Saturday, November 03, 2007

It ain't working...

The Peerless isn't much on the concept of "lines," as they are commonly known. But he does pay attention to pairs, and there is something troubling afoot with the Caps. We are led to believe -- and we agree -- that "chemistry" is an important ingredient in the recipe for success. Further, the notion since training camp has been that "chemistry" between Alex Ovechkin and Viktor Kozlov, and between Michael Nylander and Nicklas Backstrom would permit the Caps to get off quickly.

Well, that was the hope...

Alex Ovechkin has nine goals on the season. And of these, how many primary assists have gone to Kozlov?...two. You know who also has two?...Michael Nylander, and he does not play on Ovechkin's line at even strength, for the most part. Both Kozlov and Nylander have had a total of three assists on Ovechkin goals. In the last ten games, only one of these two have had the primary assist on the other's goal -- Kozlov, on Ovechkin's first goal in the 7-1 win against Toronto.

Now, as to the matter of Nylander and Backstrom...Nylander has four goals this year. On how many has Backstrom provided the primary assist?...two, but none since game 5 (we completed game 13 last night, and the Caps are 2-6 in that stretch since the last Nylander/Backstrom success). Backstrom is yet without a goal.

Loathe as we are to don a coaching cap -- it just doesn't fit -- something isn't working here. We're wondering...when Alexander Semin comes back (assuming it isn't delayed until after Thanksgiving), the grand experiment of Ovechkin-Kozlov and Nylander-Backstrom might be better set aside in favor of moving Nylander to the top line to center Ovechkin and Clark, and moving Kozlov back to the second line to center (or play on the wing) with Backstrom and Semin.

The Caps are tied for 20th in the league in scoring at 2.54 goals-per-game. If the Toronto game really was the aberration folks are coming around to think, they're averaging 2.17 goals a game. The Caps' defense is improved (they've given up more than three goals only three times in 13 games), but not so much as to make anyone think that scoring two-goals a game is going to make for a winning season.

There is a fine line between patience and stubbornness...we might be there with respect to who plays with whom.

A NO point night...again - Caps vs. Flyers, November 2nd

OK Caps fans, you can be concerned, now.

Not worried, not panicked…concerned. With the 3-2 loss to the Flyers last night, reality came a’calling. First, last year’s 4-0-0 record against the Flyers won’t be repeated. That’s not a good sign. It’s not that the Flyers are that good – frankly, they didn’t play very well last night – but they are tenacious, certainly more than what the Caps showed last night. It's another team with which the Caps must legitimately contend in that fight for a playoff spot.

Truth be told, the Caps played about 17 minutes of hockey last night. They outshot the Flyers 14-3 in the first 17 minutes, controlled the puck for long stretches, made the Flyers chase them around the rink, and had a 1-0 lead…then…pfft.

Over the last 43 minutes, the Caps were outshot 26-12, outhit, outworked, and outscored 3-1. But for the usual late goal to make a game closer than it looked (the Caps have had several of those so far this year to pile up one-goal losses), the Caps looked for all the world as if the game was more a skate-around.

Visually, the Flyers looked to get to every loose puck, win every battle along the boards, and do all the little things a club needs to do to win. From the numbers, the Caps once more had a ton of shots blocked – 25 – and it’s getting to be a worn out theme…either the Caps aren’t doing all they need to do to create shooting lanes, or they are showing poor judgment in launching shots with defenders right on top of them.

Even the faceoffs…while the scoresheet will show that the teams split 58 draws evenly, it just seemed as if the puck always ended up on a Flyer stick after a draw, especially after that first 17 minutes.

The Caps were credited with 26 shots on goal, but we’d wager that none of them was a follow up on a rebound. Despite mishandling shots all night and leaving more rubber in the crease than Goodyear stocks in its tire stores, Antero Niitymaki was allowed an oasis of calm around him to collect the loose change. No Cap was within a stick’s distance of loose pucks in close all night. Not every goal can be of the highlight reel variety. Sometimes, you have to score ugly. Right now, the Caps are just playing ugly.

But at the moment, with Chris Clark and his grit on the bench and Alexander Semin with his effective shot on the bench, where are those ugly goals coming from? Flukes don’t count (ok, they do), and Tomas Fleischmann’s goal last night had to qualify as such. Granted, Fleischmann made for himself an opportunity by getting to the net (it is permitted in the rules), but a centering feed by Michael Nylander that was deflected into the air by Nicklas Backstrom that appeared to be going wide, which was then bunted home by Fleischmann is something we gather wasn’t drawn up on any white board.

The rest of the night, the Caps were pushed to the outside and pushed around by the Flyers. That said, Brooks Laich and Brian Sutherby get full marks for having taken enough of the Flyers’ crap and doing something about it, Laich winning a close decision in his bout with Mike Richards, and Sutherby holding Ben Eager to a draw. Matt Pettinger looked more than willing to go, too, with Joffrey Lupul (did you know his name is an anagram for “puff your jell?”…we’ll let you ponder that). Those might have been the sparks that would have increased the urgency with which the Caps played, but urgency hasn’t been a part of the Caps’ repertoire for most games in the last few weeks, and they have been all "smooth, rounded corners"...there is no edge to their game. Worse, the Caps managed to take four minor penalties (including a double minor to Brian Pothier) in a span of 8:32 spanning the end of the second period and the beginning of the third. The Flyers used the product of that dubious judgment to register a power play insurance goal that they needed late, when Alex Ovechkin scored his required goal against the Flyers (that’s eight games in a row).

There isn’t any easy way to put this. The Caps should have won this game. One can speak of frustration and pucks not finding their way to the back of the net, but it wasn’t as if the Caps made life difficult for Niitymaki last night, either. There were enough rebounds and dribbling pucks lying around the crease that were there for the taking. The Caps didn’t take advantage of any of them.

There is another very disturbing trend, too. The Caps are 2-4-0 at home. And, except for a five-goal “explosion” against the goaltending-challenged Lightning, the Caps have scored nine goals in the other five games, four of them losses. If that is the pattern that is unfolding, then we can dispel any further talk of playoffs. It ain’t gonna happen.

OK…now that we’ve vented our spleen (does anyone even vent a spleen anymore?), the fact is that the situation isn’t yet of the “dire” variety. Last year in their 13th game (coincidentally, against the Flyers), the Caps won in Philadelphia, 5-3, to reach a record of 5-4-4. They did so on their way to a 15-10-7 start. After that, the season collapsed into injury, illness, and a lot of losses. The Caps have those five wins again, but this team is more skilled and has some more (if not an optimal amount, certainly) of depth. Things got worse for the boys after a good start last year. The ingredients are here to get much better for them after a sputtering start.

But guys?...start’s over. There are a lot of teams struggling so far that one would not expect it from -- the Rangers, Buffalo, New Jersey, Tampa Bay, and Atlanta...all playoff teams from a year ago, currently on the outside looking in. However, the season is now more than 15 percent completed (time flies, doesn’t it?), and the Caps are in 14th place, two points out of last in the Eastern Conference. Wake-up call is here.