Sunday, January 22, 2012

A ONE-point night -- Game 47: Penguins 4 - Capitals 3 (OT)

The sun has risen in the east a trillion or so days in a row. Someday, that streak will end. All other streaks come to an end much sooner than that. So it was that the Washington Capitals saw their eight-game winning streak it the city of Pittsburgh end with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Penguins this afternoon.

Evgeni Malkin scored the game-winner when he took a puck that rebounded off the end boards and snapped it over Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth 1:31 into the extra session. Before Malkin's goal, it was a game the Caps were going to lose ugly, then win valiantly, but ended up losing frustratingly. The ugly part came early as the Penguins got off to a 2-0 lead less than six minutes into the game on goals by Kris Letang and James Neal on the second and fourth shots for the Penguins.

But the Caps made a game of it in the second period on goals by Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin. When Alex Ovechkin scored barely a minute into the third period, it looked as if the Caps would extend their winning streak in Pittsburgh to nine. But that lasted about six minutes when James Neal got his second goal of the game to tie things up and set the stage for Malkin’s game-winner in overtime.

Other stuff…

-- The eight-game winning streak the Caps had in Pittsburgh before this game tied a Penguin franchise record for consecutive wins by an opponent in Pittsburgh. A ninth would have left the Caps all alone with that record.

-- The goal and two assists was Ovechkin’s first three-point game of the season. It is the latest, by far, that he has gone into a season without a three-point game. He had never failed to record a three-point game before December 31st in any season before this, and this was the first time since the 2006-2007 season that he did not do it at least once in the first ten games of the season.

-- It might be the last chance Ovechkin gets to post a three-point game for a while. One supposes that his hit on Zbynek Michalek early in the second period will be looked at by the league and that a video message from Brendan Shanahan might be forthcoming. We did, however, find Pierre McGuire’s breathless commentary on the hit a bit over the top, though.

-- Another game, another finish without topping 20 shots. The Caps had just 20 shots, the fourth time in their last six games they have not had more than 20 shots. They did break a streak of ten periods without reaching the ten shot mark. They had 10 shots in the second period of this game. The Penguins out-attempted the Caps, 72-50. The had more shots (27), more shots blocked (25), and as many misses (20) as the Caps had shots on goal.

-- Another disturbing trend. The Caps allowed the Penguins five power play opportunities this afternoon. Since holding the Penguins without a power play opportunity when they beat Pittsburgh, 1-0, on January 11th, the Caps have allowed teams five or more power play opportunities four times in six games and are 2-1-1 in those games. It is also the fifth time in those six games that the Caps have allowed a power play goal (23-for-30; 76.7 percent).

-- On the other side, the Caps had four power play chances without success. That makes 19 straight games they have not had as many as five power play opportunities. And, since going two-for-four against Tampa on January 13th, the Caps are 1-for-15 on the power play (6.7 percent).

-- The Caps are still having difficulty starting plays at the offensive end of the ice. There were 16 faceoffs in the offensive end for the Caps (nine wins; 56.3 percent) and 26 faceoffs in the defensive end (10 wins; 38.5 percent).

-- Dale Hunter leaned heavily of Brooks Laich this afternoon. Laich led everyone on the ice for both teams in ice time (27:57), had more than four minutes of power play time, more than three minutes of penalty killing time (his 7”12 in special teams time being by far the most of any player for either team), and took 39 of the 60 draws in the game for the Caps. He had a goal, four shots, seven attempts, three hits, and two blocked shots. The bad news…he was on the ice for each of the Penguins’ four goals.  Laich is now tied for the third highest number of goals scored against/on ice in the league.  Only Eric Staal and Shawn Horcoff have been on ice for more goals scored against.

-- The Caps have had 19 fighting majors this season. Seven of them have come in the last eight games. Today’s contestant was Troy Brouwer (his third of the season), who squared off with Tyler Kennedy.

-- Speaking of penalties, a lot of games have the majority of the infractions called be those of the obstruction variety – holding, interference, tripping. Not so in this one. In addition to the coincidental majors for fighting to Brouwer and Kennedy, there were 11 minor penalties called. Six of them might be termed physical fouls – three for Washington (all cross-checking), three for Pittsburgh (high-sticking, elbowing, slashing).

-- The Caps opened with a top line of Alex Ovechkin, Mathieu Perreault, and Mike Knuble. As a group, they finished the game with four shots on goal and one goal (Perreault and Ovechkin split four assists as well). It was kind of like a meal that seems satisfying at the time, but leaves one hungry for more in short order.

-- The top three centers – Mathieu Perreault, Brooks Laich, Jeff Halpern. The Caps have had trouble with settling on a second line center for years now. Today, everyone played at least one level higher than they probably should have with Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson out.

In the end, one might say that it was a standings point hard-earned, that it was the tenth straight game earning a standings point in Pittsburgh, this one against a hot team. One could point to the fact that the Caps were without two productive centers, one of them being arguably their most valuable player so far this season. But if a team is going to be a Stanley Cup contender, moral victories go only so far. The Caps got behind the eight-ball early and had to scratch and claw to get even and then get a one-goal lead. But a thin team playing on a thin margin is going to have a tough time holding on to that lead after expending that kind of effort, and that is what happened to the Caps this afternoon. And when all is said and done about this, the fact remains that the Caps have played ten games in 2012 and have a record of 5-4-1. They are going to have to do better if they are to ensure that they play hockey past the first week in April.

That Was The Week That Was -- Week 15 (January 15-21)

Week 15 started against Carolina, and with the Hurricanes it ended. In between the Caps played one of their better and one of their worst games of the season. It made for an up-and-down week against weak competition that made for disappointing results.

Record: 2-2-0

Coming into Week 15 the Capitals had a home record of 16-5-1, one of the best records in the league. With two games at Verizon Center to close a four-game home stand against teams not in the playoff-eligible top eight in the Eastern Conference, one might have thought – have expected, in fact – that Washington would leave town with a couple more wins in the bank. The Caps made good on half of that when they beat Carolina, 2-1, last Sunday. But a loss to the Islanders by a 3-0 margin on “getaway day” (the day before a road game in Montreal) made for a bitter end to a decent home stand. The Caps would close the week stuck on “3-0” scores, beating Montreal in that second of a back-to-back, then losing to Carolina on Friday to split the week. It was the first time the Caps were involved in three straight decisions settled by a shutout in ten years.

Offense: 1.25/game (season: 2.76 /rank: 11th)

Five goals on 80 shots on goal. A 6.25 shooting percentage is bad enough, but 80 shots on goal? The Caps closed the week having played 17 consecutive games without topping 30 shots in any of them and only once topping 25 shots in the nine games since the start of the new year. In 12 periods of hockey this week the Caps hit the ten-shot mark once, none in their last nine periods. The Caps found themselves tied for 27th in shots on goal per game at the end of the week. Their neighborhood includes teams that one normally associates with grind-it-out, defensive hockey – New Jersey, Calgary, Nashville, Minnesota. Edmonton and Anaheim are also in this neighborhood, but…well, they’re not very good.

If you could find a silver lining in this cloud band (more like a dull tin color), it would be that the Caps had balanced scoring. Five different players had the five goals for the week, and ten different players had points. None, however, had more than two points. Kudos, though, to Dmitry Orlov, one of those players with a goal, for that goal being his first in the NHL and a game-winner in the 2-1 win over Carolina to start the week.

Defense: 1.75/game (season: 2.78/rank: 15th)

A team gives up seven goals in four games, you might conclude they played pretty good defense. Well, maybe. Giving up 136 shots in four games to three opponents (including Carolina twice) ranking in the lower half of the scoring rankings and in the middle of the pack in shots per game is not necessarily the hallmark of tight defense. And the defense was, in one respect, almost a mirror image of the offense. Opponents recorded ten or more shots in eight of 12 periods of hockey this week. Part of this is scoring effect. Carolina had 18 of their 44 shots on goal in the third period of the 2-1 Caps win to start the week. Montreal had 17 of their 31 shots on goal in the third period of the Caps’ 3-0 shutout of the Habs on Wednesday. But even with that, the rink was tilted toward the Caps’ end of the rink this week. It has been for some time now.

Goaltending: 1.75 /.949, one shutout

Four games, and Tomas Vokoun got the nod in three of them, Michal Neuvirth the other. This is perhaps the way it will play out for the rest of the season. This week, it worked out pretty well. Vokoun stopped 98 of 105 shots on goal (a .933 save percentage), and Neuvirth blanked Montreal with 31 saves. In fact, goaltending has not been the problem lately. Since allowing five goals on 30 shots in a 5-1 loss to Philadelphia on December 5th, Neuvirth has stopped 149 of the 160 shots he has faced (.931 save percentage). In his last 12 appearances, Vokoun has stopped 338 of 362 shots faced (a .934 save percentage). The Caps are 7-5-0 in those appearances by Vokoun, and Neuvirth is 3-2-1 in six decisions (eight appearances) since December 5th. One gets the impression the Caps are wasting some pretty good goaltending.

Power Play: 1-for-11/9.1 percent (season: 19.1 percent/rank: 8th)

The Caps dropped three places this week in team power play rankings, a product of converting only one of 11 opportunities. It should not be surprising that the Caps had so little success. They had a total of nine shots on goal in those 11 opportunities. And if there is anything noteworthy about the shots, it is that they were perimeter shots, or at least from perimeter shooters – Alex Ovechkin had three (getting the only goal on a shot from the point in the 3-0 win over Montreal), Dennis Wideman had two, Alexander Semin had two, and Dmitry Orlov one. Only Jason Chimera could be thought of as a “grinder” getting a shot, but his shot came from 65 feet in the same power play on which Ovechkin scored in the win over Montreal (actually during the first half of a double minor penalty to Mathieu Darche for high-sticking Marcus Johansson). The Caps just did not generate anything from in close on their own power play, and they would end up the week “even” on their own power play, allowing a shorthanded goal to Carolina in the 3-0 loss to close the week.

Penalty Killing: 15-for-20/75.0 percent (season: 81.2%/rank: 23rd)

Not much good to talk about on the penalty kill this week. First, there were too many opportunities allowed. The 20 shorthanded situations was the high for any week so far this season. Oddly enough, the game in which they faced the most – seven shorthanded situations against Montreal – was the one in which they killed off all of them. The Caps were only 8-for-13 in the other three games and lost two of them. In the 20 shorthanded situations the Caps faced this week, they faced 26 shots on goal, allowing five goals (19.2 percent shooting for the opponents). You give up more power plays than you earn, 20-11, and you get out-shot on power plays, 26-9, it is not bound to be a very good week. And the penalty killers certainly did not have one.

Paying the Price: 95 hits/81 blocked shots (season rank: 15th/12th)

An average of 20.25 blocked shots a game. It does show a willingness to pay a price. But a price for what? For allowing 272 shot attempts in four games, an average of 68 a game. Compare that to the Caps getting 170 shot attempts – more than 100 fewer than their opponents – over those four games. Spending so much time in the defensive end of the ice, giving up so many shot opportunities with so few of their own, having to do what needs to be done to try and keep those shot attempts out of the net. The blocked shot totals might look nice, and they might reflect positively on the players who piled them up – Dennis Wideman had 12, John Carlson had 11, Brooks Laich had 10. But they are another symptom of too many chances – good scoring ones or not – taking place at one end of the ice at the expense of chances at the other end. Can a team keep doing this and not be worn out by March?

Faceoffs: 122-for-226/54.0 percent (season: 51.3 percent/rank: 8th)

The Caps won the week, but that was somewhat deceptive. Overall, if you look at the three players taking the most draws for the week – Jeff Halpern, Brooks Laich, and Marcus Johansson – they were 95-for-185 (51.4 percent), but the 50-plus share of that group is explained by Jeff Halpern winning 22 of 32 draws (71.0 percent). By zone, the faceoffs paint a chilling picture of possession. The Caps won more faceoffs in the defensive zone (52) than they took in the offensive zone (50) for the week. The totals were 96 draws taken in the defensive zone (54.2 percent wins) and only 50 in the offensive zone (54.0 percent wins). It is not that they are not winning offensive zone draws to start plays, the Caps are not getting them in the first place.

Turnovers: minus-22

The Caps were charged with 44 giveaways in four games this week. To put that in perspective, to average 11 giveaways a game would leave the Caps with the fourth worst total of giveaways over the season so far (they ranked 11th through games of Saturday). It all seems part of a piece; the Caps find themselves in positions where they have to end up defending a lot more than they are attacking. And being on the wrong side of turnovers is just another part of that.


A team hovering on the margins of playoff-eligibility 42 games into the season, then going 2-2-0 for the week, is not doing themselves any favors, especially since the competition was not the strongest imaginable. All four games this week were played against teams below the Caps in the standings, and to finish the week splitting the four games has to be viewed as disappointing. And what’s more the Caps seem to be settling into a pattern that cannot end well. They get out-attempted, out-shot, out-turnovered, rely too much on goaltending to win games on a regular basis, and are not getting nearly enough from the guys who have to drive scoring. And getting Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green back at some point might help halt that trend, but it is hard to think that their return alone will reverse it. Much as folks would like to think otherwise, at the moment this is a very average team that played a very average 2-2 kind of week.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 47: Capitals at Penguins: January 22nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals take to the ice this afternoon to renew the most intense rivalry in the NHL as they visit the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center in a…

“Most intense rivalry? Surely you just, cousin.”

Fearless…but it’s Caps and Penguins.

“This isn’t the most intense rivalry in the Eastern Conference. Nay, this isn’t the most intense rivalry involving bird mascots.”

You think there is a more intense rivalry involving the Anaheim Ducks?

“I’m speaking figuratively, cousin. This just isn’t the rivalry it was in days gone by.”

Days gone by. You talk about this rivalry as if its best days were in the age of black and white. These are two teams that played in the Winter Classic just a year ago.

“Yes, and look at how different these teams look today.”

Well, there are the injuries.

“Well, there is that… Pittsburgh is missing two top centers, the Caps are missing their top center and top defenseman.”

And their place in the standings…

“A year ago, the Penguins were 29-15-4 and in fourth place in the East; the Caps were 26-14-8 and in fifth place. Now, they’re hanging on to playoff spots.”


“OK, the Caps are.”

It wasn’t that long ago that the Penguins found themselves on the outside looking in at the top-eight in the East. On January 11th, Pittsburgh was 21-17-4 and in ninth place in the East, suffering a six-game losing streak in the process. The last of those losses came in a 1-0 shutout at the hands of the Caps at Verizon Center. But since then the Penguins have won five in a row. Part of that is benefitting from beating up on three of the four Southeast Division teams in the Eastern time zone – wins over Florida, Tampa Bay, and Carolina. But they also took down the high-flying New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden on Thursday before getting past the Montreal Canadiens in a Gimmick on Friday.

As a result of their five-game run, the Penguins have climbed back into fifth place, four points behind the fourth-place Ottawa Senators with three games in hand. It is the Caps who are hanging on to a playoff spot by the thinnest of margins. With Florida winning a trick shot competition in Winnipeg last night, the Caps fell to eighth place in the East, one point ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Here is how the teams stack up against one another, numbers-wise:

(click pic for larger image)

The Caps can leap frog past Florida once more with a win and, for those who remember when this was a rivalry, win the season series against the Penguins. It would be the fourth straight season that the Caps would win the season set against Pittsburgh.

1. Evgeni Malkin has jumped to the head of the scoring rankings by putting the Penguins on his back since Sidney Crosby left the lineup after his last appearance on December 5th. In 19 games since then, Malkin is 16-15-31, plus-6. In the Penguins’ five-game winning streak he is 8-2-10, plus-8.

2. Two weeks ago, head coach Dan Bylsma said that forward James Neal would be out “weeks” with a broken foot. As it turned out, Neal did not miss a game. He has three goals in the Penguins’ five-game winning streak, his 24 goals for the season closing in on a career best (27 in 78 games with Dallas in 2009-2010). He has three goals in six career games against Washington.

3. The Penguins are getting scoring in this streak from unexpected places. Richard Park has doubled his goal total during the streak by scoring a pair, and Dustin Jeffrey has scored his first two of the season as part of this streak.

4. Have the Penguins had to deal with injuries this season? Through 47 games they have already gone through 30 skaters, 12 of them being defensemen. No defenseman has played in all 47 games for the Penguins, and only two – Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland – have skated in more than 40 games.

5. Only Boston enjoys a higher winning percentage (.941) in games decided by three or more goals than the Penguins (.786). The Penguins are one of eight teams with more three-or-more goal wins than one-goal wins.

1. One area in which the Caps have improved under Dale Hunter is in winning games decided by more than one goal. The Caps were 5-8 in such games under Bruce Boudreau; they are 8-6 in such games under Hunter.

2. The last three games for the Caps have been decided by identical 3-0 scores, the Caps losing two of them. The last time that the Caps had three consecutive decisions decided by a shutout was January 12-16, 2002 when they won consecutive 1-0 shutouts over Florida and Boston before dropping a 2-0 decision to Montreal.

3. Folks might have an impression that the Caps find themselves behind the eight-ball early in games. However, they have scored the first goal of the game 23 times and allowed the first goal of the game 23 times.

4. When the season started you might have expected that Dmitry Orlov would spend the year honing his skills at Hershey, perhaps getting a cup o’ coffee with the Caps here and there. Well, he now has appeared in the fifth most games among Caps defensemen (28), one more than Jeff Schultz. He is fourth in scoring among the Caps’ blueliners (1-7-8) and is 11th in scoring among all rookie defensemen despite playing in fewer games than eight of the ten players ahead of him.

5. Tomas Vokoun is 2-1-0 against Pittsburgh this season, 1.32, .962, and one shutout.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Pittsburgh: Matt Cooke

Once a player as likely to appear in a photo posted in a Post Office, Cooke had a conversion of sorts this season – no major penalties of any kind, and he is tied for seventh on the Penguins in minor infractions. He has been sent to the penalty box only once in his last 17 games. Those 17 games also represents the length of time he has gone without a goal. He has but two points in that span and is a minus-5. He is 1-3-4, minus-5 in 22 career games against Washington.

Washington: Matt Hendricks

The task of stirring the pot for the Caps appears to have fallen to Matt Hendricks. When the Caps visited Montreal and faced Rene Bourque for the first time since Bourque put Nicklas Backstrom out of the lineup, it was Hendricks to squared off with Bourque 75 seconds into the game. In the Caps’ last game Hendricks dropped mitts with Carolina’s Derek Joslin less than five minutes into the contest. Hendricks has had four fights in his last seven games. What he has not had is a point in his last dozen games. He has only one (a goal against Buffalo on December 26th) in his last 35 games. He is doing what he can to try and spark the club, but the Caps have had trouble getting much in the way of contributions on offense from the 3rd or 4th lines. He is in that group.


1. Oh, hell…what’s the point of this? We know what needs to be done. We’ve been reading it and hearing about it for the last month… get pucks to the net!

In the end, it’s Caps-Pens, but it’s not “Caps-Pens.” Pittsburgh is a hard-working team, but they are riding the hot hand of Evgeni Malkin at the moment to halt the slide that came with their recent six-game long streak. Their five-game winning streak has them merely treading water since Christmas (6-6-0). The Caps remain an enigma, until you look closely enough. A team with Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin – even with Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green out – should be more of a threat on offense than they have been. But look closely, and this is not a very deep team offensively. They are spending too much time in their own end and putting too much pressure on their goaltenders to perform. This game might turn on whether the Caps can stifle Malkin, who does not have a point in either of the last two games these teams have played against one another.

Caps 2 – Penguins 1