Monday, March 31, 2008

Baseball?...the best sport?...yeah, well...sez you.

For those of you with a political commentary bent, you are probably familiar with the commentary of E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post.

In this silliest of seasons in which the Republic is desperately trying to figure out who shall stand as the major parties' candidates for its highest office, E.J. takes a turn down another road in his "Precinct" discussion at the Post. He forms his thesis in a question...

To wit..."Is baseball the best sport?"
The baseball season dawns, a great thing for many of us. I disgree with my colleague George Will on many questions, but I love his baseball writing and his partisanship on behalf of the sport. "Baseball, which provides satisfying finality and then does it again the next day, is a severe meritocracy that illustrates the axiom that there is very little difference between men but that difference makes a big difference," he writes in a delightful column on the new season. (By the way, is that a conservative thought?) It's a risky question while so many are watching the Final Four -- though the four consist of four No. 1 seeds. (Is that a bad thing?) So please grapple with any of the questions offered in the course of this post, and the basic one: Is baseball the best sport?
Once upon a time, I would have answered in the affirmative. Baseball -- in its purest form -- is a remarkable combination of individual and group activity. A unique example of some of the most difficult skills to master in all of sport played at a leisurely pace that invites contemplation and reflection.

But that was then...

Today? No, it's not the best sport. The major league flavor of the sport is a bloated, corrupt, money-addled melodrama where as much news is made outside the diamond as on it, little of it good. It is played by too many individuals with too large a sense of entitlement, managed by too many individuals with too little imagination, chronicled by too many individuals with too little love for the game.

It still draws many -- millions, in fact -- to the stands, but perhaps more out of a sense of its grand history that its scandalized present.

Nope...even with the thrilling grand opening of Nationals Park last night, we'd still choose our "adopted" sport of ice hockey.

Skill? Hitting a round ball with a round bat, squarely, might yet be -- as Ted Williams professed -- the hardest single thing to do in sports. But we'd be hard to convince that the average major league baseball player is a superior athlete to the average NHL hockey player. While baseball requires superior hand-eye coordination, reflexes, speed and quickness, and occasionally strength, hockey requires these magnified. To that add "anticipation." Whether one thinks of it as "vision" or "hockey sense," the ability to think ahead quickly separates the hockey player from the baseball player.

There is the game itself. Both are played in the context of ever-changing geometries...the curve of a pitch, the ball played off the wall...a one-timer, the angling of a skater off the puck. But hockey is played at such a ferocious pace compared to that of baseball. Even in its slower moments, the pace of the action dazzles compared to the every-fifteen-seconds of action pace of baseball.

There is the aura of mystery that surrounds baseball that is more pretentious than it would admit. "Seamheads" who can spout obscure statistics as measures of a player's or team's effectiveness..."on-base plus slugging percentage"..."batting average with runners in scoring position after the sixth inning"..."quality starts"...the whole "Sabermetric" fog that separates the "real" baseball fan from the great unwashed. It has the clarity of pudding and divides its fans into the knowledgable and the not so.

Hockey is more egalitarian (although it is seems to be moving into its own "Sabermetric" dimension). Even the most casual fan can appreciate a big hit, an end-to-end rush, a cross-ice pass.

Once upon a time, baseball had personality. Dizzy, Pee Wee, Three-Finger, Big Train, The Scooter. It had players that dazzled on the field -- and off -- and did so leaving their own imprint of character (and they certainly were characters). These days? Players that aren't finding themselves as the subject of lurid tabloid stories suffer a cookie-cutter sameness...Alex Rodriguez is a sublime talent, and is (well, maybe) a pillar of the baseball community, but he has all the programmed personality of an animatronic display.

Hockey still has its odd balls. Goalies as a class could probably qualify (ok, you go stand in front of a net throwing yourself in front of 100-mile-an-hour pucks).

You, no doubt, could think of a dozen reasons why hockey is better. We'll boil it down to one. Baseball is the best sport one day a year -- Opening Day. Hockey has the Stanley Cup tournament...two months of unrelenting suspense and drama.

Case closed.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game...

Yesterday being a day without Caps hockey, The Peerless had a ticket to the Nationals’ home opener at Nationals [Corporate Name to be Selected Later] Park.

And what a nice park it is.

It does not have the instant charm of a Camden Yards with its distinctive warehouse façade looming in right field, or the scenic panoramas of PNC Park in Pittsburgh or AT&T Park in San Francisco.

But this is a ballpark that will age nicely and take its place in the roster of monuments this city has to offer.

We took Metro – the local subway provider – which was pretty much a given, given the predictions of the apocalypse with respect to close-in parking. The trip was pleasant – a train largely filled with Nats fans, even if it was several hours before the scheduled first pitch.

Upon exiting the train at the Navy Yard station – the closest to the ball park – the process of getting out of the station (which can be a chore even on a rush hour weekday) went as smoothly as one could hope, although the same might not be said of those in the escalator next to the one that I was riding, which was shut down in mid-transit, requiring a decent walk up the stairs.

The exit at Half Street (honest, there is a “Half Street”) was rather packed. For a moment, I thought of the “hot gates” of the movie, “300,” where hordes were funneled into a tight aperture of a path. But things went relatively smoothly, even when we arrived at the center field gate, where security was in force in anticipation of the arrival of the President for the inaugural “first pitch.”

The visual impression of the ball park was certainly not unusual for anyone who has been to Camden Yards, especially as one enters from the north end of Eutaw Street at that ball park. A pavilion empties into the lower seating bowl and playing field that are both below street level. It creates a sense of openness that one could never achieve in the multi-tiered donut of RFK Stadium. If anything, it reminded us a little bit of the Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, although Nationals Park is even more open in its concourses.

The concourses are wide, if oddly angled in places. The concession stands are numerous, although some could use additional space (the lines at Ben’s Chili Bowl and Five Guys were extraordinarily long, for example, even hours before the first pitch). For the record, we sampled the chili dog at the Hard Times Café. We’ll give it “three stars” (the bun didn’t hold up very well to the chili).

We were in the stadium long enough before the first pitch to be able to tour the entire circuit around each level. It has something of the look of an unfinished ballpark (especially the rest rooms, for some reason…maybe it was the concrete flooring), but not so much as we might have anticipated. The concourses provide fans with the chance to keep up with the action as they are largely open to the field, another significant departure from RFK. And, the concourses provide quite a panorama of DC, as one looks out from the stadium, from just about any vantage in the ball park. It isn’t a bad place to just take a stroll and look across the city, especially from the upper level.

Entering the seating area (our seats were in the 400-level), there was that sense of openness, but also one of being rather close to the action. The upper deck seems higher than RFK (owing to the suites below), but not so much that one feels detached from the action. But the attention-grabber was the scoreboard. It is all it was represented as being, in all its high-definition grandeur. In fact, it became a bit of a distraction at times, as one might have been drawn to it and away from the action on the field. As time goes on, we suspect this temptation will subside.

The seats were comfortable, as such things go, wide enough for those of us of a certain age (and gravity-challenged physique), and angled to the action on the field. The only problem was not architectural, but climatological – it was cold. Temperatures were in the 40’s, and there was a bit of a breeze up top, which made the choice of hooded sweat-shirt and gloves a wise one.

We will not belabor the details of the game, which you no doubt have already read or heard about. The President threw out the first pitch – a fitting occurrence, no matter one’s opinion of his tenure. The teams struggled with the offensive aspects of the game, and when things reached their climax, Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off home run was a fitting end to the inaugural game.

This being a “late” game (an 8:15 start), Metro seemed to have caught a break. Since this is, after all, Washington, the stands started emptying around the sixth inning as folks tried to beat traffic in anticipation of the work day the following day. So, by the time the game ended, just after 11:00 pm, the stadium was probably filled by what was more likely the sort of crowd that will be more common. Good thing…as fans filed out of the center field gate, they were funneled into that Half Street pass, which made the half-block walk to the Navy Yard station rather slow. Slow though it was, it moved steadily, and once at the station, it was of little problem to get through the fare gates and to the trains (would that a rush hour experience be as smooth on a regular basis). The trains were moved along – as one filled and left the station, another took its place. Generally, at least from our experience, Metro passed this test rather well.

The test of the ball park isn’t Opening Night – all ball parks look like palaces in that first blush of a first-ever game. And what glitches there were seem less “systemic” than merely a result of the “newness” of the ball park, where people have to find the game-day routines that work for them. The test will be in May…and June…and July, when that first blush wears off. But we think this ballpark will fare quite well in that regard. The Nats have hit a home run with Nationals Park.
photos: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Sunday, March 30, 2008


Chris Bourque had quite a night for himself at Giant Center in Hershey. He had four goals for the Bears in a 5-2 win over the Hamilton Bulldogs. He is the fourth player to accomplish the feat in the AHL this season.

Grant MacNeill also had a goal -- his first in the AHL.

And Hamilton?...last year's Calder Cup champ? the Bears' expense? Well, they've taken it in the teeth lately, going 0-10-2 in their last dozen games.

Long Distance Haymakers

Well, if they couldn't play much against one another, the four teams battling for the last three playoff spots in the Eastern Conference (including the Southeast title) have been throwing haymakers at one another from long distance, looking at their respective records since March 1:

Whoever gets in will have earned it.

A TWO-point night: Caps 3 - Panthers 0

End o’ the road...

And what a road trip it was. It was the first time the Caps won five games on a road trip since 2001-2002, when they won five games of an eight game trip in March 2002. You’d have to go back to February 2001 to find a road trip where the Caps earned more points (11 of 12 available points in a six-game trip).

By any standard, this trip was a wild success. The capstone to it all was a 3-0 whitewashing of the Florida Panthers tonight, eliminating the Panthers from the post season and leaving the Caps still within striking distance of several teams – Carolina, Philadelphia, Boston, and the New York Rangers. The Caps are still mathematically capable of climbing as high as fourth, New Jersey currently occupying that spot five points ahead of Washington.

Tonight’s game might be characterized by the word, “workmanlike.” A team having spent five games away from home, even if the “road trip” was broken into two pieces, might be excused for being a bit leg- and jet-weary in the sixth and last game of that journey. Add to that an ice surface that had the look of pea gravel for the way the puck was rolling and jumping around, and it made for a difficult circumstance for the visitors.

It looked as if all these things might conspire to leave the Caps short tonight, and it looked a bit disconcerting when the teams skated off at the first intermission in a scoreless tie. It was more frustrating in that the Caps had three power plays, although one was shortened by a penalty of their own, and another shortened by the end of the period. Still, despite adequate man-advantage situations and outshooting the Panthers, 10-6, the Caps couldn’t find the back of the net.

Frankly, we thought it a case of too much one-on-one, individualistic activity. There was little in the way of crisp passing attempted, let alone completed. Too often, a Cap was caught trying to weave around a Panther defense that seemed to want to clog the middle with five defenders.

As sluggishly as the Caps played in the first, it almost got worse in the first minute of the second period. While shorthanded, Josef Stumpel picked up a loose puck near the Panther bench and skated in alone on Caps goalie Cristobal Huet. Stumpel angled in and tried to beat Huet over his glove, but Huet was up to the task, getting enough leather on the puck to turn it aside. The play might have had a different ending had Rostislav Olesz not more or less given up on the play, choosing to trail Stumpel into the zone rather than jump into the play to make it a two-on-none.

The save appeared to wake the Caps up. Two minutes later, Viktor Kozlov circled out of the right wing corner with the puck. He chipped it to Brooks Laich, but the puck was knocked back to Kozlov, who turned and rifled the puck past Panther goalie Tomas Vokoun to give the Caps the lead.

Now it was Florida’s turn to look lethargic. With just under ten minutes left in the second, Alex Ovechkin had the puck behind the net. With all eyes – including the five Florida defenders, it seemed – fixed on him, Ovechkin found Nicklas Backstrom steaming unimpeded down the slot. Backstrom’s drive was blocked on a fabulous save by Vokoun, but it only delayed the inevitable.

As the clock was winding under five minutes to go in the second, Ovechkin won a battle for the puck with Nathan Horton in the corner. Ovechkin skated out along the boards, leaving the puck for Kozlov, who returned the puck to Ovechkin skating toward the goal line. Ovechkin snapped a pass across the crease to a left-alone Mike Green, who wasted no time depositing the puck behind a helpless Vokoun for a 2-0 lead.

Ovechkin closed the scoring in the third, taking advantage of what looked like a spent Panther team. When Kozlov carried the puck to the Panther net, only to be turned aside by Vokoun at the doorstep, three Panthers failed to locate the puck at their feet. Ovechkin peeled it away and wristed the puck past Vokoun before any of the Panther defenders could react.

The selection of the stars of the game was a curious thing – the goal scorers being picked – although the curiosity was more in the order than of the players selected. We’d have had Kozlov as the number one star and Ovechkin as the third star. We would have reserved a spot for Cristobal Huet, who made the pivotal play of the game – the stop on Stumpel, after which everything else unfolded.

If you’re looking for one of the great oddities of the game, it is in who was on the ice for the Panthers for each Capitals goal...

Skrastins, Weiss, Booth, Horton, Johansson
Skrastins, Weiss, Booth, Horton, Bouwmeester
Skrastins, Weiss, Booth, Horton, Bouwmeester

...stopping the Caps’ top line might have been in the game plan for these guys, but that isn’t the way it turned out. The top line went 2-3-5, +7. They had 14 of the 33 shots, and when Mike Green’s five shots are added, there were almost two thirds of the shots accounted for.

There were a few other bouquets to pass around in this one...

Eric Fehr might not have shown up on the score sheet, but it was not for lack of effort. In a little less than nine minutes, he managed three shots (one of which required a fine stop by Vokoun to keep out ofthe net) and three hits. He was battling all night behind the Florida net.

Donald Brashear had three hits in eight minutes and looked as if he was engaging in a non-stop yap-fest with a couple of the Panthers.

Tom Poti had a couple of assists, a couple of hits in 22-plus minutes.

Jeff Schultz had a “Jeff Schultz” kind of game...unnoticeable, and that’s a good thing. Two hits, a blocked shot, plus-two, and no goals scored on his watch.

At this point, given the timing of the last three games, one would have to conclude that Huet will get the last three starts. 8-2-0, less than 2.00 GAA, save percentage over .930. It would be hard to give him a seat at this point.

For the Panthers, who is it skating in that #12 jersey? It might look like Olli Jokinen, but it doesn’t look like Olli Jokinen. Perhaps the announcers had a point when they said Jokinen hasn’t been the same since his skate sliced open Richard Zednik’s neck. He’s 4-8-12, -11, in 20 games since that night (including tonight)...not Jokinenesque.

Nathan Horton – the second leading goal scorer and overall scorer for the Panthers – had no shots on goal...none.

Kamil Kreps, heretofore a “Cap killer” this year – also had no shots on goal...none.

There weren’t a lot of hockey cognoscenti who would have thought the Caps would still be in the playoff race as they anticipate playing their 80th game on Tuesday. But here they are, two points out of a playoff spot. They still need help. Someone has to beat the Flyers at least once; twice would be better. Same for the Bruins. The Caps have to beat Carolina and get help to win the Southeast. But the Caps have done their part. If they do it, they will not have backed in, not with the last month-plus they’ve had – 12-4-0 in their last 16 games. They’ve put themselves in a position to make some noise if they should get into the playoffs, but the getting there will make for one helluva week on the way. With all apologies to the Nationals and their new ball park opening this week (we’ll be there tomorrow night), the Caps making a stand at home is the big story this coming week.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

He's a-leavin' on a jet plane...well, maybe

The New York Daily News reports that Jaromir Jagr might be of a mind to scratch his itch to play in a city in which he "has been unabashed in his affection for..."

No, Caps fans, not, Pens fans, not Pittsburgh.


That's right, Omsk...the one in Siberia.

John Delapina reports for the Daily News...

Next week, Jagr will get the chance to lay the groundwork for just such a return - or, at least, continue a dialogue that never has been interrupted - when he meets with Anatoly Bardin, the new general manager for Avangard-Omsk of the Russian Super League.

Bardin is flying to New York this weekend. And according to his team's Web site, "The main objective of the visit are the negotiations with the Czech forward Jaromir Jagr of the Rangers about his possible return to the 'Vanguard.'"

We're guessing that option thing is dead.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Panthers, March 29th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, here we are, at the end of the road…the last of the six game trip, the last road game of the regular season.

And tonight, it’s the Florida Panthers to close the road show. And to get a take on this one, we looked up one of the world’s great investigators…Inspector Jacques Clouseau. Inspector?...Inspector!

“Ehm sorree…Eh was on ze pheun…”

Ze pheun?

“Yes…ze pheun…ze pheun…I was taking a call on ze pheun...I am ze famous Inspector Clouseau, et yerr service.”

Also known as zee Ping...uh, the Pink Panther.

“I hate zat nemm...and who are yeu?”

The Peerless Prognosticator…

“We zeem to have too much pee here…”


“yes, pee…Pink Panther Peerless Prognosticateur.”

Oh, ok, I get it…now, about the Panthers, what can you tell us Inspector?

“Ah…more pee…well, zey are a ‘ockey team…”

I KNOW that…that’s what we do here…hockey.

"I zee...and what deu yeu deu?"

What do I do?

“Yes, yeu deu…”

Well, I have this blog, you see.

“Block?...are yeu aware zat a block is a deadly weapon in ze hands of an eggzpert?”

Not ‘block’…blog…web log…an online site to write about…oh, never mind…now, about the Panthers...

“A large cat, nehtive to ze Florida area…”

No, the hockey team…

“Zey train panthers to play ‘ockey?”

No, you twit! The panthers are the mascot for the Florida hockey team.

“Do zey know it is not legal to keep panthers?”

They don’t have actual panthers, it’s the name of the hockey team…

“Zhouldn’t zey have a hockey name, like ze ‘bucks?’”


“bucks…ze little rubbehr bucks…”

The Florida Pucks?...we’re getting nowhere here…

“Zo, zen…where are we going?”

We’re going to get to the contest…and what the Caps have a chance to do here is not only climb to within a tie breaker of Boston, should Boston lose in regulation to Ottawa (Boston would still be in eighth by virtue of having played fewer games), the Caps can put the Panthers out of their misery with a win in regulation.

This will not, however, be an easy task. Florida brings two pieces of history into this game that suggest a difficult night. First, despite having lost their last two, the Panthers are 8-2-1 in their last 11 games. Here’s the breakdown:

Record: 8-2-1
Goals for/against: 28/18
Power play: 8/43 (18.6%)
Penalty killing: 39/43 (90.7%)

Over the last 11 games, the Panthers have done it with defense, which harbors its own problems, but we’ll get to that. 18 goals in 11 games (1.64/game) is remarkable, especially in that it represents more than one goal per game less than the Panthers’ season figure (2.68). And while they’ve had the benefit of playing some teams that have been offensively challenged from time to time (Boston, the Rangers, Atlanta, a slumping Lightning team), they’ve also managed to hold the Hurricanes and Penguins in check, too. And that brings us to goaltending and…

That would qualify as pretty solid. It’s had to be. The Florida offense – with those 28 goals (2.55) are slightly off their already only 20th ranked average for the year (2.60). There is the good and the bad to that offense. First, the good…it’s been balanced among the top scorers in the last 11 games:

Olli Jokinen: 3-6-9, -4
Nathan Horton: 5-3-8, +7
Stephen Weiss: 3-3-6, +6
David Booth: 3-4-7, +7
Brett McLean: 4-8-12, -1
Rostislav Olesz: 3-2-5, -2

That’s 21 of the Panthers’ 28 goals spread across six players. OK, the bad…no one seems to be stepping up to lead the offense to the next level. One would think that being on the brink of elimination would raise some games (Jokinen comes to mind). Whether a slump, squeezing the sticks too tightly, missing Richard Zednik (still the 7th leading scorer, having missed 24 games this year and out indefinitely with the neck injury suffered against Buffalo)…whatever. The margin of error that the offense is leaving for its defense and goaltending is too thin to sustain.

And cracks have started to show. In each of the two games the Panthers have allowed more than two goal in these last 11 games, they lost in regulation – the last two games, in fact, to Tampa Bay and Atlanta, neither of which have had much to play for lately.

But that is the last 11 games, none of which have been played against Washington. And that brings us to the second piece of history. The Panthers have been a fang in the side of the Caps all year. In fact, the key word for the season series, from the Caps’ perspective, is “frustrating.” Here is the breakdown of the series through six games:

Caps’ record: 2-3-1
Goals for/against: 14/15
Power play: 5/25 (20.0%)
Penalty killing: 22/25 (88.0%)
Record in one goal games: 1-2-1

You’ll note that one-goal game record. In fact, in the other loss – a 4-2 loss in Florida on February 15th – the Caps gave up an empty netter in the last minute for the final margin. So close…so far (kind of like the standings at the moment). Here is how that same group noted above has fared against the Caps in six games (unless otherwise noted) this year:

Olli Jokinen: 3-2-5, +1
Nathan Horton: 1-1-2, +2
Stephen Weiss: five games, 0-2-0, +1
David Booth: 2-1-3, +2
Brett McLean: two games, 0-0-0, even
Rostislav Olesz: four games, 1-0-1, -1

There isn’t a scoring line that comes screaming off the page, but it has been just good enough to frustrate the Caps often enough. In fact, if there is one player to watch, it would be Kamil Kreps. He’s 3-1-4, +3, against the Caps this year. He also has two game-winning goals against the Caps, his only two game-winners this year.

As for the goalies, Vokoun has been the goalie of record in all six games, going 4-2-0, 2.31, .930. One would expect he’ll get the nod once more this evening.

The Caps lost ground to the Flyers last night in another of those infernal three-point games, losing in a shootout to New Jersey. The Caps are now three points behind Philadelphia for seventh in the East, two points behind Boston for eighth (the Bruins holding a game in hand). Boston hosts Ottawa tonight.

So, the pressure is still on. The Caps have responded well to it…well, fairly well. Shoot, let’s just say well, because the only thing that matters, no matter how it is accomplished, is earning two points each time they take the ice. And the Caps have done that in 11 of their last 15 games. We think they’ll make it 12 of 16 to make the upcoming home stand the most meaningful in years.

Caps 3 – Panthers 1

Friday, March 28, 2008

Maybe it's coincidence...

...maybe not, but since the trading deadline, here are your Caps:

Record: 10-4-0
Goals for/against: 45-31
Power play: 15/58 (25.9%)
Penalty killing: 46/60 (76.7%)
Record in one goal-games: 4-2-0 (including extra-time games)

Sergei Fedorov: 1-7-8, -5 (58.6% on faceoffs)

Matt Cooke: 2-3-5, +1 (in 13 games, compared to 2-5-7, -11, for the guy he replaced -- Matt Pettinger -- in 56 games)

Cristobal Huet: 7-2-0, 2.03, .922 (no games with more than three goals allowed)

Has what transpired at the deadline, perhaps, if only by coincidence, kick-started others to a higher level?...

Alex Ovechkin: 13-12-25, +16 (one hat trick, two game-winning goals)

Viktor Kozlov: 3-6-9, +15 (12 of 14 games on the plus side)

Matt Bradley: 4-2-6, +3 (a game-winning goal and perhaps a higher level of pestitude)

Nicklas Backstrom: 5-11-16, +13 (two game-winners)

Brooks Laich: 7-4-11, -1 (one game-winner, nine games at least 50% on draws)

Olaf Kolzig: 3-2-0, 2.27, .912 (only seven even-strength goals allowed)

Chemistry, a balanced recipe, whatever...we're just sayin'

A TWO-point night: Caps 4 - Lightning 3 (OT)

When a team is down a goal with the clock winding down under five minutes to go in the game, its playoff hopes bleeding into bad ice, and they come back…not just to steal a point, but to win in overtime, it is tempting to say that there is a sense of destiny about that team.

We are a bit more pragmatic than that. The fact is, that team just wasn’t very good.

The Capitals – clearly the better team for long stretches of play last night – clawed their way off the St. Pete Times Forum ice with a 4-3 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning last night. It wasn’t pretty.

There was a curious lack of urgency in the Caps’ play for the first 45-50 minutes, or about the time it took for the Lightning – with nothing to play for but an opportunity to play spoiler – to take a 3-2 lead.

Tampa Bay had a rather simple game plan to deal with the Caps’ firepower, especially its top line…keep things to the outside. If the ESPN shot chart can be believed, they largely succeeded.

More to the point, they kept the top line quiet, mainly by keeping them above the faceoff dots in their shots. Here is the spread of the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Viktor Kozlov:

And what that meant is that other players, in the end – literally, as it would turn out – had to step up.

Sergei Fedorov…watching this guy is like watching an old actor conjure up solid performance after solid performance. He might not have the spellbinding talent of years gone by, but his professionalism and moxie accumulated through years of experience in these situations shines through. While shorthanded, he marked Vincent Lecavalier in the Caps zone, forcing the Lightning center to pull up, then to lose his balance in coughing up the puck. It squirted to Brooks Laich, who fed the puck back to Fedorov gliding through the neutral zone. Fedorov tried to drop the puck for Laich as they entered the Tampa Bay zone, but the puck was poked away. Fedorov collected the puck once more, and with two Lightning defenders paying more attention to him than to Laich, he threaded a pass between them to Laich closing in on the Tampa Bay net. Laich flipped the puck over goalie Karri Ramo’s right pad into the net, and the Caps had a lead, largely due to Fedorov’s virtuosity.

Fedorov also authored the game-tying goal late in the third, as he has on a number of occasions, by winning a key offensive zone faceoff. He did so by beating Tampa Bay center Craig MacDonald with a spin move off the faceoff, giving him a chance to pass the puck, more or less, to Alexander Semin at the top of the right wing circle. Semin fired the puck in one motion past a late-to-react Ramo, and the Caps were breathing again.

Crisotbal Huet…he did not have his best game as a Cap, but he made several top notch saves to keep the Caps in it. He was especially hard on Lecavalier, who had four shots in the contest – three of them of the sort requiring Huet to make sparkling stops. The Lightning center was left on a couple of occasions staring into the ice or gazing into the rafters in frustration.

Brook Laich…sure, he had the goal – his 20th of the season – and he had an assist, too, but he was also 7-for-11 in the faceoff circle and had an otherwise pretty solid game.

Matt Bradley…had a goal that was odd, to say the least, mostly because of how much time and space he was accorded in getting it. Tom Poti edged down the left wing side and let a shot go. It hit a Lightning stick and popped into the air. Bradley, standing with his back to the net at the edge of the left wing faceoff circle, reached up, caught the puck and dropped it at his feet, stepped out to collect it on his stick, spun, and fired it past Ramo. He could have used some help, though, in his post-goal celebration…he looked as if he was struggling to extract his stick from his posterior regions…ouch.

Tomas Fleischmann…well, if David Steckel is out (4-2-6, +4, in six games against Tampa Bay this year), then Fleischmann will do as a Lightning-killer. Fleischmann’s game-winner in overtime put him at 4-1-5, +1, in seven games against the Lightning this year. If the Caps should find a way to finish in the top-eight, his backing-up, falling-down, hurry-up-and-put-the-puck-on-my-stick-Brooks goal at 2:27 of the extra frame will be one of the highlights. Good thing, too…in the 60-minute portion of the game, he wasn’t making a case for being a top-six forward.

Nicklas Backstrom…he might not have had a productive night on the scoresheet, but he was spotless in the circle, winning all five draws. Part of the trick over a long season is in doing the other, little things, when the goals and assists aren’t coming. Backstrom does that as well as anyone could expect for one so young. It’s even more amazing in that Backstrom has now played more than 30 more regular season games than in any of his previous seasons.

In case you were wondering, Alex Ovechkin played every second of Caps power play time last night – all 4:05.

On the other side, it’s no fluke that the Halpern-Ouellet-Darche line has been the most productive one lately for the Lightning. They were the best the Lightning had to offer last night.

Did Martin St. Louis dress last night? It was perhaps the quietest performance by the diminutive one in his career against the Caps…one shot, -1 in 23:39.

Oh, and nothing beats watching John Tortorella blow a gasket yapping at the referees from the bench (especially when, in fact, he had a point…Mike Green didn’t bust a gut to retrieve a puck that was called icing, which led to the Caps tying goal off the ensuing faceoff). Small consolation, but we suspect the Florida Panthers might smile at the thought, too.

Dan Boyle…we noted yesterday his getting whacked in the head by a teammate’s skate in practice. We didn’t know it would be prelude. On the game winner by Fleischmann, Boyle was sliced in the neck by Mike Green’s skate. It might have been worse – much worse – had Green’s skate not first grazed Boyle’s sternum. Boyle things up in tidy fashion, with respect to his own season, but perhaps that of his team as well…"Just a miserable year. What else can happen?"

We’re pretty much down to nine teams jockeying for eight spots. Buffalo – in tenth – would have to make up five points with five games to play…not good arithmetic. The Caps are that ninth team, still two points out of a playoff spot. But the possibilities multiplied with the win last night. The Caps find themselves only two points behind three other teams. All of those teams – Carolina, Philadelphia, and Boston – have a game in hand on the Caps. But the thing is, the Caps continuing to win puts added pressure on those teams to win that game in hand, and with multiple teams in that situation, the chances that all of them will succeed diminish.

The Caps have been in “playoff elimination” mode for a couple of weeks now. As sphincter-tightening as such situations are, there is no better preparation for what lies ahead, if they could just get into the top-eight. If the Caps were a team no one might have wanted to play in the first round in the first place, they are that much tougher for having been hardened in the grind of this road trip, one on which they are now 4-1-0. There is one more to go on this swing, and while we’d like to see the Caps play better than they have in the last two games – both settled in extra time – we’re also pragmatic in another sense…

Two points is two points.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

What they're saying in...Tampa

"Players are scared of him. People don't want to hit him. If you're trying to stop someone from scoring and you're scared to bump into him because you don't want to end up on the highlights getting run over by him, it makes him pretty hard to defend.''

-- Tampa Bay forward Jeff Halpern on Alex Ovechkin

"If I wasn't wearing my helmet...''

-- Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle, after being kicked in the head by teammate Andreas Karlsson's skate during Wednesday's practice.

"I make no bones about it, I'm not crazy about the organization. I don't mind that at all. It looks good on 'em.''

-- Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella, speaking about the Florida Panthers after his club defeated them, 3-1 on Tuesday.

"We have to do more evaluation.''

-- Vincent Lecavalier on the condition of his left wrist, which could keep him out of the World Championships

"I'll play hard [Thursday], that's for sure. I might have a little extra care about what goes on in that game."

-- Halpern, on playing his former club tonight.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Lightning, March 27th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, you can count the games left on one hand. Last September seems like yesterday afternoon, and we’re almost to the end already. But there is work to be done, and the Caps will get to it tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

With five games left, two points to make up on Boston, four on Philadelphia and Carolina, we’re left with a simple question…”can they or can’t they?” Well, we could go to hockey pundits and get their wise take, but you can go read about that. Nope, we’re going right to the source…the Magic 8-ball.

Our first question…

Will Alex Ovechkin hold off Evgeni Malkin for the scoring title?

“You believe this crap?”

Why, it’s Cheerless Prognosticator, our hang-dog cousin who never saw a sunny day he didn’t think would turn into a thunderstorm.

“Yeah, yeah…what about this 8-ball stuff?”

We professional prognosticators use every tool…

“…you mean every trick.”

…every tool at our disposal.

“Hey, Cheerless, knock it off…I wanna see how this comes out.”

“Fearless, you’re as dumb as a bucket o’ rocks.”

OK, back to the prognostifying…

Will the Caps win at least four of their last five games?

“You get a deal on 8-balls, cuz?”

“Looks honest to me, Cheerless.”

You’re breaking the fog of mystery here, guys.

“That ain’t fog…that’s last night’s bratwurst.”

Okay, okay…will the Caps overtake the Bruins?

“Why don’t you ask it if the sun will rise in the east?”

“Shhh…don’t spoil it, Cheerless.”

Will the Caps overtake the Flyers?

“Can I ask it one?”

Sure, Fearless, give it a shot…

“Will David Archuleta win ‘American Idol?’”

Hey, let’s stick to hockey, ok? Who will the Caps play in the first round of the playoffs?

That’s looking far into the future…too far for our purposes, even if Penguin fans are drooling at the prospect. Tonight, it’s Tampa, and the Lightning have gone from playoff contender to lottery team faster than you can say, “Tortorella.”

On Valentine’s Day, the Lightning beat the Flyers, 5-3, to haul themselves to within two games of .500. Then, they lost their next game to the Caps, 3-2, on a late goal from Alexander Semin, which sent them spinning toward Lotteryville…

Record (since February 14th): 5-11-2
Goals for/against: 45-56
Power play: 13/62 (21.0%)
Penalty killing: 58/69 (84.1%)
Record in one-goal games: 1-4-2

Tampa hasn’t been awful, and there is a caution in this for the Caps. They have merely been consistent…consistently good enough to lose often. Except for a three game winning streak from March 11th through March 15th, Tampa has shown themselves adept at stringing losses together…an 0-4-1 streak from February 16th through February 27th…another 0-4-1 streak from March 1st through March 9th…a three game losing streak from March 19th through March 22nd.

When one thinks of the Lightning, what comes to mind immediately is goaltending, and the problems they’ve had with it. The odd thing, though, is that Tampa’s goals-per-game allowed over the last 18 games (3.11/game) is lower than their season figure (3.22/game, 29th in the league). This is not to say that their goaltending has been good, just that it is not the only problem.

Well, if we're interested in finding a problem, let’s start with even-strength scoring. Tampa has been outscored 43-31 at even strength over these last 18 games. Getting outscored by two-thirds of a goal a game at even-strength is a sure-fire way to sink in the standings. And that 31 goals scored should be a concern (1.82/game) as well. How bad is the even-strength performance? The individual performances tell the story…

Vincent Lecavalier: 8-6-14, -17 (no, we’re not kidding)
Martin St. Louis: 2-7-9, -19 (honest)
Dan Boyle: 1-12-13, -17 (no, really…)
Paul Ranger: 0-4-4, -8 (yeesh…)

And did coming in new to the Lightning at the trade deadline make a difference? …well, Jussi Jokinen is 14 games, 1-9-10, -10, in 14 games after coming over from Dallas.

We’re thinking Brad Richards (2-7-9, -2 since joining Dallas) and Vaclav Prospal (3-8-11, +5 in 14 games since joining the Flyers) were not the problems.

On the other hand, Jeff Halpern, who also came over from Dallas, is 7-8-15, +4 in 13 games, and Michel Ouellet is 9-5-14, +7 since February 16th for the Lightning. But if it's these guys leading the way, there is a problem.

As poorly as the top guys have been over the last six weeks, once has to wonder, have they simply tuned out their coach? It’s a question that seems reasonable to ask, and one that might get some attention in the off season. Tampa lacks for a balance of talent, but that's hardly a new development. They’ve been in a nose-dive in the last month with key players who are just a few years removed from a Stanley Cup and still in the prime of their respective careers.

What isn’t likely to be a product of coaching is the goaltending situation. It wasn’t all that good to start the season, and it hasn’t improved much. Johan Holmqvist lost the first three games (one in overtime) in this 18-game drought, then got shipped to Dallas. Enter Mike Smith. Since coming to Tampa from Dallas, Smith has performed well – 2.62, .900…almost Vezina-like, given what Tampa goaltending has looked like the last couple of years. But he’s been unlucky, too, managing only 3-7-0 record in ten games. Karri Ramo has the other five appearances, going 2-2-1, 2.78, .907.

Tampa Bay is a club that neither plays well with a lead (20th in winning percentage when leading after one period, 28th when leading after two), nor when trailing (28th in winning percentage when trailing after one period, 30th when trailing after two). As to the latter, the Lighting are 0-24-2 when trailing after two. The Caps are 1-25-2. If you have to catch an early flight on Friday morning, you might get a head-start on sleep just by noticing who is leading after 40 minutes.

This is a lot like the Atlanta game last Friday. The Caps are visiting a team they could, should, and must beat. But Tampa is dangerous enough with the likes of Lecavalier and St. Louis to make things difficult. And remember, it took a four-goal eruption by the Caps in the third period to overtake the Thrashers and win, 5-3.

It makes us want to ask…who will win this game?

Caps 5 – Lightning 2.

Frei-d Food...Adams Award Served Up

OK, there's a bad New York Post-like headline, but Terry Frei weighed in over at on who should be considered (as opposed to who will win) the Jack Adams Award as top coach for this season. It is an interesting look, with a case to be made for a number of coaches, including the Caps' own Bruce Boudreau, of whom Frei writes:

This is a triumph for the good guys who plug along as organization men and minor league coaches, wondering during the recycling process what the heck they have to do to get an NHL shot. Mostly a minor league journeyman player and then a minor league coach (including in the ECHL) for over a decade, Boudreau has paid more dues than a lifetime teamster at retirement.

As of this writing, the Capitals are 31-17-7 since Boudreau took over for Glen Hanlon on Nov. 22. A lot of that has to do with Alexander Ovechkin's ascension, but look around and note the talented players who aren't allowed enough freedom to be this electrifying. Boudreau has been the right man, in the right place, at the right time -- and that's a compliment. Even if the Caps fall short of making the playoffs, that doesn't diminish Boudreau's work.

There is something in there that has an unspoken quality to it, and that is the reference to Boudreau's getting a shot. Someone had to give him that shot, and that credit goes to George McPhee, who -- demeanor aside -- is quite the gambler of sorts. One might question the decision to give Glen Hanlon as much time as he was given at the start of the season, but the work he did in the two years after the lockout argued for giving him the chance to see what he could do with a more talented team than the one he had in those first two years.

However, once the decision was made to make a change behind the bench, the selection of that "organization man and minor league coach" was risky. A bad start to a season might have become a full implosion, had that decision been a poor one, with unthinkable lasting results for this franchise.

Heaven knows, Boudreau more than deserved a chance behind an NHL bench -- there was nothing more he could accomplish at the minor league level. But given the Caps having already tried a minor-league coach in the recent past -- with famously disastrous results -- picking this coach for this position didn't seem quite right (at least we didn't think so at the time).

But McPhee did, and the rest is a pleasant piece of Caps history that has yet to find it's closing line for this year.

Boudreau is worthy of Adams consideration, and given what he inherited, not to mention the lowly standing that pundits predicted for the Caps at the start of the season, he'd be a most deserving winner.

Taking one for the team...Dan Cleary

Consider the case of Red Wing forward Dan Cleary, who had three plates and over a dozen screws inserted into his jaw so that he could return to Detroit's line-up as soon as possible after having sufffered a broken jaw when he took a puck to the face in a game against Toronto on February 9th.

Cleary returned to action last night wearing a football-style helmet, picking up an assist (and a team-high five hits!) in 17 minutes of ice time as the Red Wings defeated St. Louis, 2-1.

..doff of the cap to James Mirtle for this one.

Standings that matter...

The records matter now only for what they mean in terms of the differences. It's time to think, "tie-breakers." Here is the tie-breaking formula...

1. The greater number of games won.

2. The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs. If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game shall not be included. If more than two clubs are tied, the higher percentage of available points earned in games among those clubs, and not including any "odd" games, shall be used to determine the standing.

3. The greater differential between goals for and against for the entire regular season.

Here is where the Caps stand on points and the three tie-breakers, relative to their own position:

In the event of a tie with any of the clubs in front of them, the Caps can win a tie-breaker only if they will have posted more wins, since they lose on head-to-head points-earned differential with each of those teams.

If the Caps come in on the short end of a three point game, it will have all the look of a loss. That is how fine the margin of error has become...there is none.

A TWO-point night: Caps 3 - Hurricanes 2 (OT/SO)

Excruciating, isn’t it?

Two…measly…points. That’s all that separated the Capitals and the playoffs when play began last night, and that is what still separated the Caps from the playoffs when play ended last night.

The Caps did their part to maintain the suspense in this last fortnight of the regular season with a 3-2 overtime shootout win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

As hockey games go, this would have been a decent enough contest had it been played in January. But with the added meaning such games take on now, it was a lot more. The three-point nature of the game probably means that the Hurricanes have all but clinched the Southeast Division. It would take something of a collapse by Carolina for the Caps to win the division, especially since the Hurricanes have clinched the season series (they have nine points earned to six for Washington, with one game remaining, and this is the second tie-breaker at season’s end).

Meanwhile, both Boston and Philadelphia maintained their margins over the Caps with wins. Side note…why has Daniel Briere decided now to earn his money? He has points in 11 of his last 12 games (8-6-14, +3), including a goal last night in a 2-1 overtime win against the Rangers in another three point game.

As for this one, the Hurricanes stole a point thanks to goalie Cam Ward, who stopped 42 of 44 shots, including all six in overtime when the Caps outshot the Hurricanes 6-0.

If Ward played well, his counterpart – Crisotbal Huet – deserved better…much better. Huet “allowed,” if that word can be used, two goals. Both were odd, to say the least. On the first, Joe Corvo held the puck at the top of the Caps’ zone on a power play, faking a slap shot. He moved the puck to Jeff Hamilton, who was proceeded to pass to Eric Cole for what appeared to be a one timer from the right point. The puck never got to Cole. It pinballed off of the skate of Boyd Gordon, and with Huet already moving across the crease in anticipation of the shot from Cole, the puck slid quietly into the Caps’ net.

The other goal came on the infrequent occurrence of an overturned referee’s call. Eric Cole stepped out from behind the net to Huet’s right with the puck on his backhand. Shaone Morrisonn tried to tie up Cole, and the two tumbled into Huet in the crease. Three bodies and a puck were tangled at the goal line, and the referee blew the play dead, signaling no goal.

After further review…

…and some more review…

…and some more review…

…the call was overturned and the goal awarded. You could make an argument that Huet stopped all the “shots” he faced, deflections off a teammate from 40 feet away and goal-line scrums notwithstanding. It was a superb effort on his part in a hostile arena against a team looking to make a point and stick a dagger in the Caps’ playoff hopes.

Almost lost in this was the fact that Alex Ovechkin set a franchise record for goals in a season with his 61st off a nifty feed from Nicklas Backstrom. The goal put Ovechkin into a tie for 29th in the all-time top goal-scoring season rankings (with Mike Bossy, Reggie Leach, and Phil Esposito). Just as amazing, Ovechkin racked up a whopping 27:07 in ice time (second to Mike Green’s 31:17). He also led the team in hits with four. Guess the team is going to climb on his back for a ride to (hopefully) the playoffs.

With two assists, Nicklas Backstrom regained the scoring lead among rookies, pulling one point ahead of Chicago’s Patrick Kane. And he’s closing with a rush, too. Backstrom, in his last 15 games, is 5-12-17, +14. That last number is not a misprint, and the points pace works out to an 82-game pace of 27-66-93. He’s a keeper.

Think the Hurricanes didn’t miss Rod Brind’Amour? 15-15, 8-15, 0-3, 5-7. Those were the face off wins and losses for Eric Staal, Trevor Letowski, Scott Walker, and Keith Aucoin. Overall, Carolina was 29-42 (40.8 percent) in the circle.

Four. We thought that holding the Hurricanes under five power play chances was important. The Caps held the Hurricanes to four chances, although both Carolina goals were scored, so to speak, with the man-advantage. When the Hurricanes pounded the Caps 5-0 and 6-3 in previous games in Raleigh, they were 7-for-14. They had the same success rate (50 percent), but fewer chances.

Viktor Kozlov, with the winner coming in the gimmick phase of the contest, is 3-for-7 in such situations. So is Alexander Semin. Think that doesn’t mean anything? The Caps’ top gimmick performers last year were Semin and Ovechkin, both with two goals (on 10 and 12 shots, respectively). The Caps also were 1-11. This year, 4-4.

Eric Staal had a point – an assist on the Hamilton ricochet. That’s not bad, but this was a guy who had multiple point games in six of his last nine contests coming into last night’s game. Getting him off for four minutes on two minor penalties wasn’t bad, either. OK, less than four minutes, since the Caps scored when he was off on his first minor.

Playing Twister with numbers…Alex Ovechkin had 11 shots in 27:07 of ice time. That works out to a shot every 2:28. Donald Brashear had two shots in 6:45…a shot every 3:23. That was the second most frequent shooting pace on the team last night…puck hog.

More Twister with numbers…Alex Ovechkin has taken 421 shots in 1,648 shifts, about one shot every four shifts (doesn’t sound like that much when you say it like that, Peerless). He has 61 goals in those shifts…about one in every 27. Goes to show, even as prolific as Ovechkin is, goals are special things.

Know who’s due for a breakout game?...Mike Green. He’s gone a dozen games without a goal, his longest stretch of the year. He’s not lacking for being aggressive in ending that slide…nine shot attempts last night, nine last Friday against Atlanta, four against Chicago, four against Nashville, eight against Boston…you get the idea. Sooner or later…

And speaking of the defense, the six blueliners who dressed last night deserve a hand. Two fluky goals against a team that has given the Caps so much trouble this year is a fine night by any standard.

We’re down to five games with a couple of land mines immediately ahead. The Caps are 6-5-1 against Tampa Bay and Florida, 3-3-0 in their trips to the Sunshine State. The Caps can’t do anything about Boston, Philadelphia, or the price of gas. All they can do is tend to their own business by winning. Do that, and things will take care of themselves.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Hurricanes, March 25th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, we’re here. For so long, the Caps have been hunting the Hurricanes like the great whale of yore (or Hartford). We found a fan who knows something about hunting whales, too, for some insight on the matter. Sir, your name?

"Call me Ishmael."

OK...Ishmael. The Caps have been chasing the Hurricanes for most of the last few months. I take it you have some experience of your own in chasing down the beast. Any advice?

"Aye, aye! It was that accursed white whale that razeed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!... an' what you have to say is, 'I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up.'"

And this would be a big day in that pursuit...

"It smells like the left wing of the day of judgment."

But now that we're finally here, it seems the boys have not yet reached their goal. They have to finish the job, isn't that right? After so long on the hunt, what do you say to your enemy?

"Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale...uh, Hurricane; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."

You seem to have some anger issues, there, Ish...

"Yeah, well...I used to be a Whaler fan."

Like two fighters that have been eyeing one another for months before the inevitable match, so these two teams have been circling about one another for the past two months. Since February 1st, they’ve been inching toward this, the first of two games that will settle the Southeast Division matter and go a long way to determining whether one or two Southeast teams (at least the second club being the Capitals) make the playoffs. The tale of the tape since February 1st:

Each are surprising in their own right. The Capitals have done it without their captain (Chris Clark), top center (Michael Nylander), and a top-four defenseman (Brian Pothier). The Hurricanes have done it without their captain and Mr. Everything – Rod Brind’Amour (out since February 14th), Mr. Underrated – Ray Whitney (out since February 28th), and Justin Williams (30 points in 36 games when he went out on December 20th.

But what Carolina lost through injury, they regained through some deft – in retrospect – personnel moves...

Sergei Samsonov was left for the NHL equivalent of dead. After a 29-41-70 season with Boston in 2001-2002, it seemed the slick Russian was on his way to a solid career. However, a wrist injury limited him to eight games the following year, sending his career into a free fall. After the lockout, Samsonov struggled to reach the 50-point threshold, and the one time he would do it, in 2005-2006, he would do it playing for two different teams – Boston and Edmonton. Last year he would end up in Montreal, where his performance, to be charitable, was disappointing: 9-17-26, -4 in 63 games. That nightmare over, he found himself in Chicago, where things got worse – 23 games, no goals, demoted to Rockford in what seemed more a paper transaction in the hope he would be claimed on waivers.

He was. On January 8th, Samsonov found himself in Carolina with perhaps the last chance to resurrect his career. He has taken advantage of the opportunity, going 13-16-29, +9 in 32 games.

There was the trade of forward Andrew Ladd to Chicago for Tuomo Ruutu. Ladd – a fourth overall draft pick in 2004 – was perhaps not developing as quickly as one might have expected for such a high draft pick, and Ruutu provided the sort of edge that the Hurricanes could use. He was also once a 23-goal scorer once upon a time, so there was at least the potential for some punch. Ruutu, however, had something of a history of injuries, missing 78 games over the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 seasons. This might not be a consequential trade, but Ruutu has contributed 17 minutes a night for a very successful team (Carolina is 9-2-0 since this trade).

As for consequential, there was the trade of Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore to Ottawa for Joe Corvo and Patrick Eaves. This might have been interpreted (an interpretation we’d have agreed with) as “giving up” the season. Stillman and Commodore were solid, productive veterans. Eaves was a youngster and was coming to the Hurricanes hurt (shoulder injury). Corvo was a solid, if unspectacular defenseman with some offensive potential from the blue line. Well, Eaves has returned to play in 11 games (1-5-6) where he is now getting ice time minutes in the mid-teens. Corvo, meanwhile, has points in nine of 17 games and has been on the minus side of the ledger only four times since coming to Carolina. Carolina is 14-3-1 since this trade. Please note this when you’re thinking it’s big names that make the difference in trades or free agent deals.

But losing a player of Brind’Amour’s skill and leadership, and Whitney’s steady contributions isn’t necessarily the kind of thing one can address completely via trade. Someone had to step up. Eric Staal has done that, going 8-19-27, +5 in 22 games since the beginning of February. More to the point, he is 7-18-25, +9 in 16 games since Brind’Amour went down.

In goal, the Hurricanes have put their season on the back of Cam Ward. Ward has not been spectacular as much as he has been steady – 14-5-1, 2.56, .911 since the beginning of February. Only four times in 21 appearances has Ward allowed more than three goals. The word that comes to mind in looking at Ward’s performance since February 1st is “dependable.” For a team that is averaging a little better than three goals-per-game over this stretch, that kind of performance is completely in line with Carolina’s consistent production in the last third of the season.

Thus far this year, the Caps have not been especially successful against Carolina:

Record: 2-4-0
Goals for/against: 14/19
Power play: 8/30 (26.7%)
Penalty killing: 24/31 (77.4%)

The Caps have had an especially hard time in Raleigh: 0-3-0, outscored 15-6. Twice they have lost by at least three goals, and the key there was penalties (and power play goals scored as a result). The Caps allowed a total of seven power play goals in 14 shorthanded situations in 6-3 and 5-0 losses in Raleigh. In the two wins (Both in Washington), the Caps gave up only a total of seven shorthanded situations. This is probably going to be the key once more. Carolina leads the league in total power play opportunities (379) and is the only NHL team with more than 200 power play opportunities at home (206). And the key number there seems to be, “five.” In games in which the Hurricanes are awarded more than five power plays, they are 17-7-2. In all other games, they are 24-23-3.

For the Caps, there is also key information to be mined in Ward’s statistics. He has those four games in which he’s allowed four or more goals. He lost all of them in regulation, and in three of them gave up at least two goals in the first period (twice he gave up four).

This is a game the Caps have been pointing to for weeks. There is the possibility that after so long anticipating such a match, an egg will be laid. Well, eggs go nicely with pork products, and there is that mascot for the Hurricanes. Rather than laying an egg, we're seeing "pulled pork"...

Caps 5 - Hurricanes 3

Winning and the dominating scorer

Alex Ovechkin scoring 60 goals is quite an accomplishment, not achieved since the 1995-1996 season.

Now that the first blush of that mark has worn off just a bit, it might be worth noting that in 1995-1996, when Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr both eclipsed the 60-goal mark, the Penguins earned 102 points and won the Northeast Division. However, it was Colorado playing Florida in the Stanley Cup final, the Avalanche defeating the Panthers for the title.

What has been the experience of the dominating scorer? More to the point, have Cup winners been characterized by the presence of such a scorer in their midst?

Here, we look back across the years -- from 1970-71 to the present -- to look at two things. First, did the Cup winner have a dominating scorer in terms of his edge in goals over the second leading scorer? Second, was the leader dominating in terms of his share of goals scored?

Getting to this level of team achievement would appear to require some measure of balance, at least more than has been exhibited this year by Washington. Even looking at perhaps the purest sniper in the history of the game -- Mike Bossy -- he never exceeded 20 percent of his Islanders' team goals in a Stanley Cup-winning season.

In fact, only twice has the leading scorer on a Cup-winner had at least 20 percent of his team's goals in a season (Phil Esposito in 1972 and Joe Sakic in 2001), and barely that.

And, while there have been the occasional wide gaps between the leading and second-leading scorer (five times the leader had at least 20 more goals than the second-leading scorer), the differences have not been that great on average -- 10.7 goals between first and second.

Perhaps the current situation for the Capitals reflects the as-yet incomplete development of some players. It also might reflect injury (Alexander Semin, for example, has missed 19 games this year after posting 38 goals last year).

Whatever the reason, one would think it likely that while a uniquely dominating season such as the one Alex Ovechkin is enjoying is entertaining, it is not likely to be the stuff of which a championship is going to be built, based on a history that spans the dead-puck era of the late 1990's/early 2000's and the go-go period of the late 1970's/1980's.

This is not to say that Ovechkin is suddenly going to have to morph into a 40-goal-or-so-scorer (although seasons in the 60's might not be conducive to a championship...not unless the Caps become the Canadiens of the late 1970's). The point is that the Caps are going to have to get some more offensive production from the players they should expect big things from...Alexander Semin and Eric Fehr, to name two. When that happens, then the Caps will be contenders. They already have their Ovechkin.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

You can't fix stupid

Nope, it’s not our line, and it wasn’t uttered in reference to hockey by its author, but we thank comic Ron White for a line that certainly applies to one of hockey’s…”challenged” columnists.

We give you two quotes from Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox, the first from April 2006 in commentary about the Calder Trophy race…

"For their age – [Alex] Ovechkin is 20, [Sidney] Crosby doesn't turn 19 until August -- they are remarkably mature, in their professional demeanors and their on-ice play. Ovechkin was a force for his country at the 2006 Winter Olympics, scoring the winning goal in a highly emotional victory over Canada, and Crosby has been one of the few consistent factors for the Pens as a season of high hopes turned into another year lounging in the bottom levels of the NHL.

Indeed, although some -- including this writer -- would argue that Phaneuf or Lundqvist has been as good as, if not better than, the two young snipers, both of those players have found their freshman seasons eased somewhat by being part of winning teams."

Interesting…Ovechkin and Crosby – the emerging centerpieces of their era of hockey, top scorers, the players (regardless of veteran status) that every team had to game plan for when facing them in their respective rookie years – are no better than 3rd and 4th on one scribe’s ballot for rookie of the year (although he does damn with faint praise, calling criticism of their play "nitpicking"). And in what sense were either merely, "snipers?"

Fast forward to yesterday in a column titled, "Talented Losers Don't Make the Cut on This Ballot"…

“…it's [Nicklas] Lidstrom-[Martin] Brodeur, 1-2, or perhaps 1 and 1A on this ballot, with Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin third for the way in which he has lifted that club during Sidney Crosby's injury absences.

But what about the brilliant Alex Ovechkin?

Well, he's still got two weeks to get the young, talented Capitals into the playoffs, and if he can do that, this ballot will need revision.

Otherwise, picking an MVP off a non-playoff team just doesn't pass the smell test.”

It is worth noting that the only player contending for a major award that Cox refers to by name as ineligible on his ballot for a major award is Alex Ovechkin. He chooses Jonathan Toews for the Calder, and the last time we looked, Chicago's record wasn't as good as Washington's. There are but two colors on Cox's palette -- "excellence" and "losers." In case you need help, he's identified Ovechkin (and only Ovechkin) as having the latter shade.

What he has to say in justifying Martin Brodeur over Evgeni Nabokov for the Vezina or Evgeni Malkin over Ovechkin for the Hart is equally silly (having nothing to do with what the award citation actually says...we're not aware that who a general manager might wish for as a goaltender, for example, is of any relevance to the actual selection criterion for the Vezina)

However, at least Cox is consistent. The charms of consistency are often overrated, though, as this poster so poignantly illustrates…

Or, as Ron White so elegantly put it…”you can’t fix stupid.”

Saturday, March 22, 2008

A TWO-point, 60 goal night...Capitals 5 - Thrashers 3

It wasn’t an end-to-end rush, it wasn’t a one-timer off a cross-ice feed, it wasn’t a wrister from the top of the circle.

It was a grinder’s goal, a garbage goal, a goal that might have saved the Caps’ season.

Alexander Ovechkin reached a milestone not achieved in 12 years on a rebound of a Mike Green shot from the point, part of a furious four-goal comeback in the last 8:30 of the game in a 5-3 win over the Atlanta Thrashers.

Once upon a time, 60 goals was a fairly commonplace thing – for 14 consecutive years from 1981-1982 to 1993-1994 the NHL leader had at least that number. But since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr topped the 60 mark with 69 and 62, respectively, in 1995-1996, no one had reached the 60 goal mark. Only Pavel Bure – in 2000-2001 – got within one of that mark.

The game has changed, most notably in goal, where bigger, more athletic goaltenders, wearing lighter equipment, and employing a style – the butterfly – that eliminates the lower half the net for the most part, offer shooters little of the net at which to shoot. Add skaters more inclined to clogging shooting lanes with sticks and shin pads, and scoring goals has become harder than differential calculus…well, almost.

But there was Ovechkin, getting an ugly goal to hit the 60-mark when the Caps most needed it. It is not an overstatement to say it saved what is left of the Caps’ season. The Caps came out flat. Frankly, they played to the level of their hosts, which is to say…well, we won’t be seeing highlights of the first 15 minutes on any instructional video.

Ovechkin opened the scoring on a move he’s used more often this year, taking a pass from Nicklas Backstrom just inside the blue line, cutting across the zone to get the goalie moving. As he approached the edge of the right wing circle, he snapped a wrist shot through the pads of Atlanta goalie Kari Lehtonen, and the Caps had a lead.

Then things, as they say, “took a turn.”

Atlanta scored three consecutive goals – a passable impression of Mike Green by Tobias Enstrom as he pinched in down the middle and converted a feed from Mark Recchi, a shorthanded breakaway converted by Jim Slater, and Slater once more, while falling down, off a feed from Eric Perrin (who sprang Slater free earlier on the breakaway).

At 3-1, one had the feeling, “it was a nice run, boys…,” especially as the clock ticked under 10 minutes to play. But with the Caps furiously crashing the net, and Kari Lehtonen turning everything aside, the puck squirted out to Tom Poti at the left point. He moved the puck across to Mike Green on the right side, and Green fired. With Ovechkin leaping to avoid the puck, Lehtonen made another save, but the rebound came out to Ovechkin ten feet out. Ovechkin wasted no time snapping the puck into the net before Lehtonen could recover, and he had his 60th. The Caps had a heartbeat.

Then Nicklas Backstrom put a stamp of his own on the game. Green started from his own and skated out with the puck. With Thrashers backing up from his advance, he dropped the puck for Backstrom inside the Thrasher line. Backstrom took a couple of steps and fired from the left-wing dot, beating Lehtonen cleanly off the crossbar to tie the game. Barely half a minute later, from a faceoff in the Thrasher end, Ovechkin ended up with the puck behind the Atlanta net. He found Backstrom at the doorstep for a tap-in, and the Caps had a lead. Boyd Gordon put the Thrashers out of their misery with an empty netter with eight seconds left for the final margin.

This could have been the ugliest one of all. It is one thing to get spanked by a club honoring a hometown hall of famer and playing with a lot of energy, as was the case in the 5-0 loss to Chicago on Wednesday. It is quite another to lose to a club playing out the string and not playing particularly well in the game in question. Atlanta wasn’t making anyone forget the 1978 Canadiens with their play in the first 40 minutes, but they had a 3-1 lead.

The Caps awakened in the third, looking more like the desperate team that should have taken the ice to open the game. They put relentless pressure on Atlanta, but Kari Lehtonen then stepped up for Atlanta. Lehtonen stopped 15 shots in the space of 11:28 to open the final frame. The Caps scored, though, on their 16th shot of the period – Ovechkin’s 60th goal – to close to within one. It was on their 21st shot of the period that they finally took the lead. All in all, the Caps would outshoot the Thrashers 23-2 in that third period. Atlanta had only 18 shots for the entire game.

The ice was certainly tilted toward Lehtonen last night. The Caps launched 65 shot attempts at the Atlanta goalie (45 making their way through). Atlanta could muster only 30 (18 getting through to Caps goalie Cristobal Huet). And it was the big guys firing…Ovechkin had 16 attempts, nine shots on goal…Viktor Kozlov had 10 and 8…Mike Green 9 and 7.

The first line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Kozlov was 4-4-8, +11 with 20 of the Caps’ 45 shots on goal.

Conversely, the second line of Alexander Semin, Sergei Fedorov, and Tomas Fleischmann (which was broken up for much of the third period) was 0-0-0, -5, with only four of the 45 shots. Eric Fehr, who joined that line in the third, had four shots by himself.

Ovechkin might have had another hat trick in this game…Lehtonen made an excellent blocker save on a one-timer from Ovechkin with just under two minutes to go in the first.

Backstrom took over the rookie scoring lead with his three point night (2-1-3). He now has 64 points to 63 for Chicago’s Patrick Kane. He’s also +10 to Kane’s -8.

You know…for as little time as he’s played this year, Steve Eminger has played pretty decently. He did so again last night in a little less than 13 minutes…no Thrasher goals scored on his watch, and he chipped in a couple of shots and hits, to boot.

One has to feel a certain amount of sympathy for Kari Lehtonen. He was scrambling all over the ice to keep pucks out of the net, but the Thrashers – as defensively challenged a team as there is in the NHL this season – gave him no help. He was at the mercy of Capitals shooters in the third, a one man barricade. That is not a recipe for holding a lead. How bad was it?...the Caps wouldn't get this kind of shot spread in a practice against air...

Watching Mark Recchi tonight, one couldn’t help but think, “call it a career.” He’s been a fine player – certainly one we wished wore the Capitals’ colors at some point in his career – but the time has come. The mind is willing, but the body just isn’t keeping up.

Even Bobby Holik – who owned the Caps in the circle in Philips Arena this year – couldn’t muster better than 45 percent on draws. But he did have the line of the night...

"We've been having a hard time, pretty much the whole year, putting 60-minute games together. At least that's one thing we're consistent with; we can't play a 60-minute game."

Not that Sergei Fedorov did much better. He had a pretty rough night in his 17:30 of ice time. A shot and a hit, 47 percent on 17 draws.

Tobias Enstrom – the dark-horse rookie of the year darling of a lot of “knowledgable” hockey observers – was -3 and on the ice for each of the third period goals (Boris Valabik feels his pain). He is now -13 in his last 17 games.

As much grief as Jeff Schultz gets for not playing as big as he is, he was on the ice for almost 21 minutes, had three hits, was +1, and was not on the ice for any Thrasher goals. He’s quietly put together a pretty good season: 5-11-16, +7 (he leads all Caps defensemen in that plus-minus number) in more than 18 minutes a night.

We’re down to three “home-and-homes”…Tampa Bay, Florida, and Carolina. The Caps are one point behind Boston for eighth, two behind Philadelphia for seventh, although both have games in hand. The Caps have better records than both over their last ten games.

So, even though intra-division play is the order of the day to close the NHL season, the Caps will be tempted to keep one eye on the scoreboard over these last two weeks of the regular season. But for now, the Caps can only sit and watch, as they do not play until Tuesday, in Carolina. Both the Bruins and Flyers can put a bit more distance between themselves and the Caps in the meantime, each with one game on the schedule. And Buffalo and Florida are still lurking, one and three points behind Washington, respectively, but with games in hand.

Much as it pains us to say it, it’s starting to look a bit like the end of a NASCAR race, with five cars heading into the final lap ready to draft one another. When they reach the finish line, we’re still expecting the car with the “weagle” on the hood to get the checkered flag.