Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Sharks, December 30th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, here we are. Another year in the books. 2009… the International Year of Natural Fibres (we are not kidding). Frankly, 2009 could have used more fibre, it’s had quite the constipated feel to it. But we’ll leave that discussion to the folks on cable talk shows. We’re looking ahead to 2010, and with that in mind we have an exclusive. Joining us this evening is 2010 himself, the New Year’s baby. Welcome to the show, uh… what the… You’re the 2010 New Year’s baby?

“Yeah, what about it?”

You look, well… awful.

“#@$% you, pal. I took one look at what 2009 left me, and I’ve been on a bender ever since getting ready for this gig.”

What do you mean?

“Tiger Woods, the Yankees winning a World Series, the NHL naming the Flyers to play the Bruins in the Winter Classic…”

The Penguins winning a Stanley Cup.

“AGH!...The Penguins!! Don’t get me started.”

Hit a nerve have we?

“Look, it’s bad enough that Bettman’s Pets won the $#%*in’ thing, but you tell me, is this right?”

Well, it does look bad…

"Oh, and does THIS look like a place for a hockey party? "

"It ain't @#$*in' right... not a peanut shell or a bottle cap in sight. And what’s wrong with this picture?"

I don’t follow…

"Wine at a hockey party? What’s next, finger sandwiches? Oh, and will you tell me what’s up with this?"

Gotta admit, it seems to violate laws of nature.

“@#$%in’ ay, it does.”

You seem rather bitter for a year that hasn’t even started yet. Is there anything that can make it better?

“Well, there is one thing that can make 2010 right.”

And that would be…

“If this guy is hoisting the Cup…”

Well, until that day arrives there are many games to be played, and the Caps end 2009 playing one out on the left coast against the San Jose Sharks, a club that the Caps have already beaten once this year, but have not beaten in San Jose since Caps goalie coach Arturs Irbe was tending goal for the Sharks in 1993. Since then, the Caps are 0-8-1 in nine visits to San Jose, having been outscored in the process by 33-17. They were pasted in last year’s visit by a score of 7-2, a game in which the Sharks led by 3-1 at the first intermission, 5-1 at the second, and generally made life in the Shark Tank miserable.

The Caps beat San Jose earlier this season at Verizon Center, a convincing 4-1 win that put the Caps back over .500 for the season, where they have remained ever since. In fact, starting with that game the Caps are on a 22-7-4 run that includes an 8-4-0 December. San Jose’s December has been interesting – a tale of two fortnights, so to speak. From December 1st through the 12th, the Sharks went 1-2-3, beating only Ottawa on the first day of the month before losing five in a row. Since then, though, the Sharks are 5-0-0 and haven’t allowed more than two goals in any of the wins. The overall numbers for the two teams look like this…

The Sharks boast the top scoring line in hockey when Coach Todd McLellan chooses to put them together. The line of Joe Thornton (10-44-54), Dany Heatley (23-21-44), and Patrick Marleau (25-16-41) represent three of the top 14 scorers in the league. Combined, the trio have accounted for:

-- 46 percent of San Jose’s 126 goals scored
-- 19 of the team’s 32 power play goals
-- four of the team’s six shorthanded goals
-- 11 of the Sharks’ 20 game-winning goals

Perhaps oddly enough, the trio has only two of the eight Gimmick goals the Sharks have (Joe Thornton being the one without such a goal). But this group has been hard on the Caps over their respective careers. Thornton is 11-19-30 in 27 career games, Heatley is 11-21-32 in 28 career games, and Marleau is 4-7-11 in 13 career games against Washington. However, none of them had a point in the 4-1 Caps win in October.

These guys aren’t the only ones who have made life difficult for the Caps over the years. Defenseman Dan Boyle, formerly of the Tampa Bay Lightning, has registered more assists and posted more points against the Caps than he has against any other NHL team (7-25-32 in 46 career games). Oh, he didn’t have a point in the first meeting of these teams in October, either.

But if you’re thinking that earlier meeting of the Caps and Sharks has any bearing on this game, especially when it concerns this quartet, consider this. In the current five game winning streak these four players are a combined 10-17-27, +18, scoring ten of the 18 goals the Sharks tallied in this run and figuring in at least one assist on two other goals.

Scoring isn’t all that the Sharks do well, though. Evgeni Nabokov is a top-ten goaltender overall in wins (21/T-4th), GAA (2.30/10th), save percentage (.925/5th), and shutouts (2/T-10th). He is also one of four goalies in the league who has played more than 2,000 minutes, putting him on a pace to have his second 4,000 minute season. He came into the season having never lost to the Caps, going 8-0-0, 1.98, .935 in eight career appearances. That unblemished record was ended with the 4-1 loss to Washington in October.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder:

San Jose: Rob Blake

The veteran defenseman has a higher points-per-game average against the Caps (0.96 PPG on 8-16-24 in 25 career games) than he has against any other NHL team. In last year’s 7-2 blowout on this ice sheet he had four assists. Make the guy play some defense.

Washington: Michal Neuvirth

Indications are that Neuvirth will get the call in goal against the Sharks. This is the rookie being thrown into the deep end of the shark tank, as it were. But really, saying “Michal Neuvirth” is code for the Caps rallying around him in terms of playing sound team defense. If Neuvirth can: a) avoid giving up the early goal, and b) stop all the shots he is supposed to stop, then the skaters have to do the rest and keep the Sharks from swimming too close.


1. One-two, one-two. Nabokov has been pulled from two games this year, and the common item in both is getting a 1-2 punch in. Against Los Angeles in a 6-4 loss on October 6th, Nabokov gave up two goals 56 seconds apart in the second period (his third and fourth of the game), after which he was pulled. In a 7-2 loss to Chicago on November 25th, he gave up goals 28 seconds apart in the second period (his second and third of the game). If the Caps get one, let’s see if they can get another right away.

2. One-two, one-two…two. Alex Ovechkin came into the 2009-2010 season never having scored a goal against the Sharks, the last team on the NHL list against which he had not scored a goal. Well, he got two in the 4-1 win in October. What’s more, he had 13 shots on goal in that contest. It will be harder to get the favorable sorts of matchups that lead to getting that many shots on goal, but it might take a similar effort for Ovechkin to add to his streak of four games with at least two points (and eight of his last 12).

3. 20 minutes of clean hockey. San Jose has lost only two games in regulation on home ice this season. In both, they were held off the scoreboard in the first 20 minutes. The Caps are tied for second in fewest first period goals allowed this year. Do the math.

The Caps have rid themselves of the burden of not having beaten Edmonton in seven straight games played in Alberta. And the Caps ended a 12-game losing streak (0-11-1) to the Sharks overall since beating them on 7th Street, 3-1, on February 20, 1999. Things change. The Caps have not lost consecutive games in regulation since dropping a pair back on October 8th and 10th. The tides are right for some sharkin’…

Caps 4 – Sharks 3

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 5: The Goalie

Number five is next on the look back at top stories in 2009…

Number 5: The Goalie

On March 9, 2006, the Capitals traded defenseman Brendan Witt to the Nashville Predators for former Capital Kris Beech and a first round draft pick. The pick was nice, and Beech was more or less an afterthought. The object of the exercise was to move a player who expressed a distinct lack of interest in the rebuild in which the Capitals found themselves. Witt was soon a memory, Beech would soon be one, even as he played in 64 games for the Caps the following season, and the thought of the draft pick was stashed away in the attic of Caps Nation’s memory.

Fast forward to June 2006. For fans of the Washington Capitals the attention was focused at the top of the first round, where the Caps had the fourth overall pick. It was a pick with some uncertainty attached, as there was a case to be made for the Caps to take any of Erik Johnson, Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, or Phil Kessel, if any of this quintet was available. The Caps selected Backstrom (and we know how that turned out), leaving the 23rd overall selection as a bit of an afterthought at draft day parties held by Caps fans.

With that 23rd overall pick the Caps selected a virtual unknown (to Caps fans, at least) – a young goaltender from Russia, Semyon Varlamov. The talent analysis at the time would not have given comfort to Caps fans…

"A good sized netminder who plays smaller than he really is... plays more of a butterfly style...doesn't cover a big space of the net, but makes up for this drawback with quality reflexes and athleticism...an okay skater with a decent lateral movement in the crease...moves fast side-to-side...does precise splits to stop the puck which makes up a bit for his mediocre length of the legs...challenges the shooter and relies on his skating ability...adequate on the blocker side...a solid fast glove hand...handles most of the rebounds well thanks to a strong dexterity and flexibility...adequate anticipation of the developing plays...should particularly upgrade on his dealing with hard initial shots...tends to allow the odd soft goal through his five-hole...tends to play too deep in the net occasionally, thus being vulnerable to the initial shots...displays only average puckhandling ability and should work on his stickhandling ability…A butterfly style goalie...moves well both in the butterfly and on his skates...weak in handling the puck outside the crease...improving with the control of the rebounds...takes up a lot of space the net (source: russianprospects.com)"

Except for a glimpse of Varlamov at Capitals development camp, there really wasn’t a lot to know about Varlamov, other than he was another Russian. But he was giving indications that the pick would yield benefits down the road. At Yaroslavl Lokomotiv in 2006-2007 he posted a 2.17 goals against average with three shutouts. The following year his numbers might have appeared to slip a bit in the regular season, but he had a remarkable playoff campaign, posting a 1.62 GAA and five shutouts in 16 post season games. He was ready to hop the pond.

At Hershey to start the 2008-2009 season, he appeared to suffer no particular problems with the smaller rink or the distance from home, at least on the ice, going 19-7-1, 2.40, .920, and two shutouts with the Bears. His play in Hershey earned him a call from the Caps, one that was not without adventure. The Caps were without a backup goaltender on hand and with Brent Johnson the only semi-healthy goalie, himself suffering from a bad hip (which would eventually require surgery). While Brett Leonhardt was being plucked from the video production studio to serve as emergency backup, Varlamov was getting a phone call in the middle of a ride to the next town in Texas where the Bears would be skating. Varlamov made it to DC during a 5-1 win over the Ottawa Senators and would get the call the next night, in Montreal, ground zero for professional hockey.

That Varlamov was impressive in his debut on that December night in Montreal is to damn with faint praise. He stopped 32 of 33 shots in a packed Bell Centre, including 14 in a third period that was tied until Michael Nylander scored with 2:32 left to give the rookie his NHL debut win. It would hardly be the last time Varlamov would impress. Although he was sent back down after a win over St. Louis on December 18th, he was recalled in March. He would appear in three games over the rest of the regular season and would finish up the year 4-0-1, 2.37, .918. It seemed a fine introduction to NHL hockey. But then, as they say, things took a turn…

In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the New York Rangers, starting goalie Jose Theodore allowed three goals in the first 38 minutes and then, after the Caps clawed back to tie things up early in the third period, allowed the game winner with 8:17 left in the third period. The 4-3 loss convinced Coach Bruce Boudreau to roll the dice and send Varlamov between the pipes for Game 2. Varlamov allowed a first period goal by Ryan Callahan, but it was the only goal he would allow. Unfortunately, the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist was one better in a 1-0 Rangers win. Boudreau needed no convincing, though to send Varlamov out again against the Rangers from then on. His gamble was rewarded in Game 3 and over the rest of the series as Varlamov went 4-2, 1.17, .957, and two shutouts.

Varlamov was the toast of the town whose performance was drawing comparisons to another youngster who was brought up late and given the playoff reins 28 years earlier – Ken Dryden. There were differences, though, between Dryden’s parlaying six regular season games of experience into a Stanley Cup in 1971 and Varlamov’s run. The vast cultural differences aside between a goalie who grew up in the North American sport and one who was still finding his way in a new country, Dryden was 23 years old when he won the Cup, Varlamov had just turned 21 the day before Game 7 of the Rangers series. Dryden had three seasons of NCAA hockey at Cornell University, a stint with the IIHF World & European Championship Pool A, and 33 games with the Montreal Voyageurs of the AHL before getting his shot with the Canadiens. Varlamov did have comparable stops along the way, but not to the extent that Dryden did. Varlamov was in the deep water without a lot of experience, and his performance had been truly amazing.

But reality – and a hail of shots over seven games – came crashing down on Varlamov and the Capitals in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Varlamov would win the first two games of the series (and have what was probably the save of the Stanley Cup tournament on Sidney Crosby in Game 1), but there were ominous signs as the Penguins pounded 36 shots at him in each game. The barrage finally caused the wall that was Varlamov to give way in the last five games of the series, of which the young goalie and the Caps lost four, Varlamov being pulled after 22 minutes of a Game 7 loss.

Even with the difficulties in the second round, Varlamov finished the playoffs 7-6, 2.53, .918, with two shutouts, a more than respectable performance for any goalie, let alone one with as little professional experience as Varlamov had. He carried his fine play over into the 2009 portion of the 2009-2010 season, posting to date a 12-1-2 record, a 2.21 GAA, a .924 save percentage, and two shutouts. His 16-1-3 record to start his NHL career (not to mention four shuouts in his last 28 games played, including playoffs) has been remarkable. For that reason “The Goalie” is one of the top stories for the Capitals in 2009.

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 6: The Repeat

And now, the number 6 story of 2009…

Number 6: The Repeat

In the history of the National Hockey League 51 different players have been named winner of the Hart Memorial Trophy as league most valuable player. Of that number, 17 have won the award on more than one occasion. Of that number, 11 have been a repeat winner at least once in their careers. And of that number, one player is still active.

Alex Ovechkin.

In NHL history 22 players have won the Lester Pearson Award as outstanding player. Of that number, nine have won the award more than once. Of that number, six have been repeat winners at least once in their career. And of that number, one player is still active.

Alex Ovechkin.

In the history of the NHL, nine different players have won the Maurice Richard Trophy that is awarded to the top goal scorer in the league. Of that number, three have won it more than once. Of that number, two have been repeat winners. And of that number, one is still active.

Alex Ovechkin.

In NHL history, 16 forwards have been named a first team NHL all star at least four times. Only one of these players is active and is the only player in the history of the league to have been named to the first team in each of his first four seasons.

Alex Ovechkin.

Ovechkin stands alone at the top of his sport. You could make an argument for a Sidney Crosby, an Evgeni Malkin, a Nicklas Lidstrom, a Pavel Datsyuk, a Jarome Iginla, or a Joe Thornton eclipsing Ovechkin as a player. You could, but it would not be convincing. Let’s look at these players in 2009 (you’re free to think there should be others on this list, but it is a representative group of elite players from 2009):

Ovechkin, despite having played fewer games than anyone on this list, has more goals, points, game-winning goals (having played in fewer games than Evgeni Malkin), and more power play goals than anyone on this list. Yes, you are free to think that other measures should be in here (even you stat geeks), but these are a simple enough sampling to tell a story.

Ovechkin had some other noteworthy accomplishments in 2009:

-- 14 multi-goal games
-- 34 multi-point games
-- two hat tricks
-- two ten-game points streaks (coming as part of a 29 games in 31 points run)
-- two three-game goal scoring streaks during the 2009 playoffs
-- 11 goals in his last 11 games in the playoffs, including seven in the seven game series against Pittsburgh
-- 11-10-21 in 14 playoff games, which still left him fifth in playoff scoring, despite not playing in the final two rounds (he was plus-10, to boot, sixth in the league for the playoffs)

Even a suspension didn’t slow him down (and it inspired almost as talk about an NHL player in the regular season as there was talk about a certain golfer’s infidelity….ok, it didn’t). Since taking a couple of games off for a knee-on-knee hit on Carolina’s Tim Gleason, Ovechkin is 8-11-19, plus-6, with four power play goals (he had four all season before the suspension), and a game-winner. It just adds to the story Ovechkin authored this year.

And that story is that at this point in his career, having consistently produced at an elite level, repeating multiple times in individual awards, Ovechkin is the most prolific player of his era. He is the NHL’s only equivalent of a rock star, creating a buzz in every city he visits. That he would repeat in three major awards this year – Hart, Pearson, Richard – and be named for the fourth consecutive time to the NHL first all star team, Alex Ovechkin is – again – a top story in 2009.

Top Ten Stories of 2009 -- Number 7: Home Cookin'

Continuing with the top ten Caps stories of 2009, we’re up to number seven…

Number 7 – Home Cookin’

The old saying in team sports is, “split on the road, win at home.” Well, the Caps did the latter in 2009 with a vengeance (last night’s result notwithstanding). The Caps were 14-8-2 in the 2009 portion of the 2008-2009 season, which included an 0-3-1 hiccup at the beginning of March. In the 2009 portion of the current season no team had fewer home losses in regulation than did the Caps heading into last night’s action. The 12-3-3 home record thus far this season brings the Caps’ 2009 home mark to 26-11-5. In those 42 home games the Caps…

-- Scored at least five goals ten times.

-- Outscored the opposition 148-127 (3.52 – 3.02 per game)

-- Outshot the opposition by an average of 34.7 to 28.2 shots per game

-- Converted power plays at a 26.7 percent rate

-- Killed penalties at an 84.2 percent rate

-- Had six streaks of at least three wins in a row (high: five, which was snapped last night)

-- Finished with at least a .500 mark against five of the six divisions:

• Southeast: 9-3-0
• Atlantic: 7-2-3
• Northeast: 6-2-1
• Central: 2-1-1
• Northwest: 1-2-0
• Pacific: 1-1-0

But one of the most important parts of “home cookin’” can be found in this number…


No, it’s not a reference to the Northern Virginia area code. It is the total number of unsold seats the Caps had in 50 regular season and playoff games in 2009. The Caps sold out 48 of those games. Only a January 13th game against Edmonton (a 5-2 loss watched by 17,948) and a March 3rd game against Carolina (another 5-2 loss watched by 17,903) marred a perfect 2009. In terms of attendance, these are the glory days of the Capitals.

The combination of success and the red-clad crowds make Washington an increasingly difficult place of opponents to visit. Whether this will matter in terms of a championship is something that will be decided in a few months. The Caps could, if current standing hold, enjoy home ice advantage for at least two playoff rounds. But for now, the Caps winning ways and the packed-to-the-rafters rink in which they play makes “home cookin’” one of the top ten stories of the year.

The TSN Top Plays of the Decade (guess who has the top two "goals")

...and guess who doesn't make an appearance (yeah, yeah, we know... he has a Cup)

A NO-point night -- Hurricanes 6 - Caps 3

Well, it was over at the first intermission, anyway, just not quite the way we envisioned.

The Carolina Hurricanes scored early (three goals in the first period), scored late (two goals in the last ten minutes to pull away) and withstood a mini-rally by the Washington Capitals on their way to only their second road win of the season, a 6-3 decision at Verizon Center last night.

It wasn’t pretty. How so? Well, until last night…

- Carolina scored as many as four goals on the road this season once… in Colorado… in a loss.

- They had not scored as many goals in any game since beating Florida, 7-2, on October 9th.

- They did not have a better shooting percentage than their six goals on 26 shots (23.1 percent).

- They had not won a game by as many as three goals since that 7-2 win over Florida.

- They did not have a 5-on-3 goal this season… at all.

Meanwhile, about that first period for the Caps. Washington was credited with four shots. That is being more than generous. Here is the official tally:

2:32 – Knuble, slap shot, 83 feet
8:31 – Fleischmann, wrist shot, 32 feet
13:27 – Backstrom, wrist shot, 76 feet
18:25 – Gordon, backhand, 36 feet

See a pattern? Cam Ward could have knitted a quilt for all the pressure the Caps put on him in the first frame. He could have stopped those shots with a badminton racquet. Oh, Carolina’s three goals were scored from a combined distance of 27 feet.

That, kids, was more or less the game. The Caps are an adept come-from-behind team (best in the league, in fact, winning percentage-wise going into last night;’s game), but a three-goal deficit in the first period is a bit much. A team has to expend so much energy just to get back into the game it doesn’t often leave anything at the end to get over the hump, take a lead, and hold it to the end.

And such was the case for the Caps. They did sort of make a game of it. They got an early second period power play goal from Mike Green, thanks to a nice feed from Tomas Fleischmann and a screen by Mike Knuble in front of goalie Cam Ward. But they gave it right back. OK, Jose Theodore is going to get a fair amount of blame for that fourth Hurricane goal, for giving up a rebound, then not stopping Brandon Sutter on the put-back. But watch the faceoff. Nicklas Backstrom lost it to Sutter, then did his best imitation of an orange traffic cone as Sutter made a bee-line for the net.

The killer, though, was the fifth Carolina goal. As a power play was expiring, Eric Staal sent a shot to the cage that Theodore paddled away from one knee. Staal retrieved the puck and sent it across to Sergei Samsonov in the left wing circle. Samsonov got off a wrister, but it was blocked by Tyler Sloan. Samsonov got the loose puck, though, stepped around Sloan, and wristed it past Theodore. The thing is, though, in that entire sequence, Theodore played from his knees. He never seemed to get himself into a sturdy position to defend against a shot, and when Samsonov changed the angle in stepping around Sloan, he had a much better target of open net to shoot at. It was the frustration of the night in a nutshell.

Other stuff…

-- For what it’s worth, that’s four straight multi-point games for Alex Ovechkin (5-6-11, +3). It is the first time he has had a streak of that sort this long within a season since a five-game multi-point streak from November 10-19, 2008 (6-8-14, +12). He had a four game streak that crossed seasons – the last game of the 2008-2009 season and the first three games of this season.

-- With a goal and an assist, Mike Green registered a point in his fourth straight game (3-3-6, +4). He has a way to go to match his best this year, though – an eight-game points streak from November 11th through November 25th.

-- The Caps out-attempted Carolina 71-45 (shots, misses, shots blocked). But last night was one of those instances in which Carolina’s chances were of the much better opportunity sort than were the Caps’ opportunities.

-- No, it was not a personal best for Eric Staal. His five point night was eclipsed by a six-point night against Tampa Bay last March 9th (tying the club record).

-- Carolina certainly didn’t spread things around. Only seven players recorded points on a six-goal night. Four players – Staal, Matt Cullen, Tuomo Ruutu, and Jussi Jokinen did the multi-point damage.

-- Rod Brind’Amour, who is last in the NHL in plus-minus, found a way to finish minus-1 on a night when his club scores six and wins by three. He also had only 4:19 in ice time, only one shift in the last 27 minutes of the game.

-- The Caps came into the game as the best 5-on-5 team in the league. They got pounded, 4-1, in that part of the game (not counting the empty-netter) by the team that was worst in the league in that measure.

-- The Young Guns night… 2-3-5, 15 shots on goal, 32 attempted shots… and a minus-8.

-- The Young Guns Night II… about that expending of energy, after the Hurricanes scored those three goals in the first period, here is how the ice time played out for the Young Guns in the last two periods: Ovechkin – 18:15, Backstrom – 14:28, Semin – 14:07, Green – 22:56.

-- Pretty grim night in the circle if you are a Cap, and your name isn’t “Steckel.” 14 wins and 27 losses for just such players.

The Caps now head west to herald in the new year. What they seem unable to herald in is a clear number one goaltender. Jose Theodore did himself no favors tonight by allowing five goals on 25 shots. The trouble is, Semyon Varlamov is hurt, and Michal Neuvirth has too little experience (though no less than Varlamov had at this time last year). Certainly this will sort itself out by April, but at the moment the Caps are winning in spite of a revolving door between the pipes.

Last night is what happens when a perfect storm of events occurs – last game before jumping on a plane to the left coast, maybe taking an opponent (even a division opponent) too lightly, a lack of focus as a product of the day’s earlier events, and uncertainty in goal. Again, the trick here is not to let one become two, and that will be a chore as the Caps visit the San Jose Sharks next. But last night, the Caps looked, well…