Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Quarterfinal: Caps vs. Canadiens

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

We are LIVE at Peerless Central, surveying the landscape, searching every corner, scouring the fine grains of sand that are the bits of information that will lead this prognosticator to provide YOU, the discerning reader with the only pick you will need as the Caps begin their journey, their expedition, their quest, if you will, that hopefully will end this June with a Stanley Cup and a half-day off of work for Caps fans to attend a parade in downtown Washington.

The quest begins on Thursday when the Caps meet the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal round. The Caps are the consensus pick to make quick work of the Canadiens, a team they finished 33 points ahead of in the regular season. These teams are separated by more than just a one versus eight seed. And we’ll take a look at a few reasons why.

The view descending from 30,000 feet… The overall numbers look like this…

The Caps have the largest goal differential per game of any club in the NHL (+1.05). That differential is more than a quarter of a goal better than the second place team in the league, and that team is not Montreal (it’s Chicago, at +0.72). Montreal finished the season with a goal differential of -0.10, which is only seventh best among the eight teams in the Eastern Conference playoff draw (Ottawa is eighth). The differences persist as you break the game into periods, as the summary below indicates…

Special teams… The summary also indicates that Montreal, for all the ink devoted to its formidable power play, struggles at home with the man advantage (24th in the league). If anything, this is weakness matched against weakness – a weak home power play for Montreal against the weak road penalty kill for the Caps. And while the Canadiens have the top road power play in the league this season at 28.3%, it will be matched against a penalty kill that is respectable enough at home in Washington’s (83.2%, 14th in the league). Montreal’s advantages on special teams, while they seem rather substantial overall, don’t look quite so when broken down into their home and road segments.

But where the special teams battle, and the series, could turn is in power play opportunities. The Caps penalty kill is what it is. Overall it is iffy (to be charitable about it), although it is at least respectable at home. When a team has a penalty kill as undistinguished as that of the Caps, the key is in limiting opportunities. And in that, keep this in mind. When allowing the opponent three or fewer power plays, the Caps are 29-13 (overtime and shootout losses counting as losses). But since the first of the year they are 19-5 in those situations.

The Montreal power play in this series might be the single most overblown topic of discussion. The Montreal power play is very efficient. Almost as efficient as the Caps’ power play. But that is, if you will, an “output” measure. Games turn on “outcomes,” and for purposes of athletic competition, the relevant outcome here is “goals.” The fact is, no team scored more power play goals than the Caps at 5-on-4 (69), and no team scored more power play goals than the Caps at 5-on-3 (eight). The Caps scored 22 more power play goals than did the Canadiens this season. If the Caps can limit Montreal’s opportunities on the power play (the Canadiens were 16-17-5 in games in which they had three or fewer opportunities), a low penalty kill rate will not, for lack of a better term, “kill” them. It won’t be the penalty killing rate that will be the barometer as much as the shorthanded situations the Caps have to face.

Full and even strength… Another way to put this is, the Caps have to keep the Canadiens from getting multiple power play goals scored in games. Limiting the Habs to something equal to or less than one a game is likely to be fatal to the Canadiens. Why? Because no team in the NHL has scored fewer goals at 5-on-5 this season. Dead last… against the team that finished first in 5-on-5 goals scored. In fact, the goal differential here is virtually a goal a game (+0.99) in favor of the Caps. And Montreal cannot count on defensive performance at 5-on-5 to balance this disparity out, since the Caps have allowed fewer goals at 5-on-5 (136 versus 146).

If there is something that the Caps are going to want to avoid, it is a familiar frustration to Caps fans – four-on-four situations. The Canadiens finished the season a plus-7 (11 goals for, four against) in such situations, while the Caps finished minus-8 (five goals for, 13 against). The power play efficiency, the four-on-four advantage… it is evidence of a team that is small and quick, able to take advantage of situations in which there is more open ice. The key here is don’t give the Canadiens those kinds of open ice opportunities.

The series… The Canadiens and Capitals each won two games in this series. Three of the games were decided by one goal, two of them in extra time. The other game, although a two-goal decision, was a one-goal game until Alexander Semin scored a goal with 2:02 remaining for the final 4-2 margin in favor of the Capitals. These teams have played things close. Here is a look at the four games…

Yes, the teams have split 14 goals, but how they got there is a snapshot of the advantages and the problems the Caps might have in this series. First, as Bruce Boudreau has already commented, “They've killed us on [the power play]. They move the puck, they shoot and they go to the net. Hopefully we'll be able to stay out of the box." In the four-game series, they were just unsuccessful enough at that, allowing the Canadiens 14 power play opportunities (3.5 a game), with which Montreal scored five power play goals (35.7 percent). Meanwhile, the Caps were outscoring the Canadiens 11-9 at even strength and were unleashing at least 34 shots on goal in three of the four games (they lost two of them).

Goaltenders… The odd thing about this series is that the goaltenders that played the lion’s share of minutes for their respective teams will not be the principals in this series. Carey Price got the call in all four contests. Jaroslav Halak, who gets the nod for Game 1, did not play a single minute in any of the four games. Jose Theodore played grand total of 37 minutes over the four games, but was named on Tuesday as the Game 1 starter for the Caps.

Halak will bring a career record of 3-2-0, 2.60, .905 against the Caps into this series. He has a total of 97 minutes of playoff experience spread over three games and lost the only playoff start he has. Theodore is 2-1-1, 4.09, .877 against Montreal for his career. He also has 49 games of playoff experience (19-27, 2.79, .912, and one shutout), having not lost a first round series in four trips as the number one goalie. The ominous fact about Halak coming into this series is that after shutting out Philadelphia and Buffalo in consecutive starts he allowed 11 in three games against teams that finished no better than 11th in the Eastern Conference. He is about to step up against an opponent several notches higher in weight class.

Caps forwards vs. Montreal defense… It is one thing to have three 25-plus goal scorers on the top line, as the Caps do, but the depth the Caps have is such that they have three 15-plus goal scorers (full year) on what could be their third line of Tomas Fleischmann (23), Eric Belanger (15 with Minnesota and Washington), and Jason Chimera (15 with Columbus and Washington). You can probably pencil in Andrei Markov for the minutes Montreal will need against the Backstrom line, paired with Marc-Andre Bergeron (at least according to a Canadian Press report). Both are big point producers in their own right, especially on the power play, but Bergeron is sixth among the club’s defensemen (40 games minimum) in plus-minus. Given the Caps strengths at 5-on-5, he has to show an ability to hold his own in that aspect.

The second pair for Montreal – Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek – are experienced (more than 2,000 regular seasons between them), but the flip side of that is both are 36 years old. How they match up against the Caps’ offensive push, whether against the second or third line, might be the 5-on-5 fault line that breaks for the Caps. The Caps aren’t likely to intimidate this group by forechecking them into a lot of mistakes, but there might be concerns about the Canadien defensemen’s ability to keep up with the Caps transition game. Montreal forwards are going to have to provide a lot of support to slow the Caps down in neutral zone ice.

Montreal forwards vs. Washington defense… Montreal is not going to ice a lot of size on the top two lines of forwards. Benoit Pouliot is 6’3”, but he is a lanky sort. Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta round out that line, neither standing taller than six feet, and Gomez barely hits the 200 pound mark. The Tomas Plekanec – Mike Cammalleri – Andrei Kostitsyn line doesn’t’ bring much size, either. So, they have to take advantage of quickness against a Caps defense that will ice no one shorter than six feet and not less than 200 pounds. Plekanec, Gomez, Gionta, and Cammalleri also comprise the Canadiens’ top power play scoring forwards (all with at least 15 points), another indicator of the advantages of small, quick forwards on a more open ice surface. It is an advantage that Montreal can exploit to the extent the Caps permit it by taking too many penalties. But here is something the Habs are going to miss that is overlooked in all this power play talk. Of the 57 power play goals that Montreal has this season, Glen Metropolit has ten of them, and he is out with a shoulder injury.

Players you expect to do well… and have to:

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

Let’s face it. As deep and as talented as the Caps are, the bullseye is on Ovechkin. As much as his production, he has to lead by example in his effort at both ends of the ice. He has made great strides this year in improving his two way play, but this series begins what is really the final exam in that regard.

Montreal: Scott Gomez

Gomez has two goals since the Olympic break, none in his last 14 games. He has a total of six points (all assists) in his last ten games. He is the second-leading scorer for the Canadiens, but his 12 goals for the season is his lowest level since the 2001-2002 season, his third in the league, and a far cry from the 33 he had in 2005-2006. Caps fans will be hoping he remains quiet in that regard. If he is, Montreal doesn’t have much of a chance of outscoring the Caps.

Players you might not think about… but should:

Washington: David Steckel

Little things get magnified in the playoffs, and one of the things that will bear watching is how well Steckel does in draws, especially in the defensive zone, and particularly against the Montreal power play. If the Caps present the Canadiens with power play opportunities, they have to take precious seconds away by getting possession of the puck and clearing it.

Montreal: Maxim Lapierre

Lapierre is not a stranger to some of the Caps. He was an important cog in the Hamilton Bulldogs’ win over the Hershey Bears in the 2007 Calder Cup final, when the Bears dressed the likes of Jeff Schultz, Tomas Fleischmann, David Steckel, and Mike Green. Lapierre is a somewhat abrasive sort that is perhaps best equipped to get the Caps off their game. Oh, let’s just say it… he’s a pain in the ass.

There are more than a few observers who think this series will not last long. Well, let’s think this through and remember which franchise we’re talking about here. The Caps have won nine seven-game series in franchise history. Never have they swept one. Only twice did the series go only five games. There are no sure things when it comes to the Caps, but in the end Montreal is coming into the series with a hope (that they get a lot of power play chances) and a prayer (that Halak finds his inner Dryden). It will not be nearly enough against a team with many more weapons.

Caps in five

Your Eastern Conference Prognostos for Round One: Sabres (3) vs. Bruins (6)

Next up in the tour around the Eastern Conference side of the first round…

Buffalo (3) vs. Boston (6)


Game 1 (Nov 7/@BOS): Bruins 4 – Sabres 2
Game 2 (Nov. 20/@BUF): Bruins 2 – Sabres 1 (OT)
Game 3 (Jan. 29/@BUF): Sabres 2 – Bruins 1
Game 4 (Feb. 9/@BUF): Bruins 3 – Sabres 2 (SO)
Game 5 (Mar. 29/@BOS): Sabres 3 – Bruins 2
Game 6 (Apr. 8/@ BOS): Bruins 3 – Sabres 1

Why the Sabres will win. Ryan Miller. Yes, he’s on the short list of Vezina Trophy candidates and a little longer list of Hart Trophy candidates, but it is how he is coming into the playoffs. After enduring a five-game winless streak in early February (0-3-2), he finished 12-4-1, 2.33, .924. He has shown no ill effects from backstopping Team USDA through the gold medal game at the Vancouver Olympics. And his numbers against the Bruins this season are microscopic – 1.71, .947 in going 2-0-2. Then there is the underappreciated balance that Buffalo brings on offense, a hallmark of Lindy Ruff-coached teams in recent years. Twenty Sabres (19 still with the team) finished in double digits in points; 12 (11 still with the team) had at least ten goals.  And that means they can get production from unexpected places.  For instance, Paul Gaustad was 2-2-4 against the Bruins for the season series, his best output against any NHL team.

Why the Bruins will win. For a team categorized as inept on offense and spent otherwise, they finished strong (9-4-1 in their last 13 games). And they might be catching the Sabres about to hit a downturn (2-4-0 in April). There is also the matter of having defeated the Sabres four times in six meetings this year and allowing them more than two goals in a game only once. Tuukka Rask’s numbers in goal against the Sabres are actually better than Miller’s against the Bruins (4-1-0, 1.43, .954). Since going nine consecutive appearances without a win through February 6th, Rask is 12-5-1, 1.80, .938, and two shutouts. Zdeno Chara has saved his best work, offensively, for the Sabres this year. In six games he is 1-6-7, plus-9.  Overall, in the six games played the Bruins have shown a better (albeit not much) finishing kick, outscoring the Sabres 4-1 in the third period and overtime, after splitting goals down the middle in the first two periods (ten apiece).  With respect to the injury to Marc Savard, he did not play a big factor in the season series, playing in only two of the six games (0-2-2).  His absence, while it will be missed, is not a loss of production in the context of this series, one that Boston won anyway.

Players to watch… For Boston, Milan Lucic. The Bruins are going to have to find a way to get greasy points off Miller, especially since Marc Savard appears unlikely to appear in this series. Lucic has had a somewhat disappointing year overall (9-11-20, minus-7 in 50 games). It was even worse at home – one goal in 24 games. If the Bruins can’t get more production out of Lucic, it will be a steep climb indeed. For the Sabres, Tyler Myers. A Calder Trophy favorite and possible (though unlikely) Norris Trophy finalist, Myers has had a whale of a year. But now guys are playing for real money, and this is a different animal. Myers had more points against Boston (2-3-5) than he had against any other team. But in a series that might end up with more one-goal games than any other, it’s what he does at the other end that will be a big part of whether the Sabres are on the good or the bad side of those one-goal decisions.

In the end... Buffalo has more experience in big-game situations in goal with Ryan Miller holding the edge over Tuukka Rask. Buffalo is a little greener on defense, depending as much as they do on Tyler Myers (he led the team in total ice time and shorthanded ice time). Pick any game you want, and it is likely that first to three goals wins. We think Buffalo will do that once more often than the Bruins, owing to better scoring balance and an edge in goal in big games.

Who will win?... Buffalo in seven.

The Columnist and the Old School Fan

Let me preface this with a little personal history. I arrived in Washington in 1984. One of the first things I did upon moving into my apartment and getting phone service (we didn’t have the Internet back then) was to procure tickets for Washington Capitals hockey. The first game I attended happened to feature the Stanley Cup finalists from the previous year, the Edmonton Oilers, who the Caps pasted that night, 9-2.

That was the start of a long relationship with the local hockey team, one not filled with a lot of high points, if you measure such things by wins that matter. Rather, my 25 odd years or so of following the Caps is not unlike the experience of other fans of my vintage. Every autumn brought hope, every spring disappointment. Sure, we could bask in the individual achievements of a Mike Gartner or a Scott Stevens or a Bobby Carpenter (all of whom would end up leaving the Caps in what was still the prime of their careers), but for each brief glimpse of success, disappointment came down like a sledge-hammer to crush it. The upset loss to the Rangers in the 1986 playoffs, watching Ron Hextall score into an empty net to drive a nail into the coffin of the 1989 playoff hopes, the four-overtime losses to the Islanders and the Penguins (any other teams have two four-overtime losses in the Stanley Cup playoffs on their own ice?). And the demons… early in franchise history it was the Islanders always finding a way to snuff out any playoff hopes. Later, it would be (and still is) the Penguins. 

And for me personally, I couldn’t even enjoy the most satisfying comeback in Caps history, when the boys came back from a 3-1 series deficit and the short end of a 3-0 score in Game 7 against the Flyers in 1988 to win the series on the most famous call of an overtime goal in Caps history. No, on that night I trudged to Capital Centre nursing a case of the flu and ended up having to leave after the first period when the Caps were in that 3-0 hole. I had to watch the biggest finish in team history under a blanket in my apartment.  All in all, it made one wonder how one could have much passion for this club.  But a lot of us did.

Caps fans who have come out on the other side from a 25 or more year journey in following the team come by their being a fan in a fashion hard-earned.

Which brings me to this morning’s column by Mike Wise in the Washington Post, the self-appointed spokesperson for the new Caps fan, who sees codgers like me as a little too snobby about our position on the NHL fan scale of value, who sees us too self-centered and self-absorbed with our brand of fandom to allow “bandwagon jumpers” such as himself on board the Caps juggernaut.

Mike, you have it all wrong – 100 percent. For fans like me, the problem isn’t new fans. Trust me (I was there), going to games in 2003 or 2004 was not especially pleasant. The team was awful, and the arena on F Street was quiet and deserted. Even when Alex Ovechkin joined the club, there were a lot of rows of seats left empty for games those first couple of years. But to see Verizon Center now, a sea of red jerseys, all sorts of quirky characters, a team that lights up the night and the scoreboard, and the kids… all the kids who are there with signs and painted faces and their miniature jerseys. No Caps fan who has been around is saying, “take a hike” to those fans.

It isn’t the new fans, it is the “discovery” of the Caps by folks such as yourself in the media who have been here a few years with a hockey team in your midst, but one deemed unworthy of the slightest coverage. There are media personalities in this area who to this day express little but contempt for the sport and cover it out of what seems only an economic obligation to their sponsors.  Fine, hockey is not everyone's cup of tea.  But when you and many of your colleagues jump on board merely because it's the "in" thing to cover, attaching the label of "fan" to yourselves rings rather hollow.

Mike, you accuse Caps fans such as myself of “acting like no one can cheer for a hockey team unless they've read Toe Blake's private journals on power-play rotation.” The truth is, the media have acted in this community for the past couple of decades as if the Caps were the equivalent of an appendix – a useless organ that occasionally flares up to no good (as when the Caps got coverage during the "limousine” incident some years ago), but otherwise can be ignored. For years, the Caps and their fans were treated with contempt – a bunch of quirky whiners who didn’t understand the dynamics of sports journalism, who didn’t understand that knowing whether Mark Rypien eats Wheaties or Cheerios for breakfast is of paramount importance in the competition for column inches or air time minutes.

Fine, there are some fans (we’d like to think we are among them) who “get it.” The Redskins are the straw that stirs the sports drink in these parts, and will for some time to come, whether the Capitals win a Stanley Cup or not. The Redskins come by that rank honestly; they have provided a lot of thrills and memories to folks in these parts.

But after having endured disappointments on the ice, empty arenas, and little to hope for year after year as a fan, to come out on the other side to see a team people want to see, a team people are thrilled to watch, a team with players who genuinely connect with fans – what Caps fan who has endured the bad times is going to say, “sorry, this is our party?”

Quite the contrary. In my experience, folks I come across who have looked at hockey as something of a puzzlement seem genuinely curious about the club, if not a rock-the-red fanatic. It’s a pleasure to talk to them about the sport. Folks who couldn’t pick Alex Ovechkin out of a one-man lineup ask about what he did the previous evening or remark about having seen his latest highlight on television last evening. Folks who wouldn’t have known a hockey puck from a bread truck stop and talk about whether Jose Theodore or Semyon Varlamov should get a start in goal against the Rangers.

Verizon Center is a big place – holds 18,277. Lots of room for the old fan and the new fan. It’s just difficult to see those who would use their column space to accuse us “old-school” Caps fans of holding newer fans in contempt be blind to the contempt they have for those of us who for stuck around.

Your Eastern Conference Prognostos for Round One: Devils (2) vs. Flyers (7)

It’s Round One of the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, and there is a feast for the hockey fan as old rivalries are renewed, new ones are forged, and we hockey fans can now have the fun that all those “March Madness” types had last month with all those first round games. The East has playoff rivalries of the “first time” (Caps/Canadiens) and rhyme (Pens/Sens), of I-95 (Devils/Flyers) and I-90 (Buffalo/Boston). So, let’s get to it…

New Jersey (2) vs. Philadelphia (7)


Game 1 (Oct 3/@NJD): Flyers 5 – Devils 2
Game 2 (Nov. 16/@PHL): Flyers 3 – Devils 2
Game 3 (Dec. 12/@NJD): Devils 4 – Flyers 1
Game 4 (Feb. 8/@PHL): Flyers 3 – Devils 2
Game 5 (Feb. 10/@NJD): Flyers 3 – Devils 2 (OT)
Game 6 (Mar. 28/@ PHL): Flyers 5 – Devils 1

Why the Devils will win. Team Automaton has been methodically preparing for this since the Olympic break. They finished 11-6-4 – not great, but consistent. They did not win more than two games in succession in that span, but they did it four times. It was a case of two steps forward, one step back. Do that often enough, and you end up with a very good record. Then there is the penalty killing. This strikes to the heart of the one ace-in-the-hole the Flyers bring into this series. The Flyers finished the year third in power play efficiency (21.4 percent), but the Devils killed off 45 of 50 shorthanded situations after the Olympic break (90.0 percent). More important is that number “50.” Allowing 2.4 power plays per game to the opposition is the very definition of not beating themselves. Then there is Marty. Mark Twain’s comment about death applies here, that reports of Martin Brodeur’s death as an elite goalie after the Olympics are greatly exaggerated. Since the break he is 11-5-3, 2.01, .921, with two shutouts. In other words, “Marty numbers.” It is the single biggest advantage in the series, considering the problems the Flyers have had in goal this season.

Why the Flyers will win. Look at the record; five wins in six games. And it was Marty that the Flyers torched for 19 goals in six games, and they drove him out after 40 minutes in their last meeting. Of all the teams he faced more than once this year, Brodeur has his second worst GAA (3.34) and his second worst save percentage (.878) against the Flyers. And it is not as if the Flyers have needed a potent power play to score those goals – they are 3-for-18 (16.7%) in the six games against the Devils’ penalty killers. Philly also comes into this game having already played what amount to two playoff games, the home-and-home with the Rangers in which they eked out a split to get the ticket to the dance. And for all the grief heaped upon the Flyers for their goaltending situation, Brian Boucher did not have a bad finish to the year as much as the guys in front of him sometimes let him down. After Michael Leighton went down to injury in mid-March, Boucher took over the reins and went 5-6-2, 2.62, .904. These are not elite numbers by any definition, but things could have been much, much worse.

Players to watch...  For the Flyers, Jeff Carter.  Over a ten-game span that straddled the Olympic break, Carter was hot enough to melt lead.  Ten goals in ten games.  But since then he has one goal and three points in his last eight contests.  If Carter isn't getting pucks to the back of the net, the Flyers are going to have a bigger burden put on Mike Richards and Danny Briere, who could be suffocated by the Jersey defensive scheme.  For the Devils, it is Ilya Kovalchuk.  This is why he was brought to Jersey, to provide an offensive dimension -- especially in the playoffs -- that they have otherwise lacked.  Kovalchuk had 10 goals in 27 games for he Devils.  He seems to have been more of a decoy of late, picking up but a single goal in his last five games, but recording five assists.  Still, he's there to light the lamp.

In the end... the Devils are the safe pick. They have Marty, they are playing Devils (read: “boringly efficient”) hockey. But they also have been bounced out in the first round in each of the past two years. In both instances, the Devils simply couldn’t score (15 goals in seven games last year against Carolina, 12 in five games against the Rangers the year before). Ominously, the Devils’ offense has beaten up on the bottom feeders late in the season (six goals against Columbus, seven against the Islanders), but they’ve struggled to score against stiffer opposition, including a 5-1 pasting at the hands of the Flyers just a couple of weeks ago.  Ilya Kovalchuk is supposed to be the remedy to this springtime malady of offensive malnutrition.  We'll see.  This might not be the most entertaining series of the first round, but it might be the most competitive.

Who will win?... New Jersey in seven.