Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 60: Capitals at Panthers, February 27th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The torch has been extinguished, the athletes have returned to their homelands, and we are back to our scribbles. The Olympics are over, and…

“They were GREAT!

Well, it looks like the cousins have not yet extinguished their Olympic enthusiasm. Cheerless, you enjoyed them?

“You bet! They were more exciting than running from a revenuer trying to catch me at the ol’ still.”

Fearless, I assume you relished the competition.

“Oh, it was magnificent. The steely-eyed competitors giving and taking no quarter. The skills, the strategy, the suspense.”

“Yeah, and ever since the Olympics ended, our place has never been cleaner.”


“Oh, he’s done nothing but sweep out the place every day this week.”

Ah, the dedication and discipline of the athlete.

“Nah… I just LOVE curling!”

Well, before Cheerless takes to heaving rocks about the place, let’s get to the business at hand. The Washington Capitals return to action tonight when they visit the Florida Panthers in a Southeast Showd….

Oh wait, that’s last year. This year, the teams are merely Eastern Conference opponents, the Caps in the Metropolitan Division, the Panthers in the Atlantic. This will be the third and last meeting between the clubs this season. The Caps and Panthers have split a pair of 3-2 decisions this year, the Caps winning at home in the Gimmick on November 2nd, the Panthers winning in another freestyle competition on December 13th in Florida.

If you think the Washington Capitals’ representatives at the Sochi Olympics had disappointing experiences, consider the Florida Panthers’ representatives. Forwards Tomáš Kopecký and Aleksander Barkov were selected to Team Slovakia and Team Finland, respectively. Neither made it to the end of the tournament, and we do not mean by way of their teams' elimination. Kopecký’s Olympics were ended in Slovakia’s 3-1 loss to Slovenia in the preliminary round of men’s ice hockey. He took an elbow to the head from Sabahudin Kovačevič and sustained a concussion. He is out indefinitely. Barkov suffered a knee injury in Finland’s 6-1 win over Finland and is expected to miss 4-6 weeks.

Neither Kopecký (4-8-12 in 49 games) nor Barkov (8-16-24) are having especially noteowrthy years, although Barkov is tied for 10th among rookies in points. However, it makes for a thinning of the roster for a team already struggling. Florida entered the Olympic break with a 1-5-0 record in their last six games. The problem was not one of scoring (well, not “the” problem), but rather keeping their own net clear of pucks. The Panthers allowed 25 goals in those six games, their only win coming (not coincidentally) when they allowed but a single goal to Toronto in a 4-1 win on February 4th.

The problem in their own end has not been allowing an inordinate number of shots during this 1-5-0 run (31.3 per game), but goaltending has been something of an adventure. Tim Thomas has had most of the work over those six games, going 1-4-0, 3.88, .877 in 263 minutes of work over five appearances. He was pulled in his last start after allowing four goals on 14 shots in less than 25 minutes of a 5-1 loss to Carolina in the Panthers’ last game before the break.

And he’s the better of the two goalies. Scott Clemmensen had one start and one relief appearance, going 0-1-0, 4.41, .860. Thomas is 14-5-3, 2.46, .923 with a shutout against the Caps in 23 career appearances, However, he has not appeared against the Caps since Joel Ward scored on him in overtime in Game 7 to send the Boston Bruins home for the spring in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Scoring has not exactly been a bright spot, either. Twelve goals in six games, four of them in the Panthers’ 4-1 win over Toronto on February 4th. At least they have spread things around, like a thin layer of peanut butter on stale bread as it turns out. Sixteen different skaters have points, nine players share the 12 goals.

Only Scottie Upshall has as many as four points over the 1-5-0 run (1-3-4, all of those points coming in his last five games). In fact, this is part of a longer productive run for Upshall, at least by Panther standards. He is 4-5-9 over his last 14 games. Upshall also is one of two Panthers with both a power play goal and a shorthanded goal scored this season. He has an assist over the two games played against the Caps this season.

Brad Boyes is the other Panther with both a power play and a shorthanded goal scored this season, and he is one of three Panthers with two goals over the 1-5-0 run up to the Olympic break (Nick Byugstad and Dmitry Kulikov being the others). He has been streaky. From November 12th through November 27th, a period covering eight games, Boyes was 3-3-6. Then he went cold, going 1-0-1 over his next dozen games. He followed that up with a 3-5-8 scoring line over seven games, then went cold again without a point in his next five contests. Boyes comes into this game 3-1-4 in his last seven games, but he is without a point in his last three.  Here is how the teams compare to date, numbers-wise...

1. Florida is special in one respect. They have the worst special teams in the league. They might even be historic in their ineptitude. Going into this game the Panthers rank dead last in power play (9.0 percent) and penalty kill (77.2 percent). That special teams index of 86.2 would be, if the season ended today, the worst such number since the 2004-2005 lockout (Toronto had an 88.6 index in 2009-2010) and is the worst going back at least to the 1997-1998 season. Florida could end the season with the worst power play percentage in at least 40 years. The Tampa Bay Lightning finished the 1997-1998 season at 9.3 percent, and the Washington Capitals did the same in their inaugural season in 1974-1975.

2. To the Panthers, the eight-ball they get behind early in games is not a billiard ball, it is a boulder, at least in terms of their first period play. With 34 goals scored and 56 allowed in the first periods of games, Florida is 29th in the league with a minus-22 goal differential in the first 20 minutes (Buffalo is minus-31).

3. Again, thank heavens for Buffalo. No team has scored first less often than the Panthers (23 times in 58 games), except the Sabres (19 times in 58 games).

4. When Florida loses, and they do it often, there is rarely any mystery about it. Of their 36 total losses, regulation and extra time, 16 of them have been by three or more goals. No team has a higher percentage of losses coming by three or more goals. No, not even Buffalo.

5. The sad truth is that the Panthers are a decent possession team, to a point. In 5-on-5 close scenarios the Panthers rank 15th in the league in Fenwick-for percentage and 14th in Corsi-for percentage. But here’s the thing. Only two teams have fewer Corsi and Fenwick events in such situations than the Panthers (St. Louis and Columbus in both instances). Florida just does not spend much time staying “close,” and not in a good way.

1. As the Caps head into their last 23 games, here are their 59-game records in this playoff era:

2008: 27-26-6
2009: 37-17-5
2010: 41-12-6
2011: 30-19-10
2012: 29-25-5
2013: only 48 games played
2014: 29-23-7

It looks like what a balloon with a slow leak sounds like.

2. Only four teams have more second period goals this season than the Caps’ 68 goals. Trouble is, only four teams have allowed more second period goals than the Caps’ 62 goals.

3. Alex Ovechkin has 40 goals in 55 games. At the 55-game mark of his 65-goal season in 2007-2008 he had 46 goals at the 55-game mark. He would need to close with a rush to get close to that personal best; he had 17 goals in his last 17 games that 2007-2008 season.

3. Nicklas Backstrom has gone 15 games without a goal, his second streak of at least 12 games without a goal this season. He has a way to go (not that we hope he gets there) to hit his career longest. He went 21 games without a goal, in 2009-2010 (December 2 - January 18).

4. If Nicolas Deschamps (called up yesterday) gets a sweater, he will be the 13th player for the Caps who has spent time with the Hershey Bears this season (of what would be 32 players to dress for the Caps in all). The others are:

Casey Wellman
Michael Latta
Julien Brouillette
Tyson Strachan
Dmitry Orlov
Nate Schmidt
Patrick Wey
Connor Carrick
Steve Oleksy
Jack Hillen
Michal Neuvirth
Phillipp Grubauer
Nicolas Deschamps

5. Progress… The Caps are slowly climbing the possession charts. The now rank 18th in Corsi-for percentage in 5-on-5 close score situations and 20th in Fenwick-for percentage. In both (49.1 and 48.6, respectively) they are getting tantalizingly close to 50 percent.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Florida: Tomas Fleischmann

Former Capital Tomas Fleischmann is quietly rehabilitating his reputation as being a player who answers the bell. After enduring a number of health problems in his tenure with the Caps and with the Colorado Avalanche (lower body injury, pneumonia, blood clots, chest injury), he has appeared in 186 of 188 games as a member of the Florida Panthers. What he is not having, though, is a productive season. His five goals in 56 games is his lowest goal total in that many games or more in his career. He is without a goal in his last 22 games and has only two in his last 43 games since he scored against the Caps in a 3-2 Gimmick loss to the Caps on November 10th.

Washington: Martin Erat

Much attention is being paid to how the Olympic athletes representing the teams with high expectations – Alex Ovechkin with Team Russia, Nicklas Backstrom with Team Sweden, and John Carlson with Team USA – will come out of the gate after disappointing conclusions to their respective stays in Sochi. On the other hand, there is Martin Erat. A replacement for St. Louis’ Vladimir Sobotka, Erat did not have an especially memorable games, numbers-wise, but he did have a goal in five games (in a 4-2 win over Latvia), and he and his wife Vera welcomed a baby daughter into the family. All in all, it was not a bad Olympic break for the veteran. Of more relevance to the Caps, since logging just (:42 and 7:27 in consecutive games in early January, Erat has logged fewer than 15 minutes per game only once, back on January 17th. He is 1-6-7 in his last 12 games since those spare minute games, showing signs that the best from him this season is yet to come. One only wonders if it will be with the Caps.


1. Fast and Furious. We made note of the Florida power play, which makes the term “anemic” sound healthy. However, the Panthers are also last in the league in penalty killing and have allowed power play goals in each of the last five games in which they faced at least two shorthanded situations. Overall, they are 24-for-32 over their last nine games (75.0 percent). They can, on the other hand, do reasonably well at home. In their last eight home games they are 23-for-24, Detoit breaking their string of seven straight home games not allowing a power play goalwhen the Red Wings went 6-for-7 on the power play. The Caps need to get on them fast and be furious about pounding the net.

2. Ignore the Logo. 

“I found that it was quiet; it was kind of tough to get up for the game here. I don’t know why. I think I have an idea why.  The crowd was quiet, yeah. So I think that has a little bit to do with it, but we should’ve created our own energy because it was such a big game, and we didn’t do a good enough job doing it.”

-- Karl Alzner, speaking of playing in Sunrise, Florida, February 2012 (the Caps lost that game to the Panthers, 4-2)

If that attitude reappears, this team is not good enough to win on talent alone.

3.  Stay the Cors-i.  The Capitals have improved their possession statistics over the weeks leading up to the Olympic Break, but they are going to have to raise that bar to becoming a dominant team if they are going to make a playoff run.  That should (and “should” is an important word in this sentence) be the case against this team.

In the end…

The Caps are three points out of a playoff spot with 23 games to play.  It does not sound like much, but with three-point games being a feature of today’s NHL and teams getting chances to pick up points even when they lose, that margin is wider than it might seem.  The Caps cannot be giving any more points away to lesser teams; they need to hoard these points with the most difficult part of their 2013-2014 schedule about to begin.  There is no excuse for losing this game.

Capitals 4 – Panthers 2