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