Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A ONE-point night: Senators 5 - Capitals 4 (OT)

When a team scores on their first shot of the game, you get the feeling the other guys are not going to have a good night. The Ottawa Senators scored on their first shot against the Capitals tonight – a harmless enough looking little shot by Peter Regin 1:24 into the game – and the Caps did not have a good night, despite earning a point in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Senators.

Don’t be deceived by the score. The only reason this was close, frankly, was the disparity in depth of skill between the teams. The Senators outshot, outhit, out-blocked shot, out-worked, and ultimately outscored the Caps. If not for a couple of nice goals by Alexander Semin, a seeing-eye goal by Mike Green that popped over goalie Brian Elliott’s shoulder and into the net, and Mathieu Perreault getting his second goal in as many games with some deft stick work in pulling the puck into a shooting position in fron of goalie Brian Elliott, there were long spells where the Cap just didn’t have an extra gear.

It was somehow fitting that the final sequence began with Nicklas Backstrom taking an offensive zone penalty with 41 seconds left. This being the new NHL, the faceoff went into the Caps’ end, where Jason Spezza beat David Steckel on the draw. Fourteen seconds later, Alex Kovalev put the Caps out of their misery, redirecting a shot past Caps goalie Jose Theodore, Kovalev’s first point in more than a month spanning a dozen games (0-0-0, minus-10 in 12 games is no way to go down a stretch run).

Other stuff…

- It was really hard what to make of the game Jose Theodore had. The first goal came on a shot he seemed unprepared for, the second came when he was bowled over in the crease on what looked like a textbook instance of goaltender interference by Mike Fisher (not necessarily by the rule, but in the manner with which it gets called these days). The third came when both Caps defensemen – Shaone Morrisonn and Joe Corvo were caught on the same side of the ice (it looked like it was Corvo who was coming back from the quadruple wisdom tooth extraction, not Morrisonn), and defenseman Chris Campoli had a clear lane to the net coming late. The fourth goal was the killer, letting Jason Spezza bank one in off his pad from the goal line extended. But then there was several instances of big, big stops. We’d just as soon he make the saves on the Spezza-like shots and have the defense keep opponents from getting some of the wide open chances that Ottawa had. Better division of labor.

- Alex Ovechkin was another hard one to figure out. If you look at the event summary, it will show you that Ovechkin had five shots on goal and 20 total attempts. But he had only five attempts in the third period and overtime combined, and only one shot on goal (that coming a mere 1:54 into the last period in regulation).

- In addition to the goaltender interference the four eyes in orange stripes on their sleeves appeared to miss, there was the matter of missing Matt Cullen playing the puck with a broken stick and a tripping call when Mike Knuble was taken down at the Ottawa line while carrying the puck. We’re at a loss as to how an official – presumably one of them was looking in the direction of the puck – missed the calls (the folks in the replay booth didn’t miss them; the interference and trip were played on the video board).

- One might give Theodore a break on the first goal, inasmuch as Peter Begin ended up with the puck after Nicklas Backstrom coughed it up to Jason Spezza at the side of the cage, and when Spezza got off a quick shot, it squirted all the way through to Begin. Still, we think Theodore would like that one back.

- The best line of the night for the Caps – too many times – was the fourth line of David Steckel, Quintin Laing, and Matt Bradley. If they could have traded skill sets with the first line for one shift, they would have had a goal on that shift. If the reworked second line of Mike Knuble, Eric Belanger, and Tomas Fleischmann could have traded energy with the fourth line, this game would not have been close.  Yeah, they don't have a lot of time together, but it really, really showed.

- Anton Volchenkov was not missed. Ottawa had 28 blocked shots, seven more than the Caps actually placed on net. The top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin had 15 of their shots blocked. Only nine of their shots reached Brian Elliott.

- At the other blue line, there is an interesting and subtle piece of Mike Green's game that seems to be coming out just in time.  Yes, he got a goal...nice.  But he's played with a bit of an edge, lately.  One could see it in mixing it up with Eric Nystrom in the game against Calgary on Sunday, and it was there again tonight (three hits, and a couple of after whistle meetings).

- In what has to be one of the strangest results of the season, only eight of 18 Caps skaters (keep in mind, this is the most prolific offense in the league by a wide margin) had shots on goal. Only six of 12 forwards registered shots on goal.

- We’re going to take a new tack on this whole “players to ponder” thing. Sunday we had Rene Bourque for Calgary, and he finished with a goal and two assists. For tonight’s game we had Jason Spezza, and he finished with two goals and two assists. We’re thinking Eric Boulton for Thursday.

- The Caps killed one penalty. The Senators scored three power play goals in a total of 2:23 of ice time. Not good.

- Interesting to see Jason Chimera skate in from 50 feet out to take up the challenge when Mathieu Perreault was being abused. Chimera had a pretty solid game with an assist, five hits, a takeaway and a blocked shot in 12 minutes and change.

- There are nights when you think Eric Fehr can be a 40-goal scorer in this league with his hands, his shot and knack for making the most of few minutes. Tonight wasn’t one of those nights. It was rather one of another sort he is occasionally guilty of having, and that is in disappearing in the offensive end.

- Back to Perreault… did you notice him going right after Andy Sutton in the corner after the faceoff and just before Fehr fed him the puck? Sutton is eight inches taller and 60 pounds heavier, and Perrault annoyed him just enough (“hit” is not really the appropriate word here) to free the puck so Fehr could collect it.

- This one makes seven extra time games in the past 11 for the Caps. They are 3-4 in those games, three of the losses coming at home.

In the end, the Caps played as if they knew they were the better team and had little to prove. There has been a lot of that going on lately, and it’s playing with fire. Last year they finished with four losses in their last nine games (largely against weak opponents), and it cost them an edge going into the playoffs. Well, now the Caps have six losses in their past 11 games and look not at all like a President’s Trophy winner (unless the president is Millard Fillmore).

Is it over yet?

Fans were not happy with the Caps during and after their 5-3 loss to Calgary on Sunday.  It appears to be part of a "senioritis" sort of problem, whereby the Caps want to get this over with (the regular season) so they can "matriculate" to the playoffs.

Well, there's a lot of that going around.  Looking at the eight teams that have clinched playoff spots, lackluster records indicate teams whose effort lately has lacked, well... luster.  Here are their records (in wins and losses):

Of course, there is always one kid in class to break the curve...

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Senators, March 30th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Tonight, it is the Ottawa Senators making their last appearance on F Street this season, unless of course the Senators and Capitals should meet in the Stanley Cup playoffs. While the Caps are assured of their place in the Eastern Conference seedings, the Senators are still awaiting their fate. And getting there has been half the fun. What a roller-coaster ride it has been.

“Trust me… that ain’t no roller coaster.”

Let me guess, you’re a roller coaster expert.

“Yup, name’s ‘Bud’… been workin’ on roller coasters since before they rolled or coasted.”

I see… well, how does this Ottawa team compare to a roller coaster?

“Doesn’t. They don’t skate as fast… fastest one is the “Ring Racer” at the Nürburgring amusement park in Nürburg, Germany.”

You’re kidding…

“Nope, 135 miles an hour, last year. And don’t even think that Andy Sutton guy has anything on the Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey… biggest one of all, a 418 foot drop.”

You’ve been at this a long time…

“Don’t tell me about long… longest coaster is that Steel Dragon 2000 they got over in Nagashima Spa Land in Japan… 8,133 feet.”

More than 40 hockey rinks.

“If you say so.”

But the Senators have been up and down and up and down…

“Yeah, yeah, but the coasters with the most inversions? That’s what we call ‘em in roller coaster lingo. There’s the one in England – the “Colossus” in Surrey at Thorpe Park – and one in China in Chimelong Paradise in Guangzhou – ten apiece.”

I’m getting ill just thinking about it.

“Sort of like the way Edmonton Oiler fans feel these days?”

Good point.

Well, like we said, it has been quite a roller-coaster ride for the Senators. Starting on January 5th with a 4-1 loss to Boston, Ottawa has had streaks of…

- five losses, followed by
- 11 wins, followed by
- a brief interlude of sanity (4-4-1), followed by
- five losses, followed by
- four wins, and counting

For those of you following along at home, that is 19-14-1 over their last 34 games. Break the streaks down, and there is really no mystery how they happened. Five losses, outscored 22-5… 11 wins, outscoring the opposition 37-13… five losses, outscored 22-9… four wins, outscoring the opposition 11-4. Ottawa didn’t just win or lose in these streaks, they either pasted or were pasted by their opponents. In the 25 games that comprise the four streaks, Ottawa played in a grand total of five one-goal games (4-1-0 record).  Here is how the overall numbers break down...

One other thing they have been able to do in the winning streaks is absolutely slam the door on opponents with defense and goaltending. Ottawa has four shutouts in their last 29 games, and they allowed only one goal in six others. Only once in the 19 wins over their last 34 games did the Senators allow more than three goals.

And that starts with goalie Brian Elloitt, who is the only Senator goalie to win a game since Mike Brodeur got the Senators a pair of wins in consecutive starts in mid-January. Since then, Elliott is 17-6-0, 2.09, .928, with three shutouts. Elliott hasn’t necessarily been good as much as he’s been there against the Caps. In two appearances this year he is 2-0-0, 3.97, .846.

That sort of goaltending requires scoring, and the Senators have been the beneficiaries of balanced scoring in playing the Caps this season. In three games, ten Senators share 12 goals scored against the Caps, Chris Neil and Chris Phillips the only players with two.

That is the kind of balance that the Senators have had all season. Although Ottawa is 18th in total scoring, they have 20 skaters in double digits in points (by way of comparison, the Caps, who lead the league in scoring, have 17 such skaters).

The flip side of “balance” in this instance is that the Senators lack a top-end scorer. Daniel Alfredsson, with 64 points in 64 games, ranks 33rd in total scoring. Mike Fisher and Milan Michalek, with 22 goals apiece, are tied for 60th in the league in goal scoring. Unfortunately for the Senators, Michalek has been out of the lineup since sustaining a knee injury against Atlanta. This is not the team that could once boast three 90-point or better scorers (the 2005-2006 club that had Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, and Jason Spezza all with 90 points or better). This team lacks a standout scorer.

Injuries have hit the blue line as well. Filip Kuba, who leads the Senator defensemen in scoring, is questionable for tonight’s game with the dreaded “lower body” injury, while shot-blocker deluxe Anton Volchenkov is listed as “doubtful” with the always troubling “upper body” injury.

The absence of a pair of 20 minute a night defensemen will place added pressure on Andy Sutton, obtained from the Islanders at the trade deadline to provide shade to teammates on sunny days. It is hard to see what other benefit he has provided in the 12 games he has played for the Senators so far. In those 12 games he has recorded a single point, is minus-6, has been a minus player in seven of the 12 games he has played, and has taken seven minor penalties.

Sutton has been paired lately with Erik Karlsson, a 19-year old who seems to be finding his game lately. After going 0-2-2, minus-8 in his first nine games out of the Olympic break, he is 1-5-6, plus-3 in his last four games. Karlsson has dressed for only one of the three games against the Caps this year, playing 22:30 without a point and even in plus-minus.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Ottawa: Jason Spezza

This has not been a memorable year for the 26-year old center. He lost 20 games to a torn MCL, and he is likely to finish this season with his lowest point total since his rookie season. However, he is 4-5-9, plus-6 in his last six games, including a hat trick against Dallas on March 20th. He has been something of an annoyance to the Caps, as well. In 22 career games he is 7-15-22, including a goal and two assists in two games this year. Spezza also performed a classy deed before a game against Calgary a few weeks ago, giving a young fan his stick after the glass he shattered on a shot in warm-ups landed on the fan. Of course, Senator fans might think the glass was the only thing he hit this year. He is 24th on the club in hits.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

Southeast Division teams aside, Backstrom has more points against the Senators (5-9-14 in 11 games) than he does against any opponent except Pittsburgh (1-16-17 in 11 games). That includes a goal and two assists in three games against Ottawa this year. Backstrom has been almost a metronome in his consistency. He hasn’t gone consecutive games without a point since early January and has points in six of his last seven games (3-7-10). He has slowed down a bit in the goal-scoring department with three tallies in his last 15 games after getting 26 in his first 60 games. His next goal will be his 30th of the season and would give the Caps three 30-goal scorers for the second consecutive year.


1. Pay attention. The Caps seem to have had their attention wander to April, and we don’t mean filing their income tax returns. The club has had the look of one that just wants these last two weeks over with so they can get on with the playoffs. Ottawa still has things to play for – they have not yet sewn up a playoff spot, and there is the matter of seeding. They are a solid five-seed at the moment (six points behind fourth-place New Jersey, five ahead of sixth-place Philadelphia).

2. Slow and steady. Ottawa ranks 18th in the league in goals scored per game, but what they are capable of is getting stronger offensively as the game goes on. They have scored (by period), 59, 66, and 72 goals. The Senators have scored five third period goals against the Caps in three games this season.

3. Find the soft underbelly. With Kuba and Volchenkov likely out or at least rendered less than fully effective due to injury, the Caps need to press their replacements. Brian Lee has been recalled from Binghamton (his fourth such recall this season for a total of 21 games). The Senators could be vulnerable on the blue line.

In the end, the Caps are fighting a lack of clear focus. One could forgive such a sin against Calgary, who the Caps will not see again until next season. But against the Senators, who could be a playoff opponent at some point, a statement is in order. And that statement is that they are coming into the big dog’s yard.

Caps 5 – Senators 2

Monday, March 29, 2010

Race for the Hardware -- Ross and Richard

It’s about the Cup, not about individual achievements. Yes, we get it. But we’re fans, and that makes us greedy. Greedy enough as Caps fans to want to see Alex Ovechkin win the Ross (top scorer), Richard (top-goal scorer), Hart (MVP), Pearson (outstanding player), and Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) to pull off the quinella, or whatever you call winning the five big individual trophies.  Throw in the Presidential Medal of Freedom*, too.  Like we said, we're greedy.

The Ross and the Richard are easy – the one with the most (points, goals) wins. And at the moment, Alex Ovechkin is in a dogfight with Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin for the Ross and with Sidney Crosby for the Richard. What are Ovechkin’s chances? Well, a lot of what goes into this is what goes into this, that being the level of commitment he and the Caps will be exhibiting over their last seven games with the Southeast Division and Eastern Conference titles clinched, and the President’s Trophy in reach.

But schedules play a part in this, too. How the players performed against the teams left on their respective schedules might provide a hint at how the races for the hardware will finish. First, the Richard race…

Alex Ovechkin has the benefit of an extra game remaining on his schedule in his race with Sidney Crosby for the goal-scoring title. Ovechkin has seven games left, Crosby six. Both have only two away games in their mix. This is especially important to Crosby, since 32 of his 47 goals have been scored at home in Mellon Arena this season. Ovechkin’s are almost evenly split between Verizon Center (24) and the road (22).

Where Ovechkin holds an edge is in his opposition. As indicated in the table above, he has 12 of his 46 goals against the five teams left on his schedule. But since he gets two bites at the apple in playing Atlanta and Boston, that works out to 18 goals in 19 man-games worth of performance, adjusted for the schedule. Crosby gets a similar double-look at the Thrashers and at the Islanders, but where Ovechkin has six goals in six games this year against his double-dip opponents, Crosby has three in six games (all scored against the Islanders).

Looking at where they scored the goals, though, might provide a clue as to an outcome. Looking at the opponents Ovechkin has remaining, he has a total of five goals scored at home, seven on the road. Complicating this is the fact that Ovechkin has not yet faced Boston at home, but will (twice) in these last seven games. Crosby has split his six goals scored – three at home, three on the road. But he gets to face the team he scored two home goals against (the Islanders) twice, once at home, once on the road.

The schedule would appear to give the slightest of edges to Crosby to keep his slim lead, if only because he gets to do most of his work in the friendly confines of Mellon Arena, where he has done the most damage this year. The most interesting aspect of this race is that it could come down to the last meeting of the season between the Penguins and Capitals, in Pittsburgh. In their only meeting in Pittsburgh so far this year, Ovechkin out-goaled Crosby, 2-1.

In the end, the schedule favors Crosby ever so slightly, but there is the game in hand that Ovechkin holds. We see this as going down to the wire…

Ovechkin 50 – Crosby 50 (now share the trophy nice, boys)

For the Ross, Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Sedin appear to be the final contestants (although the nature of the award allows for the possibility of Crosby getting into this mix). Both players have seven games left, and both have been very productive against the teams they will face down the stretch. Ovechkin has averaged more than a point a game against each of the five teams he will face in the final seven games, with the exception of Columbus, against which he was injured in his only game. Sedin has been at least a point a game against six of the seven teams he will face in the next two weeks (only against San Jose does he not measure up).

Adjusted for schedule, Ovechkin appears to have a bit of an advantage, because against the two teams he will face twice – Atlanta and Boston – he has 10 points in six games. However, Sedin is remarkably consistent against his group (none of which he will face twice). And he has an even split between home and away games (18 home points, 17 away points).

Sedin has been, overall, a conventional scorer when it comes to the influence of schedule – he has 57 points in 37 home games, 44 in 38 away games. Ovechkin is much the same, despite his almost identical home/road goal scoring totals. He has 58 points in 32 home games and 42 points in 33 away games.

The difference here that favors Sedin, though, might come down to a different player. When Daniel Sedin missed 18 games last fall, brother Henrik was 10-8-18 in those 18 games. A point a game pace is not bad, but compare that to his production with his brother in the lineup – 18-65-83 in 57 games, a 1.45 point-per-game pace. He is also closing with a rush, putting up 21 points in his last 13 games (including seven multi-point games).

For Ovechkin, he has a wild card in the team he hasn’t yet really faced – Columbus. He has faced the Blue Jackets in Columbus twice in his career, a two-goal night the first time and a pointless night the second time (part of the two-shutout treatment the Jackets gave the Caps last year). Which one he pulls out of his hat this time around could spell the difference.

In the end, this is going to come down to Sedin’s consistency and the comfort zone he is in these days against the contest of Ovechkin’s history of abusing some of the teams he will face (Atlanta, 59 points in 39 career games; Pittsburgh, 29 points in 19 games; ditto against Ottawa) versus whatever motivation he and the Caps have over these last seven games. Hard call, but we being Capital red…

Ovechkin 111 – Sedin 110

*  Awarded to a civilian who makes "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."

A NO-point afternoon: Flames 5 - Capitals 3

Desperate team + disinterested team = no points

That’s pretty much what it looked like, at least, as the Washington Capitals lost only their fifth game in regulation at Verizon Center this season, 5-3, to the Calgary Flames.

The game was over almost in time for folks to go home and catch the second half of the first game of Elite Eight Sunday in men’s NCAA basketball:

2:33 – Ales Kotalik
8:28 – Ian White
10:34 – Jay Bouwmeester (his first goal in 58 games, dating back to November 14th)

That was enough abuse for Jose Theodore to endure – much of it of his own making as he looked to be fighting the puck from the opening faceoff. Semyon Varlamov came in and surrendered a goal to Niklas Hagman with just under 20 seconds left in the first period, and with the scoreboard reading “4-0” at the first intermission, this one was pretty much over.

Don’t let the last 22 minutes fool you. Sure, the Caps scored the last two goals of the game to make the game respectable and outshot the Flames 21-3 over that span, but by then the Flames had turned the game over to goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, and it was all they needed.

Other stuff…

- Here is an indication of the difference in compete level between the teams in the first period. Calgary outshot the Caps, 13-4. But the Caps actually out-attempted the Flames, 19-15. Calgary blocked nine Capitals shots; the Caps blocked one Calgary shot (the remaining attempts due to missed shots). Calgary had 27 blocked shots for the game to 12 for the Caps. Every Flame but Nigel Dawes and Rene Bourque had at least one.

- Has so much energy been expended to so little gain? The Caps out-attempted the Flames 86-43. The Caps had more misses (25) and shots blocked (27) than the Flames had shots on goal (22).

- Jose Theodore’s streak of games without a loss in regulation was left intact, seeing as how Varlamov allowed the fourth (game-winning) goal.

- The Flames did arrive in ill humor, as we suspected might be the case after getting their lunch eaten in front of them in Boston on Saturday. And the Caps weren’t really up to the task. Cory Sarich, Eric Nystrom, Steve Staios, Mark Giordano, and Ian White were The Chippy Brothers all afternoon.

- The more we see it, the more we don’t much like the Tom Poti/Joe Corvo pairing on defense. They were on the ice for three of the five goals against yesterday.

- Good and bad… David Steckel, a goal and wins on eight of ten draws. He was also on the ice for the second, third, and fourth Flame goals.

- Mathieu Perreault wasn’t shy about getting shots off (five attempts, three on goal in less than 13 minutes), and he was rewarded for being Johnny-on-the-spot by staying with the play after dropping the puck to Alex Ovechkin, then pouncing on the rebound as he was about to circle around the net.

- Washington had 25 turnovers (18 giveaways, seven takeaways for Calgary) to eight for the Flames (four and four).

- Matt Bradley did not play the last 9:41. He certainly didn’t look any worse than any other Cap, and we did not notice an injury, so there’s just something to look out for.

- Note to the NHL… Please, pry open your wallet and send Mark Shewchyk to school to learn how to drop the puck. The treated the puck as if it was some sort of weird family heirloom that he didn’t want to part with whenever he was administering a faceoff.

- There was so little activity in the Washington end yesterday… in addition to the measly 43 shot attempts for the Flames, there were only 11 defensive zone draws for the Caps (they won eight of them). There were 27 draws in the Calgary end.

- Speaking of draws, it will be recorded that Nicklas Backstrom lost 13 of 23 of them. But he was 9-for-15 in the offensive and defensive zones, which impresses us as his not much caring about the neutral zone (where he was 1-for-8).

- Alex Ovechkin wins the all-you-can-eat buffet ticket for this one… a goal, an assists, minus-1, seven shots, six misses, four blocked, four hits, four giveaways, a takeaway and three blocked shots (which led the team).

- In getting a goal and an assist, Ovechkin recorded his 100th point, the fourth time in five seasons he’s turned the trick. But he finds himself trailing Henrik Sedin in points (101 to 100) and Sidney Crosby in goals (47 to 46) as the league heads into its final two weeks of the regular season.

In the end, the Caps gave two points away by not matching the Flames’ effort. No clearer picture could be had of a team who is not interested in the last two weeks of the season. For Calgary, these last two weeks, starting with yesterday’s game IS their season. And that was all the difference. It took only ten minutes to make that clear.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Flames, March 28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

If it’s Sunday, it must be “Caps Hockey,” and so it is as the Capitals host the Calgary Flames in an afternoon tilt. And the Flames come in stumblin’, bumblin’, but certainly not rumblin’ to the finish. And if that wasn’t bad enough, after the Flames were pounded by the Boston Bruins, 5-0, on Saturday coach Brent Sutter had this to say about his team

“I don’t know what to say anymore. I try and stay positive. I have to stay positive. And yet we need more. You wonder why players’ performances are inconsistent all year. There needs to be a higher work ethic. A higher commitment to the cause. And a higher sense of urgency. And until the team realizes that, understands that, you get what you get… We took a couple bad penalties, they scored, and we had no push back.”

When asked how a team in a playoff dogfight could come up with such a poor effort, the coach responded, “You’re asking the wrong guy. Ask those guys in there.”

That’s called “throwing your team under the bus.”

“Now why is it that whenever someone wants to throw someone under something, it’s always a bus? What can’t it be a street sweeper or a steamroller.”

Why, I don’t know, but you seem to have an opinion on the subject. And you are…

“Kramden, pal… Ralph Kramden.”

And you ride buses a lot?

“No, I drive ‘em… been driving the number 2969 bus for the Gotham Bus Company for, well… longer than you’ve been around, sonny.”

And I take it no one has ever thrown anyone under it…

“Not on your life. Anyone who tries it… bang, zoom, right to the moon.”

I didn’t know the moon was on your route…

“Oh, you’re a riot, Peerless, a regular riot. I'll bet you got the whole Interwebnets, or whatever you young folks call it, laughing. Ha, ha, ho, ho! You know, you oughta join a circus. You oughta be in the circus. You'd be funnier than that guy they got there now, Emmett Kelly, the clown. Much funnier. In fact, you look a little bit like him. All except for one thing: the big red nose.”

He has more hair. But Mr. Kramden, what is it about buses that make people want to throw things under them?

“Lemme tell ya, pal, I’ve been drivin’ buses long enough to want to throw a few riders under one. The bus is crowded - there might be an empty one right behind - but they push, they shove, they fight to get on the bus. And then when they're all on and I finally get the door closed, that's the signal for them to start askin, 'Does this bus go up Madison Avenue?' But that's nothin'. Did you ever see a woman on a crowded bus go lookin' through her pocketbook for change? If they dig deep enough, they come up with everything. A gas bill from 1932, a hockey puck, even burnt-out electric light bulbs. but the right change? HAH!"

Guess they should use a SmarTrip card.

“A what?”

Well, I guess we’ll have to forgive Ralph for being stuck in 1955, but today, in 2010, we have the Calgary Flames coming to town for the first time since March 2008, when the Caps defeated them, 3-2, the first win in what would be their big 11-1-0 finish to the regular season and a playoff spot.

Today, though, these are teams definitely going in different directions. The Caps are 8-1-3 in March and marching, as it were, to the top spot in the league standings. Meanwhile, the Flames are 7-6-0 in March – 3-5-0 in their last eight games – and flaming out of the playoff picture. Calgary’s problem has not been defense, necessarily. In those last eight games they allowed 23 goals (although five of them came yesterday). And their penalty killing, while not efficient (15-for-21, 71.4 percent), hasn’t been tested, allowing only 2.6 power plays to the opposition per game.  The overall numbers look like this...

The Flames' larger problem is offense. It has been a problem all year, but an offense that produced 17 goals in the last eight games is simply not going to be enough down the stretch. The power play has been anemic (3-for-26, 11.5 percent), and they have been impotent in the third period of games (three goals in their last eight games).

If anything, the Flames are suffering a balance of mediocrity when it comes to scoring. Six players have at least four points in the last eight games, led by Eric Nystrom with four goals and an assist. Right behind him in goal scoring is Nigel Dawes, who is 3-1-4 in the last eight games. Not bad in terms of secondary scoring, but where is the “primary” scoring for the Flames?

Two names you’re not seeing at the top of the scoring list in this 3-5-0 run are Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester. Since Iginla recorded a hat trick against Minnesota, then followed it up with a goal against the Red Wings, he has one goal in his last nine games and is 1-3-4, minus-5 in this eight-game run. This has to be of some concern to the Flames, given that last year he finished up the regular season with four goals in his last 13 games (a 25-goal pace), two in his last seven games in 2007-2008, and was held without a goal in 11 of 14 games in 2006-2007. Those finishes corresponded with weak finishes for the Flames last season (9-12-0 after March 1st), in 2007-2008 (7-7-1 in their last 15 games), and in 2006-2007 (7-8-1 in their last 16 games).

What Calgary has lacked is for someone to take up the slack when Iginla doesn’t score. One answer to that was supposed to be Jay Bouwmeester, who averaged 14-26-40 over the last three years patrolling the blue line for the Florida Panthers. Obtaining Bouwmeester from Florida for defenseman Jordan Leopold and a third-round draft pick was supposed to be an upgrade, especially in terms of offense. But consider this – in Leopold’s first three years (all with the Flames), he averaged 5-17-22, even. So far this year, Bouwmeester is 2-24-26, plus-2. Think that’s worth $4.9 million (the difference in the current cap hit between the two players)? Bouwmeester hasn’t had a goal since November 14th, and he has a total of four points in his last 17 games while going minus-8.

It gets worse. The Flames have nine goal scorers in double digits this year… sort of. Two of them are no longer with the club (Dion Phaneuf and Olli Jokinen, both traded at the deadline), and two of them could miss this game to injury (Daymond Langkow and Curtis Glencross). That leaves Rene Bourque, Nigel Dawes, Mark Giordano, and Eric Nystrom as the scoring support for Jarome Iginla. Think that’s not a weight on Iginla’s shoulders?

Then think what it must mean for goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. And the cracks are showing. Kiprusoff is 2-5-0 during this eight-game run with a GAA of 3.19 and a save percentage of .887. And, he’s been yanked twice – first after giving up three goals on 20 shots in 20 minutes in a 3-1 loss to Vancouver (after which his coach said, "Twenty-some shots and 14 or 15 quality scoring chances, the period was completely dominated by Vancouver and I didn't think it was fair to our goaltender to keep him in there.") and again after allowing five goals on 29 shots in 46 minutes yesterday against the Bruins.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Calgary: Rene Bourque

Bourque signed a six-year, $20 million contract extension with the Flames during the Olympic break. He started the post-break portion of the season as if he was going to make that signing look like a bargain – 2-5-7, plus-4 in his first four games, including a four-point night against Minnesota and a game-winning goal against the Red Wings. Since then, though, he is 3-0-3, minus-5 in nine games. Not bad, but on a team that needs more guys to step up, Bourque has to be one of them. Of course, Caps fans might remember this touching scene from last season’s meeting in Calgary…

Washington: Eric Belanger

This is why the Caps traded for this player. No, not to face the Flames, but as depth insurance against injuries, which seem to be winding their way through this team. The Caps could be without as many as six players for this game (see above the list), including Brendan Morrison, the Caps’ nominal number-two center. Belanger would likely assume these duties for this game, and having him productive in this role keeps teams from ganging up on the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble. Belanger is 1-3-4 in ten games since joining the Caps, but one thing that has been a bit surprising is that he is only above 50 percent on faceoffs, despite being among the top ten players in this measure this season.


1. Score first. Only Edmonton (six) has fewer wins than Calgary (seven) when allowing the first goal. Oddly enough, it is not something Calgary does often. The Flames have the second fewest number of instances in which they allowed the first goal – 28 times in 75 games.

2. Play 60. On the other hand, Calgary has scored the second fewest number of third period goals this year – 51. Washington has not only scored the largest number of their goals in the third period, they lead the league in third period scoring (103 goals). Let that sink in… 103-51.

3. Fight feisty with feisty. Not only is Calgary coming into this game wounded, abused and desperate, they come into this game with the most recorded hits in the league in road games this season (and the largest home-road disparity, -346 hits). It is not as if the Caps can’t keep up; they are in a virtual tie with the Flames in total hits for the year 1,578 for the Flames vs. 1,566 for the Caps (and the Caps have almost the same totals, home and road – 789 vs. 787). After being embarrassed against the Bruins, one might expect the Flames to arrive in rather ill humor. The Caps need to be ready.

In the end, Calgary is a desperate team, six points behind Colorado for the last playoff spot in the West, and the Avs have a game in hand. If they lose this game in regulation, their season is pretty much over. On the other hand, the Caps can clinch the Eastern Conference crown with a win or extra time loss. A win would give the Caps 50 victories and a tie for the all-time franchise best with seven games left to play. Who do you like, a team that lost to a club playing out the string and playing their number-three goalie on the depth chart, and then gave up five goals to a team that can’t score against air? Or a team that that recorded a standings point in 12 of its last 13 games (8-1-4)?

Thought so…

Caps 4 – Flames 2

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A ONE-point night: Hurricanes 3 - Capitals 2 (OT/Gimmick)

Another game against the Carolina Hurricanes, another one-goal affair. For the fifth time this season in the six-game series, the Caps and 'Canes battled to a one-goal decision, and for the fourth time the game went to extra time (the first time the teams went to a shootout), Carolina coming out on top 3-2. Win by the Gimmick, die by the Gimmick. The teams ended their season series splitting the games, Washington winning three, Carolina winning three.

The Caps spotted the Hurricanes a 2-0 lead in the first period on goals by Jamie McBain and Bryan Rodney. But the Caps evened things up on goals by Alexander Semin and John Carlson, the latter’s first in the NHL. It was a game in which the Caps could not be faulted for effort, this game coming on the heels of last night’s big win over Pittsburgh. And it was a chance for Semyon Varlamov to demonstrate that if he isn’t going to be the number one goalie heading into the playoffs, then he certainly is going to be a goalie to be relied on if called upon.

Both teams had their their chances late. Tom Poti had a clear chance to win the game in the last second of regulation, the puck on his stick just to Carolina goalie Manny Legace’s left. Legace got enough of Poti’s shot to deny what would have been the game-winner, forcing the game to overtime. There, Ray Whitney and Eric Staal had a chance on a 2-on-1, but after Whitney laid the puck across right onto Staal’s tape, Varlamov closed the wickets as Staal tried to go five-hole for the winner.

From there it went to the skills competition, where Nicklas Backstrom staked the Caps to an advantage, but Ray Whitney and Chad LaRose scored for the Hurricanes to give the home team the win.

Other stuff…

-- That was the 21st game this year in which the Caps went into extra time, which ties them for the fourth most number of such games, but this one was the sixth such game in the Caps’ last nine games. They are 3-3 in those games.

-- Although the team record for wins has to wait, the Caps set a franchise record for standings points for the second consecutive year, hitting 109 points with the point earned in this one.

-- Manny Legace was awarded the first star, and it was entirely deserving. The Caps launched 43 shots at the diminutive netminder. If he has a merely average game, the Caps likely would have had four or five goals for the evening.

-- Legace had to fend off the attack from multiple fronts – every Caps skater has at least one shot on goal except David Steckel.

-- What Steckel did have in shots, he had in hits, tied for the team lead (with Mike Green) with five.

-- Alex Ovechkin had 18 shot attempts, and this with Carolina employing a box-and-one defense as one might use in basketball. Except, whereas in basketball the “one” covers the big scorer while the other four players play the “box,” the Hurricanes seems to slide four players toward Ovechkin whenever he crossed the red line.

-- It’s worth noting that Ovechkin has only three goals in his last 13 games. Yet, the Caps are 7-2-4 in those games.

-- We can’t fault the Caps’ defense too much in this one when the Hurricanes’ leading shot-maker was defenseman Joni Pitkanen (six).

-- Brendan Morrison seems to be slowly making his way back to being a reliably productive contributor. And assist, plus-1, two hits, a takeaway, no giveaways, and 11-for-15 on draws.

-- John Carlson’s first NHL goal was not a cheap one. It was the sort of goal one might expect of a veteran, not a 20-year old. Pinching down the middle, he took the puck, and instead of just shooting without purpose, he pushed the puck outside enough to change his shooting angle around a defender and snapped the puck low and past Legace’s left pad.

-- Given that the Caps’ lineup included Quintin Laing, Tyler Sloan, and John Erskine instead of Laich, Shaone Morrisonn, and Jeff Schultz, it was not a bad performance in front of Semyon Varlamov.

In the end, it was an entirely expected, if disappointing result. Playing the second half of a back-to-back on the road after an extra time contest the previous night against a difficult opponent. Still, after the Caps had their uneven start, they crawled back to tie the game and get a standings point. And, they pushed the play in the Carolina end late (outshooting the Hurricanes 30-18 in periods two, three, and overtime). All things considered, it was only the result – that a product of the non-hockey portion of the competiton – that was lacking.

The boys get a couple of days off before entertaining Calgary on Sunday afternoon in what will be the first of six home games in the Caps’ last eight contests of the regular season. Given the home record they have, the Capitals should put to rest in short order any further suspense over who will finish at the top of the league standings. From now on, it’s all about getting ready for the second season.

Mike Knuble, Gimmick Warrior

Mike Knuble was the unlikely hero of the Gimmick last night as the Caps defeated the Penguins, 4-3. It was the first time in four tries that Knuble found the back of the net in the trick shot competition. That doesn’t tell the half of it.

Last night’s turn as the solo skater was not only Knuble’s fourth career try, it was his first in more than three years and the first time he was out there in what would end up a win for his team. Here are the other three…

December 3, 2005: Knuble took the ice in the first round of the Gimmick for Philadelphia, facing Nashville’s Tomas Vokoun. Knuble did not have a goal in the hockey portion of this game, but he did have an assist. Vokoun got the Predators off to a good start with a save, and Steve Sullivan and Paul Kariya took over from there, each netting a goal as Vokoun stymied Simon Gagne in round two for the 4-3 win in Nashville.

December 19, 2005: This time, Knuble – who had the only goal for the Flyers in regulation – had to wait as the Flyers and Sabres skated in the extra-extra frame. Jeff Carter, Peter Forsberg, and Jon Sim took their turns in the first three rounds, Forsberg skating in the second round and getting the only goal, a tally matched by Tim Connolly in the third round moments later. After Maxim Afinogenov beat Antero Niittymaki to give the Sabres the edge, it was up to Knuble. However, Ryan Miller was up to the task and stopped Knuble to clinch the win in Philadelphia, 2-1.

October 7, 2006: At Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, the Rangers and Flyers fought to a 4-4- tie in regulation, Knuble getting one of the goals for Philadelphia. After a scoreless overtime, the teams went to another extra session. One round without a goal, then two… then three… four… Neither Antero Niittymaki nor Henrik Lundqvist would crack in goal. Knuble’s turn came up in round 10, and he didn’t have any better success, shooting the puck wide on Lundqvist. The contest went to a 13th round, where Marcel Hossa put Niittymaki and the Flyers out of their misery with the only goal of the session, giving the Rangers a 5-4 win.

No wonder he doesn’t like Boudreau tapping him on the shoulder like that.

(photo: AP/Nick Wass)

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Hurricanes, March 25th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

No rest for the weary. The Caps have to follow up their thrilling 4-3 Gimmick win over Pittsburgh last night by traveling to Carolina to take on the Hurricanes for the third time in 15 days. If you want a look at the Hurricanes, go here and here.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

If the Hurricanes were not a divisional opponent, you could almost feel for them. After a ghastly start to the year (10-23-7 on New Year’s Eve), they righted the ship and worked hard to go 18-8-1 in their next 27 games. But it was too big a hole to dig out of, and the Hurricanes might be forgiven for playing out the string now that they are all but eliminated and going with backup goaltenders in starter Cam Ward’s absence with a back injury. But since beating Pittsburgh to complete that 18-8-1 run, Carolina is 2-3-1 and has gone to extra time in three of their last four games (winning two). They are still working hard, but the chips are not falling favorably. The overall numbers look like this…

The Hurricanes have been especially annoying to the Caps this year. Washington has played the Hurricanes five times this year and has a 3-1-1 record. Four of the games were settled by one goal (the Caps winning three), and three of those went to overtime (the Caps winning two). Despite the disparity in the teams’ records, it has been a year-long dogfight.

In the five-game season series, the Hurricanes are led in scoring by Eric Staal (4-6-10, plus-3). He had half of those points (2-3-5) in a 6-3 Carolina win on December 28th. Jussi Jokinen is second in scoring for Carolina in the season series (2-5-7, plus-4). The two assists he had in the last meeting of these two clubs (a 4-3 overtime win a week ago) are his only points in his last seven games. He hasn’t had a goal since lighting the lamp against the Caps on March 10th.

One player who will be missing for this is the ‘Canes’ third-leading scorer in this series – Tuomo Ruutu (2-3-5 in five games) is done for the year after sustaining a shoulder injury in a fight against Colorado’s Darcy Tucker. No other Hurricane has more than one goal in this series so far, but nine players do have that one goal apiece. They can get some input from any number of places.

Goalie Cam Ward is close to returning to the lineup, but it looks as if it will be another week before he takes the ice. Given that head Coach Paul Maurice has more or less alternated Manny Legace and Justin Peters in goal since Ward went out, this game would be Peters’ turn. Peters got the win in the 4-3- overtime decision over the Caps a week ago, stopping 25 of 28 shots. The odd part about Peters’ record is that each of his last three wins came in overtime.

The Caps are a different story in the series thus far. Of the 17 goals they have in five games, 10 of them have been recorded by three players. None of them are named “Ovechkin.” Mike Green leads the team with four, while Alexander Semin and Eric Fehr have three apiece. Ovechkin, in fact, has not turned the red light on this season against the Hurricanes, but he does have seven assists. Nicklas Backstrom leads the Caps in overall scoring in the season series against Carolina (2-6-8 in five games).

With Jose Theodore getting the decision in last night’s Gimmick win over the Penguins, and having played in consecutive games, it could mean that Semyon Varlamov will get the nod from head Coach Bruce Boudreau to man the nets. Varlamov lost his only decision against Carolina this season, the 4-3 overtime loss a week ago. It is his only career appearance to date against the Hurricanes.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Carolina: Ray Whitney

Whitney had trouble getting his footing after the Olympic break, going 1-2-3 in his first eight games. But he is 1-2-3 in his last four, including the game-winning overtime goal against the Caps a week ago. Fun fact… according to the Carolina media guide, Ray likes square dancing in the off-season. Yee-haw.

Washington: Matt Bradley

Back in January, one might have thought Bradley a shoo-in to notch ten goals this season. He recorded his eighth marker on January 19th against Detroit. He is still stuck on eight, having failed to light the lamp in his last 22 games.


1. Forget last night. Hard to do… a 65-minute game followed by the trick shot competition. It makes this a very quick turnaround, both physically and mentally. If the Caps don’t put last night’s game out of their minds, they could find this game unpleasant.

2. Push the play. The Caps have the top power play in the league, but they do not get enough chances to show it off. Only once in the last 11 games have they enjoyed as many as five opportunities. In those last 11 games the Caps are humming along at 27.0 percent, but that is 10 goals on only 37 opportunities. It could be a chore against the Hurricanes, who have endured the 12th fewest number of shorthanded situations at home.

3. Score first. Only Edmonton has fewer wins (six) when allowing the first goal than Carolina (seven). And no team has fewer wins than Carolina when trailing at the first intermission (two).

In the end, we know that this won’t be easy. Carolina has skill (despite their record), and they don’t fear the Caps. Plus, the Caps are on the road for the second half of a back-to-back the night after playing a big game. We’ve seen this movie before, and it ends with a one-goal decision.

Caps 4 – Hurricanes 3

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A TWO-point night: Caps 4 - Penguins 3 (OT/Gimmick)

If tonight’s game between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins was “just another game,” then God help us in May if these teams meet again. The Caps took a lead, lost it, took it back, then lost it again to send the game into overtime. Five minutes of scoreless hockey later, the Caps spotted the Penguins what looked to be an insurmountable 2-0 edge in the Gimmick, then roared back with three straight goals to take the trick shot competition and the game, 4-3, tying the club record for standings points (108) in the process and eliminating the Penguins from contention for the Eastern Conference title.

This one was "Game 0" of the playoff series these teams seem destined to play in a couple of months. It had that kind of intensity to it from the drop of the puck. And one of the ways in which this looked like a playoff game is that it was not a game where the stars could have their way. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin each contributed an assist to their respective causes, but were otherwise rather quiet in splitting eight shots on goal between them without success.

This was more a province of the support players, all of whom seemed to be fully engaged for both squads. There were six different goal scorers tonight (three for each team); nine different players recorded a point for the Penguins, and seven different players collected a point for the Caps.

If there was a difference, it was in goal. Jose Theodore stopped 39 of 43 shots in earning the game’s first star, while Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 29 of 32 (but only 16 of the last 19 he faced in regulation). In the end, it proved to be the narrowest of differences…

Other stuff:

-- Faceoffs… 28-28. Blocked shots… 18-18. Giveaways… 12-12. In the nitty-gritty, there wasn’t a hair’s width of difference between these teams tonight.

-- Like that hunch coach Bruce Boudreau has to put Mike Knuble out there for the Gimmick? Call it an educated guess – Knuble had three goals in three games this year (including one tonight), he had four in six games against the Penguins last year, he had five in eight games the year before that. Kanoobie knew all along what was going to happen. He even called the shot… (wait for it)… ROOF!

-- You would have thought that one avenue the Penguins would explore would be one that worked so well for them last year – tenderize Mike Green and then wait for the turnovers. Green played 25:02, had an assists, was plus-3… and had NO giveaways.

-- OK, how is it that: a) Alexander Semin is allowed to walk the puck 175 feet up the ice on Pittsburgh’s power play, skate unchallenged into the Penguin zone, cut freely across the grain past Alex Goligoski, and fire the puck past Fleury while Kris Letang was… well, we don’t exactly know what Letang was doing (backing off to cover a Cap who had no angle to shoot if he received a pass?). Not to single out Letang; he was merely the last guy in a play where all five Penguins on the ice had a brain cramp.

-- While the teams were at mid-playoff season intensity, it was unfortunate that the officials were a few notches lower. Sometimes you get a feel about a crew, that they will call the stick penalty, but not the rough stuff; that they will call the obstruction infractions, or that they will let the guys play, as they say. If anyone in that arena could read what Paul Devorski and Ian Walsh were or were not calling (except five penalties on the Caps, one on Pittsburgh), you’ve got better eyes than mine (or drink better scotch).

-- We said it before, and we’ll say it again. Eric Fehr might not be the most efficient offensive player in the league, but he can see that spot from where he stands. Another less-than-12-minute night, and another goal (on three shots). Coming into the game, Fehr was fifth in the league among forwards at goals-per-60-minutes (minimum 40 games and 10 minutes TOI/60 minutes, according to behindthenet.ca). He didn’t do anything but improve his standing tonight.

-- Every Penguin skater except Jay McKee registered a shot on goal.

-- Shaone Morrison had nine hits. He spread it around, welcoming seven different Penguins to Verizon Center.

-- With two goals in the third period tonight, the Caps have outscored the Penguins 7-1 in the third period of the three games played this year. Over the last two years, the Caps have outscored the Penguins 16-2 in the third period of seven games. In those seven games over the past two years the Caps trailed the Penguins going into the third period of a game four times and are 3-0-1 in those games. In two other games in which the teams were tied, the Caps won the third period and the game.

-- Brendan Morrison… three hits? Tomas Fleischmann… three hits? Sure, just another game.

-- Ovechkin does get the all-you-can-eat-buffet coupon for this one. His scoresheet looked like this… an assist, plus-2, four shots, two attempts blocked, four misses, five hits, three giveaways, a blocked shot, and he won his only faceoff (against Sidney Crosby).

-- 14 of the 18 skaters for the Caps were credited with hits, 12 of the Penguin skaters. Yeah, just another game.

-- 11 skaters for each team were credited with at least one blocked shot. Uh-huh… just another game.

-- If you had Tyler Kennedy under “Penguin Leader in Shot Attempts,” go buy a Powerball ticket.

-- Crosby had what for him was a difficult night in the circle (11 up and 14 down), but he was a combined 9-for-13 in the offensive and defensive zones. He was 6-for-8 against David Steckel in the offensive zone.  It's called "bearing down."

-- Caps had one power play shot… they had two shorthanded shots.

This was a solid, tight, chippy game with every bit of the 200-foot ice sheet contested. In other words, a playoff game. The Caps have proven now three times this season that they own the third period. It has been the difference between the clubs so far. Now, if they can just do that in the post season…

The Peerless' Top Ten Games in Caps History

Caps fans know by now that a compilation of the ten greatest games in team history is now available on DVD. A great idea in concept, but we think it comes up a bit short on execution. There are only three games in that series that pre-date Alex Ovechkin’s arrival with the club, and only one from the “original” red-white-and-blue days. It also omits two of the most compelling games in Caps history, both four-overtime losses. So, with that in mind, we bring you The Peerless’ top ten. We even put a bonus selection in our anthology…

1. January 8, 1984 – Capitals Defeat the Flyers, 7-1.

Significance: Bengt Gustafsson scored five goals on five shots in Philadelphia against Flyer goalie phenom and fellow Swedish countryman Pelle Lindbergh. It was within one of the modern record for goals scored in a game (six), last reached by Darryl Sittler (in 1976), who was on the ice for the Flyers that night. The five goals would stand as a club record until Peter Bondra scored five in a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1994.  Sittler said afterward, "the game itself is one only Washington and Gustafsson will remember."  We remember it, too.

2. April 18/19, 1987 – Happy Easter

Significance: The Capitals’ loss to the New York Islanders on Easter Sunday morning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in four overtimes, 3-2, was one of the most gut-wrenching games in franchise history. It was the longest playoff game in Capitals history (and fifth longest in league history) to that time. Islander goalie Kelly Hrudey made 73 saves, a playoff single game record that still stands. New York had “only” 57 shots. Mike Ridley twice hit posts in the second period with the Caps leading 2-1; the Islanders tied the game with barely five minutes left in regulation. The Capitals were not shutout in that season, but they did not score a goal in the last 90:02 of that game. It was the first time the Caps appeared in a seventh game of a playoff series.

3. April 16, 1988 - A shot and a goal

Significance: It would be the first time the Caps had ever won a Game 7 of a playoff series, coming back from a three games to one deficit and a 3-0 deficit in Game 7. Philadelphia had a comeback of their own in that game, tying the contest after the Caps took a 4-3 lead early in the third period. But the game ended on what is probably the most famous call by a broadcaster in Caps history, by Mike Fornes… “…Murphy starts the rush… he hits Hunter…he’s in alone…a shot…and a goal!!!!!" Caps 5 – Flyers 4… Ron Hextall flat on his back staring into the rafters.

4. April 24/25, 1996 – The shot that couldn’t tear tissue paper

Significance: The longest game that the Caps have played to date came in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was a wild game that saw Mario Lemieux tossed from the game after earning slashing, instigator, fighting, and game misconduct penalties after having his sensibilities offended by Todd Krygier. Dale Hunter would get one of the more remarkable assists of his career, one-handing the puck from the seat of his pants at the top of the Penguin crease to Michal Pivonka. Joe Juneau would get two chances to win it – the first in the second overtime when he followed up his own shot and with the puck lying open in the crease, having a chance to sweep it the last six inches as he was about to skate around the net…he missed. The second chance came immediately thereafter when the Penguins were whistled for removing the net on the play. It was the first penalty shot in Stanley Cup overtime history. Juneau missed that one, too, as the deteriorating ice betrayed him, not giving Juneau the chance to settle the puck down before sending a weak shot at goalie Ken Wregget. In the fourth overtime, though, with the Caps killing a penalty late in the period, Petr Nedved stepped around defenseman Mark Tinordi and sent as harmless looking a shot as there was in this game toward Kolzig. He never saw it. The seeing-eye puck avoided several players screening Kolzig and fluttered over Kolzig’s left shoulder into the back of the net. The longest game in Capitals’ history was over at 179:16…a 3-2 loss.

5. June 4, 1998 – Caps defeat the Sabres in Game 6, Eastern Conference Final

Significance: The 3-2 overtime win propelled the Caps to the Stanley Cup final for the first – and only – time in club history. Oddly enough, the Caps won all three games played in Buffalo in that series, winning Game 3 (4-3 in overtime) and Game 4 (2-0). Three of the games of that six-game series went to overtime, the Caps winning all three. Only two games of that series were not one-goal games, and both were 2-0 shutouts, one for each team. In Game 6, Joe Juneau (the Caps’ leading playoff scorer that year) got the game/series-winner 6:20 into overtime and Olaf Kolzig stopped 39 of 41 shots for his 12th win of the playoffs against only five losses.

6. March 11, 2001 – Capitals erase three-goal third period deficit behind backup goalie

Signifiance: The Caps were playing the Eastern Conference leading Ottawa Senators at home and fell behind early, eventually trailing 5-2 at the second intermission. Coach Ron Wilson decided that with the result a foregone conclusion, he would rest Olaf Kolzig for the third period. That normally would have meant backup goalie Craig Billington getting the mop-up duty, but he was injured. The job fell to Corey Hirsch, just called up from Portland. Then Andrei Nikolishin scored a goal. Then, Trent Whitfield scored one. Then, Sergei Gonchar netted one to tie the game. Finally, with 1:28 left to play, Steve Konowalchuk made the comeback complete with a goal to give the Caps an improbable 6-5 win, and Corey Hirsch got the win by stopping all eight shots he faced in the final 20 minutes. It was the only appearance Hirsch would make for the Caps.

7. November 23, 2007 – Bruce Boudreau coaches his first game for the Caps

Significance: The Caps had just fired head coach Glen Hanlon – on Thanksgiving, no less – after compiling a 6-14-1 record and doing it in especially ugly fashion (scoring only 47 goals in their first 21 games, seven of those in one game against Toronto). The Caps raced out to a 3-0 lead midway through the second period, but the Flyers came back to tie the game on a goal by Mike Richards with just over four minutes left in regulation. In what would be a harbinger of good things to come, though, Alex Ovechkin set up Nicklas Backstrom for the game-winner less than two minutes into the extra session. The Caps would finish the year 37-17-7 and secure a playoff spot in one of the most remarkable in-season turnarounds in league history.

8. January 31, 2008 – Alex Ovechkin breaks nose, then breaks Montreal

Significance: The Caps and Canadiens were playing the second of a home-and-home series. Montreal shutout the Caps in the first half of the set, 4-0, behind goaltender Cristobal Huet in Montreal. Alex Ovechkin, who went into that game with 39 goals, said “he just stopped everything.” The second half of the set was different. The Caps jumped to a 3-0 lead behind a pair of goals by Ovechkin and one by Viktor Kozlov. But Ovechkin was paying a price. He already had a cut under his eye from a high stick in the previous game, but in this one he would get his nose broken when checked from behind into the boards by Montreal’s Francis Boullion, then would have his lip sliced by an errant puck. It didn’t stop him. He completed the hat trick 12:30 into the third period to give the Caps a 4-2 lead. But after squandering that lead, Ovechkin saved the day with a fourth goal 3:34 into overtime to give him 43 goals on his way to a 65-goal season and the Caps a 5-4 win.

9. April 5, 2008 – The comeback is complete

Significance: The Caps had accomplished a remarkable turnaround after changing coaches at Thanksgiving. But with 12 games remaining and coming off a crushing loss to Pittsburgh when Nicklas Backstrom scored into his own net in the final minute of a tied game, the Caps still found themselves seven points behind Carolina in the Southeast Division. The Caps then proceeded to win ten of their next 11 games, and with Carolina faltering just enough – losing their season finale to Florida on April 4th – the Caps were set up to clinch the Southeast Division title and a most improbably playoff spot with a win over those same Panthers. After exchanging early goals, the Caps put any doubt to rest on goals by Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Semin, and a 25-save effort by Cristobal Huet, obtained from Montreal at the trading deadline, in the 3-1 win.

10. May 4, 2009 – Dueling hat tricks

Significance: Counting the last three games of the first round playoff series, the Caps were on a four-game winning streak after taking Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Game 1 was a story of goaltending, as Semyon Varlamov stopped 34 of 36 saves (including the save of the year on Sidney Crosby with nothing but an open net in front of the shooter). Game 2 became a personal battle between the stars – Alex Ovechkin and Crosby. Crosby opened the scoring with a goal in the game’s seventh minute. Ovechkin matched him early in the second. Crosby one-upped him eight minutes later with his second goal. Ovechkin then called, then raised with two goals, the second coming with less than five minutes left to complete the hat trick. Good thing, too, because Crosby completed his own hat trick with a goal coming in the game’s last minute of a 4-3 Caps win. And for that, we can thank David Steckel, the only goal scorer in this game not named “Ovechkin” or “Crosby.”

Bonus selection: May 11, 2009 – So close, you can taste it

Significance: Game 6, Eastern Conference quarterfinal, and the Caps are down three games to two to the Penguins. And the Penguins can close out the series at home after dropping the first two games of the series to the Caps in Washington. Caps fans have heard it all… can’t win an elimination game, can’t win an elimination game on the road, Curse of the Penguin, blah blah blah. And it looked that way when the home team scored less than six minutes into the game. But Viktor Kozlov and Tomas Fleischmann scored in the second to give the Caps a lead… only to be leap-frogged when Mark Eaton scored late in the second, and Kris Letang scored early in the third. Then it was the Caps doing the leap-frogging, courtesy of goals by Brooks Laich and Kozlov again. This being a Penguin game, though, the home team would get the last laugh when Sidney Crosby scored with barely four minutes left. But was it the last laugh? David Steckel would deflect a Brooks Laich shot past Marc-Andre Fleury 6:22 into overtime for the game-winner, sending the series back to Washington, and atoning for missing an open net with the game on his stick in Game 5 that Pittsburgh would win in overtime.

OK, there are my ten. There are probably games you’d like to remove and replace (we struggled with putting in the March 20, 1987 game against the Penguins, for example, one won by the Caps 4-3, but perhaps best remembered as the night Bob Gould one-punched Mario Lemieux into happyland), but here is a start.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Penguins, March 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Caps… Penguins. That’s about all that needs to be said…

“cough, cough”

It’s the third meeting of the year between these bitter ri-


Excuse me, but may I help you?

“You know, the origin of the word ‘penguin’ is rather interesting.”

You don’t say. And you are…

“Thologie… Ernie Thologie, Professor of Ornithology at Antarctic Normal U.”

Oh… Ernie Thologie, the Ornithol—

“Yeah, the Ornithologist… I get it.”

About the word, “penguin?”

"Well,the first known instance of the name is a reference to the great auk…”

Like the sound Sidney Crosby makes when you hit him?

“No, like the extinct bird that was native to the North Atlantic. It appears to be of Welsh derivation, coming from the words, ‘pen gwyn,’ which means 'white head.'”

Like Gary Bettman’s pasty white head.

“Yeah, sure, like that. There has been a suggestion that the name comes from the Latin word ‘pinguis,’ or ‘fat.’”

Like the dumpy skating Penguin logo?

“I suppose so… but in point of fact, the name 'penguin' was first reliably reported from Newfoundland in the 16th century, but in Newfoundland the name is said usually to have been pronounced 'pin-wing'. This is consistent with a companion theory, that the bird was originally called the 'pin-wing', with reference to its curiously rudimentary wings.”

Like Pascal Dupuis or Chris Kunitz on the Penguins’ top line?


And so here we are with Game 3 in this year’s edition of Capitals vs. Penguins. The Caps won the first two games of this year’s series, the first when they exploded for three goals in the third period to break a 3-3 tie to win 6-3 in Pittsburgh, then coming back from a three-goal deficit to beat the Penguins 5-4 in overtime at Verizon Center.

The teams come into this game as the heavy favorites to meet in the Eastern Conference half of the Stanley Cup playoffs for a second straight season, which makes this game, if not meaningless, then a mere prelude to what is expected to unfold in perhaps a couple of months. For now, though, the overall season numbers for these two teams break down like this…

The Penguins come into this game stumbling toward the finish. After starting March with a four-game winning streak, they are 2-3-2 in their last seven games. And except for a 3-0 shutout of Boston last Thursday, the Penguins haven’t been as impressive as even their 2-3-2 record in those seven games suggests. They have been outscored in those games by 19-14 and have not managed more than three goals in any of those games. The power play has struggled as well, going 3-for-23 (13.0 percent). The penalty killers have shined, though, skating off 24 of 25 shorthanded situations over those last seven games, including the last 24 in a row.

We begin our look at the Penguins’ players with their most valuable player – Evgeni Malkin. Whether he will play tonight is still iffy, but if he doesn’t it will be really bad news for Pittsburgh. Why? Consider that in the ten games he has been out of the lineup, the Penguins were…

- 3-7-0
- outscored 33-18
- 0-for-34 on the power play
- beaten by at least three goals six times

It isn’t as if Malkin is having his best year, but his absence appears to so utterly discombobulate the Penguins’ forward lines as to render them impotent. You could make an argument that under the strict wording of the Hart Trophy, Malkin is the most valuable player in the league.

Which brings us to Sidney Crosby. In Malkin’s absence, Crosby is 0-3-3, minus-5. There is an inconvenient truth that pollutes the narrative surrounding Crosby these last two years. He is not, by any measure you care to raise, the best player in the game. He has had the benefit of playing on the best teams. Although certainly not a product of his own doing, he was not on the ice for the last ten minutes of last year’s Stanley Cup clinching Game 7 against Detroit, and Evgeni Malkin was the most valuable player of that tournament. This year, he had the benefit of playing on perhaps the most gifted assembly of talent in the history of the sport when he skated for Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympic Games (where Alex Ovechkin was deemed a "failure"). With the Penguins this year he has a significant performance differential between playing in the friendly confines of Mellon Arena (30-27-57, plus-18, in 34 games) and the road (15-16-31, minus-11, in 38 games). In this recent seven-game slump for the Pens, Crosby is 1-3-4, minus-7. Perhaps the accumulation of games over the past three years (two Stanley Cup finals, an Olympic tournament this season) and the pressure under which he constantly plays is finally catching up with him, But it is growing increasingly difficult to make a case for Crosby being a Hart finalist, let alone the winner.

As brightly as the light shines on Sidney Crosby, it seems to avoid Jordan Staal. But Staal is quietly putting up a very fine year. He is third on the club in goals (20), third in points (47), leads the Penguins in plus-minus (plus-20), and is among the better defensive centers in the game. He has a pair of goals against the Caps this season in two games and is 5-1-6 in 14 career games against Washington. He will be fighting a bit of a slump, though, as he comes into this game. After abusing the Rangers and Dallas for two goals and three assists in consecutive games earlier this month, he is 2-1-3 in eight games since.

Two French-Canadian goaltenders are likely to start tonight. We have to think that Jose Theodore will get the call for the Caps (despite it being Semyon Varlamov’s “turn”), and Marc-Andre Fleury appears likely to get the call for Pittsburgh. Their ancestry isn’t the only thing they share. Where Jose Theodore has had a sign emblazoned with the word ‘INCONSISTENT’ hung around his neck since joining the Caps (despite his 16-0-2 run), Fleury has, in fact, been the more inconsistent goaltender this year. Fleury is 33-19-5 this season, but imbedded in that are a six-game winning streak and an eight-game winning streak, both occurring before Christmas. Since Christmas, Fleury is 11-10-4, 2.99, .901. Perhaps most disconcerting is his unpredictability from game to game. In those 25 games since Christmas, he allowed one or no goals eight times, but he allowed at least four goals ten times. He allowed five goals in his only appearance against the Caps this year, three of them by Alex Ovechkin in a 5-4 overtime loss to Washington on February 7th.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Pittsburgh: Sergei Gonchar

Gonchar will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, and he is not closing with a rush to a big payday. Since the Olympic break, the defenseman is 2-5-7 in 11 games. That scoring line isn’t bad, but he carries a minus-6 with that. In this 2-3-2 slump the Pens are in, Gonchar has one even-strength point. This could be a fair test for him. In 17 career games against the Caps he is 4-14-18, although he is without a point in two games this year.

Washington: Mike Knuble

With Brooks Laich dinged up, Knuble might be counted on a bit more for making Marc-Andre Fleury’s night a long one, either by setting screens or in picking up loose change. He is 2-2-4 in two games against the Penguins this year and picked up a 17-penalty minute afternoon the last time these teams met, a product of a kerfuffle with Craig Adams. Knuble is in the midst of an eight-game streak without a goal. No time like the present to make sure it doesn’t reach nine.


1. Score early. The Penguins have started and ended poorly in games in the recent 2-3-2 run, getting outscored 7-4 in the first period and allowing goals in both overtime games they played. Here is your Penguin stat for the night… in the last seven games for the Penguins, five times they allowed at least one goal in the first period. They lost each game, either in regulation or in overtime. The two times they did not, they won.

2. Don’t let ‘em feel happy. The Pens are 1-for-10 on the power play against the Caps in two games this year. They also happen to have the 25th-ranked road power play unit and have that 3-for-23 success rate over their last seven games (13.0 percent). Ignore the individual talent, this is not a good power play team. Don’t “over-respect” that talent, make it hard for them.

3. Turn down the order of wings. Sidney Crosby might or might not get his points against the Caps, but the key here is not letting the Ponikarovsky’s or the Fedotenko’s of the world beat you. The Penguins have only one winger with as many as 40 points (Bill Guerin) and do not have a 20-goal scorer at the position. Ruslan Fedotenko, Pascal Dupuis, Bill Guerin, and Chris Kunitz have combined this year for exactly zero goals against the Caps. Keep it that way, and the Caps win.

In the end, this is another of those games for the fans. These teams both have bigger things ahead of them, including perhaps each other in a playoff series. The game isn’t quite as “meaningless” as we suggested at the top, but whether the Caps win or the Pens do, it’s May that counts if these teams meet, not March. Still…

Caps 4 – Penguins 3

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Jimmy Howard, Honorary Capital

For reasons that should be obvious...

thanks to brainumbc over at Japers' Rink for pointing the way to this delightful slice of cinema

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ten games left, ten things to watch

We are down to it now – ten games or so left in the regular season. There is no mystery about where the Caps will finish the year. Absent being spirited away by aliens, they will win the Southeast Division (already clinched), they will win the Eastern Conference (16 points ahead of Pittsburgh with ten games to play), and they will likely win the President’s Trophy (nine points ahead of Chicago and Phoenix with ten games left to play).

But there are a number of issues still to be resolved as the other 29 teams head into their last ten games. Here are ten in no particular order…

1. Race for the Hart

The Hart Trophy picture is still quite out of focus. There are five players who, in our mind, merit serious consideration as finalists – Alex Ovechkin, Henrik Sedin, Sidney Crosby, Ryan Miller, and Ilya Bryzgalov. If Tampa Bay was a more serious contender, Steven Stamkos could make it six. But it is this group of five players from which the Hart Trophy finalists will be taken.

Statistically, Alex Ovechkin would appear to have a slight edge over the other two skaters in the mix – Sedin and Crosby. He and Crosby are still fighting for the goal-scoring title, and he and Sedin are fighting over the overall scoring title. Ovechkin has accomplished this in ten fewer games. But the Caps’ record when he missed those ten games is 7-2-1. What’s more, the Caps scored 46 goals in those ten games, above their season average of 3.88/game. Crosby has assumed a greater goal-scoring burden this year and has improved his productivity in the faceoff circle. It has been especially important, given a bit of a dropoff in the play of Evgeni Malkin and some inconsistency from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. Sedin is having his best career year in this, his ninth season in the NHL. He has had 30 multi-point games this year and has been the glue that has held the Vancouver Canucks together, still with a chance to win the Western Conference (they are five points behind the Blackhawks and Coyotes).

As for the goalies, it could be fairly said that without either Ilya Bryzgalov or Ryan Miller, the Phoenix Coyotes and the Buffalo Sabres are not playoff teams, and it would not be a stretch to think of either as a potential lottery team in their absence. Bryzgalov is tied for first in wins, Miller is sixth. In goals against average Bryzgalov is fourth, Miller is second. Bryzgalov is tied for eighth in save percentage, while Miller leads the league. Bryzgalov leads the league in shutouts, while Miller is sixth. Both have had a large number of their appearances end with only one or no goals for the opposition (both having done it 17 times). Both have had hiccups along the way (Miller a five-game winless streak in early February, Bryzgalov a six game run straddling New Years Day in which he went 1-2-2, then was yanked in a sixth game after allowing 4 goals on 15 shots to the Islanders, but they have been rare.

We won’t pick the winner (that comes later), but we can say with a betting certainty that the finalists will come from this quintet. It will be quite a race to the finish for what might be the closest Hart voting in a while.

2. Rules on the fly

The NHL is not beyond effecting a change in the rules in mid-stream. The most famous recent example of that might be the “Avery Rule” that was instituted after Sean Avery used his stick as a distraction, waving it in the face of New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur during a game. This year, the stakes are higher. With as many head shots that have taken players out of the game, it isn’t beyond the pale to think the league might institute a rule, even in the season’s last weeks, to try to head off any more nonsense. Even if the league was inclined to wait until the end of the season for a more measured examination of the issue, there have been reports that it wants to fast-track a new rule discussed at the general managers’ meeting in Florida recently. Over the weekend there was a report that a change could come this week. Will it stem the tide? It will be something to watch for as teams fight it out for those last precious playoff spots.

3. 19 or not

The last time the Detroit Red Wings did not make the playoffs, there was no Internet (at least as we think of it). April of 1990 was more than a year before CERN published its “World Wide Web” project. But 1990 is the last time the Red Wings sat out the dance. They are hanging on by a thread to make it 19 seasons in a row, two points ahead of the Calgary Flames in points with a game in hand.

Neither the Red Wings nor the Flames have been backing into a spot. Detroit is 7-2-1 in their last ten games, the Flames are 6-4-0. Detroit would appear to have the scheduling advantage down the stretch. Of their last 11 games, six will come against teams currently in the top-eight of their respective conferences (Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Nashville (twice), Philadelphia, and Chicago), although four of those games are on the road. The Red Wings do, however, get Columbus three times down the stretch. Calgary, on the other hand, plays seven top-eight teams in their last 10 games. In fact, seven of their last eight games are against such teams (Boston, Washington, Phoenix, Colorado, Chicago, San Jose, and Vancouver), five of them on the road. Although they do get Minnesota, Anaheim, and the Islanders, any of those non-playoff teams have the ability to surprise (they lost to the Wild in their last outing), certainly more than one might expect Columbus to surprise Detroit.

We suspect that in the end, the Red Wings will be skating in the spring for a 19th straight season.

4. Does anybody want this playoff spot? Part 1

Six teams in the Eastern Conference are fighting for four playoff spots – Ottawa, Philadelphia, Montreal, Boston, Atlanta, and the Rangers. Eight points separate them, and it is like watching some perverse NASCAR race made of beat up jalopies as they draft one other and wheeze to the finish line. The Flyers were not supposed to be in this position, but with ten games left they are left to wonder who will be their goaltender to take them home.

The Flyers catch something of a scheduling break in this sense – in the ten games they have left, they aren’t facing any real offensive juggernauts. Working backwards, they face the Rangers in the last two games of the year, and by that time the Blueshirts could be done (more on that later). That’s twice facing the 25th ranked team in offense. Again, working backwards, they also get…

- Toronto (20th)
- Detroit (16th…really)
- Montreal (19th)
- Islanders (27th)
- New Jersey (23rd)
- Pittsburgh (5th)
- Minnesota (15th)
- Ottawa (17th)

That’s eight games against teams in the lower half of the offensive rankings, four against teams in the bottom third. You can hide some goaltending sins with that kind of schedule.

Ray Emery is out for the season with a hip injury that might ultimately end his career. Michael Leighton, who was as close to a savior as the Flyers had in net in some time (16-5-2, 2.48, .918 since being picked up on waivers from Carolina), is lost for eight to ten weeks with a high-ankle sprain. That puts the hopes and dreams of the Flyers’ season in the hands of Brian Boucher, now in his second tour with the team that drafted him in 1995. The 23 games in which he has appeared so far this year is the most since the 2003-2004 season, when he was with Phoenix. The trouble is, in those 23 appearances he is 5-14-2. More ominously, he hasn’t won a playoff game since 2000. But we get ahead of ourselves. The Flyers have to get that far, first, and they are only four points ahead of Atlanta. Well, at least Boucher is rested.

5. Will Marty party?

From January 14th through March 7th, New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur went 6-11-2, 3.15, .883. Then there was that whole Olympic thing. One might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps this was the beginning of the end of Martin Brodeur’s reign as king of the crease. Well, he won four in a row before giving up a single goal in a 1-0 loss to St, Louis on Saturday, stopping 127 of 136 shots along the way – 93.4 percent of those shots. And twice in that streak he beat defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh. Not so fast with the eulogies.

But Brodeur has appeared in 66 of the Devils’ 71 games this year and has played more than 3,800 minutes, leading the league in ice time. When you consider that Brodeur is 9-14 in the playoffs over the last three years and was knocked out in the first round the past two years, you still have to wonder how much he has left in the tank for the playoffs and whether Jacques Lemaire is going to give Marty more of a breather down the stretch.

The thing that complicates Lemaire’s decision on how much to play Brodeur is that the Devils are battling the Penguins for the Atlantic Division title (they are two points out of the top spot with a game in hand), but they haven’t yet clinched home ice for the first round – nine points ahead of the Flyers with 11 games left to play.

Backup Yann Denis has played in two of the last five games for the Devils, which is tantamount to a vacation for Brodeur. If getting Denis more playing time continues it could cost the Devils the Atlantic Division title and a top-three seed (Denis lost both decisions in those last five games), but it could provide dividends for the Devils when the games matter more down the road.

6. It’s a dog’s life

For most of the season, the Phoenix Coyotes have been a surprise in occupying a top-eight spot. It is a team that not many had hope for at the start of the year. But now, with nine games left, not only are the Desert Dogs safely among the top-eight, they are almost assured of home ice in the first round (an eight-point lead over fifth-place Nashville with nine games left to play), and they could yet finish atop the conference (they are now tied in points for the top spot with Chicago).

Since dropping three in a row in early January, the Coyotes are on a 20-6-0 run (the last nine wins in a row, and counting). Three of those losses came in succession in late February-early March as the only real hiccup along the way. The odd thing about those six losses, though, is that only one of them was by a single goal. Meanwhile, Phoenix has 14 one-goal wins (nine in extra time) among those 20 wins in this stretch.

Are the Coyotes running a bettor’s string of luck? Or are they becoming “battle hardened” with all these one-goal decisions heading down the stretch. These last ten games will be a guide to whether Phoenix is a contender, or merely a pretender.

7. Is San Jose swooning a month early?

No team is on a longer losing streak than the Sharks (0-5-1 and counting), and they are a thoroughly mediocre 7-9-1 since February 1st. It is hard to point to something specific. It is more of a systemic let down. The offense? 44 goals in their last 17 games (2.59/game). The defense? 58 goals in those last 17 games (3.41/game). Power play? 17.5 percent (10-for-57). Penalty killing? 78.5 percent (51-for-65). It is pretty much a full team effort at suck.

What is especially alarming for the Sharks is that through five games of a six game road trip, they have allowed 24 goals. Evgeni Nabokov was the goaltender of record in all of them, and in his last two starts he was torched for nine goals on 49 shots against the 28th and 29th-ranked teams in the league in offense (Calgary and Edmonton). Since February 1st he is 6-8-0, 3.36, .897. He has been a mess since the Olympics, where he finished 2-1, 4.16, .853.

Of course, it isn’t helping that Patrick Marleau, who was once the league leader in goals, has only three goals in his last 15 games. Or that Devin Setoguchi, who is depended on for secondary scoring support (he had 31 goals last year), has four in his last 23 games. Or that in his last 19 games Dany Heatley has three times had streaks of four games without a goal. There might be too many moving parts on this team that are not moving in sync, and unless they stop the bleeding in the last ten games, that could make them ripe for the hooking in the first round of the playoffs.

8. Does anybody want this playoff spot? Part 2

OK, imagine for a moment that you are Henrik Lundqvist, goaltender for the New York Rangers. You’re out there night after night watching the team in front of you redefining “ineptitude” as it applies to the art of scoring in hockey. The only reliable offensive threat you have – Marian Gaborik – has two goals in his last nine games. Then on Thursday morning, you read this…

“The Rangers might be able to overcome deficiencies on the power play, problems in their own end and the inability to create a sustained attack, but they simply cannot overcome an average performance from Henrik Lundqvist.”

Gee, thanks Larry Brooks. Lundqvist has been anything but “average,” except on the rarest of occasions. Since January 1st he has a goals against average of 2.49 and a save percentage of .915. These are not elite numbers, but given the margin of error with which Lundqvist has to play each and every night behind those skaters, it is amazing how well he has held up.

It is interesting to note that in 20 of 27 appearances since January 1st, Lundqvist allowed two or fewer goals. But when he melts down, he melts down – four times he has allowed at least five goals, and in two other instances in which he allowed four goals, he did so facing fewer than 20 shots. One could argue that such a performance is symptomatic of a goalie who keeps his fingers in the dike as best he can for long stretches, but when he can’t, it has disastrous results.

The Rangers have 79 goals in 32 games since January 1st – 2.49/game (only two teams – Edmonton and Boston – have lower averages for the full season). It gets worse. The Blueshirts have been shut out five times in those 32 games and scored a single goal in nine other contests. No goaltender can overcome that kind of ineptitude on offense. The Rangers are five points on the wrong side of the playoff cutoff point. If they can’t find a way to provide some sort of relief for Lundqvist, they have no chance of making up the difference.

9. Three different players, three different positions – one trophy

In the four seasons since the lockout, whatever suspense has been generated in advance of the final Calder Trophy tally to honor the league’s top rookie faded with the publication of the voting results. In those four years, the Calder winner garnered an average of 1,250 points and beat the runner-up by an average of 375 points. The narrowest margin of victory came in 2008 when Patrick Kane “edged” Nicklas Backstrom, 1,078 – 872.

This year, we have a bit of a twist. There are three players who comprise what appears to be the consensus group of finalists for the trophy – Colorado’s Matt Duchene, Buffalo’s Tyler Myers, and the Islanders’ John Tavares. Three different players, three different positions, three different settings in which they play. Handicapping these players is more a chore of comparing their relative disadvantages as they approach these last ten games in advance of the voting.

Duchene suffers from playing in the West. This is no small consideration. East coast bias – a tendency to give greater weight to East coast teams and players when evaluating their performance – might or might not exist, but to the extent it does, it could influence the decision. Duchene is a cornerstone of a team that has overachieved all year. But the Colorado Avalanche do not get a lot of buzz from the usual media outlets, and what attention they do get seems directed at that “overachieving” angle and the performance of goalie Craig Anderson. Duchene is the third leading scorer for the Avs, has the second most goals, and leads all rookies in scoring. But is anyone paying attention?

Myers suffers by virtue of the position he plays. Statistical measures in the NHL (at least those that the writers doing the voting seem to pay attention to) don’t provide much to defensemen for them to shine. Myers does, however, rank third in overall rookie scoring (behind Duchene and Tavares), is second among all rookies in plus-minus (behind Nashville’s Cody Franson), leads all rookies in ice time (by a whopping two-plus minutes a game). But here is the thing – Myers leads all Buffalo defensemen (veteran or rookie) in just about every statistical category. On a team that depends so much on limiting opponents’ scoring, this is no small consideration.

Tavares suffers the burden of high expectations. The first overall pick in the 2009 draft, he came into the season as the front-runner for the top rookie award, despite the fact that the top overall pick won the award only twice in four seasons since the lockout, and one of those winners – Alex Ovechkin – was a winner one year removed, owing to the lockout. Tavares also suffers by virtue of being the only one of these three players not likely to be playing in the spring. While the voting is based on regular season performance only, the Islanders’ slim prospects of making the playoffs can’t help but figure into the voting, at least on the margins. A pity, since Tavares is second in rookie scoring (behind Duchene), is tied for the rookie lead in power play goals and game-winning goals (with Duchene), and is second among rookie forwards in ice time (to Colorado’s T.J. Galiardi).

This race would appear to by Myers’ to lose, but with ten games left there is certainly enough time for any of these three to make a final statement on who should tote home the hardware.

10. Does anybody want this playoff spot? Part 3

It was the best of teams (won four in a row, best active streak in the East), it was the worst of teams (five losses in a row, worst in the East).

It was the age of wisdom (trading away their marquee player...ok, we'll see about this one), it was the age of foolishness (trading for a large, immobile defenseman who has one point and is minus-5 since the trade).

It was the season of Light (sweeping the Flyers for the season and closing to within a point of a playoff spot), it was the season of Darkness (dropping out of the top spot in the Northeast Division and within four points of dropping out of the top-eight altogether).

It is a tale of two teams – the Atlanta Thrashers and the Ottawa Senators.

On February 4th, Atlanta traded their marquee player – Ilya Kovalchuk – to the New Jersey Devils. Since then, the Thrashers did not sink silently into the tar pit that is the bottom third of the Eastern Conference. Rather, they are 8-6-3 since the trade and have that four-game winning streak, during which they laid ten goals on Buffalo and Ottawa (presumably the class of the Northeast), and then swept a home-and-home against the Flyers to sweep the four-game season series. Oddly enough, the Thrashers have done it with a respectable offense (3.06 goals/game since the trade) of a sort no one thought possible when Kovalchuk was traded.

Then there are the Senators. Remember, this was a team that won 11 in a row and 13 of 14 from January 14th through February 11th. But in retrospect, you could see the collapse coming before the winning streak. Before the successful run, the Senators lost five in a row and did so in particularly ugly fashion. They were outscored 22-5 in those five games and every loss was by at least three goals.

After the 13-in-14 streak, the Senators are 2-8-1, and the old problems have returned. They have been outscored 39-21 in their last 11 games and have fallen by three or more goals six times in nine losses. Getting defenseman Andy Sutton in trade from the Islanders at the deadline has not been an answer.

The thing to look for in these last ten games is whether the momentum each team is carrying will continue in their respective directions. If so, you might find that in the last ten games, Atlanta and Ottawa will end up exchanging places in the standings.

So there you have it – ten issues to keep a watch on over the last ten games. Happy stretch run.