Sunday, April 05, 2009

A TWO-point afternoon: Caps 6 - Thrashers 4

If you wanted a title for the movie that played at Verizon Center this afternoon, it might be “Revenge of the Stunt Men.” Or maybe, “The Incredibles.” The Caps got five goals from guys who might be deemed in other circumstances “role players” in scratching out a 6-4 win over the Atlanta Thrashers on Fan Appreciation Day at Verizon Center (we extended our streak to 11 consecutive season enders at the VC without winning any prizes).

Tomas Fleischmann, who last scored a goal when Millard Fillmore was in the White House, got one.

Keith Aucoin – the smallest player on the ice – was the one who seemed most inclined to stick his nose into the middle of things and got one.

Michael Nylander, last seen scoring a goal about the time Betty and Barney Rubble tied the knot, got one. Nylander celebrated in Ovechkinian fashion with a double arm-wind that was reported to have been replayed in the locker room after the game by Brooks Laich and that, according to Eric Fehr in the radio post game, had the guys hooting on the bench.

Fehr got one by jamming the crease and poking one home.

Brooks Laich added an empty netter to send the Caps fans home happy in the knowledge that wings will be on the menu tomorrow, thanks to a local restaurant franchise.

The other goal was scored by an Alex – Semin, not Ovechkin. However, Ovechkin inched ever closer to Evgeni Malkin in the dying days of the race for the Ross Trophy. He had a pair of assists to give him 106 points. Malkin was held off the score sheet in a 4-2 loss to Florida to narrow the Penguin center’s lead over Ovechkin to two points.

Other stuff…

- Ovechkin is going to give message boards all over North America fodder for discussion for this number – 24. No, not his favorite TV show, but the number of shot attempts he had this afternoon. 11 of them got through to Thrasher goalie Johan Hedberg, but none of them got past him. His shot total is now up to 507. With three games to play, he needs 44 shots on goal to get to 551 and pass Phil Esposito (1970-1971) for the most in a season in NHL history. What’s odd is that Ovechkin probably passed up four or five additional shot opportunities from what are for him high-value areas in favor of passing to a teammate.

- Nicklas Backstrom, “Faceoff Warrior,” did it again. 12 of 16 in the circle. He’s crazed, I tell ya, crazed.

- Even with six goals, the Caps could have had more if they weren’t so gosh darn cute with the puck on the power play. If the Caps wanted a sponsor for the man advantage to replace Pepco, they could have Wes Johnson announce over public address system, “The Caps are on a ‘TOTES’ Power Play.” They spent insane amounts of time passing the puck at the top of the five man umbrella. In seven power plays, they had a total of six shots. Against a team that came into the game 29th in the league in penalty killing, that’s just nuts.

- Making things worse on the power play, the Caps allowed a shorthanded goal on which goalie Jose Theodore looked as if he guessed way wrong on which side of the net Jim Slater was going to end up shooting at. Theodore did make a fine save on Eric Perrin in a similar shorthanded situation earlier in the game, which begs the question – what were the Caps thinking, giving up better chances to the Thrashers on their own power play than they were getting at Hedberg? If they draw Philly in the first round and play like that, it’ll be a short series.

- On the other hand, fans were on Theodore where we were sitting on the goal scored by Ilya Kovalchuk. Hey, you know what? Kovalchuk has scored 296 goals in the NHL and won’t turn 26 for ten more days. He didn’t score that many at such a young age without knowing how to pick a far corner over the glove. We were more concerned how it was he got open enough to get that shot off as the Caps defense looked as if it backed off, leaving Nicklas Backstrom to try desperately to poke the puck off off Kovalchuk’s blade.

- Jeff Schultz didn’t make it out for the “jerseys off our backs” ceremony. He was back in the locker room getting stitched up. Add two hits, and Schultz is turning into “The Executioner” right before our eyes. OK…no.

- Atlanta had seven shots on goal in the second period. So did Ovechkin.

- This was Fleischmann’s firs multi-point game since February 11th. It was Fehr’s first since February 11th, too. It was Nylander’s first since February 3rd. It was Aucoin’s first since January 12th…2008, when he was playing for Carolina.

- The Caps out-attempted Atlanta 78-42. Until the third period, though, it seemed as though most of those attempts were coming from Adams-Morgan.

- How many times do you see not one, but two players have their sticks broken by opponents’ slap shots on the same penalty kill? The Caps had five on two guys with sticks and two without and didn’t get a shot through to Hedberg.

- We’re not exactly sure why, but Viktor Kozlov got two shifts of ice time after being on the ice for the Kovalchuk goal. That’s two shifts in the last 24 minutes and change for the game. Hey, he wasn’t alone…Kozlov was minus-2. His linemates – Sergei Fedorov and Alex Ovechkin (at least for the early stages of the game) – were a combined minus-3. We’re hoping that can be filed under, “get it out of your system now, boys.”

- In another episode of “Dumb Play Week” (Sergei Fedorov’s pass that resulted in the game-winner for Buffalo on Frida), Jose Theodore made a play that perhaps not even a mite would make – trying to clear the puck up the middle, perhaps thinking he could score into the empty Thrasher net with under a minute to go. He made a great pass as it turned out – to Slava Kozlov, who promptly deposited the puck into the empty net…the one Theodore abandoned to make his play.

- The Caps finished the home portion of the regular season with a 29-9-3 mark, good for 61 standings points…the same number the New York Islanders have in all their games.

Like we said in the pregame, this Atlanta team – here and now – is a team that has played well for a long stretch, with better results coming into this game, in fact, than the Caps had since February 1st. It is not a bad team, certainly not nearly as bad as their complete season record would suggest. The Caps didn’t have their “A” game, at least not for the first 40 minutes, but they showed what they can do when their opponent has their undivided attention. They outscored Atlanta 4-1 in the final 20 minutes (the one for Atlanta being a bonehead play by the goalie) and held the Thrashers to seven shots.

20 minutes of that sort of play won’t get it done after this week, but we suspect the guys know that. They need to marry a thought to an action, though. They need to play like they know it.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Thrashers, April 5th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It seems like only last week when training camp opened and the latest crop of Capitals took the ice for the first time in the 2008-2009 season. And now, we’re here at the last home game of the regular season. And, it’s Fan Appreciation Day, which is the kickoff to Fan Appreciation Week. It all puts us in the mind to ask a question…what are other teams doing for fans in this last week of the regular season?

Well, in Tampa, according to the Lightning…

“On March 29 and April 9, all Lightning players will walk the red carpet on the Chrysler-Jeep Plaza from the circle drive in front of the St. Pete Times Forum to Shots at Channelside on the way to the locker room. Players are expected to start arriving approximately three hours prior to game time. Once the players have arrived, the fun will just be starting for fans on the Chrysler-Jeep Plaza. Live bands will rock the plaza pregame for the final three games, and enhanced activities will include a rock-climbing wall and several other interactive games, as well as a FanZone Tent where kids can make their own posters or have their faces painted. Fans will have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to win game-worn Lightning jerseys through a charity raffle in the arena during each game. Twenty lucky fans will be chosen randomly to step on the ice to receive the jerseys off the players’ backs following the game on April 9. There will be “Register to Win” locations on the Chrysler-Jeep Plaza prior to each game and five fans who enter will go on the ice during the second intermission on April 9, with one taking home ThunderBug’s all-terrain vehicle (ATV).

Nothing says “thanks” like a vehicle driven by a sweat-soaked insect mascot. We’re thinking Tampa fans would be thanked enough if the horror of this season would just end. Meanwhile, in Carolina…

"On Saturday, April 4, the Hurricanes will host the Pittsburgh Penguins at 7 p.m. at the RBC Center. Prior to the game, fans can enjoy live music, street hockey, a Hurricanes moon bounce, the slap shot booth, a Hurricanes obstacle course and food and beverage on the RBC Center’s front lawn. The first 15,000 fans inside the building will receive a player poster sponsored by Blackberry Bold featuring Matt Cullen, Joni Pitkanen, Tuomo Ruutu and Eric Staal, and six fans will also win Pepsi vending machines featuring Hurricanes players from the Pepsi can series."

Pepsi vending machines?...How long do you think it will take the winners to figure out that 12-ounce cans of beer will fit in there, too? While out in Phoenix…

“Fans in attendance will be treated to raffles offering a variety of prizes, including a grand prize of a custom Coyotes-painted Suzuki GSX650 motorcycle, compliments of RideNow PowerSports. ‘Fan Appreciation Night is always a special event for the Coyotes,’ said [Coyotes President Douglas] Moss. ‘It’s our chance to acknowledge and thank our loyal fans for their tremendous support throughout the season.’ There will also be a variety of ‘experience’ packages, including lunch with Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney, a pre-game dinner and press box tour with Assistant General Manager Brad Treliving, and ‘away trips’ to see the Coyotes play in Los Angeles and Anaheim next season that include airfare, hotel accommodations and game tickets. Game-used player equipment such as sticks, helmets and gloves and opportunities for post-game player meet-and-greets will also be featured as prizes. All fans in attendance will receive a scratcher card that will tell them if they have won a prize. In addition to the items listed above, some of the other prizes include a golf vacation package from The Markers/US Airways; a 32” Samsung LCD television from Heineken; two bicycles from Pepsi; US Airways gift cards; iPod Shuffles; and a coupon for $500 off a Custom Intralasik procedure at Schwartz Laser Eye Center."

Phoenix is pulling out all the stops there…but we don’t know about that Intralasik thing. Do they really want fans getting a clearer look at how good (or not) the Coyotes are?

We have some ideas for what some other teams might think about for gifts in appreciation of their fans’ devotion…

New York Rangers…five lucky fans will be selected to enjoy the services of Sean Avery to perform a juvenile prank on an unsuspecting friend.

Pittsburgh…every fan gets a free bottle of Visine Pure Tears Eye Drops with a picture of Sidney Crosby on the label.

Montreal…fans get a boxed set of DVDs with highlights from the centennial season for the Canadiens. Oops, the case is empty.

Minnesota…fans in attendance get 100 dollars worth of “Clutterbucks” to buy all sorts of cheesy Wild merchandise to clutter their coffee tables and display cases.

Colorado…all fans get two free tickets to Rockies games. They should have the experience of seeing a pro sports team this year.

As for the goings on at Verizon Center, the Atlanta Thrashers make their last appearance on 7th Street for the season. They might be resting in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, but they have been a nuisance to the Caps this year. The Caps and Thrashers have split four games so far this year, each team winning a pair on home ice. But while the Thrashers have torched the Caps for 12 goals in a pair of blowouts in Atlanta, the Caps have eked out a pair of close ones at Verizon Center – a two-goal victory in November and a one-goal win in February. The overall numbers look like this…

In those numbers is an unsettling statistic. It has to do with 5-on-5 play and the ratio of goals scored to goals allowed. On February 19th, the Caps ratio of goals scored to goals allowed was 1.29 (numbers greater than one being good, and the higher the better) and ranked 5th in the NHL. As the Caps take the ice today, that ratio had dropped to 1.10, and their ranking has dropped to ninth.

Meanwhile, when Atlanta last visited the Caps on February 16th, their 5-on-5 ratio was 0.89, and they were ranked 21st in the league. Today, they have improved to 0.97 and upped their ranking to 17th.

Atlanta is, at the moment, a hockey team to be reckoned with. Since February 1st, the Thrashers are 17-9-1 and are doing their level best not to be in the running to draft either John Tavares or Victor Hedman (they are 26th in the league points standings and one point away from exiting Lotteryville).

How is it that the Thrashers have not only become respectable, but worthy of fear in the last two months? Well, it starts in a big way with Ilya Kovalchuk, who is reminding hockey fans that Russian hockey does not begin with Alex Ovechkin and end with Evgeni Malkin. In his last 24 games, Kovalchuk is 20-19-39, +4. If Ovechkin has had a hot stick in getting to 50 goals, Kovalchuk’s has been positively radioactive over the last two months. In three games against the Caps this year, he is 1-4-5. And in 40 career games against Washington, Kovalchuk is 21-28-49, +12. One would have to think that attention will be paid to him.

Lost in Kovalchuk’s sonic wake has been the performance of Vyacheslav Kozlov. In the Thrashers late season run since February 1st, Kozlov has been on what might be one of the hottest stretches of his career. In 27 games since February 1st, he is 9-20-29, +4, with five power play goals and a game winner thrown in. He is also third in the NHL in total Gimmick goals and is second among players in shooting percentage in the evening gown competition who have taken more than five turns down the runway. He is 3-3-6, -1 this year against the Caps and is 7-19-36, +3, in 50 career games against Washington.

Rich Peverley joined the Thrashers when he was claimed off waivers from Nashville on January 10th, and in 35 games since had posted a 12-19-31 scoring line in 35 games. What’s more, he is +17 as a Thrasher. You’d probably have to search pretty hard to find a more productive waiver wire pickup in the NHL this season. And, he has five game-winning goals – tying him for the team lead this year – in 20 Thrasher wins since he joined the team (20-14-1). While a lot of teams are paying attention to Kovalchuk, perhaps thinking they’re getting a breather when Peverley is on the ice, this guy is making those teams pay. He is 1-1-2 in two games against the Caps this year.

In the category of “things that make Thrasher fans want next year to come faster,” there has been the play of the young defensemen Tobias Enstrom (24 and in his second NHL season) and Zach Bogosian (an 18-year old rookie drafted last June). After a slow start (scoreless and a minus-3 in October), Enstrom is 5-24-29, +15 in 68 games since. In 27 games since February 1st, he is 4-14-18, +9. Meanwhile, Bogosian got off to a slow start of his own – scoreless in October and finishing the month with a broken leg that kept him out of the lineup until New Year’s Eve. The team was concerned about the mental effects the injury could have on the rookie. Coach John Anderson said at the time, “"We’ll monitor him more psychologically than anything right now. You don’t want to feel lonely and by yourself and abandoned because you get injured, especially at 18. We’re well aware of the possible mental things he could go through." The Thrashers’ concerns were apparently ill-founded, or perhaps they should open counseling services at Philips Arena. Since his return, Bogosian is 7-8-15, +17 in 35 games. This is one of, if not the best under-25 pairs of defensemen in the league.

In goal, maybe Kari Lehtonen is finally getting it. A youngster with a world of talent (and heretofore perhaps some questionable work ethic) is starting to play like it, although his statistics are a bit deceiving. Since February 1st, he is 10-7-1, 2.90, .917, with one shutout. But over that span he has had the annual production of Goodyear and Bridgestone tires thrown at him – 34.9 shots per 60 minutes. He stopped enough of that rubber to emerge with a .917 save percentage over those 19 appearances. Lehtonen had cooled off though – in his last two full contests he allowed six goals in each in losses to Montreal and Detroit. The trouble for the Thrashers is that he suffered an “upper body injury” against the Rangers last week and appears unlikely to play against the Caps.

Lehtonen’s absence would leave the goaltending duties to Johan Hedberg, and he’s pulled his share of the load in a relief capacity. Since February 1st, Hedberg is 7-2-0 (including five straight wins, and counting). But where Lehtonen’ statistics are misleading in one sense, so too are Hedberg’s, just in another direction. While winning seven of nine decisions, he hasn’t had very good accompanying numbers. His GAA is 3.14, his save percentage .890. He’s allowed three or more goals in seven of his last nine appearances, although he allowed only two and one in his last two. Against the Caps he is a respectable 6-2-2, 2.66, .911 in ten career games (it sure seems like more, doesn’t it?).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Atlanta: Colby Armstrong

When Armstrong was with Pittsburgh, he had a reputation of a being an in-your-face, edgy sort of a nuisance who was all elbows and up-to-the-edge kinds of hits. In four games against the Caps this year, he has not been credited with a single hit. None. He does provide some lower-half-of-the-lines scoring (19-18-37), but he seems to be a somewhat different player than he was in Pittsburgh. He is 5-7-12, -1, in 14 career games against Washington, 2-2-4, +1 in six games against Washington while skating for Atlanta. He could be an “X” factor in this game; he’s 2-7-9, +9, while in the midst of a six game points streak.

Washington: Jose Theodore

After getting the night off against Buffalo, it is now time for Theodore to get his “Private Joker” war face on. Atlanta will provide a good test for Theodore, having averaged 3.37 goals a game since February 1st and 3.47 goals a game since March 1st. He does have a good career record against Atlanta – 12-5-0, 2.59, .908 – but has been horrific so far this year. He is 1-1-0, 5.39, .796 in three appearances. He hasn’t allowed fewer than three goals in any of his three appearances against the Thrashers this year, and that includes 29:30 worth of time in the season opener before he was pulled in favor of Brent Johnson when he allowed three goals on 14 shots. Until now, three goals has been a minimum against the Thrashers. From now on, the Caps – and Theodore – need to be thinking of three goals as a maximum…against anybody.

If you are inclined to draw conclusions from these teams’ respective places in the standings, don’t. Atlanta has a better record since February 1st (17-9-1, 35 points) than do the Caps (15-8-4, 34 points). It took a while for Bruce Boudreau’s old chum, John Anderson, to get his players all on the same page of his playbook, but he’s doing fine right now. This is a game that could bite the Caps squarely in the backside, and a loss would make for a nasty way to end the home portion of the regular season, especially when added to giving up a third period lead to lose to the Sabres in the previous game at Verizon Center. This will be entertaining, but in the end, the Caps have more Russians…

Caps 6 – Thrashers 3