Saturday, December 13, 2008

A TWO-point night: Caps 2 -- Canadiens 1


What a week it has been, and that doesn’t even include what’s gone on down on the ice. As far as that goes, the wheels keep on turnin’…Caps keep on burnin’. Simeon Varlamov (or “Var-ma-lov” if you are Craig Laughlin or Lisa Hillary on Comcast Sports Net) notched his first NHL win in his first NHL start after sitttin on his first NHL bench last night, holding the Montreal Canadiens to a single goal in a 2-1 win.

As good as the Varlamov story is, though, the one tht is almost as good is Michael Nylander scoring a goal so ugly it was supermodel gorgeous. Perched at the side of the net with the clock winding under three minutes in regulation, Nylander whacked at a loose puck from behind the goal line while falling down, and it found the back of Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak’s leg before sliding into the net. When you haven’t scored a goal in almost two months, this is exactly the kind of goal you end up scoring.

So…what happened out there?

- More injuries, for one thing. Nicklas Backstrom did not play in the last 9:28 of the game. Tyler Sloan never made it out for the third period, and neither did Sergei Fedorov.

- You really get the feeling the Alexes like visiting Montreal. Neither Ovechkin nor Semin had a goal tonight, but they were buzzing all over the place. In a way, it was a role reversal for the pair, as Semin was the big shooter (eight attempts, three shots on goal), while Ovechkin was sprinting up and down the ice as if it was a track meet.

- Boyd Gordon, David Steckel, Michael Nylander – 28 of 34 faceoff wins. It’s hard to do that well against air. On the other side, Matt D’Agostini was the only Canadien who won a majority of the draws he took…he won his only faceoff.

- Montreal finished their franchise record seven-game home stand 2-for-33 on the power play (6.1 percent). They were 0-for-8 tonight and only had seven shots to show for it.

- A really odd pair of numbers – 13 and 0. The first is the number of minor penalties called in the first 50 minutes, the latter the number in the last ten. Maybe that’s a good thing…the Caps were whistled for eight of those 13 minors. Still, did Bill McCreary and Dan O'Rourke decide to catch the end of the game on Hockey Night in Canada?

- Alexandre Giroux has a streak going…missing an open net last night, and missing a close in breakaway tonight. Next goal he gets will probably pinball off three bodies and a post.

- Montreal had 12:25 of power play time; Tom Poti was on the ice for 7:41 of it. He also had a hit, a takeaway and three blocked shots…he had a fine game.

- The 8-for-8 in penalty killing was the first time the Caps have been perfect in killing so many penalties since skating off 9-of-9 against Carolina in a 6-2 loss on January 26, 2007 (which came the game after the Caps killed 10-of-10 in a 4-1 loss to Florida…nice to see a win for a change under such circumstances).

- The goal is four feet by six feet. That’s all a goaltender has to defend. So if you’re thinking “lucky” with the posts that Montreal hit time and again…they’re scored as misses.

- The Caps just abused Montreal’s offense in the last seconds as the Canadiens couldn’t so much as gain full control of the puck long enough to pull Halak with any time left to do any damage.

- No one is going to be accusing of Varlamov of being one of those goaltenders who is too deep in his net. He was out challenging shooters all night. Even on the Patrice Brisebois goal, he was far out to cut the angle. Give Brisebois credit; he just leaned into one and put it in the only place it could go to beat Varlamov – water bottle over the left shoulder. Did he scramble a lot?...yeah, but he didn’t let this being his first game turn him into a passive goaltender.

- Nylander’s game-winner makes for 13 Caps with game winners in 17 games not decided by a shootout.

- Karl Alzner led all Caps defensemen in ice time in the third period (8:35). He’s making it very hard to make a decision to return him to Hershey.

The Caps have now won five of six, including games against two of the top teams in the East – Boston and Montreal. This game was the first of a run of four road games in the next five, so the schedule isn’t getting any easier, especially given the Caps’ struggles on the road this year. But with games against the Islanders and Blues coming up this week, it is an opportunity to put a hammerlock on the Southeast Division race, where the Caps now have an eight point lead over second-place Florida, which visits Vancouver and Carolina this week, and third-place Carolina, which hosts Montreal and the Panthers before heading to Boston next Saturday.

In the meantime, this was a nice one in a string of them lately. It was a game made more satisfying by the circumstances – skating into a difficult rink and sustaining a new wave of injuries, yet still coming out on top. Oh, and there was that new goaltender, too…Var-la-mov. Remember it.

Nicely done, boys.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Canadiens, December 13th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire as the Caps take to the road to hockey’s Mecca – Montreal – to visit the Canadiens at Bell Centre this evening.

"Shouldn’t you be out holiday shopping, cuz?"

Well, if it isn’t the cousins, Cheerless and Fearless…what are you boys doing in town?

“We’re here to try out…we heard the Caps are pluckin’ guys outta cubicles to dress for games, right Fearless?”

“That’s right, I even have my own equipment, too…”

Very nice…you a butterfly goalie, Fearless?

“No…more like ‘dung beetle.’”

“Don’t forget me, cuz…”

Uh, Cheerless?...that rig looks a little…old.

“Not old, cuz…’old school.’”

Have either of you boys actually played hockey before?

“Does tonsil hockey with Becky Sue Heffelberger behind the Dog-n-Suds count?”

Afraid not, Cheerless. How about you, Fearless?

“Are you kidding, I shut out Wayne Bretzky, Marc Tessier, AND Rex Ovechkin…in ONE GAME!"

Fearless, they play for the Stubby’s Bar team in the rec league, and Bretzky is missing three fingers on his left hand.

“Yeah, his wife sure was mad that night…but he shouldn’t have been schtuppin Stubby’s waitresses, either.”

Yeah, yeah…whatever. Do you guys really think you’re going to dress for the Caps and sit on the bench.

"No…we just wanted to try and meet Brooks Laich…"

"Yeah, he’s our hero…he’s better’n even Chuck Norris."

Well, the boys will just have to watch on TV, just like us, when the Caps take the ice tonight. And when they do, the team against which they’ll be skating will be looking to break their sleepwalk through their last ten games (5-2-3, both regulation losses coming to Southeast teams – Washington and Tampa Bay). Their overall numbers look like this...

If you’re looking for an early indicator in this one, you’ll probably get one. In the “irresistible force/immovable object” category, the Caps are third best in the league in first period goals this year (33). On the other hand, Montreal has allowed the sixth fewest number in the first period (19).

But if you’re looking for something subtle, look to the second period…Washington has scored only 26 goals in the middle frame this year (T-21st), while Montreal has allowed only 23 (tied for fifth fewest). If the Caps can do damage in the second, it could be a signal of a successful night.

If there is a striking number coming out of the Montreal side, it is that power play number. The same club that led the entire NHL in power play efficiency last year (24.1 percent, 2.3 points better than Philadelphia) is stuck in 28th place this year. And their home version of the game is even worse. Only three teams have scored fewer than the seven goals registered by the Habs, and they are 28th in home power play efficiency at 10.1 percent. They are two for 25 through six games on their current home stand (which ends with this game tonight).

If the Habs struggle on the power play, they don’t five-on-five. Of the 23 skaters who have dressed for Montreal this year, only three (including the irregular starter Georges Laraque) are in the minus category.

It is almost fitting that the struggles of the Montreal offense should be illustrated by having a defenseman – Andrei Markov – leading the team in scoring (5-19-24). Markov does bring a six game scoring streak into this game (3-5-8). That might make up for the likely absence of second-leading scorer Saku Koivu, who is day-to-day with a foot injury.

The Caps will renew acquaintances with Robert Lang (not that there are many Caps here who actually played with Lang when he was here…Boyd Gordon, Michael Nylander, and uh…uh…that might be it). But Lang is their top goal-getter – the only Canadien in double digits (10).

The Canadiens have had a few disappointments among their youngsters. The trio of Guillaume Latendresse, Andrei Kostitsyn, and Chris Higgins combined to go 69-63-129 last year. This year, they are a combined 13-17-30, which is a pace for 38-50-88.

In goal, Carey “Pantload” Price has missed a couple of games to the flu, leaving the chores to Jaroslav Halak. Halak has been hot and cold in his two relief starts, beating Calgary, 4-1, and dropping a decision to Tampa Bay, 3-1. Overall, he’s still hot and cold…well, perhaps somewhat better: 3-3-1, 2.42, .917. Against Washington, he is 2-1-0, 2.33, .908. He lost a 3-0 decision to the Caps on November 28th.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Montreal: Alex Kovalev

Who else? After all, he’s garnered more than twice as many votes for the All Star Game as Alex Ovechkin. But it’s not exactly all-starish for him to have only five goal this year – none since November 1st. He’s on a pace for 15 goals, which would be the lowest total of his career for seasons in which he’s played at least 70 games. Against the Caps, he is 17-27-44, +4, with four power play goals and two game-winners in 57 career games.

Washington: Simeon Varlamov

This could be the night. It’s been a busy week for the young goalie. He beat Hartford at Giant Center last Saturday as the Hershey Bears won, 4-2, and took the loss in the game that broke the Bears’ 11-game winning streak – a 3-0 loss to San Antonio. Then he’s riding along on the highways and by-ways of Texas when he probably has someone tap him on the shoulder who says, “coach wants to see you.” Then he hops on a plane and rushes to a game already in progress because the starting goalie has come up lame, and his “backup” (who is playing a whole lot better) is playing hurt. All while another story is playing out that involves a former college goalie who works in the Caps offices who is taking warm-ups as the new back up. If he gets the start tonight – his first in the NHL in one of the most difficult arenas in the sport for a visitor to play in – it might be a comparative snap…Well, probably not.

This is one of those games (last night was one, too) where you might be tempted to tell the boys, “hey, just go out there and have fun – ride the wave.” It’s been quite a ride lately as the Caps have won four of five and six of their last nine. We’re in The Twilight Zone here, and we’d be remiss if the prognostication didn’t do it justice…

Caps 7 – Canadiens 1

A TWO-point, three-goalie night: Caps 5 - Senators 1

It was a full day.

First, the goalie with the hip problem has to start because the other goalie suffered a hip problem of his own (they don’t have this many hip problems at Sunset Pines Retirement Home). Then, the guy who works in web production – who conveniently enough actually played goaltender in Division III hockey – was signed to an amateur tryout contract after the team received special permission. He skated out for warm-ups, in what has to be the bar story to trump all others when he’s knocking a few brews back with friends 30 years from now, and didn’t look half bad out there. Then, the star kid goalie (Simeon Varlamov), who was called back while his team was on a bus in – wait for it – Gonzales, Texas, flies back to DC and gets to the bench mid-way through the first period.

The question we have is, “is this the first time two goalies dressed for their first NHL game since…the first NHL game?”

That the Caps then went out and pasted the Ottawa Senators, 5-1, was almost an afterthought. Certainly the Senators looked as if they considered the game an afterthought. To be fair, Ottawa did play with some energy in the first three-and-a-half minutes or so, when they registered the first four shots of the game. Then, Nicklas Backstrom, who is a lot stronger on the puck than he was last year, fended off a Senator defender, and swept a pass to Alexander Semin easing down the wing, inside of Backstrom. Semin deked a little here, dipsy-doo’ed a little there, and as soon as you could say, “game over, man…game O-ver,” the puck was slipped just inside the far post under goalie Alex Auld.

After that, Ottawa just didn’t look as if they had a lot of energy. Then they did something stoopid. You knew, you just knew that given the tender hip Johnson was lugging around, Jarkko Ruutu was going to take a run at him. He did – at 13:33, well after Johnson froze the puck on a Ruutu shot, but Ruutu skated right up to him and all but ran him over, prompting a response from Shaone Morrisonn that got both sent off for roughing.

Ruutu’s effort did not have the intended effect. Johnson didn’t miss a beat, and the Caps stepped their tempo up a notch, scoring the four goals in the next 40 minutes of clock time. By the time Jesse Winchester got a garbage time goal with 2:23 to go in the game, the Senators – Alex Auld in particular -- had the look of a team that wanted to find the bus to the airport.

Some observations…

Speaking of Auld, he took one right off the coconut that had him shaking his head to try and get his bearings, and the Caps missed a chance to make it six goals on the night as Auld was doing his best imitation of Rocky trying to get off the canvas at the end of Rocky II.

He wasn’t the only one to take abuse from a puck. Anton Volchenkov – the shot-blocking machine – took one in the leg that left him limping for the bench. He did not play in the third period. The Caps had 16 of their 34 shots in the third period. We do not see this as a coincidence.

The Caps were guilty once more of some creative ways of giving the puck back, but for the most part used the opportunity of some improved health to so their “red swarm” thing. When they have nights like this, one wonders how they ever lose a game. Having seen some of the ways they’ve lost games, we don’t wonder too long.

Mike Green…1-2-3. Sergei Fedorov…0-3-3. Think they weren’t missed?

I don’t know about the hard hat, but Donald Brashear deserves something for his effort tonight. He was flying out there and looked from time to time as if he’s spent some of practice trying to duplicate moves that Alexander Semin uses. One sequence where he lugged the puck from center ice through the offensive zone, around the back of the net, and fed a centering pass…we were wondering where the crap that came from.

Viktor Kozlov had one shot on goal and no points, but his contribution in lugging the puck into the zone under control so that the Caps could set up an offense shouldn’t be diminished.

Much will be made about the Senators getting 33 shots on Johnson. Well, the line of Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, and Daniel Alfredsson had a total of four (and didn’t register a point). We’ll take that.

Alex Ovechkin had two goals…and no hits. Don't see much of that.

Coming into this game, Karl Alzner had five straight games with more than 20 minutes of ice time. Tonight, 15:45. And half a minute of that was some power play time to end the game. That’s what Mike Green coming back will do (Green had 21:56).

Good things happen to those who shoot. Just ask Brooks Laich, whose turn-and-fire from the blue line looked like it might have nicked the shaft of a Senator stick just enough to distract Auld trying to snare it with his glove.

The Caps were 3-for-7 on the power play tonight. That makes a neat 20-for-60 in their last 15 games.

Nicklas Backstrom had three assists tonight… that’s 9-17-26 in his last 18 games.

The mystery man we looked at in the pre-game – Antoine Vermette – looked really, really good skating with the puck and creating chances. Finishing those chances?...not so much. He was actually the best player on the ice for the Senators tonight.

The five goals the Caps netted represent the high-water mark against Ottawa this year, although they did allow four in two of their previous five games.

It was an entertaining hockey game, to be sure. But nothing is going to beat the guy in the cubicle -- Brett Leonhardt -- who was told by George McPhee, “Make sure your gear is down at Verizon and be ready to go at five." As a fan, we couldn’t take our eyes off him in warm-ups. What a thrill it must have been.

Only in hockey.

Great job, boys…and nicely done, Brett.