Saturday, October 25, 2008

A TWO-point night: Caps 6 - Stars 5 (OT)

It’s still two’s still two points…it’s still two points.

It might not have been an aesthetic masterpiece, but tonight’s 6-5 overtime win by the Caps over the Dallas Stars is still two points, and it salvages a three game road trip for the Capitals.

The operative word in this game was: “deep”… in, the defenses of both teams were beyond awful deep in their own zones. Let’s start with Washington. Here is all you have to know about how bad the Capitals were deep in their own end. Sean Avery scored a goal on a long rebound off the right pad of Jose Theodore – that one’s on the goalie. But the last four Dallas goals were scored from a total of 48 feet…an average of 12 feet apiece. That’s pretty much four point-blank goals. If anything, Theodore kept the Caps in it, as the Stars might have rung up double digits with the chances they had.

At the other end, Marty Turco was an adventure all to himself. He was more of a beer-league goalie early – giving up four goals on 19 shots through two periods – but turned into the missing Flying Wallenda late, personally stuffing Tomas Fleischmann and Alexander Semin twice apiece when the pair has almost open nets at which to shoot. Strangely, if not for some timely play from the goaltenders, this might have been an 11-10 game, instead of a 6-5 game. The respective defenses were that bad.

But enough of that…next April, if…when the Caps are getting ready for the playoffs, this will be just another game in October. Meanwhile, there were milestones tonight:

- Tyler Sloan netted his first NHL goal when he converted a rebound at the doorstep to Turco’s left.

- Sergei Fedorov passed Alexander Mogilny as the top-goal scoring Russian in the NHL with his first of two goals tonight.

- Sean Avery scored his first goal as a Star.

- Marty Turco sustained his first career loss to Washington.

Some other things that stand out…

- Another indicator of how bad these defenses were…Dallas blocked only 15 of 55 Washington attempts, Washington blocked only 10 of 55 Dallas attempts. In today’s NHL, that seems mighty low. Only one player on the ice had more than three – Philippe Boucher, and one would not say he had a very good game.

- So there was Krys Barch, doing his best Matt Bradley imitation, trying to move up in weight class to take on Donald Brashear on the faceoff following a Dallas goal. Like Bradley against Pittsburgh’s Paul Bissonnette in a recent game, Barch got his beak cut and ended up on the wrong side of the pile down on the ice.

- 35-12. No, that wasn’t the score of the Weber State – Montana State game a couple of weeks ago (ok, it was), it was the hit totals. No, Washington did not have the 35. Only three Stars were not credited with a hit. Meanwhile, three Capitals’ defenseman failed to register a single hit (Morrisonn, Schultz, Sloan). The other three – Erskine, Green, and Jurcina -- had a total of four…the same number Joel Lundqvist had in barely nine minutes of playing time.

- Nicklas Backstrom showed some more signs of life tonight. He has an assists, attempted five shots, had a couple of takeaways, and tied for the team lead in hits (ok, the team lead was “two”).

- It’s worth noting that this six-goal outburst came on a night when the top three lines of opening night were re-united: Ovechkin/Backstrom/Kozlov (0-2-2, even), Semin/Fedorov/Laich (3-3-6, -1), Fleischmann/Nylander/Clark (2-2-4, +3).

- Here’s an odd one…Mike Ribiero and Brenden Morrow were on the ice for the last four goals scored in this game – two by Dallas and two by Washington, including the overtime winner. Loui Eriksson might have made it if team skated five a side in overtime. He wasn’t on the ice for Alexander Semin’s game-winner.

- The more we see this Ovechkin on the penalty kill thing, the more we don’t like it. It might have been a “high-risk, high-reward” kind of idea, but it looks more and more like “high-risk, low-reward.” But we’re wondering…if Ovechkin got 2:46 of penalty killing time tonight (third among forwards), and Chris Clark got none, is there a problem with Clark (total of 11 minutes and change)?

- Fabian Brunstromm got a power play goal…and he was on the ice for two Caps goals. He’s been on the minus side in five of his last six games (-2 tonight).

- Tomas Fleischmann is looking like a real live NHLer more and more these days. As Craig Laughlin put it tonight, he had lightning in his stick. If not for Turco’s acrobatics, he could have had four, perhaps five goals.

- Boyd Gordon won 13 of 17 draws, but in the ends, he was eight of ten in the defensive end and won both offensive zone draws. In fact, the Caps won 15 of 22 draws in the defensive end – no Cap had a losing record in their end.

- This was the third time in four games that the Caps have coughed up a second intermission lead. And, they had trouble finishing off periods, giving up a man-down goal with ten seconds left in the first and another (Turco having been pulled for the extra skater) with 57 seconds left in the third.

- Marty Turco stands a 41st in the NHL in save percentage (.842) out of 42 ranked goaltenders. Maybe he was distracted by his alma mater losing their fourth home football game of the year this afternoon, the first time in 40 years that’s happened to the Michigan Wolverines.

- Don’t worry, Jose Theodore and Brent Johnson are on the “second page” of the rankings, too (31st and 34th, respectively). It’s actually a fairly esteemed group on that second page…Miikka Kiprusoff, Evgeni Nabokov, Rick DiPietro, and Martin Biron are back there, too.

This was a 140-foot game…for the defense, as they played (for lack of a better term) between the face-off dots. Both offenses managed to get the puck deep often and made the best of their chances. The Caps played well enough to win, perhaps, against Phoenix, and didn’t. They certainly played badly enough – on defense – to lose this game, and didn’t. Getting three of six points on this road trip would have been satisfying, even if it didn’t throw fans into a delirium. Getting none would have been a disaster. Getting two? Let’s just say, “ok, that’s over,” and pick things up against Nashville on Tuesday.

Because, it’s still two points.

photos: AP

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Stars, October 25th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

One more game on this horse shi… uh, horse show road trip. The Caps visit Dallas this evening, and when they do, your favorite prognosticator will be laying off the anchovy and pineapple pizza. It has a strange effect on his last night’s sleep...

“Ovi-Wan Kenobi. Ovi-Wan…now that’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time. A long time.

“I think my uncle knows him. He said he was washed up.”

“Oh, he’s not washed up…not yet.”

“You know him?”

“But of course I know him. He’s me. I haven’t gone by the name of ‘Ovi-Wan’ since…last season.”

"Ovi-Wan Kenobi, a year ago you served our team in the Stretch Run Wars. Now we beg you to help us tonight in our struggle against the Death Stars. I regret that I am unable to present our request to you in person, but my car’s in the shop and I'm afraid my mission to bring you to the Stanley Cup playoffs could fail. I have placed information vital to the survival of our playoff hopes into the memory systems of this CCM Vector stick. This is our most desperate hour.

Help us, Ovi-Wan Kenobi, you're our only hope."

Well, perhaps not their only hope, but it couldn’t hurt for Alex Ovi-Wa…Ovechkin to break the five game streak without a goal he brings into tonight’s game against the Dallas Stars. It could be a formidable task. The Stars, though, are having problems of their own, as the numbers suggest:

Record: 3-4-1 (2nd in Pacific/9th in Western Conference)
Goals for/game: 2.88 (16th in NHL)
Goals against/game: 4.00 (29th)
5-on-5: 0.73 (25th)
Power play: 15.8% (20th)
Penalty killing: 76.9% (23rd)

This is not the typical performance of a club that has averaged 105 standings points a year over the last eleven years, and that has had fewer than 100 points in only three of those seasons. The Stars have been consistently poor through games, getting out scored in each of the first (9-7), second (12-9), and third (10-7) periods through eight games this year. In three home games, the Stars have both scored and allowed 14 goals and have both scored and allowed three power play goals. Unlike the Stars we’ve gotten used to, a team that has resembled more the Western Conference version of the New Jersey Devils for their attention to system detail, they’ve been more the let-it-all-hang-out sort of club at home in the early going.

The Stars have found themselves having to climb out of holes a little too often for their liking. They have been scored upon first in six of their eight games, and they have a 1-4-1 record in those games to show for it. They’ve won both games in which they posted the first goal. Coming from behind is always difficult in the NHL, but the Stars have shown almost no ability to recover from a deficit. They are 1-4-1 when trailing after one period, 0-4-0 when trailing after two. Clearly, a good start favors the Capitals, but that’s going to be true on most nights.

One of the disappointments so far at this earl juncture for the Stars might be the performance of Sean Avery. The free-agent pick-up is only 0-2-2, -1 in eight games and leads the team with 31 penalty minutes. He does, however, have four goals in six career games against Washington.

The curiosity for this team is Fabian Brunnstrom. Undrafted by the NHL, he emerged as a potential NHLer as a result of his play in the Swedish Elite League last season (at age 23). Several teams – Detroit, Vancouver, and Toronto among them – were said to be vying for his services, but he signed a two-year entry deal with Dallas. Held out of the first two Stars games this season, he scored a hat trick in his NHL debut (also credited with the game winner) against Nashville, the third player to achieve the feat and the first in 29 years. However, since that start, Brunnstrom is 1-2-3, -5 in five games and skated less than ten minutes in his last outing against the Islanders.

Another early season disappointment of sorts is sophomore defenseman Matt Niskanen. In his rookie year last season, Niskanen was 7-19-26, +22 in 78 games. However, he is 0-1-1 in eight games to date and is a team worst -6.

One of the problems the Stars have had that is reflected in their goals allowed numbers is the absence of three-time Selke Trophy winner Jere Lehtinen. In addition to his defensive skill, Lehtinen has chipped in some offense in his career against the Caps (5-6-11, +8 in 13 career games). He has been ruled out of this game with a groin injury.

This will likely be the first time Krys Barch – a 4th round pick of the Caps in 1998, but for whom he never played a game – will play against Washington. Given that he’s topped the 100 penalty minute total in each of his two seasons with the Stars (doing it in only 26 games in his first season in Dallas), it’s not likely he’s going to be out there to provide a spark on offense.

There is also the old man on this team – Mike Modano. The 38-year old is probably no longer the consistent point-a-game player he was 5-10 years ago, but he always seems to find a way to inflict damage on the Caps. He’s 11-28-39, +15 in 30 career games against Washington, and he found a way to abuse Jamie Heward in other ways a couple of years ago…

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder:

Dallas: Marc Fistric/Nicklas Grossman

With Doug Janik doubtful and Sergei Zubov declared out for this game, this pair of defensemen take on some importance. Fistric is a load, physically, but by the same token might be exploited by the Caps’ speed. Grossman is a youngster (this is his second full season), and might be vulnerable to the skill among the Capitals’ forwards. Whether the Caps can get favorable matchups will be something to watch. If these two struggle, then Marty Turco’s perfect regular season record against the Caps (3-0-0, 1.21, .953) will be in jeopardy.

Washington: Sergei Fedorov

Fedorov has a long and successful history in playing against the Stars, primarily a product of his long tenure in Detroit. He is 33-44-77, +14 in 79 career games against the Stars with seven game winners, 12 power play goals, and five shorthanded goals. It seems likely once more that Fedorov will patrol the blue line, given the Caps’ injury situation, but he would also seem to be a candidate for power play time that will give him an opportunity to renew his acquaintance with the red light behind the Dallas net.

When you’re struggling, it doesn’t all come back at once, in most cases. Hard work here, a fluke there, and you get a toe-hold on turning things around. Dallas doesn’t play “elegant,” and the Caps should be prepared for a more typical tightly-fought, close to the vest Dallas effort. The defense has been there the last few games, with conspicuous errors late doing the Caps in. If they can tighten that up a bit and loosen up the grip on their sticks, they can make the last game of the road trip better than the first two.

Caps 2 – Stars 1