Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A TWO point night...Caps 2 - Avalanche 1

Two five game stretches, two five-game tests. The five-game stretch from December 27th through January 5th was a test of the state of the Capitals’ progress under coach Bruce Bourdreau, whether the club could compete against quality teams. All five teams in that stretch were in the top-eight in the East. The Caps passed that test, going 3-1-1.

The second five game stretch started tonight and represents a test of will – whether in this five-game home stand the Caps are now the kind of team that can impose their will on an opponent and leave visitors unfulfilled. The first game of this test was a good one for the Caps. A depleted Colorado Avalanche team came to Verizon Center on the heels of a 1-0 loss to Detroit, and the Caps played with the kind of tempo that was meant to take what was left in their legs away from the Avalanche.

The result was a 2-1 win for the home team, the score hardly indicative of the pace of the game for most of the 60 minutes.

Scoreless through two periods of up-and-down-with-no-result hockey, the Caps broke through in the third on the sticks of the unlikeliest of producers. Matt Bradley collected the puck off a faceoff in the Avalanche zone and circled wide into the left wing corner. He backhanded a pass to Brooks Laich at the inside edge of the left wing circle. Laich one timed the puck, finding the back of the net past Colorado goalie Jose Theodore’s blocker on the far side. Laich was credited with the goal, but the decision was changed to credit Donald Brashear with the marker, he being at the top of the crease in an effort to screen Theodore and deflecting the puck on its way by.

The Caps lengthened the lead with just under four minutes to go when Boyd Gordon chipped the puck out of the Caps’ end to David Steckel skating up the right wing. Quintin Laing jumped into the play, and as Steckel was closing on the Colorado net he tried to center Laing, who had a half-step on defenseman Lyle Cumiskey. The puck never made it to Laing, though, as it deflected off Cumiskey and behind Theodore, who was sliding across in anticipation of Laing’s attempt.

Colorado spoiled Caps’ goalie Olaf Kolzig’s shutout bid when Marek Svatos and Wojtek Wolski executed a slow-developing give-and-go that left Svatos in alone on Kolzig. Svatos roofed the puck over Kolzig’s glove, and one might have been excused for thinking, “you guys sure aren’t going to make things easy on yourselves, are you?”

But Kolzig, who hasn’t stolen a lot of games this year, robbed Colorado of everything but their fillings, capping a superb effort by flashing a pad out of nowhere to deny Tyler Arnason on a spin-around drive from the slot with 35 seconds left, and then denying Arnason once more with 14 seconds left when he was Arnason was allowed to walk through a seam along the right wing circle for a clear shot.

For the Caps, this was a case of the unsungs stepping into the spotlight:

- Quintin Laing hurling his body in front of successive shots when the game was in the balance in the third period.

- Boyd Gordon following Laing’s lead and sliding in front of a shot late, coming up limping, but not bad enough to keep him from pursuing the play in the Caps’ end.

- Steve Eminger playing a “keep-it-simple” game and exacting more than a pound of flesh with four big hits and – yes – a blocked shot.

- Brooks Laich continuing a string of solid games with an assist (on the goal he didn’t get), three hits, and…three blocked shots.

- Matt Bradley, who – if he didn’t get a Gordie Howe hat trick – managed a hat trick of some kind…an assist, a fight, and winning the only draw he took.

It was an odd game in this respect…if you consider the “skill” guys to be Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Michael Nylander, Nicklas Backstrom, and Viktor Kozlov, they combined for 11 shots, no goals, no assists, and -2.

And yet, the Caps won.

Why?...they paid a price to win. 13 skaters had hits (25 total, to 19 for Colorado), ten had blocked shots (18 total, to 14 for Colorado). They played the kind of game they needed to play against a team that played the night before – they put pressure on them early, bottling them up in their own zone. Then, they punished them when they did try to move the puck.

The Caps probably would have won this game more comfortably but for an excellent performance by Theodore, who denied Laich and Semin on one-on-none situations, denied Boyd Gordon on a fine chance when Gordon had a step on the Avalanche defenseman. Ovechkin rang the puck off the post twice, for good measure.

It was a low scoring game, but not a “low chances” game. There were equal measures fine goaltending and luck that some pucks didn’t find the net when the goalies were in vulnerable positions

It would be hard to find poor performances in this one for the Caps. Kozlov had another one of those nights when he looks like he’s skating around over streches without a clear purpose. And Alexander Semin just hasn’t found a comfort zone this season. Except for the chance denied by Theodore, he was uncertain in handling the puck and seemed rather disinclined to shoot the puck.

The defensemen, to a man, had solid games. Colorado played a defense that looked “rope-a-dopish,” allowing Mike Green to skate the puck into high scoring potential areas often. Jeff Schultz avoided the once-a-game brain spasm that has crept into his game lately and had just a good, solid game. Shaone Morrisonn did a splendid job playing cover for Green’s rushes. Milan Jurcina looked more like the Jurcina of last year, stopping Colorado players in their tracks. Eminger got some more minutes tonight, and he took advantage of the opportunity.

It was, even if the score doesn’t suggest it, a dominating performance by the Caps in terms of controlling tempo and territory. It was a good test to start this five-game test. The trick will be to carry this over to the game against the Flyers on Sunday, who will be another team on the back-end of a back-to-back when they visit Verizon Center.

But for now, this one should be a nice birthday present for the coach and The Big Guy. Happy birthday, Bruce and Ted.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Avalanche, January 9th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Iowa, Schmyoah…Obama, Schmobama…Hillary, Schmillary…Huckabee, Schmuckabee...there is one, and only one issue on the minds of the public…


We have a new entry in the sweepstakes…Nashville.*

The Peerless has invited the cream of the punditocracy take a break from mundane election matters to prognosticate on the important issue of where Alex will be playing next year.

George Will: "Well, the great American essayist H. L. Mencken said that, ‘it is even harder for the average ape to believe that he has descended from man,’ and to think that Ovechkin is going to play anywhere but in Washington is to lend credence to Mencken’s sentiment.”

Bill O’Reilly: "George, where do you find these quotes?”

GW: “Most of them, I just make up…it’s not like any of you people do any fact checking.”

BO’R: “Well look…as usual, you point headed types just over-think and over-complicate and over-do these kinds of things…follow the money. Ovechkin is going to end up with whatever team offers him the most money, and if you think otherwise, you’re probably a namby-pamby bleeding heart Clinton lover.”

Keith Olbermann: “You…you…you IDIOT! You and your cabal of conservative conspiracists! Always the money. You’d think all this fine young man was about was the money. He’s going to play in Canada…you conservatives won’t rest until you’ve driven him out. You’ve made this country a mess, and of course…Ovechkin is – wink wink – 'Russian.' You guys are still fighting the Cold War, and…”

George Stephanopoulos: “Keith, calm down, you’re makeup is going to melt. We all know that Ovechkin is going to consider all the offers that come his way, but being a good son, he’ll do what Mama – who is acting as his agent – thinks best. And then he’ll end up playing in Washington, unless he doesn’t.”

GW: “George, have you ever taken a position on anything?”

GS: “I take many positions, George, sometimes on the same issue. It’s called ‘having an open mind.'”

BO’R: “Typical wishy-washy liberal crap.”

KO: “Why don’t you take your size-14 feet and CRAM THEM UP YOUR TIGHT –

GS: “guys, guys…let’s be civil.”

GW: "Mencken said it best…'Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.'”

BO’R: “you get a two-for-one coupon at Borders for a Mencken collection, George?”

GS: “can we get back to the subject…”

BO’R: “shut up, ya dwarf…”

KO: “Pick on somebody your own size, Jethro…”

GW: “The writer Elliott Hubbard once said, ‘If you can't answer a man's arguments, all is not lost; you can still call him vile names.’”

[all]: “SHUT UP!!!”

We’ll let the boys continue their fun…we have a game tonight. Colorado comes into this game with virtually an identical record (22-17-3) to that which they had on this date last year (21-18-2). The difference is that while last year they came into January 9th riding a three game winning streak, they will enter tonight’s game as losers of five of their last six, including a 1-0 loss to their archrival Red Wings in Detroit last night. While the Avalanche has lost two games in this stretch to the Red Wings, they’ve also lost three to Phoenix (twice, once in overtime) and Los Angeles, both clubs behind Colorado in the standings. Here are the particulars about Colorado’s performance during this slump:

Record: 1-4-1
Goals for/against: 10-18
Power play: 0-17 (0.0 percent)
Penalty killing: 13-17 (76.5 percent)

That power play is giving the Avalanche fits. They are three for their last 44 chances (6.8 percent) since going three-for-six in a 9-5 win against St. Louis on December 9th. In fact, since that night, the Avalanche light has gone out on offense. 28 goals in their last 14 games.

Part of the drought is having lost Joe Sakic to surgery for a sports hernia (last played on November 30th) and Ryan Smyth to a fractured ankle (last played on December 31st). But there are other factors at play, too:

Paul Stastny, who started the season like a house a’fire (15-26-41, +14 in his first 33 games), is 0-3-3, -5 in his last nine games.

Milan Hejduk is without a point and a -5 in his last seven games.

Andrew Brunette is 0-2-2, -1 in his last six.

…these are the top three active scorers for the Avs this season.

Jose Theodore has manned the nets for the last two games, and while he’s had a lackluster season so far (8-9-1, 2.68, .895), he’s done his part in these two games, stopping 47 of 49 shots and splitting the two decisions. Since Theodore played last night in the 1-0 loss in Detroit, it is entirely likely that Peter Budaj will get the nod tonight. Budaj has slightly better numbers than Theodore in the goals against and save percentage departments (2.63, .901), but he does have a better win-loss record (14-8-2). As if a mirror image to Theodore’s play of late, Budaj is 0-2-1 in his last three decisions, with a 2.97 GAA and .892 save percentage.

The Caps are banged up. Colorado probably has bigger guns out in Sakic and Smyth, but the Caps make up for it in quantity. Goaltender Brent Johnson is nursing a knee injury, defensemen Tom Poti and Brian Pothier are both dealing with the dreaded “upper body injury, Alexander Semin has a dented butt, and Chris Clark has a groin injury. Michael Nylander is not healthy, either.

The Caps are 4-1-1 in their last six outings, but it will be tough to add to that in light of the medical reports. They’ve been doing it by racing up and down the ice, outscoring opponents 25-21 (the loss in regulation coming in the game where they didn’t score any goals, a 2-0 loss to Boston).

When healthy (or at least not in a slump such as that in which they now find themselves), Colorado is a club that can keep up – they are tied with the Caps and the Penguins in goals-per-game (2.79), but they’ve been better in keeping the puck out of the net (2.81 goals-against-per-game to 3.01 for the Caps). It might be another of those high-scoring contests the Caps have had lately, which means…

Caps 5 – Avalanche 4

* Thanks to Hooks Orpik at The Sweater Ted for pointing that out to us (even if it was a link to Eklund)…TST is a Penguins blog, but unlike the usual article of this specie, it’s a good one. You should check it out.