Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 60: Capitals at Senators, February 22nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals wrap up their season series with the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday as well as their four-game road trip. The Capitals have a chance to split their four-game road swing and rub out some of the bad taste of an ugly 5-0 shutout loss at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday. Ottawa might be just the tonic for what ails the Caps, as it turns out. Washington is 16-5-3 in their last 24 meetings against the Senators. That includes a perfect 3-0-0 mark so far this season, taking a 2-1 decision on October 15th and a 3-2 overtime decision on December 3rd at Verizon Center. The Caps made it three-for-three with a 5-3 win over the Senators in Ottawa on December 7th.

It looked for a time a few weeks ago as if the Senators would sink out of the playoff race, having lost seven in a row (0-6-1) from January 21st through February 7th. Ottawa has righted the ship, though, having gone 4-0-1 in their last five games, including shutouts at Tampa Bay (4-0) and at the Islanders (6-0). The Senators have outscored opponents in the five games by a 23-9 margin, largely on the strength of scoring by Jason Spezza. In the five games Spezza has risen to fourth in the league in scoring (entering Tuesday night play) by going 7-7-14, plus-8, with five multi-point games in a row.

Not that is has been entirely The Jason Spezza Show. Ten different Senators have goals in the five games, and 15 different Senators have points. In all five games Ottawa scored the game’s first goal, and they outscored their opponents in the first period by a 7-2 margin. The Senators have displayed period balance in the five games, scoring seven, eight, and eight goals by period.

The big turnaround, though, might be that of goaltender Craig Anderson. When the Senators had their 0-6-1 streak to finish January and start February, Anderson was the goalie of record in all seven losses. He earned those decisions by posting a 3.84 goals against average and a .882 save percentage. He finished up the unfortunate run by lasting only 3:49 in a 3-1 loss to St. Louis, giving up two goals on four shots. He was then held out of the next game in favor of Alex Auld. After Auld won a 4-3 decision over Nashville to get the Senators moving in the other direction, Anderson is 3-0-1, 1.50, .957, with two shutouts in the last four games.

Here is how the teams compare, numbers-wise:

(click pic for larger image)

1. If Washington is a team that struggles in the first period (39 goals scored, 52 allowed), it is an area in which Ottawa has struggled over the course of the season as well. The Senators are tied with the Caps with 39 goals scored in the first period (tied for 24th with the Caps and New Jersey) and have allowed 59, a total exceeded only by Tampa Bay and Columbus.

2. Only three teams in the league have allowed more 5-on-5 goals than the Senators (Toronto, Tampa Bay, Chicago). No team has allowed more 4-on-4 goals (10, tied with Carolina).

3. Only Philadelphia has taken more minor penalties than the Senators this season. Only three teams have taken more majors (Philadelphia, Boston, New York Rangers). Only Detroit has taken more bench minors. Didn’t the league send these guys a rule book before the start of the season?

4. No team has allowed more power play goals at home than Ottawa (25, tied with Philadelphia). Only three teams have a worse home plus/minus (Florida, Columbus, New York Islanders). No team has allowed more goals overall at home than the Senators (95).

5. Ottawa is streaky. They have five separate streaks of at least three consecutive wins this season and four separate streaks of at least three consecutive losses.

1. The Caps are now 1-4-1 in their last six games, having been outscored by their opponents by an 18-10 margin. They have outshot their opponents three times and have outshot them by a combined 184-176 in the six games.

2. In those six games the Caps have five goals scored by players names “Alex” (three for Semin, two for Ovechkin), four goals scored by defensemen, and a goal by Brooks Laich.

3. Speaking of the Alexes, both Ovechkin and Semin have four goals in their last nine games. They have a total of five goals from the rest of the forwards combined in those nine games.

4. The difference a year makes. After 59 games last season, the Caps were 30-19-10 (70 points); this year they are 29-25-5 (63 points).

5. Only three teams have fewer power play goals on the road than the Caps (Tampa Bay, Buffalo, and St. Louis). Only four teams have allowed more power play goals on the road than Washington (Colorado, Winnipeg, Toronto, and Columbus). On the power play, they are 1-for-27 in their last nine road games (3.7 percent).

The Peerless Players to Ponder

Ottawa: Erik Karlsson

Erik Karlsson leads all NHL defensemen in scoring by a wide margin. His 12-45-57 in 60 games is 17 points better than Brian Campbell’s 3-37-40 for the Florida Panthers. His name is creeping up in Norris Trophy conversation. Funny how that works. High scoring defenseman averaging almost a point a game but who trails only 21 other defensemen in the league in goals scored against while on ice. Sound familiar? Karlsson has been on a roll lately. In the 4-0-1 run for the Senators, he is 4-5-9, plus-8, with two game-winning goals. Can he win a Norris Trophy with this kind of offensive performance? After watching Mike Green fall short despite consecutive seasons of scoring more than a point a game and going plus-24 and plus-39, it would not seem likely. But it might be fun to watch.

Washington: Mathieu Perreault

Since he had a hat trick against Boston on January 24th, Mathieu Perreault has two goals in his last 11 games, none in his last six. As if it needs saying by this point, with Nicklas Backstrom out of the lineup, players like Perreault are going to have to step up and contribute more offensively while playing a smart two-way game as long as Backstrom is out. Perreault was the player who was the big factor when the Caps halted their eight-game losing streak in Ottawa last season, netting a pair of goals in the second period of a 3-2 win. The Caps went on to finish the rest of the season 29-11-7 after that win. The Caps could use a little bit of history repeating itself.

Keys, “Rocky Balboa” edition:

1. “Ya know they always say if you live in one place long enough, you are that place.” The Caps have been living on the margin of playoff eligibility for months now, and they have the look of an also-ran. Right now, they are “that place.” If they are to move out of the neighborhood, they can’t wait for moves from the front office. It has to start here.

2. “The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows. It's a very mean and nasty place and I don't care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain't about how hard ya hit. It's about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!” The Caps are fine with the “sunshine and rainbows,” but when hit with adversity, they have not shown much fight in them lately. If they can’t fight through that, they have little hope of putting together any streak of success. They simply do not have the depth at the moment to be dominating teams; they have to scratch out wins.

3. “You know, I think you try harder when you're scared... That's when it's worked best for me.” If the Caps are not scared of missing the playoffs, they should be concerned. Seriously concerned. Instead of denying it or cowering in its presence, maybe they need to embrace that fact and learn how to win when things are not going as well as they – or anyone else – would have predicted for this season.

In the end, here is the bad news. Of the ten goals scored by the Caps in the season series with Ottawa to date, Nicklas Backstrom has a hand in four of them (3-1-0). But while Ottawa has been hot of late, this is a team that has a lot of weak points. And, goalie Craig Anderson has not been especially effective against Washington. He is 4-5-1, 2.81, .916, with one shutout in his career against the Caps, but he lost his only decision this season, getting lit up for four goals on 39 shots (three of the goals coming in a span of six shots in the third period) in a 5-3 Washington win on December 7th. The Caps are probably going to find themselves underdogs in just about every road game from here on in, given their record to date. But this is a winnable game for them. You might say at this point that it is a “must-winnable” game for them.

Capitals 4 – Senators 3

A NO-point night -- Game 59: Hurricanes 5 - Capitals 0

Please…tell us this is a bad dream.

The Washington Capitals started badly, got worse, and by the end of the evening were utterly devoid of life, dropping a 5-0 decision to the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh. In a perverse way, it might have been the most cohesive team effort seen from the Caps in a couple of years. To a man, to a coach, they were awful. How bad?...

-- Two goals 88 seconds apart before the game was barely five minutes old, another goal allowed in the last minute of a period, and a shorthanded goal… 4-0 after less than 26 minutes.

-- Tomas Vokoun had the briefest start of his career, lasting 5:09. He allowed two goals on seven shots. Coach Dale Hunter said he removed Vokoun to “change the momentum.” It worked. Carolina scored two more goals in the next 21 minutes. He probably meant “in favor of the Caps.”

-- Mike Green was on the ice for the first four Carolina goals. He had an excuse; it was his second game back from a lengthy absence. Explain Dennis Wideman being on for three, including Eric Staal’s breakaway shorthanded goal, when Wideman – as the last man back – dove to the ice to try to knock down an errant pass up ice by Marcus Johansson.

-- As for Johansson… in less than 15 minutes he had one shot on goal (two attempts), a giveaway, and lost 13 of 18 draws while going minus-2. He’s the number two center…

-- …unless it is Mathieu Perreault, who in less than 17 minutes had no shots on goal (two attempts) and was minus-1.

-- While the number one center – Brooks Laich – had one shot on goal (two attempts) and lost 10 of 14 draws before taking a seat for the last 10:27 of the game.

-- Then there was the captain. Alex Ovechkin… 15:43, one shot, minus-2, an equipment problem that had him in the locker room for the last six minutes of the second period and most of the third with his head buried in his hands when he was on the bench.

-- Fourteen Caps finished with minus numbers; seven Caps had penalties. Nine Caps finished with at least one shot on goal.

-- The Caps were 6-for-23 on draws in the offensive zone.

-- Carolina had more shots on Washington’s power play (two, one goal) than the Caps did (one).

-- The Caps couldn’t even get a fight right. Matt Hendricks tried with Derek Joslin, but managed only to go off with Joslin on coincidental minor roughing penalties. He got it right the second time, duking it out with Joslin when the two emerged from the box on their coincidental penalties.

-- Five straight games allowing the first goal, five straight games allowing a first period goal, five straight games not scoring one of their own in the first period. You cannot win in this league doing that.

-- Seventeen shots on goal. Along with the 24 they had against Tampa Bay, that makes 41, the same number they had in their last win, that coming against Florida last Friday.

-- Caps have three goals on their last 84 shots on goal, going back to the 5-3 loss to San Jose. A 3.6 percent shooting percentage against Jose Theodore, Mathieu Garon, and Justin Peters?

Down Goes Brown tweeted the following after the game last night…

It is interesting to go back three years and look at that, but one really need not go further at the moment than point number one:

1. Ask yourself the big question: "Can this team--as constructed--ever win a championship?" If the answer is yes -- stay the course and try to find the right formula -- if the answer is no, then plan to rebuild. Don't fake it--really do the analytics and be brutally honest. Once you have your answer, develop the game plan to try to REALLY win a championship. Always run away from experts that say, "We are just one player away." Recognize there is no easy and fast systemic fix. It will be a bumpy ride--have confidence in the plan--"trust and verify: the progress -- but don't deviate from the plan."

OK, so ask it. And for the sake of argument, take Alex Ovechkin out of the mix. Is anyone going to argue that this roster – as constructed – is ever going to win a championship? Even putting Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom back in the mix, this is not an especially deep or talented roster, at least in terms of translating depth or talent into results. How can one say otherwise when you have a whole group of forwards for whom you don’t measure the frequency of goal scoring by games or days, but by weeks and months. When defensemen seem to wander aimlessly around in their own zone. When they can’t win consecutive games on the road (they have not done so in more than two months). When they can’t take advantage of backup goaltenders (they are now 11-11-2 against backups this season). No, backups of backups. Carolina iced their number three goalie tonight with both Cam Ward and Brian Boucher injured, and were shut out.

If this team is not at their brutally honest moment, they can see it from here… 1-4-1 in their last six games, 4-7-3 in their last 14, unable to win consecutive games in their last 16 contests. Last week, Caps season-ticket planholders read this from the owner…

“I’m seeing signs that our team is beginning to adhere to Coach Hunter’s style. It’s not easy to implement new voices and significant changes during the season, but Dale’s philosophy is sinking in, and soon it will become second nature for our players.”

Beginning? After 37 games? Is this team any further along now than they were last December when they started 1-3-0 under Hunter? In those four games the Caps played four teams eligible for the playoffs – St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Ottawa, and Florida. Now, they are losing to the Tampa Bay’s and Carolina’s of the league and looking as if they hardly care in the process. Meanwhile, St. Louis is 30-9-7 under their mid-season coaching replacement, and Anaheim is 18-11-6 under theirs. The Caps are 17-16-4 since their coaching change.

The Caps are still only one point out of a playoff spot – a tribute to parity, one supposes – and the playoffs cannot be ruled out. It just would not seem to be the way to bet.