Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Another Eagerly-Anticipated Matchup

Last night, the long-awaited, eagerly-anticipated, first-ever matchup of last summer’s top two draft picks finally arrived.  Connor McDavid, the first overall  pick in the 2015 NHL entry draft taken by the Edmonton Oilers, faced Jack Eichel, taken second overall in that draft by the Buffalo Sabres.  One versus two, Canada versus the United States, two teams looking to their precocious rookies to be the spark that lights the fire to launch them back into the Stanley Cup conversation.  It did not disappoint.

Bot McDavid and Eichel logged more than 20 minutes of ice time, both recorded five shots on goal.  But in this game, Edmonton beat Buffalo, in part because Canada beat the United States.  It was McDavid recording both Oiler goals, the second one in overtime, in a 2-1 win, Eichel being held off the score sheet. 

It was reminiscent of another inaugural matchup between a pair of highly thought-of rookies more than ten years ago.  One born and bred in Canada, the other a native son of Mother Russia.  Sidney Crosby, taken first overall in the 2005 entry draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins, faced Alex Ovechkin, picked first overall by the Washington Capitals in the 2004 draft.  If there was one thing (and there might have been only one thing) good to come out of the 2004-2005 lockout, it was that these two players, both thought to be generational talents, would meet for the first time as rookies.

The first meeting of Ovechkin and Crosby took place on a Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, November 22, 2005.  For both teams, the struggles before the 2004-2005 lockout that had them finishing at the bottom of their respective divisions in the 2003-2004 season carried over into the first six weeks of the first season after the lockout. 

Pittsburgh lost their first nine games of the season, going 0-4-5 (it did not prevent the league from naming Crosby its “rookie-of-the-month” for October), and had won just three of their last eight games before facing the Capitals, all of them by one goal, two of them in the new gimmick of the shootout.  The Caps were hardly better.  They lost four of six games before facing the Penguins, including an 8-5 pasting at the hands of the Sabres in Buffalo five days before they headed to Pittsburgh.

The rookies, though, were living up to the hype and then some.  Crosby was 11-15-26 in 21 games before facing the Caps.  Ovechkin put an opponent through the glass on his first NHL shift, scored two goals in his NHL debut, and had a whopping 15 goals in his first 20 NHL games before leading the Caps to Pittsburgh.

The outcome of this game would resemble that between Edmonton and Buffalo that featured McDavid and Eichel, but how the teams got there was very different.  The Penguins jumped on the Caps early, scoring four goals in the game’s first 15 minutes, one of them by Crosby, who split the Capitals’ defense at the blue line and snapped a shot under the crossbar that popped the water bottle off the net. 

That opening 20 minutes could have doused the flame of intensity surrounding this game, but Pittsburgh was a young team prone to mistakes.  The Caps took advantage of the Penguins in the second period with goals 14 seconds apart by Chris Clark and Brooks Laich.  Then it was the Caps’ turn to let their youth show.  They could not get any closer after grabbing the momentum, and the Penguins got one back late in the period on a goal by Zigmund Palffy, set up by Crosby and Brooks Orpik. 

The Caps had one more push in them, though.  Matt Pettinger scored with an assist from Ovechkin early in the third period, and Brian Willsie scored a shorthanded goal less than two minutes later to get the Caps within one.  Then, with just under seven minutes left, a shot by Brian Sutherby was stopped by Pens goalie Sebastien Caron, but not cleanly.  Ben Clymer jumped into the crease and jabbed at the puck as Caron was trying to close his glove over it.  The puck, Clymer’s stick, and Caron’s glove all crossed the goal line.  The referee gave a quick “no-goal” signal before jumping in to break up a scrum that developed in front of Caron.  The play was reviewed, and the call was upheld, the Caps’ last chance to make a new game of it going by the wayside.

Pittsburgh won the contest, 5-4, but in the larger scheme of things it would not matter a lot.  Pittsburgh went on to finish last in their division again, recording no more standings points than they did in the 2003-2004 season (58).  Washington finished last in their division again as well, although they did improve by 11 points from their 2003-2004 season and finished 12 points ahead of the Penguins (70).

What mattered was that this was the first contest between two extraordinary rookies who would go on to carve out a large place in the history of the NHL in the ten years since that first meeting.  Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel have taken that first step on a journey that will see them cross paths several times, each of them hopeful that they will carve out their own significant places in NHL history alongside those of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.

Photo: Reuters/Ron Schwane

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 63: Maple Leafs at Capitals, March 2nd

The Peerless Prognosifator…uh, Progtakinator…Progfusticator heck…he ain’t here, anyway.

Hi…my name is Cheerless, and I ‘spect you folks have seen me in these parts from time to time.  Yer usually readin’ Peerless and his prognostifications, but he was up late last night celebratin’ the win over the Penguins, so y’all get me this morning.

Now, I ain’t got all Peerless’ learnin’ (even if he got most of it at “Moo U”), so this ain’t gonna be as long as his meanderin’s.  The Caps are playing the Toronto Blue Jays, or Rap Tors, or Maple Leafs, or whatever two-name mascot they have for their hockey team.  Must be a Canada thing or somethin’. 

There’s probably just one thing you have to know about the Maple Leafs.  They’re bad.  It weren’t always like that this season.  They were 16-15-7 just last January 6th after they shut out the Anaheim Ducks, 4-0.  But since then?  They’ve stunk like an outhouse in July.  Just 5-15-3 since then, and they are just 2-8-1 in their last 11 games.

The have two problems.  They can’t score, and they can’t keep the other team from scoring.  Other than that, things are pretty good.  Here is one of the truly weird facts about this team…

In their last 23 games, they scored more than two goals…six times. They scored just one goal or got shutout 10 times.  Just 43 goals in those 23 games.  I’m guessin’ the goal judge doesn’t remember where the switch is to turn on the lamp when they score a goal.

Now, as for the scorin’ against…78 goals allowed in their last 23 games.  That’s 3.39 goals against per game.  Now, that was pretty good for the 1980’s, but these days it makes swiss cheese look like a brick of velveeta.

As you probably figgered out by now, their power play wouldn’t keep the refrigerator bulb lit for two seconds.  Those same 23 games?  They’re 5-for-75.  That’s 6.66 percent, which seems right fittin’.

Too bad, too, because the penalty killers aren’t that bad – 67 for 82 (81.7 percent).  Trouble is, they just have to do it a tad too much – 3.6 shorthanded situations a game.

Now, you probably think all those Toronto fellas have names like Brendan or Clarke or some such thing, but they actually have a guy named “Nazem Kadri.”  Pretty good player, from what I hear.  Second on the team in scorin’ overall (12-22-34), and he’s got points in four of his last five games (1-5-6).  What he don’t have is a goal against the Caps, ever.  In 13 games he’s got five points, all of them assists.

Then there is this kid named “Nylander.”  Guess all you Caps fans know his dad, Michael, played for the Caps – twice in fact – but they say this kid William’s gonna be better.  Eighth overall draft pick in 2014, Maple Leaf fans have been waitin’ on seein’ this kid play the way Caps fans were waitin’ on that Kuznetsov kid, just not as long.  He played his first game on Monday against Tampa Bay.  Didn’t seem fazed by it, but hey, he’s represented Sweden in six international tournaments.  He’s been on the big stage.  Didn’t get a point against the Lightning, but he skated almost 19 minutes.  Guess the team will give him a long look-see now.

Of course, Caps fans will be seeing blue when they see Brooks Laich take the ice (see what I did there?...and Peerless thinks he’s the clever one).  He played his first game with the Leafs on Monday, and he got 12 minutes of ice time.  No points, but they’ve been hard comin’ to him this season (1-6-7 in 61 games with the Caps and the Leafs).  This’ll be the first time he ever faced the Caps, ‘cept in practice…aw heck, I can’t go on…

As for the goalies, James Reimer is gone to San Jose (he might still be celebratin’), and Garrett Sparks played on Monday, so it might be Jonathan Bernier.  If it is, it might not end well for the Leafs.  There are 47 goalies in the league that have at least 1,000 minutes of ice time.  In save percentage, Bernier ranks 46th (.898).  He’s 45th in goals against average (3.12).  He’s allowed three or more goals in seven of his last nine appearances, including one in which he allowed three goals in 20:57 (against the Flyers, 22nd in scoring offense in the league…not the 1985 Edmonton Oilers, although the 2016 Oilers lit him up for four goals the last time he saw them).

Anyway, the only way the Caps lose this game is if they admire all the press clippings (do they do clippings anymore?) from last night’s game against Pittsburgh, or they can’t get the tears out of their eyes from the tribute they’ll play for Brooks Laich in the arena.  They could win this game by a touchdown.  Well, maybe not with the extra point.

Capitals 6 – Maple Leafs 1

Washington Capitals Recap: A TWO-Point Night: Capitals 3 - Penguins 2

For the Washington Capitals, the third time was the charm on Tuesday night as they converted on their third power play opportunity of the evening to break a tie with the Pittsburgh Penguins and skate off with a 3-2 win at Verizon Center.

The game was a preview of a potential first-round playoff matchup, and it was played as closely as a postseason game. The Penguins took an early lead on a goal by Evgeni Malkin, who led a 3-on-1 break and finished it when he chipped the puck past goalie Braden Holtby from the top of the crease at the 6:14 mark of the first period.

The Penguins doubled their lead early in the second period when they smartly broke down the Caps’ defense. Sidney Crosby started the play by skating the puck into the offensive zone and curling off to his right to create an opening. Olli Maatta filled in and took a pass from Crosby as he was skating down the middle. Maatta slid the puck under Matt Niskanen’s stick to Patric Hornqvist, who freed himself behind everyone. Hornqvist had only to backhand the puck under Holtby’s right pad, and it was 2-0, Penguins, 3:45 into the second period.

Less than a minute after the Hornqvist goal, the Caps started their comeback. A shot by Nate Schmidt was muffled by Malkin at the top of the right wing faceoff circle, but Mike Richards was first to get to the loose puck. Richards turned and fired, his shot sailing through a maze of bodies and eluding goalie Matt Murray to make it 2-1 4:24 into the period.

Washington tied the game late in the second period with speed. Andre Burakovsky stormed the Penguins’ zone carrying the puck down the left wing along the boards. He left it for Justin Williams, who skated past Nick Bonino and circled around the Penguin net. Coming out the other side, Williams backhanded a shot that Murray stopped but could not control. Evgeny Kuznetsov was quick to pounce on the loose puck and chip it past Murray’s right pad to tie the game with just 3:57 left in the second period.

Mid-way through the third period, each team had been the beneficiary of two power play chances, none of them successful. Then, Malkin took a high-sticking penalty. A familiar face did them in on the ensuing power play. With the Penguins unable to clear the puck, Matt Niskanen and Nicklas Backstrom played catch with it at the top of the zone. A pass from Niskanen was returned by Backstrom, and Niskanen’s one-timer off that pass flew through a Marcus Johansson screen and Murray’s glove to give the Caps their first lead of the contest.

The Caps held the Penguins to one shot on goal in the final 6:22 of the contest after the Niskanen goal, and Washington had their 3-2 win.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps’ 46th win ties the club with the sixth-most wins in franchise history, the 1984-1985 team that finished with a 46-25-9 record.

-- This was the tenth time in 46 wins that the Caps won by a 3-2 margin and their 13th 3-2 decision of the season (10-2-1).

-- It was the 18th time this season that the Caps won when allowing the first goal, by far the most such wins in the league (Los Angeles has 14 wins when allowing the first goal). Last season the Caps had only eight wins when allowing the first goal.

-- The Caps spread their scoring around, getting goals from three different players –Matt Niskanen, Mike Richards, and Evgeny Kuznetsov – and single points from eight skaters overall.

-- If 16 of 18 skaters recorded a shot on goal, you might think it was the “defensive defensemen” who did not get a mark on that column of the score sheet.  And, you would be right.  Brooks Orpik and Mike Weber, the latter playing in his first game as a Capital, did not record a shot on goal.

-- Dmitry Orlov was sent to the box twice, once for embellishing a hook by Ian Cole, and again for a tripping call.  It was the first time he was charged with two penalties since January 10th against Ottawa.  The four minutes made it 20 penalty minutes for the season, a new career-high, eclipsing the 19 minutes he had in 54 games last season.

-- The embellishment call on Orlov was one of two such infractions called on the Caps.  Jason Chimera was given the Oscar for his role in “Kris Letang: Holding” just 1:29 before Orlov’s turn on the stage.

-- Jay Beagle is easing back into one of his roles slowly.  He took only two faceoffs against Chicago in Sunday’s loss, losing both, and he took only three faceoffs in this game, losing two of them.  He did record four shots on goal, though, to tie Andre Burakovsky for the team lead.

-- Braden Holtby faced 30 shots in this game.  It makes him 16-1-2, 1.80, .947, with two shutouts when facing 30 or more shots in a game this season.

-- The Caps never quite grabbed an advantage in the shot attempts battle, but they did slowly tilt the ice as the game wore on.  At 5-on-5, the Penguins out-attempted the Caps, 22-11, in the first period, and they held a 20-19 edge in the second period.  The Caps had the edge in the third period, 14-12, and they held the Penguins two just three attempts (two blocked, one shot on goal) in the last 6:22 after what would be Matt Niskanen’s game-winning goal.

In the end…

On a night where most of the attention seemed to gravitate to the first ever Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel matchup in Buffalo, the two veterans of the head-to-head matchup went at it.  Sidney Crosby got the point (an assist), but Alex Ovechkin got the win.  How many times over their respective careers was the outcome reversed?

We like it this way better.