Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A NO-point night: Senators 3 - Caps 2

When you play for a point, you often get none, and that’s what happened tonight as the Caps dropped a 3-2 decision to the Ottawa Senators.

Three times in less than three minutes late in the third period the Caps took icing calls, and you could sense a momentum shift after the Caps had controlled play for the second period and a good portion of the third. Then, Alexander Semin proved rather conclusively that two wrongs don’t make a right. First, he gave the puck away in the offensive zone, and then he compounded the error by taking a ill-timed swipe at Daniel Alfredsson, tripping the Senator and earning a trip to the penalty box.

As if trying to pile the bad karma onto the Capitals all at once, Brendan Bell fired a shot from the right wing faceoff circle that Karl Alzner blocked late in the ensuing power play. Unfortunately, Alzner blocked it right back onto the blade of Bell’s stick and Bell, in what was more reflex than shot, snapped the puck past Jose Theodore for the winner. The goal came with only five seconds left on Semin’s penalty – an important consideration.

Why? Because the Senators scored all their goals on the power play. In fact, that’s the only way teams have scored on the Caps lately. Since Ryan Whitney scored at even strength for the Penguins in a 6-3 Caps win on January 14th, the Caps have gone 198:34, and counting, without allowing an even-strength goal.

The flip side of that is that the 3-for-6 penalty killing performance tonight leaves the Caps having killed off only 32 of their last 44 shorthanded situations (72.7 percent) over their last eight games.

Speaking of even strength, Alex Ovechkin has a total of four even strength points in 2009, only one in his last eight games.

Here is the interesting number for the night – 13. Both teams had 13 shots on the power play. Ottawa scored on three of theirs, the Caps scored on none of theirs.

Alex Ovechkin had only one shot in the third period. Alexander Semin…one. Mike Green…none. Only eleven skaters for the Caps registered any shots in this game. Draw your own conclusions on the chances the Caps were going to get that third goal.

Jose Theodore deserved better. He gets a player shoved into him by his own defenseman to put him off balance on the first goal, has another goal scored when a puck goes off a teammate, then allows the last goal when a blocked shot ends up on the only place it could do damage – right back on the original shooter’s stick.

OK, we get that Tomas Fleischmann isn’t going to have the kind of inky scoresheet that comes with hits, blocked shots and that sort of thing. In fact, except for an assist, his scoresheet is absolutely blank – no shot attempts, no hits, no takeaways, no giveaways, no blocked shots, nothing in 12:40. Now…explain how Chris Clark’s scoresheet looks exactly the same (including the assist).

Donald Brashear looked at times like he was shot out of a cannon. Three hits, a takeaway, and a lot of pestering of Senators in his 9:53. If the Caps had won (as in, had they showed up in the third period), he’d have been a shoe-in for the hard hat.

We wonder…have services been scheduled to pay our respects to Jarkko Ruutu after Mike Green bludgeoned him at the bench in the first period? Where do we send flowers? Oh, you say Ruutu was up and perky on the bench right after? That maybe he “embellished” things a bit?....nooooooo.

Mike Green had seven shots on goal for the game. The rest of the defense?...one.

Ottawa had 22 blocked shots. The Caps had four. Who was paying the price out there?

Tell me that if before the game, if someone had said that the Big Three for the Senators would be held to two points (both goals by Dany Heatley) and go a combined minus-5, you’d have concluded that the Caps would lose this game.

It was an odd game. The forwards didn’t do much in terms of playing defense, and the defense didn’t generate much by way of offense. It was a game wrapped around a game. The game in the middle was the one in which the Caps generated 19 shots, two goals, held the Senators to three shots, and didn’t take any penalties. In other words, the game we were expecting.

The game wrapped around that one was the Caps marching to the penalty box (three minor penalties taken in each of the first and third periods), giving up three power play goals, not getting any power plays of their own in the third period (not that they were forcing the action to draw penalties), and getting only 12 shots on net in the first and last period combined while the Senators launched 31 on net.

The Caps escaped with a win yesterday because the Islanders lack talent. They didn’t escape this one because the Senators, despite their record, do have some talent. Both were opponents the Caps should have dispatched in a straightforward fashion. They didn’t and it reveals an inconvenient truth. The Caps are a team of considerable talent, but they also have a “too pretty” look about them too often, a team that doesn’t handle adversity well, whether back to back games (they are 3-5-1 in the second half of back-to-backs this year) or in killing off penalties in critical situations. With a difficult four-game stretch coming out of the All Star break – Boston, Detroit, Ottawa, and New Jersey – it can’t be an anxiety-free week ahead, even for a team with 30 wins.

"I thought it was a little overrated..."

No, that's not Alexander Semin opining on the latest performance of Sidney Crosby, it was Ryan Getzlaf, remarking on the dribble-spin-whack (whiff) move of Alex Ovechkin in the skills competition at last year's All Star Game.

It's all part of the pre-game trash-talk we suppose, but really...if this is the state of the art of trash-talk in the NHL, well, we hear better at grade school recess.

"I thought...it was a little...overrated? Only in hockey could such a thing be polite.

I mean, could you imagine Muhammad Ali saying of George Foreman, "I think his punch is a little overrated?" No, he went and crafted a sonnet of trash talk...

“For this fight, I’ve wrestled with alligators, I’ve tussled with a whale,
I done handcuffed lightning, and put thunder in jail.
You know I’m bad. I have murdered a rock,
I’ve injured a stone, and hospitalized a brick.
I’m so bad, I make medicine sick.
I’m so fast, man, I can run through a hurricane and not get wet.
When George Foreman meets me, he’ll pay his debt.
I can drown the drink of water, and kill a dead tree.
Wait till you see Muhammad Ali.”

And there was Mike Tyson on the matter of Lennox Lewis, tilting more to the graphic horror imagery with a religious twist...

“Lennox Lewis, I’m coming for you.… My style is impetuous. My defense is impregnable. And I’m just ferocious. I want your heart; I wanna eat his children. Praise be to Allah.”

Basketball players, even retired ones, can summon up trashier trash talk than this. Consider Charles Barkley, who before submitting to a match race against NBA referee Dick Bavetta said of his opponent:

"I have nothing against old people; I want to be one myself one day."

Barkley backed it up -- he won the race.

Even the not-so-well-known in basketball can dish it out. Some years ago, New York Knick Larry Johnson heard some unflattering remarks sent the Knicks way by Chicago Bull Scottie Pippen. Johnson bided his time and a couple of months later replied in true trash-smackiest fashion after his club defeated Pippen's in a game...

''He needs to shut his mouth now. All he needs to do is to give the ball to 23. That's his best play right there. 'Here, 23. Bail us out.' He needs to shut his mouth.''

"23," of course, was Michael Jordan. Pippen was one of the "Jordanettes." And Jordan, himself, was the gold standard of trash-talking.

Even in baseball, the ultimate trash talk is something you do or say that you immediately back up. Such was the case on a fall day in 1932 when Babe Ruth stepped to the plate in the fifth inning of Game 3 of the World Series. The Chicago Cubs (perhaps the last team on the planet that should have ever or ever should engage in the practice) rode Ruth unmercifully from the bench. Ruth, as legend has it, was giving back as good as he got. But with the count reaching two-and-two, Ruth gestured outward toward the field. Whether he was lifting a finger to indicate he had one more strike, or if he was pointing to center field to warn the Cub bench of where the next pitch would be deposited, Ruth's mighty swat to the deepest part of center field would forever be remembers as the "Called Shot" and might be the definitive example of "trash talk" in North American sports history.

Mr. Getzlaf, you have some work to do.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Senators, January 20th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Didn’t we just do this?

Well, it will be the last time we do this before the all-star break, and the Caps have a chance to head into the break only six points behind Eastern Conference leading Boston. But it’s also a beginning here in the States with the inauguration of a new President, and we’re taking advantage of the day to get some insights on politics and hockey from a few of those who have taken the oath of office…

Franklin Delano Roosevelt…you took office in the midst of an economic downturn, so you’re familiar with despair. Can you tell us, is there any chance that any team in the Southeast can overtake the Caps in the second half?

“I saw one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished when I took the oath a second time…but when I see the rest of the Southeast, well…they just suck.”

Do you have any advice to give to Caps fans who might be anxious about the team’s chances to hold onto their lead?

“The only thing they have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, you called a nation to service in your inaugural address. Can you give any advice on service and teamwork to the boys as they close out the first half of the year?

“Ask not…what your teammate can do for you. Ask what you can do for your teammate.”

Lyndon Baines Johnson, you talked about belief in your address. Last year, the Caps and their fans made one last big rush to the anthem of “Don’t Stop Believing.” Can Caps Nation do it again?

“We are a nation of believers. Underneath the clamor of building and the rush of our day's pursuits, we are believers in Ovechkin and Backstrom and Theodore, and in our own Union. We believe that every Cap must someday hoist the Stanley Cup. And we believe in ourselves.”

Sound advice…but what is it with you guys? FDR…JFK…LBJ. Known by your first, middle, and last names. Called by your initials. What’s up with that?

Hey, don’t forget about me?... Alexander Mikhaylovich Ovechkin.

Well, that’s a bit of a mouthful, and besides the Constitution won’t let him serve. Caps fans would probably prefer he play the left wing for the local hockey team than run on the left wing of politics, anyway. In any case, he and the rest of the Caps will be skating the second of a back-to-back in Ottawa against the Senators.

As for the Senators, who are these guys?

We’re used to seeing the Senators piling up goals, to seeing Dany Heatley ripping shots off the left wing, to seeing Jason Spezza setting up Daniel Alfredsson for a score or two. This team, on the other hand, is having uncommon trouble scoring goals, as the numbers show…

Ottawa has had a rough time over the last six weeks. Since defeating Pittsburgh 3-2 on December 6th to get to .500, they are 5-11-3. They went a month – between December 13th and January 13th with winning only one game in regulation time (they added an overtime win to go 2-9-1). In that difficult 19-game stretch, the Senators had trouble scoring – 45 goals for a 2.37/game average – but not altogether different than the struggles they’ve had all year. However, they gave up goals with alarming regularity. They surrendered 67 goals (3.53/game) and allowed four or more ten times.

Part of the problem Ottawa had in that 19-game run was that they suffered an eight-game road trip in the middle of it on which they went 1-6-1. Since coming off that trip, they dropped a game to the Rangers but otherwise have shown signs of improvement of late, getting points in their last three games (2-0-1) and breaking out with 12 goals scored. Granted, the two wins were against Carolina and Atlanta of the Southeast – teams in the bottom third of the goals-against statistics—but progress has to start somewhere.

Part of the problem for Ottawa is that they are a one-line team, and that line isn’t even performing at a level to which fans have become accustomed. Consider Dany Heatley. In the three years following the lockout he averaged 101 points per 82 games. He currently has only 41 in 43 games – a 78-point pace. Jason Spezza spent three years scoring at a 105-point pace per 82 games. He has 37 points in 43 games – a 71-point pace. That he has a sore back -- he left practice on Monday -- makes things even worse. And Daniel Alfredsson, who was scoring at a 102-point pace per 82 games in the last three years, has 40 points – a 77-point pace.

After that, no forward has as many as 20 points for the Senators. No forward other than the big three have more than six goals. And it is not as if those other forwards are making up for their lack of offense with increased attention at the defensive end. Four forwards of that group are -10 or worse, while only two – Dean McAmmond and Shean Donovan – are on the plus side of the ledger. The “Pizza Line” of Heatley, Spezza, and Alfredsson might deliver, but there haven’t been any additional toppings for the Senators in too many games this year.

Perhaps just as troubling for the Senators is the performance of key defensemen. Over the last three years, Chris Phillips is 14-49-63, +70. This year, he is currently 4-5-9, -19. He does appear to have stopped the bleeding in a way – he is 2-0-2, even, over his last nine contests. Anton Volchenkov has been out with a shoulder injury, missing ten of the last 11 games. But in the 31 games he has played, he is 2-1-3, -13. And, the thing for which he is perhaps most known – blocking shots – is down. Two years ago, he averaged 3.50 blocked shots per game. Last year that number was 3.12. This year it is 2.81. Injuries might have something to do with the decline, but Volchenkov has not been as effective.

No position is more of a mess with the Senators, though, than that of goaltender. Alex Auld started the year respectably, going 9-6-3 in his first 18 decisions. But he has been awful since a win at Pittsburgh on December 6th. Since then he is 0-5-2, 4.38, .866 and has only played in three games since Christmas. Martin Gerber couldn’t claim having even had a good start. He has failed to put together consecutive wins this season in going 4-9-1, 2.86, .899. He is in the midst of a two-week “conditioning” stint with Binghamton of the AHL. He’s allowed seven goals in two games with the junior Senators…it doesn’t seem likely he’ll be back in Ottawa.

That would seem to leave things in the hands of Brian Elliott, who until taking the reins on January 10th against the Rangers had appeared in one NHL game (a 3-1 win over Atlanta in October 2007). In four games since taking over the top spot in goal, he is 2-1-1, 2.22, .921.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Ottawa: Jarkko Ruutu

Nope, he doesn’t have a particularly noteworthy career scoring line against the Caps – 1-2-3, +2 in 12 career games. He’s only 3-9-12 so far this year in 39 games. He’s played in every game this year in which he has been eligible to play. And that’s the rub – he’s served a pair of two-game suspensions – once for elbowing Montreal forward Maxim Lapierre in the head, the other for using the finger of Buffalo forward Andrew Peters for an hors d’oeuvre. He’s not in the lineup to contribute to the scoring totals, he’s there to set a tone. And that tone is the hockey equivalent of running fingernails down a blackboard.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

In his last ten games against the Senators, Ovechkin is 11-8-19, +7. And, while Ovechkin is a remarkably consistent point producer, he is very much like goal-scorers in that they seem to come in bunches. After going four games without finding the back of the net, he has four in his last three games. His history against the Senators, his being in the midst of what looks like one of those goal binges, and facing an inexperienced goalie could be the perfect storm for the Caps.

It might seem like cliché to say that one wants to go into a break on a high note, but it applies. A win would make the Caps 7-3-0 for the month, the last four in a row. Given that they’ll be coming out of the break to face Boston and Detroit, it would be nice to bank two more points. It says here that they will…

Caps 5 – Senators 3