Sunday, February 26, 2012
This year is different in two respects. First, Backstrom is out of action following a concussion suffered in a game against the Calgary Flames on January 3rd. There is no clear indication of when he will return to action, or if he will return to action this season. The second element is the standings. In the last three seasons the Caps were in no jeopardy of missing the playoffs. They were well on their way to 100-plus point seasons and a Southeast Division title. This year, the possibility exists that the Caps will achieve neither of those milestones. This year looks more like 2008, when the Caps were feverishly pursuing a playoff spot after a horrendous start to their season and a coaching change that sparked the turnaround.
And that brings us to Monday. George McPhee might have the demeanor of an “Undertaker” at times, but he does have a flair for the dramatic at this time of year. McPhee’s silence when it comes to discussing potential deals, leaking news, or just in demonstrating evidence of a pulse does not apparently apply to his cell phone. Although the Caps are rarely – and almost never reliably – attached to many deals (one exception to which we will get to), there is almost always a surprise in store for Caps fans. Deals of the “where did that come from?” sort. Here are the deadline deals over the past four years (source: Capitals Media Guide):
-- Acquired Cristobal Huet from Montreal for a 2nd round pick in the 2009 Entry Draft (later traded to Atlanta, Jeremy Morin).
-- Acquired Sergei Fedorov from Columbus for Theo Ruth.
-- Acquired Matt Cooke from Vancouver for Matt Pettinger.
-- Acquired Alexandre Giroux from Atlanta for Joe Motzko.
-- Aquired Scott Walker from Carolina for a 7th round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft (later traded to Philadelphia, Ricard Blidstrand).
-- Acquired Eric Belanger from Minnesota for a 2nd round pick in the 2010 Entry Draft (Johan Larsson).
-- Acquired Milan Jurcina from Columbus for a conditional draft pick.
-- Acquired Joe Corvo from Carolina for Brian Pothier, Oskar Osala and a 2nd round pick in the 2011 Entry Draft (later traded to Calgary, Tyler Wotherspoon).
-- Claimed Marco Strum off waivers from Los Angeles.
-- Acquired Dennis Wideman from Florida for Jake Hauswirth and a third-round pick in the 2011 Entry Draft (Jonathan Racine).
-- Acquired Jason Arnott from New Jersey for David Steckel and a 2012 second-round pick.
Only the Arnott deal last year was telegraphed at all, the perfect fit (it seemed at the time) of aging vet looking for one more turn in the playoff spotlight to a team with a clear need for his skill set and experience.
Most of the other deals would qualify as surprises, if not blockbusters. And there is that common thread of the “second line center.” In 2008, Sergei Fedorov. In 2010, Eric Belanger. Last year, Arnott. The prescription the Caps follow has been unchanged – a veteran on an expiring deal. Only once – last year with Jason Arnott – did the formula work for so much as a playoff series win (Fedorov played in a second round series in the year following his acquisition, after he was re-signed by the Caps).
Now, the Caps search once more. And what fans cannot know is whether or not the old formula is the new formula. If there is something arguing against it, it really has nothing to do with the Caps. It has to do with market supply. There do not appear to be centers that fit the “veteran on expiring deal” profile. It is part of a general shortage of trade-worthy players. One of the reasons is that there are just so many teams still in the playoff race. Of the 30 teams in the league, there are the 16 teams in the playoff-eligible group and another nine within six points of a playoff spot, including the Caps. Only five teams appear out of it at this point – the Islanders, Carolina, Montreal, Edmonton, and Columbus. And even among this group, candidates are small in number. Carolina re-signed Tuomo Ruutu. The Islanders are really too young at the position to qualify someone in this category. Edmonton does not have anyone in this category (although they have some contracts they might want to shed – Shawn Horcoff comes to mind, with three more years at $5.5 million on the books). Montreal is in the same situation (with Scott Gomez’ contract wrapped tightly around their necks). Columbus signed Vaclav Prospal to a one-year contract extension earlier this month.
That leaves player with years on their deals that teams might be willing to move. In that category, the bottom five still has a limited availability of players. Columbus has already made their big move from this group, shipping Jeff Carter to Los Angeles. Marty Reasoner might be shipped somewhere by the Islanders, but he has yet to score a goal in 42 games this season – he is not a solution to what ails the Caps at the position. Horcoff’s contract makes him – a player with 11 goals and 30 points – almost untradeable by Edmonton. Carolina does not have anyone in this category. That leaves Montreal, and the name “Tomas Plekanec” has been floated in the usual rumor mills (although he has a modified no trade agreement in his contract).
If the Caps are going to find anything resembling a solution to the perennial problem, they are going to have to be creative in locking in on a target. Do they try to peel off a center from that group in the gray area of playoff contention, the clubs that are 3-6 points out of a spot? That would add Toronto, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Minnesota, and Anaheim to the list of potential trading partners. And that expands the potential targets.
From this group, a Mikhail Grabovski from Toronto comes into play. Even a Tim Connolly from the Maple Leafs, although his injury history is going to give any team pause (he has topped the 70-games played mark once since the lockout), and he has a modified no trade clause. Tampa has no candidates; Minnesota does not have a clear number two center candidate to fit here. From Buffalo, Derek Roy has been floated as a potential player to be moved, but he is having a sub-par year (13 goals in 60 games, two years removed from four straight seasons of 20-plus goals), and there is the matter of the physical dimension. At 5’9”, 184 pounds, is this what the Caps need, another center who will struggle in physical situations? Anaheim? Saku Koivu has an expiring deal ($2.5 million/35+ contract), but he also has a no movement clause in his contract. And besides, Anaheim is 16-3-4 since January 4th. It is hard to see them as upsetting their chemistry unless they are in the market to add a player.
This is not – from the fan’s chair – much of a market for what the Caps so clearly need. There certainly is not the obvious solution that appeared to exist last season when Jason Arnott was available. But if there is one thing that has characterized the performance of George McPhee over the last four years, it has been to surprise on trading deadline day. There might not have been much talk of potential Caps trades in the rumor mills over the last few weeks, but it is likely a safe bet than come sundown, there will be plenty of talk about what the Capitals did. There is a rabbit in that hat somewhere.
Even though this week was not the losing week the previous one was, it was arguably a worse one. At least it sure started that way. It wasn’t as if the Caps had not allowed ten goals in consecutive games lately – they did it on January 7/9 against San Jose and Los Angeles. But that was against teams on the west coast, where the Caps always seem to struggle. In this instance they opened the week by allowing five goals in successive games to Carolina and Ottawa, teams against which the Caps had a 6-1-0 combined record this season, 14-2-1 over the past two seasons. But the Caps turned it around in the last half of the week, knocking off Montreal and Toronto by 4-1 and 4-2 margins, respectively. It was the first time that the Caps scored as many as four goals in consecutive games since December 7/9 against Ottawa and Toronto. Oh, Canada.
Offense: 2.50/game (season: 2.71/rank: 13th)
"Listless" was the term to describe the first half of the week’s games, "hopeful" to describe the second half. The Caps managed only 17 shots on goal in a 5-0 loss to Carolina to start the week, despite facing a goaltender – Justin Peters – who was making only his 26th appearance in the NHL. Peters, who had not recorded a shutout in any of his previous 25 appearances, recorded his first against the Caps. Washington managed only 52 shot attempts in the loss, and the 17 shots on goal tied for the second lowest for a game this season (they had 16 shots on goal in a 3-0 win over Montreal on January 18th). The Caps followed that up by scoring two goals after Ottawa ran out to a 4-0 lead in what would be a 5-2 loss.
The Caps did right by their fans in the last two games of the week, though. They scored four goals in each of the two games – 4-1 over Montreal and 4-2 over Toronto – to earn fans a discount from a local pizza establishment on the days following the wins.
For the week the Caps had balanced, if not especially prolific, scoring. Nine different Caps recorded at least two points, led by Alexander Semin (1-3-4), while Jason Chimera (1-2-3), Alex Ovechkin (1-2-3), and Marcus Johansson (1-2-3) all finished with three points on the week.
Defense: 3.25/game (season: 2.79/rank: 20th)
It was all in the period this week. In two losses the Caps allowed a total of five goals in the first period; in two wins, none. They allowed a few more shot attempts this week (216) than last, but the percentage of shots to attempts on goal was up from 53.4 percent last week to 58.5 percent this week. That was the product of shots on goal up from 27.3 to 31.8 per game.
Still, it came down to periods. The Caps allowed those five goals in the first period of two losses this week, and they also allowed five goals in the third period of games this week. Three of those third period goals, however, came in two wins, when the outcome was no longer in doubt. If there was good news, though, none of the goals came from 90 feet away, something that happened on a couple of occasions in recent games.
This week’s principal drama came in the crease. In the first two games of the week, Tomas Vokoun was pulled early, once after allowing two goals on seven shots in just over five minutes, and in the second game after 32 minutes upon allowing four goals on 11 shots. It made for a difficult week for the number one netminder: 0-2-0, 9.68, .667. It was left to Michal Neuvirth, himself a struggling goalie (1-3-2, 2.87, .906 in nine appearances since December 23rd), to pick up the pieces of the week. With the Caps facing the potential to fall behind by what could be an insurmountable deficit to the teams in front of them in the playoff race, Neuvirth came up strong. He stopped 58 of 61 shots in the last two games of the week (.951 save percentage), but perhaps more important, he stopped all 38 first and second period shots he faced to give the Caps a chance to get off on the right foot.
Power Play: 1-for-14/7.1 percent (season: 17.0 percent/rank: 16th)
It was the second straight 1-for-14 week. Two for 28 in two weeks – 7.1 percent – is not going to get it done. It just was not a very good week. In 23:59 of total power play ice time the Caps had but the one goal in 14 tries – an inconsequential goal in the 5-2 loss to Ottawa (the Senators were up 4-0 when the Caps scored at 2:19 of the third period). They recorded that goal on only 13 power play shots for the week. Almost half the shots came from Mike Green and Troy Brouwer (three apiece). Only two came off the stick of Alex Ovechkin (both in the 4-1 win over Montreal), none from Alexander Semin (although Semin did assist on the only power play goal of the week, scored by John Carlson).
Penalty Killing: 12-for15/80.0 percent (season: 80.8%/rank: 21st)
Another case of a tale of two weeks, first and second half. The Caps were only 4-for-7 on the penalty kill in the first two games of the week, a perfect 8-for-8 in the second half of the week. The Caps skated shorthanded for 22:27 in the four games, allowing three goals on 19 shots. Again, it was the bad and the good. In two losses the Caps gave up those three power play goals in seven chances, Carolina and Ottawa shooting 3-for-12 in shots in in 8:51 of power play time. In the last two games the Caps shut out Montreal and Toronto on the power play on eight chances, allowing only seven shots in 13:36 of ice time.
Paying the Price: 91 hits/65 blocked shots (season rank: T-11th/5th)
It was not a week that was much different from the previous week (99/52 in four games). If there was an odd dynamic to the week, it was in blocked shots. In their two wins, the Caps were credited with 21 blocked shots after they took the lead into the first intermission (5.3 blocks per period). In the other eight periods – where the Caps were either trying to get a lead or falling behind – they had 44 blocks (5.5 per period). It just struck us as a bit odd; we might have wondered if a lead would result in the team trying to deny more shots to the net.
Faceoffs: 133-for-274/48.5 percent (season: 50.3 percent/rank: T-12th)
A second straight losing week, the Caps won only one game in the circle, and that was a loss on the scoreboard (the 5-2 loss to Ottawa; they were 37-for-72). The Caps had most of their trouble in the offensive end, going only 32-for-81 for the week (39.5 percent). None of the big four taking draws for the week – Jeff Halpern (42.9 percent), Brooks Laich (45.5 percent), Mathieu Perreault (46.7 percent), or Marcus Johansson (35.3 percent) hit the 50 percent mark. They did offset that some with a 54.3 percent mark in the defensive end, all of the big four hitting 50 percent or better except Johansson (33.3 percent).
It would have been a lot better but for a ghastly game on the score sheet against Carolina. The Caps earned 11 turnovers of their own, but gave up 26. The Caps were a much more responsible team with the puck in the other three games of the week, finishing even or on the high side of the ledger in all of them and going plus-10 overall.
In boxing, a cardinal rule is, win the end of the round. It looks better to the judges. The Caps won the end of the week, and things look a bit better in doing so than they did after the Caps dropped the first two games of the week by a combined 10-2 margin. With the wins in the last two games the Caps still find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff eight. With 20 games left – three of which will be played against the two teams immediately ahead of them (two against Winnipeg, one against Florida) – the boxing analogy is apt. The Caps are now in the fight of their lives for a playoff spot.
The Washington Capitals made this last weekend before the trading deadline a profitable one on the ice by defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs, 4-2, at Air Canada Centre. Unlike the 7-1 pasting the Caps suffered at ACC at the hands of the Leafs in November, there would be no quick start for the home team. In that game, Toronto scored 1:39 into the game to get things off to a fast start. Last night, it was the Caps getting the early goal, a wrap-around by Marcus Johansson just 32 seconds in.
Alexander Semin made it 2-0 just over three minutes later on a series of weak efforts by the Maple Leafs. First, there was the breakout from the Caps’ end. Dmitry Orlov out-worked one, then two Leafs along the wall to goalie Michal Neuvirth’s left to get the puck free. After Mathieu Perreault scooped up the loose puck and circled behind the net, he moved it up to Dennis Wideman, who fed it forward to Jason Chimera. Not only was the breakout clean as a whistle for the Caps, but the Leafs just kept backing off and backing off as Chimera skated through the neutral zone. When Chimera gained the Toronto blue line, he fed it to Semin on the left side – wide open with two Leaf defensemen and a forward on the wrong side of the ice…
Semin fired the puck, but goalie James Reimer made the initial save. Note, though, that defenseman Jake Gardiner merely follows Semin around the back of the net as if he was on a leisurely public skate, while his partner Luke Schenn picks up the rebound…
Perreault jumps into the play to challenge Schenn’s breakout. As Schenn tries to avoid Perreault, he is not aware of Semin coming up from behind on his right. And there is Gardiner taking it all in from below the goal line having left Semin go completely…
Semin picks Schenn clean and now has a clear shooting lane with three Leafs all more than an extended stick length away from him…
Semin fires before Gardiner can get in the lane to block the shot or before Nikoali Kulemin can back check and interrupt Semin’s shooting motion. Still, goalie James Reimer has a good look and appears square to the shot…
The puck goes five-hole on Reimer as Schenn and Gardiner look on helplessly in what was a fairly leaky goal…
Reimer would get the blame for this, but it was really 200 feet of poor play by the Leafs that led to it.
It would be the game’s key goal for a number of reasons. First, it staked the Caps to a 2-0 first period lead, the first time they’ve had one of those on the road since they had a 2-0 lead in Montreal on January 18th in a 3-0 win. Then, there was the matter of the crowd. After that goal the home crowd cheered the most routine of saves. It is one thing to take the crowd out of the game, another to make them actively mock the home team. And, the Caps could thereafter dictate pace, denying the Leafs the opportunity to get their crowd back into the game.
The Caps doubled their fun in the second period on goals by Jeff Halpern and Keith Aucoin, the latter’s first of the season since being called up from Hershey. It ended the competitive portion of the evening, even as Toronto halved the lead in the third period. It was as solid a road game as the Caps have mustered in some time.
-- More Toronto follies. The Halpern goal was essentially two Caps outworking most of the Leafs’ skaters. First, it was Halpern himself outdueling several Leafs along the wall for the puck, eventually pushing it out to Orlov at the left point. Then, when Phil Kessel moved up to challenge, Orlov deftly stepped around him and opened a shooting lane. He snapped the puck to the net where there was a scrum, but the Leafs left Halpern unattended at Reimer’s right. Halpern got a couple of free whacks at the puck, swatting it in for the 3-0 lead.
-- The Aucoin goal was more of the same, as in “what were the Leafs doing?” Tim Connolly started things on the play rather well for the Leafs, taking the puck away from Marcus Johansson just inside the Capitals’ blue line. He skated in and eluded a diving Mike Green, trying to sweep away the puck. But it was just enough to result in the puck rolling off Connolly's stick into the corner. Matthew Lombardi tried to center the puck, but it squirted all the way through. The result was a puck going in the wrong direction for the Leafs and three forward pinned deep and themselves going in the wrong direction. It turned into a 4-on-2 Capitals rush the other way, making it easy for an Ovechkin to Johansson to Aucoin tap-in for the goal.
-- Johansson, Halpern, Aucoin… secondary scoring. It helps.
-- Neuvirth had a more-or-less solid game. He was good when he had to be in the first 40 minutes, and even the goals he allowed had an odd character to them. On the first, Colby Armstrong’s struggle to keep his feet and control of the puck might have caused Neuvirth to lose his line in tracking Armstrong. He looked as if he was trying to adjust the angle several times on the play and got caught when Armstrong finally got the shot off. On the second one, as a shot was fired wide and behind Neuvirth, he got his right skate caught up with Lombardi as the latter was skating behind him through the crease in pursuit of the loose puck. Neuvirth could not gain purchase to get to his feet with Dennis Wideman standing over him. He was flat on his back as the puck went in.
-- Alex Ovechkin said after the game, "Against our line they played pretty well, especially in the first, I made a couple of moves but their 'D' did a great job, especially Phaneuf. I like playing against him. He's physical. When he hits me, I feel like I am in the game. I don't like when people don't hit me. I like being physical and I like it to be tough." In a game in which Toronto was credited with 43 hits, Ovechkin was the recipient only six times, two by Phaneuf. Only once did he take a hit after 1:44 remained in the first period. If they’d hit him more, Toronto might have ended up losing by half a dozen.
-- That was the ninth time this season the Caps were held to a single power play opportunity. They are 6-3-0 in such games, 3-2-0 when they do not score on their opportunity (they didn’t last night and were held without a shot).
-- Toronto held a whopping edge in zone draws, taking 30 in their offensive end and the Caps taking only 16 in theirs. The Caps largely neutralized that advantage by going 16-for-30 in the defensive end, Halpern and Brooks Laich combining to go 12-for-18.
-- Joel Ward had an assist. He had a goal against Montreal on Friday. That makes for the first time Ward has points in consecutive games since October 20/22.
-- It’s not the number, it’s the percentage. Often this season the Caps have topped the 20 blocked shot mark. Too often that has been an indicator of the ice tilted to far toward the Caps’ net, the opponent getting too many shot attempts. Last night the Caps had 25 blocked shots. Yes, the Leafs had 70 attempts, but 33 of them came in the third period. For the game the Caps blocked more than 35 percent of the Leaf attempts.
In the end, the Caps are off the scheid. Consecutive wins for the first time in more than a month. Those wins allow the Caps to keep in striking distance of a playoff spot – one point behind Winnipeg for eighth and a single point behind Florida for the top spot in the Southeast. But that also shows how hard it is to break through at this time of year. The Caps started the weekend three behind the Jets and two behind the Panthers and are still on the outside looking in after a pair of wins. The Caps cannot – and at the moment do not have to – rely on help too much, so long as they keep winning. They get that chance on Tuesday against the Islanders, a chance for their first three-game winning streak since that three-gamer in mid-January.