Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- The Home Opener: Caps vs. Maple Leafs, October 3rd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It has been 143 days since hockey was played in Verizon Center. And the bitter taste of what transpired those 143 days ago remains in the mouths of Caps players and fans alike. Tonight, the Caps take the first step in ridding themselves of that bile and bringing a Stanley Cup to Fun Street as they host the Toronto Maple Leafs. And it is the first opening night in the history of the franchise in which winning a Stanley Cup is not a delusion, but almost an expectation.

“The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at time.”

Uh, thanks Mr. Lincoln, are you a hockey fan?

“Well, no, I’m more into Civil War reenactments…”

I can see that, but you’re going to miss a big night here in town.

“A thing long expected takes the form of the unexpected when at last it comes.”

Mark Twain… you have that sort of Lanny McDonald look about you. You must be a hockey fan.

"Well, I’m going to a reading tonight of works by, well, me…"

Too bad, it’ll be quite a rock ‘em, sock ‘em night at the Phone Booth.

“If we did the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves.”

Thomas Edison. Surely you must be heading out to rock the red tonight.

"Well, I can’t. I’m this close to figuring out the last piece of this new invention... the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator."

Well…we’ll just let you get back to that.

“You got to be careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there.”

Yogi! I thought you’d be watching the Yankees getting ready for the playoffs.

"I am, but some guy googled “expectations” and I ended up here."

Well, expectations is something new to Capitals Nation, unless “disappointment” was your idea of expectations since 1974. And the home portion of the journey of expectations starts tonight as the retooled Maple Leafs come to town. Apparently, one of the “tools” in the retooling package is brass knuckles for everyone. Last year, the Leafs engaged in 52 fights, which was 15th in the league. Well, they already have three – that’s a 246-fight pace. While it is unlikely that the Leafs would finish the season at that level, they certainly are a threat to eclipse the total of last year’s leader, Anaheim (82). Newcomers Colton Orr and Garnet Exelby had 24 bouts between them last year (oddly, perhaps, none against each other).

The Leafs even signed the son of one of the Hanson brothers of “Slap Shot” fame – Christian Hanson – as a free agent out of Notre Dame (he is not with the parent club).

As if anyone doubted it, this is general manager Brian Burke’s team, for better or worse.

And better is what Leafs Nation expects their boys to be this year after finishing 13th in the East last year. It wasn’t a result that came by chance…

Goals scored: 2.98 (10th)
Goals allowed: 3.49 (30th)
Goals for/1st – 2nd – 3rd period: 63 (T-23rd) – 83 (T-14th) – 94 (T-4th)
Goals against/1st – 2nd – 3rd period: 93 (30th) – 102 (30th) – 85 (T-24th)
5-on-5 scoring ratio: 0.89 (25th)
Power play: 18.8% (16th)
Penalty killing: 74.7% (30th)
Winning % when scoring first: .550 (28th)
Winning % when trailing first: .286 (28th)
Winning % when leading after 1st period: .522 (28th)
Winning % when leading after 2nd period: .692 (28th)

Last year, the Leafs were a club that could score in respectable fashion, but they had no defense, got off to bad starts on a too-regular basis, and could never score enough late to win games. And that is expected to change with the addition of a player who doesn’t fight.

The Monster.

Jonas Gustavsson comes to the Leafs as a 24-year old rookie who last year at F√§rjestads BK in the SEL posted a 1.96 GAA, .932 save percentage, and three shutouts in 42 regular season games, then topped that with a 1.03 GAA, .961 save percentage, and five shutouts in 13 playoff games. Bruce Boudreau told a Toronto radio station yesterday that he expected to see Gustavsson in the Leafs’ net tonight.

That was news to the guy who got the opening night assignment on Thursday, Vesa Toskala. And Toskala actually had a reasonably respectable performance against the Caps last year. He lost both games in which he appeared, but he gave up only five goals in doing so (2.55 GAA) and had a save percentage of .914.

It might not matter which of the two netminders gets the call if the defense in front doesn’t improve over last year. And to that end, the Leafs added Exelby and Mike Komisarek. Garnet Exelby isn’t going to add any offense (no goals last year, only six in 358 career games), and he isn’t a top-pair defender. But on a bad Atlanta Thrasher team last year, he was “only” a minus-2. Given the Leafs’ sorry defense last year, he’s got to be considered an upgrade, but probably not enough of one to make the Leafs competitive.

That is where Mike Komisarek comes in. An All-Star (at least in the minds of Montreal voters), he is the very definition of the burly, stay-at-home defenseman. He’s not paid to score, either (12 goals in 362 career games), but rather to help keep other teams from scoring. He has the size (6'4”, 243) to keep the crease clean. Whether he has the nimbleness to keep up with the Caps high-flyers on offense is another question.

On the other side of the ledger, the Leafs were a team last year that didn’t have reliable high-end scoring. Jason Blake led the team with 63 points. And while Blake was a source of constant torment to the Caps when he was with the Islanders (8-5-13, +6 in eight games in the first two years after the lockout), he’s been less of one since joining the Leafs (0-2-2, -4 in four games in the last two seasons).

Alexei Ponikarovsky, who finished second with the Leafs in scoring last year, might be expected to step up and provide some offensive production, but in 13 games against the Caps since the lockout, he is 3-3-6, even.

The Leafs could use their most recent acquisition – Phil Kessel – to provide some spark offensively. But his projected return date is November 15th after shoulder surgery to repair a labrum tear. Kessel had 36 goals for the Boston Bruins last season. No Leaf has had that many since Mats Sundin (37) in the 2002-2003 season.

What the Leafs did have last year offensively was balance. 19 players had at least ten points (14 with at least 20), and 12 players had at least ten goals (five with at least 20). Until Kessel returns, that’s going to have to be their recipe for cobbling together offense. Add to that the fact that the defense will be better (it could not be worse) and that the club has added a few extra sheets of sandpaper, and the Leafs present a more formidable challenge to the Caps than they did last year when they split four games with the Caps (one of the wins coming in a Gimmick).

It’ll be an early challenge…

“The other team could make trouble for us if they win.”

You bet, Yogi, but they won't.

Caps 4 – Maple Leafs 2