Saturday, February 14, 2009

A TWO-point night: Caps 5 - Lightning 1

Mike Green scored a goal.

Green’s goal – the eighth consecutive game in which he scored a goal – broke the record for defensemen in the NHL held by Mike O’Connell, who did the trick in seven straight games for the Boston Bruins in the 1983-1984 season. It was one of five the Caps would score – five different players doing the deed – in a 5-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at St. Petersburg Times Arena in Tampa.

Eight games, ten goals, seven assists, 17 points, plus-10. You want a framework for comparison? The Tampa Bay Lighting defensemen who took the ice tonight – for the entire season – have only six goals among them. And what a February he’s had so far. Tonight was the first time in six games Green failed to register a multi-point game. Nevertheless, he is 8-6-14, +8 in six games this month. He could probably take the rest of the month off and be a finalist for player of the month.

But as the team is not Alex Ovechkin and the Ovechkinettes it isn’t Mike Green and the Greenies, either. Tonight marked the debut of Michal Neuvirth in the Capitals’ net, and he turned in a performance that might have folks going “wow,” but not for Green’s record-setting performance. Neuvirth flashed more leather than you’d see at a biker bar, gloving shot after shot from Lightning sticks. He might have had the single most important play of the game.

With the Caps leading 1-0 on an Alexander Semin goal, Mark Malone finished a check on Boyd Gordon at the players’ bench. The puck squirted into the middle, where David Steckel got a stick on it, but couldn’t control it. Martin St. Louis curled in and scooped the puck down the ice to Vincent Lecavalier breaking free. Lecavalier skated in alone on Neuvirth and tried to snap the puck over the goalie’s left shoulder. Neuvirth got the glove up in time to snare the puck and keep the lead at one. If Tampa scores there, the game might have been a lot more competitive than it turned out to be.

After that, the Caps abused Tampa’s goalie – Mike McKenna – to the tune of an additional two goals in the first period, giving them three on 12 shots and ending McKenna’s evening an hour and a half before he expected it to end.

Green’s goal would come in the sixth minute of the second period after his initial shot was blocked – oddly enough by former Cap Matt Pettinger. The puck popped into the air and dropped into the low slot, where Green had another chance to swipe at it. He took advantage of the second opportunity, flicking the puck past defenseman Matt Smaby and goalie Karri Ramo for the record.

Eric Fehr closed the scoring off of a no-look feed from behind the Tampa net by Tomas Fleischmann, who took the puck away from Ramo – caught in the no-man’s land outside the Trapezoid of Safety, where he had to pass on playing the puck – then occupied a pair of Tampa defenders as he was buying time to make the pass.

It was a clinical dissection of the Lightning by the Caps…

-- As noted, five different players had goals, including the big guys – Ovechkin, Semin, and Green. Nine different players had points.

-- Alexander Semin was 1-2-3 for the night. That’s 49 points in 37 games, which over an 82-game season would result in 109 points. He’s the big scorer in this league no one talks about.

-- The Caps have four players on a better than point-a-game pace: Ovechkin, Semin, Green, and Nicklas Backstrom. How many Caps teams in franchise history have had four or more players averaging a point a game or more (at least 50 games played)?... One – the 1985-1986 team had five (Dave Christian, Mike Gartner, Craig Laughlin, Bengt Gustafsson, and Alan Haworth).

-- Obviously, we were not in the arena, but we could swear we could hear conversations on the Caps bench… the Tampa crowd was that quiet.

-- Did Tampa Bay give up after two periods? Well, they had one shot in the first 15:30 of the third period, and that one came from 136 feet more than 11 minutes into the period (Lecavalier).

-- Did Shaone Morrison play his best game of the season? It’d be hard to find a better one. He was rewarded with the second highest amount of ice time for the Caps (20:37). And it seems his pairing with Mike Green still works (or at least works again).

-- Speaking of ice time, the four goals in two periods allowed Coach Boudreau to distribute ice time evenly – a big deal since the Caps play at 5:00 tomorrow against Florida. Ovechkin who averages almost 23 minutes a game, skated for 17:32. Green, who averages 25:35, skated for 23:33. Semin and Backstrom both played a minute or more less than they average. Donald Brashear, who averages only 8:36, skated for 11:05.

-- All of a sudden, Eric Fehr is a scorer. The goal tonight makes five in six games. Over that span, he’s 5-2-7, +5. He led the team in shots on goal tonight (six).

-- It was equal opportunity night for the Lightning… 12 players finished on the minus-side of the ledger. 13 different skaters were on the ice for Caps goals. Matt Smaby was on for the first four of them. The only Lightning player to finish on the plus side?... Steve Eminger.

-- Shaone Morrisonn’s goal was his second this year. If he scores another, it matches a career high.

-- How many times will Ovechkin and Green go in on a goalie, two-on-none, and not so much as get a shot on goal? It was like watching Earvin Johnson and James Worthy going two-on-none on a fast break. Pass-pass-pass-pass-pass… except the Lakers usually scored on theirs.

-- It’s hard to imagine that the size of the numerals on Evgeny Artyukhin’s jersey are the same size as the numerals on Martin St. Louis’ jersey. I’m half-expecting that Artyukhin should wear a third digit on the back of his jersey to fill up the space. He’s a big, big guy.

-- Three power plays to kill off (they were successful on all of them) was the fewest such situations the Caps have faced since killing all three in a 2-1 win over the Rangers on January 3rd. The Caps are 13-2-0 when facing three power plays or fewer.

-- How many teams with Stanley Cup aspirations have two goaltenders dress for their NHL debuts (not including Brett Leonhardt) in a season, let alone have them go 3-0-0, 1.33, .958?

-- The Caps started the year 4-8-2 on the road. Since then, they are 9-4-2, and tonight they finally got over the .500 mark (13-12-4).

If you’re looking for something bad to say about the game, it might be, “geez, why can’t they do this every night?” Part of it is the competition – Tampa has a poor season record and have struggled some in their last half dozen games – but the Caps very often play down to this level of opponent. It might have been the fact that they were mindful of a rookie in goal, it might have been wanting to play well in front of their fathers, many of them accompanying the team on the Florida trip. In any case, the Caps played efficiently and effectively. They got goals from the guys who are supposed to score them, assists from the guys supposed to get them, and they got saves when they needed them from the rookie. Congratulations to Mike Green and Michal Neuvirth on their big nights.

Just don’t forget there’s another game to play tomorrow.

Great job, boys.

photos: AP

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Lightning, February 14th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s February 14th, and we all know what that means…

That’s right, on this date in 1896, Winnipeg defeated Montreal, 2-0, in the first successful challenge to the holder of the Stanley Cup.

We’re not making this up. And neither are we making up these holiday specials…

...a Richmond Renegades (ECHL) '00-'01 Ryan Van Buskirk St. Valentine's Day jersey

…Missouri River Otters Valentines Day Jersey, circa 2005

…Grand Rapids Griffins romance, 2007 version

…then there is the Seattle Thunderbirds version

…and you’d have to bet on there being a Las Vegas Thunder jersey in here somewhere.

But there is real hockey to be played this evening, and the Caps are visiting the Tampa Bay Lightning. And for those of you who have not been paying attention since the last time these clubs met, on New Years Day, the Lightning have become respectable. Their 9-8-1 record since losing to the Caps, 7-4, on January 1st is better than Pittsburgh (8-9-1), the New York Rangers (7-6-3), and Montreal (9-10-0) over the same period, to name three clubs you might not have thought of.

It might be too late for the Lightning, though, as they still trail eighth-place Buffalo by 15 points with 27 games to play. The hole they dug for themselves is evident in their numbers…

What the numbers show is that while Tampa is certainly not a very good team, neither are they awful, and that is the danger for the Caps (as it seems to be a lot with such teams).

What has led to a more successful 2009 portion of the regular season for the Lightning is their power play. Since their loss to the Caps, the Lightning have converted 16 of 73 power play opportunities (21.9 percent). That power play has accounted for more than 30 percent of the Lightning’s total goals in that time.

Unfortunately for the Lightning, how that power play goes seems to dictate their results. And that is where the Caps might be catching a break tonight. The Lightning are 2-4-1 in their last seven games, during which they have gone 5-for-34 on the power play (14.7 percent). More to the point, in games they have lost, they are 2-for-26 (7.7 percent). If the Caps can stay out of the box, it will help, but this is a power play that is struggling in any case at the moment.

Oddly enough, their penalty killing has been rather sturdy in the 2-4-1 streak they are on. In those games, the Lightning have not allowed more than one power play goal in any game and have killed 27 of 31 shorthanded situations (87.1 percent).

For Tampa Bay, though, the name might be less “Lightning” and more “Clearance Sale.” Players such as Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and Vaclav Prospal have been mentioned in possible trades with less than three weeks to the trading deadline. One might expect Mark Recchi’s name to be included in such talk as well, and that would account for the top four scorers on this team. All of them have played in every Lightning game this year, and all of them seem to be playing, if not with an eye toward dragging the Lightning out of the nether reaches of the standings, then with an eye toward improving their attractiveness to potential trade suitors. Here are their results in the 19 games played in 2009:

If the Lightning are looking forward, then the players at the top of the list to focus on would be Ryan Malone and Steven Stamkos. Both had rocky starts to their seasons, but have put together decent 2009 portions to their seasons. Malone has ten goals in 19 games (just don’t look for helpers – he has but one assist), and Stamkos is 3-5-8, +3 in 16 games, which would not be such a bad pace for a 2008 draftee, except for all the hype in Tampa over his selection.

If Tampa has a glaring problem, it’s on the blue line. The Lightning have dressed 14 defensemen this year. Ten of them have played in at least 10 games (none have played in all 55 games). It’s been a revolving door. At the top of the heap – and this might speak volumes as to the problem – is former Cap Steve Eminger. In 53 games, Eminger leads the defense in goals (four…compared to 21 for Washington’s Mike Green), assists (18…compared to Green’s 28), and points (22…49 for Green).

As a group, the defense has a total of 27 power play points (5-22-27). Green has 24 by himself (the rest of the Caps’ defense has six, and that might be an issue for another discussion).

Things are not a lot better for the Lightning in goal. Five goaltenders have dressed for the Lightning this year, and former Cap Olaf Kolzig is done for the year with a Marty Brodeur (arm injury). Mike Smith has been as strong as can be in goal, given the circumstances, going 14-18-9, 2.62, .916, and two shutouts. Trouble is, he’s out. He had been playing through concussion symptoms for about six weeks before he informed the club, the original injury suspected to be the result of taking a shot off his mask against Edmonton on January 4th.

Mike McKenna will get the start. He’ll be making his first career start against the Caps, but he is 2-1-1, 2.21, .918 in five games so far this year.

Tampa will come into the game nicked up. In addition to Smith’s absence, Martin St. Louis was excused from practice yesterday for not feeling well. A number of other Lightning players – Recchi, Gary Roberts, Matt Smaby, and Cory Murphy – were excused from practice for what Lightning beat writer Damian Cristodero refers to as “body maintenance.”

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Tampa Bay: Mike McKenna

The Caps have scored 50 goals in the last 13 games they’ve played against Tampa Bay (3.85 per game). What’s more, in the last six games (4-1-1) Washington has scored 27 goals (4.50 per game), has scored fewer than four goals only once, and is 8-for-22 on the power play (36.4 percent). The whole Tampa Bay defense will have its work cut out for them in this one, but McKenna is the last, best hope to keep the Caps from turning the scoreboard into a pinball machine.

Washington: Michal Neuvirth

We’re betting Neuvirth gets his first career start against the Lightning tonight. His overall statistics at Hershey are not especially impressive – 4-3-2, 3.03, .890 – but in his last five games he was 2-1-2, 2.33, .917.

This could be one of those games that constitute goaltender abuse. The Lightning are catching the Caps as Washington is in the midst of one of their goal-scoring binges. The Caps could be starting a rookie goalie in his first NHL start. The subtext to this is Mike Green, who will be trying to set a modern record for defensemen in netting a goal in his eighth consecutive game.

He’ll do it, and he certainly won’t be alone. That January 1st score looks mighty tempting as a prognostication for this one…

Caps 7 – Lightning 4