Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Message I Just Knew Was Coming

Three hundred and sixty three days ago, we published this epitaph to the National Hockey League’s 2012 lockout of its players and our own participation as a season ticket holder for the Washington Capitals.  We closed that essay with this:

“…when the NHL locked out its players, it locked out its fans, too.  The difference between one and the other is that the players will be back.  And even though I suppose most fans will be back, I won’t be, not as a season ticket holder.  One might argue that I’m turning my back on the NHL, but the fact is the league turned its back on me and thousands of other fans when it decided to go down this road one more time.”

Well, it didn’t take as much as a year, just 363 days.  But the league, or at least the Caps, came back.  Earlier today, I received this e-mail message…

The team with sellouts as far as the eye can see, so it is told, has a “limited amount” of prorated full season tickets available.  Not a "waiting list"... "available."  I’m familiar enough with arithmetic to think that if there is a limited number of full season tickets "available," then not all the season tickets "available" were sold in the first place (don’t blow smoke up my drawers that its half-way through the season, and one can better estimate and calibrate how many of individual tickets or partial plan tickets or another set of full season tickets are “available”).  

Full disclosure: when we went to the site, there were 78 such tickets "available."  A small number, perhaps, but one would have thought the "waiting list" we've been led to believe was as long as F Street would have snapped those up without having to resort to an e-mail solicitation.

And look!  A blast from the past!!  Don’t buy these tickets to see an exciting brand of hockey displayed by the home team.  Come see San Jose, Boston, Los Angeles!  And, for heaven’s sake, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia!  A page ripped out of the playbook of the hapless Washington Bullets of days gone by, hawking tickets to the local folk to see other teams come to town? 

How stunningly pathetic is this?  Except for the image of an “autographed player photo from the player of your choice,” the example referred to being Nicklas Backstrom (in an all but illegible font), there is not one reference to a Capitals player – not three-time and defending Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin, not former Norris Trophy finalist Mike Green, not stalwart Capitals of years standing such as Brooks Laich or Michal Neuvirth, not newly minted U.S. Olympian John Carlson.

Come see the Sharks, the Bruins, the Kings.  Come see the Flyers and the Penguins.

"Gifts," "incentives," the "membership experience."  The word "hockey" never appears.

And lest we forget, if I was to renew my subscription with the purchase of a prorated season ticket package, I would receive “guaranteed access to same number of seats in [my] plan for the 2015 Winter Classic.”  What?  I would have thought this team – the one that has sold out more than 200 consecutive games, or so it is told – would have been able to sell its complement of Winter Classic tickets to its vast population of current season ticket holders without breaking a sweat.

Not quite a year ago, we wrote this:

“In the end, I can't even be angry, just sad.  Sad in the knowledge that in almost 29 years as a fan attending games when I could, then as a partial plan holder, and then as a season ticket holder, I was there when the Caps were the lunch-pail team working hard and busting tail, despite the playoff disappointments.  I was there when the Caps were frustrated year after year, first by the Islanders, then by the Penguins.  I was there when the Caps tried to do the right thing and trade for a superstar in Jaromir Jagr, then when they traded Jagr away to start to rebuild their team.  I was there going into and coming out of The Great Lockout of 2004-2005, when the Caps tried hard but weren't very good.  I was there when the Caps couldn't draw flies. I was there when they made themselves competitive again.  I was not alone.  A lot of season ticket holders, fierce in their loyalty, could tell a similar story here in Washington and in a lot of other cities around the league.”

I – and many like me – was pushed out by the league and its contemptible hijinks last year.  Now, it seems all is not quite well in this little corner of the league’s universe, or perhaps not quite as well as we've been informed.  All that this communication says to me is that the team has inventory to move.  Oh, I’m sure one might try to rebut that by saying this, that or the other thing about the science of ticketing and marketing, but to that I say, “yeah, that’s YOUR story.”

Tell it walkin’.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 43: Capitals at Lightning, January 9th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

After a four-day hiatus, the Washington Capitals take to the ice once more to visit the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.  The Caps’ timing could be better.  Tampa Bay, among the more surprising teams in the first half of the NHL season, comes into Thursday’s game winners of three of four games in the new year, and with an 8-2-1 record in their last 11 games.  It has been more than a month since the Lightning lost consecutive games in regulation (November 29/December 3).

Tampa Bay has yet to play on home ice in 2014, returning as they are from a four-game road trip to start the new year.  And, this home game against the Caps is merely a pit stop; the Lightning will head to the road for another three games following this contest.

In the Lightning’s recent 8-2-1 run, the changes in their fortunes have been on full display.  They averaged 3.18 goals per game while allowing an average of 1.91 goals per game.  Last year’s club could score, too (3.06 goals a game), but they could not keep other teams from matching them goal for goal (allowing 3.06 goals per game).  In this 11-game run the Lighting held opponents to two or fewer goals nine times, going 8-0-1 in those contests.

The Lightning have enjoyed the benefits of a balanced attack in their 8-2-1 run.  Eleven different players have goals, led by Valteri Filppula with seven.  Twenty-one different players have points, Filppula leading the way with 14.

For Filppula, he finally found a groove after starting his first year in Tampa in somewhat disappointing fashion.  Until his 7-7-14 scoring line over his last 11 games he was 10-10-20 through 32 games.  Not, perhaps, part of the plan when he was signed to a five-year, $25 million deal as a free agent last summer.

Another player who has found a rhythm, but over the longer arc of his career development, is defenseman Victor Hedman.  Back in 2009, Hedman was being mentioned as a possible first-overall pick in the amateur draft.  He was selected second, behind John Tavares, and for a few years his game, while respectable, did not reflect his high draft status.  Last year, however, Hedman started showing flashes of why he was so highly thought of as an amateur.  His four goals and 20 points in 44 games were career bests in terms of his 82-game scoring pace (7-30-37), and he was plus-1 for a club with defensive issues while getting predominantly defensive zone starts (41.6 percent offensive to defensive zone start ratio).  

This year, Hedman has come into his own.  He is a top-20 scorer among defensemen, his eight goals already establishing a career high and ranking sixth among the league’s defensemen.  He logs more than 22 minutes a night, second on the club to Matt Carle, and logs almost two minutes a game on the Lightning power play despite his being the youngest defenseman to have dressed for Tampa Bay this season.  He is 1-4-5 in 20 career games against the Caps.

Here is how the two teams compare over all…

1.  Tampa Bay does a very good job keeping opponents from getting on a roll early.  Only three teams have allowed fewer first period goals than the Lightning.

2.    You would think that with Steven Stamkos out since breaking his right leg in a 3-0 loss to Boston on Veterans Day, the Lightning would have suffered.  The beat goes on, though.  When the Lightning lost Stamkos and the game to Boston, their record was 12-5-0.  Since then, they are 14-8-4.

3.  One of the big reasons the Lightning have been able to withstand the absence of Stamkos has been the play of Martin St. Louis.  He has assumed a larger burden of goal scoring and has gone 12-12-24 in the 26 games since Stamkos left the lineup.

4.  Tampa Bay has become a stingy team in an important respect.  Only five teams have held opponents to a lower shooting percentage thus far than the Lightning (8.2 percent).

5.  Possession, Possession, Possession.  Last year, the Lightning ranked 27th in the league in Fenwick-for percentage in 5-on-5 close score situations, 26th in Corsi-for percentage.  This season, they jumped 20 spots in both categories to rank seventh and sixth, respectively.  Seeing as how they have already surpassed last year’s standings points total in 48 games by 16 points in only 44 games, think it makes a difference? 

1.  Washington is the only club in the Metropolitan Division with a sub-.500 record (based on standings points earned) in their last 10 games.  And, they will come into this game with a 1-3-2 record in their last six road games.

2.  Alex Ovechkin has one goal in his last six games, but underlying that is the fact that he does not have a power play goal in his last eight contests, his longest such streak of the season and longest since Adam Oates took over as head coach and retooled the power play.

3.  Joel Ward is in an odd rhythm at the moment.  A goal followed by three without one, a pattern repeated three times (including his current status).  Based on how those goals have been scored, it would suggest he would go without one tonight (but score tomorrow night).

4.  Connor Carrick was recalled to the club after spending time in Hershey.  If he gets a sweater it will be the first time he dressed for a game since Game 3 of the season.  He has yet to skate for the Caps in a game won in regulation, but for what it’s worth, when he scores a goal, the Caps do win.  He scored his first, and to date only, NHL goal in a 5-4 Gimmick win against Calgary on October 3rd.

5.  42 games into the season, and the Caps are still stuck in the mid-20’s in possession rankings – 25th in Corsi-for percentage in 5-on-5 close score situations, 25th in Fenwick-for percentage. 

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Tampa Bay: Tyler Johnson

Who?  The Martin St. Louis-sized center (5’9”, 182) has career highs in goals (11), assists (12), and points (23) for the Lightning.  He ranks fourth on the club in goals behind St. Louis, Filppula, and Stamkos. He has points in five of his last seven games, and he is tied for second on the team in game-winning goals (three).  Against the Caps he has a goal and two assists in two career games, all of those points coming in a 6-5 Caps Gimmick win back on December 10th.

Washington:  Nicklas Backstrom

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, Mr. Backstrom, is to find a way to take two lumps of clay and make them art.  Backstrom might be centering a line with Brooks Laich on his left and Troy Brouwer on his right in this game.  Playmaking for that pair could be a tall order.  While both are, in a sense, grinders who can clean up messes in front of the net, neither are renowned as finishers, the sort who could take a deftly placed saucer pass and one-time it into the net or take a no look pass and wrist it into the net before the goalie has a chance to react.  The watch word for tonight with regard to this arrangement might be “perseverance.”  Backstrom is going to have to keep grinding in his own way to get his linemates in position to do damage.


1.  Power frequency.  The soft underbelly of the Tampa Bay defense is their work killing penalties.  Their efficiency is unremarkable (81.8 percent), and they occasional struggle with frequency of use.  The Lightning have the 11th highest number of shorthanded situations faceed.  If the Caps can make the Lighting work harder – meaning more frequently – there are benefits to be realized.

2.  Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades…and hockey games.  The Lighting are 10-4-4 in one-goal games, quite a turnaround from last season when they ranked last in the league in winning percentage in such contests.  If the Caps are going to win, it might be in a rout – Tampa Bay is only 7-7 in games decided by three or more goals.

3.  A Marty Party is one thing, but no Flipping for Filppula.  The key here, in tortured fashion, is that St. Louis is something of a constant for the Lightning, particularly in the way he abuses the Caps.  If he is the only one doing it, though, the Caps can likely deal with it. But if the Lightning are getting support from odd places – Filppula, an Alex Killorn, and Ondrej Palat – this is going to be a long night.

In the end…

The Caps have had four days off to work things out after losing four straight (0-2-2) and six of their last seven games (1-3-3).  Lines have been juggled, schemes refined, minds cleared.  The reality is that the Caps have been evicted from their second place perch in the Metropolitan Division and now reside in fourth place, just four points ahead of seventh-place Columbus.  Tonight’s game begins a hard stretch in which the Caps face in road games in 13 contests and have four back-to-back sets of games.  They need are going to need to scratch and claw for points over the next three weeks, a quality we have not yet seen much of this season.  Maybe over the last four days they installed that part of their system.

Capitals 4 – Lightning 3