Friday, May 04, 2012

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Semifinals: Game 4/Rangers at Capitals, May 5th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals host the New York Rangers on Saturday afternoon in Game 4 of their second-round matchup. The teams and their fans have had an extra day to digest all the extra hockey on Wednesday night, and everyone is probably anxious to get right back to skating, checking, shooting, shouting, yelling, and the like.

Game 4 poses an interesting situation for the Caps, as much for the result of Game 3 as anything else. History is a guide in such things, because while these Caps are unlike those who might have played, oh, 30 years ago, there are trends over time that seem to transcend the changes in rosters.

And that brings us to Game 3. The Caps lost a 2-1 decision in excruciating fashion, a three-overtime affair in which they certainly had their chances. But perhaps it is all for the best in the end. The Caps have taken 2-1 leads in games into Game 4 in four of the last seven playoff series in which they played. They lost three of those series (Tampa Bay in 2003, Pittsburgh in 2009, and Montreal in 2010). The exception was last year’s opening round series against the Rangers. Winning that Game 3 – or more to the point, losing it – seems not to have mattered much, at least to the Caps in recent years.

As Game 4 approaches, though, some things are becoming clear. One is that the Caps have started well, if not well off. In three first periods so far the Caps have out-shot the Rangers, 31-24. But they have managed goals in the first period in only one game, two goals scored in the first period of Game 2. Not coincidentally, that is the game they won in this series so far.

Conversely, the Rangers have been more productive late in games, outshooting the Caps narrowly (21-20 in the third period of games so far), but outscoring them 3-1.

The Caps have taken a one-goal lead only twice in this series. The scored the first goal (and the second) in Game 2, and gave the lead back. They would take back that lead in Game 2 and hold it for the final 7:27 of the contest.

On the other hand, the Rangers have taken one-goal leads three times (not counting the triple-overtime winner in Game 3) and surrendered them twice. In Game 1 the Rangers scored first but surrendered that lead to the Caps. They would regain that lead 13 minutes in to the third period and tack on another goal in a 3-1 win, the only time so far this spring the Caps have not finished a game with a one-goal margin, good or bad. In Game 3 they scored first, then let it slip away less than five minutes later. No one-goal lead in this series is safe, but…

The team that gets that first one goal lead – the one that scores first – wins. It has held true in each of the three games so far. What this suggests is that the games are so closely fought, so physically and mentally taxing, that a one goal deficit has the appearance of a mine shaft the team that is behind is trying from which to escape. They haven’t been able to use that foothold of a tie regained to add to the goal total before the other team takes a lead again (or scores that overtime winner).

Neither team has yet managed to impose its will on the other for sustained lengths of time in this series. Perhaps it is a product of these teams looking like mirror images of one another in style. The Caps come later to this, having had to learn to play this way over the last few months under Dale Hunter. For the Rangers it is the style for which they became known since John Tortorella became head coach.

As the series hits the mid-way point, the matter might now boil down to whether the Caps, who have subordinated “skill” (and the risk it sometimes bears in chance-taking), can get enough production out of their superior skill players in the ice time available to them. That they have not so far is the difference in this series – the “Core Four” (Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green) is a combined 1-2-3, minus-3 through three games. Only Alexander Semin has an even-strength point, assisting on John Carlson’s goal in Game 3.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Henrik Lundqvist

Henrik Lundqvist is 5-3, 2.11, .933, with one shutout in Games 4 of the post season in his career. But the wild card for him in this game will be the fact that he has logged the second highest minute total among goalies (the Caps’ Braden Holtby is first), and while there is the matter of the likes of defensemen Ryan McDonagh playing more than 53 minutes in Game 3 and Marc Staal playing almost 50 minutes, Lundqvist played more than one-sixth of his entire minute total in these playoffs in Game 3 (114:37 of 656:18). Lundqvist has had stinkers in the two playoff series in which he has faced the Caps – allowing four goals twice in the 2009 playoff series (both after allowing one or fewer goals in the previous game) and a five-spot after his second 4-0 loss, and allowing four goals to the Caps in Game 4 of last year’s playoffs after holding the Caps to a pair in the previous game.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom has not been a factor in any game so far in this series, save for his faceoff win in Game 2 that led directly to Alex Ovechkin’s game-winning power play goal. In his last 21 playoff games dating back to the opening round of the 2010 series against Montreal, Backstrom is 1-6-7, even. It is no coincidence that the Caps are 8-13 in those games. If the Caps are going to right things in this series, Backstrom is going to have to be heard from.


1. Special teams. The Caps are 1-for-10 on the power play. They have 16 shots on goal in 15:45 of power play ice time. But those shots have an odd feel to them. Alex Ovechkin has five of those shots, all of them in Game 2 (in which he has his power play goal). It is a power play that looks good for moments, awful at other times. This is where the Caps deeper skill set needs to assert itself.

2. Calm. That might be the most frequently used word in describing the Caps so far in the playoffs. The occasional running around aimlessly in the offensive zone and cluelessly in the defensive zone has been absent. It has been what allows them to play effectively in close games.

3. Score first. Of course, but in this game it might mean just that much more. The grinding nature of this series has made even one-goal leads look large, especially the first one. Both teams have shown an ability to come back from it, but not to overtake it. Get that lead early, and maybe the Rangers will then have to deal just the slightest bit with all that skating their top defensemen did the other night.

In the end, the Caps have done what they had to do to play “playoff hockey.” No one could say of this team that they aren’t playing the “right way” (right R.J.?). But they do need to get just that little bit more from the Core Four – a skill set the Rangers cannot match. At the start of the season, George McPhee noted how this is their team. Well, now it the time to take ownership.

Capitals 3 – Rangers 2

Some things change...

The Los Angeles Kings are doing quite well this post season -- 7-1 in eight games so far, including a 3-0 lead on the St. Louis Blues in their second round matchup.  The Kings have allowed more than two goals in a game only once in their eight contests so far.  It has folks talking about Los Angeles appearing in the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1993.  In 19 years, a lot of things change.  For example, this is what passed for a cell phone in 1993:

Of course, some things haven't changed from 1993 until now...

Sittin' at the end of the bar...

With a day off, I was just thinking…

-- This series might come down to “Sweden.” So far, their Swedes (Anton Stralman and Carl Hageline) are a combined 0-0-0, minus-1. Meanwhile, the Caps’ Swedes (Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson) are a combined 0-1-1, minus-2. So, what’s the tie breaker? Right now…

… 2-1, 1.29, .944.

-- Speaking of Johansson… no points in his last five games and is a minus-3 besides. Let’s just not forget too quickly that he is only 21 years old. But it would still be nice if he grew up a little faster in this series.

-- It will be interesting to see how Backstrom performs in Game 4, given his 40-game hiatus in the regular season. He logged more than 34 minutes on Wednesday. After the other game in which he logged 30-plus minutes in these playoffs (Game 2 against Boston: 30:03 and the game-winning goal), he had an assist in 21 minutes and change. That Game 3 was also the game in which he earned a match penalty at the end of the game and a one-game suspension. Tired Nick is cranky Nick?

-- Brooks Laich has gone seven full games, 486:55, and 13 shots on goal without putting a puck in the back of the net. It would be nice to see him get off the schneid.

-- Your goal scorers so far in this series: Jason Chimera (2), Alex Ovechkin, Mike Knuble, John Carlson. That’s it. In three games. In more than 234 minutes of hockey. The Caps have hit more posts than twine.

-- If someone told you in, say, late January that the Caps would have the fifth best goalie in goals-against average and save percentage in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and that he’d be the guy that was currently nursing a 3-3-0, 2.97, .894 mark for January in the AHL, would you have slowly backed away and called for medical assistance for that person?

-- Did you know that the top three players in hits for these playoffs are playing in this series? Ryan Callahan (50), Matt Hendricks (49), and Alex Ovechkin (45).

-- Meanwhile, the Rangers have the top two shot blockers: Dan Girardi (42) and Ryan McDonagh (33), but the Caps have three defensemen ranked 4-6: John Carlson (27), Karl Alzner (26), and Roman Hamrlik (26). Even Mike Green is in the top ten (20).

-- Avert your eyes, Caps fans… four Caps rank in the “top” six in giveaways: Roman Hamrlik (2nd), Mike Green (3rd), Alexander Semin (tied for 4th),and John Carlson (tied for 6th).

-- How much can a multi-overtime affect ice time rankings? Ten of the top 15 players in the playoffs in total ice time are playing in this series, six for the Rangers, four for the Caps. Seven of the ten are defensemen. Of course by this time, with teams having been eliminated, look at ice time per game. Only Ranger defensemen Ryan McDonagh (3rd) and Dan Girardi (5th) from this series are in the top dozen in average ice time. Karl Alzner has the most for the Caps (25:50/game; 14th).

-- Speaking of ice time, for all the pixels spent on how much Alex Ovechkin is getting, he ranks 27th among forwards in average ice time (20:45/game). Nine seconds more than Sidney Crosby had in his series against the Flyers (ok, Crosby didn’t play a three-overtime game).

-- And finally, there is this. Perhaps Caps fans should be thankful that the Caps did not win Game 3. When taking a 2-1 lead in games, the Caps are 1-3 in their last four such series (beat the Rangers last year, lost to Montreal (2010), Pittsburgh (2009), and Tampa Bay (2003)). On the other hand, the Caps have won the last two series in which they fell behind in games, 2-1. They beat Boston in the first round this season, and they beat the Rangers in the first round in 2009.