Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Good, The Bad, The February

February – the longest month of the year, I swear – is finally over. The Caps had a very good month as it turned out, finishing 9-3-1. What was good, what was bad, and what was ugly?

The Record:

The Good…The Caps were 5-1-1 against teams that tonight are in the top-eight of their respective conferences.

The Bad…The Caps again showed a tendency to play down to the level of their opponent when not playing a top-notch team. Going 4-2-0 against teams not in the playoff mix is not awful, but elite teams usually do better. The Caps did, however, beat up on those teams when they won – three of the four wins were by at least three goals.

The Ugly…Losses to Los Angeles and Colorado, both at home, were tough to swallow. And, giving up nine goals in the process made it harder.

Special Teams:

The Good…The power play was humming along nicely, thank you very much. At 18-for-53 for the month (34.0 percent), it was the most power play goals scored in any month this year (they had 17 in December) and the most efficient month of the year on the power play (they were 17-for-56 in December – 30.4 percent).

The Bad…The Caps allowed power play goals in nine of 13 games for the month.

The Ugly…70 shorthanded situations faced for February (5.4 a game). If you’re looking for a silver lining there, it is that the Caps killed 59 of them – 84.3 percent. Maybe practice makes perfect. Well, if not perfect, then at least better than their season PK number (79.9 percent).

The Record II:

The Good…The Caps did not lose a road game in regulation in February (4-0-1).

The Bad…They lost three home games in regulation in a single month for the first time this year.

The ugly…They lost to the Flyers at home. That will be “ugly” any time until the sun goes dark.

The Players – Goaltender Edition:

The Good…Michal Neuvirth was 2-0-0 in his first two NHL appearances (2.00, .929). What might be most impressive is the way he’s started those games. One might expect a rookie who hadn’t played in the NHL to have some jitters starting games. He saved 23 of 24 shots in the first period of the two games.

The Bad…Jose Theodore. OK, these things are relative. He was 6-3-1 in January (2.18, .919). He was 6-3-1 in February, too. His save percentage was not much changed (.915), but his GAA rose some (2.66). He had four games out of ten appearances where he allowed more than three goals, compared to one in ten appearances in January. His overall performance wasn’t much off that of January, but what he didn’t have in February was consistency.

The Ugly…losing Brent Johnson to a hip injury after he played one game in February.

The Players – Skaters Edition:

The Good…The Young Guns had quite a month. Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom were a combined 32-40-72, +17, with four game-winning goals and 13 power play goals. They spread the goodness around, too. Ovechkin led the group in goals and game-winning goals. Green led in points and power play goals. Backstrom led in assists and had a point in 11 of 13 games in the month.

The Bad…19 goals from the rest of the skaters, combined. And after Eric Fehr’s seven goals are accounted for, that’s a dozen goals for the month from the other 13 sport among the skaters.

The ugly…actually, that last one is pretty ugly, too.

Boyd Gordon Edition…

The Good…Gordon won the majority of his draws in nine of the 13 games he played in and was a reliable penalty killer.

The Bad…In the last nine games of the month, he was an uncharacteristic minus-5.

The Ugly…two points for the month (he’s only had four in the new year).

Tomas Fleischmann Edition…

The Good…Plus-7 for the month to drag his season number into positive territory.

The Bad…Seven points in 13 games. After giving indications he was ready to step up and be an offensive contributor, he took a step back.

The Ugly…Two goals in 13 games for the month. After getting 15 in 41 games before February, that has to be a disappointment.

Some other good, bads, and uglies…

The Good…It’s always good to beat Pittsburgh, especially when it’s by at least a field goal, and goodly good when Sidney Crosby can complain about something in its aftermath.

The Bad…Seeing four on-ice officials miss Ovechkin getting whacked in the chops with a high stick in the Atlanta game.

The Ugly…Losing to the Flyers in the next game after beating the Penguins.

The Good…Eric Fehr’s getting seven goals for the month (7-4-11, +6, with a game winner). He picked up where Fleischmann left off.

The Bad…Karl Alzner played in only three games in February before being sent back to Hershey. He was a minus-4 in those games. That’s OK, he’ll be back.

The Ugly…Delay-of-Game penalties. In the last 11 games of the month, the Caps were whistled for that infraction six times.

The Good…51 goals scored for the month (3.92/game)

The Bad…26 goals allowed in eight home games (3.25/game), this after allowing only 49 in 24 home games before this month.

The Ugly…
Thanks for coming, and don't forget to tip your waitress!

The Levitator

"That was one of the luckiest shots I've ever seen. It was about three inches off the ice until it was halfway to me. Then it just started to lift."

-- Boston goalie Tim Thomas

"As a goalie, looking at the puck, it went back up. I know it doesn't look good, but it's a tough play. It's not a good feeling for a goalie."

-- Washington goalie, Jose Theodore

"[I] was tired and trying to shoot the puck in the zone. [I] was a little surprised, but sometimes it happens."

-- Caps forward, Alexander Semin

All of them are describing what would prove to be the game-winning goal, scored by Semin 22 seconds into overtime of this afternoon's 4-3 win over Boston. Rick Vaughn had "The Terminator" fastball in the movie, "Major League." Semin can now name one of his shots...

"The Levitator."

A TWO-point afternoon: Caps 4 - Bruins 3 (OT)

Two heavyweights slug it out for 15 rounds – like Balboa and Creed trading haymakers – and the fight ends on a knockout coming on a jab to the shoulder.

That’s what it was like at TD Banknorth Garden, as Alexander Semin ended an extra-session contest between the Capitals and the Boston Bruins with a 70-foot slap shot that somehow snuck past Bruin goalie Tim Thomas. The shot that came 22 seconds into overtime gave the Caps a 4-3 overtime win and allowed the Capitals to win the season series against the B’s, 3-0-1.

It was a game that had something for everyone (ok, except a fight – there were no bouts). It had goals, outstanding saves, big hits, big performances by big players, and the weird ending…

-- Need the big players to come up big? Well, Marc Savard wasn’t even supposed to play in this game for the B’s, but he ended up getting three assists and winning a majority of the faceoffs he took. Zdeno Chara got the Bruins even in the third period with a goal coming off a bad angle shot that Caps goalie Jose Theodore frankly should have turned aside. Semin had two points for the Caps, Mike Green had a pair, and Alex Ovechkin had another goal from his left wing faceoff circle office.

-- Theodore did, however, have a number of big saves – a robbery on Patrice Bergeron by skittering from one post to the other as Bergeron was taking aim for a one timer on the short side, a stop of a Shawn Thornton attempt off a rebound. Thomas had his share, too – twice making saves on Semin as the Caps forward broke in alone after sprinting past Bruin defenders and denying breakaways by Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr.

-- Theodore didn’t get an assist on the first goal – a power play goal by Nicklas Backstrom – but it was his having the presence of mind not to freeze the puck after a David Krejci shot at the other end, moving the puck to the side boards for Alex Ovechkin to start the play the other way, that ultimately led to the goal.

-- Tomas Fleischmann ended a seven-game streak without a goal (one in his previous 17 games coming into this contest), banking one off defenseman Dennis Wideman and past Thomas. Hey, you have to stop a slump somehow. Usually, it’s an ugly goal that does it.

-- Ovechkin’s goal (his 45th for the season) makes 18 in 19 games since January 14th.

-- Semin had an assist to go with his game-winning goal. That makes 58 points in 44 games, and he has gone as many as two games consecutively without a point only once this season (February 18, 20 – against Colorado and Montreal).

-- Speaking of Semin, here is your fun Alexander Semin stat. With a goal and an assist, Semin is now at 58 points, good for 21st in the league. That might sound nice, but when you consider that his 44 games played is fewer than those played by the top 135 scorers in the league, it is amazing.

-- Backstrom’s goal gave him points in nine straight games (4-8-12), tying a career best.

-- At the other end of the spectrum, Matt Bradley had an assist – his first point since January 10th against Montreal.

-- Two-for-five on the power play gives the Caps eight for their last 23 (34.5 percent) over their last four games and an 18-for-53 mark (34.0 percent) for February.

-- This was the Caps 40th win, making this the fastest-to-40 team in franchise history, achieving the feat in 63 games. The 1985-1986 team won its 40th game in game 64 of the schedule.

-- Perhaps the oddest line on the entire scoresheet belongs to the Bruins’ Michael Ryder. He allegedly played 13:40 in this game, and other than a minor penalty, what he had to show for it was…nothing. No shots attempted, no hits, no takeaways, no giveaways, no blocked shots. Nothing.

-- The Caps lost the faceoff battle by a close 29-31 margin. But within that, the Caps were only 5-for-17 in the offensive zone and only 8-for-19 in the defensive zone. Nicklas Backstrom and Sergei Fedeorov were a combined 4-for-19 in the offensive/defensive zone draws.

-- The teams combined for only 18 turnovers (takeaways plus giveaways)

-- The good and the bad about penalty killing…the Caps took only four minors, but three of them came in a less than eight-minute span of the third period. The Bruins scored the tying goal on the last of them.

We’ve now completed the regular season body of work for these teams, and since it is a good possibility that they will meet in the playoffs, that body of work merits a look…

The teams have played evenly, with three games settled by one goal and the other virtually a one-goal game, the Caps securing a two-goal win with an empty netter late in the first game played between the clubs. There are perhaps 30 or so games to be played before these teams might meet in a conference final, but you get the feeling that if they do meet, it will be one helluva series. In the meantime, nicely done boys.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Bruins, February 28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s a two-fer weekend as the Caps head to Boston to take on the Bruins in the front half of the back-to-back weekend fun. It is the last chance for the Caps to take a pound of flesh out of the Bruin hide, for the regular season anyway, and shave a couple of points off the nine-point lead Boston holds over Washington. To get some perspective on the mind of the Bruin and how an opponent might find an advantage, we’ve asked one of the most famous bears around to join us and offer us some insights…

Smokey Bear, you’ve been an icon in American culture for more than 60 years. You’ve seen a lot of bears come and go, and you might know better than anyone what we should look for. So, what do the Caps need to beware of this afternoon?

“Well, you can’t play with fire around the Bruins. They are fourth in the league on the power play overall and second in home power play conversions. They are six-for-20 in their last five games, three–for-six in their last two games, both played in front of the home fans.”

It is an impressive record. How do you address that if you are the visitors?

“The obvious thing is to stay out of the penalty box. The Caps have had trouble doing that, I see. In February, they have been shorthanded 66 times in 12 games – 5.5 times a game. If they do that against Boston, they’re going to get torched.”

Does Boston have a weakness?

“If you look at their team numbers, you’d have to say ‘no.’ They are top-five in everything except winning when they score first, but they still win more than 70 percent of the time in that situation…”

You sure do keep up with this stuff. But if the Caps win, they will achieve their second-highest number of wins in a month this year (nine), not bad for a short month. This is a big test, though. Is there any one thing the Caps can do to give themselves an advantage in this one, Smokey?

“I’m glad you asked…Have you read my ‘Wildfire Pledge?’

Not since I was a cub.

“Cute…I get it…bear joke. Have I shown you my claws?”


“OK, well…we also have a ‘penalty killing pledge…”

I pledge to be smart whenever I go on the ice:

* To use caution and common sense before I might commit a penalty.
* To understand that any penalty I or my teammates take could result in a goal.
* To understand and practice proper guidelines of our system whenever I or my teammates take the ice to kill a penalty.
* To never, ever leave an opponent in the defensive zone unattended.
* To make sure any penalty that I or my teammates commit is properly and completely extinguished before moving on.
* To properly clear the puck on the penalty kill and not shoot it over the glass.
* To be aware of my surroundings and careful when playing defense during periods of penalty killing so I don’t put my team at a 5-on-3 disadvantage.
* To step in and defend my teammates when I see someone taking liberties with them.

Not bad, but let’s hope no one has to recite the pledge too often this afternoon. The Caps have had a problem staying out of the box in February, but they have been slightly less inclined to do the perp walk in road games – 21 times in four games (5.25 shorthanded situations per game). Here is the kicker, though – they are 19-for-21 on the PK in those road games (90.5 percent). The difficulty for the Caps is of the four opponents they faced in those road games, the highest ranked power play at home was that of New Jersey (16th). Tampa Bay (23rd), the Rangers (28th), and Florida (29th) are among the league’s bottom feeders in the measure. This will be different.

Another problem for the Caps in this one is the second intermission. Only Chicago (33) has taken a lead into the second intermission more times this year than have the Bruins (32). No team has more wins (29). Conversely, only two teams have trailed at the second intermission fewer times than have the Caps (San Jose, and Boston). But while the Caps are ninth in winning percentage in such situations, winning 18.8 percent of the time is not generally a reason for optimism.

Boston has assembled an impressive record on the basis of talent, sure. But they have also accomplished this as a product of health and balance. As to the former, the Bruins have dressed only 26 skaters this year. Seven players have dressed for every game (by way of comparison, the numbers for the Caps are 33 and 2, respectively). But the Bruins might be missing top scorer Marc Savard (who is one of those who has played in all 62 games this year) and top hitter Milan Lucic. Both have “upper body” injuries. Blake Wheeler, another player with 62 games under his belt, will likely be skating with a sore foot, thanks to a shot taken off the stick of Chris Pronger.

As for balance, try 18 players with at least ten points, 11 with at least 20. They have nine with at least a dozen goals and 16 players with at least one game-winning goal. They have 13 players with at least one power play goal and 11 players at plus-ten or better.

But it is a team that has struggled to score against Washington. In three games they have a total of five goals. Perhaps ominously for Boston, two of them were by Savard and one by Lucic – Shawn Thornton and David Krejci getting the others, Krejci’s actually being a deflection off of the skate of Shaone Morrison to give Boston a 3-2 overtime win the last time the teams met.

If one looks at the Bruins individually, there aren’t many players there who can be said to have had successful careers against the Capitals, assuming Savard is out (he is 9-35-44 in 34 career games against Washington). If there is one player to think about in that regard, it might be Michael Ryder. He is 9-6-15 in 17 games against the Caps, but the odd thing about that is that all of his scoring was done as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. He has been held without a point in the two games he’s played against Washington as a Bruin. In fact, the leading career scorer against the Caps for the Bruins dressing for this game (again, assuming Savard is out) will be defenseman Zdeno Chara – 5-14-19 in 39 career games.

Boston comes into the game having had a somewhat indifferent February. The Bruins are “only” 6-4-2 for the month, but they put up a half dozen goals in each of their last two games – a 6-1 win over Florida and a 6-0 whitewashing of Anaheim. It is worth noting that both of those teams are in the lower half of the goals-per-game rankings, so for the Bruins this will be a step up in weight class, too. That 11-goal differential in the last two games is the difference for the month as the Bruins have outscored opponents by 36-25 in 12 games. The 25 goals allowed is evidence that defense and goaltending has not been a problem for Boston. Time Thomas is 6-3-0 for the month and six times has allowed one or no goals (1.55 GAA, .943 save percentage). Manny Fernandez is 0-2-1 for the month, 3.22, .855.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Boston: Phil Kessel

Kessel has played in only one of the three games against the Caps this season, assisting on the only goal in a 3-1 loss in Washington in December. He hasn’t had a lot of success against the Caps (1-1-2 in nine career games), and he has been in a prolonged slump otherwise lately (2-4-6, -1 in 19 games in the 2009 portion in the season). He also is part of a rumor concerning a trade for Anaheim defenseman Chris Pronger. An awful lot of stuff going on for a 21-year old.

Washington: Jose Theodore

This is more or less “game one” of a playoff series against the Bruins, and in the playoffs, success starts with the goaltender. Unfortunately, Theodore does not have an especially noteworthy record of accomplishment against the Bruins – 9-12-2-1, 2.53, .917. But here is the odd part of that record – since the lockout, Theodore is 3-0-1, 2.00, .924 against Boston. What he hasn’t had is a good February, or at least not a consistent one. Theodore is 5-3-1 for the month, 2.95, .904. He’s allowed more than three goals four times in 12 games and has done so against teams who shouldn’t have that kind of success – Colorado, the Rangers, and the Kings.

One would have to think this is going to be a low-scoring game and closely fought. Since the lockout, the teams have met 15 times. The Caps have a 5-4-6 record in those games. Including Gimmicks, 12 of them have been one-goal affairs (the Caps are 3-3-6 in those games), and only one of them has been settled by more than two goals (the 10-2 win over Boston last March). In only three of the 12 have there been more than a total of five goals scored. This year, none of the first three games in this series had more than five goals scored, and in that one it took an overtime to do it. We suspect this one won’t be any different. Any last words, Smokey?

“Uh, only YOU can prevent penalties.”

Caps 2 – Bruins 1

Friday, February 27, 2009

A TWO-point night: Caps 4 - Thrashers 3

They don’t score on style points…they don’t score on style points…they don’t score on style points…

The Caps scored early, shot often, and hung on late for a 4-3 win over the Atlanta Thrashers in a game that could be described in one word – “odd.”

Let’s get right to the odd and other stuff…

-- Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea…FLASH! Brooks Laich leads Caps in shots on goal. He actually tied with Alexander Semin, but gets the nod because he had those shots in fewer minutes. So, when was the last time Alex Ovechkin was third on the team in shots (and tied for third at that)?

-- Laich also gets the gold star from the teacher for learning the lesson. After the team had 22 missed shots against the Flyers on Tuesday and the team getting the coaches attention as a result, Laich had seven attempts, seven shots on goal – no misses, none blocked.

-- Did you “Laich” that incidental contact, no harm no foul, but I lost three fillings hit by Laich on Slava Kozlov, who not only didn’t have the puck, he was nowhere near the puck carrier when he was drilled.

-- The Caps had 16 blocked shots, six of them blocks of shots from the stick of Ilya Kovalchuk (three of them by Tom Poti). He did get loose for a goal (hey, it’s what he does these days), but for the most part was held in check. In fact, it looked sort of sad in a way, like a tiger in a pen in a zoo.

-- Speaking of tiger in a pen, or is that former Pen in a zoo?...Didn’t Colby Armstrong actually, like, hit people once upon a time?

-- Eric Perrin had a rough night for the visitors – nine minutes in ice time, six minutes in penalties.

-- So…the star gets high sticked in the chops by Rich Peverley, goes after the wrong guy (Marty Reasoner) to try and start a fight, then gets the only penalty for roughing. Of course, then Atlanta scored on the power play. Until that point they had about as many scoring chances as we do, and we sit in the balcony.

-- Michal Neuvirth reads plays rather well in goal for a rookie, but we’re glad this didn’t go to a shootout. Seeing as how the Thrashers got two goals from point blank range, we have our doubts he would have stood a chance in the Gimmick. What he did in a spectacularly unspectacular fashion was swallow the puck. If it hit him, it wasn’t rebounding out.

-- Speaking of rookies, that’s 4-0-0, 1.75, .942 for the rookie Micheon Varlavirth.

-- Tobias Enstrom had six blocked shots to lead the Thrashers. The shots came from six different players.

-- Atlanta had only four shots on goal in the first 18 minutes of the third period (18:02, actually) before getting a goal with 1:57 left. What was almost as amazing is who had the shots on goal for Atlanta – Niclas Havelid, Eric Boulton, Marty Reasoner, and Ron Hainsey. That’s a group with 19 goals among them (Reasoner has 10). You think Atlanta really had much of a chance scoring that way? No, me either.

-- Eric Fehr got the kind of goal he needs to score – he picked up a shot from Shaone Morrisonn that was deadened in front by a Thrasher, then Fehr wrong-footed a wrister past goalie Kari Lehtonen. It was all wrists.

-- Mike Green almost got off the five-game schneid he was on after setting that consecutive games goal-scoring record. But then Brooks Laich swept the puck in after it snuck through Lehtonen’s legs. Not to worry, Green got his goal anyway, his 23rd overall and 16th on the power play, tying a franchise record for power play goals in a season, held by Scott Stevens.

-- It was another one of those “if they measured time of possession” games. The Caps did a very good job of holding onto the puck, and when they didn’t, they forechecked the snot out of the Thrashers and chased the puck down. The Caps were credited with 17 takeaways from 11 different players.

-- Going hand-in-glove with that, the Caps owned the circles – 39 up and 26 down on faceoffs (60.0 percent). Oddly enough, it was David Steckel – 56.6 percent on draws coming into this game – who was the only Cap taking more than one draw to lose a majority of faceoffs.

-- And…the Caps out-attempted the Thrashers, 69-45.

-- And more…the Caps had only 20 turnovers (16 giveaways, four takeaways by Atlanta) to 31 for Atlanta.

-- Eight power plays, almost 12 minutes of power play time. That meant that some guys didn’t get the same minutes they usually get, because the power play guys were out there. Matt Bradley and Donald Brashear had a combined 12:22. They still had a combined five hits, though.

-- As someone who has watched the Caps for a lot of years, many of which were spent watching the Caps unable to complete the simplest of passes, we marvel at how good this team can pass the puck. But sometimes they fall in love with it, too. That was evident after they scored on their first two power plays. They were 1-for-6 thereafter – that being on the staple of a Mike Green “sneak in the hole” shot—a lot of the problem being a product of throwing the puck around everywhere but at the net.

-- Eric Fehr…bellwether. When he gets a goal, the Caps are 9-0-1.

-- Speaking of Fehr, after registering three goals in his first 29 games, he has seven in his last 12. That’s a 48-goal pace.

It wasn’t the most aesthetic of victories for the Caps, but the important word there is “victory.” There are 20 games left, and the team is poised to make this the most special of regular seasons in the history of the franchise. 12 wins in those last 20 games would give the team a club record for wins. Six wins at home in their last nine home games, and they set a franchise record for home wins. 25 points in those 20 games, and the Caps would have a franchise record for standings points. But those last 20 games start with the team in front of them – Boston. They’ll have to play better and with more focus than they had at times if they’re going to win in Beantown. But for tonight, it was a good job, guys...because they don't score on style points.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Most Important Development for Hockey Since the Stick

Dan Steinberg, author of D.C. Sports Bog in the Washington Post, penned a column for the print edition of the paper today titled, "Capitals Lead Washington Into New Ice Age." It is the latest in what seems a torrent of stories about the Capitals and their explosive evolution into a phenomenon of "buzz."

But there was a sentence buried in the fifth paragraph of the story that almost had me come out of my chair...

"Video of Ovechkin's latest highlight-reel goal was YouTube's most-viewed clip last Friday, and a film director recently called Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis to discuss making an IMAX movie featuring Ovechkin."

An IMAX feature featuring Ovechkin? Hockey is, as a lot of folks seem to want to describe it, an emotional game. It's more than that. It is a paradox. A game that is extremely complex in its effects on the senses -- the sound of blades cutting into the ice and pucks rattling around boards, the chill of an arena, the visual aspect of speed and collisions, the sudden rush that comes to the observer when a goal is scored, a save is made, or a hit is executed -- has difficulty translating this cauldron of sensory ingredients to television.

High-definition television helps with detail and the larger aspect screen, but still has the vague feel of being constrained and limited.

But now, imagine the greatest force of nature in the sport featured in an IMAX format. The dramatic increase in visual scale, coupled with the audio possibilities and Ovechkin's ability to seize the moment in the most dramatic way strikes us as perhaps precisely what hockey needs, not to "introduce" itself to a broader audience, but to kick down the door and put its entire collection of unique gifts on display on a scale we haven't experienced.

You couldn't do this with another player. Sidney Crosby might be a better player (ok, so he's not), but he is above all else a technician. There is a cold, passionless efficiency about his game that appeals to a purist, but perhaps not to a wider audience that isn't familiar with the game.

You couldn't do this with a goaltender. The nature of the position argues against it -- it is too static, even with the occasional acrobatics a goaltender might display.

And what personality would lend itself to "filling the space" in an IMAX format...Joe Thornton? Hey, I like to watch the guy work, and he is an immensely skilled player, but exciting he's not.

Evolution is not always a gradual process, scientists tell us. Sometimes, a species just takes an evolutionary "leap" forward. It seems hockey has been waiting for that leap since Pete Parker broadcast the first complete hockey game on radio more than eight decades ago. We are no technical expert in broadcasting, and we have no experience in video feature production. But as a fan, hearing the words "Ovechkin" and "IMAX" mentioned in the same sentence ran a jolt of electricity up our spine. We can't imagine anything else that could capture -- no, grab by the throat -- the sports fan who might until now have been indifferent to hockey.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

"Shhhh…be vewwy vewwy quiet…we’re hunting Thwashers."

Oh…the peerless prognosticator is on the air…
...where does one find these thwash…thrashers?

“Atwanta, siwwy.”

I see. And you’ve done this before?

“No, I usuawwy hunt wabbbits.”

How do you go about hunting thrashers?

“Fust, you get a wead on them.”

A lead?

“uh-huh…when you get a wead, they’we easy to beat.”


“uh-huh…they onwy won five games this season when they give up the fust goaw.”

I see…so is it hard to get a lead on them?

“Nope…61 games, 34 times they gave up the fust goaw. Shhh…I see one now…"


“Wats…that wascawwy Kovawchuk got away again.”

And he is…

“Oh, he’s a sneaky wittle thwasher…you get up cwose to him and he aw-ways seems to get away.”

Any other thrashers we need to be on the lookout for?

“That Swavva Kozwov…if you wet him get to a shootout, he’s weawwy good.”

How good?

“Five-for-five this season. And Atwanta aw-weaddy has two shootout wins this month.”

I think I see another one…


Geez…thank heavens we were out hunting thwash…uh, thrashers with Elmer Fudd instead of a former vice president, or this entry would be done by now…

As for tonight’s opponent – the Atlanta Thrashers – do NOT, we repeat, do NOT underestimate them. Their record is 5-4-1 this month, which isn’t what one would call dominating, but it is a step up for that group. And, those four losses in regulation were to New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Jose. Only the loss to the Devils was by more than two goals, so the Thrashers have played respectably of late.

For the season, though, it has been a grind, as the overall numbers suggest…

The formula for beating this team is a pretty clear version of how to beat teams in the NHL generally. Get a lead (Atlanta is 27th in winning percentage when allowing the first goal) and take a lead (they have won three of 30 games in which they trailed at the second intermission).

It doesn’t seem to be especially difficult to get a lead on the Thrashers – they have allowed more goals in the first period (71) than any team in the league, except Toronto. And as for taking a lead into the third period, again, only Toronto has allowed more goals over the first and second periods combined than have the Thrashers. The second period has been especially hard on Atlanta this year. They have a goal differential of -20 in that period for the season (49 goals scored, 69 allowed).

This is not a very good defensive team.

Individually, it is a team that can score. Ask Anaheim, who took one in the teeth a couple of weeks ago at home against the Thrashers. Six different Thrashers had goals in an 8-4 win in Anaheim. They were led, as they have been all season, by Ilya Kovalchuk, who had a hat trick in that game.

Kovalchuk is one of those guys – Caps fans, you know the type – who can score in bunches. And in February, he’s had a bunch. He has goals in seven of his last eight games, during which he’s gone 10-4-14, +2. Four of those goals have been on the power play. He’s had his share against the Caps over his career, too. He is 20-27-47, +11 in 39 career games against Washington.

Vyacheslav Kozlov might give the impression of being a one-trick pony, he being of the 5-for-5 this year in Gimmicks and 22-for-37 (59.5 percent) for his career. But he is the second leading scorer for the Thrashers in the hockey portion of the hockey season, too. His February has been, as one might expect, something of a mirror image of Kovalchuk’s. In his last eight games, Kozlov is 2-7-9, even.

Then there the guys we might think of as the “sneaky” guys. Todd White has 52 points in 61 games this year – already a career high for him. And, he has seven points in his last five games. Meanwhile, Bryan Little has provided some spark of late, too. After going without a point in ten consecutive games from January 20th through February 11th, he had seven points in four games (4-3-7) before being shutout against Colorado in Atlanta’s last contest on Tuesday.

The trouble for the Thrashers, though, is that the four players mentioned here are a combined -43 for the season. They have to score just for the Thrashers to be competitive.

Why? Well, it would be convenient to say that it is a product of a poor defense, and that is true on a team-wide basis. The defensemen as a group really can’t be singled out for this. Ron Hainsey had a decent start for the Thrashers after joining the club as a free agent. Then, he had a rather dismal stretch from November through January. He’s been somewhat better of late, finding himself as a “plus” player for the month of February (plus-3). Were he to finish that way, it would be his first month on the good side of the ledger since October.

Tobias Enstrom looked for all the world at the start of the year as if he would fall victim to the “sophomore slump.” After a rookie season in which he finished 5-33-38, -5 and was the object of some talk as a Calder Trophy candidate, he had one point and was minus-4 for October. Since then, though, he is 2-11-13, +5.

What the Thrashers have not had is solid or even consistently mediocre goaltending. Kari Lehtonen is, for lack of a better term, the “number one” goaltender. But he is pretty much a “second page” goalie in the statistics for goalies. His 12 wins is tied for 36th in the league, his goals-against average (3.15) is 39th, and his save percentage (.908) is 29th. And he’s the best of the lot.

Johan Hedberg is 7-9-3, which masks a somewhat ghastly set of accompanying numbers. His 3.61 GAA is 44th – dead last among qualifying goaltenders – in the league, and his .884 save percentage is 43rd in the league (only Chris Osgood is worse). If Hedberg gets the start, Glory Days had better be getting deliveries of wings.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Atlanta: Whoever gets the start in goal

It is a mark of how spoiled Caps fans have become in such a short time that the current 2-2 mark on a five game home stand (losses to Colorado and Philadelphia) would be deemed a “disappointment.” The flip side of that is that the team should (and the operative word there is “should”) be of a mind to set things right and end the home stand on the right note. That would point to the Caps pressuring the Thrashers early, and that means rubber – lots of it – being thrown at the Thrasher goalie. They haven't stopped much of it this year. Tonight, they have to be sharp from the start, or the competitive portion of the evening might be over by 7:30.

Washington: Tomas Fleischmann

Fleischmann has been in a bit of a skid of late. OK, he’s in a slump. He has one goal since netting the game winner against Pittsburgh on January 14th, a span of 16 games. Oddly enough, though, his minus-1 against the Flyers the last time out was the first minus game he’s had since January 13th against Edmonton. Getting that minus against the Flyers isn’t surprising. Philly is a physical team that uses that characteristic with a certain enthusiasm. Fleischmann, being of slight build (he is the second lightest player on the team at 190 pounds, if you believe that the program weight of Nicklas Backstrom is 183 pounds), seems to struggle against teams like that. He gets a break in this game – Atlanta is not a team with extraordinary size, especially among the players against whom Fleischmann is likely to be matched. He could have more room than he had, say, against Philly.

The game against the Flyers was a measuring stick of sorts, and while the Caps did not play badly (which is not to say they played well), they still lost, and the Flyers are a team the Caps could be seeing in April or May. The Thrashers are a measuring stick of a different sort, the kind of team the Caps need to dispatch quickly. The Caps have a tendency to play down to the level of such teams too often. Tonight, the Caps need to take that measuring stick and beat the Thrashers with it.

“Or maybe use a wifle.”

Yeah, or maybe use a rifle.

Caps 5 – Thrashers 1

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A NO-point night: Flyers 4 - Caps 2

Backstrom, Steckel, Laich, Fleischmann.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? Might as well be, but no. They are the four guys who had clear and clean breakaways in last night's 4-2 loss to the Flyers. For all the talk of how the Flyers could make a team pay for being careless on the power play, it was the Caps who had several excellent scoring opportunities on shorthanded breakaways, and they failed to cash in on any of them. In fact, of the four players above, only one – Laich – registered a shot on goal. Two others missed the net, and another – Backstrom’s – hit the post.

Those were the most obvious opportunities squandered, but they weren’t the only ones…

-- The Caps had 34 misfires (12 shots blocked, 22 misses). Nicklas Backstrom had five missed shots by himself, including the post-ringer. There’s a good sign in there in that Backstrom wasn’t shy about getting his shot off (he would also net the game’s first goal). But they keep score of those that go in, not those that go wide.

-- Seven power plays, including 47 seconds of a five-on-three, and one goal to show for it. It wasn’t as if the Caps were shy about shooting or unduly concerned with the Flyers’ ability to pick off passes and get chances at the other end. They had 14 shots in 10:48 of total power play time. And those shots came from six different players, which is a bit unusual these days for the Caps. The trouble is, the last 13 didn’t make it to the back of the net.

-- Alex Ovechkin scored his 44th goal at 4:19 of the second period, making the score 2-0. From that point until the Flyers got their first goal at 9:22, the Caps attempted four shots – John Erskine, Alexander Semin, Matt Bradley, Jeff Schultz. If there had been a little more pressure there from guys who would normally be expected to exert such pressure, the game might have taken a different turn.

-- The Young Guns – Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, and Mike Green – attempted a total of 42 shots among them, none fewer than nine. 20 of those shots were on goal. They had two goals to show for it.

Then there was the exasperating…

-- Another delay-of-game penalty. Even with the shorthanded opportunities the Caps couldn’t cash in on, the Flyers weren’t looking as if they were going to be scoring much at five-on-five. And the Caps 4-on-5 penalty killing wasn’t allowing many chances. But then Semin took a delay-of-game penalty when he shot the puck over the glass when it appeared he had more time than perhaps he thought he had, giving the Flyers a 5-on-3 opportunity. Nine seconds later, the Flyers had their first goal and their legs back under them.

-- Arron Asham? Arron Freakin’ Asham? His goal – the Flyers’ last of the evening and the one that drove the last nail into the coffin of this one – was just inexcusable. How Jeff Schultz let Asham walk around him and allow him to look like Mario Lemieux dangling the puck on the end of his stick was one of those head-slapping, “are-you-kidding-me?” moments. Schultz no doubt feels as bad as anyone else, but that play can’t happen there with a fourth liner on the ice killing time.

-- The Flyers came into the game with a record of 2-15-3 when trailing after two periods. The Caps had a record of 26-2-1 when leading at the second intermission. Who would you have bet on? Yeah, me too. And in case you’re wondering, yes…it is the first time this year the Caps have lost a game in regulation at home when leading after two periods. It is only the second loss in regulation at home this season to an Eastern Conference team.

-- Tomas Fleischmann was next to invisible (ok, scratch “next to”). One shot attempt, a giveaway, a takeaway, and lots of getting abused by Flyers.

-- Secondary scoring just isn’t there. Both goals were really a product of Ovechkin’s stick – his own goal, of course, and the Backstrom goal, which was the product of Ovechkin faking Niittymaki to his knees with a fake slap shot, then sliding the puck to Backstrom, who had an empty net into which he could deposit a backhand. Not that the Caps lacked for chances – they didn’t. But they simply didn’t cash in.

-- When the Flyers crawled back into the game, especially after the goal by Scott Hartnell to tie things up, the Caps reverted to a troublesome pattern. Instead of just tending to business and playing their game, which had been somewhat successful in this contest, they went back to every guy trying to do things himself, playing like individuals. It’s admirable that guys would want to assume that burden, but it’s also ill-advised. Beating teams 1-on-5 is a rarity in this sport

-- Not cashing in seems especially unfortunate for David Steckel, who otherwise had a very good game. The same could be said for Brooks Laich, who didn’t show up a lot on the scoresheet, but who played the kind of game against the Flyers that looked like something you’d have seen in the 1980’s – very hardnosed.

And it is a law of nature that if a team squanders its early chances, it will come back to haunt them. It was the case in Philadelphia in December, when the Caps launched 25 first period shots at Niittymaki and had nothing to show for it, then losing 7-1. It was the case last night when the Caps had chance after shorthanded chance and couldn’t get the puck on net, let alone in. If they scored on one of them, we’re having an entirely different conversation this morning.

The Caps played a pretty good game, actually. Trouble was, it was an NBA game – 48 minutes. Then, they had three minutes from hell, when the Flyers got the tying, winning, and insurance goals. And before that, the Caps failed to take advantage of the opportunities presented, both in terms of Daniel Briere and Kimmo Timomen being absent, and in not burying the chances they were afforded over the first 40 minutes.

And so, the circle remains unbroken…Pittsburgh beats Philadelphia, the Caps beat Pittsburgh, Philadelphia beats the Caps.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sittin' at the end of the bar...

-- has three Caps in the top six of their player rankings, now that Alexander Semin is a "qualifier."

-- You won't see it widely noted, but Mike Richards thinks that this Caps-Flyers thing has the makings of the "R-word:"

“I remember that Toronto series, and to this day, when we go there, it’s, ‘oh, the Flyers are in town. Last year’s playoffs we had with Washington was the best of the whole playoffs that I saw. It could definitely happen if we keep meeting each other and having the kind of games we do. It seems it gets more heated every time we play.”

...he shoulda been around in the 80's, but then again, he'd have been, what... three when Dale Hunter put Ron Hextall on his back?

-- Oh, and it seems blogging can make you happy. Who knew? I'm happy... are you happy? Of course, I'm happier that that the Caps toasted the Penguins, and that karma has paid a visit to Sidney Crosby's nether regions.

-- And, if you're a Caps fan, you might not want to watch this near-decapitation...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Like it, Lump it, Look at it...

“Like it or lump it, that’s what he does. Some people like it. Some people don’t. Personally, I don’t like it.”

Sidney Crosby doesn't seem to like the manner in which Alexander Ovechkin conducts himself on the ice (what is this, golf?). Maybe he might like to offer an opinion on some goal celebrations from years past...

…or perhaps he lacks an appreciation for the training one has to put in for their goal celebrations…

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Flyers, February 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s Mardi Gras 2009, and the Caps are hoping they have a parade of goals as they host the Philadelphia Flyers at Verizon Center. The Caps are coming off an emotional win against the Pittsburgh Penguins in front of a national television audience, and…

“Eh, mon ami…gonna be a real fais do-do tonight, I guarantee…”

Well, it’s our old friend Thibodeau…what are you doing up here from Louisiana?

“Ah, I got tired of Mardi Gras parades, always throwing beads, hitting me in the head…boom!”

Yeah, yeah…I can see that. But hockey?

“Ah, cher… ‘ockey…ca c’est bon! And your Ovechkin, he must be Cajun, oui?”

Well, he was born in Moscow.

“He must have some Cajun spirit in ‘im. He play like cayenne taste – full of fire. And spicy like andouille. I see ‘im go up an’ down the ice, and I hear zydeco in my ‘ead. He really play with joie de vivre! I think his name ‘AUX-vechkin, n’est-ce pas?”

Could be, could be, but have you followed some of the other Caps?

“Certainement! We watched the game on Sunday…oh, that was a nice boucherie, cher.”

Yeah, they carved up the Pens like a prize pig, didn’t they?

“We like that Nicklas Backstrom…always leaving puck for others… lagniappe.”

I guess that’s one way to put it…a little extra for his teammates. He’s had a nice season so far. He’ll have to be sharp against these Flyers, though.

“Oh, the Flyers – no one likes them in Luzianne…”


“How do you like someone from a city that calls a ‘po’ boy’ a ‘frommage steak?’”

Good point. But cheese steaks and po’ boys aside, the Flyers come into this one winners of three of their last four and five of their last seven. It is a team that, statistically at least, looks a lot like their hosts for the evening…

If fans think that there was a fair amount of yapping going on between the Caps and the Penguins on Sunday, then maybe they should keep this one in mind to stick on their refrigerator doors before tonight’s game…

"They're starting to get some fans now, I guess. We can't buy all the tickets."

That was Jeff Carter, remarking on the dearth of Flyer fans in the building when the Caps hosted the Flyers on January 6th – a 2-1 Gimmick win for the Caps. We’re guessing there will have been a lot of Caps fans buying tickets for this one to see if the Caps can climb over the .500 mark in the all-time series against the Flyers in Washington (37-37-14).

The Flyers are one of those teams whose record looks rather impressive at first glance. They are 11-7-2 in the 2009 portion of the schedule. But of those 11 wins, only one – a 4-3 overtime win over Boston – was achieved against a team ahead of Philadelphia in the standings. Not that they’ve had a lot of such games. Overall, they are 1-1-1 against teams ahead of them in the standings in 2009 (a regulation loss to Boston and a Gimmick loss to the Caps completing the record).

They’ve managed some rather grisly losses on the way in 2009 as well – a pair of home losses to Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, a shutout (not shootout) loss to the Blues, Ottawa. But on the other hand, the Flyers are 5-2-1 in 2009 against teams currently in the playoff-eight of their respective conferences. They can get up for big games. This one would qualify.

Perhaps uncharacteristically, the Flyers come into this game stumbling a bit on the power play. Despite being fourth in the league overall on the power play (23.2 percent), they are only clicking at a 16.4 percent rate in 2009. They are 1-for-13 (7.7 percent) in their last five games.

They do, however, do something at which the Caps struggle – kill penalties. Overall, they’ve killed almost 83 percent of the shorthanded situations they’ve faced, and they’ve maintained that level of consistency in the 2009 portion of the year (82.7 percent), although they have allowed three power play goals in their last eight penalty killing situations.

Philly can pound a team on offense. Having five players with more than 20 goals will do that. Jeff “Ticketmaster” Carter still leads the club in goals and scoring, although his goal-scoring pace has slowed. Since January 1st, he has seven goals in 20 games to fall behind Alex Ovechkin in that area (Ovechkin has 18 goals in 22 games in 2009). He has only two goals – both in a 3-2 win over Atlanta – in February.

On the other hand, Mike Richards – tied with Carter for the team lead in overall scoring (60 points) – has had a good 2009 and a great February. Since January 1st, he is 8-13-21 in 17 games in 2009 and 5-5-10 in five February games, including a five-point effort against Buffalo last Thursday. Richards is quite the all-around player as well. He leads the Flyers in hits, leads all Flyer forwards in blocked shots, leads the team in takeaways, and wins the majority of his draws (50.2 percent).

If there is a surprise among the scorers, it might be Scott Hartnell. Since the start of the year, he is 7-8-15 in 20 games and is fourth on the team in overall scoring. He doesn’t lack for grit, either, ranking third in penalty minutes for the Flyers (103…compare that with 107 for Donald Brashear).

Then there is the curiosity that is Glen Metropolit. The former Capital is playing for his sixth NHL franchise (Washington, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, St. Louis, Boston, Philadelphia) with stops in Finland and Switzerland along the way. He seems to have found a niche of sorts as the sort of gritty fourth liner the Flyers produce with some regularity. He also brings a bit of a scoring touch. He is not at the moment threatening his career scoring highs (14 goals split between Atlanta and St. Louis in 2006-2007, 22 assists in Boston last year), but he has chipped in here and there. He has two goals in his last three games and three in his last seven.

On defense, the Flyers aren’t likely to get a lot of goal-scoring from their defense, but they do have 85 assists from the blue line this year (the Caps have 80). They also seem to have a knack for matching up with the Caps. Kimmo Timonen would appear likely to draw the assignment of shadowing Alex Ovechkin to the greatest extent possible. But Timonen will have help. Braydon “No Zhitnik” Coburn brings size and attitude to his work, not to mention 22 points in 55 games (that would rank second among Caps defensemen). Guys the casual fan probably doesn’t follow much – Andrew Alberts and Ossi Vaananen -- rank one-two among the defensemen in hits.

But the controversy in Philadelphia, as it always seems to be when it concerns the Flyers, is in goal. Can Martin Biron be “The Man” to lead the Flyers to a championship? Can Antero Niittymaki duplicate the championship he won in Philadelphia with the Flyers’ AHL affiliate – the Phantoms – when he allowed only six goals in a four game sweep of the Chicago Wolves in the 2005 Calder Cup final?

Put us down for “not likely” on both counts.

Biron is one of those guys who can win games in clusters from time to time, but scare you to death (if you’re a Flyers fan) all the while he’s doing it. Need an example? Look no further than the three-game winning streak he put together against the Islanders, Rangers, and Sabres last week. He allowed one goal on 39 shots in a superb performance against the Islanders (kind of like Alex Rodriguez going 5-for-6 with eight RBIs against the Kazakhstan national baseball team), then allowed two on 37 shots in a 5-2 win over the Rangers. Four days later, he allowed three on 42 shots in a 6-3 win against the Sabres. See a pattern emerging?

No, he didn’t allow four against the Penguins in his next start. He allowed five (on 27 shots), but perhaps the last one shouldn’t count, as it was a product of Biron finding himself above the hash marks trying to defend a Pascal Dupuis break. The puck ended up on Sidney Crosby’s stick, and Biron could only hope for divine intervention to prevent the goal with an empty net in front of Crosby. Unfortunately for Biron, God was attending to other matters. Biron is 6-5-1, 2.82, .917 since January 1st, but he’s allowed fewer than three goals only twice in his last nine games and was yanked after allowing three in the first period of a 4-3 overtime win over Boston.

Niittymaki, on the other hand, has been rather successful in the games parceled out to him. He is 5-2-1, 2.16, .932 in 2009. Perhaps ominously, though, he’s allowed at least four goals in two of his last four appearances, although he has had a bout with the flu recently.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Philadelphia: Simon Gagne

Gagne exploded out of the gate this season. He was 13-17-30, +15 in 20 games before Thanksgiving. Since then, he is 9-14-23, +8 in 34 games. However, in his last 13 games, he has a pair of four-game point streaks, the second one still active. Gagne is something of a Cap-killer as well. In 30 career games, he is 17-14-31 with four-game winners. In 11 games against Washington since the lockout, he is 8-5-13. On the power play he’s been 4-3-7, and all of his scoring in the last two years against the Caps has been with the man advantage (1-2-3 in four games).

Washington: Donald Brashear

When the Flyers meet the Caps, often the game is settled on the basis of tone – who sets it? That’s sort of the way things go no matter who the Flyers play. And how do they set that tone? Well, the Flyers are second in the league in fighting majors, averaging better than one a game. They have two players – Arron Asham and Riley Cote – ranked in the top ten in fighting majors. Chances are, there will be some sort of fistic encounter some time during the evening, and that is likely to involve Brashear. But that’s not the curiosity here. Since joining the Caps, Brashear has ten goals in 212 games. He has two in ten against the Flyers (plus one in seven playoff games last spring). If you’re looking for a thunderbolt, it might come from Brashear’s fist, but it also might come from the blade of his stick.

This is as good a matchup as one could want for Mardi Gras – a night of indulgence, so to speak, against a hated rival. So, what do you think, Thibodeau? See a Caps win in this one?

“Ah, cher, like we say on Mardi Gras, ‘laissez les bon temps rouler!’

Caps 4 – Flyers 3

"We feel 100 percent responsible..."

That was Scott Gomez, commenting on the firing of Tom Renney as head coach of the New York Rangers. It was inevitable, I guess. Since compiling a 10-2-1 record in October, the Rangers went 7-6-1 in November, 6-5-1 in December, 6-5-1 again in January, and finally 2-5-3 in February before Renney was relieved of his duties. Assistant Perry Pearn was also dismissed.

Here’s a coach who managed to guide the Rangers to a 128-83-35 record heading into this year. He led the Rangers to 40-plus wins in three consecutive years – the first time that had happened in Manhattan since the 1970’s.

And now, he doesn’t know how to win.

It doesn’t seem as if Renney is the problem. The Rangers have been a team that hasn’t seen a problem a checkbook and a working pen couldn’t solve for years. Need a center? Hey, get two! Scott Gomez and Chris Drury -- $14.4 million in cap hit. They’ve combined for fewer points than Evgeni Malkin and are a combined minus-20. Need a defenseman? Hey, get two! Wade Redden and Dmitri Kalinin -- $$8.6 million in cap hit. There’s another combined minus-20. Need forwards? Hey, get two! Nikolai Zherdev (acquired in trade) and Markus Naslund -- $6.5 million in cap hit. Zherdev has had 11 points in 2009 (four in his last 11 games), and Naslund has nine points in 2009 and is minus-14 for the year by himself.

Now, it appears to be up to John Tortorella to turn things around, who if nothing else will provide fodder for the New York tabloids (assuming the Rangers can work out something with the Lightning). The Rangers will probably get a boost from the change – it often happens that way. But the problem doesn’t appear to be the coach here, any more than it was the coach in Pittsburgh a week ago. The Rangers are a team built quite literally on the basis of a Gimmick. They lead the league with nine shootout wins. But even there, it was starting to fall apart – they were 1-3 in Gimmicks in 2009.

The fact of the matter is that the Rangers just aren’t that good of a team, personnel-wise. They are less of a team than they were last year, which is saying something, since last year’s version included the renowned “leave it all on the ice” player – Jaromir Jagr.

Scott Gomez mouthed the right words – “as players, we feel 100 percent responsible.” Well, the players are a part of it. They certainly haven’t been keeping up their end of the deal. But 100 percent? 50 percent? Nope, the lion’s share of this debacle can be placed at the feet of the architect of this collection of underperformers.

He might be in the Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder, but Glen Sather sure isn’t there for what he’s built in New York.

A Tale of Two Eras

A tale of two eras.

In one, we find the family sitting in the living room, Junior and Princess sitting at Father’s knee as he leans back in his easy chair. Mother is on the sofa, the very picture of the suburban homemaker. Their favorite television show is coming on, and the music is cueing up – “Seems Like Old Times.” They spend the next 90 minutes (shows ran long in those days) watching Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, enjoying the talents of the likes of Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Connie Francis, and Steve Lawrence.

It was the picture of wholesome, earnest, entertaining, black-and-white television from the medium’s Golden Age.

It is a memory of time gone by.

It is Sidney Crosby.

In the other, we have You Tube, Twitter, phone-cams, and films you can “snag.” It is the 30-second burst. The bite. The pop. Everyone is a producer, and their moment lasts as long as it takes the eye to blink. We move on to the next burst…the next bite…the next pop. We enjoy performers who have “buzz.” But we’re always looking for the next one…bigger, sassier, eccentric, unique. The one who can get us to ask, “What will he do next?” is the one we’ll come back to. The one who we can’t miss because, well, we’ll miss something grand and as yet unseen…we won’t miss.

It is the picture of attention spans measured in seconds, of the outlandish, of red – the color of passion.

It’s looking forward.

It is Alex Ovechkin.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A TWO-point, TEN-topping afternoon: Caps 5 - Penguins 2

“The NHL on NBC” became reality television for the Pittsburgh Penguins today as they came in, found that instead of thousands, they had merely dozens of black-and-gold (or baby blue) clad fans on hand, and promptly laid an egg. The Caps clinched the season series and delivered a message, period and point blank in a 5-2 win.

The page has turned.

Caps fans and a national television audience saw two teams going in opposite directions this afternoon. The Penguins looked like a team whose moment is already over. The Capitals look like a team that might (he said while rubbing a rabbit’s foot and nailing up a horseshoe) have a parade to plan in June.

The Caps ended the competitive portion of the game in the first 35 minutes of the game, which was the time it took to put the five-spot on the record of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. It’s probably a good thing, too, because at the other end of the ice, Caps goalie Jose Theodore was leaving some tasty rebounds to open the action. Of course, giving rebounds means he was stopping pucks in the first place. Fleury, on the other hand, wasn’t so fortunate. Maybe it was the back-to-back starts, maybe it was the defense in front of him, or maybe he just plain played poorly.

On the other hand, seems the Caps respond well to abuse. The practice they had after the Colorado debacle – the Kettler Death Skate – had the intended effect. The Caps pressured the Penguins early, made their defensemen handle the puck and make decisions quickly (for all his considerable gifts, this not one of Sergei Gonchar’s), and kept Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in check (each with an inconsequential assist on the same power play goal).

Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin abused Fleury in the same fashion he’s abused other goaltenders – a one-timer from the left wing circle – for the game’s first goal. The thing with this one, though, is the passing between Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Backstrom, which looks to be quite a match. From the right wing boards, Fedorov laid the puck out for Backstrom in the middle of the ice, who swept the puck in one motion to Ovechkin to fire before Fleury could get across. Chalk that one up to a team executing a play as diagrammed.

But then, Fleury’s day took a turn. Alexander Semin’s goal was the product of a waiting game between Semin and Fleury that took all of two or three seconds. It was a matter of who would commit first, Semin with the puck, or Fleury going into his butterfly. If you’re a Penguin fan, you’re wishing you had a stand-up goalie there, because it was Fleury who committed, and Semin stepped to the side and fired the puck top shelf into the net.

Goal three was on a feed from Semin – who swiped the puck from Jordan Staal, then froze Ryan Whitney in his tracks, making him believe he was taking the shot – to Fedorov, who was steaming down the middle. Fedorov let fly from the high slot with a slapper that sailed over Fleury’s blocker and into the net.

Goal four was the nail in the coffin of Fleury’s day, except coach Dan Bylsma couldn’t get him off fast enough. Alex Ovechkin circled with the puck through the Penguin zone and fired a shot from the right hash marks. Fleury made the save, kicking the puck to the far boards, where it ended up on Shaone Morrisonn’s stick. Morrisonn flicked the puck back at the net, and it went in – a dagger that came after the Penguins closed the lead to 3-2.

Bylsma finally put Fleury out of his misery on the sort of goal of which it might be said that the puck had eyes. The Penguins gave the puck away behind their own net, Fleury putting a pass intended for Hal Gill right on the stick of Semin, who then fed the puck high to Tom Poti. The Caps defenseman let fly with a slapper, but it sailed wide to Fleury’s right. Brooks Laich picked the puck up in the corner and just threw it at the net from below the goal line. The puck crawled over Fleury’s right pad and dropped on the line, then trickled just across before Gill could sweep it out. And thus, Fleury’s day ended.

It was not a clinic in goaltending.

After that, the game was essentially a matter of two issues. First, would the Caps get the crowd an order of free wings by getting a sixth goal (they didn’t), and would the referees march Caps to the penalty box (they did). The Penguins would be the beneficiaries of three third period power plays (the Caps would receive none), perhaps in an effort to keep hordes of fans from turning the channel to the latest boring early season golf tournament action on CBS (final round of the Northern Trust Open).

But here is where the pain of the Saturday practice perhaps came into play. On the three power plays, the Penguins managed only four shots, and only one in the last two combined. None of them were by Evgeni Malkin, and only one was registered by Sidney Crosby.

Game over, thanks for coming…drive safely. Some other stuff…

-- Nine Caps shared in the scoring fun, five of them registering two points (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Morrisonn, Semin, and Fedorov)

-- That was Morrisonn’s first multi-point game since March 10, 2007, when he had two assists in a 5-2 loss to the Islanders.

-- The two assists for Backstrom leaves him 3-11-14, +6 in ten February games.

-- We’re betting there was a new – or at least a substitute – official scorer for this one. The teams were credited with a combined 80 hits… eight-zero hits. Only two Penguins (Mark Eaton and Petr Sykora) failed to scratch that column of the score sheet.

-- Marc-Andre Fleury was credited with three giveaways, an uncommon number for a goaltender (yeah, he was that bad today). He would have led the team but for the Golden Child, who had five.

-- Alexander Semin…two points, four takeaways, NO giveaways. He earned his star.

-- On the other hand, a guy who didn’t get a star we thought had a monster game. Brooks Laich netted a goal, had a couple of hits, and won a pair of faceoffs he took. But that’s a case where the official numbers don’t do the player justice. He was harassing Penguins all over the ice, as if he was some herring on steroids looking to avenge all the kin who were snacks along the way.

-- Speaking of harassment, it might not have been clear on TV, but every opportunity that presented itself to jostle or yap at Crosby was taken. Ovechkin was in on it, Laich, the defense, it seemed like everyone had something to say to Crosby. Some of it was in response to stick work from Crosby, some of it was just to be friendly. It seemed to have the intended effect. Crosby spent a lot of time leaning over the boards yapping back at the Capitals’ bench and looking for a pound of flesh when he was on the ice. The Caps turned Crosby into Matt Cooke. They’ll take that ten games out of ten.

-- Did John Erskine take an online class or pick up a “Defensemen for Dummies” book at Amazon? He’s looked more and more like a solid, reliable defenseman as time has gone by this year. It’s not even as much that his minutes and matchups have to be managed as much as in the past. He’s just playing pretty well.

-- Eric Fehr didn’t attempt a shot on goal – not something you want to see from a guy who has been scoring points pretty regularly these days, but it didn’t hurt his hustle in forechecking.

-- We were wondering how Pittsburgh’s power play could be so bad this year. We’re not wondering any more. They’re too cute. Gonchar will bomb from the blue line (he scored that way), which is in his job description under “power play,” but the other guys? Color us unimpressed, at least today.

-- There are days when the Caps have faceoff problems (-cough- Backstrom) that is a lack of skill in the middle. Not today. Backstrom did a pretty good job of winning draws or fighting to a draw, but the Caps at times just didn’t support the play very well. And, although Backstrom will record this as another sub.500 effort in the circle, he was a combined 4-for-6 in the offensive and defensive zones.

-- Getting off on the right foot… that is 12 consecutive games in which the Caps have scored a first period goal. They have 20 goals in that span and have gone 8-2-2.

-- Eight wingers for the Penguins (including Evgeni Malkin, who started at right wing) had 11 shots, total. Petr Sykora had five of those, and none other had more than one (including Malkin).

-- The Penguins are trying to play a much more “north-south” game under Bylsma than they seemed to play under Michel Therrien. We’re wondering, though, if they have the defensemen to do this. Hal Gill and Mark Eaton looked slow and out of place in this scheme. Kris Letang sat (again), and Alex Gologoski is in Wilkes-Barre. They seem better suited to what Bylsma wants to do offensively, but neither of them are especially sturdy in their own end. You have to think the Penguins will be moving a defenseman at some point.

-- Of course, Whitney might make that job easy with the way he’s playing. Before taking a puck to the face in the third period, he was a minus-2, took a penalty, and had three giveaways. Did he come back too soon from his injury, or has he been overrated?

-- We’ll give Petr Sykora credit. The wingers for the Penguins have been a much-maligned bunch. But Sykora was out there launching shots to try to get something going. Twice he had excellent chances on rebounds offered up by Theodore, but had the puck bounce over his stick each time with an open net staring at him.

-- Question…If Sidney Crosby is driving along I-95, does he get booed at toll booths, too? Washington, Philadelphia, New York. He’s not a popular guy.

As long as the Penguins have Crosby and Malkin, they will be dangerous, a team capable of beating any other – including the Capitals -- on any given night. But this afternoon, Crosby got his point, Malkin got his, Gonchar got a goal, and the Penguins got next to nothing from everyone else, plus a grisly game from their starting goalie – a microcosm of their season. Meanwhile, the Caps got five multi-point games, including such games from the guys who you expect to get them – Semin, Ovechkin, Backstrom – and a guy you don’t expect to get one (Morrisonn). They got a decent, if not spectacular, performance from their goalie, who got better as the game wore on – a microcosm of their season.

The Caps didn't get the crowd their wings, but it will be a busy time at a local pizza firm's stores tomorrow. As for the hockey, it was two teams going in opposite directions. We’re happy with the one the Caps are on. Great job boys…

Looking in the mirror and seeing yourself

On this Sunday morning, consider the hockey teams separated by a couple of hours -- Hershey and Washington, one the AHL affiliate of the other. Think these teams are similar? Yes, they play from the same playbook of style, and many Bears have skated on Verizon Center ice this year. But this morning, or rather last night, with the electrifying finish the Bears authored, the similarities took a new turn...

37 wins - 17 losses

That's right...both teams have this many wins and this many losses in regulation.

Cue The Twilight Zone music.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Penguins, February 22nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

And here we are, trying to keep from this being a lost weekend against inferior opponents, which is an odd thing to say when one of those opponents, and the object of today’s exercise, is a finalist from last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. But the Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves on the outside, looking in at the playoffs at the moment with less than two months remaining in the regular season. The Penguins being The Penguins, this will be one of those games that fans get up for as much as players, and given the state of crowds at Verizon Center this year, it should be loud. And that’s why we visited Dr. Vynot Schootdepuck, Director of Advanced Applications at the Bettman Institute of Technology and Competitive Hockey.

Dr. V, I’m guessing that you and the other geniuses at BITCH really know a lot about noise.

“Oh, ja, dats vun zubjeckt vee know qvite a bit about. Ve’re alvays bitching arount here.”

I see… well, the crowds at Verizon Center have been loud this year, but we wanted to get a flavor for just how loud “loud” is. Can you shed some light on this for us?

“Zertainly. Vutt ve heff here is a scale of loudness zat iss measured in vutt ve call 'dezzibells.'”


“Ja...dezzibells. Let me tr-r-r-ry to describe ziss in terms you can unnershtand. At ze one end of ze dezzibell shpecktrum, you have a quiet vissper in a library – or a typical Islander home game – zat’s bout 30 dezzibells. Iff you heff a normal converzashun, zay, like you voot heff at a Panthers home game, zat voot be about zixty-fife dezzibells. Unnershant?”

Yes, I think I do…but vutt…what about Caps games, Professor?

“Ah, zat is vhere sinks get inter-r-r-restink. Vay beck venn ze Kepps vere vutt ve call “shtinkypoo,” you could hear a pin dr-r-r-upp. But now, ach du lieber! It’s cr-r-r-razy. You heff dat guy mit de horn. Mein gott! I hevent heard zuch a ting zince I played ze alphorn beck home venn I vuss a boy. Zehn zere iss zat guy mit the booming voice. I zingk zere are libr-r-r-rarians in Dusseldorf going “SHHHHH!” effry time he zhtarts mit de “LET’S GO CAPS” ting.”

Tell me, Professor, with the Penguins coming to town, is there anything special we should look for in terms of noise when the Penguins visit Verizon Center?

“Oh, ja, but you von’t know it.”

Why is that?

“Vunn ting dat vill happen, qvite often I tink, is zat dogs all around ze arena vill ztart to howl.”

And that is because…

“Oh, dat’s venn Zidney Cr-r-r-rosby ztarts to vine. It’s de kind of zound only dogs and referees can hear.”

Well, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. The Penguins come to town having earned five of six standings points in three games at the dawn of the Age of Bylsma. Since Dan Bylsma took over from Michel Therrien, there is a spring in their step, a sparkle in their skate blades, and a song in their hearts. They’ve also scored five goals in each of their last two games, which is an ominous sign for the Caps this afternoon and the rest of the league in general. It is the first time the Penguins have hit the five-goal mark in consecutive games since turning the trick in the first two games of November (6-3 over St. Louis and 5-4 over Edmonton).

Three games does not a trend make, but the early returns point to a distinct change in style for Pittsburgh from what had become the case under Therrien. Looking at the 2009 portion of the season, here is how the numbers stack up under the two coaches…

Overall, though, Pittsburgh does have a hole out of which they must dig, and 22 games in which to do it. Although much of the season has been spent with fans of Penguins searching everywhere but the Anchor Bar for wings to play with Sidney Crosby, their problems have been manifold, as the overall numbers show…

Pittsburgh comes into this game with two wins in their last three games, but the margin of error has been razor thin – a shootout loss to a team thinking “Tavares” more than “playoffs,” a one-goal win over a team preoccupied by bad play and emerging scandal, and a one-goal win coming on a gift from an old friend. “Dominant” is not quite the adjective that comes to mind in thinking of the Penguins, but a team struggling to right itself for a stretch run has to start somewhere.

Unless you’ve been living on that island those folks in the plane crash on TV have been living on (and if they can get video of their exploits off the island every week, why can’t they just come along, too?), you know that the Penguins are led in scoring by Evgeni Malkin (27-59-86) and Sidney Crosby (23-55-78).

What you probably don’t know is that the Penguins’ next leading scorer (Petr Sykora: 22-20-42) ranks 72nd in the league, as of this writing. And therin lies a part of the problem for the Penguins. Here’s a comparison…the Caps’ third and fourth leading scorers are Mike Green and Alexander Semin. Both have more points than Sykora. Both have done it in at least ten fewer games – Sykora has played in 57 games, Green in 46, Semin in 40.

At least Tampa Bay had a big three to get them to a Cup. A big two isn’t going to get it done for the Penguins. They have to find some other scoring from somewhere. The question becomes, who are the candidates?

You’d think Sykora might be a candidate, he being the third leading scorer, but he is only 1-0-1 in his last five games. He’s had five assists since Christmas, two of them coming in February. He might pot goals from time to time, but he’s not helping out much (that being the province of Evgedney Malskby).

OK, so how about Ruslan Fedotenko? Fedotenko lost more than a month to injury when he went all Mike Tyson on Colby Armstrong in a 3-1 win over Atlanta on January 6th. Since coming back from the hand injury he suffered in the fight, he took a couple of games to get back into skating shape, but he had a pair of goals and an assist in yesterday’s 5-4- win over the Flyers. That’s 2-3-5, +4 in his last two games. This is the sort of production the Penguins need. Crosby and Malkin are constants, they are givens. They will get their points. But a guy like Fedotenko is key. If this is a two-game spurt, only to be followed by the sort of season he had up to that point (11-10-21 in 41 games), then the Penguins’ road to the playoffs will be more difficult.

After that, the pickings get pretty slim as far as scoring off the wings. Miroslav Satan has had one of the most disappointing seasons in the league. 15-18-33 isn’t what folks probably had in mind when he was signed off of Long Island last off season. He had a game-winning goal against Atlanta on December 18th. Since then, he has three goals in 29 games. He’s the fourth-leading goal scorer on the team.

You get the picture? This is a team that – the three-game Age of Bylsma notwithstanding – relies entirely too much on Evgedney Malksby.

That’s only half the problem. The three-plus goals the Penguins are giving up a game is the other half. You could say that the loss of Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney for a combined 89 man-games to injury is a large, if not the largest part of that problem. We’re not buying that one. Neither Gonchar nor Whitney have made a reputation in this league as a shut-down defenseman. They’re hardly incompetent in their own end (although Whitney’s -13 in 27 games makes one wonder, at least this year), but they’re out there to move the puck and provide some punch. And besides, the Caps have had 12 defensemen dress for them this year – not including turns taken by Sergei Fedorov and Brooks Laich – and they’re on a pace for 110 points.

Brooks Orpik pays a bigger price than most to defend his end (see our reference to the “Bobby Gould Trophy”). His 340 combined hits and blocked shots is evidence of that. But…seeing as how he gets next to no power play time (35 seconds a game), he makes his money chewing up even strength ice time and stopping teams at 5-on-5. Well, he’s minus-3. Not bad – he pulls difficult defense assignments – but only Kris Letang (who was scratched by Bylsma after the new coach saw him for one game before getting a sweater against the Flyers) and the aforementioned Whitney are worse.

We’ve said this before, but Rob Scuderi doesn’t get enough credit as a defenseman. He might be the best “defenseman” on this team, if you’re looking for a defenseman to defend. He is the only Penguins defenseman to have played in all 60 games for the team this season, he leads all defensemen in plus-minus (no small thing, considering he gets only four seconds of power play ice time a game). He’s done it with discipline, receiving only 12 penalty minutes this season. But here is perhaps his most impressive stat – he is the only Penguin defenseman who does not have more giveways than takeaways. His ration of 1.00 (takeaways to giveaways) is better than Orpik (0.30), Whitney (0.32), or Letang (0.39).

Orpik is at least competent in his own end, Scuderi has been extremely efficient. That leaves us with goaltending, and frankly, this season is a step backward for Marc-Andre Fleury. Capable of the SportsCenter highlight save, he is also capable of allowing questionable goals along with exhibiting a maddening sense of inconsistency. Since January 1st, he is 10-8-2, 2.77, .911. Those aren’t bad numbers. They’re not great, either. But buried in there, he’s had five decisions in which he allowed one or no goals, and he has six decisions in which he’s allowed at least four goals. He’s the messy kid who can’t keep his food on the plate.

Since Fleury got the start on Saturday, the task might fall to the latest contestant in the “Conk II” contest to see who can actually serve as a competent backup in place of last year’s backup hero, Ty Conklin, who is Detroit’s number one goalie these days. And that new entry is Mathieu Garon.

The early returns are not encouraging. OK, he’s had one game with the Penguins, that being a 21-save effort against the Maple Leafs on January 30th. The trouble is, those 21 saves came on 26 shots in a 5-4 loss.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Pittsburgh: Sergei Gonchar

The Penguins power play has been disappointing all year. It has been downright vomit-making on the road. Until today, when they went 1-of-4 against the Flyers, they were dead last in the league in road power play conversions. They now stand at 28th. That’s where Gonchar comes in. The Penguins have power play goals in two of their last three games. Gonchar has assists on both of them. Again, three games is not a trend, but Gonchar’s being able to contribute on the power play is a critical ingredient to the Penguins’ success.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

When last we left these teams on the ice of the Verizon Center, Backstrom had that moment that every player in sports fears. His Jim Marshall moment, his Andres Escobar moment (fortunately, Caps fans are more forgiving than Columbian soccer fans). Backstrom shot the puck into his own net with 28 seconds left to give the Penguins a lead in what would turn out to be a 4-2 loss for the Capitals. Backstrom has recovered from the trauma nicely, thank you very much. Since then, he is 18-55-73, +22 in 73 games. He’s also had a really nice February – 3-9-12, +6 in nine games. The own goal notwithstanding, he’s been a real Magic Johnson against the Penguins – ten points in six career games, all assists.

The Caps have won three of the last four meetings of these teams, with all three of the wins coming in Pittsburgh. The Caps have not beaten the Penguins at home since taking a 6-3 decision in March 2006, a game featuring a 160-foot shorthanded goal scored by Ivan Majesky on Sebastien Caron. Neither Caron nor Majesky are in the NHL these days. Neither are these the days when the Caps were such hospitable hosts (well, to Eastern Conference guests), especially when this game comes on the heels of a brutal dose of medicine for the acute suckitis the Caps were afflicted with against Colorado the other night…

Caps 5 – Penguins 2

Friday, February 20, 2009

A NO-point night: Avalanche 4 - Caps 1

What was it Herbie said?

Five regulation losses at home...

...four of them to Western Conference teams.

Guess that means the Caps will win all their home games from here on out.

Mt. Capsmore

OK, we’re late to this, but that won’t stop us from blathering on about the subject.

John Buccigross over at ESPN did a “Mount Rushmore” thing for all 30 NHL teams. As he put it:
"I thought I would provide a Mt. Rushmore for all 30 NHL teams. This is a players-only NHL Mt. Rushmore. The criteria? A combination of impact, love and production determined by using both sides of the brain, some research and some feel. It's not all about numbers."

Fair enough. But I look at Mt. Rushmore, and I see some care in the Presidents whose images were selected to stand on that mountain. So with that in mind, here is The Peerless’ Mt. Rushmore of Capitals:

George Washington: Yvon Labre

Washington is perhaps a great American less for his tenure as President than as a general in the Revolutionary War. This is not to say that he was a bad President, he was not. In fact, his greatest accomplishment as President was serving two terms as the first chief executive in a democratic republic forged out of a revolution. He was the man who was there at the start, who served as the strong figure to earn the fledgling country time to grow and stand on its own.

Labre was the face of the Capitals in those first seasons. The team was abysmal, the sport a curiosity to Washingtonians. But Labre – with his signature moustache (kind of like Washington’s wooden teeth, but…different) – was the personality most associated with that fledgling team.

Thomas Jefferson: Olaf Kolzig

John Kennedy once remarked at a reception for Nobel Prize winners, that it was the greatest assemblage of talent in the White House since Jefferson dined alone. It was a reference to the scope of Jefferson’s interests, talents, and impacts on his nation.

Olaf Kolzig was not the face of Capitals hockey for a decade merely because he was a talented goaltender. His impact was broader than that. He was active in the Washington community and was a personable, approachable (if sometimes volcanic on the ice) personality who was a credit to the Capitals organization. No other Capital was as identifiable in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s than “Olie the Goalie.”

Theodore Roosevelt: Peter Bondra

Roosevelt was a man of incredibly magnetic personality, one of immense talent and energy. His achievements and exploits, even outside of those accomplished as President, reflect a man of action.

Bondra was action, personified. His unmistakable skating style, covering ground with powerful strides, his signature one-time shot from the left point on the power play, his consistency as a goal scorer that allowed him to score 350 goals over a nine year period (one of which was shortened due to labor troubles), and the joy he communicated to the crowd with each and every score made him the most electric of Capitals players in his era.

Abraham Lincoln: Rod Langway

As any grade school student knows, Lincoln presided over the most important conflict in American history – the Civil War - fought to prevent 11 states from executing their declared intention to secede from the Union. Lincoln was the person most responsible for preserving that Union.

Langway was part of a six-player deal made with Montreal in 1982. He came to a team in trouble. From bad records every year, to small crowds, to a "Save the Caps" campaign, the signs pointed to a franchise that might not last in Washington. Langway assumed the role of captain and imprinted a hardnosed style of hockey on the team that became its personality for the 1980’s. Being a member of playoff teams in each of the 11 seasons during which he was a Capital, the “Secretary of Defense” can be said to have preserved the union of hockey and Washington.

So there it is, your Mt. Capsmore.