Sunday, December 28, 2008

A TWO-point night: Caps 4 - Maple Leafs 1


That seems the best word to describe the performance of the Capitals tonight as they defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs, 4-1, at Verizon Center on Mike Gartner Night.

It could have been worse, the word to describe it might have been “snake-bit.” That’s what it looked like might be in store for the Caps as they shot, shot again, and shot some more at Vesa Toskala over the first half of the game. At the 11:11 mark, the Caps had “out-attempted” the Leafs 21-5 (shots, shots blocked, and misses). After one period, it was 33-14 in attempts, and the Caps had nothing to show for it. This wasn't the way to be commemorating the retirement of Gartner's #11.

Making things worse, it was the Leafs who drew first blood in the first period. Mikhail Grabovski made the play by using his speed down the left wing to get a positional advantage before cutting to his right across the offensive zone and past David Steckel to get in deep. He sent the puck in front, where it pinballed off of two players before landing on the tape of Niklas Hagman’s stick. All that was left for Hagman to do was wrist it past a screened Jose Theodore for the first goal. It was only the 13th time in 36 games that the Leafs scored first.

The first half of the second period looked a lot like the first – the Caps clearly looked like the better team, generated more chances, generated better chances, but couldn’t find the back of the Toronto net. By the time the game reached its 33rd minute, the Caps had out-attempted Toronto 48-31. But in that 33rd minute, Brooks Laich – skating on a power play – took a pass from Nicklas Backstrom and stepped out from the right wing corner with the puck. With a clear path he skated unimpeded to the front of the Toronto net where he slipped the puck through Toskala on a shot that Toskala probably should have stopped. It was all the Caps could get in the second period, though, until…

Alex Ovechkin took the ice with 35 seconds left in the period. He then proceeded to kabong a pair of Maple Leafs, rang one shot off the post, and then seven seconds after ringing the chimes fired a wrist shot past Ian White’s stick and through goalie Vesa Toskala at the 19:50 mark to give the Caps the lead. It was all done in the space of 25 seconds. Nice shift.

It might have been the kind of momentum changer that could have led to a fast start in the third period that would have ended the competitive portion of the game, especially against a team that is defense-challenged, such as the Maple Leafs. You’ll note several “conditional” terms in that last sentence – might, could, would. That’s because the Caps didn’t attempt their first shot until the 6:47 mark. They had only two shots on goal in the first ten minutes. It was a case of “prevent defense,” and the Leafs were taking advantage by putting more offensive pressure on the Caps. The trouble for the Maple Leafs was, they were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, or at least on net. Over a six minute stretch mid-way through the period, their shot attempts looked like this:

Miss (Alexei Ponikarovsky)
Blocked (Hagman)
Miss (Hagman)
Shot (Hagman)
Miss (Grabovski)
Shot (Jason Blake)
Miss (Jeremy Williams)
Miss (Dominic Moore)

The “miss” by Hagman was actually a shot at an open net from just a few feet away that he bunted off the post. His problem was that being a left-handed shot at the right post, he had a somewhat tougher angle from which to shoot, but that’s a goal that should have been scored. It seemed fitting that it would be a whiff at the other end – an attempt by Toskala to move the puck out of his crease – that would lead to the insurance goal. Eric Fehr picked up a loose puck along the boards in front of the Capitals’ bench. He skated through the neutral zone and crossed to the left side before the puck was poked off his stick at the Leafs’ line. Laich picked it up and sent it in behind the Leafs’ net. Fehr pressured Tomas Kaberle into sending the puck in front blindly, where it was intercepted by Laich going to the net. Laich knifed across the crease and after taking a couple of whacks at it – Toskala missing on a chance to move the puck away from harm or to cover it up – sent it past Toskala.

All that was left was an empty netter from Ovechkin – his 25th of the season – to bring him within one of league goal-scoring leader Jeff Carter of the Flyers. You get the feeling it is only a matter of time (say, New Years Day?) before order in the universe is restored. Some other stuff...

- Milan Jurcina attempted four shots in the first 6:12 of the game. All of them were blocked. We're also betting that all of them hurt like hell.

- It is amazing that Ovechkin is ranked fourth in the league in hits. Where he plays his home games is killing him on this stat. He was credited with no hits in this game – none.

- Backstrom had two more assists tonight. He is now fifth in the league in that statistic. But what is more significant is that he now has 13 helpers in his last nine games.

- Who led the Caps in ice time?... Karl Alzner (22:39). That’s 12 of 16 games with more than 20 minutes of ice time. Three shots, four blocks, plus-1 (he’s only had four games on the minus side of the ledger). He’s staying.

- The Caps are fourth in the league in goals scored in the first period, but this was the fourth straight in which they failed to score in the opening frame. The Caps have allowed five goals in those four games, one of them to Toronto tonight.

- Is Matt Bradley the latest Cap to go down to injury? He was sent awkwardly and heavily into the boards late in the third period and did not look to be completely aware of his surroundings as he was being helped off.

- The only player in the league born in the Bahamas played in this one. That would be Andre Deveaux of the Leafs.

- Nikolai Kulemin led the Leafs in shots on goal. If you responded by asking, “who?”, you are probably not alone.

- Hey… don’t look now, but Theodore has stopped 64 of the last 68 shots he’s faced in eight-plus periods of hockey (including 23 of 24 tonight). Consistency has to start somewhere… maybe this is “somewhere.”

- The Leafs obtained Lee Stempniak from the St. Louis Blues for Alexander Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo on November 24th. Uh… why? He came into this game 2-5-7 in 15 games with the Leafs. Tonight he was scoreless, played less than 15 minutes (very quietly…no hits, no giveaways, no takeaways, no blocked shots…), and took a penalty.

- The Caps are now 15-1-1 at home (only San Jose has more wins at home) after winning their sixth straight game on the Verizon Center gravel pit.

It was a game that was closer than the final score indicated and closer than it really should have been. Toronto suffers from a weak defense and poor goaltending, and they don’t make up for it with an especially dynamic offense. Plus, their leading scorer – Matt Stajan – was out. But like we said at the top, this was a “workmanlike” performance that earned two points in the end, giving the Caps a ten-point lead in the Southeast Division and the fourth-best point total in the league. Good job, boys.

Ten Stories from 2008 -- Number 5

Number 5. Goalie Soap Opera

According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, a “soap opera” is described as a serialized drama “told through a series of individual, narratively linked installments.” The description goes on to say that “the viewer's understanding of and pleasure in any given serial installment is predicated, to some degree, upon his or her knowledge of what has happened in previous episodes.”

Well, if ever there was a narrative that fit the description of “soap opera,” it was the drama surrounding the goaltending position for the Capitals.

The story began in those difficult early days of the 2007-2008 season, when the Caps were looking less like a contender and more like a collection of rubes not ready for the big time. They gave up goals by the bushel – seven to Buffalo, five to the Islanders, five more to Carolina, another five to Tampa Bay…another five to Tampa Bay. And we weren’t out of November yet. But the Caps were so bad, it was hard to tell if it was a product of some general suckitude, or if it was a signal that the skills of long-time number one goaltender Olaf Kolzig had eroded to the point where he was no longer as reliable as Caps fans had been accustomed to seeing in the past.

The change in coaches in November brought a change in philosophy that put more pressure on goaltenders. The Caps would score more (or at least attack more), and goaltenders might find themselves with more odd-man rushes to defend. The effect on Kolzig’s play was suggestive. In 13 games in December, he was 5-3-3, but he allowed 40 goals (a GAA of 4.03). His record was better to open the new year – 6-2-0 in January – but he was still allowing goals at a disturbing rate (3.59 GAA).

Kolzig was still able to muster games in which he could steal a win – a 2-1 win against Colorado, a 39-save effort in a 3-2 win against Tampa Bay. But those games were occurring with less frequency than he was capable of summoning in the past.

Meanwhile, Brent Johnson was performing well in a backup capacity, but both his performance in a limited role, and the reputation of Kolzig and his preferences for a heavy workload argued against Johnson assuming a larger burden of responsibility.

At the trading deadline, the Caps were not necessarily looking for a goaltender, but one became available when the Montreal Canadiens decided that their goalie of the future – Carey Price – would become the goalie of the present. Cristobal Huet was made available, and Washington acted upon the opportunity. They moved Huet to Washington for a second round draft pick in 2009. As if almost to celebrate by saying, “oh yeah?”, Kolzig turned aside 34 of 35 shots in a 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on the evening of the trade.

Not that it mattered. Huet arrived and promptly authored a 4-0 shutout of the New Jersey Devils on the road. It was the first shutout by a Capitals goaltender since Kolzig turned the trick on opening night.

Kolzig was relegated to the bench and Johnson to the press box as Huet kept playing and kept winning. In 13 games, Huet would allow as many as three goals only twice (both of them wins, oddly enough). He would pitch one more shutout and would finish up the regular season 11-2-0 with a 1.63 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage.

Meanwhile, as the Caps and Huet were closing strong, Kolzig was afforded a chance to spell Huet in a game against the Chicago Blackhawks. Kolzig himself had won his previous four decisions and had a streak of seven straight games (dating back to the 4-1 win over Minnesota) in which he allowed two goals or fewer. Unfortunately, he got the Blackhawks on a night when they were honoring former Hawks goalie Tony Esposito. The Caps being in a position of playing as if they were in a single elimination tournament when it came to trying to qualify for the playoffs, Kolzig stepped in and allowed three goals in less than ten minutes, losing the game 5-0.

After that, it was Huet all the time. He got the call in the last seven games of the regular season, winning them all in the Caps’ miracle finish to win the Southeast Division and the only playoff spot a division team would secure.

Huet would be the go-to goalie for the opening round against the Flyers. However, he laid an egg of sorts in the opening game, allowing four goals for the first time as a Cap in a 5-4 win, a victory made possible by some third period heroics by Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin. He would lose the next three games in the series, giving up 11 goals in the process. The question was whether the Caps would call upon Kolzig to jump start the team and perhaps get another big game performance from the veteran. They didn’t.

When Huet started Game 5 in Washington it was clear that he was the horse the Caps would ride, for good or ill, and that Kolzig had perhaps played his last game of the season, if not his career in Washington.

That is what happened. Huet and the Caps forced a Game 7, but they could not get over that last hump, losing to the Flyers in overtime of the deciding game. After that series-ending game, Kolzig removed his nameplate from his locker stall and was an absentee for a team meeting the following morning. He would remark later that “there wasn't anything hateful,” that he wanted to avoid the media in the aftermath of the loss. But it seemed a clear signal that his days as a Cap were over.

However, the matter complicating things was that Huet was an unrestricted free agent. While there was every expectation (well, among Caps fans) that Huet would re-sign with the Caps, thus softening the blow of a Kolzig departure, there was the possibility that Huet would accept employment elsewhere. What no one (well, what no Caps fan) expected was that the Chicago Blackhawks – a team already on the hook for a large goaltender contract for Nikolai Khabibulin – would swoop in and sign Huet away from Washington, a four-year, $22.4 million deal. That left the Caps with Brent Johnson, who hadn’t played in more than half of his team’s games since the 2001-2002 season, and a couple of prospects thought to be years away from the NHL.

OK, so now what?

Well, it didn’t take long for a “Plan B” to emerge… the question was, could it be a successful plan? That plan ended up being to sign Colorado netminder Jose Theodore to a two-year, $9.0 million contract. It was a deal fraught with risk, since Theodore had been, to be charitable, inconsistent since his Vezina/Hart winning season in 2001-2002. A record of 112-113-11-10 since that season was testament to a certain level of mediocrity. But he finished with a rush at the end of the regular season last year and won a playoff series, so signing him to a deal was an educated risk on the part of the Caps.

When Theodore gave up four goals in less than 30 minutes on opening night, that risk looked to have little potential for return, and although his won-loss record was respectable early (4-2-0 in his first half dozen decisions), it was not as if he was a rock in goal. As a product of his inconsistency, Brent Johnson was given a bigger share of the load, and he took advantage of the opportunity. Although Johnson ended up taking the loss on that opening night of the 2008-2009 season, he proceeded to go undefeated in his next seven decisions (5-0-2) and only gave up more than two goals once, when he allowed three in a 4-3 shootout loss to New Jersey. After losing three consecutive decisions on a road trip in December, Johnson then won another five games in succession.

But then, in the late stages of that run by Johnson, things took a turn…

Johnson had been nursing a hip injury that he aggravated in a 3-1 win over Boston on December 10th. He might have sat out the following game two days later against the Ottawa Senators, but then Theodore cam up lame with a hip injury of his own on the morning of the game. The Hershey Bears were on a Texas road swing, which made the logistics of getting a goalie from the farm a difficult proposition. It is at times like this when every club should have a former college goaltender working in their offices. Fortunately for the Caps, they had such a remedy. Brett Leonhardt, who works by day in media production, was tapped on the shoulder and told to get to the rink. He was going to take warm-ups as the backup to the injured Johnson, who would go that night. Meanwhile (and isn’t there always a “meanwhile” at about this point of the soap opera?), Simeon Varlamov was getting a phone call as the Bears were on their way between cities on their Texas trip to get on a plane and high-tail it back to DC.

Leonhardt took warm-ups and took the bench as backup in the event Johnson couldn’t go, but Johnson gutted out a superb performance in beating Ottawa, 5-1 (Varlamov getting to the rink in time to replace Leonhardt on the bench mid-way through the first period). No sooner had Varlamov dressed for his first appearance on an NHL bench than he was tapped to start the following night in, of all places, Montreal against the Canadiens. Varlamov stopped 32 of 33 shots, including all 14 in a tight third period, in a 2-1 win over the Canadiens at Bell Centre. He was almost as good in his home debut five days later as he stopped 29 of 31 shots in a 4-2 win over St. Louis.

As 2008 ends, the Caps are left with unfinished plots, subplots, interwoven stories, and general “are they making this stuff up” kinds of stories between the pipes. Can Theodore, who was lit up for four goals and pulled before returning and slamming the door in a 5-4 comeback win over the Rangers in the last game before Christmas find any semblance of consistency, let alone superior play? Can Johnson shake off the lingering injury bug and grab the number one position he seemed poised to earn with his early play? Are both looking over their shoulders at the young phenom in Hershey who won both of his decisions in his NHL debut, stopping 61 of 64 shots in doing so? Will the Caps and coach Bruce Boudreau at some point take what might be the ultimate risk for a team with the skating talent to go far in the playoffs and give the keys to the phenom and say, “it’s all yours, kid?”

2008 has been a never-ending soap opera that has taken the team and its fans on quite a ride. And it’s not over yet. But it has been one of the top stories of the year.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Maple Leafs, December 28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, we’re back, and it seems the Caps have hardly missed a beat in our absence, even if they are still missing quite a few players. They won another game at home, Ovechkin scored another highlight reel goal. Film at 11.

The Caps are doing it with spit and bailing wire these days with a “can-do” spirit that boggles the mind. To get a unique perspective on that, we found a special source on the subject, The Little Engine that Could. Little Engine, what is the secret of having a “can-do” attitude? Is it “thinking” that you can?

“’Thinking’ you can? must have been reading that stupid book. ‘I think I can, I think I can…what crap. Don’t ‘think’ you can… do it!”

But isn’t that supposed to be a story of perseverance?

“Hey, Sherlock…they don’t give you a trophy for ‘persevering’…”

What about positive thinking…surely that’s one of the lessons of the story…

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…I’m special, I’m unique, I can be anything I want to be…do I look like Stuart Smalley?”

OK, so what about all those cars you had to pull…surely having determination and perseverance helped you get the train over the mountain.

“You ever heard of CGI, Sparky?...they can do wonders with computers.”

You’re a mighty cynical sort, aren’t you?

“Hey, if you had kids coming up to you and asking you to pull this and pull that, you’d be pretty cynical, too.”

But wouldn’t you say that for a team like the Caps, with all the injuries they’ve had, that your story is a valuable lesson – that they can overcome any odds with hard work and determination?

“Oh, sure…but it doesn’t hurt to have Ovechkin, either.”

And the Caps – with Ovechkin – will be facing the Toronto Maple leafs on this, “Mike Gartner Day.” The Caps star right winger of the 1980’s will have his number “11” retired this evening. In a way, Gartner is a reflection of a “can-do” attitude. He played in all of his team’s games in eight seasons over a career that spanned 19 seasons. He led his team in goals in nine seasons, including five times in nine full seasons with Washington. His 708 career goals ranks sixth all time in the NHL, and his 397 goals as a Capital ranks second all time in franchise history. He had a remarkable ability to step into a situation and succeed, as evidenced by his amassing a 24-18-42, +16 record in games played in a season after being traded (35 games, covering three in-season trades). Gartner will be the fourth Capital to have his number retired, joining Yvon Labre, Rod Langway, and Dale Hunter.

As for the visitors, they dropped a 2-1 decision to the Caps in Toronto on December 6th. Since then, though, the Leafs have gone 5-3-0, scoring 29 goals in the eight games and giving up 30. The Leafs have had good scoring balance in those eight games with six players registering at least seven points: Nik Antropov (3-6-9), Alexei Ponikarovsky (3-5-8), Matt Stajan (2-6-8), Jason Blake (3-4-7), Jeremy Williams (5-2-7), and Pavel Kubina (2-5-7).

Overall, the Leafs are a team that can score (8th in the league in goals-per-game average) but struggle with other aspects…

That has been on display in spades in this eight-game stretch, as the Leafs have scored four or more goals four times, while they have allowed that many or more three times, including twice allowing eight in a contest – an 8-5 loss to Boston and an 8-2 loss to Dallas.

As you might expect with that dismal a defensive record, the goaltending has been lacking. Vesa Toskala, who will get the call tonight, has 13 of the 14 wins posted by the Leafs, but that is a product of showing up – he also has appeared in 31 of the 35 games played by the Leafs. Otherwise, he is a “second page” goaltender in the statistics. No player with more than 20 appearances has a worse goals-against average than his 3.32, and only Marty Turco in Dallas has a worse save percentage among goalies with at least 20 appearances than Toskala’s .881.

Backup Curtis Joseph has been providing little relief. He has played in three full games this year and has allowed four, five, and six goals in doing so. He has four other appearances, for which he has a combined 2.65 GAA and .884 GAA (much better than his 4.12/.841 overall numbers)… apparently the trick is to let Joseph play ten minutes at a time.

It’s gotten bad enough that the Leafs turned to prospect Justin Pogge for a shot against the Atlanta Thrashers on December 22nd. Pogge shocked Leaf fans by looking like an actual NHL goalie, stopping 19 of 21 shots in a 6-2 win. Of course, these being the Leafs, Pogge was returned to the minor league Marlies upon the expiration of the roster freeze yesterday. We’re guessing he won’t be there long.

Toronto did win in their last visit to Verizon Center – a 3-2 victory on March 1st. The trouble with that history is that the Leafs had goals by Alexander Steen and Mats Sundin (the latter having a three-point game), and that pair is playing elsewhere these days. In fact, of the five players who registered at least one point for Toronto in that game, only Nik Antropov remains. Sundin, Steen, and Bryan McCabe play for other NHL teams, and Jiri Tlusty is playing for the Marlies in the AHL.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Toronto: Mikhail Grabovski

The speedster was putting together a decent season when these teams last met; he was 10-8-18 in 26 games heading into the December 6th game against the Caps. He was quiet in 18 minutes of playing time in that one (no points, even) and has been rather quiet ever since (2-1-3, even, in eight games). He also doesn’t have a power play point in that stretch, even though he remains among the team leaders in power play scoring (sixth overall, fifth in goals). If this gets to be a track meet, Grabovski is going to have to be heard from, especially since leading scorer Matt Stajan is day-to-day following a freak injury when he was hit in the eye with a soccer ball before practice yesterday as he and his teammates were engaging in some limbering-up exercises.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

The second-year center is 3-11-14 in his last nine games. He also has only one assist in five career games against the Leafs. Backstrom has started strong (2-3-5 in first period scoring) and finished strong (1-6-7 in third period/overtime scoring) in his last nine games. If he gets off strong, given the weak Maple Leaf defense and goaltending, this should be a successful night.

The Caps of the Gartner era were characterized more by a grinding, gritty team than perhaps the current high-octane group personifies. A right wing with Gartner’s nose for the net would certainly fit in here (and given the injuries and comparative lack of production on the right side, would be welcome). But the Caps have more than enough elsewhere on their roster to take advantage of the Leafs’ deficiencies in their end of the ice.

Caps 6 – Leafs 3