Sunday, October 31, 2010

Looking at the Caps by the Tens: The First Ten Games

The Caps played their eleventh game of the season last night in Calgary, but we will take a brief look back at the first ten of the season and how the Caps performed in that segment.

The Basics

Comparing the Caps 10-game record this year to that of last year provides the following:

So far, the differences are like night and day, or perhaps more like the Fourth of July and Arbor Day. Last season the Caps had results that suggested a lot of end-to-end fireworks, a goals per game average that reflected a high-octane offense and a goals-allowed average that suggested swiss cheese as the apt simile. This year the first ten games were much more quiet at each end of the ice, the offense producing almost three-quarters of a goal less than last year, but the defense yielding almost half a goal per game less than last season.

In other respects the differences are significant – power play (down), penalty killing (up) – and reflect the scoring differences between this year and last over the same ten games. But the real difference here is how the Caps play the individual periods. Last season the Capitals got on teams early, outscoring them 13-5 in the first 20 minutes. The fact that they allowed 12 third period goals in the first ten games last season would appear to give credence to the idea that the Caps’ defense wasn’t so much bad as it was coasting with the benefit of late leads. However, compare wins and losses. For example, in four of the six wins the Caps recorded in the first ten games last season they had leads of two or more goals four times after two periods. In those games the Caps allowed six of the 12 total third period goals they allowed. But in the four games they lost (two in regulation, two in extra time) they allowed five third period goals. They were not exactly slamming the door in those games.

This season, though, the Caps are falling behind early and often. Ten goals were allowed in the first period of games, opponents scoring at least one first period goal in eight of those first ten games. And scoring only four goals themselves, the Caps found themselves behind the eight-ball after 20 minutes seven times in ten games, taking a lead into the first intermission only twice (arguably their two best games in the first ten – a 7-2 win over New Jersey and a 3-0 win over Carolina).

The flip side of this is that the Caps are doing a much better job of clamping down on teams late. The 13 goals they allowed in the second and third periods, and in overtime through the first ten games was barely half the number they allowed (24) through last season’s first ten.

Special teams

The power play is clearly ailing, but it wasn’t as if last year’s version was gangbusters getting out of the gate. True, the 17.4 percent conversion rate last year’s power play posted after ten games is considerably better than the 10.5 percent recorded so far this season. But that 17.4 percent mark last year means that the Caps had a 26.6 percent conversion rate after those first ten last season. That the Caps are struggling with their efficiency is a cause for concern, not panic, especially in light of the performance last night in Calgary to kick off the second ten games. One thing that one might look at for improvement is getting those power play opportunities in the first place. Coincidentally, the Caps averaged almost precisely the number of power play opportunities in their first ten games (3.80) that they did all of last season (3.82). But whereas the Caps finished tied for tenth in opportunities last year, they ranked in the lower half of the standings in their first ten games so far.

The penalty kill has improved immensely with a change in focus. Last year’s passive maintain-the-box style that left them vulnerable to more energetic power play clubs has given way to a style that will pressure puck carriers at the slightest hesitation – fumbling a puck, turning their back on a defender, spending too much time looking for a pass. The early results have been pleasant. The Caps killed off the first 25 shorthanded situations they faced this season and have killed off 46 of 51 overall. However, the worrisome number on the penalty kill is this one – five. The Caps allowed five or more power play opportunities to the opposition five times in ten games and did so in each of the last three games in the first ten game segment (that number rose to four with last night’s game). While it is true that the Caps were 4-1-0 in games where they allowed five or more power play chances, three of those four wins required overtime. That might be a little too thin a margin to think comfortable as we go forward. It’s nice to have a penalty kill that can get the job done, better if you don’t have to use it too often.

Young Guns

The core of this club is well known to any Caps fan – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green. The bulk of the offensive production is expected to come from this quartet. Well, their scoring was down quite substantially over the first ten games this year over the first ten last season:

Six fewer goals scored represents two-thirds of the total difference in goals between last year and this. A third of that drop in goal production represents, in part, the problems the Caps are having on the power play. Last year, these four players had a total of four power play goals after ten games. This year, they had two. But there are still the other four goals the Caps didn’t get this season that they got early last year. And it is that drop of four goals at even strength that more or less accounts for the drop in plus-minus from plus-14 in the first ten games last year to plus-11 this season for this foursome. All in all, they haven’t played badly, but neither have they jumped out of the gate.

Next Four

The “Young Guns” were the top four scorers for the Caps last season. But a club with as much firepower as the Caps gets secondary scoring, too (or at least should). The “next four” of Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble, Tomas Fleischmann, and Eric Fehr accounted for 98 goals and 202 points. All four topped 20 goals last season. The overall production of this group is little different in the first ten games (7-11-18) from that of the first ten games last season (9-9-18). But last season Fleischmann missed all of the first ten games, and Fehr did not play in four of them. Offensively, at least, this group’s productivity is a bit off from last year. But they are a plus-12 over the first ten this year, compared to plus-6 in the first ten last year. But remember those games missed last year, too, when making the comparison.


The search for a reliable, consistent second line center continues. Tomas Fleischmann, Marcus Johansson, and Mathieu Perreault all had opportunities to grab the job by the throat, but for each the grip was weak. Combined, the trio went 4-4-8, plus-7, and that includes games in which some combination of the group played together, meaning that not all of this production was “second line” production. And this trio was brutal on faceoffs, not an insignificant responsibility for a center. Combined, this group went 75-for-193 (38.9 percent). Here is something perhaps worth keeping in mind. Of Alexander Semin’s five goals in the first ten games, only two involved assists from any of these three players (both from Mathieu Perreault). You might think that a credible second line center would have more assists given Semin’s skills in finding the net.


One area in which there has been improvement, at least in the numbers, has been in goaltending. Michal Neuvirth was 6-3-0, 2.17, .926 over the first ten games. Compare that to the numbers split between Jose Theodore (2-2-2, 2.55, .914) and Semyon Varlamov (4-0-0, 3.25, .884) last season. Neuvirth has on many nights been the Caps’ best player (he was one of the three stars in four of the Caps’ six wins in the first ten games). What’s more, he has kept the Caps in games early when the Caps have had difficulty getting any offensive production (four goals the first period in ten games). In the first ten games this season Neuvirth had a .902 save percentage in the first period of games, a .940 save percentage in the second, third, and overtime.


A team dresses 18 skaters a night. Through the first ten games the Caps dressed 24 skaters, and only 13 dressed for all ten games. Only four defensemen dressed for all 10 games. Even if one expected that John Erskine and Tyler Sloan would be splitting appearances at the number six spot, you would not have expected them to share the ice in eight of the ten contests. That was the result of Mike Green missing a pair of games and Tom Poti missing six games.

In the end…

The Caps were 6-4-0 in the first ten. That’s the bottom line. The 12 points is not much removed from the ten-game total last year (6-2-2 for 14 points). It is a pace for 98 points; not the 121-point pace of last year, perhaps, but not chopped liver, either. Given the nicks and dents suffered so far, it isn’t an altogether bad place to be after ten games. But there are things to keep in mind as the Caps embark on their next ten. The power play needs to improve. Certainly the results against Calgary on Saturday were encouraging, but the Caps need to build on that.

If they are successful in that regard, it is likely to be reflected in better numbers for the Young Guns than those they put up in the first ten. You would like to see Mike Knuble shake loose, too. He hasn’t scored a goal since opening night.

In general the Caps need to get off to better starts. Yeah, they’re not out of any game with that offense, but getting outscored 10-4 in the first period generally is hard on the goalies and is no guarantee that the offense will wake up in the second and third periods.

The big problem going forward that might not be as fixable as the others is the second line center situation. Fleischmann, Perreault, and Johansson have not looked settled in that role, and it is at least an open question whether any of them will take a stronger hold on the position. How that situation unfolds will be among the more interesting things to watch as the Caps head forward to their next ten games.

A TWO-point night -- Game 11: Caps 7 - Flames 2


Welcome to “Nightmare on Saddledome Rise.” That’s what it must have looked like to the Calgary Flames on this Devils Night as the Caps treated the Flames to a 2-0 lead early, then unleashed a horror show in the middle 20 minutes on their way to a 7-2 decision.

Calgary got two goals early, largely the product of poor defense in front of Caps’ goaltender Michal Neuvirth. Olli Jokinen got one in the first minute of play, threading his way between defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner to deflect a shot off the stick of Jay Bouwmeester past Neuvirth. Curtis Glencross got one a little more than ten minutes later when he was allowed to skate free and easy through the neutral zone, and then with defenseman Brian Fahey backing off to defend a developing two on one, he roofed a shot over Neuvirth’s glove to give the Flames a two-goal lead. Caps fans might be forgiven for thinking that the dull funk that was the Minnesota game on Thursday was carrying over into this one.

It might have been that way, but Neuvirth was making saves after defensive breakdowns to keep the Caps in it. Then, with under five minutes to go in the period Alex Ovechkin sent a long stretch pass from the faceoff circle in his own end to the Calgary blue line where Brooks Laich collected it and skated in. Laich dropped the puck for Mike Green, who found Nicklas Backstrom skating down the right side. Backstrom wristed the puck into the back of the net before goalie Miikka Kiprusoff could get across the crease, and the lead was halved. That would be a mere forshadowing of horrors to come in the second period…

-- At 1:54, the Flames took a too many men on the ice penalty (cue the eerie music)

-- At 2:16 Glencross took a ghastly penalty in tripping Mike Green in front of the Caps’ net (shrieks in the background)

-- At 3:43 on the 5-on-3 portion of the power play Alex Ovechkin one-timed a Mike Green feed past Kiprusoff, who couldn’t cheat on the pass because Green was left with too much of a possible shooting lane.

-- 12 seconds later, Ovechkin again, converting the back-half of the power play by wristing a shot past Kiprusoff…Caps take the lead.

-- 10:28, Mike Green steaming down the middle, taking a feed from Alexander Semin and roofing the puck over Kiprusoff.

-- 13 seconds later, Matt Bradley got credit for a goal that Flames defenseman Cory Sarich shot into his own net off Bradley.

-- Barely three minutes later Alex Ovechkin skated down the middle of the Calgary defense, and with Kiprusoff locked onto Ovechkin in anticipation of the shot, Ovechkin slid the puck over the Alexander Semin, who sent the puck past a sprawling Kiprusoff.

-- Just before the end of the period, David Steckel beat Mark Giordano to a loose puck on a Flames power play, and then took off with nothing but clear ice ahead. Giordano tried to catch up and hang on for dear life, but merely succeeded in denying Steckel a clear scoring chance. A penalty shot was called, and Steckel scored when relief goalie Henrik Karlsson – a six-foot five-inch goalie – did his best 1970’s stack the pads routine before Steckel had begun to shoot. Steckel had only to lift the puck over the laid-out goalie, and he did just that, the bottle-popper capping a six-goal second period.

Coach Sutter?...

That ended the competitive portion of the evening, leaving the crowd to contemplate their favorites giving up four, five, and then seven goals over their last three games. For Caps fans, it was “where had this been?” It was the first time that the Caps scored more than three goals in a game since pounding the New Jersey Devils by the same 7-2 margin in Game 2 of the season.

Other stuff…

-- It was a “Young Guns” night… Ovechkin was 2-1-3, Backstrom was 1-3-4, Semin was 1-2-3, and Green was 1-2-3. A combined 5-8-13, plus-4 is a very good night.

-- Going 3-for-4 on the power play was the first three-power play goal night since getting three (in nine chances) against the Rangers last February 4th.

-- The two power play goals for Ovechkin were his first two of the year and his first two-power play goal night since getting a pair against the Islanders on January 19, 2009.

-- Michal Neuvirth allowed a goal on the second shot he faced, and then allowed only one on the last 27 shots he faced. It is part of a trend. So far this season Neuvirth has allowed 11 goals on 108 shots in the first period (.899 save percentage), only nine goals on 164 shots thereafter (.945 save percentage).

-- In the first period it looked as if it was a practice, and the drill du jour was defending 2-on-1’s. The Flames had no fewer than four such odd man breaks in the first period, scoring on one of them.

-- There weren’t many of those odd-man breaks after the first period, which is perhaps why the Flames could register only 13 shots in the second and third periods after getting 16 in the first.

-- The Caps had 12 shots on goal and four goals to start the second period before Calgary could get its first shot on net 11:14 into the period.

-- From the “good things come in threes” file… Mike Green had three points, three shots on goal, three hits, and three blocked shots.

-- D.J. King had almost as much ice time (9:02) as did Matt Hendricks (9:07), and it was Hendricks who dropped the gloves with Tim Jackman in a brief scuffle. Odd night.

-- We might be wrong, but Matt Bradley seems to get more hits-per-minute than just about anybody. Four in 11 minutes tonight.

-- David Steckel might have had the rare difficult night in the circle (8-for-20), but he held his own in the defensive end (6-for-11).

-- The Caps lost 16 of their first 25 draws, but they recovered to go almost break-even the rest of the game (23-for-47).

-- If Caps fans were longing over the unfulfilled prospects of securing the services of Robyn Regehr last summer, this game should have done little to make them long for him much more. He was on the ice for three of the six goals the Caps scored not of the penalty shot variety and took a penalty of his own in 18 minutes of ice time. Maybe it was just a bad night.

-- Ovechkin gets the ticket to the buffet… two goals, an assist, seven shots on goal, a shot attempt that was blocked, three misses, four hits, a giveaway, a takeaway, and one faceoff taken (a loss). And all in only 18 minutes and change (barely four minutes in the third period…see what having a lead can do?).

-- Five of Ovechkin’ seven shots came on the power play.

-- Alexander Semin was desperately trying to get Ovechkin his hat trick. It seemed every time he had the puck in the third period, he was looking for “8.” Looking a little too much; he passed up some good scoring opportunities.

-- John Erskine and Brian Fahey had about as good a night as you could hope for – 30 minutes of combined ice time, one turnover between them, and both were on the ice for only the second Calgary goal. But I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that a “444” defensive pair is – or should be – a novelty.

-- Speaking of novelty, this whole letting the other team score first and take a lead into the first intermission needs to become a novelty pretty quick, too. Relying on a team’s utter collapse in the second period (as was the case in allowing two goals to New Jersey in the home opener before getting four in the second, and allowing two last night against Calgary before getting six in the second in winning both games 7-2) is not a recipe for consistent success.

-- The seven wins the Caps have in their first 11 games matches the number of wins they had in their first 11 games last season (7-2-2).

-- No, the six second period goals was not a record for goals in a period.  The Caps have scored eight in a period (against Tampa Bay in 1999) and seven in a period in a road game once (against Los Angeles in 1993).

In the end, the fans in the Scotiabank Saddledome were treated to the full spectrum of horrors the Caps can unleash on an opponent. Three power play goals, three even strength goals, and a shorthanded penalty shot goal. At the other end, they saw the quiet style of Michal Neuvirth, who has given the Caps the chance to come back  games because he has been almost impenetrable after the first period of games so far. Neuvirth did not get a star in this one, but perhaps he should have. If he did not have the first period he had, foiling those two-on-one rushes, the Caps would have had too deep a hole out of which they could dig in the second and third periods when the stars of the game – Ovechkin, Green, and Backstrom – could do their work.

Still, as much as it was a team problem in the first (ten different Caps skaters were on the ice for the two Calgary goals), it was a team effort in the second and third to steamroll the Flames into the Saddledome ice. The Caps seem never to be truly out of a game with an offense that can turn scoreboards into a blinking frenzy. But it would be nice if they did this to bury teams early more often than having to come back from multi-goal deficits. But four points on a three-game road trip has to be considered a success.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Flames, October 30th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Tonight the Capitals look to get back in the left column in the standings as they travel to Calgary on the last leg of their three-game road trip to take on the Flames. Calgary is another one of those clubs the Caps do not play often, and it is a city they visit even less…

“Hi there.”


Uh, hello… can I help you?

“Well, maybe we can help you.”

“Yeah, I’m ‘Cal’”

“And I’m 'Gary'…we’re the guys the town was named after.”


“Yeah, sort of like that whole ‘Romulus and Remus’ thing and ‘Rome?’”

So Calgary is…

“The Rome of Alberta, yes.”

I never would have guessed.

“Oh, the similarities are there all around.”

“Yeah…Rome is the biggest city in Italy, Calgary is the biggest city between Toronto and Vancouver.”

“Rome has the Coliseum, Calgary has the Scotiabank Saddledome.”

“And then there are the rivers…Rome has the Tiber, we have the Bow.”

"Rome had Julius Caesar, Calgary has the ‘Bloody Caesar,’ first made in Calgary.”

You don’t say…

“Oh, yeah…and then there is the Calgary cuisine, but let us have you listen to a real expert in that area.”

Oh, and who is this?

“We’d like you to meet our sister, ‘Alberta.’”

Let me guess…the province is named for her.

“How’d you guess?!”

Well, it seems Bloody Caesars are flowing freely in the prairies, but we have a game to look forward to, so let’s get on with it. The Caps are coming off a disappointing 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, and tonight is their chance to salvage a winning road trip. As we noted, the Caps do not play this club often (30-40-13 in franchise history) and has had little success on Flames’ ice (8-25-7 overall). The Caps have not won in Calgary since taking a 4-2 decision exactly four years ago this day. No Capital currently on the roster had a goal that night, two having been scored by Richard Zednik and the other two by Dainius Zubrus. Former goalie Olaf Kolzig stopped 37 of 39 shots in the win. Alex Ovechkin did, however, have a pair of assists, so there is some memory of winning out west. Only six players on that late October club currently skate for the Caps – Ovechkin, Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, Brooks Laich, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green.

As for Calgary and the present, the Flames dropped a wild 6-5 decision to Colorado on Thursday after winning three in a row. The overall numbers for the Flames look like this…

The Flames might have the appearance of being in a defensive rut. They allowed ten goals in their last two games after shutting out San Jose. On the other hand, the Flames might have sacrificed a game to get a “correction.” Goalie Mikka Kiprusoff had played in eight of the Flames’ first nine games, and after posting the shutout against San Jose last Sunday, was lit up for four goals in a shootout win over Edmonton on Tuesday. That might have been the hint to give Kiprusoff a breather in favor of Henrik Karlsson, who held Columbus to two goals in his only appearance this season so far. Coach Brent Sutter sent Karlsson out against Colorado on Thursday, and the rookie was roughed up for six goals on 36 shots in the loss. But Kiprusoff should be rested and ready to face the Caps tonight. He brings a 2-2, 2.44, .912 career record against Caps into this game.

This is Jarome Iginla’s 14th season in the National Hockey League. Let that sink in a moment. At least for us, it seems like only yesterday that Iginla was breaking into the league, a combination of goal scoring and glass shattering skill, not unlike a certain youngster from Moscow who would break into the league almost a decade later. But we might be seeing the effects of more than 1,000 games in the NHL on Iginla’s production. Since posting 50 goals in the 2007-2008 season, his goal scoring dipped to 35 in 2008-2009 and 32 goals last year. He has only two in ten games so far this year. Iginla has been a remarkably durable player for one who plays with such a physical edge. He has played in all 82 games in seven of his 13 seasons before this one and had played in all ten games for the Flames thus far. In 16 career games against the Caps Iginla is 6-9-15, including goals in three of the last four games he has played against Washington.

Bet you didn’t have “Rene Bourque” as the Flames’ leading scorer ten games in. But that’s who tops the points ranking for the Flames at the moment. In fact, Bourque comes into this game as one of the hottest players in the league having recorded five goals (including a hat trick) and three assists in his last four games. It is not what Bourque is best known for, at least in terms of his history against the Caps, against whom he is 2-2-4 in four games with 19 penalty minutes. The entire total of penalty minutes came in this sequence…

Jay Bouwmeester continues to be an enigma. In 92 games with the Flames since being traded to the Flames from Florida in June 2009 he is 4-28-32, even. And he has not been an impact defenseman at the other end of the ice, either. Hardly the stuff one might expect of the third-highest paid defenseman (cap hit) in the league. He had a grim start to this season, posting no points and a minus-2 in his first four games. But he was part of a 1-0 shutout effort against Nashville on October 19th (plus-1 in the 1-0 decision) and including that game is 1-2-3, plus-6 in six games. Including his career in Florida he is 6-13-19 in 39 games against the Caps.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Calgary: Brendan Morrison

We saw this movie last season. As a Capital in 2009-2010 Morrison was 3-5-8, plus-5 in his first ten games. Through his first ten games this season he is 3-6-9, plus-2. The thing is, in his last 64 games with the Caps last season he was 9-25-34, minus-3 and scored only three goals after December 3rd, covering 47 games. Whether that will happen to Morrison in a Flames uniform this year one cannot say. But for the moment he is on a run with points in five of his last seven games, including a two-goal game against Edmonton last Tuesday. In ten career games against the Caps he is 2-5-7.

Washington: Mike Green/Jeff Schultz

The top-pair for the Caps returns to their home town for this one. But the reason they get highlighted here is that there is going to be pressure on them at both ends of the ice. On offense, the question is whether Green is still suffering lingering effects from his recent injury. He logged more than 30 minutes in his last game (the 2-1 loss to Minnesota) and recorded an assist on the late goal. But Green does not have a goal yet this season and has recorded only 15 shots in seven games. At a similar point last season Green had only one goal and had 20 shots. Not remarkably different, but still, Green doesn’t look 100 percent out there in the offensive end. In the other end, the ice time Green and Schultz get will be important. If Kiprusoff is on his game, there will be little margin for error in the defensive end in what could be a low scoring game. Mistakes have to be kept to a minimum. One could be enough to determine the outcome.


1. Set the alarm clock. The Caps have the fewest first period goal so far this season (four, tied with Atlanta). On the other hand, Calgary is second in the league with 14 goals in the opening frame. Come out sleepy, and the competitive portion of the game could be over quickly.

2. Pressure late. Calgary might have the second highest number of first period goals, but they also have allowed the most third period goals (13, tied with Atlanta and the Rangers). With the Caps having scored 12 third period goals so far (fourth in the league), there could be fireworks late, and not of a sort the home team will appreciate.

3. Positive Power. Over their last 19 games, including playoffs, the Caps are 5-for-78 on the power play (6.4 percent). They are 3-for-35 on the road over that span 8.6 percent). Sometime, this has to change. There is too much talent for this sort of drought to continue unabated. Tonight would be a good time for that drought to end, but it will be difficult against the sixth best home penalty kill in the league.

In the end, this game is likely to turn on how well and how often the Caps can penetrate Miikka Kiprusoff. And what the Caps might be able to rely on is inconsistency that has crept into the goalie’s game. In his eight appearances this season he has two shutouts, but he also allowed three or more goals in five other appearances. He has allowed three even-strength goals in four of his last six games (the other two being shutouts), and the Caps are an efficient five-on-five club. But we would still like to see that power play pot a couple.

Caps 3 – Flames 2

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Virtues of Patience... But Not Too Much of It

Yesterday, Kareem El-Alaily posted this on the "Box Seats" blog in the Washington Post...

"...the six most important players on a hockey team should be the goalie, then the first-line center (1C), top defenseman (1D), second-line center (2C), second defenseman (2D) and finishing with a first line winger (1W)."

El-Alaily went on to look at recent Stanley Cup winners and their attention to this detail, and at the Capitals and their compliance with this formula to be "strong down the middle."  The conclusion was that the Caps are somewhat lacking, having little in the way of a credible 2nd line center, a second defenseman who is not quite ready to be the sort of second defenseman one suspects is needed to win a Cup, and hanging on to Alexander Semin (a top-end scoring winger who is second best on a club with Alex Ovechkin) when perhaps they should not.

We took away something else in the reading of this.  The odd part of the analysis was that it would seem to vindicate the Caps' management strategy this past summer in a perverse sort of way. The Caps had three issues that dominated conversation -- the lack of a bona fide second line center, the lack of depth/experience/physicality on defense, and youth in goal. A lot of pundits and message boarders out there thought the Caps should go after a veteran goalie (Nabokov, Turco, Ron Tugnutt)...others thought they should trade an asset (Tomas Fleischmann) for a defenseman (Sheldon Souray, Brad Park, Red Kelly)...others thought that maybe they should do what it would take to pry Jeff Carter away from the Flyers.

Well, the Caps did none of those things. And what do they have? Well, had they traded a young goalie (probably Neuvirth in this scenario) and signed, say, Marty Turco, they would have a goalie who is performing quite well at the moment (2.44, .927, and no reason he would be appreciably worse in a Washingon uniform), but they would still have the injury-prone Semyon Varlamov as his backup.  Worse, with Turco getting the starts, Varlamov (who is currently out of the lineup) might have been, or rather his wonky groin might have been, a ticking bomb of unknown impact until he took the ice for any extended work.  That, given Turco's age (35) and the one-year nature of the deal he might have signed (as he did with Chicago), could have had longer term effects on the Caps in terms of who would be their number one goalie three or so years down the road.  And, we would never have had the opportunity to see Michal Neuvirth, or rather Neuvirth would never have had the opportunity to establish himself as the number one goaltender as he has done, at least for the time being.

The Caps also have a defense of some promise.  Lift your eyes from this morning's box score for a moment and look down the road.  Along that road, John Carlson is getting more ice time than he would have had if the Caps had traded for a top-pair defenseman.  He's also getting more minutes than he would normally get given the injury situation on the blue line.  The point is that every extra minute of ice time Carlson is getting now, whether a product of injury or the moves the Caps did not make, is like a minute in class -- a learning opportunity -- that could pay handsome dividends down the road, both in terms of this spring and for years to come.

The Caps have the opportunity to hold auditions for a second line center from within.  Tomas Fleischmann, Mathieu Perreault, and Marcus Johansson all have been afforded an opportunity to grab that position by the throat.  Through ten games, none of them have been able to get a firm grasp on that prize.  But in giving this threesome the chance, the Caps can evaluate in real time where they stand and what their needs are.

This applies to the goalie and defenseman situations as well.  The Caps have the opportunity to evaluate what they have in setting of high responsibility and expectation.  Had the Caps made the deals many fans clammored for in the off-season, the Caps would have denied themselves a fuller opportunity to conduct that evaluation in an effort to find the quick fix. 

This is not an argument to allow the experiments to go on through the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs, and I do not suppose the Caps will do so.  We can see the faintest of images of a conclusion to each of the problems noted above.  First, Neuvirth has the technical skills to be the number one goalie, the biggest unknown being whether he can mentally survive the grind of the 82-game season.  Keep in mind, this is Neuvirth's third professional season, and in the previous two he played in 39 and 35 regular season games.  So far, though, the returns are favorable.  If anyone can find a way to get -- and keep -- Varlamov healthy, it would be a huge plus.

As for the defense, Carlson's extra minutes are a two-edged sword.  On the one hand, you can see the skills he has as a two-way defenseman.  He is tied for third among all rookie skaters (first among defensemen) in scoring.  But he is prone to making rookie mistakes, too.  He is second among rookies in penalty minutes and leads all rookies, by a rather wide margin, in giveaways.  Giving him the extra minutes now means accelerating the learning curve and getting the "rookie mistakes" out of his system, hopefully in time for a long playoff run in the spring.

The second line center situation is a great deal more problematic.  Two rookies and a converted wing (yes, we know Fleischmann had played center in the past) has all the look at the moment of patchwork.  And from our chair, we do not see this situation improving nearly enough between now and April to make the "in-house" option a viable solution.  Sometime, from somwhere, the Caps are going to have to find a better option, in our opinion.

What patience did was allow the three competing situations to come a little more into focus.  If the Caps had made a deal in the summer and addressed, say, the goalie situation to the exclusion of the others, the club would be in a bind -- the unknown of Neuvirth's capabilities having been moved and the continuing problems at the other positions.  The Caps might have pursued two outside solutions over the summer, but again, the question is whether they would have guessed right.  If they went after a goalie and a defenseman, the result could have made matters worse in that they very well might have burned off any cap room to pursue a center later in the year to deal with that problem.

Patience is a virtue, it is said.  That the Caps find themselves with a 6-4-0 record after ten games, despite enduring injury and growing pains, speaks to the truth of that proverb.  In fact, for having exhibited that patience, the Caps have found that in many instances it is precisely those players who got the opportunity as a result of that patience -- most notably Neuvirth and Carlson, but not necessarily limited to them -- that have been the best players for the Caps to date.

The trick now will be in knowing when patience gives way to hard-headedness about growing from within and avoiding that problem.

A NO-point night -- Game 10: Wild 2 - Caps 1

Well, we suspect Minnesota Wild fans left last night’s game happy. They watched their team skate off with a 2-1 win over the Caps. They saw Alex Ovechkin score a goal.

Minnesota Wild coaches were probably happy. They watched their guys hold the Caps to a season-low 22 shots on goal – the first time the Caps had been held under 30 shots on the road so far. They could take comfort in the fact that they broke a two game losing streak. And, the Wild held an opponent to two or fewer goals for the sixth time in ten games.

The folks on Versus were probably happy. They got a tight game with some fireworks at the end to hold their viewers’ eyes on the tube or hand-held device.

No one in a white sweater should be happy. No one rooting for the guys in white sweaters should be happy. No one who signs the checks of guys in the white sweaters should be happy. What was there to be happy about? The Capitals sleep-walked through 50 minutes of hockey, managing a total of 14 unremarkable, unsuccessful shots on goal in that span, giving Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom as much as a night off as a goalie gets in the NHL.

By the time the Caps realized they were in a hockey game they were in jeopardy of losing, it was too late. A goal by Alex Ovechkin with the Caps skating an extra attacker in the last two minutes and Nicklas Backstrom almost netting one in the dying seconds provided a fine patina of excitement to an effort that was chock full of “meh” all evening and not nearly enough to solve the suffocatingly dull style of hockey the Wild employed.

The Wild got one when John Carlson lifted the stick of Chuck Kobasew for an instant in front of the Caps net, but couldn’t keep Kobasew from getting his stick back down to bury a centering feed from Andrew Brunette to give the Wild the game’s first goal. That was bad enough. But the second goal…

With Minnesota already on a power play and with a delayed penalty going to be called, all four Caps on defense were caught pinned within 20 feet of goalie Michal Neuvirth, and all four were looking at their own net when the puck squirted from the clot of players onto the stick of Mikko Koivu, a player the Caps simply lost in the high slot. Koivu threw the puck past the jumble of players, past Neuvirth (who lost sight of the puck and did not recover in time to find the shooter), and with 16 seconds left in the second period got an insurance goal.

Other stuff…

-- Of the 22 shots on goal, the first line had 11. That’s good as far as it goes. But one goal, one point. The search for the “big night” continues.

-- There is no clearer indicator of the problems the Caps are having icing a healthy defense than what is going on with John Carlson. Second on the team in minutes tonight (21:42), he was on the ice for both Wild goals. The best that can be said of the minutes Carlson is accumulating (and the growing pains) right now is that he is going to be a stud in the spring.

-- When we were thinking about this season last summer, Caps fans, who among you would have bet that the surest thing on a night to night basis for the Caps would be the production they get from their goaltender… and that the goaltender would be Michal Neuvirth?

-- Two shots from the second line last night. That is all.

-- It hardly seems to matter, does it? Who plays the second line center position that is. Marcus Johansson is out, but he isn’t really ready for prime time in that role, anyway. Tomas Fleischmann can’t really handle the auxiliary responsibilities of the position (faceoffs, defense) all that well and last night had one shot on goal and lost eight of 13 draws. Mathieu Perreault – one shot on goal, five losses in six faceoffs, a giveaway, and barely ten minutes of ice time, only three shifts in the third period. The Capitals do not have an answer on their roster or in their system for this problem.

-- Matt Bradley had the strangest of games. No shot attempts, no giveaways, no takeaways… but five hits in less than nine minutes.

-- In the “Being There” category… Eric Fehr had no shot attempts, no hits, no giveaways or takeaways, no blocked shots, didn’t take a draw when a center was tossed, and he played less than 12 minutes. But he was a plus-1.

-- “Being There II”… Brooks Laich had one shot attempt (blocked), one hit, one giveaway, one blocked shot, lost all five draws he took… he was a plus-1, too.

-- Tyler Sloan (this is getting tiresome, Peerless)… no shots, no shot attempts, no hits, no giveaways or takeaways, no block shots, and a penalty in less than eight minutes of ice time. Brutal.

-- Compare all that above with the Wild, who got enough from the guys they need to get “enough” from… Matt Cullen had three shots, an assist, and won six of ten draws. Mikko Koivu had a goal and held his own in the circle (13-for-26). John Madden blocked a pair of shots and won ten of 17 draws in 15 minutes of earnest hockey. And, the Wild got their power play goal (the game-winner, as it turned out).

-- Ovechkin played 5:22 of the last 9:48. This is what happens when the Caps are behind in the third period.

-- Fleischmann played 3:11 of the entire third period (four shifts). Perreault played 1:42 of the entire third period (three shifts). This is what happens when the Caps don't have an answer for their second line center problem.  Trust issues?

In the end, the Caps were not a very good hockey team last night. They squandered the win they earned the night before, one that was obtained through effort and consistency… things that were abundantly absent last night. Michal Neuvirth deserved better. He continues to be the rock that the team can depend on. One wonders if this will last and for how long, given that Neuvirth is a rookie (and perhaps prone to rookie moments himself).

The Caps have the look of a “rookie” team in some respects. They cannot be depended on for consistency in their effort or production on a night to night basis. Some of that is the injury bug that has gone through the team. It’s hard to build a sense of continuity and comfort if the lineups keep getting scrambled.

But that certainly isn’t the whole explanation, either. The top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble has been in the lineup all ten games. They have a total of nine goals, or as many as Patrick Sharp has in Chicago by himself. That is not going to do it. And then there is the second line. The big donut with the hole in the middle. One hopes that either Fleischmann or Perreault or Johansson will grow into the role and fill the hole in. But at the moment, that’s a mighty big bucket of hope to carry around. And the defense needs to get healthy, not to mention more consistent. Skating a less-than-100 percent Mike Green for more than 30 minutes (as was the case last night, including more than 12 minutes in the third period) impresses us as playing with a Bic lighter in the middle of a gas station.

We hope these things will work themselves out and that we won’t see such wild (pardon the pun) swings in consistency and results on a night-to-night basis.

Hope is a nice thing to have…

...but don’t expect us to be happy.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Winter...Classic?

Seems the Penguins unveiled, unfurled, left in an alley in the dead of night (take your pick) their version of the Winter Classic jersey today.  It's a honey, a beaut, a real traffic stopper.

I was wondering though...

-- If they were going to try to stuff as many rings on it as possible, wouldn't you have thought they would settle on 87 rings, instead of five?

-- Speaking of rings, what, they cut open Evgeni Malkin and counted the rings to figure out this is his fifth year in the league?

-- Do they really think a dumpy penguin in a scarf doing his best imitation of the first moments of a Sidney Crosby dive is the best way to sell the game?

-- Just where did they find the late Justice Rehnquist's robe, anyway?

-- If you're doing pinstripes, don't they go up and down, not side to side?

-- Why do I have this recurring image of "every good boy does fine" running around in my head and a hankerin' to sit down at a piano and write a jingle?

-- It looks like what they might have had as bridesmaid dresses if "Diner" had been shot in Pittsburgh.

Sittin' at the end of the bar...


-- Even though Tampa Bay is tied for the league lead in standings points, only four teams have allowed more goals, none of them in the top eight of their respective conferences.

-- Are the Lightning this year's Capitals?  First in goals-per-game (3.56), 25th in goals allowed-per-game (3.33).

-- Buffalo and New Jersey have precisely zero home wins between them in 10 tries.

-- St. Louis... hasn't lost at home, hasn't won yet on the road.

-- New Jersey already has a minus-18 goal differential.  No other club has reached double digits yet.

-- Speaking of the Devils, they were perfect in their one power play opportunity on opening night.  Since then, 2-for-32 (6.3 percent).

-- Mike Comrie's ice time: 17:26... 15:11... 16:23... 14:00... 15:08... 12:21... 10:26... 12:15... 7:17.  No goals, four assists.  The latest in the continuing search for forwards not named "Crosby" or "Malkin" who can produce on a consistent basis for the Penguins?

-- Jason Arnott is on a pace to tie one of the most infamous records in the NHL.  Ten games in, a minus-10.  Keep that up, and Bill Mikkelson will be able to rest easier knowing that he can share the record for worst plus-minus in league history (minus-82).  Sore of like "50 goals in 50 games" but... different.

-- Not to pile on (ok, to pile on), but only one Devil who has played for more than two games this season is in "plus" territory (Travis Zajac, plus-2)

-- One might not have been surprised to find Boston tops in the league in lowest goals allowed-per-game, what with a Vezina Troophy winner back on his game.  Or St. Louis second, given the way Jaroslav Halak played last spring.  Or even Nashville and Florida being third and fourth, with their respective commitment to defense and having a goalie as good as Tomas Vokoun.  But look who are tied for fifth... the Washington Can't Find Their Own Zone With a Map and a Flashlight Capitals and the Montreal We Kept The Wrong Goalie Canadiens.

-- If you had the Dallas Stars as the most efficient 5-on-5 team in the league when the season started, go pick up your door prize in the lobby.

-- Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, Ross Trophy winners both.  They do not have as many points combined (7-10-17) as Steven Stamkos (8-10-18).

-- Coming into this season Ovechkin had 91 power play goals in 396 games, one in just over every four games played.  So far... none in nine games.

-- Malkin doesn't have any, either.

Thanks for coming, drive safely.

Scenes from a hockey game...what fans really think

Click on each for special insight on just what fans are thinking as play goes on...

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Wild, October 28th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Caps complete the back-to-back set of their three-game road trip tonight as they travel to Minnesota to take on the Wild for the only meeting of the season between these clubs. The Caps and the Wild are comparative strangers to one another. They have played one another only ten times (the Caps holding a 4-5-1 record against the Wild), making this the least frequently repeated rivalry between the Caps and any other NHL opponent. In fact, its frequency is now only tied with that between the Caps and such defunct franchises as the California Seals (3-6-1) and the Cleveland Barons (3-7-0).

So, to acquaint you with the opponent, in a manner of speaking, we bring you some fast facts about the “State of Hockey,” the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” – Minnesota:

• Minnesotan baseball commentator Halsey Hal was the first to say 'Holy Cow' during a baseball broadcast.

• The Mall of America in Bloomington is the size of 78 football fields --- 9.5 million square feet.

• Minnesota Inventions: Masking and Scotch tape, Wheaties cereal, Bisquick, HMOs, the bundt pan, Aveda beauty products, and Green Giant vegetables

• The original name of the settlement that became St. Paul was Pig's Eye. Named for the French-Canadian whiskey trader, Pierre "Pig's Eye" Parrant, who had led squatters to the settlement.

• Minneapolis has more golfers per capita than any other city in the country.

• Minnesota has 90,000 miles of shoreline, more than California, Florida and Hawaii combined.

• Madison is the "Lutefisk capital of the United States".

• The stapler was invented in Spring Valley.

• The first practical water skis were invented in 1922 by Ralph W. Samuelson, who steam-bent 2 eight-foot-long pine boards into skis. He took his first ride behind a motorboat on a lake in Lake City.

• Rollerblades were the first commercially successful in-line Roller Skates. Minnesota students Scott and Brennan Olson invented them in 1980, when they were looking for a way to practice Hockey during the off-season. Their design was an ice hockey boot with 3 inline wheels instead of a blade.

• Alexander Anderson of Red Wing discovered the processes to puff wheat and rice giving us the indispensable rice cakes.

As for the Wild, this is the tenth season they have skated on Minnesota ice, and their history has not been kind to their fans. In nine seasons coming into this one the Wild have reached the playoffs only three times and advanced past the first round of the playoffs only once, reaching the conference finals in 2003.

This season the Wild is a most strange team. With a record of 3-3-2 entering this game they are among the also rans of the league, but the numbers they bring to this contest reveals a team of multiple personalities…

The first thing to notice is that the Wild power play is amazingly efficient. With an overall mark of 34.3 percent and a home power play mark of 43.5 percent, the Wild top the league in power play success. But here is what is especially relevant about this game and the Wild power play. Minnesota is 0-for-10 on their last ten man-advantage opportunities over the past eight periods of hockey dating back to theeir 4-2 win over Edmonton on October 21st.

The flip side of this is that Minnesota is not an especially adept on the penalty kill. Over those same ten periods of hockey they are a rather average 15-for-18 in shorthanded situations (83.3 percent). What’s more, the Wild have allowed fewer than five power plays to their opponent only once in eight games. They have the third highest number of minor penalties so far this season. You would have to think the Caps’ power play will get its chances.

While the Wild have the most efficient power play unit in the league at the moment (and 12 goals to show for it), they have been dreadful at even strength. No team in the NHL has fewer even strength goals so far than does Minnesota (11 in eight games). Six of those goals come off the sticks of only three players – Guillaume Latendresse, Kyle Brodziak, and John Madden (no one’s idea of a Murderer’s Row of goal scorers) have two apiece.

One home-grown and one free agent are currently tied for the team lead in scoring for the Wild. Mikko Koivu was a sixth-overall pick of the Wild in 2001 and has made himself into one of the top two-way centers in the game. Except for the 2007-2008 season, when he missed 25 games to a knee injury, Koivu’s improvement on offense has been steady since his rookie season in 2005-2006. Last season he set career highs in goals (22), assists (49) and points (71). On the other side of the ledger he has been over 50 percent on faceoffs in each of the past four seasons (and currently), and he had seven shorthanded goals in the four seasons leading up to this one. He is also responsible with the puck, recording more takeaways than giveaways in three of the past four seasons (and currently). In four career games against Washington he is 0-2-2, minus-3.

Matt Cullen was signed by the Wild to a three-year/$10.5 million contract this past summer, giving Cullen an opportunity to return home (he was born in Virginia, Minnesota). He has been a reliable 40-45 point player over his 12-year career coming into this season, but he is off to a better than a point-a-game start (3-6-9 in eight games), a pleasant homecoming so far. He is certainly no stranger to the Caps, having played a total of 352 games in the Southeast Division over his career (Florida, Carolina). In 42 career games against the Caps he is 9-18-27, plus-1. After recording points in five of his first six games this season, he is scoreless in his last two contests.

But for the unpredictable bounces of a ping-pong ball, defenseman Cam Barker might have been a Washington Capital. He was the third overall pick of the 2004 draft, the slot that the Caps would likely have occupied had not that ping pong ball come up “Washington,” and the Caps won the rights to select Alex Ovechkin. His getting a foothold in the NHL has been a struggle. Drafted by Chicago with that number three pick in 2004, he did manage to see his first NHL action in the 2005-2006 season, but one game was all the look he got. He played in 35 games with the Blackhawks the following season and 45 the season after that. He has dealt with intermittent injuries, but the fact remains that Barker has appeared in as many as 70 games only once in his young career (last season, split between Chicago and Minnesota). He has faced the Caps only once in his career withough having recorded a point.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Minnesota: Niklas Backstrom

“No-C’” Niklas would seem likely to get the call tonight. He has appeared in seven of the eight games played by the Wild to date (3-2-2, 2.25, .926). He has been on a roll. In his last three games he is 2-0-1, 1.95 .938, and he has allowed only one goal at even strength. His magic number thus far is “two.” In the seven games in which he allowed two or fewer goals he is 3-0-2, while going 0-2-0 when allowing three or more. OK, so it’s a small sample. And speaking of small samples, he has appeared in only two games against the Caps in his career, posting a record of 1-1-0, 3.50, .870.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

“Hi-C” Nicklas potted two goals last night (giving him three on the year), breaking a three-game streak in which he failed to register a point. The two goals represented his first two goals of the season scored in regulation time, his first two-goal game of the season, and his first two-goal game (regular season) since getting a pair against Atlanta last April 9th. Keep in mind that last season – one in which Backstrom scored 33 goals – he didn’t get his third goal of the season until Game 11 (part of a four-point night against the Flyers on October 27, 2009). That night set him off on an eight-game run in which he went 2-9-11, plus-4. In three career games against the Wild, Backstrom is 1-0-1.


1. Kill, Kill, Kill. The Caps have killed off 36 of 40 shorthanded situations so far. The Wild have scored on 12 of 35 power play opportunities. If the Caps can keep that number at “12” when the final horn sounds, it should be a good night. But the Wild get contributions from everywhere on the man advantage. Eight different players have at least one power play goal. All of the penalty killers will be tested, so short shifts seem to be the rule here. And, that “kill, kill, kill” theme can’t turn into “kill, kill, kill, kill another, kill one more, kill again, what the $#@% is going on here?” Keep it to three or fewer.

2. Traffic. Niklas “No-C” Backstrom is in a zone at the moment. One cannot let such a goalie get too comfortable right off the opening face off. It’s not so much getting shots on him early as much as it is getting shots he can’t see, or at least shots where he has to contend with bodies crossing his field of vision. Don’t make it easier on him than it needs to be.

3. Change Lanes. Alex Ovechkin had four goals in his first four game. He has none in his last five (and only two points). He hasn’t gone this long without a goal since going six games without one in the three games immediately before and the three games immediately after the Olympic break last season. Teams seem to have figured him out for the moment. The sorts of goals he might have scored more frequently last season – skating down the left side and firing the puck through a defenseman or cutting to the inside and getting goalies to move across the crease – aren’t finding their mark lately. Changing things up might be in order here. Every magician needs to introduce a new trick to the act occasionally.

In the end, this game would seem likely to turn on how often the Caps go to the penalty box. If the number climbs north of four, it will not be a good sign for the Caps, even if the Wild power play has dimmed some in the last few games. At the other end, the first line looked better last night in the 3-0 win over Carolina. Not quite all there, yet, but getting Backstrom off the schneid and Knuble back in the points column was a good sign. Ovechkin likes a stage, and a national television audience might be the ticket to get him rolling once more. Last night was a very efficient road win. Crisp, simple, and smart. It would be a good recipe for tonight, too.

Caps 3 – Wild 2

A TWO-point night -- Game 9: Caps 3 - Hurricanes 0

"I thought that was easily our most complete game by everybody. You get contributions from the fourth line, the penalty killing, the goaltender was great – everybody did a good job."

That was what Coach Bruce Boudreau had to say of the Capitals’ effort last night as Washington shutout the Carolina Hurricanes, 3-0.

Michal Neuvirth stopped all 29 shots he faced for his first NHL shutout, and Nicklas Backstrom recorded a pair of goals to break a personal three game pointless streak. But the tone for the evening was probably set by the fourth line of Matt Hendricks, David Steckel, and Matt Bradley. The trio accounted for ten of the 19 hits the Caps recorded, did not turnover the puck in their combined 49 minutes of ice time, won 15 of 23 faceoffs among them, and most important, scored the first goal of the game.

It was a controversial goal, a play that started with Hendricks controlling the puck along the left wing boards. He laid the puck over to John Erskine at the top of the Hurricanes’ zone, where Erskine fired it deep to the left of goalie Cam Ward. Steckel tied up Jamie McBain, preventing him from controlling the puck, which eventually made its way back to Erskine at the left point. The defenseman shot the puck toward the net, where Steckel was getting tangled with Ward. Lying on his side from above the crease, Steckel hooked the puck back to Hendricks, who snapped it into the vacant net, Ward unable to recover in time to defend the shot. Goalie interference? Coach Paul Maurice thought so

"I don't think it's a goal. I didn't agree with the call at all. I didn't agree with his interpretation. It's incidental contact, but I'm not looking for a penalty. I don't think there was an attempt to run Cam. That's how the rule reads, that's how I interpreted it and I think he got it wrong."

Well, here is what Rule 69.1 has to say about it…

“Goals should be disallowed only if: (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal; or (2) an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside of his goal crease. Incidental contact with a goalkeeper will be permitted, and resulting goals allowed, when such contact is initiated outside of the goal crease, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact.”

Steckel and Ward were outside the crease, so the first condition does not apply. As for the second condition, the contact was not intentional or deliberate (Maurice acknowledges that). The remaining question was whether Steckel made a “ reasonable effort” to avoid contact. Well, on that one, where you stand depends upon where you sit. Specifically, whether you think Steckel crossed Ward’s path, or if Ward came out from his crease into Steckel’s path as he was skating across the top of the crease. Hurricane fans will think the former, Caps fans the latter. The referee saw it as the latter, apparently.

Backstrom got off his personal schneid by snapping in a rebound of a Mike Knuble drive from the right side, itself the product of something too rarely seen this season so far – the trio of Alex Ovechkin, Knuble, and Backstrom breaking through the neutral zone cleanly and in control of the puck. Backstrom added an empty net goal in the last 90 seconds to seal the win and give the Caps their sixth win of the season.

All that was left was to ensure that Neuvirth, who played a spectacular game in that he rarely had to be spectacular, such was the quality of his play, earned his first NHL shutout.

Other stuff…

-- With his two assists Mike Knuble had his first two point game on the road since recording a pair of goals against St. Louis last February 13th. The feat was not lost on Kanoobie, who was his old annoyingly yapping self.

-- The Caps played a textbook road game in this sense. Six hits in the game’s first eight seconds (well, that’s the way the official play-by-play recorded it), and Carolina had only two shots on goal in the first four minutes. The Hurricanes would get only eight shots on goal in the first period. If you’re objective is to stop a team playing in its home opener from generating any momentum right off the bat, the Caps succeeded.

-- For the moment, the official NHL scoresheet has Alex Ovechkin having skated only 8:18 last night. It also has him with no shifts skated in the first period. Funny, but the play-by-play has him all over the place. A hit, two shots on goal, and a blocked shot (and that doesn’t include the hits on him in the period). Well, hey…it was opening night for the scorer, too.

-- Hendricks, Steckel, and Bradley each has 16-plus minutes. Do you call them the “Sweet 16 Line” now? OK, maybe not.

-- You can tell Rod Brind’Amour does not play for the Hurricanes any longer in this sense. The Caps obliterated Carolina in the faceoff circle. Steckel was 13-for-17, Backstrom 11-for-17, and even Tomas Fleischmann was 8-for-11. But for a 6-for-16 night by Mathieu Perreault it would have been a landslide.

-- Bizarro World… John Erskine: 27:53 in ice time. Tyler Sloan: 27:52 in ice time. No other Cap was credited (and the operative word there is “credited”) with as many as 17 minutes of ice time.

-- No Cap was credited with more than 11 shifts, which…let’s see, means that Erskine and Sloan averaged almost three minutes per shift? So, how were the beer sales in the scorer’s booth last night?

-- Eric Staal had a difficult night. No points, minus-2, a penalty, eight missed shots.  One of the shots he did have ended up in the glove of Neuvirth on what might have been Neuvirth's best save of the season.

-- Of the 70 faceoffs last night, only eight took place in the Caps’ offensive zone. Only 13 were in the Carolina offensive zone. Not sure what to make of that, given the scoring…uh, anomalies.

-- Mike Green didn’t have any first period shifts, either. At least on the score sheet. In fact, 18 skaters took a total of 14 shifts in the first period, at least according to the score sheet.

-- Seven different Caps recorded points, 11 of them were on the plus-side of the ledger. Not flashy, but a solid effort up and down the roster.

-- The final result will show the Caps winning, 3-0, and that Cam Ward stopped 30 of 32 shots. Ward probably deserved better. He was sprawled on the ice for one goal and left too juicy a rebound for the other. But otherwise he was excellent. Oh, and so were the posts behind him, seeing how they were able to turn shots away rather they deflect them inward to the goal.

-- Hendricks wins the Old Country Buffet award for sampling the entire menu. A goal, three shots, one shot blocked, a missed shot, four hits, a takeaway, a blocked shot, five draws taken. The only thing he didn’t have was a giveaway.

In the end it was the kind of solid performance – a real meat and potatoes road win – that the Caps had not put together until last night. From the goaltender out, guys played responsibly and opportunistically. Neuvirth and Backstrom earned stars for the game, but you could have given a “golden lunch pail” to the fourth line. It wasn’t the Fourth of July sort of offensive fireworks kind of game that fans enjoy and that make opposing goalies wake in the middle of the night in cold sweats. It was more a “Labor Day” sort of result. Well earned from a night of consistent hard work.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

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

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Capitals are on the road this week with games in Carolina and Minnesota tonight and tomorrow, then off to Calgary to face the Flames on Saturday. Tonight will be the first meeting of these Southeast Division rivals this season, the Caps with a 69-44-14-5 record over all in the series. Since the establishment of the Southeast Division in the 1998-1999 season, these two teams have won the most divisional titles. The Caps have won the division title five times (2000, 2001, 2008-2010) and the Hurricanes three times (1999, 2002, 2006). The Hurricanes have one of two Stanley Cups won by Southeast Division teams (Tampa Bay holding the other title).

The Caps are the favorite to add a sixth Southeast banner to the Verizon Center rafters this season, but tonight they will have to face the Hurricanes with a roster that is very much nicked up and filled with spackle. It is not a healthy squad…

“I can help with that.”

Oh, really? And who might you be?


Gwillum…an odd name, to be sure. And your specialty is…

“Ancient remedies.”

OK, I’ll bite. What do you have in the sack there?

“Well, first we have juniper. You chew the seeds and drink white wine to ease pain.”

Just give me the wine…won’t need the juniper.

“Seriously, juniper is good for sprains. And if you burn the juniper and inhale the smoke, it’s good for curing a cough and killing parasites."

You mean it will kill Jarkko Ruutu?

“Don’t know about that…. But here, try rosemary. It’s good for sprains and fractures. And if you sniff the flowers regularly, you retain your youthfulness.”

Well, gimme some of that. Maybe it will help Knuble find his touch from last year. Hey, I hear good things about mugwort.

“Well, the Caps are going on the road, and it is said that if you wrap in around a traveler, it would protect him from wild beasts and fatigue.”

Better save that for the Minnesota trip.

"Well, one other thing…"


“It’s used for women’s diseases, so I don’t know how powerful it will be for your hockey players.”

Anything else?

“Henbane might help. It is often used as an anaesthetic and pain killer. Only one thing, though.”

And that is…

“It has hallucinogenic properties.”

Uh, I’ll take that. OK, so what if none of this works? What then?

“Well, there is this town in Czech called ‘Chodova Plana.’ There you’ll find a place called the Chodovar Brewery, and there they have a ‘beer wellness center.’ Beer baths, beer massages… might be just the ticket for hockey players.”

Good heavens, maybe that explains how the Bruins beat the Caps twice…two games in Prague, maybe they got some “beer therapy!”

Well, no such luck for the Hurricanes. They are going to have to face the Caps with nothing other than plain old sweat and pulled pork. They are coming into this game against the Caps with a 4-3-0 record, and they have two extra session victories among their wins. This will be the home opener for Carolina, having started the season with a pair of wins in Finland, then traveling to (in order) Ottawa, Vancouver, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. They are their own show on The Travel Channel.  Here is how they have done so far...

Carolina has benefitted, if not from three-star worth performances on an individual level, then from balance. Of the 19 skaters that have dressed for the Hurricanes thus far, 17 of them have points, and 12 of them have goals. Eric Staal leads in both categories (3-3-6). This could be a pivotal season for the 25-year old center. Since recording 45 goals and 100 points in 2005-2006 (Carolina’s Stanley Cup year), his goals and points totals have dwindled to 29 and 70 last season. These are still fine numbers, but not what might have been expected after hitting the century mark five seasons ago. Staal has not lacked for production against the Caps. In 44 career games he is 18-26-44, plus-8. Last year he recroded his career highs in goals and points against Washington (6-4-10 in six games) as Carolina went 3-1-2 in the season series. Opening the season in Finland did not appear to agree with Staal, who went scoreless in two games against Minnesota. Since returning to North America he is 3-3-6, even, in five games.

Tuomo Ruutu – the “good” Ruutu” (these things being all relative, so to speak) – has had something of an uneven career. Since posting a promising 23-goal, 44-point season in Chicago in 2003-2004, he has averaged 19 goals per 82 games played, but the trick has been the “games” part. Since playing in every game in his rookie season, he has missed over 100 games over five seasons for a variety of reasons. He had a goal in the two games in his native Finland to open the season, but he is 0-1-1, minus-2 in five games since. Over 15 career games against the Caps he is 5-3-8, including a pair of goals and five points against Washington last year in five games.

It was just a dream. Well, dream might not be quite the term for the 25 games Joe Crovo spent with the Caps last season (seven in the playoffs), but in any event things are returned to what they were. Corvo is manning the blue line for the Hurricanes once more. For an “offensive” defenseman, his offensive statistics have been decent, if not spectacular. Since recording 14 goals and 40 points in 81 games with Los Angeles in what was his coming-out season in the first year after the lockout, Corvo has managed to maintain a 12-29-41 scoring average per 82-games since with Ottawa, Washington, and Carolina. Against the Caps he is 3-5-8 in 21 career games. He is off to something of a slow start this year, though, having recorded only three assists (one at even strength) in seven games while going minus-3 (tied for worst on the team).

In goal, it will be Cam Ward once again. After leading the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup in 2006 after playing in only 28 regular season games, Ward became the workhorse for the Hurricanes. In four seasons after the championship, Ward averaged only 23 losses per season (regulation) in four years. The problem for him, and for Carolina, was that while he was averaging only 23 regulation losses in three seasons in which he played more than 60 games apiece, he lost 23 games in regulation last season while appearing in only 47 games (18-23-5). It was more a reflection of the team around him in that he posted his best career save percentage (.916) and his second best career goals against average (2.69). He has been hard on the Caps, posting a 13-5-3, 2.63 career record against Washington.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Carolina: Jussi Jokinen

Last season Jokinen established himself as a go-to player on offense, leading the Hurricanes with 30 goals, almost twice as many as his previous career high. No longer was he merely the one-trick Gimmick wonder (26-for-50 in the shootout coming into this season). Jokinen is currently tied for the team lead in overall scoring and is coming off a 1-1-2 effort in the Hurricanes’ last game, a 4-3 overtime win in Phoenix. The 13 points he has in 14 career games against the Caps is but one point less than his career high against one club (Minnesota). Last season he was 2-7-9, plus-4 against Washington.

Washington: Jeff Schultz

Schultz is at it again. In eight games he is a plus-4, tied for third best on the team at the moment. And he is doing it while assuming a larger responsibility. He is playing almost two minutes more per game than his average last season, and with the injuries to the blue line in the first three weeks he is what passes for a stabilizing influence on defense. He has done this in his usual quiet, unassuming, technical way, eschewing the big hit (and the big out-of-position result that can stem from it). The result is that his presence on the ice has been a reliable indicator of opponents failing to score. He is going to have to keep up the good work as the Caps take to the road with the defense (and goalie Semyon Varlamov) still battling injury.


1. Score first. Both of these teams have struggled with the concept of scoring the game’s first goal. The Caps have done it only twice in eight games, the Hurricanes only twice in seven contests. The Caps have shown an ability to recover from early deficits (4-2-0 in games where they allow the first goal), but Carolina has won both contests in which it scored first. Don’t give them the comfort of that first goal, especially on opening night in Raleigh.

2. Make ‘em pay. Carolina has struggled on the penalty kill, when they have had to go shorthanded. The Hurricanes are only 23-for-30 on the PK (76.7 percent), but it is that “30” number that might be of concern. The Hurricanes have permitted the seventh fewest number of power plays so far. The Caps suffer having not had a large number of power play chances (33, 19th in the league) and being not especially productive on their opportunities (12.1 percent).

3. All Hands Defense. In his last three appearances, goalie Michal Neuvirth is 1-1-0, 3.99, .872. That might be equal parts Neuvirth cooling off from his hot start and the Caps defense being of the mix-and-match variety with the injuries they have endured. That puts a premium on everyone paying attention in their own end. The Caps might be a high-risk, high-reward sort of team, but making mistakes might result in the odd two-on-one situation that finds Tyler Sloan back and Neuvirth dealing with a situation in which neither passer nor shooter is neutralized (uh, like in the first Boston game last week). Can’t have that. Simple, smart, successful. That’s the road formula.

In the end, Carolina is where it probably should be, given their talent and the fact that they have played on the road for all seven games so far. They might even be a game or two ahead of where most would have put them through seven games. On the other hand, the Caps are essentially where they were last year, before they exploded for 121 points, but not where their fans (or perhaps the team itself) thinks it should be. They are nicked, and even the guys who are healthy don’t seem to have yet found their game on a consistent basis. Going on the road sometimes has the benefit of focusing one’s attention. That’s the good thought we’ll be keeping as the Caps begin “Horse Show Tour 2010” with their visit to Carolina.

Caps 3 – Hurricanes 2

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sittin' at the end of the bar...

Eight games in...

-- I might have thought Alexander Semin could lead the Capitals in scoring (5-3-8), and I might have thought a defenseman would be third on the team in scoring, but I would not have thought that defenseman would be John Carlson (1-5-6)

-- I might have thought John Erskine could be up there in penalty minutes (17 so far), and I thought in doing so he might still be looking up at a teammate.  I just didn't think that teammate would be Carlson (20)

-- I might have thought a Caps defenseman would rank highly in giveaways.  But I would not have thought that defenseman would guessed it, Carlson (third in the league, but he's in good company, behind only Tyler Myers and Duncan Keith).

-- I might have thought a Cap would be in the top-ten in faceoff wins, but I would not have thought that Cap would be Nicklas Backstrom.

-- I might have thought the Caps had been eliminated from playoff competition based on what I've been reading the last few days, I would not have thought that no team in the East has more wins, and only three have more points.

-- I might have thought that at least one Cap would be among the league leaders in power play points; I would not have thought that I'd have to go to the second page of the stats to find the top Capital in power play points (Backstrom, tied for 37th)

Just some early morning thoughts on perusing the league stat tables.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Ugh"... Devils' Style

Seven of the worst 23 plus-minus numbers in the NHL belong to members of the New Jersey Devils' hockey club.  Good thing that plus-minus doesn't matter.

And don't think we haven't noticed Joe Thornton's broad shoulders holding up the rest of the league.  Or last year's Calder Trophy winner sitting there with the fifth worst number.  Or names like Simon Gagne, Patrick Marleau, and Patrick Kane you wouldn't expect to see on this list.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

That Was The Week That Was: October 17-23, By the Tens

Week 2 is in the books, and once more we’ll ask, “how did the boys do?" Again, a look at ten areas…

Record for the week: 1-2-0

After a perfect week in the first full week of play, the Caps stumbled, thanks to losing a home-and-home to the Boston Bruins. An overtime win over the Atlanta Thrashers salvaged the week, but it had to be looked at as a step back. What was most confounding was the Caps inability to get any reliable contributions from the top line. It is a result we don’t think will continue, but if the Caps are to right themselves as they take the road this week, it will have to change quickly.

Offense: 2.00/game

None of the six goals the Caps scored this week came in the first period. In fact, as the second full week comes to a close the Caps are tied for dead last with Atlanta and Ottawa in goals scored in the first period this season. It is a far cry from last season, in which the Caps led the league in first period goals. What is baffling about the overall lack of scoring is that the Caps recorded 119 shots on goal in the four games. Scoring on five percent of those shots is not a long-term recipe for success. What’s more, the first line had 39 shots on goal for the week, and neither Nicklas Backstrom, nor Alex Ovechkin, nor Mike Knuble registered a goal. They didn’t register a single point in the three games, going a combined minus-10 in the process. The high octane offense was on the side of the road for much of the week.

Defense: 3.33/game

The Caps were, if nothing else, an equal opportunity provider on defense this week. The ten goals allowed in the three games were scored by nine different players (Evander Kane getting two on Saturday). And it was another case of getting behind the eight-ball early. The Caps allowed the first goal in all three games, and in all three games trailed at the first intermission. That is a recipe for failure in this NHL, where scoring early is the most important ingredient in winning games. It wasn’t entirely a case of failure on the part of the roster. The Caps were (and are still) suffering injuries on the blue line. Mike Green missed two games, Tom Poti one. And, they are nicked on the lower half of the forward lines, contributing to a lack of continuity among those players most often charged with shutting down opponents.

Goaltending: 3.36, .885

Not a good week for either Michal Neuvirth or Semyon Varlamov. There were mitigating circumstances, Neuvirth being ill in the first Boston game and Varlamov getting his first action on no notice. Still, dealing with difficult circumstances is part of the job at this level of play, and the best one can say about it for this week is that it adds to the reservoir of experience for both young goaltenders.

Power Play: 0-11 (0.00%)

There is no way to sugar coat this at the moment. The Caps’ power play stinks on toast. You would think the Caps are getting shots from the right people. In the three games they managed 19 shots on 11 power plays, and of this number seven came off the stick of Alex Ovechkin, four from that of Alexander Semin. But it is worth noting, too, that Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich -- two players one hopes would be able to clean up loose pucks in front -- recorded a combined three power play shots on goal for the week.  Not having Mike Green in the lineup for two games (and his being at less than full-strength in the third game) no doubt hurt production. But this is still an offense that should have more success than this (19th in the league as of Sunday).

Penalty Killing: 10-14 (71.4%)

The perfect 25-for-25 came crashing to an end in Boston when the Caps allowed three power play goals on four opportunities. Atlanta managed one in six chances to give the Caps a disappointing week on the PK. Again, with the team as nicked up as they are, it is not necessarily surprising that the Caps’ perfect run came to an end. But allowing four power play goals in the last ten power play chances for the opposition is something to be concerned, if not alarmed about. In the week to come, the question will be whether the early power play success was a mirage, or if this past week was just some indigestion brought on by injuries up and down the lineup.

Paying the Price: 85 hits/39 blocked shots

It was a somewhat more physical week for the Caps, owing perhaps to the whims of the official scorer and the nature of the opponents – Boston is one of the more physical teams in the league. But the Caps did record more hits than did their opponents (85-72), and while they trailed overall in blocking shots (39-60), the percentage of shot attempts they did block (24.4 percent) was much closer to that which their opponents blocked (27.0 percent).

Faceoffs: 98-for-175 (56.0%)

Well, it was one area in which the Caps won the week. Washington won the battle in the circles in all three games, but it was their whopping 41-for-64 advantage against Atlanta that contributed to the final result. The difficulty the Caps had this week in this area was winning defensive zone draws. Tomas Fleischmann and Nicklas Backstrom don’t generally get to take a lot of this variety, but this past week they went 3-for-15 overall. Not the stuff of giving them more responsibility in this area. If not for a good week from David Steckel in this regard (14-for-20 in the defensive end), it would have been a grim week. At the other end the star was Brooks Laich, who lost only once in 11 tries in the offensive end.

Turnovers: Plus-3

Again, the calculation here is the Caps’ takeaways plus opponent giveaways, less opponents takeaways plus Caps’ giveaways. The Caps were a plus for the week, but imbedded in the number is the fact that they were guilty of 28 giveaways, eight more than their opponents. And that number was largely the product of the 16 giveaways charged to the Caps in the game against Atlanta. There were 13 different Caps charged with at least one. Well, if you’re going to do something, do it as a team.


At the end of the week (through October 23rd) the Caps find themselves tied for sixth in total standings points and only a single point out of the top spot in the league. Yet, this is a club of which it can be said that only once in eight games did they fire on all burners, their 7-2 win over New Jersey. That game was not played this past week. This week, the Caps did not look overwhelmed by Boston in the two losses, but it was an early-season marker to remember in that Tim Thomas – a goalie they might see down the road – has it in him to thwart the Caps’ offense.

Part of the problem this week impressed us as a technical one – not getting elevation on shots. A lot of shots this week seemed to get lost in the pads of the goaltender, especially against Thomas. That would seem to be a fixable problem. The bigger problems at the moment are two – health and the top line.

The first has the potential of casting a bad aura over the club. Injuries are the kind of things that might peck at a team all year. Caps fans of some standing might remember the 1998-1999 season in which the Caps sustained 511 man-games of injuries, scuttling their season. It’s too early to sound that alarm, but it bears watching, especially with Semyon Varlamov going down for the second time this young season.

More frustrating is the play of the top line, which frankly, isn’t pulling its weight. Their combined production compared to last season through eight games is stunning. At the moment the threesome is a combined 6-8-14, minus-7. Through eight games last season they were 13-21-34, plus-21. Had this group even approached last season’s production in the early going that they enjoyed last year, we might be talking about how the Caps were running away from the pack in the first month. At the moment, though, the Caps are the very epitome of an also-ran. They are just a part of that pack. Fortunately, there is time to remedy that situation.