Sunday, March 04, 2012

A NO-point night -- Game 65: Flyers 1 - Capitals 0

Now, you can start to feel it. The season wasting away. With yet again another helping of home cooking on their plate to take over a top-eight spot in the Eastern Conference, the Washington Capitals pushed themselves away from the table.

The Caps came up empty against the Philadelphia Flyers tonight, losing to the orange and black by a 1-0 score. One goal, a redirection by Eric Wellwood of a Pavel Kubina drive in the eighth minute of the second period. That’s it. All the Flyers needed, because the Caps are now oh-for-their-last-six periods of hockey on their own ice. No goals on their last 57 shots, three on their last 91 shots on Verizon Center ice. This is a team that averaged 3.82 goals per three periods two seasons ago, and they cannot muster that total on their own ice in three games with their playoff hopes in the balance.

Other stuff…

-- The coming news cycle in the NHL will not feature the Islanders’ 1-0 win over New Jersey. It will not feature Chicago’s big win in Detroit. It will not feature the New York Rangers holding off the Boston Bruins at Madison Square Garden to take over the league lead in points. Nope, the big story tomorrow will be the question of whether Dale Hunter was “matching lines,” or if he was benching Alex Ovechkin for his curiously uninspired play in the first half of the game.

Ovechkin skated six shifts in the first period for a total of 4:07. OK… 41 seconds a shift is far below Ovechkin’s average for the season (56 seconds), and he did not skate more than 50 seconds on any of them. “Managing lines” is a plausible reason for this. But the second period was an entirely different story. Four shifts for a total of 4:05, only one shift coming in the last 12:09. Why? Well, we are still trying to figure out what Ovechkin was doing as he was gliding toward Pavel Kubina as the latter sent his drive to the net that Eric Wellwood tipped in for the game’s only goal. “Managing lines” doesn’t pass the sniff test here. Nope, one could “sniff” a rather odoriferous effort on Ovechkin’s part, and he was benched for it. Dale Hunter being Dale Hunter, he will explain it away with that whole “matching lines” thing. Good for him; nice to see a coach not throw a player under the bus after a loss. But it had all the look of a benching.

Did it have its intended effect? Well, Ovechkin skated 8:37 in the third period, recorded five shots on goal, seven shot attempts, two hits, and had a blocked shot of his own. But if that is what it takes at this time of year with the Caps in the situation they are facing, it does not speak well of Ovechkin.

-- Lost in Ovechkin’s adventure was the fact that Dmitry Orlov had a nice game for himself. He deserved better than to get a minus-1 for being on the ice for the lone goal, but he had two shots on goal, five hits, two takeaways, and a blocked shot in 17 minutes.

-- Mike Knuble could have wiped away a lot of bad memories of this season had he scored on a break with 7:02 gone in the second period. He didn’t, his try to go five-hole smothered by Ilya Bryzgalov. Making it worse, the Flyers got their goal less than a minute later.

-- The Caps out-shot the Flyers 34-23, out-attempted them 60-41, out-hit them 37-29, won 25 of 45 draws, were plus-10 on turnovers. Some games, it just does not matter.

-- Michal Neuvirth sure deserved better. The guys the Flyers want to shoot did – Claude Giroux had three shots, Jaromir Jagr had four, Danny Briere had three. He stoned them all. He even almost squeezed off the deflection by Wellwood. He was solid from pipe to pipe in this one.

-- Troy Brouwer isn’t going to score every night, but he can bring the grit each night, and he did early. He gave Erik Gustafsson a peek into next week with a hit at the players’ benches, then scrapped with Scott Hartnell, who took offense at the hit. Brouwer made short work of Hartnell, not with his fists, but by shoving him off his feet and getting position on him when Hartnell was losing his balance.

-- The Caps had eight shots on goal from within 15 feet, 13 from 35 or more feet from the net (from official play-by-play). Trying to wire in shots from long distance isn’t going to do it.

-- It took 65 games, but it was the first time all season that the Caps did not receive a power play opportunity. Against the Philadelphia Flyers. Whodathunkit? They are still stuck on 0-for-13 on the power play, now over their past five games.

-- About that power play… 0-for-13, 1-for-22, 2-for-34, 5-for-57. The Caps have allowed as many shorthanded goals in their last 20 games (five) as they have power play goals (five). That is not a slump. That is merely bad.

-- Pavel Kubina was credited with four hits. At 17:02 of the second period, Pavel Kubina (6’4”, 258 pounds) was credited with one of them on Mathieu Perreault (5’10”, 185 pounds…maybe). He was credited with another on Perreault at 18:04 of the third period. They should be deducted on principle alone.

In the end, you can now see the end from here. Oh yes, the Caps are still one point behind Winnipeg for eighth place, but they are down to one game in hand, too. And now, Tampa Bay and Buffalo lurk only one point behind the Caps for ninth place. All three teams have 18 games remaining. Even the Maple Leafs are only two points back and the Islanders four back. Rather than use this five-game home stand to jump back into the top eight and put some distance between them and their closest pursuers, it is looking more like a “last stand.”

That Was The Week That Was -- Week 21 (February 26 - March 3)

Week 21…more of the same. More stumbling, bumbling, and not enough rumbling. A so-so week in a so-so season.

Record: 1-1-0

The Caps have not had a winning record for a week since Week 16 (1-0-1). In the five weeks that ended with Week 21 the Caps were 6-8-2. So many chances wasted. This week it was wasting home ice advantage. In an arena in which the Caps came into the week 20-8-2, they split two games and gained their only win on scoring two goals in the last 3:29 of regulation to tie, then winning in overtime against a team (the New York Islanders) that was only 6-6-1 when they visited Washington. The Caps were then pasted by the New Jersey Devils, 5-0 in the only other game of the week. Frankly, this week was a set up, and the Caps gagged on it.

Offense: 1.50/game (season: 2.67/rank: 13th)

In 121:35 of hockey for the week, three goals, all in a 5:04 span covering the end of regulation and overtime against the Islanders. Three goals on 57 shots – 5.3 percent. Their shooting percentage isn’t much better since February 1st (7.2 percent). As Week 21 ended, this was a team that couldn’t shoot a puck into Chesapeake Bay from a boat.

Defense: 3.50/game (season: 2.81/rank: 21st)

The defense was not bad for the week, at least in limiting opponents’ attempts at the net. In the two games the Caps allowed a total of 84 shot attempts. There have been individual games when they allowed totals in that neighborhood. The Caps allowed only a total – a total, mind you – of ten shots on goal in the first period of the two games. And, in five of the six periods of regulation they allowed fewer than ten shots on goal.

Goaltending: 3.45/.841

That which has been a – if not the – strength of the Caps this season let them down some this week. Michal Neuvirth was the goalie of record in the two games. He had a decent game against the Islanders, allowing a goal when his defense stood around, then allowed another on a deflection. Against the Devils, though… He allowed one when he could not squeeze the pads together on an Ilya Kovalchuk drive, and Zach Parise knocked in the loose puck. He allowed another when he was flat on the ice after stopping a Dainius Zubrus shot, but Zubrus walked around him to stuff in the rebound. There was enough bad play in front of him to allow two 2-on-1’s for scores (one shorthanded), but it was not a good end of the week for Neuvirth.

Power Play: 0-for-6/0.0 percent (season: 16.5 percent/rank: 19th)

No goals on six shots on six power plays covering 11:30 of ice time. Since going 2-for-4 against Tampa Bay on January 13th, the Caps finished the week 6-for-65 (9.2 percent) over their last 22 games. And, they allowed a shorthanded goal. Pitiful.

Penalty Killing: 4-for5/80.0 percent (season: 80.8percent/rank: 22nd)

What can you say… the Caps are an 80 percent penalty killing team. The object of the exercise then has to be to keep the other team from getting power plays, and allowing only five power plays in two games has to qualify as a success. But here is a chilling thought… the Caps are only 15-13-2 when allowing three or fewer power plays. More wasted good effort.

Paying the Price: 63 hits/20 blocked shots (season rank: 14th/7th)

That the Caps had only 20 blocked shots in two games is the product of allowing so few shot attempts. Again, just as the Caps had more than a few single games with shot attempts near the 84-attempt mark they had for the two-game week, so the Caps have had a lot of games – too many, perhaps – in which they recorded 20-plus blocked shots.

Faceoffs: 53-for-100/53.0 percent (season: percent/rank: 14th)

The Caps had a good week overall, but it was another tale of two zones. They were 20-for-36 in the offensive end (55.6 percent), but only 9-for-27 in the defensive end (33.3 percent). Of the big four taking draws – Jeff Halpern, Brooks Laich, Manthieu Perreault, and Marcus Johansson – it was not a bad week. Johansson, getting a lot of time on the top line, was 50 percent in the offensive end. And he was the worst of the four in the offensive end. But Mathieu Perreault was the only one among them to be as much as 50 percent in the defensive end, and he took only two draws there.

Turnovers: plus-3

Not much to say here. It was a week played rather close to the vest for all the teams involved. There were only 73 total turnovers among the four teams (counting the Caps twice) in the two games, not an especially large number for more than 120 minutes of hockey. But it is better than being on the minus side.


Back to the calendar. Five straight weeks without a winning week. It is looking more and more like what Pierre LeBrun said of the Caps at the trading deadline when they made no moves:

“This just isn’t their year. One big trade isn’t going to put the Caps over the top and make them contenders. One big trade isn’t going to clear star center Nicklas Backstrom of his concussion symptoms.”

The Caps had a 1-1-0 week. They have had a total of six winning weeks out of 19 since their seven-game winning streak to start the season. They are 20-18-4 since Dale Hunter took over. You keep waiting for that switch to flip on, but nothing is happening.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 65: Flyers at Capitals, March 4th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Hump Game. Sort of like “hump day,” but different. This is the middle game – Game 3 – in the Washington Capitals’ five-game home stand. And today’s contestant – the Philadelphia Flyers – is likely to be the most formidable of the opponents the Caps will face in the five games. Except…

On January 12th, the Flyers were second in the Atlantic Division and only two points behind the division and Eastern Conference leading New York Rangers. Why is January 12th a date of any particular note? It happens to be the date on which the Flyers last won a second consecutive game, having beaten Carolina, 2-1, on January 10th and the Islanders, 3-2, two days later.

Since those consecutive wins, Philadelphia is 9-9-3. Three of the nine wins have come in extra time, two in the Gimmick (they have also lost three games in the Gimmick). They do not have any consecutive wins, but they do have a two-game losing streak and a three-gamer.

Much has been made of the Flyers’ goaltending troubles, and it seems every word has merit. But lost in the shuffle is that while the Flyers lead the league in offense this season at 3.29 goals per game, their average over their 9-9-3 run is down to 2.81. And the hallmark has been inconsistency. Among the nine wins the Flyers have in their last 21 games, eight times they scored at least four goals, five times at least five goals. In the 12 losses, they were held to two or fewer goals eight times.

Special teams also have shown inconsistency. The power play – currently sixth in the league at 19.9 percent – has actually outperformed its season level of efficiency, going 18-for-83 (21.7 percent) in the last 21 games. The penalty kill is another thing altogether. It is not an especially efficient group so far this season – currently ranking 21st at 80.9 percent – but it is only 60-for-78 in the last 21 games (76.7 percent). Drilling down into those 21 games, we find that it is the power play that seems to have mattered more in outcomes. In the nine wins the Flyers were 11-for-35 on the man advantage (31.4 percent). In the 12 losses they were 7-for-47 (14.9 percent).

Then there is that goaltending. The “Killer Bees” might refer to the Africanized honey bee, or it might refer to a continuing sketch on old episodes of the television show, “Saturday Night Live.” In Philadelphia it might refer to the goaltenders – Bryzgalov and Bobrovsky – who have been inconsistent at best, poor at worst, for long stretches of the season. These last 21 games is one of them.

Ilya Bryzgalov has 16 appearances in the last 21 games and has a respectable line: 7-4-3, 2.28, .912, and one shutout. But inconsistency has marred his game. He has allowed at least three goals in five of his last nine appearances (2.63, .896). And he has been the better of the two netminders for the Flyers. Sergei Bobrovsky has seven appearances in the last 21 games, over which he is 2-5-0, 4.43, .846. He has allowed three or more goals in six of those seven appearances, two of them lasting less than 30 minutes.

Here is how the two teams compare, numbers-wise:

 (click pic for larger image)

1. Of the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference, the Flyers are one of three teams with a better points earned percentage on the road (.636) than at home (.583). New Jersey and Boston are the others.

2. Scott Hartnell has been a reliable 20-goal scorer in his career – five times in six seasons post-lockout coming into this season. One might not have foreseen, though, that he would be a 30-plus goal scorer (he hit 30 once, in 2008-2009) and that he would be tied for fourth in the league going into tonight’s game.

3. The Flyers have had good balance from their defense in one respect – even strength effectiveness. All eight Flyer defensemen having played more than 13 games are in “plus” territory (that Flyer with 13 games is Chris Pronger, out for the season).

4. Feast and Famine. The Flyers have the third best winning percentage in one-goal decisions this season and the seventh-best such percentage in decisions of three or more goals. If you’re going to beat them, it is in two-goal decisions (5-10).

5. That whole “shoot the puck” thing? The Flyers take it to heart. They have been outshot in only 17 of 63 games this season, tied for the lowest in the league with San Jose (in 64 games).

1. The Caps have not seen the Flyers in a while, not since a 5-1 loss at Verizon Center on December 13th. Since then the Caps are 17-14-4. On December 13th the Caps were in third place in the Southeast, 12th place in the East. The Caps have not finished lower in the standings on any other day of the season so far.

2. No Capitals defenseman is in “minus” territory for the season on Verizon Center ice. Every one that has played in at least ten home games is in “plus” terrirory.

3. Maybe the Caps should petition the league to go to 4-on-4 play. They are plus-6 (12 goals for, six against) this season.

4. The power play woes continue… Over their last 25 games the Caps are 8-for-74 (10.8 percent). Home cooking has not been much tastier – 5-for-34 (14.7 percent).

5. Intermissions matter… the Caps are 16-1-1 when leading after 20 minutes, 19-0-0 when leading after 40. When trailing after the first period, they are 8-19-1; they are 5-21-2 when trailing at the second intermission.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Philadelphia: Pavel Kubina

The Flyers employ space-eaters on defense. Including the injured Chris Pronger, Philadelphia has dressed six defensemen of at least 220 pounds this season (by way of reference, the Caps have dressed two – John Erskine and Jeff Schultz). Pavel Kubina is the last and largest of this group, having been acquired by trade with Tampa Bay for a pair of draft picks, and who weighs in at 258 pounds. The Flyers have allowed 17 goals in the five games in which Kubina has appeared so far. But he has a lot of experience against the Caps – 62 regular season games worth – in which he is also a minus-40. Ponder that.

Washington: Alexander Semin

One might think that a skill player such as Alexander Semin that does not have a reputation for trafficking in crowded areas might be intimidated by a team with the Flyers’ reputation for nastiness. Well, Semin is 9-11-20 in 21 career games against the Flyers (four goals and six assists on power plays). If the Caps are to erase the odor from Friday’s game against the Devils, Semin is likely to be an important ingredient in the cleanser.


1. Fast ten. If the Caps are still in a funk from Friday, it will show up right away in how they play their first ten minutes. If they recognize they urgency that losing a game like that attaches to the rest of their season, they will come out hard in the first ten minutes. And, there is that whole “intermission” record to consider. In the December 13th loss to the Flyers the Caps were down after one period, 1-0, and down after two by a 4-0 score. When the Caps beat the Flyers in October (game six of their seven-game winning streak to start the season), they led by a 2-1 margin at both intermissions.

2. Power Up. The Flyers have allowed at least one power play goal in seven of their last 13 games (37-for-51 in penalty killing, 72.6 percent). The Caps need this part of their game to step up if they are going to make a late-season run. In the two games played between these teams so far, the Caps were 1-for-6 in the game they won, 0-for-3 in the one they lost.

3. Stop the bleeding. The Caps allowed five goals in consecutive games before running off a three-game winning streak. That streak came to an end when they allowed five goals –again – in a loss to New Jersey on Friday. Four of the last five Caps losses have involved five-goal results for the opponent. The Caps can’t sustain poor goaltending performances. It has been the one reliable element in their success over the past three months. Needless to say, against the league’s top offensive team, goaltending will have to be as sharp as sharp can be.

In the end, if the Caps were going to lose any of the five games on this home stand, this is the one folks might have pointed to as the most likely. Now, it has become a “gotta win” game. Earning the two points puts the Caps ahead of Winnipeg for eighth in the East, an important consideration since this game uses up one of the games in had the Caps hold over the Jets. The Caps get the Flyers in as favorable a situation as they might hope for, given the Flyers’ inconsistency over the last two months. It is an opportunity to get over the hump of that eighth-place threshold.

Yup… “Hump Game.” Let’s just hope it’s not all downhill from here.

Caps 4 – Flyers 3