Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 34: Capitals at Sabres, March 30th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Ah, Cherry blossom time in Washington.

The trees are about to bloom, the city is abuzz with tourists and sightseers, and the air is fresh and clean.

Meanwhile the Washington Capitals are in Buffalo.  Figures, doesn’t it?  But Buffalo is where the Capitals might be making what will be their last push to play meaningful hockey this spring.  This road trip – starting in Buffalo before heading to Philadelphia and Raleigh – is the last long stretch of games away from Verizon Center this season.  By the time the Caps return they could be over .500 for the first time this season (if they sweep the three games), or they could be 13 points behind Winnipeg for the Southeast Division lead (if the Caps are swept in all three and the Jets win all three of their games over the same period) and ten points behind the New York Islanders for eighth place (if the Isles sweep their three games).

But first, the Caps take wing (get it?...”wing?”…”Buffalo?”) to First Niagara Center for an evening tilt against the Sabres.  And despite their troubles – 13th place in the Eastern Conference – they are playing somewhat better of late. Since dropping a 5-3 decision to the Caps on St. Patrick’s Day, Buffalo is 3-1-1 over their last five games.  And it is not as if the Sabres played a bunch of stiffs in these last five games.  They beat Montreal twice and Toronto once, both teams that will make the playoffs.  The Sabres' trouble is that then they let up against comparative patsies this week, dropping a 2-1 decision to Tampa Bay and a 5-4 Gimmick loss to Florida.

Buffalo spread 14 goals scored over those last five games rather liberally.  Ten different players recorded goals, four of them – Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Thomas Vanek, and Steve Ott – getting two apiece.  Ennis led the Sabres in overall scoring over these games, going 2-3-5.

The most common feature of these last five games for the Sabres has been the margin of victory.  All five games were settled by one-goal margins, three of them going to extra time, and two of them to the freestyle competition.  Here is how the teams compare overall this season...

1.  Was a two goal performance by Thomas Vanek in a 2-1 win over Montreal last Saturday a signal of a reawakening of his goal-scoring production, or merely a blip on the radar of a weak second half in that regard?  Vanek scored 11 goals in his first 11 games this season, but even with that two-goal performance against Montreal has only five over his last 18 games.  It might not matter, though.  Vanek suffered an “upper body injury” in a 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay on Tuesday and is questionable for this game.

2.  For you members of the Washington chapter of the Steve Ott Fan Club… two goals, two assists, 10 penalty minutes over five games since his tour-de-force performance in agitation in Washington on March 17th.  Looks as if he should be in fine form for an encore performance tonight.  The thing is, though, he has never scored a goal against the Caps.  He is 0-1-1 in six career contests against Washington.

3.  Buffalo has only nine wins in regulation and overtime this season (only Florida has fewer in the NHL).  Defensemen have the game winning goals in four of those games (Christian Ehrhoff, Alexander Sulzer, and twice by Tyler Myers).

4.  Speaking of wins in regulation and overtime, Buffalo has only three such wins at home this season, only one since February 15th, that coming against the New York Rangers in a 3-1 win on March 12th.

5.  The Capitals’ power play should be salivating.  Buffalo might not have the worst penalty kill in the league, but they can see bottom from their 27th place ranking.  The thing is, no team has allowed more power play goals overall than the Sabres (25).

1.  The Caps have stopped the bleeding in terms of wins and losses, going 5-3-0 over their last eight games since suffering a three-game losing streak earlier this month. They have made a bit of a dent in their deficit from a playoff berth in the meantime, cutting their deficit from the Southeast Division lead from ten to seven points, and from eighth place in the conference from seven to four points over those games. 

2.  The Caps are 16th in the league in first period goals scored, 18th in goals scored in the second period.  They are tied for sixth in third period goals scored.  Maybe if that was reversed, the record would have been better.  Then again, maybe not.  Pittsburgh and Chicago – two strong teams – are first and second in first period goals scored.  Calgary and Philadelphia – two teams looking forward to the off season – are third and fourth.

3.  Washington has allowed more power play goals when playing 3-on-5 (six) than any team in the league.  The Southeast Division seems to have cornered the market on this statistic.  Three of the worst five teams in 3-on-5 goals allowed are from the division (the Caps, Winnipeg, and Tampa Bay).  But so is Pittsburgh, so there is that.  Oh yeah…and Buffalo.

4.  Only five teams have a worse winning percentage than the Caps when leading at the first intermission.  Even Florida has a better points percentage (.778) than the Caps (.667).

5.  In 14 games so far in March, the Caps have reached the 30-shot mark once.  They have held opponents under the 30-shot mark… once.  They have been outshot by an average margin of 7.8 shots per game in those 14 games.  That is a lot of pressure to put on Caps goaltenders to be sharp.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo:  Ryan Miller

Yeah, who else.  He is the face of the franchise.  A former Vezina Trophy winner.  And he is a goaltender you do not expect to be a “second page” goalie on the statistics list – 41st of 48 goalies in goals against average (2.91).  He does crawl back onto the first page of rankings in save percentage with a .911 mark (tied for 24th among 48 goalies), but even this is unexpected territory for the ten-year veteran.  Part of the problem – perhaps the problem – is that Miller has been pelted mercilessly with shots on goal.  He has faced more shots than any goalie in the league, almost 100 more shots (952) than Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec (856).  By the same token, Miller has almost 100 more saves (867) than the second place goalie (Pavelec with 775).  Miller is the guy in the bowels of the ship bailing water…and falling behind.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

Ryan Miller is going to keep his right eye peeking over at Alex Ovechkin in the left wing circle on the Capitals’ power play.  The Caps have six power play goals in their last eight games, and Ovechkin has four of those goals and assisted on a fifth.  Ovechkin has a healthy 19-12-31 scoring record in 29 career games against Buffalo, and 16 of those 31 points (nine goals, seven assists) have come on the power play.  Couple that with the Sabres’ weak penalty kill, and Ovechkin looms as a large figure in that left wing circle on the Caps’ power play in this game.


1.  More power!!!  We’ve sort of covered that, but this really is the fault line on which this game is likely to be settled.  Neither team is strong at 5-on-5, but the Caps power play has performed so much more efficiently on their power play than has Buffalo on their penalty kill that the Caps have to do damage here. 

2.  Play desperately…as a group.  The Caps are, from time to time, a team that when adversity strikes, dissolves into a squad in which each individual plays his own game trying to do to much on his own to make up the deficit.  The Caps have to play as a desperate squad, not as five desperate skaters.

3.  Simple equals success.  It is a road game.  Play it as a road game…simple, solid, strong in the corners and on the wall.  And when opportunity knocks (you would think it would knock often against a team such as Buffalo, which gives up lots of chances), by all means, let it in.

In the end, the month of March has been one of a seemingly never-ending series of “must win” games for the Caps… back-to-back games against Carolina, back-to-back games against Winnipeg, back-to-back games against teams from New York.  Well, here we are coming to the end of the month and perhaps the last “must win” games. Because if they don’t win this road trip, there are not likely to be anymore “must win” games for the Caps this season.  So…win.

Capitals 4 – Sabres 2

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