Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 18: Capitals at Avalanche, November 10th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON the zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

We are high above the dark plain below us, flying somewhere near The Four Corners on our way to Denver, Colorado, where the Washington Capitals will face the Colorado Avalanche in the back half of their back-to-back western road trip.

We might already be in Denver, asleep in our beds, but we made one fatal mistake.  We left the flight arrangements to Cheerless.  It seems he knows a guy, who knows a guy, who heard of a guy who did flight charters, and he thought (if “thinking” can be considered a part of his repertoire) “why not?”

We should have known “why not” as we were getting to the airport, such as it was…

I don’t think this was the main runway at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.  The whole “why not” thing was pretty much driven home as soon as the plane was brought out to the tarmac…

The flight crew did not inspire the highest of confidence, either…

The tower seemed concerned about an approaching weather front…

…but we did manage to get airborne just as the weather was about to take a turn, giving us at least the illusion of safety…

…until they brought the in-flight meal…

We passed on that bad boy, and it’s a good thing.  Not 15 minutes later, there was a lot of moaning, and we don’t mean new members joining the Mile-High Club, if you know what we mean.  Fortunately, there was a doctor on board…

…a rather serious fellow named “Dr. Shirley,” I believe.  Things seem to have settled down, but we have a way to go in this rustbucket, so let’s get down to tonight’s game…assuming we get there.

Colorado has spent most of the season sitting atop the league standings.  Although they trail the Anaheim Ducks by three points for the most standings points, they remain tops in standings points earned per game (1.73 to 1.61 for Anaheim). 

They do not come across their ranking lightly.  Through games of Friday, the Avs were a top-five team in scoring offense (5th), scoring defense (1st), 5-on-5 play (3rd), penalty killing (3rd), margin of victory (2nd), record when scoring first (the only team with an unblemished record, 11-0-0), one of only two teams (the Rangers being the other) with perfect records when leading at the first intermission and at the second intermission, and power play goals allowed (tied for fewest with the Caps).

Colorado is one of only four teams not to have endured a loss by three or more goals this season (3-0-0); they are unbeaten in one-goal decisions (5-0-0).  Only two teams have allowed fewer 5-on-5 goals than the Avs (Minnesota and Boston).  Only Tampa Bay (5) has allowed fewer first period goals (6).  Only Minnesota (8) has allowed fewer second period goals than Colorado (10).  They have the best team save percentage (.944), the fourth best shooting percentage (11.1 percent), and the best team PDO overall (1055).  Through 15 games, at least, this is a formidable team.

Here are the overall numbers for both clubs…

1.  One thing that has contributed to Colorado’s early season run – health.  Twelve skaters have appeared in all 15 games (13 if you include the Steve Downie/Maxime Talbot duo, since one was traded for the other), 18 of them have appeared in more than 10 contests.  The Avs have only 16 man-games played by replacements.

2.  Another thing – depth.  Twenty of the 22 skaters appearing for Colorado have recorded points, and one who has not – Maxime Talbot, obtained in the trade with Philadelphia for Steve Downie – has been with the club for only four games so far.

3.  Colorado won six in a row to start the season before losing a game, then won another six games in a row before losing a game.  Here is the thing about the losses.  Those two games are the only ones this season in which the Avalanche allowed more than two goals.

4.  The Avs have achieved an almost perfect 2:1 workload ratio between their goaltenders.  Semyon Varlamov has appeared in 10 games, Jean-Sebastien Giguere in five.  Varlamov has 599:09 in ice time so far, Giguere has 299:53 (a 1.998:1 ratio, if you are keeping score).

5.  It is hard to find a soft underbelly of this team on defense.  There does not appear to be that one or two players who are frequently on the ice when the opponent scores goals.  Defenseman Andre Benoit has been on ice for 13 goals against, most on the club.  However, through Friday’s games there were 145 players on ice for more goals against (of 719 players having dressed this season).  Of the 239 defensemen having dressed, 87 of them have been on ice for more goals than Benoit.

1.  The Caps do not visit Denver often, but it is not the horror show they face in some other western cities.  They are 4-2-1 in their last seven visits to Pepsi Center dating back to 2001.

2.  The Caps’ 4-for-6 effort on the penalty kill last night was their first game allowing two or more power play goals this season.  It dropped them to second in the league in penalty killing (88.2 percent), behind Vancouver (89.1 percent).

3.  Only four teams allow more shots on goal per game than the Caps (34.3).  Only Buffalo, Toronto, and Ottawa have larger negative shot differentials per game.

4.  That penalty kill is efficient, but the Caps are showing signs of slowing effectiveness in preventing power play goals.  Why?  Only five teams have faced more shorthanded situations than the Caps.  The Caps still have the fourth fewest power play goals allowed, but there are cracks in the framework.

5.  With three third period goals last night, the Caps now have the most goals scored in the second period this season (29).  It makes up (sort of) for the fact that only four teams have fewer first period goals scored.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Colorado: Maxime Talbot

When Colorado traded Steve Downie to Philadelphia for Max Talbot on Hallowe’en, the story line was that Colorado didn’t appreciate Downie mixing it up with team captain and franchise player Gabriel Landeskog in a scrimmage and then being unapologetic for it.  On the surface it was a trade of a volatile sort (he had 32 fights and 696 penalty minutes in 285 career regular season games before the trade) for what might be perceived as a more workmanlike “grinder” sort of player in the traditional sense of the word (he had only 18 bouts and 408 penalty minutes in 515 career regular season games up to the trade).  That might be a fair description of the exchange. 

There is another, perhaps more consequential difference, though.  Talbot has played in 77 post-season games, including appearances in two Stanley Cup finals (scoring the Cup-clinching goal for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2009 finals).  He has 18 goals and 39 points, along with a plus-17 in those 77 games.  Downie has 23 playoff games on his resume and only two goals to show for it (he does have 13 assists).  The word “journeyman” might apply to Talbot in the traditional meaning of the term, one who is experienced in his craft, if not a master.  He is a solid, dependable player, one who has had a measure of success against the Caps, 8-3-11, plus-2, in 26 career games.

Washington: Braden Holtby

Braden Holtby has built an impressive early-career resume – 44-21-4, 2.43, .923, and eight shutouts.  The part of that resume that applies to Western Conference teams is not quite as impressive.  Holtby has appeared in 12 games versus the West and has a career line of 7-4-0, 2.74, .910, and two shutouts (for our purposes, we do not include his games against Winnipeg, a former divisional rival, or his appearance against Columbus this season, since they are a divisional rival, but we do include his only appearance against Detroit, who played in the West when Holtby faced them).

This will be Holtby’s first appearance against the Avalanche, assuming the rotation of Michal Neuvirth against Phoenix and Holtby against the Avs holds.  And if his history in Western Conference arenas is an indicator, Holtby will be swimming upstream against his record to date.  It is a small population of games, but in five games in Western Conference rinks Holtby is 2-3-0, 3.35, .895.


1.  First in war, first in peace, first in the first period.  In both of Colorado’s losses (both of which came at home, by the way), they allowed two goals in the first period.  

2.  Don’t lose contact.  Colorado has scored first in 11 of 15 games so far this season.  In six of their seven wins at home they scored first.  In four of those games, not only did they score first, they jumped out to multiple-goal leads.  If they score, it is important to get the next one.  If they do instead, you’ll spend the rest of the game watching them whizzing by and around you. 

3.  It’s a 200-foot rink…make ‘em play all of it.  Colorado cannot use their speed if they are fighting for pucks deep in their end.  The Caps have to do a much better job of making the Avs dig for pucks below their own goal line than they did when the teams faced one another last month in a 5-1 Avalanche win.

In the end…

Whether the Caps are a different team than the one that was strafed by the Avalanche last month will become apparent early in this game.  In 12 games since they lost at home to Colorado, Washington has allowed a first period goal only six times and a total of only eight.  If the Caps can make this more of a grinding game than their first meeting, it negates much of what advantages Colorado has.  That argues for the standard “keep it simple” sort of road game.  And so it will be…

Capitals 3 – Avalanche 2

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