Friday, April 30, 2010

Now What?

That’s going to be the question that haunts Caps Nation until this time next year. When a season of such hope and expectation ends so suddenly and emphatically with a loss in the first round of the playoffs to a team that finished 33 points behind you in the standings, that’s a question that betrays a lack of certainty as to just the “what” is supposed to be.

But out of the wreckage of the bomb that was set off in Verizon Center on Wednesday night, there are still sturdy shoots of hope popping out of the rubble. First, let’s get something out of the way at the start. In our last entry we said, “the only people who could call this season successful on any score are either drawing a paycheck from the club, or they are suffering serious delusions. Tonight, the season stands as a failure. Period, and point blank."

We stand by it. It is precisely because the aspirations of this franchise are to great things, not mediocrity, and because the expectations were so high, not merely to make the playoffs but to carry a Stanley Cup around the Verizon Center ice. If those are your ambitions, anything less is, by definition, “failure.”

The best that can be said is that “failure” is not a moral judgment. One of the things that comes out of this season is that the Caps seem to be, individually and as a group, as well-grounded a bunch of young men as there are in the league – thoughtful, earnest, diligent, all those virtues you hope for and expect in athletes you root for, at least given the fact that many of them are early 20-somethings who might do some things that old farts like us would cringe at. “Failure” isn’t a value judgment, either. Despite the way the season ended, this is one of, if not the most, talented teams in the NHL.

“Failure” is an event. It is a condition that can be corrected. It is an opportunity.

And it begs the question posed above… “now what?”

The groundwork to be laid in answering that question came from The Boss, himself, who wrote…

“We won’t do anything rash or make any decisions out of emotional angst. We will collect our thoughts. We will be energized by our failure. We will seek to improve. We will be diligent in our research and we won’t deviate from our plan. We still intend to build around our core. We will make adjustments. We will keep our upside. We will accentuate the positives and we will tweak and change around the negatives where needed.”

There are a lot of action statements in that quote, a “plan within a plan,” as it were. The Caps “will” and “will not” do things going forward. What might those things be?

Ever hear the old saying, “marry in haste, repent in leisure?” Well, a similar thought applies here… act in haste, regret in time. Blowing things up based on the Montreal series – what appears to pass for a plan among an awful lot of Caps fans – is an option. It also happens to be a really bad one. One of the things that went wrong early for the Caps in this regime’s tenure was going for the quick fix, then compounding it by trying quick fixes to fix the quick fix (the “Snyder Syndrome”). That pertained to adding assets. Now, a lot of folks in Caps Nation seem to want to pursue the reverse – get rid of Flesichmann, trade Semin, what can we get for (fill in the name of your favorite Capital here)? Sort of the quick fix by elimination, which will be compounded (we have little doubt) later with calls to get rid of more players.

Lessons learned in the past half dozen years point to what will certainly be patience in evaluating what happened here, and more important, how it can be corrected. Caps fans will be impatient, but that evaluation and implementation is probably going to take the entire summer and beyond. Yes, there will be players on expiring contracts who will not be offered new deals, or will be given perfunctory offers, but radical, sweeping changes? We think that unlikely and bad strategy to boot, at least in the fresh pain of defeat.

What would “improvement” look like? Well, it might look very strange to Caps fans who just saw a 120 point season go up smoke. First of all, there might not be a 120-point season… ever again. Maybe President’s Cup teams don’t win Stanley Cups as often as you might expect for a reason. Seasons have eddys and currents to them, ups and downs. Maybe those teams have enjoyed their best too early to be able to sustain it into the early summer. But for the Caps, it seems the problem is a lot less esoteric. Their style slammed right into a wall – literally, a wall – through which they could not penetrate effectively. You could convince yourself that three goals on 134 shots in the last three games against Montreal is just having had to face a “hot goaltender.” Well, that’s a part of it, but not all of it, and perhaps only some of it.

Despite the presence of Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich to do a lot of dirty work in front of the net, this club was either not engineered for or was just not constitutionally capable of doing any of the dirty work in other areas of the ice that one has to perform to succeed at this time of the year. It seemed as if too many Caps were pushed out of their productive areas of the ice and didn’t push back hard enough to assert themselves into those positions. Here is an example – Montreal blocked a ton of shots in this series (182 in seven games, almost as many as they had shots on goal in the series – 194). That suggests a herculean effort by the Montreal defense, throwing themselves without regard to welfare in front of Capitals’ shots. Well, it suggests something else, too. It is a lot more likely a shot coming from 50 feet will be blocked than one coming from five feet. Looking at the shot charts from the last three games, there were too many of the former, and not enough of the latter.

As much as we are loathe resurrecting the comparison with Pittsburgh, again, one of the things that set the Penguins apart from their competitors last year in winning the Stanley Cup was the appearance that everyone bought into the idea of fighting for control of the 200-foot ice sheet, of everyone making things uncomfortable for opponents -- forechecking, going to the net, fighting for and winning loose pucks in corners and along the wall. In the regular season, you can give up some of that. You can win games on the sole basis of having superior skill. In the playoffs, as seems all too clear now, you cannot.

The Canadiens took the “regular season” sort of game away from the Caps, and the Caps did not (or could not) reach down find that reservoir of will. Now, are the Caps as currently constituted capable of finding that reservoir of playoff-style will? Is it a matter of players finding that next rung on the ladder of maturity? Or will it require retooling, or to “tweak and change,” to put it another way? We’ll see, but what changes come cannot be with the October-to-April part of the season in mind.

You would think that players coming through the system via Hershey will get a long look, perhaps a longer one than one might usually think. Hershey is, after all, a critical part of “the plan” to which the Caps have adhered for the past several years. John Carlson and Karl Alzner are almost locks to stick with the parent team next year, and both of them look to have not only talent, but the indefinable sense of being “winners.” You have to ask the question whether there are others in Hershey who can provide that “playoff-oriented” style that seemed so lacking on the big club this spring.

Given the way the Caps approached the regular season, style wise, this could be a rather significant shift in attitude. It does not necessarily mean an abandonment of the fighter-squadron attack style that made them the entertainment darlings of the league this year, but rather adding an “infantry” element to their game – one that they seem to need to push through in the playoffs. Adding that to their game might result in some fits and starts along the way that make a 120-point regular season beyond their reach. But if they’ve added that to their repertoire by the spring, not getting 120 points, or 110, or even 100 won’t matter.

The evolution of this team reflects a core of players around which players will be added or subtracted. OK, so what is that core this morning? Clearly, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are a part of that core. You can’t fault either for the Caps’ loss, even if they had stretches where they weren’t heard from. Until the Montreal series, you wouldn’t have wasted a half-second in answering “Mike Green and Alexander Semin” as part of that core too. But what about those two? Here, the Caps patience is being and will be tested. Green is the best offensive defenseman of this generation, or so the prevailing narrative goes (to which we have made meager contributions). But in his last three playoff series, he is 1-8-9, minus-4. He has been a non-factor in the offensive end of the ice and has been something of a liability in the other end. Does the light go on over his head at some point like it does for a lot of defensemen who need to serve a rough playoff apprenticeship? An example. There is a defenseman in the NHL of some renown these days who, in his first two playoff seasons playing on a team that won 90 regular season games combined over those two years, went 1-3-4, minus-7 in 18 playoff games. Who was that?

Nicklas Lidstrom

Does Green have it in him to become something approaching that kind of player in the playoffs (Lidstrom has 167 points and is a plus-54 in 224 playoff games since)? You’ll have to be patient with him to see.

Alexander Semin is a much tougher nut to crack. Look up the word “enigma” in the dictionary, and there is his inscrutable face peering out at you. How can a player scoring 40 goals in the regular season then lead the NHL in playoff shots on goal (44) and not have one hit the back of the net? Well, you might have to be patient with him in the same fashion you will have to be with Mike Green, and perhaps for similar reasons. Let us look at another player – a player who when he came into the league was thought to be a bit too frail, a bit less sturdy than folks might have thought necessary to be successful, one who in his first four playoff years went 3-9-12, minus-1 in 42 games on a very successful team (205 regular season wins in those four years, one Stanley Cup), and this despite 81 goals and 241 points in his first four regular seasons. But today, he is thought of as one of the best two-way players in the league, whose skill and determination in the playoffs are questioned by no one. Who is that?

Pavel Datsyuk

We’re not trying to sell you an argument that Mike Green is Nicklas Lidstrom in waiting, or that Alexander Semin is the next great two-way Russian. They could become that; perhaps they will not. That is the sense in which the Caps are going to have their patience tested. There are no sure things, unless you move them, in which the certainty is that they won’t be doing it here.

Then there is the coach.  Two years ago at this time, Bruce Boudreau was the toast of the town, the savior who rescued the season, whose style and just-folks attitude was the bee's knees.  Today, there are questions whispered about whether he is the right coach for this team, if he is a "regular season" coach who doesn't have what it takes to take the final step.  We admit to some uncertainty as to the answers to those questions.  Certainly, the Caps never adjusted to what Montreal's strategy was (at least not effectively), and there was a certain lack of nimbleness in responding to the in-series changes that Montreal made tacically.  We think that can be fairly laid at the coaching staff's feet.  But does that stamp "failure" on Boudreau's resume? 

No coach can win a Stanley Cup until he does.  No coach has "Will Win Stanley Cups" accompanying his resume as he comes to the NHL.  But Boudreau has won championships in two other leagues and added another finals appearance in the AHL.  He has the bona fides as a coach capable of leading a winning team.  He is in his third year with this group, and while there might be grumbling about a window closing on his opportunity from other quarters, we think it unlikely in the extreme that he will be relieved this summer.  That's not to say that his continued employment is a certainty if either the Caps start poorly next year, or the Caps pull another one-and-done act next spring.  But firing a coach for a singular failure (we do not think either of the last two playoff exits were failures as much as losing to teams that were better) seems incomprehensible for a club whose philosophy is rooted in more long-term considerations.  All that said, we are reminded of Bryan Murray -- a Caps coach of considerable accomplishment in the regular season during the 1980's who spent years with this club living year after year of playoff disappointment.  We do not think folks will be so tolerant as to get into that kind of habit once more.

In a sports-talk, internet-infused sports environment, the pressure is on finding answers and making decisions now. For the first five years under this regime, the Caps reflected that. Trade for Jaromir Jagr, sign Robert Lang, create buzz. We will admit being swept up in it at the time (we thought trading for Jagr was a good thing). We all see how that worked out. Enter “The Plan.” Draft well, build a foundation, adjust here and there to fit, build a “system” that includes a philosophy permeating all of its elements from Washington to Hershey. In this era, it’s boring. But it might yet be boring in that “Berkshire Hathaway” sort of way that made investor Warren Buffett and a lot of his shareholders very rich. If you are investing for long term growth, you are going to suffer losses along the way. This, obviously, was a big loss that hurt from the fan watching at home on TV to the owner’s suite at Verizon Center. But “failure” is, as noted above, an event. It is an opportunity. We will see now what the Caps do with that opportunity.

This morning, the Caps are a punch line in the world of hockey. Folks are taking shots at the club that they seem to have been saving up since Alex Ovechkin won his first Hart Trophy. Fine. To that, we’ll quote a proverb first quoted in French literature (for the benefit of all the Canadian press who seem to be taking a special glee in the fall of the Caps)… "la vengeance se mange très-bien froide."

“Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

Hockey, as you recall, is played on ice.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

It's Over

It is an old cliché in sports – in life, actually – that you never know if the opportunity presented to you now – today – is the only chance you will get to catch the dream you chase.

Tonight, the Capitals' chance for a Stanley Cup passed them by in the form of the Montreal Canadiens, who brought their lunch pails and their hard hats to Verizon Center, while the Caps seemed content with dressing up like a collection of swells. The result was a 2-1 loss that eliminated the Capitals from this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs and set off what promises to be a summer of serious reflection on the matter of whether this team – as currently configured – has the guts, the grit, and the heart of a champion.

Based on tonight’s play, and based on the body of work the Caps turned in for this series, they clearly do not.

As it was too many times this season, the Caps played fine hockey in spurts, but could not cobble together a solid 60 minute effort. And the bitter pill to swallow is that the defense (with two achingly obvious exceptions) was not the problem. Nor was the goaltending by Semyon Varlamov. Holding a team to two goals and 16 shots (eight in the last two periods, combined) should be enough for the most offensively challenged team to win a hockey game. But the Caps – they of the top goals-scored average and power play conversion rate this season – played role of offensively-challenged team in a manner worthy of Oscar consideration. Unfortunately, the Oscar is not among the trophies awarded by the National Hockey League.

In this one, the Caps had four shots on goal in the first 2:45, but it only seemed to serve the purpose of allowing goalie Jaroslav Halak a sufficient warm-up to sustain him for the rest of the game. The Caps would then go more than 13 minutes before they recorded their fifth shot on goal. Rather than put the Canadiens away early, they put their fans in Verizon Center to sleep.

That would have been bad enough, but then defenseman Mike Green took a ghastly penalty in the offensive zone by cross-checking Andrei Markov with an official standing 15 feet away and the puck off in the corner. Twelve seconds after Green took a seat, Marc-Andre Bergeron – the subject of perhaps coach Jacques Martin’s most subtle and effective adjustment for Montreal (moving him from defense, where he was a liability, to the fourth line, where his power play shot could still be available if needed) – unloaded a bomb from the top of the right wing circle off a cross-ice feed from Scott Gomez that caught Varlamov pushing too hard to get across his crease, leaving an opening on the far side past his blocker.

From then on, Montreal gave every indication that they wouldn’t even so much as look at the Washington goal as much as they would just dump the puck out of the zone and dare the Caps to cross the blue line or navigate through the center of the ice with Canadiens at every turn. It became a study in pre-lockout hockey – immensely boring and stunningly effective.

It might have ended a 1-0 game, and that would have been fitting, but then Green made another lethal blunder (he wasn’t alone on the play) that would drive a stake into the Caps’ season. Racing Maxim Lapierre for a loose puck sliding into the Caps’ zone, Green got caught between decisions – whether to poke check the puck away (he was too far from the puck for that, and Lapierre had position), or to hit Lapierre. He did neither well and left the puck for the trailing Dominic Moore who collected it, swooped in on Varlamov, and beat him on the long side to give the Canadiens a 2-0 lead with 3:36 to go. In fairness to Green, his partner on the play – John Carlson – was guilty of the more egregious (if less obvious) mistake in being unacceptably slow getting back into the play after the puck was cleared over his head into the neutral zone. He rather glided through the neutral zone as Moore passed him by to get in position to collect the loose puck.

In a cruel twist, the Caps would get one back with 2:16 left when – finally – someone was able to collect a loose puck in close and do something with it. Brooks Laich lifted a backhand over Halak almost from his stomach.

But fate would deal one more cruel blow to the Caps – it gave them a power play in the form of a high-sticking penalty to Ryan O’Byrne with 1:44 left. Having misfired on 31 of 32 power plays in this series, the naïve and the gullible might have been inclined to say… “the law of averages says…” That would be a fool’s errand. The Caps’ power play sucked on toast for the entire series, and they played to form in getting two inconsequential shots on goal with a 6-on-4 man advantage, Varlamov having been pulled for the extra attacker. One last rush by Alex Ovechkin ended in – what else – a shot that was blocked back into the neutral zone, the only thing left being the sound of the horn in a silent arena.

Other stuff…

-- This is the biggest collapse in the history of the franchise. The 1986 team can now rest, the teams that lost to the Penguins all those times can unburden themselves. This is it. The only question is whether it is the biggest collapse in Stanley Cup playoff history. It isn’t as unique as the 1975 quarterfinals, when the New York Islanders came back from an 0-3 deficit to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the Islanders and Penguins finished in almost a flatfooted standing points tie that year. This is the first time since the current playoff format was instituted in 1994 that a number one seed lost a series after taking a 3-1 lead in games. But it isn’t even that….

-- The Caps lost three of four games on home ice (they are now 7-9 on home ice in the playoffs under Bruce Boudreau). They scored only ten goals on home ice in the series, six of them in one game.

-- They scored those ten goals on home ice on 154 shots. But here is at least as stunning a statistic – Montreal blocked 117 shots in four games in Verizon Center. Only two other playoff teams have a blocked shot total greater than that in the entire first round of games (the Canadiens blocked 41 shots tonight, testimony to their willingness to pay any price to win this game).

-- It has been 27 years since the Caps were held to one power play goal (1983 against the Islanders), and that was a four-game series (the Islanders won, 3-1).

-- The Caps total time in the lead over the last three games: 0:00. Not one blessed second.

And some other stuff…

-- It is going to be really tempting tonight and over the next day or two to opine that Mike Green should be traded (already heard that one on the way home on the radio), that Alexander Semin should be traded, that Bruce Boudreau should be fired, that George McPhee should be relieved of his duties. You don’t make personnel decisions emotionally. The Caps have some real soul searching to do, but as far as a complete housecleaning is concerned, it’s not going to happen. But if one thing has been laid bare, it is that this “rebuild” is not complete… not unless your idea of “rebuild” is “make the playoffs.”

-- One thing that is as obvious as the sun in the sky on a clear day is that this team has learned nothing. 2008, 2009, 2010, it doesn’t appear to matter. It is the gifted student who, despite all the admonitions to put in the work to master a subject, to study diligently, skates by on talent. Until the final exam. And then, when confronted with a test of his mettle, he has brain lock and fails.

-- There are two beefs in retrospect that it appears fair to lay at the feet of the coaching staff. First, it never adjusted to anything, save for a goaltending change and some ineffective tinkering with lines. The tinkering did little to address a strategic issue – Montreal was taking away the middle of the ice and standing the Caps up at the Canadien’s blue line. Then there was the matter of Alex Ovechkin, who was stymied for seven games in getting shots off in good scoring areas, the whole matter of that left handed defenseman on right handed shot thing. There wasn’t an answer evident in getting Ovechkin free. There was the stubborn repetition of coming down the left side, entering the zone, and shooting the puck into the blade of the stick of a Hal Gill or any number of other Canadien defenseman. There just weren’t any adjustments to what the Canadiens were doing.

-- The other beef is the idea of optional practices. You can make an argument that getting players rest in the midst of a tough playoff grind has merit. But a lot of these practices seemed a little too optional in retrospect.

-- And that brings us to the captain. We’re cautious about this, because one never gets to peek under the veil of team secrecy when it comes to injuries during the playoffs. One only gets a glimpse of how bad guys were hurting after the fact. But that said, what does it say about leadership when the captain is availing himself of his “option” to practice? A caller on the post-game radio show asked rhetorically if one would see Sidney Crosby taking such an option in the midst of the playoffs. It isn’t an entirely unfair question.

-- And what an empty year for Alex Ovechkin it became. No Olympic gold medal, two suspensions, no playoff wins. He seems likely, if not certainly, to be shut out of the post-season individual hardware (no Ross, no Richard, and he is no more than among the favorites for the Hart Trophy and renamed Lindsay Award). He is the captain of what might be the biggest underachieving team in the modern history of the NHL. It will not end as a signature season, despite the 50-goal, 100-point finish.

-- Four Games 7 in three years, three losses.  The only win coming against a team that couldn't shoot the puck into the lake from the dock.  And it shouldn't escape anyone's notice that the game winning goal in that win came off the stick of a player whose best years were far behind him, not from any of the collection of young talent that is so highly thought of on this team.  Although Tony Kornheiser labled the Caps of the 1980's and early 1990's "choking dogs," and while we suffered many of their disappointments in person, we had a soft spot for those clubs because their "will" was far greater than their "skill."  They just never had enough of the latter to get over the hump.  This team has given every indication over the past three years -- in playoff settings -- of having too much of the latter at the expense of the former when there is the chance to advance.  It cannot be dismissed that this team has too many tight collars about it in games that matter.

Few could have authoritatively argued before hand that what would betray the Caps were what was thought to be their strengths – their offense and their power play. Three goals scored in their last three games – all losses – and 1-for-33 (3.0 percent) on the power play. The things that the Caps allegedly couldn’t do – defend and tend goal – ended up being entirely acceptable. Allowing 19 goals by goaltenders (one empty netter) in seven games – a 2.71 goals allowed/game average – is virtually identical to that which won a Stanley Cup for Pittsburgh last year (2.67). But scoring 22 goals in seven games (17 of them in the wins in Games 2-4) is inconceivable.

Certainly, there are Caps both on the ice and in the press box tonight who will not be with the club next season. Such is the nature of the sport. But for those who do return in September for training camp, they had better find their hard-work gene, because without it there is no Stanley Cup in their future.

In the end, I am reminded of the fact that once upon a time, I was a teacher. And one of the immutable rules of teaching was, no matter how well you did during the semester, if you failed the final exam, you failed the course. Tonight was the final exam, and after failing it, the only people who could call this season successful on any score are either drawing a paycheck from the club, or they are suffering serious delusions.

Tonight, the season stands as a failure.

Period, and point blank.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

With apologies to the poet

Robert Frost once wrote...

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Years from now, players, management and fans might look back upon this game as that divergence -- on one road more traveled lies the wreckage of playoff hopes unrealized.  Game 7 losses, leads squandered, players unfulfilled, fans disappointed.  The one less traveled is the one on which the Caps muster the heart and character to take on an opponent's best and repel it, to face failure and find success.

This team is supposed to take that road less traveled...

... the one at the end of which stands a Stanley Cup.

Walk that road proudly, starting tonight.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 7 -- Capitals vs. Canadiens

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Game 7

There are no two words in the English language that strike as much fear in the hearts of Caps fans as “Game Seven.” For the ninth time in franchise history the Caps will skate in a Game 7 when they take on the Montreal Canadiens tonight. Nine… nine circles of hell. NO! We will fight the urge to dwell on the negative here.

The Caps have been a two-headed monster in this series, one a fierce, sharp-fanged beast that won three games by a combined score of 17-9. The other is a sleepy, dull witted sort that slumbered most of the way to three losses by a combined score of 9-4. Game 6 gave evidence of the fierce beast making another appearance after launching 94 shot attempts (54 on goal) at Jaroslav Halak in a 4-1 loss. Try as they might in Game 6, though...

"NO! Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try."

My, my… it must be a Game 7 if Jedi Master Yoda is to make an appearance. Can I call you “Yo?”

“Not, you may.”

OK, so… it is Game 7, and the Caps are trying – sorry – have to call up their best effort. How can they be strong enough to deal with the pressure of the situation? How can they summon their “inner Jedi?”

“A Jedi's strength flo-o-o-o-o-ws from the Force. But beware the dark side. Anger, fear…. The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny. Consume you it will, as it did Caps teams from the past.”

Is the dark side stronger?

"No, no, no. Quicker, easier, more seductive."

But how are the Caps to know the good side from the bad?"

"They will know... when they are calm, at peace… A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack."


“In this game they must, perhaps.”

So, then, it is important for the Caps to feel the Force…

“…flowing around them. For their ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. The Force surrounds them and binds them. Luminous beings are we not this crude matter. They must feel the Force around them. Here, between you, me, the tree, the rock...oh, Mike Green’s head that is…everywhere! Even between the Alexander Semin and the back of the net."

Have the Caps trained enough to solve their problems on the power play?

“No more training do they require. Already know they, that which they need.”

Then they are Jedi.

“No. Not yet. One thing remains. Halak. They must confront Halak. Then, only then, Jedi will they be. And confront him they will.”

Bill Clinton once said, “all great contests are head games.” And there is no bigger head game in hockey than a a goaltender getting into an opponent’s head and convincing them that he is invincible. Jaroslav Halak, shaky and full of holes in Games 2 and 3, became the cloned offspring of George Hainsworth, Georges Vezina, Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden, and Patrick Roy. 90 saves on 92 shots in Games 5 and 6, many of those saves causing Caps' eyes to roll to the rafters in frustration.

And this is really what it comes down to now – the ability of the Caps to translate pressure into goals. Through six games the Caps have pummeled Canadien goaltenders Halak and Carey Price to the tune of exactly 250 shots on goal (41.7/game). Montreal’s defense has not been able to contain the Caps in that regard, the result has been entirely a product of how well the goaltender performed in fending off the assault. Nothing else really appears to matter – not the Caps defense or goaltending (except for a poor effort in Game 2, it has been entirely adequate), not the Canadiens’ power play (held below its season conversion average), not the phases of the moon.

There isn’t much science about this at this point. It is a matter of players who have been launching shots at the goal to get those shots into the goal. They do, and the Caps advance. They don’t and it’s tee times on the weekend instead of a national-TV game with the Flyers.

And if there is anyone who would know about launching attacks, it would be The General himself. Ten-HUT!

Caps 5 – Canadiens 2

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 6: Canadiens 4 - Capitals 1

For all you Caps fans who discovered the joys of hockey over the last six months, welcome to Caps World.

The Washington Capitals were pushed to the brink of what would be the biggest playoff collapse in franchise history last night, losing Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals to the Montreal Canadiens, 4-1.

Kelly Hrudey in 1987… Tom Barrasso in 1992… Ken Wregget in 1995… Jaroslav Halak took his place in the pantheon of goaltenders who were made by the Caps to be the next coming of Terry Sawchuk, the latest goaltender to come up large to force a seventh game when his team was down 3-1 to the Caps.

Halak stopped 53 of 54 shots in a stunning performance that might have sucked the life out of the Capitals for Game 7 of this series. The tone was set early as Halak stopped five shots in the game’s first 74 seconds to set the tone. Halak’s effort it wasn’t the product of cheap padding of shot totals, either. The Caps got shots from the players who needed to get them – Alex Ovechkin had eight (14 attempts), Alexander Semin had seven (16 attempts), Mike Green had six (12 attempts), Brooks Laich had six (nine attempts), Nicklas Backstrom had three (six attempts). In all, the Caps launched 94 shot attempts at Halak, more of them being blocked (23) than the Canadiens would have of theirs on goal (22).

You could say it was just “one of those nights,” but this is the sort of night that seems reserved for Caps fans – the goaltender who magically grows to a four-by-six-foot frame, stifling every attempt to rustle the twine behind him. Yup… you new Caps fans have now been baptized in the Church of the Perpetual Playoff Sorrows.

Other stuff…

-- Max, the Canadian Olympic Committee called. You’ll be going to London in 2012 with the diving team.

-- 1-for-30. Let that sink in. If anyone said that the power play would decide this series, you would have bet a shiny nickel that they would be talking about the Montreal power play taking advantage of the Caps’ weak penalty killers. Montreal has had a respectable performance on the power play, but if one has said they would convert 18.5 percent of their chances, you might have taken that. But the Caps converting 3.3 percent of their chances? Incomprehensible.

-- By the time the game was 16 minutes old, the Caps had wasted a 4-on-3 and 5-on-3 power play, outshot the Canadiens 16-8, and were behind 2-0. For all intents and purposes, the competitive portion of the game was over.

-- Once more, Mike Cammalleri gets the first goal of the game, the Habs win. That’s three times he’s had the first goal, and three times the Canadiens won.

-- As spectacular as Halak played at one end, Semyon Varlamov was, well, not spectacular at the other end. The three goals he allowed all came from the same general area of the ice – outside and above the right wing faceoff dot. Once could say that this or that shot was deflected or was shot through a screen, but three goals allowed from shots past the 30-foot mark won’t get you many wins, either.

-- 18 power play shots. Almost half the total they had taken in the other five games of the series combined. Half of them came from between the hash marks and inside the top of the circles. You can’t say they didn’t have their chances...

...but the killer was getting no shots on goal on their 5-on-3 advantage.

-- Tomas Fleischmann is an arbitration eligible free agent at the end of this season. What would be his comparable, based on his playoff performance, a slice of angel food cake? Eight shots in six games (no more than two in any game), no goals, one point. He has as many points as Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban, he of the one playoff game’s worth of experience. He has half as many points as Canadien defenseman Jaroslav Spacek, which provides a nice symmetry, since Spacek has played in half as many games in this series.

-- Since allowing three goals on 13 shots and being pulled in Game 3, Halak has now stopped 90 of the last 92 shots he has faced (.978).

-- 13 playoff games, 51 shots, and counting. The “Will Sasha Ever Score Again” watch continues.

-- What is it with second line centers on this team? Over the past two years… Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Morrison, Eric Belanger, Tomas Fleischmann – one goal in 30 man-games. If the latter three have one in them, let’s just hope it’s like the one Fedorov had… a series-winner.

The Caps made history this year – first non-original six team to reach the 120-point plateau, highest standings point total in franchise history, the first President’s Cup in franchise history. They are on the brink of making some more history – first number-one seed to lose to a number-eight seed after taking a 3-1 lead in games since the current playoff format was instituted in 1994.

And, ripping another page from the Caps’ history book, it doesn’t look good. As we noted in the pregame, no Caps team has ever lost a Game 6 and won a playoff series. The Caps are 1-2 in Games 7 since the lockout (all on home ice). The Caps are 7-8 in 15 home games in the playoffs over the past three years. They are 1-4 over the past three years when presented with an opportunity to eliminate their playoff opponent.

The good news is that the Caps are 6-2 over the last three years when facing elimination. But come 7 o’clock on Wednesday night, a lot of people will be thinking that the betting choice will be wearing white jerseys. It’s up to the ones wearing red to prove them wrong and take advantage of the home ice for which they fought over the past six months.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 6: Capitals vs. Canadiens

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Game 6

And the only thing you need know about Game 6 is this. Nine times in Capitals history they lost Game 6 of a playoff series. They won none of those series. Six times it was the clinching loss, and on three other occasions the Caps went on to lose Game 7.

Now that we've told you the only thing you need to know, we'll give you a thousand or so more words on what you might think about in this game.  As the Caps prepare for Game 6, the good thing is that the Caps have won each of the last three Games 6 they have played – a 4-2 win against the Flyers in 2008 to force a Game 7, a 5-3 win over the Rangers last year to force a Game 7, and a 5-4 overtime win against the Penguins to force – again – a Game 7.  Win a fourth in a row, and there is no Game 7 to have to worry about.

The last time the Caps won a Game 6 to clinch a series was the 3-2 overtime win in Buffalo in 1998 to send the team to the Stanley Cup finals. The Caps also closed out Boston that year in the first round to advance to play Ottawa in the second round. There is something to be gained in thinking about that… the Caps closed out the B’s on the road, just as they will play the Montreal Canadiens tonight on the road. We just hope it doesn’t go to two overtimes the way that 1998 first round Game 6 did against the Bruins.

Tonight’s Game 6 might be the sort of game in which you expect the Young Guns – Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green – to shine. And in the three Games 6 win which this quartet played, they have largely done just that…

Alex Ovechkin: 3-3-6, +5
Alexander Semin: 1-4-5, +3
Nicklas Backstrom: 1-2-3, +4
Mike Green: 1-0-1, +2

But that is six of the 14 goals scored by the Caps in the last three Games 6 played before this season. Is there a hint where the other goals might come from? Well, the departed Viktor Kozlov had three of the other eight goals, and Milan Jurcina (who is injured and will not play tonight) scored another, leaving four unaccounted for. Those four were scored by Tom Poti, Tomas Fleischmann, Brooks Laich, and David Steckel. Unless Boudreau includes Steckel as part of his possible lineup shakeup, he will not be on the ice at Bell Centre tonight. But there are Fleischmann and Laich, they of the 48 goals between them in the regular season (one in the playoffs) who can, and perhaps have to, come up big tonight.

Through five games, the results have had a certain predictability in them, despite the fact that the Caps didn’t close out the Canadiens by now. For example…

-- The Caps have outscored the Canadiens 15-10 at 5-on-5. The 1.50 ratio of goals scored to goals allowed is consistent with how the Caps fared in the regular season (1.57).

-- The Caps have averaged four goals a game, right in line with their 3.82 average during the regular season.

-- Against the vaunted Montreal power play the Caps are killing penalties at an 81.8 percent rate, slightly better than their 78.8 percent rate for the regular season.

-- Allowing 2.80 goals a game, the Caps are right there compared to their regular season average of 2.77 during the regular season.

In the big things (well, almost all of them), the Caps are performing in a manner consistent with their regular season performance. But two things are getting in their way – a number and a trend.

First, to the number. The power play, to use Bruce Boudreau’s term, “sucks.” At 4.2 percent (1-for-24), the Caps are 14th among 16 playoff teams. What is particularly aggravating about this statistic is that it is probably the single reason why this series is still going on. In the two one-goal losses the Caps are a combined 0-for-9 on the man advantage. Looking at the power play overall, they are not getting shots. In 24 power plays so far, the Caps have a total of 37 shots on goal. What’s more, they are not getting power play shots from players who need to take them. Alex Ovechkin has three shots on goal with the man advantage (one goal, and that was scored from the doorstep). Nicklas Backstrom, likewise, three shots. Brooks Laich, one shot on goal on the power play (none in the last four games). These three players combined for 36 power play goals in the regular season, almost half the Capitals’ league-leading total (79).

The good news on the power play is that there has been a consistent improvement in shots on goal over Games 2-4, ending with 11 shots on goal in Game 5. But even here, there weren’t a lot of quality chances. The power play shot chart indicates that five of the 11 shots came from what might be called “scoring areas,” while the others were the result of being pushed far to the outside for shooting opportunities (courtesy of the Washington Post interactive shot chart)…

The other thing is a trend, and that one is more ominous for the Caps. The Caps dominated the latter part of Game 2 and had flurries in Games 3 and 4 to win three games by a combined score of 17-9. The Canadiens got an overtime goal in Game 1 and held on for 50 minutes after getting a couple of early goals in Game 5 to snatch a couple of one-goal wins. To sports fans, there might be an uncomfortable parallel that does not come from hockey. Pardon us our Stan Fischler “back in my day when dinosaurs roamed the earth” moment, but in the 1960 World Series, the New York Yankees won three games by pummeling the Pittsburgh Pirates 38-3 (that’s not a typo). They also lost three games by letting the Pirates hang around and getting outscored 14-8. That left things up to a Game 7, and the Pirates won the thing with the equivalent of an overtime game-winning goal, a bottom-of-the-ninth home run by Bill Mazeroski.

If a team lets an inferior opponent hang around long enough, strange things can happen, in a game or in a series. And keeping the Canadiens from hanging around for a Game 7 means getting the power play back on track and getting guys who have produced in a Game 6 setting to repeat their history. Of course, we think that will happen…

Caps 4 – Canadiens 2

Built Hockey Tough

Pick up trucks named for male sheep have nothing on hockey players when it comes to toughness.  You could argue that athletes in other professional sports have nothing on hockey players when it comes to toughness, either.  This spring has already seen exhibitions of toughness that would leave mortals such as thee and me cringing in the fetal position in our own beds (or in emergency rooms).

The Stanley Cup playoffs breed their own sort of toughness, a mix of fearlessness, desperation, and wanting to do everything humanly possible to push their club to a championship.  There is already a "Conn Smythe Trophy" for the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup tournament.  Maybe there should be one for the player who exhibits the most selfless disregard for his own health and well-being in the tournament in service to his team.*  It's only Round 1, and there are stellar (if you want to call it that) candidates already...

Ian Laperriere, Philadelphia Flyers

From Mike Morreale's recap on of the series-clinching Game 5 of the Flyers/Devils series...

"The Flyers were up 3-0 but in the midst of killing off yet another Devils power play when Laperriere decided to step in front of a slap shot by defenseman Paul Martin three minutes into the third period. By the time he realized he had slid too early, the puck slammed into his forehead at top speed, opening his face to the point where a trail of blood followed him as he skated blindly on the ice before getting medical attention.  "When I grabbed (athletic trainer) Jimmy (McCrossin), I asked him if my eye was still there," Laperriere told reporters after taking between 60-70 stitches along his right eyebrow. "He said 'Yeah, there was just so much blood.'"

Reports are that he suffered a nondisplaced fracture of the orbital bone that will not need surgery, and he will be available to the Flyers in Round 2.

He will, however, wear a protective shield.  Dont' think we can begrudge him that.

Eric Belanger, Washington Capitals

From Tarik El-Bashir's blog entry on Capitals Insider at the Washington Post...

"With about 7 minutes 30 seconds remaining in the first period of Friday night's 2-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, Washington Capitals forward Eric Belanger approached Canadiens defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron near center ice. Bergeron passed the puck away, and his stick came up and smacked Belanger in the face, causing him to double over in obvious pain. There was no penalty called, the sell-out crowd at Verizon Center responded with boos, Belanger made his way to the bench - and returned to play more than 10 minutes in the game.  That brief synopsis, though, masks what actually happened. The sum total: Belanger lost "seven or eight" teeth, he said, had some exposed roots in his teeth trimmed in between periods -- serious dental work -- and he arrived Saturday morning at Kettler Capitals Iceplex with a fat lip that had been stitched back together. He believes he will be available for Game 6 Monday night in Montreal, but between now and then he faces several hours in a dentist's chair."
I had a root canal on one tooth ten days ago and thought about not watching a hockey game.

These guys are not just in another league of toughness, they're on another planet.  And they'll no doubt have a lot of company before this tournament is over.

*  Who would you name it after?  Mario Lemieux, for taking only two months off for treatment of Hodgkin's Disease, then going out an scoring a goal in his first game back -- a day on which he received his last radiation treatment?  Bob Baun, for blocking a shot in the 1964 Stanley Cup finals, shattering his ankle in the process, limping off the ice for a few minutes, getting the ankle wrapped, then coming back on the ice for overtime and scoring the game-winning goal?  Gordie Howe, for having his own "hat trick" named after him -- a goal, and assist, and a fight?  There appear to be no shortage of candidates.

"Homer" isn't just a Simpson

Over at Japers’ Rink, there is a link to an article penned on the subject of Mike Green and his suitability as a Norris Trophy candidate. The author – Anthony J. SanFilippo – titled his article, “Embarrassed to be a Hockey Writer.”

As you can probably tell, this is not going to go well for Mike Green.

SanFilippo leads off with the measured praise, “look, this guy is very talented.” Then he goes on to write about how…

-- his “fellow scribes” probably failed to read the citation of the Trophy (“"given to the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability in the position" – emphasis his)

-- “Any person who chooses to put the word greatest with Green's defensive resume should turn in their Professional Hockey Writers' Card post haste.”

-- “There's a reason Green was left off the Canadian Olympic Team. As good as he is at one end of the ice he's certifiably scary at the other end.”

-- “it's becoming painfully obvious that many of my colleagues have grown lazy and decide to vote just for the numbers they see on the leader board and take no consideration into the actual definition of the award.”

Then he hints at a dark conspiracy against Philadelphia writers (one supposes an effort to diminish the chances for the Flyers’ Chris Pronger)…

“Part of the problem may be that not all of the writers, who before today I thought were a lot more clued in, were able to vote. I've begun an inquiry into this belief, because I know not all of the beat writers in Philadelphia were afforded the chance to vote this season, whereas in previous seasons they were.”

SanFilippo then shares with his reader his ballots for league-wide awards, including the Norris…

1. Drew Doughty, Los Angeles Kings
2. Chris Pronger, Philadelphia Flyers
3. Duncan Keith, Chicago Blackhawks
4. Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit Red Wings
5. Christian Ehrhoff, Vancouver Canucks

One could build an argument for Doughty or Keith being more deserving candidates than Green for the Norris, but Lidstrom has had (for him) a somewhat uneven year. Pronger? That’s a hometown vote. His post Olympic performance (2-11-13, even, in 22 games) was hardly the stuff of Norris Trophies. But Christian Ehrhoff? That’s beyond a headscratcher.

Look (to borrow a phrase from SanFilippo), Ehrhoff had a fine season. At the risk of letting numbers dictate the perspective, Ehrhoff and Green compare in the raw numbers like this…

Those plus-minus numbers got us to thinking. Not much difference there, but apparently Ehrhoff’s plus-36 means more than Green’s plus-39 in SanFilippo's calculus. Perhaps Green’s plus-39 was padded in the weak “Southleast” Division. Not so. Green was a plus-4 in 22 games against Southeast Division opponents, but he was a plus-17 against teams in the Northeast and a plus-16 against teams in the Atlantic Division (Flyer-centric writers, take note that he was plus-7 against the orange and black). And if you’re thinking that being plus-4 in 22 games against a weak division is a problem for Green, Ehrhoff was plus-1 against the Southeast in five games.

But digging past that (with the help of the fine folks at who compile such detailed statistics), it becomes clearer that Green comes by his place among the finalists honestly (at the expense of Ehrhoff). At 5-on-5 (according to, the delta of plus-minus, on ice vs. off ice, are almost equal (+1.40 for Green to +1.33 for Ehrhoff). Green played against a generally higher quality of competition and had a higher Corsi rating relative to quality of competition.  He is ranked second among defensemen in "goals-versus-threshold" (a measure of the value of a player -- in goals, above what a replacement player would have contributed -- created by Tom Awad at Puck Prospectus).

If the award is, as SanFilippo points out, a reflection of the greatest all around ability at the position, then offense cannot be discounted any more than it can be a safe way to rank Norris candidates. Green is the best offensive defenseman of this era, and his offensive statistics compare favorably to last year’s in an important respect. Last year’s results were influenced by Green’s record-setting performance over an eight-game streak in which he had 10 goals and seven assists, setting an NHL record for consecutive games with a goal by a defenseman. If that streak is taken out of the mix, Green’s numbers for the 2008-2009 season project out to a 29-48-77, +18 season. Compare that to this year’s results that project out to 21-62-83, +43 over a full 82-game season.

None of the finalists can be said to hold as lofty a position as a “defensive” defenseman as Mike Green holds on the offensive side of the ledger. The citation is for the top “all-around” defenseman, which is not to say “most balanced” between offense and defense. It is nice to see that voting in recent years (ok, for Nicklas Lidstrom) has struck a balance between offense and defense, as opposed to the “Paul Coffey” years that represented a drastic swing of the pendulum after defensive specialist Rod Langway won consecutive Norris trophies. But Green is not (or was not) entirely a slug in his own end this season. That plus-39 didn’t come entirely from the prolific offense with which Green played. In fact, Green was especially productive on the power play (he was 10-25-35 on the power play, which does not factor into his plus-minus numbers). The Caps were the best 5-on-5 team in the league by a wide margin. Green was a part of that, an important part, in fact.

Sometimes, uncovering a gem in the rough in voting like this is a product of a keen eye for what one sees on the ice and a diligent approach to reviewing the numbers. Sometimes, it is just a silly attempt to make one's self look smarter than everyone else, or to use a false comparison to puff up the value of another player who is really the object of the exercise. SanFilippo appears guilty of the latter, including Christian Ehrhoff on his ballot, less as a reflection of Ehrhoff’s superiority as a defenseman in 2009-2010 than to point out that Chris Pronger should be the one taking Green’s place on the ballot.

Frankly, we think he should be embarrassed to be a hockey writer, just not in quite the way he might have intended.

* Oh, and not to scoop ourselves (since we’ll have our own trophy handicapping later), but Green isn’t our choice for the Norris.

They Can Do This

In our last entry we highlighted some unexpected unpleasant results on the part of the Caps in this opening round series, but there is a well of production that hasn’t yet been tapped, too. Such is the nature of a team that hit so many clear high notes during the season. For example…

-- Alexander Semin had 27 multi-point games this season, 11 mutli-goal games.

-- Mike Green had six different points streaks of at least five games, including a pair of nine-game streaks.

-- Brooks Laich had only four “minus” games his last 32 games the regular season.

-- Tomas Fleischmann went more than consecutive games without a point only three times this year and never more than four games (he in the midst of a three-game streak at the moment).

-- Semin was 2-1-3 against the Canadiens this season, and has ten goals in 13 career regular season games against Montreal.

-- Green had five points in four games against Montreal this season and has 14 in 14 regular season games for his career.

-- Laich was 3-2-5 in four games against the Canadiens this year; he scored his first NHL goal against Montreal at Bell Centre.

-- Fleischmann had five points in four games against Montreal this season and had seven in his last seven games over the past two seasons.

Clearly, this quartet has it in them to do better than a combined 1-5-6, even. They were a combined 7-11-18, plus-7 against Montreal this season in 14 man-games. No time like now to bring back some of those memories.

Sittin' at the end of the bar...

Things we bet you wouldn’t have expected…

-- Sure, you might not have expected that Alexander Semin would have no goals in this series, but he’s also been on the ice for a grand total of one goal scored against. Still, we would like to see him break out of that goal-scoring schneid in a big way tomorrow night.

-- One other Cap has played in all five games and has been on the ice for only one goal against. I’d tell you who it was, but it wouldn’t be Fehr to give it away.

-- Which Cap has been on the ice for the most goals so far? Mike Knuble, don’t sit down.

-- Mr. Plus 50 and Mr. Plus 39 each have been on the ice for eight goals against of the 16 total scored by Montreal.

-- Speaking of Green, that’s 13 straight games without a goal (one in 19 career playoff games... edit: as Red Army Line points out in the comments, that's 1 goal in his last 19 playoff games; Green has four in 26 career playoff games... the perils of writing at two in the morning from the end of the bar).

-- And speaking of Schultz, he has six career playoff games and is a minus player in four of them.

-- Still, the Caps have three of the top four players in plus/minus (Tom Poti, John Carlson, and Nicklas Backstrom) and four of the top seven (Alex Ovechkin adding to the list).

-- Look, we love Carlson, and he is going to be a whale of a defenseman in due time. But no player in the playoffs has coughed up the puck as many times so far (12).

-- Carlson seems able to outskate his mistakes, though… he’s only been on the ice for two goals against.

-- In fact, the Caps have two of the “top” four defensemen in the giveaway category (Green has seven). But in the “bad news for Norris finalists” category, only five defensemen have a worse “plus/minus” at home than Drew Doughty, and only two have a worse one than Duncan Keith.

-- Caps fans, when you’re watching Game 6, you will be forgiven if your mouths start to water when Marc-Andre Bergeron takes the ice. Bad things happen to the Habs when he’s on Bell Centre ice in this series. No defenseman has a worse plus/minus than his minus-6.

-- 33 players have more shots on goal than Alex Ovechkin. Mike Grier is one of them. We are not making that up.

-- Eric Fehr has as many shots in almost exactly half the ice time (11:46/game versus 22:31/game).

-- Only six players have a higher shooting percentage than Ovechkin’s 31.3 percent. Daniel Carcillo is one of them. We are not making that up, either (OK, he’s only taken six shots, but still…).

-- Alexander Semin does NOT have the most missed shots so far in the playoffs. But he can see the top from where he is (13). Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrick Marleau each have 14.

-- Caps fans, you’re going to want to watch Mike Cammalleri. Twice he has scored the first goal of the game. Both times, the Canadiens won.

-- If you toss out that Game 7 Semyon Varlamov had against the Penguins last year, he has a career playoff GAA or 2.19 and a save percentage of .924 in 16 appearances.

-- Over the past three seasons, including this one, the Caps are averaging scoring more than a goal a game better on the road (3.73) than they are at home (2.67).

What it all really boils down to is, if the Caps put forth the effort they did on Saturday, then there will be hockey on Wednesday, and it will not be against the Flyers. But if they play to an effort level commensurate with their skill, then there won’t be any need to use those Game 4 tickets for a game against the Canadiens at Verizon Center.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 5: Canadiens 2 - Capitals 1

Don’t you wish that goal cam was still on the fritz?

There are teams at this level of play who, when presented with an opportunity on a platter to send a team home for the summer, playing in their own rink, cheered on by their own fans, would plant their foot on the throat of their opponent from the drop of the puck and not let up until the life was choked out of them.

The Caps are not that team.

The Caps skated around without apparent urgency for 60 minutes, making Montreal Canadiens’ goalie Jaroslav Halak look like, if not quite Ken Dryden, then at least Bunny Larocque, as the Canadiens pushed the series to a sixth game with a 2-1 win in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal.

It wasn’t even as if the Habs dominated play. They got early goals from Mike Cammalleri and Travis Moen – both past the blocker of Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov and both looking stoppable – then played prevent defense for the last 50 minutes to secure the win in one of the most boring games conceivable in a playoff setting.

The record will show that Halak stopped 37 of 38 shots and won first star of the game (someone had to). But it was not as if he was called upon to make many great saves as much as he was called upon to be… well, sort of just “there.” In the “A Picture Tells a Thousand Words” file, the shot chart speaks about 999 of them…

24 of those 38 shots came from above the circles and/or outside the faceoff dots. Seven came from – as the basketball folks might put it – “in the paint.” It’s telling that only one of those seven shots came from the second line (Alexander Semin). The first line (Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Mike Knuble) had four of them, and the grinders (Boyd Gordon, Jason Chimera) had the other two.

Although there was enough blame to go around in this one, what came into clear relief in this game is that if the first line doesn’t score often (Ovechkin had the only goal for Washington), they are going to have trouble getting goals from elsewhere and, therefore, winning. And that is where the second line comes in. Not to put all the blame on Alexander Semin, but his having nine shots on goal to lead the team doesn’t mean he had nine scoring opportunities, as his shot graph shows…

He did get four good looks at the net, but four lollipops from the far left point and another from the high edge of the right wing circle didn’t do much more than pad the shot total. But then there is this…

Under other circumstances, Tomas Fleischmann might have played himself into the press box with this game. 12 shifts (two in the third period), seven-and-a-half minutes of ice time, one inconsequential shot. The same might be said of this…

Brooks Laich has looked as if he is lacking his usual spark in this series. One shot and no points in more than 22 minutes last night.

Then there is the matter of Mike Green. The defenseman looked at times as if he was still perusing the press releases of his selection as a Norris Trophy finalist. He was charged officially with two giveaways. That would be charitable. He treated pucks all night as if they were dirty socks he was leaving strewn about his bedroom floor.

It would have been nice if the goal cam that was not operating in the rafters above the Caps' goal had just stayed inoperable and postponed the start of the third period until, well, Tuesday.  The fact is, this game was not about the Canadiens, who played a passably efficient road game, letting the Caps more or less self-destruct on their own ice (on which, by the way, the Caps are now 7-8 in their 15 home playoff games over the past three years). It wasn't about the two early goals allowed by Semyon Varlamov, who otherwise had a solid game (although he wasn't often tested by Montreal).

If this series comes down to a Game 7, the Caps will be facing all those demons from the past once more – two losses in Games 7 on their own ice in three chances the previous two years, a whole host of wasted opportunities in years past. And they will be able to point to this game, when they showed up as if it was a Tuesday night game in January against the Panthers instead of an opportunity to put away an opponent and move a step closer to a Stanley Cup.

*  Kudos to all the fans at Verizon Center last night for that classy performance of "O, Canada" in accompaniment of Caleb Green and the cheering during the performance of the Canadian national anthem.  That, folks, is how it's done.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 5: Capitals vs. Canadiens

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Game 5

The scariest game of the lot for Caps fans. Outside of a Game 7, the winner of this game is the best predictor of success for the Caps in the playoffs. Eight times they have won a Game 5, and seven times they won the series. Seventeen times they lost a Game 5 (that’s right, 17), and their record in those series is 3-14.

But what scares Caps fans who have been around for a while is precisely the situation in which the Caps find themselves… up three games to one and coming home for Game 5. That has happened five times in Caps history, and the Caps have lost four of those five games.

It happened in 1987 when the Caps took a 3-1 lead into Game 5 against the Islanders. The Caps lost Game 5 at Capital Centre, 4-2. That was followed by a 5-4 loss on Long Island, a game that served as a harbinger of things to come in that the game-winning goal was scored by Pat Lafontaine. The teams returned to Landover for Game 7, and Lafontaine scored the game and series winner in the early hours of Easter Sunday, a 3-2 Islanders win in four overtimes.

It happened in 1992, when the Caps faced the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second time in the playoffs, hoping to avenge a 4-1 series defeat the previous year. The Caps took a 3-1 lead in games by pounding the Penguins 20-11 on the scoreboard over the first four games. The Caps lost Game 5, 5-2, then went quick and quiet in the last two games (by 6-4-and 3-1 scores) to lose a seven-game series to the Penguins.

Where the narrative takes a turn is in the 1998 run to the Stanley Cup finals. That year, the Caps took 3-1 series leads into each of the first three rounds. Against Boston they dropped a 4-0 decision to the Bruins at MCI Center, but went to Boston for Game 6 and took the series in a 3-2 overtime decision. In the next round against Ottawa, the Caps took a 3-1 lead against the Senators and clinched the series with a 3-0 win at home. The Caps made it three in a row in the Eastern Conference finals, taking a 3-1 series lead against the Buffalo Sabres (with Dominik Hasek throwing his blocker at Peter Bondra in Game 2 after the two were tangled in the corner going after the puck). The Caps lost that Game 5 to the Sabres, 2-1, but came back to clinch the Eastern crown on Joe Juneau’s overtime goal in Buffalo in Game 6.

But while the 3-1 lead coming home is something of a distant memory for the Caps in the playoffs, there is still the fact of the overall record and the fact that how the Caps do in this game tracks so closely with their series success overall. The silver lining, one supposes, is that in six playoff series since that 1998 Cup run, the Caps have not enjoyed a 3-1 lead in games in any of them, so there has been no big lead to blow.

So with all that history of Games 5 weighing down on the Caps (or at least their fans), let’s bring in the cousins for their take on this. Cheerless… Fearless… you guys have seen the Caps just as long as I have, so what do you think? Do they close out the Canadiens tonight?

Fearless… The Caps have outscored the Canadiens 17-9 over the last three games, 15-5 over the last eight periods. They chased one goalie and rendered the other a quivering puddle of head cheese in his own crease and on his own bench in Game 4. The only doubt is how soon tonight’s competitive portion of the contest lasts.

Cheerless… In ’87, the Caps held the Islanders to one goal in two games on their own ice to take a 3-1 lead in games, then gave up as many goals in Game 5 as they did in the previous three games combined (four). A couple o’ one-goal games later – one when kids were starting to dig into their Easter baskets – and that was that.

Fearless… The Caps have the widest goal differential (goals scored versus goals against) of any team in the playoffs (1.75).

Cheerless… In ’92 the Caps made the Penguins look like fish heads in the first four games… scored 20 goals in four games to take a 3-1 lead. Then they come home, and Larry Murphy (y’all remember him) scores the game-winning goal in a 5-2 win. Pens make it look easy after that; Lemieux and Jagr took over, and the Caps lost in seven.

Fearless… There are 11 players in the league who are plus-5 or better in the playoffs. The Caps have five of them. No other team has more.

Cheerless… 1995 – Caps go up 3-1 against the Penguins… again. 20 goals in games 1-4… again. Len Hochberg wrote in the Washington Post at the time… “They are playing power hockey in their first-round NHL playoff series; the Pittsburgh Penguins are at a loss to counterattack.” Well, the Pens found a way. They won in overtime in Game 5, 6-5, then pasted the Caps in Game 6, 7-1, and shut them out in Game 7, 3-0.

Fearless… No team has more third period goals scored than the Caps (nine), and they haven’t played a fifth game yet. No team has a bigger third period goal differential, and only Los Angeles has a bigger second period goal differential among teams playing only four games.

Cheerless… 229 times a team was ahead 3-1 in games in a playoff series. 20 times the team leading the series lost. The Caps have done it three times. No team has done it more (four teams have done it twice).

OK, guys, let’s get to the happy ending in all of this. Do the Canadiens have a chance to win Game 5? Is there a Kelly Hrudey moment (1987) for one of the Montreal goaltenders? A Larry Murphy game-winner moment for a Marc-Andre Bergeron (1992)? A Jaromir Jagr shorthanded goal moment to spark a comeback (1995) for someone like Brian Gionta?

Fearless… Not a chance

Cheerless… I gotta better chance of grajiating the fourth grade this year.

Well, there you have it. The cousins and I are in total agreement. It ends here. Just remember…

Caps 5 – Canadiens 1

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Goaltending Problems in Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge

OK, so who does Jacques Martin turn to now?

There have been no shortage of fiery goaltenders in the history of the NHL. Billy Smith, Ron Hextall, Patrick Roy, to name but three – all of them played at a high-level of performance and with an edge to their games. But more often than not, goaltenders are the calm, unflappable sort who maintain a keen focus on the puck as the chaos of skaters swirls about them.

Which brings us to Carey Price and the decision Jacques Martin faces for Game 5 in Washington on Friday. Price was hardly abused, hardly ruffled in the first two periods of play last night at Bell Centre. He faced nine shots in each of the first two periods and looked for all the world like a guy without a care in the world, tending his own little blue bubble of a crease.

Then came the third period. The Caps had six shots on goal before the period was three minutes old. It was the momentum borne out of a late shorthanded goal by Mike Knuble that came with 6.3 seconds left until intermission. And now, Price was standing in the path of the storm, his nice blue bubble not nearly so calm.

Price stood firmly against the Caps squeezing his crease, but in what would be a curious symmetry to the game, the Caps scored on their ninth shot of the period (making them 1-for-9 in each of the three periods). The problem was that the goal, scored by Alex Ovechkin, came with 8:51 yet to play and gave the Caps a lead.

The Caps then scored on their next shot, a put back of a Matt Bradley attempt by Jason Chimera from the other side of the crease. After the goal Price, who had up until now the demeanor of a cadaver, retrieved the puck from his net and shot it at the Caps celebrating the goal along the wall.

Two minutes, pouting.

Price wasn’t done. With the Caps holding a 5-2 lead, he was pulled for an extra attacker with more than two minutes remaining. Mike Knuble, however, found the empty net with 2:27 left to give the Caps a 5-2 lead. Dominic Moore got that back with a goal less than a minute later, giving the Canadiens a breath of life with 1:18 left and down a pair of goals. Price was pulled again. He could only stand and watch, though, as Nicklas Backstrom potted a second empty-netter with 11 seconds left. Except “stand and watch” wasn’t exactly what he did. As Backstrom was heading to the bench to receive congratulations, he passed the Canadiens’ bench, at which point Price took a two-handed swipe of his goalie stick at Backstrom’s legs.

Two minutes, sore loser.

We get the frustration part, and often times that plays out with extra-curriculars among the skaters in the waning moments of a game. But a goalie taking a swipe with his stick at an opposing player from his own bench? You’d have to go back pretty far in time to find that one (at the moment, we can’t think of a similar instance, but readers are free to contribute).

If that is Price’s mental state as Game 4 ended, you would have to question whether he would be fit to give Montreal a chance to win in Game 5. Sure, there are 48 hours before that game starts, long enough for tempers to settle. But Price has been stewing, more or less, on the Canadiens’ bench for most of the stretch run and was a fall-back in response to the problems that Jaroslav Halak had in Games 2 and 3. More to the point, the shooting of the puck at the Caps and the bench antics seem entirely out of character for Price. That isn’t a temper thing, That might be the product of lingering frustration over the year he’s had.

It leaves the Canadiens’ goaltending a mess. Halak has been ratted out as Montreal’s answer to Jim Carey (with that yawning void over his catching glove), and Price went loopy twice in the space of eight minutes of the third period.

All of a sudden, the Caps’ goaltending looks mighty fine.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 4: Capitals 6 - Canadiens 3

Game, set…

Well, not quite match, but based on tonight’s 6-3 thumping of the Montreal Canadiens, you might be forgiven for thinking that “match” is only a couple of days away. It might have been a 2-2 game after 40 minutes, but the Caps, who outscored the Habs 5-3 in the third period of Games 1 through 3, outscored the Canadiens 4-1 in the third period tonight to cement the win and put their skate blades to the jugular of the Canadiens heading into Game 5 on Friday.

Tonight was a night for the top line to shine. Yes, the top line got empty net goals from Mike Knuble and Nicklas Backstrom, but overall the top line went 5-3-8, plus-10. The Canadiens simply had no answer to this. But even with the top line accounting for five goals and eight points, ten different players recorded points.

As much as the first line shown on the stat sheet, the fourth line of Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, and Jason Chimera had a whale of a game. A 1-2-3, plus-2 night doesn’t really tell the story for that trio. Gordon contributed eight wins in 12 faceoffs, and Bradley had four hits to tie for the team lead. Chimera delivered the game-winning goal by crashing the net and following up on a loose puck. It was once more a case of the superior depth of the Caps wearing the Canadiens down and making the third period their own.

Other stuff…

-- Semyon Varlamov will not earn an NHL star of the night, but he should for the second period performance he had. Twenty saves on 21 shots. Allowing only one goal in three power play opportunities when the Canadiens could have taken control of the game.

-- 16 goals in the last 142 minutes of hockey. That works out to 6.75 goals per 60 minutes. Does Jacques Martin have another goaltender he’d like to try?

-- Montreal’s top line took it in the teeth again. Plekanec, Cammalleri, Kostitsyn went 1-0-1, minus-5. The series has largely boiled down to the significant talent and performance gap between the teams’ top lines.

-- Gee… two empty net goals, and Ovechkin didn’t get either of them. Wonder what folks (read: Penguin fans) will complain about.

-- For all the worries about Washington’s defense and goaltending, and the fact that playoff hockey is played so much more tightly to the vest, this series has been played on Washington’s terms with respect to style. 38 more shots on goal makes for 158 in the series (39.5 a game).

-- The flip side of that is a bit disturbing, though, and that is the ability on the part of Montreal to get pucks to the net. The Canadiens missed only five shots all night, and the Caps blocked only 14 of the total 58 attempts on net. That is an awfully high percentage of shots (67.2) getting all the way through to Semyon Varlamov.

-- That Boyd Gordon to Mike Knuble tap-in on a shorthanded 2-on-1 had Kanoobie doing flips in front of the TV, but Roman Hamrlik looked as if he was checking out and heading to the tunnel to the locker room with that brain cramp in the neutral zone that left Josh Gorges the only man back to defend the play with less than ten seconds left in the period.  Instead of being in a position to assert control heading into the third period, the Canadiens might have been left wondering if yet another chance had slipped away.

-- No player in the playoffs has launched as many shots on goal with so little success as Alexander Semin. Four shots on goal last night leaves him with 20 shots on goal for the playoffs and nothing to show for it. San Jose’s Patrick Marleau is next on the frustration meter with no goals on 15 shots.

-- The Caps finally got a power play goal (1-for-19 for the series), leaving Nashville and Buffalo as the only teams left having not scored a power play goal in the playoffs.

-- On the flip side, Montreal did get a power play goal, meaning that they have one in each game of the series. But the key there is that they have only one in each game of the series. Holding the Canadiens to that has allowed the series to be decided so far at five-on-five, and the Canadiens have not been able to compete successfully in those situations.

-- Varlamov is 27-for-28 in the first period of games so far (.964 save percentage) and 36-for-39 in the second period (.923). Keeping Montreal from getting off to good starts (or in Game 2, to sustain good starts) has been as key as the top line making the Canadiens goaltending look like swiss cheese.

-- Does one get the feeling of a certain inevitability that the Caps and Penguins are going to have to go through one another to reach the Cup finals?

-- Through four games, the Canadiens have outscored the Caps, 4-3, in the first period of games. But the Caps have had a big finishing kick, outscoring Montreal 6-3 in the second period and 8-4 in the third period.

-- Of the 18 goaltenders ranked thus far in the playoffs, three have a goals-against average of at least 4.00. Two of them are Canadiens. The Caps lead all teams in scoring and are second in shots-per-game. Only one Canadien who has played in all four games is as high as “even” in plus-minus (Hal Gill). The Caps have five players at plus-5 or better. You get the feeling it isn’t just the goaltenders for Montreal who are overmatched.

-- And keep in mind, the Caps are doing this with a power play than has converted one of 19 chances (5.3 percent).

-- The Caps were 15-for-23 (65.2 percent) on draws in the defensive zone. Little things matter. Or, if you prefer, there are no little things in the playoffs.

-- That Game 1 performance by Alex Ovechkin seems but a hazy memory now, doesn’t it? He has four goals on his last six shots dating back to Game 2.

-- On the bad side, that first Montreal goal was just a rancid tub of defensive goo on the part of the Caps. From losing a faceoff cleanly (Mike Cammalleri beating Brendan Morrison) to Glen Metropolit getting a little too much time and space behind the Capitals’ net to make a play, to Mike Green and Jeff Schultz both caught looking at Metropolit as Cammalleri was coming down the slot to Eric Fehr not tying up Cammalleri’s stick (all that on display below…

…all ultimately allowing Cammalleri to pop the puck over Varlamov for the first goal. It was a case of just not being gritty enough in tight to prevent a pass, a rebound, and a shot.

-- But speaking of Varlamov, the save he made on Cammalleri with under seven minutes in the second period – a glove save on a shot from the inside edge of the right wing faceoff circle – is one to keep in mind if the Caps move on and face a team in black and Vegas gold later on… that’s Sidney Crosby’s workshop.

In the end, this game – and this series, in fact – was captured in an eight second sequence early in the third period. Brian Gionta beat Tyler Sloan to a puck in the corner in the Capitals’ end. Sloan pinned the smaller Gionta to the wall, the puck squirting free to Alexander Semin at the goal line. Semin fought off a trailing Scott Gomez all the way to the Montreal line. As three Canadiens converged on Semin as he crossed the line, Semin shoveled the puck to Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin treated Hal Gill like a skating pylon, cutting across the grain and leaving Gill flatfooted, capable of only waving his stick at Ovechkin. Ovechkin then wristed a rocket past the glove of goalie Carey Price, and the Caps took a lead they would not relinquish. It was Montreal not being able to compete along the boards to retain possession of the puck, not being able to track down a faster Capital heading up ice, and not being nimble enough in their own zone to fend off a high quality scoring chance that found the back of the net.

The Caps have outscored the Canadiens 15-5 in the last eight periods of hockey (including a 31-second overtime). The Caps have too much history in being up 3-1 in games to say that this one is over. But it is going to take something close to divine intervention for Montreal to turn this around.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 4: Capitals vs. Canadiens

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Game 4…

If there has been a theme for this series so far through three games it is “goaltending.” All four goalies have seen significant time, and…

“If their lifeguard duties were as good as their goaltending, a lot of people would be drowning.”

Simon… should you be judging those TV show contestants?

“Ugh… how much screeching can one man stand?”

You ever hear hockey fans when their team is struggling?

“Point taken… but these goaltenders.”

Being harsh, aren’t you?

“Sit in these auditions… uh, watch these games for three games and watch these guys drop pucks handed to them for the millionth time, YOU try and be nice"

Point taken… but can’t any of these guys win a Cup?

"Let me throw a mathematical dilemma at you - there`s 16 teams left, well how come the odds of one of these guys winning are a million to one?"

Well, there have been some “interesting” performances so far in this series…

“I have seen some bad performances in my time. And I can honestly say that is one of the worst of them.”

Which one?

“Does it matter?”

Well, there is still time for one of these four goaltenders to take this series by the throat and choke the life out of the other team. For the Caps, the task likely falls to Semyon Varlamov. For the Montreal Canadiens, Carey Price would appear to hold the hopes and dreams of Canadien fans to advance.

Given that the Caps appear to have righted their offensive ship (10 goals in the last 82 minutes of play), Price would appear to be the key here. And that is not a good sign. Price as a playoff goaltender in the NHL has been anything but productive. In his last eight playoff appearances, Price is 0-7, 4.26, .866. The only appearance in which he allowed fewer than three goals was Monday against the Caps when he allowed two goals on 23 shots in 31 minutes of play. Twice in the other seven appearances he was pulled.

And it is not as if Price comes into tonight’s game on a hot streak. In the 2010 portion of the season (including Monday’s game) he is 3-7-2, 3.01, .909 in 15 appearances.

Goaltending has been problematic for both sides in this series. The best that can be said of 22 goals on 209 total shots for both teams (.895 save percentage) is that there is still room for one of these goalies to take the bull (or the Canadien or the Cap) by the horns and make this series his own.

For the 28th time in franchise history, the Capitals play a Game 4 in a seven-game playoff series. Some trivia…

-- Record in Games 4: 14-13
-- Series record in Games 4 won: 7-7
-- Series record in Games 4 lost: 2-11 (twice it was the last game of a sweep)
-- Record in overtime Games 4: 2-5 (0-3 in multiple overtime games)

Each playoff series has a personality of its own and starts coming into focus after three games. For Montreal, it has become a “top line” series. The line of Andrei Kostitsyn, Tomas Plekanec, and Mike Cammalleri has accounted for seven of the nine goals Montreal has in this series. As a group they are 7-7-14, but they are also a combined minus-9 (each are minus-3, and each were minus-4 in Game 3). The Canadiens have only two goals from other players (Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta), and they have only four points (all assists) from defensemen. Not a single Canadien is on the plus side of the ledger in this series (Gomez, Gionta, Benoit Pouliot and Hal Gill are all even).  Iffy goaltending and a lack of contributions from down the roster isn’t generally a recipe for success in a long series.

For the Caps, eight different skaters have goals, and 16 different players have points. There is nothing shocking in this, except for the fact that Alex Ovechkin has only two of the 13 goals scored by Washington in this series. But Ovechkin is not the problem for the Caps. The second line of Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich and (pick your poison) any one of Eric Belanger, Brendan Morrison, and Tomas Fleischmann is a combined 1-4-5, plus-1 through three games. The balance that the Caps have enjoyed is a product of the lower half of the forward lines and a defenseman. Eric Fehr, Boyd Gordon, and Matt Bradley are a combined 4-2-6, plus-7, and have 25 shots on goal (the five players mentioned above in context of the second line have a combined 32 shots on goal, but Semin has 16 of those).

And the defenseman is, surprisingly, not Mike Green. Green is struggling once more in the offensive end in the post-season: 0-1-1, plus-1. And, he has been on the ice for five of the nine Montreal goals scored thus far (the silver lining in that cloud is that he was on the ice for four of those in Game 2, one in the other two games combined).

The “defenseman” is John Carlson, who (it bears repeating) is still in his first full year of professional hockey. Still a rookie-eligible in 2010-2011, Carlson is 1-2-3, plus-5 (tied for best on the team) and might have scored the most important goal of the season for the Caps in tying Game 2 with 81 seconds remaining in regulation time. He has been on the ice for two goals against, one of those a garbage time goal scored by the Canadiens in Game 3 when the outcome was no longer in doubt.

The Caps still have lingering issues with goaltending, Semyon Varlamov’s performance in Game 3 notwithstanding. But the Caps have displayed the sort of balance in scoring and ability to get production from the lower half of the forward lines to present serious problems for Montreal’s defense and goaltending, neither of which have shown brightly through the first three games, except their ability to contain Ovechkin.

In Game 4, Montreal has to get a realization of the considerable potential Carey Price has in goal. He is going to have to make the saves he has to make, but given that the Caps are averaging 40 shots on goal a game through three games, he’s going to have to make saves on shots he shouldn’t be expected to stop, too. And, the Canadiens are going to have to get production out of more than the first line.

For the Caps, if the second line shows up, this could be a quick and quiet evening for the hosts. If Ovechkin breaks out (as he showed signs of in Game 3), it could get ugly.

When you have a chance to deliver the knockout blow to the superior opponent, you had better make sure that punch lands. It looked like that would come true when Tomas Pleckanec scored with five minutes left in Game 2 to give Montreal a lead and a bead on a 2-0 games lead. But they let the Caps off the canvas and find that their job now much more difficult -- to somehow grab momentum back from an opponent that seems to have awakened from their Game 1 slumber and asserted itself as the better team.

It will be a difficult job, and frankly, we don’t see much in the Canadiens’ play to suggest that they will be able to pull it off.

Caps 5 – Canadiens 2