Monday, October 26, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Flyers, October 27th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Welcome home, boys. The Caps took a brief holiday from Fun Street and won both games on an abbreviated road trip to bring the winning streak to four, which is their longest winning streak since piecing together a seven-game winning streak from December 23rd through January 6th last season. The last win in that streak happened to come against the same Philadelphia Flyers that will visit Verizon Center this evening. But tonight, the Caps… uh, excuse me, but are you lost?

“Uh, no… “

You look familiar, do I know you?

“No, I just look like somebody.”

Well, are you a hockey fan?

“Uh… I am now.”

Do you follow the Caps?

“Yeah, yeah… I’m a Caps fan.”

How ‘bout that Ovechkin, eh? Second in the league points, second in goals…

“He didn’t have any goals in his last two games, did he?”

Well, no, but...

“He needs to be replaced. And while they’re at it, they need a new coach.”

Why is that?

“Because… and what’s the deal with the general manager?”

What do you mean? You don’t like George McPhee?

“Why have one? A waste of money.”

He seems to have rebuilt the team pretty well.

“Yeah, but do the Caps ever sign any big free agents? Do they draw 92,000 every week?

Well, no, but Verizon Center only seats…

“And do the Caps have the undying love of the Washington community?”


“Do they get the undivided attention of the Washington media?”

No, but they do one thing that other team doesn’t do…

“And that is?”

They win.

“Uh… can you hook me up with season tickets?”

Well, that might be a stretch, even for an esteemed blogger such as yours truly, but the Caps look good even on TV in this early going with their 6-2-2 record. But one of those losses was an overtime loss to these same Flyers back on October 6th, a game in which the Flyers chased goalie Semyon Varlamov with four second period goals. The Caps took a lead in the third period of that game, but yielded a goal late, then lost in overtime when Danny “Don’t Call Me Daniel” Briere netted the game winner. Overall, the numbers for these two teams look like this…

Since beating the Caps, though, the Flyers are 2-3-1, having been outscored by their opponents by 19-17. In those six games the Flyers’ scoring has come from the usual suspects. Jeff Carter is 2-5-7, Danny “DCMD” Briere is 4-1-5, and Mike “The Concusser” Richards is 1-3-4. But joining these three is “The Heralded Rookie” – James “Don’t Call Me Jimmy” Van Riemsdyk, who is also 1-3-4 in these last six games for the Flyers.

Meanwhile, Simon Gagne – who missed yesterday’s practice with “lower body soreness” – is poised to jump into the top-ten in all-time Flyer scoring, perhaps by mid-season. Gagne is currently 13th on the all-time Flyers scoring list with 489 points. Should he add 30 points to that total over the remainder of the year, he will pass Gary Dornhoefer for 10th place. Since the lockout, Gagne is 8-7-15, plus-3 in 14 games against the Caps, but seven goals and three assists of that total were achieved when the Caps were sucking along at 70 points in the first two seasons of that period.

Meanwhile, Danny “DCMD” Briere has had a similar pattern of success against the Caps since the lockout. In 13 games against Washington over that period, he is 6-7-13, -10. Two things to note about that. First, he’s been awful at even strength against the Caps (something to note, since the Caps are 2nd in the league at 5-on-5). Second, Briere recorded two goals and five assists of that total (not to mention a minus-2) in the first year after the lockout, when he was in Buffalo and the Caps were awful. As a Flyer, he is 1-4-5, even, in seven games against the Caps.

But the Flyers have had scoring coming from odd places, too. If you would have had both Arron Asham and Darrell Powe ahead of Simon Gagne and Scott Hartnell in goal scoring nine games into the season, go buy a lottery ticket. But that’s the case, as both Asham and Powe have three goals, while Gagne and Hartnell have one apiece.

What the Flyers have as well is a re-tooled defense. Chris Pronger is the big new addition, but the Flyers have also added Ole-“Is There a Worse Name for a Defenseman than ‘oh-LAY’”-Kristian Tollefsen from the Columbus Blue Jackets and Danny Syvret, who did play in two games late last year for the Flyers but is on the squad to start the year this season. Tollefsen has had health issues, playing in only 51 games two years ago and 19 last year. He missed four of the first six games this year with injuries.

Syvret, a graduate of the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, has points in two of his last three games. Along with Tollefsen, he has to provide some measure of relief for the top four of Pronger, Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen, and Braydon Coburn, all of whom are averaging more than 23 minutes of ice time a game.

Since Brian Boucher started his first game of the season against San Jose on Sunday and allowed four goals on 28 shots in a 4-1 loss, the Flyers might be expected to go back to Ray Emery for this one. He got the decision in the 6-5 overtime win over the Caps on October 6th, but he was hardly a rock between the pipes. Or maybe he was, kind of just sitting there as the Caps shot pucks around him for five goals on 36 shots. Emery started well in his return to the NHL after a year in Russia, shutting out Carolina in the season opener, then allowing only two goals to the Devils in his second start. Then, he allowed the five goals to the Caps, which he followed up with a five goals allowed effort against Pittsburgh. He’s righted the ship somewhat, going 2-1-1 in his last four appearances (2.17, .914). It’s worth noting, though, that three of those games were against Florida (twice) and Anaheim, teams that rank in the bottom quarter of the league in scoring.

The Caps have held a lead in the third period in each of the last four games they’ve played against the Flyers. They’ve lost two of those games, one in a Gimmick. This is not a pattern you’d like to establish against a team you might be meeting in the spring. You’d expect the the big guns to show up for a big game like this, and the young guns have had some success against the Flyers:

Alex Ovechkin: 17 games (regular season), 16-12-28
Alexander Semin: 13 games, 6-5-11
Nicklas Backstrom: 9 games, 3-9-12
Mike Green: 15 games, 2-4-6

But the key might be a Mike Knuble. In 25 career games against the Flyers, Knuble has one goal, that coming with the Bruins in December 2000. Even though he’s played but one game against the Flyers since the 2003-2004 season, you might say he’s due.

Caps 4 – Flyers 2

First and Tens -- The First Ten-Game Segment: Defensemen and Goaltenders

If the last time we did this we covered the forwards, then we are left with the defensemen and goaltenders. How did they do in their respective first ten-game segments?

Brian Pothier

For Pothier, the difference in this year’s first ten games versus last year’s is being in the lineup. Last year at this time, Pothier’s career was still in doubt in the aftermath of a concussion suffered in January 2008. This year, he has been in the lineup for nine of the first ten games, registering an assist in that span while averaging 15:41 of ice time a night. If there is an odd number in Pothier’s first ten games, it is this – 12. He is averaging only 12 seconds of penalty killing time per game, by far the lowest number among defensemen (Tyler Sloan is next at 49 seconds).

Tom Poti

Health is also an ingredient in Poti’s start this year, as in “having it.” Last year, Poti played in only five of the first ten games of the season, missing five due to a groin injury. He has played in all 10 games for the Caps thus far. Here is how this year’s first ten compares to last year’s:

The number of note for Poti is the mirror image of that for Pothier – 4:49. That is the number that leads the Caps’ defensemen in penalty killing time, 1:46 more than the next highest number for the Caps (3:03 for Milan Jurcina). It is quite a turn for Poti, who was seen more as an offensive defenseman earlier in his career.

John Erskine

There is a bit of an odd consistency to Erskine’s starts last season and this. He’s missed a few games, but there is the one assist and the one fight last year and this. Here is how the two years compare…

Nothing here that leaps off the page, but for a defenseman, that’s not necessarily bad.

Milan Jurcina

Jurcina might be considered among the early leaders in the “most improved player” category…

And he’s doing it while logging more time on the ice than last year (17 minutes so far this year versus 15 in his first ten games last year). Here is your fun Jurcina number – five. Of the 29 goals surrendered by the Caps so far this year, Jurcina has been on the ice for only five of them. That is, no doubt, a function of time management, but he’s been efficient in the time he does spend on the ice, too.

Shaone Morrisonn

This is Morrisonn’s fifth full season with the Caps and in the first four he’s been rather consistent. There isn’t much difference between his performance in his first ten games (actually, he’s been in nine of the first ten so far) and last year’s…

Morrisonn can be counted on to provide between 10 and 15 points in 70-plus games and be a plus performer while skating as often as not as Mike Green’s partner at even strength. What he’s done a little more consistently versus this time last year is stay out of the penalty box. He was whistled for minors in seven of his first ten games last year, only in three of nine games so far this year… but those would be the last three games (four minors), too.

Mike Green

Green’s offensive production might be seen by some in Caps Nation as being down from last year, and the numbers point to this, at least as far as goal-scoring goes…

But that is being measured against quite a standard. Green is still on a pace for a 16-49-65 season that last year would have been second in scoring among defensemen… to Green. What seems to be the difference so far, at least in goal scoring, is shots, where he is 15 shots behind last year’s pace after ten games. Perhaps it is the violinist being picky about his bow, as Green has been finicky about his sticks. But he seems more comfortable now, which can’t be good news for goaltenders. On the other hand, Green has been on the ice for 10 of the 29 goals scored against the Caps thus far, including the two shorthanded goals allowed in the past two games.

Jeff Schultz

Every team, it seems, needs a whipping boy, and Schultz is it for Caps fans, even if they’ve had fewer opportunities to express their affection this year than last…

But still, there is Schultz… second in scoring among Caps defensemen, tied for second in plus-minus, and for all the abuse heaped upon him, he’s only been on the ice for four goals among the 19 goals scored against the Caps in games he’s played. He’s neither the next Norris winner, nor the worst defenseman in the league. He is comfortably between those two poles, which isn’t bad for a 23-year old defenseman.

Tyler Sloan

Sloan announced his presence with authority last year, splattering Calgary’s Daymond Langkow with an open-ice check on his third NHL shift, then drawing 19 minutes in penalties from Rene Bourque when Bourque decided retaliation was a good idea. Sloan hasn’t left as big an impression in three games so far this season, but it is consistent – numbers-wise – with his performance in the first ten last year…

But what might be a bit disturbing is that of the nine goals scored against the Caps in games in which Sloan has played, he’s been on the ice for four of them.

Semyon Varlamov

Varlamov started his NHL career with a bang last season, beginning with his 2-1 debut win in Montreal on December 13th. He hasn’t lost a game in regulation in the regular season yet (8-0-1). But this year’s numbers are off – a 3.25 GAA and .884 save percentage make him a “second page” goalie in the rankings of goaltenders (he is 40th in GAA and 44th in save percentage). Including playoff games, he’s allowed at least four goals in seven of his last nine appearances. He shown that he has considerable talent, and he’s shown that he can give up goals in bunches in a hurry. He needs to find a happy place of consistency.

Jose Theodore

Coming into the season having faced personal misfortune and facing a challenge from a hot new prospect, Theodore has improved his numbers significantly over his opening ten-game segment last year…

Last year, he allowed at least four goals in three of his eight appearances in this segment. This season, he has allowed as many as four goals once in seven appearances. Five times he has allowed two or fewer, and he has a save percentage of at least .919 in each of his last four appearances. But for Theodore, the question is now, as it was last year, can he consistently produce at that level?

All in all, this year’s first ten-game segment compares more than favorably with last year’s first segment. But this is an 82-game season, too, and even with that, the regular season is but prelude to the post season. That is what expectations do. We expect that the Caps will be better at the start of this year than at the start of last year. We expect that they will be better, if not in the next segment, then certainly as the year goes on, and better again in the playoffs.

But for now, this is a pretty good start, despite the usual knashing of teeth in the usual places in Capitals Nation.

First and Tens -- The First Ten-Game Segment: Forwards

We’ve reached the first ten-game milepost, and the Caps are on a path that will see them pass the 100-point mark for the second consecutive season and the sixth time in club history. In fact, the Caps are on pace to finish with 115 points, which would be another club record. But it is, as they say, “early.” How does the team stack up to where they were at this point last year?...

By these measures, the Caps are ahead of last year in every category. But here is what sets this year’s first ten games apart from last year’s. Last year, the Caps played five playoff teams and one division winner from the previous season – Pittsburgh – in the first ten-game segment. This year, the Caps played six playoff teams and four division winners from the 2008-2009 season in their first seven games. They went 3-2-2 in those first seven games on their way to the 6-2-2 start. Better record against stiffer competition, better overall numbers – it would be hard to find fault with that.

How do these comparisons work when we go to the individual level? Let’s look at the forwards first.

Alex Ovechkin

What a difference a year makes. At this time last year, Ovechkin was burdened with family concerns, and it was reflected in his start. Compare the numbers he put up last year with his start this year…

He is on a pace to set career records in goals (74), assists (66), points (140), plus/minus (+66), game-winning goals (16) and shots (549). But here is your odd Ovechkin number – two. He has two game-winning goals thus far this season. Last year, he didn’t record his second game-winner until December 16th. He still finished tied for third (10) for the season. This is a number worth following as much as his total goals. No player has had more than 15 game-winning goals since Michel Goulet in 1983-1984.

Brendan Morrison

Another player who can point to “health” as the word that most influences the comparison of his first ten-game performance this year with that of last year…

Last year, Morrison was coming off a season in which he missed 53 games, and it showed in a slow start. This year, he’s on a pace (66 points) to register his biggest points year since setting his career high in 2002-2003 (71).

Matt Bradley

Is Matt Bradley entering another phase of his career? Consider the comparison of last year’s first ten games to this year’s…

Including playoffs, Bradley has five goals in his last 20 games. That might not sound like much, but that is a pace of 21 goals over an 82-game season. Bradley has never had as many as 10 goals in a single regular season. Here is your Bradley number – one. And that’s a two-fer. He has one fighting major this season, a number than might seem low to Caps fans, given that enforcer Donald Brashear is gone, and the rough stuff is being handled by committee. The other part of this is that Bradley has only one minor penalty in eight games. He had only seven in 81 games last year.

Boyd Gordon

Gordon has had a bit of a penalty problem to start this season. But it isn’t any different, in terms of minutes, than last year…

What makes this year’s minutes stand out is that of the four minors Gordon has taken, three of them have come in the third period, all of those in the last half of the period, and two of them resulted in power play goals for the opponents, one the game-tying goal by Scott Hartnell in a 6-5 overtime loss to Philadelphia, the other the game-winning goal by Marian Gaborik in a 4-3 loss to the Rangers.

Eric Fehr

The comparison between last year’s first ten games and this years is noteworthy for not being noteworthy…

Fehr has battled injury throughout the professional phase of his career, and this year is no exception as he comes off surgery on both shoulders in the off season. He’s working his way back in, having registered fewer than ten minutes of ice time in four of the six games in which he’s played. That’s not a lot different from last year, when he played in fewer than ten minutes in each of the three games he played in out of the first ten.

Chris Clark

The numbers don’t look altogether different between last year and this…

Except for this. Last year, Clark averaged about 13 and a half minutes of ice time in his first ten games. This year, he has topped that amount of ice time only once, his last time out against the Islanders. What is perhaps odd here is that Clark is averaging only five seconds of penalty killing time per game. But it isn’t odd in the context of the last few years. In his first two years with the Caps, Clark averaged 3:34 and 2:34 of penalty killing time per game. In his last three (including this), he’s averaged 25 seconds, three seconds, and this year five seconds.

Nicklas Backstrom

Backstrom is off to a better start than last year…

In fact, he’s off to a better start than his first two years, combined (0-9-9, minus-3). Here is the odd number for Backstrom – 14. He didn’t register his first even strength point until Game 14 last year. He had his first even strength point in Game 1 this year. If he improves his performance as the season goes on as he has done in each of his first two years, Backstrom could have a monster season. But where he’s struggling is in the faceoff circle. Here’s another Backstrom number – 87. That is his rank among faceoff leaders in the NHL on his 40.8 winning percentage. The irony there is that a player who wears that number has made himself into a very good faceoff man (Sidney Crosby ranks 8th in the league). Hopefully, Backstrom – only in his third season – can follow suit.

Keith Aucoin

Aucoin played in a dozen games for the Caps last year, none of them in the first ten-game segment. But he has dressed for four games so far this year with a goal and an assist for his trouble. He’s managed to make a contribution with limited ice time – he hasn’t been on the ice for ten minutes in a game yet. Oddly enough, he’s tied for tenth in total scoring for the Caps so far.

Brooks Laich

18-37-53-?? That’s been the points progression for Laich the past three seasons. With nine points in ten games, he’s on a pace to top 70 points. That might not be a likely scenario, but he is off to a better start this year than last…

Laich has already had three multi-point games this year (he had 11 last year). With seven in his last 31 games last year, that’s 10 in 41 games. For a player who does not post a lot of assists (Backstrom, for example, has nine multi-assist games in his last 41), Laich seems to get his points in bunches.

Mike Knuble

Knuble has been shooting in a bit of bad luck with two goals in ten games so far. Compare that and his other numbers with last year’s production with Philadelphia…

He’s managed to get points though, largely by doing what he was brought in to do, create traffic. His two goals were pretty much signature Knuble – they were scored from a total of 24 feet from the net. What he has been that folks might not have expected is a minutes eater in all situations – fifth in total ice time per game among forwards, fifth in power play ice time, sixth in penalty killing time, fourth at even strength.

Alexander Semin

Semin got out to a fast start this year that was reminiscent of the start he had last year…

However, upon being moved off the Ovechkin line, his scoring tailed a bit, then he came down with an illness that has kept him out of the last two games. It’s worth noting that he had 16 shots on goal in his first four games (5-4-9), but only 13 – six of them in one game against the Sharks – in his last four (1-0-1). If there is a difference between last year and this so far, it is that special teams scoring. While Semin was 4-5-9 on special teams through ten games last year (including those two shorthanded assists), he is 2-2-4 so far this year.

Alexandre Giroux

Giroux played in a dozen games for the Caps last year, none in the first ten. He’s been up for two games so far this year while Semin get’s back to health. If there is a number that sticks out in two games so far, it is that – two. His ice time has been sparse (less than 15 minutes total in two games), but he has only two shots on goal (four attempts). He does have four hits, though (all against the Islanders in the last game).

Boyd Kane

Kane played in only one game for the Caps last year, again not in any of the first ten. He has dressed for three games thus far, and what might be odd about his brief stay so far is that he’s averaged about a minute more in ice time a game than has Giroux. Small sample size, different roles, etc., etc. We just thought we’d throw that out there.

David Steckel

We had Steckel scoring 12 goals this year in our season previews of players. That’s not looking too good at the moment and is behind his pace last year…

But those two goals happened to be his being the beneficiary of the two shorthanded assists supplied by Alexander Semin. What Steckel did well last year and continues to do well this year is take draws. He is seventh in the league in faceoffs so far, up to 60.6 percent on the winning side from 57.9 percent at the end of last year. It’s worth noting that the 60.6 percent (94 of 155) is up from 54.8 percent in the first ten games of last year (51 of 93).

Quintin Laing

Laing skated only once last season, not among the first ten games. For his trouble, he ended the evening with a lacerated spleen. His experience this year has been more pleasant and productive. He hasn’t yet recorded a point, but he does lead all wingers in penalty killing time. What might be odd about his first ten games is that he ranks only fourth among forwards in blocked shots, a skill for for which Laing has been known in his career to date.

We'll get around to the defense and the goaltenders shortly.