Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A NO-point night -- Game 6: Bruins 3 - Caps 1

Pride is a considerable motivator. The Washington Capitals came into their game with the Boston Bruins tonight having killed 21 consecutive opposition power plays to start the season. They would have four more opportunities to add to that perfect record, including a 53 second 5-on-3 situation in the second period. The Bruins not only did not score, but they failed to get as much as a single shot on goal on their 5-on-3. They managed only two shots on goal in 6:57 of total power play time. The Caps played like a prideful bunch that simply would not yield that first goal on a penalty kill.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if that same “can-do” attitude extended to the even strength and the four power play advantages the Caps enjoyed? Alas, it did not, at least not until the Caps had dug themselves another hole. The Bruins won those portions of the contest, holding the Caps to only four shots of their own in 6:56 of power play time and outscoring the Caps by 3-1 at even strength to win the game by that score.

The Caps came out flat as a stale crepe in the first period, allowing the Bruins to establish a territorial advantage early. The Bruins had five shot attempts in the first 2:27. Fortunately, only one got through to Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth. Not even a fight between the Caps’ Matt Hendricks and Boston’s Gregory Campbell could provide a spark for the Caps, who looked uninspired on offense and unaware on defense early. Boston capitalized on yet another low-energy start for the Caps by popping two pucks past Neuvirth in the space of 2:45 midway through the first period, David Krejci and Milan Lucic doing the honors. It was enough, frankly, to make one sick.

Well, at least a goaltender. Less than a minute after the second Boston goal, the puck jumped the glass for a stoppage in play, and Neuvirth high-tailed it out of his crease to the Caps’ bench. He immediately went down the tunnel and was not seen on the bench for the duration of the contest. It was reported later that Neuvirth complained of headache and dizziness.

Enter Semyon Varlamov for his first action of the season. You could say that Varlamov slammed the door, but more accurately the Caps did – they slammed the door on any further Boston scoring chances in the period, holding the Bruins to one shot over the final 7:18 of the period. Varlamov was not tested often in the second period, but there were three penalties to kill in that period, too. The Caps got one back when Jason Chimera picked up a loose puck behind the Boston net, out quicked rookie Tyler Seguin to control it, then fed the puck past Matt Hendricks standing at the post to an open Marcus Johansson at the inside edge of the right wing circle. Johansson bunted the puck past goalie Tim Thomas for his first NHL goal and halved the deficit in the process.

That would be all the Caps would get, though, as Boston got a marker from Matt Hunwick in the third minute of the third period to provide the final 3-1 margin.

Other stuff…

-- Again it was a case of getting behind the eight-ball early, and there really isn’t an excuse for this, not against Boston. The Bruins were the last team left in the league that had not scored a first period goal. You could explain the result as a product of a queasy goaltender, but the Caps weren’t really on top of the Bruins as a group, either.

-- In their first three home games the Caps had a total of 55 hits. Tonight they had 33 in this game alone. One might not be surprised that John Erskine had seven of them, or that Alex Ovechkin had six. But Tomas Fleischmann had three. That more than doubled Fleischmann’s season total (from two to five). Perhaps oddly (or not, given he played only 4:05), D.J. King had none of them.

-- 14 different Caps skaters were credited with hits. Those not joining in were: Eric Fehr, D.J. King, Karl Alzner, and Jeff Schultz.

-- Speaking of Schultz, he was finally on the ice for a goal scored by the opposition. A loose puck slid between the feet of Schultz and Milan Lucic in close, and Lucic was just quicker to get his stick on it to punch it past Neuvirth.

-- Tim Thomas stopped 35 of 36 shots, giving him 95 saves on 97 shots so far this season (.979 save percentage). Rumors of his demise have been greatly exaggerated.

-- That Thomas faced 36 shots is not especially surprising in this respect. The Caps were 19-for-27 in offensive zone draws (70.4 percent).  If you possess the puck in the offensive end, you get more chances.

-- Is this April? Alexander Semin had ten shots on goal. None went in. No, it is not a personal best in shots. He has had 11 on two occasions, most recently last April 9th against Atlanta. He didn’t score on any of those shots last April, either.

-- That was the first time the Caps were held to fewer than two goals at home since losing to Toronto 2-1 on March 5, 2009, a streak of 50 consecutive games coming to an end.

-- We like that Jason Chimera had five shots on goal. For our money he was the most consistent Capital tonight in terms of energy. But the other two guys on his line – Eric Fehr and Marcus Johansson – one shot on goal between them (Johansson’s goal).

-- OK, Mike Knuble set a personal record for longest consecutive games streak without a point as a Cap (four games), but he was a stud on the penalty kill. He was especially effective on the wall tying up pucks and springing them free.

-- The Caps had 60 shot attempts for the game. Of that amount 43 came in the second and third periods, evidence of another slow start.

-- This is the third game in which Alex Ovechkin played in more than 23 minutes. The Caps have lost two of them. Are these things related? Well, yes, in that tonight Ovechkin skated four shifts in the last 7:43 totaling 6:12 in ice time with the Caps down a pair of goals. His average ice time in that stretch (1:33) was longer than his total time on the bench (1:31).

-- The Caps had as many shorthanded shots on goal (two) as the Bruins had on their own power plays (two).

-- Boyd Gordon sat tonight. It was the second game for which he did not dress this season. The Caps lost both of those games. They are 4-0-0 with Gordon in the lineup. Happy Birthday.

In the end, it was a better overall game the Caps played tonight than the one they played against Nashville on Saturday. The difference is that Tim Thomas is a better goaltender than Anders Lindback. It was probably a better game on a purely technical level than they had against the Islanders last Wednesday. The Caps had more scoring chances tonight and held the Bruins in check in periods 2 and 3 in that regard. But sometimes you play in a way that is good enough to win on most nights, and you don’t. The difficulty is that the Caps are putting themselves behind the eight-ball early. With the two goals allowed in the first period tonight, the Caps are now tied for the third highest number of first period goals allowed (seven), as many as in the other two periods and overtime combined. If the Caps don’t address that problem, their goaltender won’t be the only one getting sick.

Rhyme and Reason

There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Well...you spend all day at the garage as your car is getting repaired, and you miss all the news. To wit, Anton Gustafsson (the Caps' first round draft pick in 2008) has had enough.  Enough of hockey in North America, that is.  The 21st overall pick decided that he is not enjoying the sport at this point in his career and has returned to Sweden.  The Caps have suspended his contract.

It got us to thinking.  The Caps have had some rather successful drafts this past decade.  The 2004 draft is likely to be talked about as one of the best in franchise history with the selections of Alex Ovechkin, Jeff Schultz, and Mike Green in the first round.  The 2002 draft yielded Alexander Semin and Boyd Gordon in the first round, and even Steve Eminger (the 12th overall pick) played in more than 200 games for the Caps before being traded for a draft pick that would become John Carlson, class of 2008.  And speaking of that 2008 class (the one in which Gustafsson was picked), it also yielded goaltender Braden Holtby, who seems to have a career ahead of him that might be more than one would expect from a fourth round draft pick.  The 2006 draft provided Nicklas Backstrom, Semyon Varlamov, and Michal Neuvirth, all of whom play critical roles in this year's edition of the Caps.

But like the little girl with the curl, when the Caps have been bad in the draft, they have been horrid this past decade, especially with respect to high round picks.  And there seems to be a bit of a pattern to it.  In 2001 the Caps selected Nathan Paetsch in the second round (58th overall) and Owen Fussey in the third round (90th overall).  Paetsch never played a game for the Caps and in fact went back into the draft pool in 2003, where he was taken in the seventh round by Buffalo.  Fussey played in four games for the Caps (all in the godforsaken 2003-2004 season) and has not played professionally since 2008, with Columbia in the ECHL.

The 2003 draft was the "We Coulda Had Getzlaf" draft that Caps fans are fond of recalling (not fondly).  While Eric Fehr (1st round/18th overall) is in the process of fashioning himself a career as an efficient goal scorer, he is not in the class of Ryan Getzlaf, taken one spot later by Anaheim.  But Fehr was the high point of that draft for the Caps.  Steve Werner (3rd round/83rd overall) has yet to dress for an NHL game.  He bounced back and forth between the ECHL and AHL before heading off to Europe this season with the Rosenheim Star Bulls.  In fact, none of the other five players taken in that draft by the Caps have played in an NHL game.

2005 is the draft that time forgot.  Or at least it is the draft that Caps fans want to forget.  Defenseman Sasha Pokulok was taken with the 14th overall pick.  Injuries derailed his career, but he was seen as a project (or a headscratcher, take your pick) from the time of his selection.  Never having played an NHL game (or more than 44 games in any of his four AHL seasons), he is now playing with the DEG Metro Stars in Europe.  Defenseman Joe Finley was taken with the 27th overall pick in 2005.  After his being drafted, he skated for the University of North Dakota for four years.  But injuries and a change in the game at the NHL level has put the brakes on his development.  A 6'7, 250 pound defenseman might have been just the ticket for the NHL in, say, 2004.  That game was more physical (read: clutch, grab, and abuse), while the current game is more oriented toward speed and skating.  Whether Finley can adapt and thrive in this game is the unresolved question.  At the moment this resolution is on hold as he skates for Hershey in the AHL.  Of the rest of that class, only Tim Kennedy (6th round/181st overall) has played in the NHL, but he didn't do it for Washington.  His 79 games of NHL experience came with the Buffalo Sabres.  He is currently playing for the Hartford Wolf Pack in the AHL.

In 2007 the Caps selected Karl Alzner in the first round (fifth overall), a player of potential to be a top-four defenseman for years to come.  After that?  Well...Josh Godfrey was taken in the second round (34th overall) largely on the basis of a cannon of a shot from the point.  The word that comes to mind immediately with respect to Godfrey's progress so far is "disappointing."  He has not been able to stick with the Hershey Bears in either of his first two pro seasons.  He is currently in South Carolina with the Stingrays, and it would be surprising if he was re-upped with the Caps when his current contract expires at the end of this season.  Theo Ruth's biggest claim to fame thus far is as the answer to a trivia question, "who was traded by the Caps to obtain Sergei Fedorov?"  The second rounder (46th overall pick) is just reaching the AHL this season after completing three years at Notre Dame.  Phil DeSimone, taken in the third round by the Caps in 2007 (84th overall) is in his senior season at the University of New Hampshire.

So let's recap the highlights (or lowlights) of the top three rounds since 2001...

Even years:  Alexander Semin, Boyd Gordon, Alex Ovechkin, Jeff Schultz, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, John Carlson

Odd years: Nathan Paetsch, Owen Fussey, Steve Werner, Sasha Pokulok, Joe Finley, Josh Godfrey, Theo Ruth

The Caps have had some rather spectacular failures in the first round.  Pokulok was a too-clever pick that blew up in their face (perhaps made more memorable as part of the "Sidney Crosby" draft class).  Gustafsson's selection is a disappointment in that it seems to be destined to be described as no more than a "legacy" pick (Gustafsson being the son of former Cap Bengt Gustafsson), and the Caps traded up to get it.

And this is where the history of that pick reveals itself to be frustrating.  The Caps traded their own first and second round picks to New Jersey to move up two spots to pick Gustafsson in 2008.  The Devils turned around and traded that first round pick to the Minnesota Wild for the 24th pick in that draft and a third rounder in 2009.  Those picks turned out to be Mattias Tedenby and Alexander Urbom.  Urbom played for the Devils against the Caps in the season opener this year, and Tedenby nearly made the Devils out of camp this season (he is skating with the Albany Devils in the AHL).  The Caps at the moment have nothing to show for the 21st overall pick they traded to get.

The Caps deserve credit for finding some value in the mid-to-late first round of drafts over much of the last decade.  But like the little girl with the curl, when they were good, they were very good indeed.  But when they were bad they were horrid.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Bruins, A Two-Fer

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Caps return home from their day trip to Nashville last Saturday to take on the Boston Bruins in a home-and-home set – tonight at Verizon Center and Thursday in Beantown.  The Bruins might still be getting their legs under them after opening the season with a pair of games in Prague, CZ, splitting the pair of contests with the Phoenix Coyotes.  The Bruins topped the New Jersey Devils last Saturday by a 4-1 margin in their first game on this side of the ocean this season, bringing their record to 2-1-0.  Their visit to Verizon Center tonight will end the extended road trip for the Bruins before they open the home portion of their season against the Caps at TD Garden on Thursday.

Of more immediate concern to the Caps is the rash of injuries to their defensemen.  Tom Poti, Mike Green, and John Carlson are all nursing injuries to various locations on their bodies (to the extent variety can be defined as “upper” body and “lower” body).  In fact, even this level of disclosure is tantamount to revealing state secrets.  You wonder what the secret is in talking about…

“Excuse me, sir, but I think you should avoid this subject.”

Oh?  And why is that?

“I am not at liberty to say, sir.”

National security?


Why are you staring at me like that?


Let me guess, you’re CIA, right?




You’re very good at this stony silence thing.

“Part of the job, sir…”

But you look familiar.

“I look like a lot of people, sir.”

No, that’s not it… I GOT IT!!!

OK, so it’s not “national” security, but the Caps are nothing if not tight-lipped about the slightest hangnail in the locker room.  So, it remains to be seen just who will dress for the Caps tonight.  The team they will face, though, in the first two games this week is one that was among the best defensive teams in the league last year, but one that also had trouble scoring goals against air, as the numbers from last season reveal…

One of the problems last year’s Bruins had was icing a healthy team on a night-to-night basis.  They dressed 33 skaters over the course of last season, but the key is that they had only 13 players dress for at least 60 games.  And the missing included some very important cogs in the machine – Milan Lucic missed 32 games, Mark Stuart missed 26 games, Andrew Ference missed 31 games, and of course, Marc Savard missed 41 games.

Savard’s was the most serious injury (concussion and its aftermath) and the one that still has lingering effects.  He remains out indefinitely with post-concussion symptoms.  He has been working out on a stationary bike and was working out with low-impact weights, but there appears no firm timetable on when he will return.  That absence ripples through the entire squad in that he has averaged more than a point a game in his 279 games as a Bruin.  Of more immediate import, the Bruins will be missing a player who has 48 points in 37 career games against Washington.

The absence of Savard places more pressure on Patrice Bergeron (0-0-3, even, in three games so far), who came back from a severe concussion himself, sustained early in the 2007-2008 season and which caused him to miss the last 72 games of that season.  Bergeron seems, if not quite all the way back to his 70-point seasons in the first two years after the lockout, then getting closer to that level of production.  Since returning to the lineup, he posted 39 points in 64 games two years ago and was 19-33-52 in 73 games last season.  The Bruins had enough faith in his talent and health to sign him to a three-year/$15 million contract extension earlier this month.  In 18 career games against Washington he is 5-12-17.  According to the Bruins’ media guide, he thinks the best thing about Boston is having a park in the middle of the city.  Geez, Washington has a park in the middle of the city, too.

Mark Recchi (0-2-2, plus-3 in three games) was a rookie and was one of three 20-year olds on the 1988-1989 version of the Pittsburgh Penguins.  The other two 20-year olds on that team were Zarley Zalapski and Rob Brown.  Zalapski and Brown have been out of the NHL for ten years, but Recchi is still going in this, his 22nd season.  He is in his third season in Boston (his seventh club, no including those for which he played more than once), having come to the Bruins from Tampa Bay late in the 2008-2009 season.  In 102 games for the Bruins he has 28 goals and 61 points, and he seems far from the given-up-for-dead player who struggled with both Atlanta and Tampa Bay a few years ago.  Recchi has been a real Cap killer through all of his NHL stops.  He has scored more goals against the Caps (47) than he has against any other NHL team, and only the Islanders have been victimized by Recchi for more points.

Boston has a reputation for playing a grinding, physical style of play.  In the current version of the Bruins, the embodiment of that style might be reflected in Milan Lucic.  The trouble is that Lucic dressed for only 50 games last season as a result of finger and ankle injuries.  Assuming he is healthy (and a pair of goals and an assist in three games suggests he’s fine), he is quite a load for the opposition to deal with, a player who will have other players heads on a swivel.  But given the Bruins’ troubles on offense last year, Boston needs him to produce at something at or above the 17-25-42 level of production he had in 72 games in the 2008-2009 season.  He has not had a great deal of success against the Caps on the offensive end – 1-3-4 in 10 career games against Washington.

In goal, the Bruins might have seen a changing of the guard last season.  Tim Thomas, who won the Vezina Trophy in 2009, suffered hip trouble and a lack of production that resulted in his splitting time over the season with youngster Tuukka Rask (Thomas starting 43 games, Rask the rest), but yielding the number one job late in the season and for the playoffs.  However, tables might be turning at the start of this season.  Rask started the season opener against Phoenix in Prague and allowed four goals on 36 shots in a 5-2 loss.  Thomas was given the call for the last two games, allowing a single goal on 61 shots in wins over Phoenix (3-0) and New Jersey (4-1).  Thomas has a 10-4-2 lifetime record against the Caps, but in his last eight appearances against Washington he is 2-4-2, 3.75, .885.  Rask has faced the Caps once, losing a 3-2 overtime decision on April 5th last season.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Boston:  Zdeno Chara

Really, who else?  With Alex Ovechkin hovering near the top of the league scoring rankings (tied for fifth in goals, tied for tenth in assists, tied for third in points), having registered a point in all five games to date this season, and having figured in the game-winning goal in all four Caps wins (two goals, two primary assists), Chara’s ability to nullify Ovechkin will figure prominently in the Bruins’ chances to win one or both of these games.  It is worth noting that Ovechkin has scored points in nine of his last ten regular season games, the only time having been shutout coming at the hands of Boston in last season’s finale.  It also bears noting that Chara did not play in that game. The last time these two met, Ovechkin recorded a pair of assists and managed six shots on goal in a 3-2 Caps win.

Washington: Mike Knuble

Former Bruin Mike Knuble had a goal and an assist in the first two games for the Caps this season but has gone without a point in the last three contests.  Knuble has not had a four-game streak without a point so far as a Cap.  Kanoobie is not concerned just yet, but there is a noticeable lack of vigor in his yapping.  Boston might be the tonic for him.  Last year he was 3-1-4 against his former club, and for his career he is 9-8-17 against the Bruins.


1.  OK on the PK.  The Caps are a perfect 21-for-21 on the penalty kill so far.  On the other hand, only the Calgary Flames have fewer power play goals than the single tally Boston has.  The Bruins have come up empty on their last seven tries with the man advantage.  Not having Savard severly hampers the Bruins in this area, but if Boston can get a goal or two on the power play, it will be gravy against a team that has played well a man short.

2.  First Things First.  Boston is the only club yet to score a first period goal in a game this season.  The Caps really aren’t much better, having scored only three first period goals in five games.  Which team can reverse this trend will have a considerable advantage.

3.  The Land of the Giants.  Boston has four defensemen tipping the scales at 210 pounds or more.  The Caps have one of the biggest teams in the league and have eight forwards at 210 pounds or more.  It will be a dogfight in close with the likes of Knuble, Eric Fehr, Jason Chimera, and Matt Hendricks fight for space among the Bruin defenders.  Add in the 200-pound Brooks Laich, who does a fair amount of his work from in close, and it could be that the games will be decided by who wins the battle 15 feet from the Bruin net.

In the end, this is the story of the irresistible force (the Caps) and the immoveable object (the Bruin defense).  Last season the irresistible force had the best of it, the Caps taking the season series with a 3-0-1 record and outscoring the Bruins 14-7 (not including Gimmicks).  And the convergence of the force and object is where Alex Ovechkin and Zdeno Chara meet.  In the three games in which the two met last year, Ovechkin was 3-3-6, plus-4.  If he enjoys that kind of success against Chara and the Bruins this week, it could be – should be – another good one for the Caps.

Tuesday: Caps 4 – Bruins 2
Thursday: Caps 3 – Bruins 1