Tuesday, March 30, 2010

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

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

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

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

Other stuff…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it over yet?

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

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

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

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

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re kidding…

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

You’ve been at this a long time…

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

More than 40 hockey rinks.

“If you say so.”

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

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

I’m getting ill just thinking about it.

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

Good point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Ottawa: Jason Spezza

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

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

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


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

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

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

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

Caps 5 – Senators 2