Sunday, February 15, 2009

A TWO-point afternoon: Caps 4 - Panthers 2

Twenty games over .500.

That is where the Caps now find themselves after a 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers left them with a record of 36-16-5. It is the first time the Caps have been this far above the .500 mark since finishing the 1985-1986 season 27 games over .500 (50-23-7).

Tonight, they did it by seeing one streak end, another continue, and one perhaps get started.

The streak that ended was the consecutive goals-scored game streak by Mike Green. The defenseman was held off the score sheet, despite six shot attempts (four on goal). Green did contribute three blocked shots, a takeaway, and finished plus-1 for the night.

The streak that continued was that of Eric Fehr, who notched a goal in his fourth straight game. He’s scored goals in six of his last seven contests and has points in seven of his last eight. Not bad, considering he played barely ten minutes (10:05, actually).

And the streak that is perhaps starting belongs to Alex Ovechkin, who netted a hat trick and has four goals in his last two games. Ovechkin netted the first goal to give the Caps an early lead, then scored the game-winner with 2:31 left before completing the hat trick with a 150-foot backhand off the post and into an empty net.

It was a nice win on a lot of levels. The dads got to see their boys get another win to complete the Florida trip, the Caps shoved a pin into the balloon of the Panthers’ recent rise in the standings, Washington extended their division lead to 13 points (they have never finished a season with a wider divisional lead), the Caps won a hard-fought game against a defensive-minded opponent, and they won the back half of back-to-back games.

That last point merits a closer look. So far this year, the Caps have played in ten back-to-back games before the games this weekend. They swept only two of them, but in neither instance were both games on the road. The win this afternoon gave the Caps their first road-road sweep of a back-to-back for the season. It is also the second straight sweep of back-to-backs, the last one coming when the Caps defeated Detroit and Ottawa on January 31st and February 1st (both games at home).

As for this game…

-- Nicklas Backstrom has put together a really strong, if quiet run. He had two assists in this game, which makes him 1-11-12, +6 in his last eight games (we’ll shut up about the faceoffs).

-- On those four goals in four consecutive games for Eric Fehr… Tomas Fleischmann has assisted on all of them. This afternoon was the only time, though, when the assist earned by Fleischmann was not a primary assist.

-- Did Ovechkin changes sticks overnight? Against Tampa… eight missed shots. Against Florida… none.

-- Holding the Panthers to 1-of-8 on the power play…good. Giving up eight power plays…bad. Two delay-of-game penalties for shooting the puck over the glass…yeesh.

-- The mark of a formidable team is that the other team knows what’s coming and can’t stop it. Sometimes, that is Mike Green pinching down the right side to get a cross-ice feed and deposit it over the shoulder of the goalie. And tonight – as it is a lot of nights – it’s Ovechkin skating down the left side, using the defenseman as a screen, and either firing the puck just past his leg or through his legs past a goaltender who can’t track the puck. That Ovechkin did it this afternoon against Jay Bouwmeester made it even more impressive.

-- Jeff Schultz was plus-1. Doesn’t sound like a lot, but Schultz hasn’t had a minus game in more than a month (January 13th). He’s only had two since Thanksgiving. He’s plus-15 in 13 games since that minus effort against Edmonton last month.

-- The Caps were charged with only two giveaways in this game. One might attribute that to odd scoring customs in this part of the world, but the Panthers were docked with ten. The Caps played pretty well in terms of protecting the puck (when they weren’t shooting it off the rink).

-- Florida’s offense might be characterized in this one as a lot of heat, and no light. Only two skaters failed to register a shot on goal (Karlis Skrastins and Jassen Cullimore). And two goals to show for it…kudos to the team defense for the Caps for playing a sturdy game.

-- It isn’t often that the Caps get out-chanced, what with all the firepower they bring. Put it is evidence of the Panthers defensive abilities that they out-attempted the Caps 54-53 in shots -- the Caps had 66 attempts last night. The Caps had only two shots on goal on the power play (of course, getting only two power plays will have that result often times).

The Caps have two more back-to-backs, and three Southeast teams will be involved. On February 28th/March 1st they play at Boston and against Florida. Then, on March 16th/17th they play at Florida and at Tampa Bay. But for now, the Caps now return home for a five-game home stand. They play nine of their next ten at home. That’s where they can drive home the last nail into the coffin of the Southeast Division race.

But this weekend was a good one – another step on the way of their learning how to win catching up with their skill. Great job, boys.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Panthers, February 15th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s the “to-back” part of the “back-to-back” weekend as the Caps head across the state of Florida to take on the Florida Panthers. It will be a tougher test for the Caps, as last night’s opponent – the Tampa Bay Lightning – were treated more or less like hamburger…

“Zey treated ze Tempah leck em-behr-gehr…”

Oh spit, not THIS guy…Inspector Clousseau, what brings you to Miami?

“I em a fenn of ze Benthehrrs.”

You are a fan of the Panthers?

“00-else woode Ah be a van uhv?…”

How did you become a fan of the Benth…uh, Panthers?

“Ah du nutt know, but Ah emm ungree…Ah wood leck to buy eh am-behr-gehrnn.”

A what?

“Eh emm-behr-genn.”

You mean “hamburger?”

“Ah wood leck to by a demm-behr-genn…”

Candice Bergen?


Sean Bergenheim plays for the Islanders. The Caps are playing the Panthers…

And this will be a jump up in weight class for the Capitals, because the Panthers just won’t go away. Florida has climbed to seventh in the Eastern Conference, and they hold a game in hand on both teams ahead of them – Montreal and the New York Rangers – both only two points ahead of the Panthers. While an 11-point lead in the division might look safe, Washington needs to send a message to the upstarts that there is room for only one big dog in the Southeast, and it wears a red jersey (no, not with a weather symbol on it). But it will be a challenging task, as the numbers suggest:

These teams met just eight days ago – a 3-1 win for the Capitals – and since then, Florida has gone merrily along, winning the three games leading up to this contest. It’s part of a longer 12-3-3 run that Florida is on in the 2009 portion of the season in which…

-- They have allowed more than three goals only four times in18 games.

-- They have scored more than four goals six times.

-- They have not lost consecutive games of any sort (regulation, overtime, Gimmick).

-- They have not allowed more than three goals in consecutive games.

-- They are 7-1-2 at home.

-- They have not allowed more than one power play goal in any of the 18 games.

Those are the good parts. Now, here is the concern – the Panthers started the 2009 portion of the season going 13-for-52 on the power play (25.0 percent). However, they’ve put up a goose egg in their last 16 chances over five games. That has coincided with getting fewer chances – 4.33 a game in the first 12 games since New Year’s Day, 3.20 a game in their last six.

As we noted eight days ago, the Panthers have balance. They have 16 players with double-digit point totals, 12 of them with more than 20 points. What the Panthers also have had is a bit of luck, health-wise. They’ve dressed 28 skaters and two goalies this year. Six of those skaters have dressed for fewer than five games, so the Panthers can be said to have fielded largely the same squad for most of the year.

It might not be a group that will be entirely whole for long, though. Talk of whether defenseman Jay Bouwmeester stays or goes is this year’s “make-work-for-hockey-pundits” industry. The play of the Panthers and that of Bouwmeester have not made the decision an easy one for GM Jacques Martin. It seems a virtual certainty that whatever the Panthers do, Bouwmeester will test the free agent waters at the end of the year, making his departure from South Florida as much of a virtual certainty in any case.

But in the meantime, the 25-year old is 12-18-30, +8 so far this year. But after recording a “Half Green” (goals in four consecutive games), ending on January 17th, he is 2-2-4 in his last 11 games. That might be the first indication that the waiting and wondering is having an effect, although Bouwmeester is still a plus-4 over that period and has logged less than 25 minutes of ice time only once. He’s been solid, if unspectacular in his career against the Caps (4-12-16, even, in 34 career games).

It is interesting to note that of the top-15 Panther scorers, 14 of them are “plus” players (Nathan Horton being the exception). The scoring list is topped by Stephen Weiss, and he’s been making a habit of helping out with all the assists he’s been dishing out. In his last nine games Weiss has seven assists to go with a pair of goals. He has only nine goals on the year, but he has seven in 27 career games against the Caps.

The Panther of greatest concern to the Caps, though, might be second-leading scorer David Booth. The Detroit native leads the Panthers in goals (20). But after getting eight in the first 13 games Florida played after Christmas, Booth has been kept off the goal-scoring sheet in his last six games.

Richard Zednik is what passes for “hot” on the Panthers at the moment. In his last five games, the former Cap is 4-2-6, +6, with two game-winning goals to his credit. What he hasn’t been is particularly successful against the Caps – 5-8-13, -1 in 24 career games against his old team.

Since Craig Anderson won a 4-3 overtime decision in Toronto on February 3rd, Tomas Vokoun has gotten the call. In those five games, Vokoun is 4-1-0 (his only loss coming to the Caps eight days ago), 1.78, .949, with a shutout of Carolina. He’s allowed two or fewer goals in four of those games. He’s also played well against the Caps, even if his record of 6-7-0 lifetime doesn’t reflect it. He’s posted a 2.16 GAA and .934 save percentage in 13 career games against Washington.

Anderson has played only once since January 17th – the 4-3 win over Toronto – and only four times in 2009. It’s good bet he’ll keep his 1-3-0 career record against the Caps (2.76, .904) under a baseball cap for this one.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Florida: Cory Stillman

Stillman has missed 16 games this year, but since returning to the lineup on December 14th, he is 6-18-24 in 26 games. He has points in seven of his last nine games (1-10-11). He’s also been something of a thorn in the side of the Caps in his career – 11-21-32 in 34 career games. Stillman has been something of the equivalent of a rabbit’s foot for Southeast Division teams. He’s been a member of Stanley Cup champions in both Tampa Bay and Carolina. Florida is his third Southeast team.

Washington: Sergei Fedorov

In what is likely to be a most closely fought, tightly checked game than last night’s contest in Tampa, Fedorov is the guy who has the experience to be patient and to do the little things – set plays up, take faceoffs, be responsible in his own end, kill penalties – that are important in games such as this. He also has 11 goals in 21 career games against the Panthers. Even if he doesn’t show up on the scoring register, his contributions could be important.

The Panthers are a team that other clubs probably hate to play. They are defense-oriented, don’t play much in the way of exchanging scoring chances (although their offense is probably underrated), they get very good goaltending on a nightly basis. Add to that the fact that Florida has won five games in a row at home, four of them by one goal (including a Gimmick). They’ve also won three in a row overall. It’s a club that plays their style and sticks to it – rather effectively at the moment. What the Panthers have not done this year is win four in a row. By midnight, this will still be true.

Caps 3 – Panthers 2