Thursday, March 05, 2009

A NO-point night: Maple Leafs 2 - Caps 1

Now we’re in “concerned” territory. It’s not so much that the Caps – minus Alex Ovechkin for the entire game and Tom Poti for all but one seven-second shift – should not have lost to Toronto, 2-1, this evening. It is that the Caps now have won exactly one period in regulation in their last 14 periods of play, and that came in the third period of a 5-2 loss to Carolina, when the Caps were already trailing 5-1.

The official scoresheet will say that Maple Leaf goaltender Martin Gerber was the first star. We don’t agree, but we’ll get to that. Gerber, who wasn’t on the scrap heap of his career as much as he had already gone through the compactor and was as useful as a door stop, stopped – or perhaps “got in the way” of – 37 of 38 shots to give the Leafs a chance. It was a chance they capitalized on when Jose Theodore more or less kicked in with his heel a shot from behind the goal line by Lee Stempniak to break a scoreless tie in the third period. Pavel Kubina added a goal through traffic created by forward Jason Blake for Toronto’s other tally.

And there we see our first star.

Jason Blake did not register a point, but he was a force all night with his energy and his give-no-quarter approach to getting in Caps goalie Jose Theodore’s face. It was he who ran over Theodore to allow John Mitchell to swat the puck into the net on a goalmouth scramble – the goal being disallowed for Blake’s contact with Theodore. It was Blake who planted himself at the top of the crease and being a nuisance to Theodore that allowed Kubina to send his drive to the far side past Theodore’s glove for Toronto's second goal. It was Blake more than any Maple Leaf who had some real jump in his skates all evening. Blake’s ability to be a one-man traffic jam in front, and the Caps’ inability of unwillingness to do the same to Martin Gerber – especially on the power play – was the difference between this teams tonight.

The Caps actually did a pretty decent job of driving to the net tonight, but they could not finish and did not have enough bodies available in close to bat in any rebounds. There were a lot of pucks laying in the crease that Gerber couldn’t find that ached to have the blade of a stick slide them into the cozy confines of the net, but alas, ‘twas not to be (that Acme School of Creative Writing correspondence course does come in handy from time to time).

Some other stuff…

Points to Matt Bradley for holding his own with Ben Ondrus in tonight’s feature bout. Ondrus has had eight fights in the AHL this year and has had at least ten fights in a season (AHL and NHL combined) twice in his career.

We now know why it is that Alex Ovechkin has more than 100 more shots than his nearest pursuer for the shots-on-goal lead in the league. The rest of the team – or at least too much of it – is reluctant to send the puck on goal. It was in many respects the weakest 38-shot effort imaginable. It was the product of the “skill gap” between the Washington forwards and the Toronto defense, which didn’t really have a very good game, despite the score (although there is something to be said for the importance of results). Tomas Flesichmann took five shots, none of them from closer than 27 feet. Sergei Fedorov had six shots, none from closer than 46 feet (although to be fair, he took Poti’s spot on the blue line when Poti went out after one shift). Alexander Semin took seven shots, only one inside of 30 feet (his goal came on a 39-footer, according to the NHL play-by-play record). That accounts for 18 of the 38 shots the Caps recorded.

Michael Nylander gets a lot of grief, a lot of it unfair in our opinion. Even though God and everyone knew he had a “trade me” sign taped to his back on Wednesday, he played like the pro he is tonight. He just isn’t a very good fit in this offense. That’s not his fault, it’s not Bruce Boudreau’s fault. It just is. He did not attempt a shot on goal. He was one of three Caps who didn’t – Tom Poti (who played for seven seconds) and Donald Brashear (who played for 5:15) were the others.

Toronto scored their second goal with 9:47 to play in the third period. From that point forward, the Caps did not record a shot on goal until there were 52 seconds left – 8:55 of clock time. In that same span, Toronto recorded seven shots on goal. The Caps had three shots in the last 11:56 of a game they trailed. There just isn’t an excuse for that kind of ineptitude.

Considering that the Caps exchanged Michael Nylander for Alex Ovechkin, and that they were short another player when Poti went out early (Fedorov taking his spot on the blue line), 28 hits was a rather high number, especially since Verizon Center scorers seem to err on the side of caution when crediting players with hits. Other than Poti, who lasted only long enough to skate on and skate off for one shift, the only Caps not to record one were Viktor Kozlov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tomas Fleischmann.

Mike Green played almost 12 minutes of the third period on his way to a 31-plus minute night. No one else on the ice was within six minutes of him (ok, Ian White was 5:59 within Green’s total).

Alexander Semin – three takeaways, no giveaways. While the Caps have hit a skid, he seems to be playing more responsibly lately. One wonders, should we take irresponsible in exchange for wins? Just kidding.

Beginning on February 18th, the Caps embarked on a nine-home-games-in-ten stretch. What’s more, that stretch includes five teams that the Caps would normally be solidly favored to beat at home – Colorado, Atlanta, Florida, Carolina, and Toronto. They beat only Atlanta in going 4-5-0 through nine games of this run with Pittsburgh looming to close the ten-game run.

If the Caps had earned, say, 12 of 18 points so far through nine games of this ten-game stretch, instead of eight points, they would be only four points behind Boston. Call that an opportunity wasted.

It would be hard to fault the defense or goaltending too much in this one, although Theodore probably wants that first goal back, and Jeff Schultz might not like to watch his play in front on film. But that isn’t why the Caps lost. Despite launching a total of 71 shot attempts at the Toronto net and getting 38 of them through to Martin Gerber, they just didn’t pay enough of a price to clean up the rebounds that were available. The Caps had the sort of chances all night that might have had fans saying, “ooh, they were this close (we did it a few times ourselves),” but those were of the pass-the-puck-across-the-rink sort that are high-risk, low probability chances.

Now, the Caps get Pittsburgh, and it won’t be the Penguin team that the Caps have used as a scrimmage partner for three games this season. The Penguins are 7-1-1 under interim coach Dan Bylsma, having won five in a row, and have rediscovered defense (allowing one or no goals in four of those last five games) – a recipe for success at this time of year.

A week ago, one might have been forgiven for contemplating a second seed – perhaps even a run at the top spot if Boston stumbled. And there was the possibility of a franchise-best home record. Well, the Caps now have to win all of their remaining home games (six) to get that all-time best home record, and they have wasted the chance Boston has given them to inch closer to the top spot. They still have an 11-point lead on second place Florida in the Southeast, but at this point the thought of what they did last year to Carolina might be creeping into their heads.

That will make Sunday’s game as close to a “must win” as there has been here lately. And “must win” games against Pittsburgh are not generally the sort the Caps have been successful in winning. It will be a useful exercise to see whether these guys are growing up or not.

Hard Hats and Rock Stars

Over at Japers' Rink, this morning, JP pens an essay arguing that one result of Trading Day is that the Caps face the stretch run and any playoff series having to look in the mirror to find their salvation. As he put it...
"'s up to the guys in the room, the ones who have been there for the past year or two or more. It's up to the coach who took this team on a damn-near miraculous run last season and has them dreaming big this year. It's up to the most valuable player to show why he won the award last season and to recognize that there's also an award for playoff MVP. It's up to the free agent goalie, the re-born Russian veteran, the future captain, the enigmatic sniper, the Norris hopeful and everyone else on that team, in D.C. and in Hershey, because there's no help coming. Not this year. This year, they're on their own."
And that raises a point touched upon by Pierre McGuire during yesterday's coverage of Trading Day on TSN. He wondered if the Caps had become "too cool for school." We see the matter as one of simple imagery. Is this a team of rock stars, or is it one of hard hats?

The Caps present a hard hat to a player after each win, symbolic of having given an exemplary effort in a victory. It is a symbol.

The Caps have another symbol of sorts, and it is reflected in the video played before the team takes this ice each game. In it, the Caps are made up to look like rock stars with screaming fans left in their wake as they take the stage.

For this season, we're now at the point where the team is going to go in one of two directions with the players they have. They will take the hard hat symbol they bestow on one player and take it on as a team symbol, or they will be the rock stars that look splashy in their costumes and last --snap!-- that long.

Most rock stars make music that lasts until the next top-40 list comes out. They're last week before next week gets here. Hard hats build things that stand for years.

What's it going to be?...Rock Stars or Hard Hats?

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Maple Leafs, March 5th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It is Day One after Trading Day, and even though the dust hasn’t yet settled on all those teams blowing up their rosters, we’re back to the business of the regular season. And speaking of “business,” we thought we’d look at what some successful traders from that realm had to say on the matter of trading…

First, we have Victor Sperandeo, known on Wall Street as “Trader Vic.” Trader…uh, Vic…uh…whatever…are there any parallels in stock trading that you can share with those of us who observed the carnage that was yesterday’s NHL Trading Day?

“The key to trading success is emotional discipline. If intelligence were the key, there would be a lot more people making money trading.”

So, you’re telling us that “staying the course” might be better than being the smartest kid in the room?

“Whoa, whoa, whoa… trading provides one of the last great frontiers of opportunity in our economy. It is one of the very few ways in which an individual can start with a relatively small bankroll and actually become a multimillionaire. Of course, only a handful of individuals succeed in turning this feat, but at least the opportunity exists.”

And you are…

“Jack Schwager, author of the ‘Wizards’ book series”

Well, what about yesterday…the Caps were mentioned as potential destinations for Derek Morris, Bill Guerin, and others. Why didn’t anything happen? Gary Bielfeldt, you were big in Treasury bond trading, you have any thoughts on trades?

“Having thought out your objective and having a strategy for getting out in case the market trend changes, you greatly increase the potential for staying in your winning positions. The traits of a successful trader: The most important is discipline - I am sure everyone says that. Second, you have to have patience; if you have a good trade on, you have to be able to stay with it. Third, you need courage to go into the market, and courage comes from adequate capitalization. Fourth, you must have a willingness to lose; that is also related to adequate capitalization. Fifth, you need a strong desire to win. You have to have the attitude that if a trade loses, you can handle it without any problem and come back to do the next trade. You can't let a losing trade get to you emotionally. If a trade doesn't look right, I get out and take a small loss.”

So, you think what the Caps would have had to pay didn’t “look right?”

“If you can't take a small loss, sooner or later you will take the mother of all losses. There are old traders and there are bold traders, but there are very few old, bold traders.”

You’re Ed Seykota…a commodities trader, right?


Mother of all losses…kind of like trading three prospects and cash for the big prize that doesn’t pan out?

“Yeah, on the Street, we call that ‘getting Jagr’d.’”

Brrrrughhh….a chill just went down our spine. Let’s get to the game, shall we?

It would be easy to underestimate the tonight’s opponent, the Toronto Maple Leafs...

- Since January 1st, they are 10-10-6.
- Since January 1st, they’ve been outscored 94-76
- Since January 1st, they’ve had two losing streaks (including extra time) of four games
- From January 1st through February 21st, they were 0-0-6 in one-goal games

- Since February 1st, they are 6-3-5
- Since February 1st, they’ve been outscored 46-42
- Since February 1st, they’ve had a four game winning streak
- Since February 21st, they are 4-0-1 in one goal games (all decisions in extra time)

But if you look at their numbers, you could imagine that this is an opponent tailor-made for the Caps as they try to get out of their home funk…

Toronto gives up a lot of goals…the Caps score a lot of goals. Toronto has a worse penalty-killing record than the Caps (whodathunkit?)…the Caps have the league’s second-ranked power play. The Caps have question marks in goal (or so say the collected NHL pundtocracy), Toronto will be starting Martin Gerber or Curtis Joseph.

Let’s look at that goalie situation for a moment. Gerber, plucked from the waiver wire from Ottawa yesterday, hasn’t played in an NHL game since January 8th. He hasn’t won an NHL game in 2009. Joseph has appeared in 12 games this year. In only six of them has he played in all 60 minutes. He has one win in 2009. Combined, the two are 6-15-2, 3.19, .885 this year.

OK, maybe they'll start Justin Pogge.

If the Caps can’t light this team up and light them up like Vegas at midnight, then the Caps really do have problems.

As for the skaters, Jason Blake has points in his last three games (0-4-4), but he has only one goal in his last eight games. But while he compiled a 10-6-16, +2 record in 24 career games against the Caps as a member of the New York Islanders, in two years with the Leafs he is 0-1-1, -5 in six games against Washington.

Blake had better find some of his old Islander magic, because the Leafs’ second leading scorer – Nik Antropov – is now a Ranger. And their fourth leading scorer – Dominic Moore – is a Sabre. And their sixth leading scorer – Niklas Hagman – is day to day after getting his bell rung by Brendan Witt a week ago. That is 52 goals and 124 points that could be missing from the Leafs’ lineup this evening.

One could say that this is an opportunity for guys like Matt Stajan and Alexei Ponikarovsky, and Mikhail Grabovski to step up. As a group, the trio is 0-6-6, -2 in their last five games. Stajan doesn’t have a goal in his last five games, Ponikarovsky in his last eight, and Grabovski in his last 14. As a group, they have a total of four goals since February 1st.

Defensemen? Well, the Leafs do get some offensive production out of the group. Five of them have at least ten points, although one of them – Tomas Kaberle – could miss this contest with an injured hand. If there is one defenseman here to pay attention to, it might be Ian White. He is the only Leafs defenseman who has played in more than 30 games who has more than ten points (8-14-22) and is on the plus side of the ledger (plus-10 in 53 games).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Toronto: Luke Schenn

Schenn was injured in a game against Washington on December 6th and missed a month. In 25 games since returning from his injury, he is 1-3-4, -9. That minus-9 has been compiled over his last 11 games. He is the rock upon which the future of the Toronto defense will be built, and he will be a good one. But he seems to be struggling now, even while he has played in fewer than 22 minutes in any game only three times since February 1st. He’s getting his trial by fire, and that trial should continue tonight…if the Caps show up.

Washington: Brooks Laich

“I’m a guy who [tries to do everything] too, you know, when we’re not winning, we’re not playing well…I want to do so much to help the team, and sometimes you overplay rather than just keeping it simple.” That was Laich after Tuesday’s stink bomb of a game against Carolina. The syntax might have been awkward at the beginning of that statement, but it worked out in the end. That’s what we’re looking for tonight…the week might have started out ugly, with losses to Florida and Carolina, but the Caps have a chance to right things – or at least start to – by getting a win here. Laich has four goals in 14 career games against the Leafs, and he has two in his last six games overall. The Caps could use some secondary scoring, and Laich is as good a source as any to supply it.

The Caps are taking on the NHL equivalent of a cripple right now. Toronto has moved assets for futures as GM Brian Burke tries to remake the Leafs in his own image of a winning hockey team. Those days are down the road for the team that always seems to think it is a move or two away from a Cup. The Caps have an opponent served up on a platter for the purposes of getting the bad taste out of their mouths of the first two courses served up this week. If not now, when?

Caps 6 – Leafs 3