Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Thrashers, November 26th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

'Twas the night before Thanksgiving, when all through the house
Not a pot was yet stirring, not even the mousse;
The dishes were made in the kitchen with care,
In hopes that St. Gibletmas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of stuffing danced in their heads;
And mamma in her apron, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a late autumn nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The wind was rustling the freshly raked leaves,
Raking them again is one of my peeves.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature roasting pan, coming ever so near.

With a plump little turkey, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment they’ll be tasty drumsticks.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he gobbled, and gobbled, and called them by name.

"Now, Butterball! now, Free Range! now, White Meat and Dark!
We’ve got to be quiet, lest the dog bark!
To the top of the counter! Nestled tight in the pan!
I love turkey so, I’m really a fan!"

And then, in a twinkling, I knew in the fridge
Were treats for the morning (could I have just a smidge?)
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Through the kitchen door St. Gibletmas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in feathers, except for his beak,
He was here for a purpose and wouldn’t be meek.
A bundle of side dishes he had on his wing,
They smelled oh, so good, I just wanted to sing.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old bird,
And I laughed when I saw him, I’m just such a nerd;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the dishes; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his wing aside of his beak,
And giving a nod, to the oven he’d sneak.

He sprang to his pan, to his team gave a gobble,
And they took to the air with nary a wobble.
But I heard him exclaim, as I turned up the heat,
"Happy Thanksgiving to all, hey folks, let’s eat!!!"

While you’re pondering the possibilities of food, football, and fun on Turkey Day, there is the matter of the Caps and the Thrashers as the good guys return from a road trip. Let’s face it, the Thrashers should (and we do want to emphasize “should”) be just the recipe for some tasty home cookin’. This is not a particularly good hockey team, as the numbers suggest:

The Thrashers can, however, pose problems. Smacking the Caps around in a 7-4 opening night win is proof enough of that, although the Caps did wipe out a 3-1 first intermission disadvantage before giving up three goals in the third in the loss.

Since that first game, though, these teams have gone in different directions, and this is no more apparent than how they’ve started games. Since that opening night loss, the Caps have scored 23 first period goals in 20 games. Atlanta, on the other hand, has 13 first period goals in 19 games. But here is the odd part…flip the scenario and well… Atlanta has allowed only 15 goals in the first period since opening night, while the Caps have allowed 22. This suggests that the Caps have to get on top of the Thrashers from the drop of the puck, both as a means to put offensive pressure on the visitors and as a way to keep the Thrashers from taking advantage of early Caps weakness in allowing goals.

That three-goal win was another rarity of sorts for Atlanta. They have only two other three-goal wins this year,both on the road -- at Carolina on November 9th and last night against Toronto. Strangely enough, though, they have not had as many blow-out losses as one might expect. They have a total of only two three-plus-goal losses (7-0 to Philadelphia and 6-1 to New Jersey). The Caps, meanwhile, have five such losses, although of course none of those are at home, where the Caps have not yet lost in regulation.

The other side of the coin is that Atlanta has only two road wins in regulation (the aforementioned win in Carolina and last night’s 6-3 drubbing of Toronto) en route to a 3-5-2 road record.

Individually, the surprise is that Ilya Kovalchuk has only seven goals after 20 games (two in his last eight). At that pace he will end this season with the lowest goal total (29) since his rookie year (also 29, but in only 65 games). But if there is a team he can get back into a groove against, it is Washington. Kovalchuk is 20-25-45, +11, with six power play and three game-winning goals in 38 career games against the Caps.

The points lead is the province of Vyacheslav Kozlov (11-8-19). He’ll be coming in on something of a roll in going 9-6-15 in his last 11 games after a slow start. Kozlov is remarkably efficient as well, having found the back of the net on 33 percent of his shots.

Bryan Little has already surpassed his total scoring numbers from last year (6-10-16 in 48 games). He comes into tonight’s game at 9-9-18, tied with Kovalchuk for second on the team in scoring. Meanwhile, a below-the-radar guy to watch out for might be Jason Williams. Five of his six goals this year have been scored on the road.

On defense, the Thrashers have two noteworthy additions, one of which having at least a semblance of being worthy of the big contract he got as a free agent, the other struggling somewhat. Ron Hainsey signed a big five-year deal in the offseason, and while he has struggled a bit in being on ice for a substantial number of goals (like a lot of Thrashers), he does lead the scoring from the blue line. He had a goal an and assist in the opening night win over the Caps.

On the other side is Mathieu Schneider, although there are signs he’s turning a corner. He recorded one “plus” game in his first 11 as a Thrasher. However, he is plus 4 in his last four games, which is more in line of what was expected when he came to the Thrashers in trade for Ken Klee, Brad Larsen, and Chad Painchaud.

It isn’t immediately clear who will man the nets for the Thrashers. Johan Hedberg got the call last night and got the win in the 6-3 decision over Toronto. The odd part of Hedberg’s performance this year is that he is the only Thrasher goaltender with a winning record (4-3-0) despite having the worst GAA (3.88) and save percentage (.884). It seems hedberg has been around forever and that he’s faced the Caps just about every other game. But he has only ten appearances in his career against Washington, going 6-2-2, 2.66, .911.

If Hedberg doesn’t get the call, it won’t be Kari Lehtonen in his place, Lehtonen being on injured reserve with a bad back. The Thrashers might turn to Ondrej Pavelec. He’s 2-2-0 in five appearances, but has a respectable 2.33 GAA and .913 save percentage. In his only appearance against the Caps, he allowed only one goal in winning the decision.

Here is your odd stat about the Thrashers. They are last – 30th – in the NHL in hits. Frankly, we find that more than a bit surprising.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Atlanta: Todd White

White looks a little like the treasurer of our senior class in high school. It hasn’t stopped him from taxing the Caps. After scoring one goal in his first dozen games against Washington, he has five goals in his last seven contests against the Caps. And last night, he broke a five game scoreless streak with a pair of goals against Toronto.

Washington: Jose Theodore/Brent Johnson

Whoever gets the nod in goal for the Caps, it will be important to keep the net clear to give the Caps a chance to reassert their home dominance and get off the three game losing streak they’re on. The Caps have given up a lot of first minute and/or first shot goals this year. Preventing those sorts of lapses will go a long way to ensuring that the Caps keep their unbeaten-in-regulation streak intact. All of that starts with the goalie. Johnson is 7-3-2, 2.49, .912 with two shutouts against Atlanta in his career, while Theodore is 11-4-0, 2.40, .916 in his career against the Thrashers. Nice numbers…too bad both had their troubles against Atlanta in the opener. It can’t – and shouldn’t – happen again.

The Caps are coming home with a limp. Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Chris Clark, Boyd Gordon, John Erskine…all are nursing injuries of varying severity. Wes Johnson might be calling for volunteers by the first intermission over the public address system. Even if he doesn’t, though, the Caps still have the horses to beat a team that will be playing the back-half of back-to-back road games. It might not be as pretty as it would otherwise be with a healthy team, but the Caps will find their turkey tasting pretty good on Thursday…

Caps 5 – Thrashers 2

Speaking of turkey, we’ll be off for a few days enjoying the holiday…see you on the weekend.

The REAL Energizer Bunny

Seems the NHL has named an "official battery" of the league in Canada. It's the official battery of the NHLPA, too. As you might expect, Energizer Canada is the official sponsor. Why is this something you might expect?

Well, consider the mascot...

The Enervechkin Bunny....he keeps going and going and going...

Thanks to #1JohnnyFan on The Official for pointing the way.

Scouting Reports: Bouchard on Bouchard

"He's close to the type of player as me, but he's bigger, he's really good in front of the net, too, and he's got a better shot...he's a good goal scorer."

So says Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Minnesota Wild forward, about his brother Francois Bouchard, Hershey Bear (and Capital prospect) forward.

The elder Bouchard added...

"To be honest, I think my brother's better, too."

The tale o' the tape:

...you decide.

A Year in the Life

The Caps now have one full year’s worth of games in the books under Bruce Boudreau, and what an 82-games it has been. This is not a look at Boudreau’s record compared to that of any of his his predecessors. In a sense, it is a “State of the Caps” reflection. And what the Caps have become is a very good team. Here are the particulars over the last 82 games:

The team record is impressive enough, but some of the individual records are amazing. If you look at the Caps that have dressed this year and include the 61 games from last year, their 82-game totals look like this:

Some of the things that stand out…

- Yes, Alex Ovechkin can score, but +40?.

- Despite a slow start this year, Nicklas Backstrom is pretty much a point-a-game player…at 21.

- Mike Green looks more like the top offensive defenseman in the league, and that plus-24 doesn’t look bad, either.

- Tied with Green for third in goal scoring…Brooks Laich. Caps fans have made him something of a cult hero…but, bet there isn’t another fan base in the NHL that could pick him out of a lineup. Let’s keep it that way.

- Tom Poti’s plus-minus would have tied for his best season’s worth in his career.

- All of a sudden, Tomas Fleischmann looks like a contributing NHL player.

- Boyd Gordon and David Steckel – pretty much pigeon-holed as defensive/faceoff specialists – don’t need much of a push to get to being double-digit goal scorers, too.

- 17 players with double-digit point totals is pretty good balance.

- The 3.16 goals-per-game would have led the NHL last year.

- If Alexander Semin is healthy, he looks like a 40-goal kind of scorer.

- Were you thinking of Jeff Schultz as a 20-point defenseman?

- Keep in mind that Michael Nylander and Sergei Fedorov have fewer than half a season’s worth of games here. At their pace, the Caps might have a roster of six 50-point players…seven if Viktor Kozlov had found a spare point somewhere.

A winning streak here or a tough road trip there is one thing, but this is now a body of work. It shows the Caps to be a very good team – a contender, in fact. One might not call them a favorite right now, one need only look at the way they struggled against San Jose to see that. But there are 61 games left in this season to take the same kinds of steps they took last year. Last year, it was moving up from struggling also ran to playoff team. This year, it could be taking the leap from playoff contender to Cup contender. Some tweaking of the roster might be in order to get there (the Caps could use some more grit in their game, for example), but the pieces are largely in place.

A no-point night: Wild 4 - Caps 3

67.2 Minor Penalty – Player - A player shall be permitted to catch the puck out of the air but must immediately place it or knock it down to the ice. If he catches it and skates with it, either to avoid a check or to gain a territorial advantage over his opponent, a minor penalty shall be assessed for “closing his hand on the puck”.

A minor penalty shall be imposed on a player who, while play is in progress, picks up the puck off the ice with his hand.

Every Caps fan watching this evening’s 4-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild will have this rule memorized by morning. A penalty that doesn’t get called twice in a month was called on the Caps twice in the space of 27 seconds in the third period, and it led to the Wild scoring the third of their four goals en route to the win (Marek Zidlicky was called for this earlier in the game for the Wild).

They were two penalties out of six called on the Caps, five of which were what we might refer to as “passive” penalties – the kind teams playing tired and hurt seem to take (for the record: two holding, a tripping, and the two “closing hand on the puck” calls).

The story in this one, as much as the loss, was the short bench the Caps used. In addition to Mike Green, Alexander Semin, and Sergei Fedorov missing this one, the Caps had four players who skated fewer than ten shifts...

Boyd Gordon lasted five shifts (3:41). He had won five of six draws to that point. He apparently had back spasms.

Jeff Schultz skated three shifts (3:09) before leaving with what appears to be a broken finger. He had a pair of blocked shots.

Donald Brashear was on the ice for nine shifts – not unusual in the normal course of events.

Chris Clark skated eight shifts – only one in the third period (a total of 7:27) – and had a blank score sheet save for one hit. We keep thinking that there just has to be something not right with Clark, but whatever the case, he is having a devil of a time out there in what we suspect is about the most frustrating stretch of his career.

That left things up to Tom Poti to log almost 29 minutes on the blue line and Alex Ovechkin to skate almost 26 minutes. Even Brooks Laich and Milan Jurcina logged more than 20 minutes. For Laich it was only the third time he topped 20 minutes this year, and his 21:03 was the most time he’s spent on the ice so far. For Jurcina, his 21:25 was his top time-on-ice mark this year, 3:36 longer than his previous high.

And with all of that, if there is a silver lining in this one, it is that the Caps didn’t mail the last dozen minutes in the way they could have after the Wild took a 4-0 lead. Did the Wild sit back a bit and play an uncharacteristic prevent defense? Yes, they did. But the Caps took advantage, and one had to like the effort by Eric Fehr to outwork Kim Johnsson for the puck along the boards, Fehr’s effort to ward off Johnsson’s attempts to impede his progress down the wing, and his finding Matt Bradley coming down the middle for a goal. And there was Bradley sticking with it, taking a second whack at the puck while being upended by Nick Schultz in front of goalie Niklas Backstrom.

One also had to like the effort of Alex Ovechkin, despite wearing Wild defenders like a shawl for most of the night. Six shots (16 attempts), a goal, four hits, and three blocked shots (including one scary moment when he took a shot that looked like it hit him flush just above the boot of his skate) made for a very full evening. Frustrating as the Wild could be, he kept plugging.

It set a tone for the Caps in the last dozen minutes that allowed them to get the goal from Ovechkin, who treated the Wild fans to his signature move of skating down the wing, backing up the defenseman, then using him as a screen to snap a wrist shot past the late-reacting goalie. And finally, Nicklas Backstrom corralled a puck that deflected off a Wild player, then fired the puck past the other Backstrom before he could get to the near post.

In the end, though, it was a sour ending to a road trip that is thankfully over. And for this one, yours truly is going to take the blame. That’s right, the Caps lost this one because we picked that clutter-bucker Cal Clutterbuck as the Wild player to ponder. We thought he’d be a player to watch, mostly for his hitting. He didn’t disappoint in that regard, being credited with four hits in a little over ten minutes of ice time. What we didn’t think he’d do is score…and then he gets two goals, his first points in the NHL. Maybe we should have picked Marian Gaborik, instead.

The problem, though, is once more giving up a bunch of goals in a road game. Look, Minnesota has a fine system for keeping goals out of their own net, but they have shown almost no capacity to fill the net at the other end. Coming into this game they had scored as many as four goals in a game once in their previous 15 games. If the Caps could reduce their league worst 4.00 goals-against average on the road, this would be the team against which they could do it. You could say (and the guys on Versus covering the game did) that this was the fourth game for the Caps in six nights, but the Wild isn't a team that should be scoring four goals against the Caps.

The difficulties on the road impress us as a lack of maturity. Consider that the Caps have allowed only 15 goals in eight home games, yet have allowed 52 in 13 road games. What is killing them is taking penalties, and it did so again tonight. With the two power play goals allowed tonight, the Caps have given up a league-high 17 power play goals (tied with Nashville) away from Verizon Center. They’ve only allowed six in eight home games. It just seems as though it’s a reflection of a young team that loses focus, patience, and poise in some situations in hostile rinks, leading them to take untimely penalties, then failing to work things out in the two minutes they spend the man down. Tonight, four of the six minor penalties taken by the Caps were taken by defensemen, and with a group already depleted by the absence of Mike Green, and injuries to Jeff Schultz and later to John Erskine, it was just that much more to overcome.

At the other end, the Wild defensemen were effective at both ends. The last dozen minutes notwithstanding, they helped to constantly frustrate the Caps in entering the offensive zone. At the other end, they had a combined 12 shots and went 1-4-5, +1. The Caps blueliners had a total of four shots on goal and one assist.

We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. The Caps are going to have to play better on the road than they have. Only four teams in the East have fewer road wins than do the Caps (four), and those teams occupy the bottom four spots in the Eastern Conference standings. And, their inability to stop opponents from scoring in these road games has now left the Caps with the second highest number of goals allowed in the Eastern Conference (only Toronto has allowed more road goals). The good news in this is that the Caps have played 13 road games, compared to eight at Verizon Center. But the Caps aren’t going to go 40-0-1 at home, either (much as we’re likely to prognosticate that result).

This is a good team that will only become a great one when they can be as difficult for opponents to play when they host the Caps as when they visit them at Verizon Center. The Caps are not yet that team. Just as the Caps had to grow in adversity last year to discover that they were a good team, perhaps the next 61 games will be as valuable a learning experience in terms of becoming road warriors.
This was the kind of game that will have us reaching to grab a cold one...
...that is, unless Chris Ciamaga is going to whistle us for closing our hand on a bottle.