Caps can put space between themselves and the Buffalo Sabres, putting pressure on the Sabres to keep up. The can tie Ottawa in points for seventh place (Ottawa has a game in hand and is at Philadelphia tonight).  They can close to within two points of first in the Southeast Division with a game against Florida coming up next week. If they come out flat in this one, there really will not be much left to say about this team.

Capitals 4 – Canadiens 1

Friday, March 30, 2012

A Night in the Life of Timmah





Click pics for larger images

photos: Elsa/Getty Images, Comcast Sports Net

A TWO-point night -- Game 78: Capitals 3 - Bruins 2 (OT/Gimmick)

A tease.

That is what the Washington Capitals seem to be to their fans… a tease. One game they walk into an opponent’s rink, pot three goals in the first period, and skate off with a win against a team that rarely loses at home. Then they skate onto their own ice, their own fans cheering as if it was a playoff game, and have their lunch eaten in front of them by the team they have to beat to make the playoffs.

A tease. And it was all on display last night as the Caps took a lead, gave it back, battled adversity, couldn’t close the deal, then snatched victory from the jaws of playoff oblivion by defeating the Boston Bruins, 3-2, in Bettman’s Folly.

The Caps actually had about a game’s worth of action in the first period without actually accomplishing anything. First, they had only two shots on goal for the period, and one of those came off an ugly giveaway by Brad Marchand that Alex Ovechkin turned into a long range wrist shot that Tim Thomas easily turned aside. Washington had a total of six shot attempts on goal in the first period (two shots on goal), none of those attempts coming in the last 7:15 of the period.

There was a reason for that, though, at least the last 7:15 part. Jason Chimera was disqualified for taking a five minute major penalty for charging and a game misconduct for charging and slamming Adam McQuaid into the glass behind the Boston with six minutes left in the period. Although to hear Boston play-by-play announcer Jack Edwards tell it, Chimera started his run from Widener Library on the Harvard University campus.

It would not be the only bit of misfortune to fall upon the Caps. Tomas Vokoun left the game with 1:35 to go in the first period, appearing to have aggravated a groin injury that had kept him out of the lineup for the past two weeks. Actually, Vokoun appeared to be laboring long before that, appearing to have sustained the new problem when making an awkward attempt to save a shot by Brad Marchand at the 7:23 mark of the first period.

Michal Neuvirth took over, and one might have been forgiven for thinking, “ugh.” Not so much because of Neuvirth having troubles lately (though he has), but for this being just one more piece of adversity the Caps would not be able to deal with.

But Neuvirth did what he had to do. He made the saves he needed to make while the Caps got their bearings about them. The trouble was, it took them a while to do that. But do that they did, and with the clock ticking toward the eight-minute mark of the third period, they got on the board. Boston got caught in a mistake made by two players in the blink of any eye.

With Marcus Johansson carrying the puck down the right wing boards, all eyes went to him by the mean wearing black jerseys, including Rich Peverley and Patrice Bergeron. Bergeron eased out from inside the faceoff circle to close on Johansson, but that meant there were three Bruins surrounding the Cap forward. Meanwhile, Peverley lost track of what was going on in the middle of the ice, where Dennis Wideman was jumping into the void left by Bergeron. By the time he realized his mistake, Peverley could not get around Alex Ovechkin to close on Wideman, and the Cap defenseman has a clear shot at the Boston net, which he buried behind Thomas on a feed from Johansson.

Not two minutes later, Johansson got a goal of his own when he finished a two-on-one with Ovechkin. With 10:06 to go and Boston not exactly the picture of offensive pressure at the other end (20 total shots on goal with nothing to show for it at that point), it looked good for the Caps.

Did we say they were a tease? David Krejci halved the lead with a redirect with 3:10 to go, and Andrew Ference brought the Bruins all the way back with a slapper from the top of the zone through a screen with 1:16 left.

The Caps, recognizing that one point would not do, carried play in the overtime with seven shot attempts (three on goal) to five for Boston (one on goal), but could not win in the hockey portion of the game. That left things to the trick shot competition where Matt Hendricks would score (again), where Alexander Semin kept hope alive with a goal, and where Brooks Laich finally finished things off with a strange looking backhand that probably looked more strange to a befuddled Tim Thomas who bit on Laich’s feint to the left before watching the puck sail by him on the other side.

Other stuff…

-- Those two late goals… the Caps could have done things a bit better in front of Michal Neuvirth to help out. On Krejci’s goal, John Carlson could not see clear to tying up Krejci’s stick, allowing the Boston forward to angle it across his body and tip the incoming shot from Zdeno Chara past Neuvirth. On the Ference goal, the play started when Karl Alzner tried to snap the puck out of the zone along the wall. Mike Knuble was backing up to take the puck or feed it along, but backed himself right out of the zone. Krejci cut in front of Knuble to head off the puck, sent it across to Andrew Ference, and the game was tied an instant later.

-- Does Matt Hendricks have some secret lair in Northern Virginia – the Matt Cave – where he practices these trick shot moves? The guy is a machine.

-- If he does, maybe he can let Brooks Laich have a few hours in it to practice faceoffs. Four for 18? OK, he was 2-for-11 against Bergeron, who is a good faceoff man, but that number really has to get better if the Caps are to get into or do any damage in the playoffs. The margin for error now comes down to the little things. And really, this isn’t so little, give than Laich takes the biggest share of draws.

-- Boston managed only four shots on goal – only one inside of 30 feet – on the five-minute power play after Chimera’s penalty. It was a huge kill.

-- On that penalty. Jack Edward’s breathless commentary aside, if you roll the tape to the moment of the hit, it was not that bad. A penalty, perhaps – perhaps – but a five and a game? We will not argue that McQuaid embellished anything. The young man was injured on the play – a cut and perhaps a head injury. But was that a product of the awkward way McQuaid turned just before Chimera hit him, presenting his head to the glass? It was an unfortunate incident all around, and one hopes McQuaid gets back onto the ice quickly.

-- If Brad Marchand is the “Little Ball of Hate” – and we are sorry, that nickname was and always will be for Pat Verbeek – then what is Matt Hendricks? Six hits in 16 minutes. Rumbling Boulder of Pain? Little Brick Through Your Front Window?

-- Watching Tomas Vokoun walking gingerly down the tunnel at TD Garden, looking at the back of his jersey, was not what Caps fans thought of or hoped for as perhaps their last look at Vokoun as a Cap. They were hoping to see the logo of his jersey as he was lifting his first Stanley Cup. It might end up being the single image that adds a period to the end of this season.

-- Like that saucer pass Alex Ovechkin put on Marcus Johansson’s stick for that second goal? Somewhere in TD Garden, Nicky smiled.

-- Mike Green, “Defensive Defenseman?” Almost 25 minutes, two shots on goal, four shots blocked (tied for the team lead), no goals scored while on ice.

-- Ovechkin gets the chocolate bunny for all the ink on the score sheet. Two assists, plus-2, five shots, ten shot attempts, two hits, two giveaways, a takeaway, a blocked shot, and one faceoff (a loss). Throw in a colored egg.

In the end, the Caps did what the Caps do. They give glimpses of being a team that can weather diversity and do what they have to do to win. Going into Boston and winning two games, both of them a product of withstanding Bruin comebacks, is no small thing. But did we say that the Caps are a tease? Let’s see if they parlay this into a strong effort on Saturday, of if they go all “Buffalo” on us. For now, though, it is a good win.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Winter Blunderland

Cities with teams in both major professional winter sports*...


“It's not whether you got knocked down;
it's whether you get back up.”
-- Vince Lombardi
 
Now...Washington will get back up, won't it?
 
 
 
*  Records of cities' best team in each sport, as of March 28th.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 78: Capitals at Bruins, March 29th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals are packing up their hopes and dreams in the luggage of desperation and jetting to Boston tonight to meet the Bruins in a…

“Can we call it a ‘must game’ now, cousin?”

Yeah, Fearless, I think we’re pretty much there.

“I thought it was a ‘hockey game.’ Did I miss the newsletter, cuz?”

No, Cheerless, it’s just that the Caps have five games left and really can’t afford to be giving up any more points.

“So, is it a ‘must hockey game,’ or a ‘hockey must game?’”

It’s a “must win” game, Cheerless.

“But it’s still a hockey game.”

Yes, it’s still a hockey game.

“But a ‘must win’ game.”

Yes.

“And what if they don’t win? Do they get shot or something?”

No.

“Then why do you call it a ‘must win’ game?”

Because if they don’t win, they’re not likely to go to the playoffs.

“And?”

And what?

“And…that’s it? They don’t go to the playoffs?”

That’s right.

“Y’all need t’get a grip, cuz. There’s more important stuff going on these days.”

You mean like oral argument on the Affordable Care Act?

“Huh?... Nah. There’s that Route 29 Batman guy. And Martina Navratilova getting kicked off Dancing With The Stars. And the news that there’ gonna be a sequel to ‘Anchorman.’ There’s real stuff goin’ on, cuz.”

You have a point, as always, Cheerless.

Meanwhile, amidst this whirlwind of news, the Caps will be in Boston to try to salvage their chances at making the playoffs. It is not looking good, not when you consider that the Caps are 2-3-2 in their last seven games and headed out of town having gone a disappointing 1-1-1 on a three-game home stand. And on top of that, the Caps are not catching the Bruins at the most opportune time. Boston comes into this game having won three games in a row and five of their last six after enduring a four-game losing streak in which they allowed 21 goals and scored only eight of their own.

In this five-of-six stretch Boston has outscored their opposition, 23-10, including an 8-0 annihilation of the Toronto Maple Leafs on March 19th. In none of those six games did the Bruins allow more than two goals. It is a far cry from their performance earlier in the month, when they lost the services of back-up goaltender Tuukka Rask to a groin/abdomen strain and lost six of eight games in especially ugly fashion.

The “ugly” was some uncharacteristically loose goaltending from Tim Thomas, who earned the decision in each game of that 2-6-0 run, marrying that record to a 4.26 goals against average and a .830 save percentage. By the time the Bruins hit bottom in this streak with a 6-2 loss at Florida on March 15th, they were only one standings point ahead of the Ottawa Senators for the top spot in the Northeast Division.

Since then, though, the Bruins have righted themselves in winning five of six, and Thomas’ performance has been a big part of the turnaround. During this stretch he is 4-1-0, 1.58, .938, with one shutout. Just what the Caps need… another hot goaltender in front of them. Thomas has had a solid career mark against the Caps, too. In 22 career appearances he is 14-5-2, 2.49, .924, with one shutout. This season he is 1-1-0, 2.53, .924.  Here is how the teams compare...


 (click pic for larger image)

1. Looking for a line that is clicking? Chris Kelly, Benoit Pouliot, and Brian Rolston are have nine of the Bruins’ 23 goals in this 5-of-6 run, and they are a combined 9-16-25.

2. The Bruins did get two power plays in their 8-0 blowout of the Maple Leafs, but otherwise it has been a rather dormant power play. Over their last six games they are 2-for-13 (15.4 percent), and they are 4-for-40 (10.0 percent) since February 28th.

3. Only once in these last six games have the Bruins allowed more than 30 shots in a game (Tim Thomas stopped 42 of 44 shots in a 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings), and they have held opponents under 20 shots twice.

4. Boston can get you from anywhere, or more precisely, from anyone. The Bruins have ten players with at least ten goals and 20 players with at least ten points. By way of comparison, the Caps have 9 and 16, respectively.

5. Want to sound smart? Tell your friends, “watch that Peverley guy…he’s a Cap killer.” Rich Peverley has played in 19 career games against the Caps and is 7-9-16. He also has seven of his ten goals for the season at home. He has two goals in two games against the Caps this season. Yup… watch that guy.


1. For those of you putting your eggs in a “five-game winning streak” basket to end the year, the Caps have not won five in a row since their seven-game streak to open the season. They have had two four-game streaks, the last one ending on March 13th.

2. The Caps might want to move to the Northeast Division. Their standings points percentage against teams in the Northeast (12-6-0, .667) is the best they have against any division, including their own Southeast Division.

3. Since losing to the Bruins on October 21, 2010, the Caps have alternated losses and wins in their series with the Bruins, going 3-3-0. The last time they met, the Caps won, 4-3, at TD Garden on March 10th.

4. Secondary Scoring… Troy Brouwer does not have a goal since March 6th (11 games). Brooks Laich does not have a goal since March 16th (six games). Marcus Johansson does not have a goal since March 8th (ten games). John Carlson does not have a goal since February 22nd (17 games). Mike Green does not have a goal since October 22nd (20 games).

5. If Tomas Vokoun gets the call tonight, he has one of those unfortunate records against a team built by playing for poor ones. While he is 7-10-1-2 against the Bruins over his career (one tie), he does have a 2.66 goals against average and a pretty good .926 save percentage with two shutouts.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Boston: Brian Rolston

One of those 20 players with at least ten points for the Bruins is Brian Rolston. Along with defenseman Mike Mottau, Rolston was obtained in trade from the New York Islanders at the trading deadline for Yannick Rienndeau and Marc Cantin. In 16 games with Boston, Rolston is 3-10-13, plus-7. Compare that to his 4-5-9, minus-12 line with the Islanders and landing in Boston seems like a new lease on his hockey life. Or perhaps a sense of familiarity, since he did spend four-plus seasons in Boston, going 101-135-236, plus-23 in 338 games. He has points in seven straight games coming into this one (3-9-12) and is 14-19-33 in 50 career games against Washington.

Washington: Dale Hunter

The Caps have been stumbling around the edge of the playoffs for several months now, and with the season down to its last five games Dale Hunter is going to have to reach deep into his bag of tricks to find a way to lift the Caps over these last five games. After likening the game on Tuesday against Buffalo to a “Game 7,” the Caps fell flat on their collective keisters. What does he say, if anything, to a bunch that seems to lack the ability to raise themselves up from within? As much as any player on the ice, what Hunter can conjure up as a motivating spark could be what is needed. Then again, if you need motivation to play your best at this time of year, you are not likely to be successful.

Keys:

1. Off-beat. Tim Thomas is a feisty sort. Get him out of rhythm – annoy him, pester him. He wants to play his game like a Sousa march, on the beat for 60 minutes. The Caps need to play some off-beat music and make his life less predictable for 60 minutes.

2. Cast out the castoffs. It is worth noting, without attaching deeper meaning to it, that the Chris Kelly-Benoit Poulio-Brian Rolston line is not home grown. All come from other organizations (Kelly from Ottawa, Pouliot from Minnesota and Montreal, Rolston from, well…just about everywhere else, it seems; the Bruins are his fifth franchise, two of which he played for twice). They are the hot trio, and it is they who must be stopped. If the Caps can’t stop them (and they had trouble with Buffalo’s hot forwards), this is not going to end well.

3. Ovie hears a who. As in, “who is going to do some scoring to supplement Ovechkin?” He has nine of the Caps’ last 18 goals. If the Caps don’t get scoring from some other folks, the Caps are going to find themselves one step closer to elimination.

In the end, what is it going to take? This team is about as healthy as it has been since January 3rd (when Nicklas Backstrom went out), save for the accumulated bumps a bruises all teams have by now. There isn’t a magic potion, there isn’t some pill they can take, there isn’t any “as seen on TV” contraption that they can order to find that spark they need to get them over these last five games and into the playoffs. It is playing as they can, without all the drama, without all the ghastly mistakes, without all the navel-gazing post game quotes about how things are “unacceptable” and how they need to play better.

Just play better. You can do this.

Caps 3 – Bruins 2

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A NO-point night -- Game 77: Sabres 5 - Capitals 1

What it came down to was that the Buffalo Sabres had Ryan Miller, and the Washington Capitals did not.

That is not an indictment of Caps goaltender Braden Holtby, just a simple acknowledgment of the fact that when a former Vezina Trophy winning, Olympic silver medalist, Hobey Baker Award winning goaltender who came into this game with a record of 13-1-3, 1.78, .941, and three shutouts over his last 17 decisions, is at the top of his game, the team he faces will have to be at the top of its game to win. The Caps were not at the top of their game. That is not to say that Holtby played well. He did not, but he was not as bad as his three goals on 18 shots suggests, either.

No, the Caps came up pretty small in a pretty big game, one for which the competitive portion was over before the first period horn sounded. Oh, you can say that the Caps have come from two goals down to win before, even this season. Even a three-goal deficit, which they faced in the second period. And when Alexander Semin scored less than three minutes after Buffalo posted that 3-0 lead, you might have convinced yourselves that the Caps had a chance.

Yeah, right. This was not the Caps falling behind the New York Islanders by a 3-0 score before coming back to win, as they did two weeks ago, and Evgeni Nabokov is not, at least at this point in his career, Ryan Miller. This one was over when Thomas Vanek potted a rebound five minutes into the second period to put the Sabres up, 3-0. After all, Miller had allowed more than three goals in a game exactly once in his previous 18 appearances and only twice in his previous 28 appearances. It might have been a Caps home game, but last night really was “Miller Time.”

Other stuff…

-- Sure, the Caps are still only two points behind the Sabres with five games to play, but here is the daunting climb the Caps face. If Buffalo splits their last five games and gets five standings points, the Caps need to earn seven points in their last five games to reach the playoffs. How often have they earned seven points in five games? In 51 instances of five-game blocks since Dale Hunter has taken over as coach, the Caps have done it eight times. And that assumes Buffalo earns only half the standings points available. Given that the Sabres have now won five in a row and have earned standings points in 10 of their last 11 games (8-1-2), their splitting their remaining available standings points seems more hope than plan.

-- “B” stands not just for “Buffalo,” but for “balance.” This has been a hallmark of Lindy Ruff-coached teams in Buffalo. How balanced? Seventeen of 18 skaters were on the plus side of the ledger last night. Only Ville Leino was as bad as “even.”

-- On the other hand, having big players come up big in big games has not been a hallmark of the Caps since, oh, pretty much forever. Alexander Semin had a pretty goal after things had more or less been decided, but he was also on the ice for the first four Sabre goals. Amazing…he’s on the ice for only 19 shifts and five goals are scored -- one his, four theirs.

-- Alex Ovechkin did not record a shot on goal until the 6:54 mark of the second period, by which time the score was 3-1. He has to be given the benefit of the doubt, what with his being pretty much the offense for the Caps over the last two week, but this was the wrong time to come up dry.

-- Seventeen giveaways. The Caps have been pretty good managing the puck lately, but they were generous with it last night. Twelve players had at least one, including both goaltenders.

-- It is not as if the Caps lacked for zone starts. There were 28 draws taken in the Caps’ offensive zone (they won 17), and only 11 in the Sabres’ offensive zone (the Caps won eight of those).

-- Twelve power play shots from seven different players. The Caps had their chances there, too. But they came up empty on four power plays, the first time this month they have had more than two power play chances and failed to get a goal.

-- Jason Pominville’s shorthanded goal was the tenth allowed by the Caps this season. Only Tampa Bay and New Jersey have allowed more.

-- Here is something to hang your hat on…the Caps allowed five goals last night. They are 9-6-0 in games following such contests this season.

In the end, this looks like the end. This whole “they’re only two points back” has a certain whistling-past-the-graveyard feel to it. Buffalo is at the top of their game and has been playing fine hockey for more than a month. The Caps almost certainly cannot catch Florida (five points ahead) or Ottawa (four). It is now down to Buffalo and themselves, and unless Buffalo’s wheels start falling off quickly (a loss to the Penguins on Friday sure would help), then the Caps have only a few games of hockey in April to look forward to.

Perhaps it is a long-delayed penance the Caps are paying for having eliminated Buffalo and going to the Stanley Cup finals back in ’98. It was a dreadful loss to the Sabres that doomed coach Bruce Boudreau back in November, and it is this loss that could signal the last gasp of this season for the Caps. It has been coming since the Caps started their downward spiral after their seven game winning streak to open the season. Unless they can find a winning streak at the end of it, this disappointing season will be over shortly.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 77: Sabres at Capitals, March 27th

Cheerless forgot to mail the check to the internet provider, so we don't have all of our usual bells and whistles for this one...

"Sorry, cuz."

So, we have an abbreviated version of our preview.

"Can I post it?"

NO!

Five things that will make you the smartest person at the water cooler, Buffalo edition...

1. Buffalo has shown a finishing kick lately in winning four in a row, scoring 14 of their 17 goals in the second and third period.  It seems to be the key to turning things around for them, because for the season they are a plus-8 (goals for/against) in the first period of games, but they are still a minus-10 in the second period and a minus-11 in the third period for the entire season.

2. Buffalo isn’t especially adept at scoring at 5-on-3. Only two teams in the league have fewer goals at 5-on-3 than the Sabres’ two goals.

3. The Sabres do have a talent for winning games close. Only five teams have more one-goal wins (20); only three teams have earned points in more decisions (30 in 37 one-goal games).

4. Buffalo does fairly well when outshooting their opponents. Their .552 winning percentage is eighth in the league. They just don’t do it often enough. They have outshot their opponents only 29 times in 76 games. Only six teams have outshot their opponents less frequently.

5. Second periods seem key against the Sabres. They are 35th in winning percentage when leading after one period (.679), while they are 24-0-2 when leading after 40 minutes (.923), seventh in the league. Their problem, again, is frequency – only 28 leads after one period, only 26 after two.

Five things you can use to impress your special someone, if they happen to be a Caps fan...

1. Washington is walking with a limp these days, and it isn’t only Joel Ward’s foot injury. In their last six games, it is loss-loss-win, loss-loss-win. There’s a pattern that needs to be broken.

2. The Caps have had more than two power plays on four occasions this month. They have scored at least one goal in all of them and have a record of 3-1-0. In the other nine games in which they had two or fewer power plays they failed to score a goal in any of them, are 0-for-11, and they have a record of 3-3-3.

3. The penalty killers are a respectable 35-for-41 in their last 16 games (85.4 percent), almost evenly split at home (17-for-20) and on the road (18-for-21).

4. Washington leads the league in goals scored at 4-on-4 (13), and only the Los Angeles Kings have more goals scored at 4-on-3. Did someone say, “rules change?”

5. Only two teams have more wins when trailing after the second period than Washington (Tampa Bay – Tampa Bay?? – and Pittsburgh).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo: Ryan Miller

Who else matters more in the Sabres’ biggest game of the year. Buffalo is 13-2-3 since February 19th, and Ryan Miller has been the brick wall in goal – 13-1-3, 1.78, .941, and three shutouts. But while he has been almost impenetrable in goal over the last month, his career numbers against the Caps are merely mortal – 12-9-3, 2.52, .914, and three shutouts. He is 1-1-0 against the Caps this season, having allowed five goals on 43 shots in his two appearances.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

If Miller is going to be the immovable object in goal, then Alex Ovechkin has to be the irresistible force for the Caps. And he has been just that recently. Goals in five consecutive games (seven overall), six of his last seven games (nine goals). He must have asked Santa Claus for his goal-scoring touch back, because since Christmas he has 25 goals in 39 games, a 53-goal pace per 82 games. He has 17 goals in 29 career games against the Sabres, including three in three games this season.

Keys:

1. Win the wall. The Sabres do not have an especially big or physical team. The Caps need to win battles and earn possession of the puck to keep the Sabres from using what could be their advantage in open ice with their quick forwards.

2. Pack ‘em in. Ryan Miller is in a zone right now, which means if he sees it, he stops it. Don’t let him see the puck, put bodies in front of him, bump him, annoy him. Do a puppet show. Anything.

3. Slow and steady…repeat, steady. The Caps have had issues from time to time…ok, a lot… with being able to put teams away. They need to apply steady pressure to grind the Sabres down and not go into their own shell and let the Sabres start running around causing a ruckus on the scoreboard late.

In the end, both teams have to win this game. The Sabres need it because they are on the wrong side of the first tie-breaker if the teams finish the regular season tied in standings points. The Caps need it because they still have rough road games in Boston and New York against eh Rangers, and they cannot afford to keep leaving points on the table at home. This just might boil down to which player will stay hot – the goal scorer or the goal stopper. Guess who wee think stays hot.

Capitals 4 – Sabres 3

Monday, March 26, 2012

Two Goalies...One Game

Tuesday’s game between the Washington Capitals and the Buffalo Sabres is perhaps the biggest game of the season for each team. The importance of the game – the winner will break a standings points tie for eighth place and the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with five games left to play – will place a lot of attention on the goaltenders.

For the Sabres, the decision is easy. Ryan Miller is a former Vezina Trophy winner who comes into this game 13-1-3 in his last 17 appearances with a 1.78 goals-against average, a .941 save percentage, and three shutouts.

For the Capitals, the decision is not nearly so cut-and-dried. Complicating the issue is the fact that number one goaltender Tomas Vokoun is still nursing an injury and appears highly unlikely to be ready for this game. Then there is the matter of the two goalies behind him on the depth chart who have been shouldering the load for much of this month. What is the case for and against each netminder?

Michal Neuvirth

For:

-- Record of 3-1-1 lifetime against the Sabres.
-- Is 5-3-2, 2.60, .910, with one shutout over his last 12 appearances.
-- Is 5-1-0, 1.77, .939, with two shutouts against Northeast Division teams this season.
-- Is more likely to be the goalie not named “Vokoun” to be called upon to bear the workload in the playoffs; needs to get ready for that job.

Against:

-- Has allowed four or more goals in five of his last seven appearances (2-3-2, 3.07, ,891, one shutout)
-- Has a career 3.40 goals-against average against Buffalo with a .901 save percentage.
-- He has not played since the 4-3 loss to Winnipeg last Friday. With three or more days rest this season he is 4-7-3, 3.07, .901 (but he does have two shutouts).
-- In 11 appearances this season against playoff-eligible teams in the Eastern Conference, he is 1-5-3, 3.22, .884.

Braden Holtby

For:

-- Has improved his performance in each of his four appearances this season, his save percentage by game going: .857, .909, .964, 1.000.
-- Of his four appearances, three of them were against teams that were playoff eligible when he faced them (San Jose currently out of the top-eight in the West), and while his overall mark against those teams is not remarkable (1-1-1, 2.93, .307), he did improve in each successive game.
-- In his short career over parts of two seasons he has faced playoff or playoff eligible teams 10 times. In those games he is 6-1-3, 2.12, .922, with one shutout.
-- In 18 career appearances he has allowed or was on pace to allow (if pulled) more than three goals only three times.

Against:

-- Looking at those ten playoff teams he has faced over the past two seasons, his home record is 3-1-1, 2.55, .911, considerably weaker than his performance on the road.
-- He has only those 18 career appearances over two seasons, not a big resume for a big game.
-- He has been inconsistent at Hershey this season; GAA by month: 2.99, 2.43, 2.36, 2.73, 2.60, 2.64; save percentage by month: .886, .892, .918, .915, .909, .891.

In the end, it really does get pretty simple. Both goalies have been given opportunities since Tomas Vokoun last appeared on March 16th. One is 2-0-1, the other is 0-1-1. One has improved with his successive performances, the other has seemed equal parts stuck in the mud and suffering a lack of support in front of him. One has done just about all he can do with the opportunities presented, despite his lack of experience. The other has looked as if he has regressed somewhat.

It is not an endorsement of who should be the Caps’ number one goalie going into the playoffs, because, well…they’re not in the playoffs yet, and a week is a lifetime in goaltending. But for this game, Braden Holtby should get the nod.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A TWO-point night -- Game 76: Capitals 3 - Wild 0

Practice makes perfect.

If the Washington Capitals get enough 3-0 leads, maybe winning those games will come more frequently. The Caps got goals from Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault, and Alex Ovechkin at one end of the ice, and they got 28 saves from Braden Holtby at the other end to defeat the Minnesota Wild, 3-0, at Verizon Center this evening.

It was not looking very good for the Caps early, perhaps a hangover from the disappointing 4-3 overtime loss to Winnipeg on Friday. They managed only seven shots on number three goaltender Matt Hackett, pressed into service with number one goalie Niklas Backstrom injured and backup Josh Harding having played on Saturday night in a 3-1 loss to Buffalo.

The Caps broke through in the second period in another one of those occasional trips down memory lane from games that might have been played two or three years ago. Stephen Kampfer collected a loose puck as he was gliding down the right wing in the Caps’ end and tried to center the puck. The puck went all the way through and out the other side, where only Alexander Semin was skating. Semin curled, picked up the puck as it bounced off the boards, and headed the other way. With four Wild skaters pinned in the offensive zone, including defenseman Kampfer, it was Semin and Jason Chimera on a two-on-one with only Clayton Stoner back. Semin froze Stoner with a curl and drag move, then slid the puck under Stoner's stick to Chimera on his left. Chimera buried it before Hackett could get across the crease.

Going hard to the net paid benefits on the second goal five minutes later when Troy Brouwer took advantage of some dicey defensive positioning and a bad attempt at a line change by the Wild. Alex Ovechkin curled through the neutral zone with the puck and sent a pass to Brouwer on the right side at the Minnesota line as one Wild skater was going off for another. It left Minnesota with no one on the right side of the ice and thin numbers in the middle as Brouwer skated in. It eventually became a two-on-one down low as Mathieu Perreault skated to the net. Brouwer sent a centering pass that hit Perreault in stride, and Perreault had only to redirect it past Hackett for his 14th goal of the season.

Ovechkin closed things out in the third period by ripping a page out of the Ovechkin songbook. It started with John Carlson sending a long cross-ice pass to Marcus Johansson at the Minnesota line. Johansson edged the puck into the zone before being stopped by defenseman Nate Prosser. It was enough for Ovechkin to come in behind the play and pick up the puck in stride. He skated into the left wing faceoff circle and using defenseman Tom Gilbert as a screen ripped a wrist shot through Hackett to close out the scoring.

Other stuff…

-- Unlike the game Friday night, the Caps did not go into a shell after getting the third goal. After Ovechkin scored at the 8:31 mark, the Caps did register seven more shot attempts (four on goal) and maintained possession for longer periods than they had Friday against Winnipeg when posting their 3-0 lead.

-- Doing simple things right pays dividends, and in this case it was going to the net. Chimera filling a lane with his stick on the ice; Perreault doing the same. They teach these things early in a hockey player’s life for a reason. They work.

-- Give Marcus Johansson some credit for taking a hit to make a play, or at least to allow one to unfold. He managed to get John Carlson’s pass into the offensive zone before taking a hit from Nate Prosser. It took Prosser out of the play and left the other defenseman – Tom Gilbert – in no-man’s land with no backside support when Ovechkin came charging through.

-- Ovechkin does not deal in retail. He is a wholesale dealer in shots from just about anywhere. He had 14 shot attempts in 26 minutes tonight, five on goal. He also had a pair of hits, two takeaways, and two blocked shots. But what might have been his best play was getting back with Mikko Koivu circling in to go in alone on goalie Braden Holtby. Koivu might have had an unimpeded path to the net, but Ovechkin had an angle on him as he was scrambling back on defense. Koivu started to cut in on Holtby, but Ovechkin slid across his path to sweep the puck away.

-- More going to the net. Troy Brouwer outracing Tom Gilbert to the puck behind the Wild net and centering Matt Hendricks on the doorstep in the first minute of the third period. Alexander Semin and Jason Chimera one more time in the third period on a two-on-one; Chimera heading for the net. Semin took the shot and was denied, but it was another instance of going to the net and forcing the defense and goaltender to make a play.

-- Fun fact… In the month of March the Caps have had three or more power play opportunities in four of 13 games. In each of those games they have a power play goal (and won three of them). In the other nine games – the ones in which they did not have at least three power play opportunities – they have failed to record a power play goal (with a record of 3-3-3). They had three chances against the Wild and scored one (Perreault).

-- Matt Hendricks, seven hits. He is coming up on the outside on Troy Brouwer for the team lead, trailing Brouwer by 231 to 201. The Caps are one of only three teams (Dallas and the Rangers being the others) with two players with at least 200 hits.

-- Mike Knuble had an interesting score sheet. In just under 15 minutes he had no shots, no shot attempts, no hits, no takeaways, no giveaways. But he did have four blocked shots, which tied Roman Hamrlik for the team lead.

-- The Caps went with seven defensemen, and it made for some odd time on ice totals. None stranger, perhaps, than John Carlson, who skated only 11:17. That was his lowest total ice time since he skated 9:06 in a 5-4 overtime loss to Ottawa on March 30, 2010. He still had three giveaways, though.

-- Braden Holtby has been nothing if not improvement personified. In his first appearance this season he allowed five goals on 35 shots to San Jose in a 5-3 loss. Then, three goals on 30 shots in a 5-3 win at Detroit. He followed that up with allowing only one goal on 28 shots in a 2-1 Gimmick loss to Philadelphia, then the 28-save shutout against the Wild on Sunday. His save percentages went: .857, .909, .964, 1.000.

In the end, every win is precious at this time of year, but this was one the Caps had to have and should have had. They started sluggishly, but took advantage of the fact that the Wild were in their second of a back-to-back set on the road. It sets the stage for the biggest regular season game in these parts in some time when the Caps host Buffalo on Tuesday for what might be the deciding contest in a fight for the last playoff spot. The winner will have a two-point lead with five games to play, and while the Caps will still have the advantage of the tie-breaker in the event the teams finished tied in standings points (the Caps have 36 wins in regulation and overtime to 30 for Buffalo), this will be one the Caps have to have. Disposing of the Wild in workmanlike fashion puts them in the position of controlling their own fate against the Sabres.

That Was The Week That Was -- Week 24 (March 18-24)


Week 24… and we can’t tell if the Caps were treading water or drowning.
 


Record: 1-1-2

The Caps brought their five-game road trip to an end with an ugly loss to Chicago, a nice win against Detroit, and what might have been a good point in a Gimmick loss to the Flyers, except when you have left a lot of points on the table this season, that extra point left on the table in Philly was big. It would look a lot better than that one-point result against Winnipeg in which the Caps coughed up a 3-0 lead in the last 33 minutes of regulation time, then lost in overtime.  In terms of standings points, it was the fifth consecutive week in which the Caps had a .500 or better week, but having gone 8-6-3 in those five weeks.

What was frustrating about this week is that the Caps managed the first goal in three of the four games and lost two of them (both in extra time). What was anger-inducing was that the Caps scored five goals in each of the first and second periods of the four games this week, but only one in the third period and none in overtime. Meanwhile, the four opponents scored six second period, four third period, and an overtime goal among the 13 scored against Washington this week. That is the kind of wandering focus that has plagued this team for more than three games…more like three years.

Offense: 2.75/game (season: 2.67/rank: 12th)

The Caps had 11 goals for the week. Alex Ovechkin had six of them. That Ovechkin would have six goals in four games is unusual over the last couple of seasons, but it is not unheard of in his career. But five goals from the rest of the lineup? And when you realize that two of those came off the stick of Mike Knuble, who had not scored goals in consecutive games since getting three in two games last March 31/April 2, and the Caps’ offense was otherwise absent.

One of the problems was the shots not being there in the third period. The Caps had five goals on 32 shots in the first period of games (15.6 percent shooting percentage) and five goals on 41 shots in the second period of games (11.9 percent). In the third period, though, only one goal on 21 shots (4.8 percent), and the Caps did not have a shot on goal in 7:23 of overtime play.

Defense: 3.25/game (season: 2.80/rank: 21st)

It would be tempting to say that if the Caps went into a shell in the third period of games on offense this past week, it cost them at the other end of the ice. The Caps did go into that shell, but it was not as if the Caps allowed a significantly larger number of shots as their own number diminished. Opponents registered 42 first period shots, 44 second period, an 41 third period shots in the four games this week, plus four overtime shots for good measure.

One could argue that part of that was a scoring effect in the Detroit game, the Caps holding a 4-1 lead after 38 minutes. But the Caps almost gave up that lead (they got an empty net goal late in a 5-3 win), and then they lost a 3-0 lead built over the first 26 minutes in their game against Winnipeg, a game that they lost, 4-3, in overtime. It is one thing to resist the urge to take chances at one end, but one has to clamp down at the other too, and the Caps didn’t do that, a combination of passive play and goaltending that did not come up big when the need arose.

Goaltending: 2.91/.908

The Caps lost one game by getting behind early, another by not being able to score, and another by going to sleep after getting out to a big lead. If there was one thing in common about those games, and the win over Detroit for that matter, was a weak performance in goal in the second period of games. Caps goaltenders were a combined 41-for-43 in the first period of games (.954 save percentage), including a perfect 31-for-31 in the last three games of the week. They were 37-for 40 (.925) in the third period of games. But that second period? They were 38-for-44 (.864) and allowed at least one second period goal in each of the four games for the week. Third period comebacks do not get completed if they do not get started, and they got started in that second period. It almost cost them against Detroit; it did against Winnipeg.

Power Play: 3-for-9/33.3 percent (season: 17.3 percent/rank: T-14th)

It was something of a deceptive week. The Caps came into it only 4-for-44 over their previous 17 games (9.1 percent). They failed on their only opportunity against Chicago to open the week, then they lit up the Detroit Red Wings for three on four chances on Monday. They reverted to form to close the week, going 0-for-2 in each of their last two games of the week. Getting two goals from Alex Ovechkin on five shots is what the team is looking for. Getting no shots on goal from Alexander Semin in 5:25 of power play ice time is not. Getting three shots from Mike Green is good, getting no goals isn’t (he hasn’t had a goal of any kind since October 22nd). The raw numbers looked pretty good, and even though the Caps don’t beat Detroit without those three power play goals (one of which was an empty netter), it was at best an uneven week.

Penalty Killing: 6-for-7/85.7 percent (season: 80.8 percent/rank: 21st)

On the other hand, the Caps penalty killers had what was probably a better week than killing six of seven shorthanded situations suggests. The one power play goal allowed did let the Detroit Red Wings start to crawl back into the game on Monday, but overall the Caps allowed only the one goal on nine shots in 12:55 of penalty killing time. It was a case of few opportunities allowed, few shots allowed, and as a result just one goal in a game the Caps won. That has to be considered a good week.

Paying the Price: 105 hits/67 blocked shots (season rank: 10th/6th)

The surprising number in this category might be “12.” That would be the number of hits credited to Alex Ovechkin this week, five of them coming in the 4-3 overtime loss to Winnipeg. Not a big week for the big guy in that regard. On the other hand, there was Matt Hendricks with 18 hits in just 60 minutes of ice time for the week.

Faceoffs: 113-for-231/48.9 percent (season: 50.0 percent/rank: T-15th)

If there was a strange number in this category this week, it was 56.3. That was the faceoff winning percentage of the “non-centers” who took draws this week – Jason Chimera, Mike Knuble, and Troy Brouwer. The players who play at least some amount of time regularly as centers were 48.4 percent for the week. Brooks Laich continues to take the lion’s share of draws – 73 of 231 (31.6 percent of all draws), of which he won 32 for a 43.8 percent winning percentage. Mathieu Perreault was far behind in total faceoffs taken with 38 (24 wins for a 63.2 percent winning percentage). Overall, the fact that the Caps took 69 draws in the offensive zone and 87 in the defensive zone was an indicator of too much time spent in the defensive zone. And winning only 46.0 percent of their defensive zones did not help.

Turnovers: plus-14

The Caps did a pretty good job of managing the puck, at least in terms of turnovers. Then again, the fact that they had only 17 giveaways for the week might be another reflection of not having the puck a lot late in games.

Impressions:

Splitting games in Chicago and Detroit could be seen as a plus. But given the points the Caps have left on the table this season, the two they left there in the last two games of the week, both extra time losses to Philadelphia and Winnipeg, is just that much more disappointing. At a minimum it undid a lot of the good that winning in Detroit provided. The loss to Winnipeg, coming after the Caps went out to a 3-0 lead, will be the one that haunts them if they should miss the playoffs by a single point. The Caps didn’t lose ground this week, but it sure felt that way with what was there for the taking.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 76: Wild at Capitals, March 25th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals try for the third time to reach 38 wins on Sunday as they host the Minnesota Wild at Verizon Center. It is a bit late in the day for that, seeing as how the Caps hit the 38-win mark on March 9th last year, February 2nd in the 2009-2010 season (really?), and February 22nd in 2008-2009. In the 2007-2008 season, when the Caps embarked on a furious finish to make the playoffs, they hit the 38 win mark on, wait for it… March 25th, in a 3-2 Gimmick win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Now the Caps try to repeat this little slice of history when they take on a team that, let’s face it, is not that good. Not that the season lacked promise for the Wild. On December 10th, Minnesota defeated the Phoenix Coyotes, 4-1, to go 20-7-3. They sat atop the Northwest Division and the Western Conference, the first team to hit the 10-win mark at home and on the road. They had a five-point lead over the Chicago Blackhawks for the conference lead. They were on a seven-game winning streak.

Then things took a turn. Minnesota gave up a 1-0 lead at Winnipeg and lost, 2-1, on a late goal by the Jets (they seem to do that). They would lose again, and again, and again. Their losing streak reached eight games (0-5-3, all of the extra time losses coming in the Gimmick) before they finally ended the string in a 4-3 win over Edmonton. Not that it provided much relief. It was a mere rest stop on a road to oblivion. Since that seven-game winning streak and the high-water mark of their season, the Wild are 11-26-7. They have won consecutive games in regulation time just once in that span (they have two other two-game streaks, both a product of trick shot wins in the second game).

The Wild come into this game having won one game in regulation this month, a 2-0 shutout of the Vancouver Canucks. Overall they are 3-7-1, including a 1-3-1 record on the road. And it is not as if the Wild have been playing teams especially close. Only three of the eight losses were of the one-goal variety (including a 5-4 trick shot loss to Montreal). On the other hand they have a 6-0 loss at the hands of Detroit and a 7-1 loss to Colorado.

Offense is a problem. Eighteen goals in 11 games in March, and they have been shut out three times. They started the month going 0-for-18 on their power play over seven games before getting power play goals in each of their next three games. Overall the Wild are 3-for-31 in March (9.7 percent).

Not that the Minnesota defense has been much to get excited about. The Wild have allowed 36 goals in 11 games (3.27 goals per game) and have allowed four or more in five of those games. The penalty kill is only 27-for-36 in March (75.0 percent). But the Wild seem to have come out of their funk a bit lately, having won two of their last three games and getting back to “Wild” hockey, as it were, with only five goals allowed in the three games and one shutout of their own. Here is how the two teams compare as they head into this game:

(click pic for larger image)

1. Minnesota is 30th and last in the NHL in offense. They do not come by this for lack of consistency. The Wild are last in first period goals scored, 29th in second period goals, and 28th in third period goals. For good measure, they are tied for last in overtime goals scored – one (Devin Setoguchi, if you are keeping score, way back on November 1st in a 2-1 win over Detroit).

2. As you might expect, Minnesota has fewer wins by three or more goals than any team in the NHL (four). They have not had one since a 5-2 win against Dallas on January 21st,and that one happens to be their only such win since their 4-1 win over Phoenix on December 10th that was the last win in their seven-game winning streak that was the high point of their season.

3. If there is an odd number for the Wild it is this – three. The Wild have the third best record in the league when trailing after the first period (12-18-1). Of course, no team has as much as a .500 winning percentage when trailing after 20 minutes.

4. Minnesota has only 151 goals scored this season. That total is fewer than the 5-on-5 goals scored by five other teams

5. Miscellaneous stuff…Minnesota has 692 blocked shots on the road, by far the most in the league. That total is 69 more than the New York Islanders (a 10 percent difference)… only two teams in the league have had more overtime power plays than the Wild (four)… only four teams have spent more time killing penalties on the road than Minnesota… no team in the league is out-shot by a larger margin that the Wild on a per-game basis (5.2 shots per game, 1.5 per game more than Edmonton).

1. Washington has fewer wins against Western Conference opponents (seven) than any other Southeast Division team except Florida (five). They have fewer wins against Northwest Division teams (one) than any of the teams in the Southeast. The Caps are 2-0-0 against Detroit, 5-10-0 against the rest of the Western Conference.

2. The Caps’ 5-3 win over Detroit was their first win over a Western Conference opponent since they beat Calgary, 3-1, on January 3rd. OK, they have played only four other teams (Chicago, Los Angeles, and two against San Jose).

3. Jeff Halpern is currently tied for fourth in the league in faceoff winning percentage (58.3 percent, with Manny Malhotra). You would have to go to page three of the NHL.com leader rankings to find the next Cap (at least the next one not on injured reserve). Brooks Laich is tied for 66th (48.3 percent).

4. Only two teams in the league have had fewer power play opportunities at home than Washington (109). At their home power play conversion rate, if they had as many opportunities as Philadelphia (158), they would have ten more goals. In six home games in March the Caps have yet to have more than two power play opportunities in any game. They are 0-for-8 at home over six home games in the month. They are 0-for-22 on the power play at home over their last nine games and have not had a power play goal at home since Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin each had one in a 3-2 Gimmick loss to Winnipeg on February 9th.

5. The perfect run is over. The Caps were one of only two teams in the NHL to have an unblemished record when leading after 40 minutes (22-0-0, with Boston at 28-0-0). The overtime loss to Winnipeg on Friday dropped the Caps to 22-0-1. They are one of nine teams not to have lost a game in regulation when leading after two periods.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Minnesota: Dany Heatley

Dany Heatley leads the Wild with 21 goals. That is tied for 69th in the league. It happens to be the lowest goal total to lead a team – Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog broke the tie with his 22nd goal on Saturday night. There are 14 teams in the league with at least three players with more goals than Heatley’s team-leading total for Minnesota. The Western Conference seems not to have agreed with Heatley’s scoring results. In seven seasons in the Eastern Conference with Atlanta and Ottawa, Heatley averaged 42-46-88 per 82 games. Since going west, first with San Jose and now with Minnesota, he is averaging 30-37-67 per 82 games. Against the Caps he is 12-23-35 in 32 career games.

Washington: Mike Green

In a way, Mike Green might be the canary in the coal mine for the Caps, both good and bad (if such a thing could be said, seeing that the canary doesn’t usually come out of this very well). First, for those who think the news of Nicklas Backstrom being cleared for practice signals either: a) that he will be joining the lineup soon, or b) that when he does he will be productive right away; look at Green. In 15 games since returning from surgery and rehabilitation, Green has a scoring line of 0-1-1, even, in 18 games. Even if one accounts for a different role for Green under Dale Hunter than he had under Bruce Boudreau, his offensive output has lagged. On the other hand, if Green can start chipping in here and there, it could be the difference down the stretch as the Caps try to outlast Buffalo and Winnipeg for the last playoff spot in the East.

Keys:

1. Find consistency. In a period, in a game, on the schedule. The Caps come into this game having lost four of five after winning four in a row. They get out to a big lead and cough it up. They pound pucks at a goalie early and go into a shell late. Playing defensive hockey with a lead does not mean treating the offensive zone as if it is radioactive. Just be smart. Push the puck deep, put pressure on it. Which means…

2. No silly high-risk chances. Minnesota is a team that is going to struggle scoring goals under normal circumstances. If the Caps don’t make poor judgments with the puck, Minnesota would not appear to have the fire power to get goals with much frequency.

3. “Coast” is not a gear. Consider this string of numbers… three, two, three, three, zero, zero, three. Those are the goal totals for the Caps at home over their last seven games. Two goals a game is not going to do it. They have scored a first period goal and taken a lead in each of their last four home games but have won only two of them. If these are like “playoff” games, then play them like playoff games.

In the end, you have to wonder about a team that just does not display much in the way of a killer instinct or much consistency in giving a 60-minute effort, even after 75 games and even when their playoff eligibility is in jeopardy. If the Caps play to form, they will get out to a lead in this game and give it back when they start looking ahead to Tuesday’s matchup with Buffalo that could mean their season (they have had leads in each of their last three games and lost two of them). Or maybe they will wake up and realize that there are only seven games left in the season… seven games. About a playoff series length of time.

Capitals 3 – Wild 1

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A ONE-point night -- Game 75: Jets 4 - Capitals 3 (OT)

If on April 8th the Washington Capitals are at Kettler Capitals Iceplex packing things up for the summer after having missed the playoffs by one point, this is the game they will be thinking about.

The Caps ran out to a 3-0 lead not 26 minutes into their contest with the Winnipeg Jets, but that was the high-water mark of what became a disaster, losing the lead and eventually the game as the Jets stormed back to tie the game later in third period, winning it on a Tim Stapleton goal in overtime, 4-3.

If this was a “playoff” game for both teams, it was what Caps fans have come to know as a “Game 5.” A game in which the Caps can put an opponent away once and for all and don’t, eventually losing the game, losing their momentum, and eventually losing their eligibility to play on. You know, those games in which the Caps get out to that 3-1 lead in games and seemingly have things well in hand until they don’t. And then they dissolve like wet tissue paper.

The “getting out to that lead” came swiftly in this game. Jason Chimera got things started right…literally. It started with Alexander Semin and Blake Wheeler chasing a puck to the side boards in the Caps’ end. Semin got there first and guided the puck up the wall to Jeff Halpern. The Caps’ forward skated the puck out of his own zone and as he got to the red line eased a pass over to Chimera steaming down the middle. Tobias Enstrom was the only Jet back, and he had neither the speed, nor the proper angle to cope with Chimera’s momentum. Chimera was in alone and finished the play with a backhand to the left of goalie Ondrej Pavelec to open the scoring. It was a play made possible, in part, by the fact that the two passes that came before the puck landed on Chimera’s stick were made easier by the fact that both Semin and Halpern are right-handed shooters. Had they been left-handed, neither pass is likely to have been as accurate or as crisp to get Chimera free.

Then it was Alex Ovechkin’s turn to wreak havoc. The first was classic. Mike Knuble digs a puck out from the boards and moves it up to Brooks Laich. Then, Laich sends the puck ahead on a stretch pass to Ovechkin down the left wing. Ovechkin uses defenseman Mark Stuart as a screen and rips a wrist shot past Pavelec…2-0. The second one from Ovechkin was the product of some passing wizardry. John Carlson started it with the puck deep on the right wing boards. He chipped it up off the wall to Alexander Semin. Then, Semin sent it deep to Jason Chimera, who sent it to Mathieu Perreault in the high slot. Perreault slid it over to Ovechkin who buried a one timer, and it was looking a lot like the Wayback Machine had taken us back to the 2009-2010 season.

And in a way, it did. And not in a good way. Barely a minute after Ovechkin’s goal, Ben Maxwell got his first goal of the season to give the Jets some life. Barely a minute after that, Bryan Little edged the Jets another goal closer to make it 3-2. Then, and this really could happen only to the Caps, the Jets tied things up, not with an Evander Kane or a Blake Wheeler, or even a Dustin Byfuglien getting the game-tying goal. No…Spencer Machacek scored his first NHL goal. How? Off a Caps faceoff win. Jeff Halpern won the draw from Tim Stapleton in the Caps’ end to goalie Michal Neuvirth’s right at the 16:10 mark, but somehow the puck ended up on the stick of Ben Maxwell. He did what you do in those situations, he just threw it at the net. And with Mathieu Perreault tripping Machacek up, Machacek flicked the puck past Neuvirth’s left pad on the far side as he was tumbling to the ice. Tie game.

The rest was almost anti-climactic, because you know how these things generally end for the Caps. The Jets had control of the puck in the Caps end, Dustin Byfuglien beating John Carlson to the puck. Byfuglien saw Tim Stapleton skating into a seam in the 4-on-4 overtime defense and hit him in stride. Stapleton took a step up, snapped the puck over Michal Neuvirth’s left shoulder, and the comeback was complete. Just as we remember it.

Other stuff…

-- There are good one-point wins, and there are bad ones. This is as bad as it gets. Home ice, a chance to stick a fork in one of their pursuers for a playoff spot, getting out to a 3-0 lead, and you lose? There is not enough sugar at Domino Sugar to coat this one.

-- After the second goal by Alex Ovechkin the Caps registered a total of seven shots in the last 38:50 of the game. That is a pace for 11 shots in a 60 minute game. Ovechkin had just one of them. Winnipeg had the first fifteen shots of the third period and outshot the Caps 19-2 in the third period and overtime.

-- Of the 23 shots on goal, the Alexes had 10 of them. Thirteen shots among the other 16 skaters, none of them from Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble, or Marcus Johansson.

-- Evander Kane didn’t have a point. Alexander Burmistrov didn’t have a point. Andrew Ladd didn’t have a point. But the fourth line for the Jets went 3-3-6, plus-7.

-- Among the unsung for the Caps, Jay Beagle and Mathieu Perreault were a combined 18-for-24 (75 percent) on faceoffs.

-- That is four games in five in which Michal Neuvirth has allowed four goals. The other one was a shutout. Over his last seven appearances he is 2-3-2, 3.07, .891.

-- Masters of the quote. See if you see a theme here…

“We were just panicking, throwing pucks everywhere. We knew they were going to come at us. Their season was on the line. It’s a disappointing end to a good period-and-a-half of hockey that went to waste.”

“You kind of put your tail between your legs when a team presses as hard as they did. We’re just trying to get the puck out. But when there’s time to make plays, you have to make the plays.”

“I don’t know. We get the lead 3-0 and [we’re] supposed to play simple and smart hockey, but it cost us a huge two points. We get one, but we gave them two.”

“We never should’ve lost that [game]. We just fell apart pretty much. It was an embarrassing, embarrassing loss.”

It doesn’t matter who said what, it could be any Cap in any big game over the past 25 years.

In the end, whatever momentum the Caps might have generated from a .500 road trip against some tough teams and a strong first 25 minutes was obliterated in that last 40 minutes of the game.  Alex Ovechkin summed it up. "It's stupid play by us. We just totally stop playing after they score (the) first goal. And we played so different style of hockey in the third period, so they just put puck deep and get pressure and they score another one."

Yup…it’s playoff time.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 75: Jets at Capitals, March 23rd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Didn’t we just do this guys?

“Yeah, cuz…last night.”

“No, cousin, I think he means ‘play Winnipeg.’”

“Well, why didn’t he say so?”

“Go look up ‘subtle,’ Cheerless.”

“Ain’t that a thing you put on a horse to sit on?”

Yeah, you go get a subtle and go for ride…

It was quite a ride last night…an Ovechkin goal in the first minute, lots of big saves at both ends, a dekey-do from Matt Hendricks in the Gimmick, and… a loss.

The Washington Capitals have to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again. Only tonight, it matters. A lot. By failing to pick up the additional point in last night’s 2-1 trick shot loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, the Caps find themselves only one point ahead of the Buffalo Sabres for eighth place in the East, and they have only a five-point lead over the Jets, who have a game in hand against the Caps. If Winnipeg wins, and Buffalo wins, things will get dicey for the Caps right quick. Not only will they have fallen to ninth place, but Winnipeg will have closed to three points with that game in hand. The Caps will still hold a wide edge in the first tie-breaker – regulation plus overtime wins – but the margin for error will be gone.

But about this game. Since the Jets beat the Caps by a 3-2 margin in Winnipeg last Friday, the Jets have lost two in a row and have done so in an especially ugly fashion. First, they lost to Carolina on home ice, wasting an opportunity to narrow the gap with eighth place against a team below them in the standings and on an ice sheet where they had lost only ten games in regulation. That was a mere warm-up for an 8-4 shellacking at the hands, sticks, skates, and other sundrie notions of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday. At least the Jets have had time to think about their place in the scheme of things.

Here is how the teams compare at the moment:


 (click pic for larger image)

1. Maybe it’s a Pittsburgh thing. The Jets have allowed eight goals to the Penguins in each of their last two games, dropping an 8-5 decision on February 11th.

2. The 12 goals allowed in their last two games is a season high for goals allowed in consecutive games. The Jets have allowed 11 in consecutive games three times this season.

3. Winnipeg has played 73 games this season. Only one defenseman has played in more than 60 of them – Mark Stuart.

4. Among defensemen, Dustin Byfuglien is top ten in goals (tied for sixth), assists (tied for seventh), points (tied for third), game-winning goals (tied for fifth), shots (sixth), and takeaways (tied for sixth)…and yet he is still a minus-6.

5. Remember this number…80. It is the number of third period goals allowed by the Jets, and only three teams have allowed more.


1. The Caps are one of three teams in the league with two defensemen in the top ten in giveaways (John Carlson, who leads the league, and Dennis Wideman). Not the kind of top ten you want to be on.

2. On the other hand, Dennis Wideman is in the top ten among defensemen in power play scoring with 20 points (tied for eighth).

3. Only one Caps defenseman is in the top-50 in the league in minor penalties taken (Wideman, 48th).

4. Only two Caps defensemen are in the top-100 in hits (Wideman, tied for 56th; and…wait for it… Dmitry Orlov, 83rd).

5. The Caps have only five goals from defensemen in intra-divisional games this season. John Carlson has two; Wideman, Orlov, and Mike Green have one apiece.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Winnipeg: Ondrej Pavelec

Ondrej Pavelec has allowed five goals in four of his last 11 appearances. Yet, he is still 5-5-1 in those appearances. Since holding the Caps to a pair of goals in the 3-2 win last Friday he has allowed nine goals on 59 shots (.847 save percentage). His road record has been something less than something to behold – 8-15-4, 3.50, .893. The Jets are going to need more from him down the stretch with six of their last nine games on the road.

Washington: Alexander Semin

One wonders, had he been in last night’s game, might the Caps have come away with an extra point, either as a product of his offensive skills in regulation or his creativity in the trick shot phase? That is in the past, but Semin is going to have to make his presence felt in these last eight games for the Caps. He has 20 goals in 36 career games against the Thrashers/Jets, including a goal in each game played against the Jets at Verizon Center this season.

Keys:

1. Win
2, The
3. Game
…any way you can. We are past the point of subtlety.

In the end, the Jets cannot lose this game. They do, and they lose contact with eighth place for good, falling seven points behind the Caps with eight games to play and all those road games coming up. The Caps are almost as desperate. A loss and a Buffalo win tonight against the Rangers, and the Caps fall behind the Sabres, setting up a huge game on Tuesday. Any way you slice it, this is as “playoffy” as a regular season game gets.

Capitals 4 – Jets 2

A ONE-point night -- Game 74: Flyers 2 - Capitals 1 (OT/Gimmick)

It wasn’t your fault, Braden.

Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby took things on himself last night after the Caps fell to the Philadelphia Flyers in a Gimmick, 2-1. After allowing two goals in four rounds of the trick shot competition, Holtby said:

"That was terrible. Those two goals aren't even good goals for the players to score. Those just shouldn't go in. The shootout we should've won 1-0. All I can really do is look at it tomorrow and make sure I improve on it."

Caps fans might be forgiven for thinking it would never have come to that, give the way they started. Alex Ovechkin scored his 33rd goal of the season and sixth in five games just 26 seconds into the game on the game’s first shot. It was the product of an aggressive play on the part of Brooks Laich to challenge Flyers’ defenseman Braydon Coburn in the corner to goalie Ilya Bryzgalov’s right. Coburn coughed up the puck with Ovechkin right there to pick it up. He carried it to the net, and after some pinballing – him off defenseman Nicklas Grossmann and the puck off Bryzgalov’s stick – the puck came back to Ovechkin’s stick. He made short work of it, snapping the puck past Bryzgalov less than half a minute in, making Caps fans think it might be a good night.

But that was it. Bryzgalov stopped the last 30 shots he faced in the hockey portion of the show, Claude Giroux got the goal back for the Flyers on a defensive breakdown and a pretty curl and drag, and it was left to Bettman’s folly to settle things.

Other stuff…

-- Maybe it’s a practice thing. Going into this game no team in the league participating in fewer fun house follies than the Caps. Only five times this season had Washington participated in the shootout, going 2-3. Only three Caps had recorded scores, and one of them didn’t dress for this game (Alexander Semin, who was 1-for-4 shooting). Only Matt Hendricks and Alex Ovechkin had recorded goals so far this season. Hendricks scored, Ovechkin did not. Neither did Keith Aucoin or Troy Brouwer – both taking their first trick shots of the season – and that was that.

-- Claude Giroux is a shifty sort of skater, but he is not exactly a guy with speed to burn. He sure did give that impression though with the way he abused Dennis Wideman on the Flyers’ goal. Can’t hang that one on Holtby, either, even considering Holtby’s high-risk, high-reward move to try and poke check the puck off Giroux’ stick.

-- How many times do you see a team miss a chance at one end, only to see the puck go in the back of the net at the other end? Moments before the Flyer’s scored, the Caps could have put the home team in a deep hole, but the Caps hit a pipe, the Flyers got the puck, and things took a turn.

-- Then there was the adventure of Marcus Johansson 13 minutes into the second period. He got to a loose puck at the Philadelphia line and outraced Matt Carle into the Flyers’ zone. Carle could only swipe at Johansson, bringing him down as Johansson was about to take his shot on Bryzgalov. A penalty shot was signaled, and Johansson had a second chance to break the tie. It was also a second chance for a Flyer to haul down Johansson, as it turned out. As Johansson closed in on Bryzgalov on the penalty shot, Bryzgalov stuck his stick out to poke check the puck and got Johansson’s skate, tripping Johansson as he was about to cross over for the shot. As he was falling, Johansson tried to sweep the puck behind Bryzgalov into what was an open net, but he missed, the puck slid into the corner, and the chance passed by.

-- Or Mike Green just over 16 minutes into the second…when he called back to the old days and pinched in on the weak side of a play, took a pass, fired, and… Bryzgalov made a fine glove save.

-- The guy who got the game-deciding goal – Wayne Simmonds – did not have a shot on goal in the hockey portion of the game. Game’s second star? Only in Bettman land… or Philadelphia.

-- We might have been tempted to think Claude Giroux deserved that second star, until we noticed that he was charged with five giveaways (the Caps had three as a team).

In the end, if the Caps had done more with the rest of their season, one could feel pretty good about holding the number three offense in the league to one goal on their ice. But the Caps didn’t do more with the rest of their season, and that point left on the table could be huge in the end. They certainly had their chances to pick it up. Bryzgalov played well, but the Caps missed chances, too. Chance they had better not miss when they come back home to Verizon Center tonight in what is now a “cannot lose” game.