Saturday, October 16, 2010

A TWO-point night -- Game 5: Caps 3 - Predators 2 (OT)

Hockey is a 60 minute game. Well, sometimes a little bit more, but the point is that as bad as a club can look for 40 minutes, things can change. That is what happened tonight as the Caps took advantage of a weary Nashville Predators club in overtime, skating off with a 3-2 win. The winner was scored by Brooks Laich, tipping in a point shot from Alex Ovechkin on a power play in the extra session, but the winning performance was authored by Michal Neuvrith. The goalie kept the Caps in it for the first 20 minutes, facing 18 shots – stopping 17 of them (the lone goal a pretty wrister to the long side by J.P. Dumont) – to keep the Predators from running away with the contest early on.

The Predators did get out to a 2-0 lead early in the second when Jordin Tootoo knocked one off defenseman Brian Fahey's skate and behind Neuvirth. But that would be it. Neuvirth would slam the door shut after that, stopping the last 15 shots he would face. Neuvirth’s steady play allowed the Caps to get their feet under them and take advantage of Nashville in the midst of its third game in four nights.

The first goal for the Caps was a bit of an odd score. John Carlson fed Alexander Semin in the left wing circle. Semin fired the puck at Nashville goalie Anders Lindback, who appeared to have the puck squeezed under his pads. But in twisting back toward the net, he nudged the puck over the goal line, and the Caps finally showed signs of life. From that point on, they applied the sort of pressure on the tiring Nashville defense that the Predators were putting on the Caps over the first 20 minutes.

The pressure paid off when some good old fashioned (and rarely seen in the first 40 minutes) hard work. Brooks Laich outfought Cal O’Reilly and Shane O’Brien to work the puck out from behind the net. It squirted to Tomas O’Fleischmann…. uh, Tomas Fleischmann, who popped the puck past Lindback before he could locate it. From being down 0-2 and looking like a team that had a club date at a blues parlor after the game, the Caps worked their way into a tie. Over the last eight minutes of regulation it was Nashville hanging on for dear life, their legs just not having the jump they had earlier in the contest.

In the ovi-time…uh, overtime, Alex Ovechkin worked the puck into the Predator zone on a 1-on-3 rush. Cutting to the middle and chipping the puck over a lunging Ryan Suter's stick, Ovechkin looked to have position to take the puck wide. But Suter got his stick in front of Ovechkin’s legs and took him down to earn a penalty for tripping. Just 57 seconds later, Ovechkin was there one more time, firing the puck at the net that Brooks Laich managed to deflect for the winner, a result no one could have expected watching those grisly first 20 minutes.

Other stuff…

-- Nashville pumped 18 shots at Michal Neuvirth in the first period. They were all over the Caps, playing a smart strategy to be aggressive against a make-shift defense. It came at a price, though. The Predators had 12 shots in the second period, eight in the third, and one in the overtime. But here’s the thing – only one shot in the third period came from inside of 30 feet. Nashville was getting no pressure on the Caps’ net as the game wore on.

-- Another reason the Caps’ legs might have been fresher at the end… they took four first period penalties, keeping their big guns on the bench. What that meant was that Ovechkin skated only 5:02 in the first period, Fleischmann only 3:29, Fehr only 2:53, Backstrom only 6:09 (and one minute of that was on the PK), Knuble only 5:55 (again, one minute of that on the PK).

-- That’s 21-for-21 on the penalty kill through five games. The six they killed off tonight is the season high.

-- And if your best penalty killer had to be your goalie, well, Neuvirth stopped 12 Predator power play shots.

-- Don’t look now, but the Caps are now three for their last six on the power play, including going 2-for-5 tonight.

-- In his last 12 periods plus tonight’s overtime, Neuvirth has stopped 120 of the last 127 shots he faced, a .945 save percentage. He has allowed two or fewer goals in nine of his last 11 appearances, dating back to last season.

-- One of the things centers have to do at least passably well is take draws. Tomas Fleischmann was 1-for-12 tonight. He took only one defensive zone draw, which he lost. Lost all of his offensive zone draws, too (four).

-- The second line of Alexander Semin, Tomas Fleischmann, and Brooks Laich had two shot attempts in the second period (at that point, five for the game). It was that second line (Semin getting his on the first power play unit) that got the goals to tie. A big deal considering the attention the Predators were paying to the top line.

-- Not that the top line played very well. Right, Ovechkin and Backstrom got assists on the game-winner in overtime, but the play of the whole line in regulation left something to be desired. Ovechkin took a needless slashing penalty, Backstrom a needless boarding call, Knuble was pretty much silent. All were a minus-1. For long stretches they had the look of a line that was thinking, “oh, Suter and Weber are out there, what’s the point?”

--For as beat up the Caps’ defense was coming into this game, kudos to the defensemen. They had their occasional moments (usually in trying – and failing – to clear the puck from the defensive zone), but they played a pretty good game over all under the circumstances. More than 24 minutes for John Carlson (and taking a shot off the boot that had Caps Nation take a collective gasp), more than 24 for Jeff Schultz, almost 23 for Karl Alzner, almost 22 for John Erskine. Those four did well for themselves.

-- Speaking of minutes and defensemen, that’s more than 110 minutes for Jeff Schultz and no goals scored against when he’s on the ice.

-- Anyone have Jordin Tootoo leading all players in shots on goal? Anyone? Bueller?

-- It cannot go without being said that although the Caps escaped with the two points, the first 30 minutes might have been the worst collective play by Caps forwards in the last three years or more. “Awful” in this case doesn’t do justice to the quality of play. They could not keep pucks in, could not get pucks out, were not up to the challenge of the Nashville defensemen, and created no traffic in front of Anders Lindback.

-- Speaking of Lindback, he certainly has skill in keeping the puck out of the net, but he allows entirely too many rebounds in bad places (or at least he did tonight). And his glove was betraying him late; shots he should have snared were popping out of his glove.

-- Sweden won 14 of 26 draws for the Caps. Marcus Johansson had one of those 14 wins, Nicklas Backstrom the other 13.

In the end, we are reminded of the old proverb that you win 25 percent of your games, no matter what, and you lose 25 percent, no matter what. It’s what you do with those other 50 percent that make or break your season. We’re not sure if this one goes into the 25 percent you win category or in the 50 percent you have to earn category. Whatever, this was a game the Caps really weren’t in for 40 minutes and had little business winning. That’s why the games are 60 minutes long… or sometimes a little bit more.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Predators, October 16th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

“You want to be QUIET?!...ugh…quiet?"

C’mon, cousins, it’s time for prognosticating.

"Go away…"

Party too much last night?

"GO AWAY!!!"

Well, we’ll have to do this ourselves this morning. Seems the cousins got started on the weekend a little too early for Saturday morning prognosticating. They’ll have their International Brotherhood of Bloggers cards suspended for a while, I’m sure. As for the game, tonight the Capitals take their three-game winning streak to Music City to visit the Nashville Predators. This is a series that is rarely renewed, it seems. The teams have met only 14 times in their respective histories, the Caps having an 8-5-1 record against the Predators (3-3-1 in Nashville). Perhaps that is a good thing among those of you who have gotten used to a certain style in watching the Caps. In those 14 games the Predators hold a 37-34 edge in goals, not including Gimmicks, an average of five total goals per game. Nashville, you see, has had a reputation for playing games close to the vest. You can see that in last year’s numbers…

At first glance what is surprising about Nashville is how poorly they performed on the penalty kill last year (77.1 percent). And, the PK has been worse in the early going so far this season (66.7 percent, tied for 28th). Its saving grace is that it has not been called upon to kill off many man shortages (nine in three games). On the other side of the ledger, the Predators’ power play has been lethal – 30.8 percent (sixth overall). But here, too, they have not had much occasion to unleash it, only having 13 man advantages in three games. Overall, with four power play goals scored and three allowed (no shorties either way), they are a plus-1 on special teams. At even strength, though, Nashville has been effective, outscoring opponents 7-3 in the three games.

Nashville could not claim a high end scorer last season (only Patric Hornqvist and Steve Sullivan cleared 50 points – barely). But they were balanced. Six players topped 40 points; 19 were in double digits. That balance is evident once more with 13 Predators having registered at least one point and six players sharing in the 11 goals they have scored so far.

Steve Sullivan leads the Predators in both goals and points in the early going. Sullivan continues to amaze after missing almost 150 games over the 2006-2007 through 2008-2009 seasons. Since missing those games to back surgery and rehabilitation, he is 32-56-88 in his last 125 games (including 4-1-5 in three games so far this season). Sullivan’s hot start is a continuation of how he finished up the 2009-2010 season, in which he did not have consecutive games without a point over his last 16 contests. Including those games he is 9-8-17 in his last 19 games. He faced Washington only once last season, not recording a point in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Caps on October 17th. Over his career he is 6-5-11 in 15 games against Washington.

Patric Hornqvist is picking up where he left off last season, too. Last year – his first full season in the NHL – the Sollentuna, Sweden, native potted 30 goals on his way to a 51-point season. He has faced the Caps twice in his career, recording an assist in each game. If the Predators are to be watched on the power play, Hornqvist is the player to bear watching. He led the team in power play goals last year (10). Hornqvist is coming off a 1-1-2 effort against the St. Louis Blues, his goal being the game-winner in a 4-3 win (a power play goal).

The new element added to the Predator mix is Cal O’Reilly. After coming into this season with 42 games played over two seasons (5-11-16 in those games), he has four assists already in the Preds’ three games played this far. Two of those assists have come on power plays, giving the Caps something else to think about when on the penalty kill. He has faced the Caps only once so far in his career (0-0-0).

The Predators have quite a 1-2 punch from the blue line in Shea Weber and Ryan Suter. In three games thus far both have three points, both have three assists, both are averaging more than 25 minutes in the three games. Weber is the bigger hitter (13) than Suter (1) and the more adept so far in blocking shots (eight to one). Both have a history of being quite adept offensively – Weber has three 40-point seasons in the last four, Suter recording three consecutive 30-plus point seasons. Neither has an extensive resume against the Caps, Suter dressing for five games against Washington (1-1-2) and Weber for four (1-2-3).

In goal, Pekka Rinne would appear likely to get the call, if healthy. Rinne started in the season opener for the Preds, but had to come out of the game against Anaheim in the third period with a “lower body” injury. In his 43 minutes of ice time to date he has allowed but a single goal on 30 shots. Rinne is the franchise goalie for the club. Over the last two seasons he is 61-31-9, 2.46, .914, and 14 shutouts. Tonight will be Rinne’s first career appearance against the Caps.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Nashville: Matthew Lombardi

Lombardi signed a three-year, $10.5 million deal with Nashville last summer, the idea being that his speed and offensive jump (19 goals and 53 points last season with Phoenix) would provide some punch for a club that at times has been offensively challenged. It’s early, but Lombardi is off to a slow start. In two games he has yet to record a point, and he comes into this game nursing an upper body injury that is described as “day-to-day” (what, you were expecting an actual description of the injury?). Having him in the lineup would help the Predators offset somewhat the Caps’ offensive power, and his speed would give a depleted Caps blue line a problem to deal with.

Washington: Bruce Boudreau

The Caps are going to go into this game with a thin defensive lineup. Tom Poti and Mike Green are out for this one, meaning that the Caps are going into this game with second and third pairs that are likely to include Karl Alzner, Tyler Sloan, John Erskine, and Brian Fahey. And, this being a road game, it will be tough to hide anyone from the matchups Nashville coach Barry Trotz wants on the ice. Boudreau will have to be on his toes as much as the guys on the ice to figure out on the fly how best to pair up his mix-matched defense for this one.


1. Play your game. With the defense in the state it is in, the guys who do take the ice have to guard against playing outside their comfort zones. John Carlson is going to get more minutes, but he isn’t Mike Green. Jeff Schultz needs to keep doing what he is doing. Fahey, who will be playing in his first NHL game, can’t get caught up in the novelty of the situation.

2. Helping hands. The forwards have done a better job so far this year of being defensively responsible. That is going to be very important in this one, to help out a thin defense and whoever it is in goal for the Caps (Semyon Varlamov now being cleared to play, it is uncertain whether he or Michal Neuvirth will get the call).

3. Tootoo, too. Jordin Tootoo is that little ball of hate that every team has to look out for. In 358 career games he has 576 minutes in penalties. He has faced the Caps only twice since the lockout – no points in either game, but a fight against Matt Bradley. A disruptive force, the Caps can’t afford to have to deal with much in the way of disruption, especially on their blue line. He’ll be trying to get the Caps off their game.

In the end, this game might be somewhat different than what we are used to in Caps-Predators games. In 14 games between the clubs, the norm is a 3-2 decision (the teams have averaged five total goals a game). With the Caps’ defense depleted and Rinne coming off an injury, there is at least the potential for the over on this one, if the line is five goals.

Caps 4 – Predators 3