Friday, April 11, 2008

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Flyers, Game One

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s GAME ONE, folks. The day we’ve been waiting for and, frankly, didn’t expect to see during those sad days of November, when the Caps started the month 1-8-1 and their coach was getting fired.

Tonight, the Caps host the Flyers in the conference quarterfinal opener, and in the words of some, “this will be one of the bloodiest series.” The Flyers are expected to bring their “A” game as it pertains to chippy, nasty, push-the-rules-off-the-table hockey. So, we decided we’d call in some of the legendary heavyweights to get their take…

…no, not hockey heavyweights. Real heavyweights…George Foreman, Muhammad Ali, and Mike Tyson. Gentlemen, welcome. George, first to you. What do you make of all this talk about the Flyers making this a fight-filled affair?

“Generally when there's a lot of smoke... there's just a whole lot more smoke.”

Do you think the players will police themselves, or can we expect the striped shirts to play a big role?

“The referee is going to be the most important person in the ring tonight besides the fighters…uh, players.”

What advice would you have for the Caps as they skate out tonight?

“Put your name on something – like that jersey – it better be the best... you only get one shot.”

Muhammad Ali…you are generally thought of as the most complete fighter in the history of the sport, one who could intimidate by reputation alone. If you’re one of the Caps, what sort of impression do you want to leave with your opponent?

“If you even dream of beating me you'd better wake up and apologize.”

And if any of the Flyers decide to take any liberties?

“You gotta say, ‘I'll beat him so bad he'll need a shoehorn to put his hat on.’”

Champ, about Alex Ovechkin…this is his first playoff appearance. Is there anything you remember from your first pro fight that might apply to Ovechkin as he makes his debut, anything he might be thinking?

"I'm the best. I just haven't played yet."

That’s quite a claim…

"It's not bragging if you can back it up."

Mike…at the top of your career, you were the most feared man on the planet. What sort of attitude did you bring to the ring, that the Caps might bring to the ice tonight?

“I want to break his will. I want to take his manhood. I want to rip out his heart and show it to him.”

The Flyers are starting a goalie – Martin Biron – who has never played in an NHL playoff game. He says that, "I feel like I was able to achieve something I had set out to do when I came here to Philly, to be able to play the majority of the games in the season and get to the playoffs and make the difference in some games."

“Everybody's got plans...until they get hit.”

But isn’t there a bit of fear – fear of the unknown of how you’ll respond to a situation like the playoffs against a rugged team?

“Fear is your best friend or your worst enemy. It's like fire. If you can control it, it can cook for you; it can heat your house. If you can't control it, it will burn everything around you and destroy you. If you can control your fear, it makes you more alert, like a deer coming across the lawn…or Daniel Briere.”

Mike, Caps fans have been laying into Briere in the run up to this series, that he’s…well, a bit soft. Any thoughts?

“I don't understand why people would want to get rid of pigeons. They don't bother no one.”

I see your point…

“You’d better.”

Caps 4 – Flyers 3

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Your Caps - Flyers Prognostication!

Well, here we are…The Peerless Prognosticator, the seer of seers...prognosticator of prognosticators...not like that rat with an agent in Punxsutawney…is here to provide to you, the discerning hockey fan, the first, last, and only prognostication you will ever need…or likely want…on the matter of the Washington Capitals’ first round playoff matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers.

First, let’s go to the tale o’ the tape for the season (click on the links for The Peerless’ wrap-ups)…

Nov. 2: Flyers 3 at Capitals 2
Nov. 23: Capitals 4 at Flyers 3 (OT)
Jan. 13: Flyers 6 at Capitals 4
Feb. 6: Capitals 4 at Flyers 3

The Capitals began their upward climb to the playoffs with that 4-3 overtime victory over the Flyers on November 23rd in coach Bruce Boudreau’s first turn behind an NHL bench. The rest, as they say, is history…a 37-17-7 finish, Southeast Division title, and the consensus feel-good story of the NHL season. But this series was more or less a one-goal game series (the two goal margin of January 3rd coming on an empty netter). This first-round series is likely to be as close. Here is how the four-game season series played out for the Caps:

Goals for/against: 14/15
Power play goals for/against: 2/5
Even-strength goals for/against: 12/9
Power play: 2/11 (18.2%)
Penalty killing: 17/22 (77.3%)
Record, one-goal games: 2-1-0
Record, 3+ goal games: none

Both teams are coming in hot…the Caps were 11-1-0 to finish the regular season, the Flyers were 7-1-1 to wrap things up. But while it is tempting to look at the recent past, it helps to look at how the teams got here. For that, we look at their ten-game splits:

For the Caps, what is noticeable is not the 11-1-0 run to close the season. We’ve seen that chronicled in a lot of places, and yes, we know…without it, we’re not writing this. But look at the third and fourth sets of ten games. From 6-13-1 in the first two sets to 10-6-4 in the third and fourth sets. This says two things to me…adaptability and quick-learning. You could say that Bruce Boudreau’s philosophy of hockey is a good fit to the talent he has, and that would be true. But the turnaround was rather abrupt – from 13 points in the first 20 games to 24 in the next 20. Having to learn a new system, unlearn some old habits, and apply both lessons to game conditions in real time does not impress us as the easiest of things to do.

There is also the power play. Except for the sixth 10-game split, the Caps’ power play performed better in each instance in the last 62 games (i.e., under Boudreau) than in the first 20. That’s worth noting in a series that is supposed to feature carnage and mayhem.

And speaking of that, is all this verbiage about this being a bloody series just a little bit of over-the-top media hype? Look , these are old Patrick Division rivals, but the Patrick was renamed (thanks, Bettman) after the 1992-1993 season. The two clubs haven’t called the same division home since the 1997-1998 season. Then there are the echoes of the “Broad Street Bullies,” that the Flyers are going to make the Capitals pay a physical price. Well…yeah. That’s the playoffs. Think the Caps will be shrinking violets? Think Matt Cooke, Matt Bradley, Donald Brashear, or John Erskine are going to shrug, skate off, and whimper, “ooh…too tough for me?”


As for the Flyers and their ten-game splits…

Philly is not afraid of making this a special teams series, although there is something interesting to note. In three of the splits (including the last dozen), the Flyers were shorthanded more than 50 times. They were 17-11-4. Taking penalties seems not to have much, if any, deleterious effect on their winning. While there might be a feeling that “letting them play” might give the Flyers an advantage, Philadelphia seems to thrive on closely called games. In three of the splits, the Flyers and their opponents split more than 100 power plays. In them, the Flyers outscored their opponents 42-30 on the power play (although, the Flyers enjoyed a 163-148 advantage in chances). Philly might want to make this series one of attrition – special teams slugging it out.

As for the top scorers for each team and the season series, first Washington:

Alex Ovechkin: 3-2-5, +2, 1 GWG
Nicklas Backstrom: 1-5-6, +4
Mike Green: 2-3-5, +7
Viktor Kozlov: 1-2-3, +1
Alexander Semin: 1-0-1, +1 (two games)

Ovechkin is, as one should expect, the big ticket item here. He’s enjoyed a lot of success against the Flyers – 12-9-21, +4 in 12 career games. What is a bit odd is his shot statistic. Ovechkin had “only” 19 in four games against the Flyers (4.8/game, versus 5.5/game against the rest of the NHL). He still managed the three goals.

Backstrom got things rolling in the Boudreau era with an overtime goal in the coach’s first game behind the Caps’ bench. But the important stat here is the assists. Against only one other team does Backstrom have higher than the 1.25 assists/game he has against the Flyers (Pittsburgh).

Green arguably saved his best efforts for the Flyers. The 1.25 points/game he has is exceeded only by his efforts against Montreal and Ottawa. And, his plus-minus is better against the Flyers than against any other team against which he played this year. Oddly enough, his average ice time is the lowest against any opponent he faced at least twice. If that’s the case in this series, it is probably a reflection of their being a lot of Flyer power plays, since he does not get a lot of ice time while the Caps are shorthanded.

Here is your odd Viktor Kozlov stat…against no team he’s faced at least twice does his average ice time exceed 20 minutes. This seems to us a bit odd for a top-line forward. His performance against the Flyers this year is not especially noteworthy, but he might be a secret weapon of sorts coming into this series. He finished the year 1-7-8, +8 in his last seven games.

Semin played only two games against the Flyers this year. If this is going to be a physical series, one would guess that it is Semin – more so than even Ovechkin – that the Flyers might target. Semin was -18 for the year and doesn’t bring quite the same level of grit as does his Russian teammate. That’s not to say that Semin will shrink away from the Flyers (he was certainly willing to throw his body around in the Caps’ final regular season games), but he represents something of a more inviting target. He bears watching, though. Over the past two seasons he is 4-2-6, +2 in six games against the Flyers.

If there is someone who needs to fill in the blanks, that is likely (no pun intended) to be Brooks Laich. Over his last 22 games, Laich was 12-8-20, seven of those goals coming on the power play. If the Flyers are going to take themselves off the ice with, uh…spirited play, they have to be made to pay, and Laich has to be a part of that.

In goal, Cristobal Huet is 3-0-1 in five career appearances against the Flyers, 2.54, .901. He won in his only appearance against Philadelphia this year, a 5-2 Montreal win on November 1st in which he gave up two goals on 19 shots. Huet had his only taste of NHL playoff action two years ago, and he was 2-4, 2.33, .929 (two of the losses coming in overtime) in a first round loss to Carolina.

For the Flyers, the leading scorers had these lines against the Caps:

Mike Richards: 3-2-5, +2, 1 GWG
Daniel Briere: 2-1-3, -3
Mike Knuble: 3-1-4, +2
Jeff Carter: 1-3-4, -1
R.J. Umberger: 2-3-5, +3, 1 GWG

Contract wars…Mike Richards signed a $69 million, 12-year deal in December. After his signing, the Flyers went 26-19-9. Richards went 14-27, 41, +4, in those 54 games. Alex Ovechkin signed a $124 million, 13-year deal in January, after which the Caps went 25-11-3. Ovechkin went 33-27-60, +22 in those 39 games.

From December 30th through March 1st, Daniel Briere failed to register a single “plus game” (6-11-17, -17, in 29 games). The Flyers went 15-11-3. Since then, he is 9-7-16, +2, in 14 games. The Flyers went 7-3-4 in those games.

Only against Pittsburgh has Mike Knuble scored more goals than he has against the Caps this year. He played eight games against Pittsburgh to get five goals, four against the Caps to get three.

Jeff Carter had 29 goals this year, but only three in his last 13 games.

R. J. Umberger has two goals in four games against the Caps this year, 11 in 70 games against the rest of the league.

These five players accounted for 11 of the 15 goals scored by the Flyers in this series and were 4-5-9 on the power play. But there are two other factors. One is Vaclav Prospal. He has not played in any games against the Caps for the Flyers, but he did play in six games against the Caps while with Tampa Bay. He was 2-6-8, -1 in those six games. He brings a certain familiarity with the Caps to this series.

The other is Joffrey Lupul. Lupul played only two games against the Caps this year, registering a pair of assists. He had 20 goals in 56 games for the year, but in 17 games since returning from a concussion and spinal cord contusion, he is 4-7-11. Which Lupul shows up – the 16-19-35 in 39 games player before the injury, or the 4-7-11 in 17 games after player – could go a long way to determining who wins this series.

All together, the Flyers bring balance – seven players have at least 20 goals, including the late addition, Prospal, and Lupul. The Caps, by comparison, bring three 20-goal scorers to the show (Ovechkin, Semin, Laich).

In goal, Martin Biron makes his first career playoff appearance. He hasn’t appeared in a playoff game since he played for the Rochester Americans in the AHL in 1999 (his Americans lost in the Calder Cup final to Providence). This is new territory for him. Against the Caps, Biron was 1-1-1, 3.98, .872, this season.

This is a series of teams with similar results – one standings point separating them – but with different styles. Washington is perhaps more explosive, the Flyers more balanced. Philadelphia is the superior special teams group, the Caps a better 5-on-5 team. The Flyers come in with a reputation for hard-nosed play, the Caps with one of being a “skill” team. The Caps come in with the hot goalie, the Flyers come in with…a hot goalie.

Injuries could play a role in this series...the Caps come into the series with long-standing injuries to Michael Nylander, Brian Pothier, and Chris Clark. Of this group, only Clark has a chance of making an appearance in this series. And, there is the matter of Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Schultz, who were injured in the regular season's final week. Both could start in Game 1, but Schultz will be a game-time decision. David Steckel could return from a broken finger.

For the Flyers, they are missing Simon Gagne (concussion), who will not play in this series. They also have assorted injuries to Jason Smith, Derian Hatcher, Daniel Briere, and Sami Kapanen, although with the exception of Hatcher, all should be available. Randy Jones and Steve Downie have the flu.

Why Washington will win...

The Caps are hot. There is an adage in sports that you bet the streak, meaning if a team is on a run, expect them to continue. That can be said as much for goalie Cristobal Huet, too. He's given up only 21 goals in 13 games since arriving in Washington. There is also the "big stage" factor. Alex Ovechkin certainly seems to like playing on one, and this is as big as it gets in hockey -- the Stanley Cup playoffs. And if Philly decides to try to play their role as villain with gusto, well...scoring four goals in a game where he got a broken nose and a split lip suggests Ovechkin can do well in a street fight, too. But as much as that, the Caps have gotten timely contributions from others -- Brooks Laich (12 goals in his last 20 games), Alexander Semin (21 goals in 41 games in calendar 2008), and Mike Green (leading goal scorer among NHL defensemen) are the notable examples.

Why Philadelphia will win...

Balance...If this becomes a war of attrition, the Flyers have more scoring depth than do the Caps. Special teams...if it becomes a special teams trade-off, the Flyers would appear to have the upper hand in that situation.

The season results really don’t provide much else in the way of hints at how this series could go. For Washington, there are key players that are new to the mix – Sergei Fedorov, Matt Cooke, and Cristobal Huet. All three have contributed to a leap in performance and results over the last six weeks. And neither team should feel pressure. Considering that last year they had a combined standings points total (126) that wasn't too far ahead of what Detroit piled up this year (115), these are two teams playing with house money.

If someone with our keen awareness and appreciation for numbers looked at those of these two teams, but did not have the rooting interest we have, they might say…

Caps in six.

We’ll call it a sweep.