Tuesday, October 06, 2009

A ONE-Point Night: Flyers 6 - Caps 5 (OT)

Did we miss six months? Did a whole regular season get played while we weren’t looking, and we went right to the playoffs?

Because that’s what it looked like this evening as the Caps and Flyers traded Rocky-Apollo haymakers for 60-plus minutes in South Philly. The Flyers emerged with the overtime win, 6-5. It was a wacky game that one could evaluate very differently depending on from what direction you were looking at it...

On the one hand, five goals against what is supposed to be one of, if not the best defensive team in the East should make Caps fans very happy. On the other hand, giving up three power play goals will not make Caps fans very happy.

On the one hand, getting eight points from the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin will make Caps fans happy. On the other hand, giving up a hat trick to Mike Richards and four assists to Matt Carle will not make Caps fans very happy.

On the one hand, Mike Green getting an assist, eight shot attempts, and a plus-1 will make Caps fans happy. On the other hand, Tom Poti and John Erskine – the defensive pair that was on the ice for the tying and winning goals for the Flyers (they were on for five of the six goals for the home team – a brutal night) – will not make Caps fans very happy.

On the one hand, coming back three times from deficits in a tough building will make Caps fans happy. On the other hand, giving up the tying goal with less than five minutes to go in regulation will not make Caps fans very happy.

On the one hand, watching Alex Ovechkin become only the third player in NHL history to open the season with at least three points in each of his first three games (Guy LaFleur and Peter Stastny being the others) will make Caps fans very happy. On the other hand, watching Danny Briere net the game winner – on his birthday, no less – will not make Caps fans very happy.

On the one hand, Jose Theodore played pretty well in a relief role. Both of the goals he surrendered might have been avoided with a little sturdier defensive play right in front of him (both goals were scored from the doorstep). On the other hand, Semyon Varlamov gave no indication that he is ready to assume the duties of a number one goaltender. He was a victim of some bad luck (the Kimmo Timonen goal that looked as if it changed direction on Varlamov). On the other hand, he butchered an attempt to glove the puck on another shot, gift wrapping a chance for Mike Richards that he buried. The first Richards goal was no goalie highlight either, as Richards scored from a severe angle from Varlamov’s glove side after Varlamov was lured out of position by a fake Matt Carle slap shot.

But in the end, this game came down to one number… nine. As in “the Caps had to endure nine shorthanded situations.” That the Flyers scored on three of them – two of them by Richards – was the difference in the game. That the Caps could score five goals with the sort of disruption to rhythm and playing time that having to kill nine penalties causes is just short of amazing.

But taking nine penalties – seven of them of the “obstruction” sort (three holding, two hooking, two interference) – just isn’t the sort of thing that the Caps can deal with on a nightly basis. It was more than the Caps faced in the first two games combined (eight). Add to that the fact that the Flyers were the league’s sixth best power play team last year, and taking so many penalties was a recipe for disaster.

If there is the picky complaint from this quarter, it was that the Caps got another night of sublime production from the top line – those eight points – but only one goal from a player not named “Alex.”

The Caps enjoyed only a 34-31 edge in faceoffs, but did even better where it counted – going 11-7 in the offensive zone and 12-6 in the defensive zone. The margin was made closer mostly as a product of Nicklas Backstrom going 1-for-8 in the neutral zone (he was 0-for-8 overall against Mike Richards).

Speaking of Backstrom, that’s eight assists in three games. Last year, he didn’t get his eighth assist until his 15th game (on November 12th), and the year before didn’t get his eighth assist until his 19th game (November 19th). Somehow, though, we’re thinking that 219-assist pace won’t last.

And while we’re making those sorts of comparisons, Alex Ovechkin has five goals in three games. Last year, he tallied his fifth goal in his 14th game (November 14th), and in his 65-goal season he tallied his fifth goal in his eighth game (October 24th).

It was a rough night of sorts for Mike Knuble in his return to Philly. He was on the ice for three Flyer goals, although he was plugging away out there with four shots (five attempts), a takeaway, and a blocked shot.

Jeff Schultz got to see his first action of the year, and not in an easy place to play. Still, he was a plus-1 with four blocked shots and no turnovers in 15 minutes and change.

And despite Wachovia Center being a hard place to play, the sort of place that can cause some to panic a bit when they have the puck, it was Braydon Coburn and Chris Pronger for the Flyers among the defense who had four giveaways apiece. Mike Green, who logs a lot of minutes and has the puck on his stick a lot, had no turnovers… again.

In the spirit of naming hat tricks, is a “Matt Bradley Hat Trick” an assist (he had two), a fight, and a faceoff win?

What to make of Ray Emery. In his first two games he shutout a decent Carolina team and allowed a pair of goals to a somewhat offense-challenged Devils team. Tonight he was torched for five goals on 36 shots by an offensively gifted team and looked late in responding to just about all of them. Is there a happy medium for him? It will be interesting to see how he fares against Pittsburgh on Thursday.

OK, so 82-0-0 is out. But seriously, there were encouraging things about this game, most notably the fast-out-of-the-gate start for the top line of Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin that has to be regarded in the early going as the most dangerous line in the game. On the other hand, there were concerns – the nine shorthanded situations faced, the inability to clear the crease late when it mattered, the eight goals on 56 shots allowed so far by Semyon Varlamov.

All in all, it was an extremely entertaining game that was unusual in its intensity for an early October contest. It doesn’t get much easier as the Caps host the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist, then head to Detroit on Saturday to take on the Red Wings. If the Caps can get out of this seven-game start that includes games against four division winners from last season on the north side of ten points (they have five in three games), it would be quite an achievement.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Flyers, October 6th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Caps head off to Philadelphia to take on the Flyers, a 2-0 team, in their home opener. Home… where feelings of warmth and love permeate. Where fans actually have counters taking the measure of how long it’s been since you last won a Stanley Cup. But then again, it’s a place where it’s always sunny, too.

For those of you who haven’t been to a Flyers game in sunny south Philadelphia, the club has a somewhat odd take on promotion nights.

Fans always look forward to “Make Your Own Snack Night” and the popular giveaway that makes the night possible (fans are advised to beware of nose bleeds from too many visits to the "snack bar"). Ladies can use the giveaway as an earring with the handy hook device.

And then there is the annual promotion for season ticket holders…

…yes, “Pick Your Seat Night.”

There is “Come as Your Favorite Thug Night,” in keeping with the general theme of the club. Now, in most places this might mean dressing up as Al Capone or, if you’re a couple, Bonnie and Clyde. Not in Philly, no sir…

Of course, no Flyer season would be complete without “Orange Tumor Night”

And there is always the perennial fan favorite, “Penny An IQ Point Night.” Although it hasn’t been confirmed, the story has it that no fan has ever paid more than 75 cents for admission on this special night.

The Flyers have to take special measures on this night, but sometimes, they don’t make it to all the facilities in time. Fans think they’re drinking premium beer without the lines over at the AT&T Pavilion.

On the ice, the Flyers are thought to be a Stanley Cup contender this year. Humor us, we didn’t say it first. But the Flyers, having taken on Chris Pronger, Ray Emery, Brian Boucher, Ian Laperriere, and O-K Tollefsen, not to mention adding phenom James Van Riemsdyk, are supposed to be good this year. Scary good. Rip your heart out and eat it in front of your face good.

Yeah, we’ll see.

The Flyers have won both of their opening road games, allowing only two goals in the process, which brings us to Ray Emery, the latest answer to the trivia question, “who is the goaltender for the Flyers?” This is a position that has been treated by the Flyers much the same way as a baby treats a diaper over the years. Since 2000, this group has included…

Maxime Ouellet
Antero Niittymaki
Scott Munroe
Neil Little
Michael Leighton
Martin Houle
Jeff Hackett
Robert Esche
Roman Cechmanek
Brian Boucher
Martin Biron
Sean Burke

You see any perennial all stars in this bunch?

And now… Ray Emery. The latest contestant in the Flyer goaltending sweepstakes has gotten off to quite the auspicious start. 2-0-0, 1.00, .963, and a shutout is a way to endear oneself to the cheesesteak eating crowd, to be sure. It will be interesting to see how this plays out, since Emery has only once played more than half his team’s games in a season. In that season he was 33-16-6, 2.47, .918, and four shutouts, and led his team to a Stanley Cup final.

Of course, one must mention that Emery followed that up with the meltdown of a 12-13-4, 3.13, .890 season in 31 games that led him to be banished to Russia for a season.

Which Emery plays for the Flyers is probably the biggest factor – bigger than Pronger, bigger than Jeff Carter, bigger than Mike Richards, bigger than Lauren Hart – in whether the Flyers can contend for a Stanley Cup this year. Against the Caps in his career, Emery is 3-5-0, 2.82, .907, although he has lost four of his last five decisions against the Caps, giving up 18 goals in those five games.

Last year, the Flyers could score. They averaged 3.17 goals a game, which was good for fifth in the league. They also had a dangerous power play that finished the year sixth in conversion success rate (22.5 percent).

What they needed to improve was their defense. The Flyers finished 16th in goals allowed (2.83/game), even while they finished sixth in penalty killing (83.0 percent) and first in shorthanded goals (16).

That’s where Chris Pronger comes in. Pronger adds the requisite mean streak to the Flyers, but he also remain one of the elite defensemen in the league. He’s gotten off to the sort of start that will endear him to Flyer fans – two assists in two games, a plus-3, and six penalty minutes. For the purposes of this game, he is likely to provide some measure of relief for Kimmo Timonen, who has been called upon to keep an eye on Alex Ovechkin over the past couple of years, with indifferent results (Ovechkin is 5-4-9, even in eight regular season games against the Flyers in the last two years).

The offensive push for the Flyers is still going to be provided by the core of Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Simon Gagne and Scott Hartnell. This quartet accounted for 140 of the Flyers’ 260 goals last year. They accounted for eight of the 13 goals the Flyers scored against the Caps last season. It is also an especially adept penalty killing group in this respect – they accounted for all 16 shorthanded goals that the Flyers scored last year.

What the Flyers lost, though, was scoring depth with the departures of Joffrey Lupul and Mike Knuble (52 goals between them last year). The Flyers hope to make up for that by getting a healthy year out of Daniel Briere (who seems now to be “Danny” in the official reports), who had only 11 goals in 29 games last year. He had 31 goals in his first year with the Flyers two years ago, following up on a 32 goal season in his last year in Buffalo.

But the Flyers are also expecting big things from rookie James Van Riemsdyk, the second overall pick of the 2007 draft. Van Riemsdyk is the leading scorer thus far for the Flyers (three assists) and brings some size to the left side for Philadelphia.

Jeff Carter had 12 game-winning goals for the Flyers last year, and two of those were had against the Caps (he was 3-4-7, plus-6 in four games against the Caps last year). Carter got off to a fast start in goal scoring last year, netting 34 in his first 52 games last year. But he didn’t finish nearly as strong, potting only 12 in his last 30 games. This being October, one might be watching out for that big start again.

And that brings us to Scott Hartnell. A guy who fits comfortably into the Flyers’ abusive mentality, Hartnell also was quite the thorn in the Capitals’ side last year. He scored four of the 13 goals the Flyers totaled against the Caps last year and assisted on two others on his way to a 30-30-60 season.

The Caps have to play four of the other five division winners from last year in their first seven games to open the season. By that standard, playing the Flyers should be something of a break. Yeah… right. The Flyers do not possess the raw top-end scoring talent that the Caps have, but they have considerable scoring depth. Their defense – a weakness last year – is improved. But it’s always about goaltending when it comes to the Flyers, and two games is not enough to assess whether the addition of Ray Emery is the answer to that annual problem.

It’ll be a big night in Philly, one that surely will have the Flyer fans on their best behavior (meaning low body count in the parking lot). Not that it will matter…

Caps 4 – Flyers 3