Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 5: Sabres at Capitals, January 27th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Washington Capitals return home on Sunday to try to build on their standings point earned in New Jersey on Friday night.  The Buffalo Sabres come to town in the midst of a two-game losing streak, dropping consecutive games in a back-to-back, home-and-home pair to the Carolina Hurricanes.

The next step for the Caps will be to climb out of last place in the league, which is where they still find themselves four games into the season.  Buffalo provides some interesting counterpoint in this game as the Caps try to start that climb.  It was against Buffalo that the Caps ended their six-game losing streak to start the 1993-1994 season, a win that allowed the Caps to avoid an 0-3-0 start at home.  As it is, the Caps will be looking to avoid recording their first 0-3-0 start (all regulation losses) at home since the 1978-1979 season.

The Sabres might be just the thing for the Caps.  Buffalo is 1-5-1 in their last seven visits to Washington, and as we noted, they are coming off consecutive losses to Carolina.  Not only that, but Thomas Vanek, who leads the club in scoring with three goals and nine points, is questionable with what is being called an “undetermined muscle strain.”

If Vanek is unable to go, that would leave the Sabres with two other three-goal scorers in their lineup.  Jason Pominville is 3-5-8 through four games so far and has points in each of the four games played to date. Pominville has been a particular thorn in the side of the Caps.  In his last 20 games against Washington covering five seasons he is 8-9-17, plus-3.

While Jason Pominville has a long and successful history against the Caps, the other three-goal scorer for the Sabres so far has neither.  Cody Hodgson was a tenth-overall draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2008.  He was traded to Buffalo by the Canucks at last year’s trading deadline for Zack Kassian.  In his rookie season last year, split between Vancouver and Buffalo, Hodgson was 19-22-41, plus-1.  What he has not had is much in the way of experience against the Caps.  In two career games against Washington he is 0-1-1, even.  That is not to say that the Caps, or at least some of them, have not seen Hodgson before.  He was a member of the Manitoba Moose team that lost to the Hershey Bears in the 2009 Calder Cup final, a Bears team that included John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Jay Beagle, and Michal Neuvirth from the current Caps squad.  Hodgson was 1-2-3, plus-2 in five games against the Bears in that final.

The difficulty the Sabres have had so far is that their scoring has been so top-heavy.  They have only three players with more than one goal and only four players with more than one point.  And the Sabres have another problem – poor finishes.  Through four games Buffalo has yet to allow a goal in the first period.  The flip side of that is the fact that they have allowed six second period goals and six third period goals.  Here is how the two teams fared last season, numbers-wise…

1.  Only two teams have taken more minor penalties so far than the Sabres; only four teams have found themselves shorthanded more often (before Saturday’s games).  Three Sabres are in the top 11 in minor penalties taken so far (Tyler Myers, Thomas Vanek, and Patrick Kaleta, all with four).

2.  Those three three-goal scorers for the Sabres – Thomas Vanek, Cody Hodgson, and Jason Pominville – they have accounted for 53 of the 135 shots on goal taken by the team, leaving 82 shots for the other 16 skaters that have taken the ice for the Sabres over four games.  Buffalo is not generating much in the way of balanced pressure.

3.  If you had Jason Pominville as the Sabre with the most career goals against the Caps, you would be wrong.  Ditto if you had Thomas Vanek.  Or even Drew Stafford.  The Sabre with the most career goals against the Caps is Jochen Hecht with 11 in 34 career games.  Here is the thing, though.  If Vanek cannot go in this one, that might put additional pressure on Stafford and Hecht, neither of whom have a goal yet this season.  In fact, between them they have but one point (Stafford).

4.  Buffalo’s defensemen have more penalties (ten) than points (eight).  Christian Ehrhoff is the only Sabre blueliner with more than one point, and Tyler Myers has the only goal registered by the defense so far.

5.  A missing or otherwise less-than-full strength Thomas Vanek could have repercussions on the power play for the Sabres.  He has two of the four Buffalo power play goals through four games and has assists on the other two.

1.  No team has spent more time on special teams than have the Caps so far (before Saturday’s games).  Through four games the Caps have spent 68:19 either on the power play or killing penalties, more than a full game’s worth of minutes.

2.  Washington has not yet led at an intermission this season.  They have been tied once and trailed three times at the second intermission.  There have been too many holes out of which they have had to dig.

3.  The Caps have hardly been lights-out on the power play (or perhaps they have, considering the lack of red lights going on), but Mike Ribeiro has had a hand in each of the three Caps power play goals to date with a goal and two assists.  On the other hand, he has only one goal in 25 career games played against Buffalo, his lowest goal total against any team except the Caps (one in 18 games).

4.  Washington is currently in the middle of the pack in fighting majors so far with three, but Matt Hendricks has all of them.  Only Columbus’ Jared Boll has more (four).

5.  The Caps have already dressed 22 skaters in games, and that does not include Brooks Laich, who remains injured.  They are a long way from the 35 skaters they dressed for a season twice since the 2004-2005 lockout, but there has been some roster shuffling to start the season.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo:  Ryan Miller

If Buffalo is stuck in neutral at the moment, it is not a product of the play of goaltender Ryan Miller.  Now in his tenth season in the NHL, Miller has stopped 100 of 105 shots so far this season.  His .952 save percentage ranks sixth among NHL goalies, while his 1.67 goals against average ranks sixth.  In 23 career appearances against the Caps he is 13-9-0, 2.45, .919, with three shutouts.  If anything, though, he has suffered from lack of support in his recent history against Washington.  Over the last four seasons he has a mediocre 6-7-0 win-loss record, despite a 2.24 goals against average and a .930 save percentage.

Washington:  Matt Hendricks

Washington might be suffering an effort deficit so far this season, but Matt Hendricks has not been a part of it.  He has only one point so far, but he has been using whatever tools he has to try to send a charge through his teammates.  Unfortunately, those tools have too often been his hands used in anger.  He has three fights in four games.  He also has the only instance of a Capital scoring the first goal of the game this season, recorded in a 4-2 loss to Winnipeg in the home opener.  Hendricks is pulling more than his share of the weight so far, and he hasn’t even paralyzed anyone yet.  His effort is admirable, but if his is the top end on the effort meter on this roster, the Caps have problems.  More players need to rise to his compete level. 


1.  Be quick on the draw
.  Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis, and Jochen Hecht have taken the bulk of faceoffs for the Sabres through four games.  None of them have won as many as 40 percent of their draws.  The Sabres are dead last in the league in faceoff winning percentage, barely 40 percent as a team.  The Caps need to find a way to exploit this shortcoming.

2.  Kill, kill, kill!  The Sabres went 3-for-6 on the power play in their season opener against Philadelphia, a 5-2 win.  Since then they are 1-for-13, including 0-for-9 on the road.  The Caps have not been especially bad at even strength, but the only thing their penalty killing is killing at the moment is their chances to win.  The Caps need to extend the Sabres’ man-advantage futility.

3.   Make ‘em pay.  On the other side of special teams, Buffalo is playing with a new-found edge so far this season.  Last year the Sabres tied for the 14th fewest penalty minutes in the league.  So far this season only three teams are averaging more penalty minutes per game than Buffalo.  The difference is ten minutes per game from last season to this one.  If Buffalo is to try taking liberties with the Caps, the Caps are going to have to answer, preferably on the power play.

In the end, the Caps are not yet taking advantage of home cooking, and we are getting to historical levels of futility as far as the franchise’s history is concerned.  The Caps have not gone 0-3-0 at home in more than 30 years.  They are one of only three teams in the East without a home win so far, and one of them – Pittsburgh – has played only one home game.  Getting a point on the road against a good team playing well, as was the case against New Jersey on Friday, is an acceptable outcome in most cases.  Developing a habit of losing at home with distressing regularity is not.  Early as it is, this might not be a “must” win game for the Caps.  But it is a “should” win, a “they had better” win, in fact. 

The Caps have to establish a foothold from which they can build a string of successes, and here is why.  They are three points out of a playoff spot with 45 games to play.  You might not think this is significant, but consider that last season Buffalo was four points out of a playoff spot with 45 games to play.  They finished the season three points out of a playoff spot.  In fact, based on the standings on that day on which the Sabres were four points back with 45 games to play, only two teams not already in the top eight climbed into the playoff eligible group by year end – Washington and Ottawa.  And both teams were only one point back on that day in late December 2011.  The Capitals do not have all the time in the world.

Capitals 3 – Sabres 2

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