Monday, November 22, 2010

A NO-point night -- Game 22: Devils 5 - Caps 0

“In the end, there is no plausible excuse for losing this game. None. The Devils cannot compete offensively with the Caps, unless Ilya Kovalchuk goes absolutely nuts, and the Caps can put out any goaltender in their system at the moment and likely get a better performance than what the Devils have gotten from the backups. You could say, like they do in football, that 'on any given night' any team can beat any other, but that just should not be the case in this game.”

OK, what idiot said THAT?!

Guilty as charged.

The Caps did lose their game tonight against the New Jersey Devils, 5-0. And no, there is no excuse… not Michal Neuvirth’s pre-game injury, not Semyon Varlamov’s late-arriving skates, not Braden Hotlby’s rebounds. The Caps didn’t even mail this one in; they called it in collect, avoiding the cost of a first class stamp.

You could say that the game might have gone very differently had the Caps not been guilty of two horrendously bad plays late in the first period. With the Devils ahead 1-0 on a goal by Patrik Elias in the game’s sixth minute, New Jersey won a faceoff in their own end in the 17th minute of the period. After getting the puck out to the neutral zone, John Erskine got tied up with Mattias Tedenby at the Caps’ line. Erskine lost his footing, then swept the puck toward the right wing boards. Unfortunately, that is the lane Jason Arnott was filling, and he picked up the puck in stride. Erskine tried to get back into the play but was able only to trail Arnott as he skated deep. As Arnott started to wind around the net, goalie Braden Hotlby came out to challenge and dropped to his butterfly well outside the crease. Defenseman Tyler Sloan then got tied up with Holtby, leaving the net unoccupied as Arnott swept around the net and wrapped the puck in the far side for the Devils’ second goal.

John Erskine would figure prominently in the third Devil goal in the 19th minute of the period, too. He was worked over by Tedenby on a rush to the net that resulted in Erskine hauning Tedenby down on his way to the net. A penalty shot was called, and Tedenby converted it, depositing a backhand past Holtby in confident fashion, and instead of a manageable 1-0 deficit at the first intermission, the Devils had a choke hold on the game, 3-0.

That did it for the competitive portion of the game. New Jersey added two goals in the second period, but for all intents and purposes, it was over when Tedenby netted his penalty shot.

Other Stuff…

-- New Jersey came into the game having scored a total of nine first period goals this season. They had not had a multi-goal first period since Game 2 (against the Caps). They had three in the first period tonight, their high in the first period this season.

-- By the end of the game the Caps were down to four defensemen, Tyler Sloan having gone out late in the first period and Mike Green departing at the 7:10 mark of the third period.

-- The mystery of where Alex Ovechkin’s game has gone continues. No points, five shots on goal (all of them coming after the Devils had built a 4-0 lead early in the second period), and his game seems to lack any spark. He is 1-2-3, minus-3 in his last six games.

-- If there was a bright spot for the Caps, it would be John Carlson. With Sloan and Green going out, he stepped up and skated more than 27 minutes, had three shots on goal and was not on the ice for any of the Devils’ goals.

-- The Streak is over. The Caps lost with Boyd Gordon in the lineup, the first such loss in regulation this season.

-- The Devils came into this game having scored three power play goals in 20 chances in November. Now they have four, a product of Patrick Elias beating Mike Green down the middle and deflecting a shot by Mattias Tedenby.

-- The Caps pounded Calgary, 7-2, in the last game of October. Since then they have scored 39 goals in 11 games in November… and allowed 38.

-- Johan Hedberg stopped all 30 Caps shots for his 15th career shutout. It was the first time that the Devils shutout the Caps since dropping a 3-0 decision on December 4, 2003. It was the first time a Devils goalie not named “Brodeur” shut out the Caps since Craig Billington shut out the Caps, 3-0 , on November 13, 1992.

-- How many games can the Devils win with Ilya Kovalchuk registering only one shot on goal? Well, one anyway.

-- Jeff Schultz (minus-2 tonight) is now minus-6 in his last four games and is a minus in each of those games. Last season he had consecutive minus games only twice all season. Four in a row is his career high (he had three in a row October 28-November 4, 2008).

-- We’re having a hard time wrapping our head around the idea that the Caps could not solve a defense that included such household names as Matt Corrente and Mark Fayne (playing in his first NHL game), and that included a goalie with a goals-against average north of four-and-a-half goals a game.

-- If there was a turning point, it might have come mid-way through the first period. First, Matt Hendricks and Adam Mair had a kerfuffle that got them five minute each in the penalty box. As the story goes, such a thing could be an inspiration for a team. Well, nine seconds later the Devils took a penalty, Travis Zajac going off for holding. The Caps might have parlayed the bout and the power play into a tying goal that might have propelled them forward. Instead, the Caps went the entire power play without a shot on goal and in fact had only one shot attempt (a miss on a deflection try by Nicklas Backstrom).

In the end, the Caps are now losers of three in a row (0-2-1) and have allowed 14 goals in recording those losses. The last three weeks have served only to fuel impressions that the early take on the Caps – weak on defense and in goal – was right all along. Braden Holtby appeared not to be ready for action tonight, having been named the emergency starter when Michal Neuvirth was injured in the morning skate. He couldn’t find a rhythm, was guilty of bad positioning, left too many big rebounds, and after having done so left himself in positions where he could not recover. To his credit, he fought back to play respectably well in the last 30 minutes. Of course, by that time the Devils were in shutout protection mode for their own goalie and easing off the gas in the offensive end.

But Holtby was not the only Cap to struggle tonight. You would be hard pressed to find a player who had even a fair game. The defense was forced into some odd rotations (swapping out one at a time by game’s end with only four defensemen to pick from) and pairings (Schultz/Alzner, Erskine/Carlson being featured), but it wasn’t as if they played well early, either. The forwards just didn’t have anything at either end of the ice, and not even some fisticuffs and a power play could get them out of their funk when the game was still competitive in the first period.

It doesn’t take long to go from one end of the momentum continuum to the other. Less than a week ago the Caps were riding high on an 8-0-1 run. Tonight they are in the midst of an 0-2-1 streak with divisional games coming up to close out the month (twice against Carolina wrapped around a game with Tampa Bay).

There isn’t an aspect of the game that doesn’t need improvement at the moment. The offense has deserted the Caps (shut out twice in the last three games), and the defense and goaltending has been grisly, to say the least (14 goals allowed). The best that can be said about a game like this is that after being shut out by a team tied for the fewest points in the league, there is nowhere to go but up.

Well, we’ll see Wednesday night, won’t we?

The NHL's Great and Good Fortune

This post caught my attention on one of the Caps' flagship blogs, "On Frozen Blog." Elisabeth Meinecke has been credentialed to cover the Winter Classic game between the Caps and Penguins on January 1st. By itself, it is a nice story for Ms. Meinecke and quite a feather in the cap of the OFB folks. But it is an element in what might be a bigger story that could unfold in the run up to the game itself on New Year's Day in Pittsburgh.

The Capitals are the state of the art when it comes to coverage of the club by "new media." You could say it is a product of the sponsorship and promotion of blogs by The Boss, and to a large extent you would be right. Ted Leonsis was far out in front of his peers in the NHL is seeing the possibilities of other perspectives in the coverage of the Capitals by motivated, independent voices.

But that explains only a part of the story. That the Caps are the state of the art in new media coverage of the team is also a product of those motivated and independent voices such as those at OFB, Japers' Rink, Russian Machine Never Breaks, and so many others that would take too much time and space to name. The dedicated folks who invest their time and talent to covering the Caps have been welcomed into the Capitals' community in many cases as credentialed media with the sort of access to the team, its players, and its coaches in a manner that for years was the exclusive province of mainstream media.

The access afforded these individuals and blogging teams has further motivated them to expand their coverage into weekly radio segments, dedicated coverage of the AHL Hershey Bears, and video segments. That is what helps makes the Caps' brand of new media the state of the art.

The NHL is about to get a bonanza of coverage of its young "classic" format. It is an opportunity to show the less visionary or more skeptical among NHL franchises that bloggers are not the enemy as much as an increasingly integral element to providing their respective communities with comprehensive coverage of their teams.  We hope that the league appreciates the bonanza it is about to realize and welcomes the deluge of coverage with the sort of open arms that could prove a tipping point in the very nature of hockey reporting.

It would be easy to counsel the bloggers to be on their best behavior, to take their roles as media representatives seriously. Well, we think that sort of advice and concern is ill-placed. For you see, the folks who have been blogging about the Caps have been doing it for a while. They have been covering the club closely -- at Kettler, at Verizon Center, even appearing on other local media outlets -- for awhile. They know their stuff, and they take their responsibilities seriously.

No, the onus is on the NHL -- to realize the opportunity that is presenting itself with this year's Winter Classic, to work with those new media representatives as partners in promoting and covering the event, and to use this event and the potential for a much broader exposure to expand their sport.

We would be so bold as to advise the NHL... don't blow it.

And to Ms. Meinecke, congratulations.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Devils, November 22nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

We are here at Peerless Central joined by a very special and, as it turns out, timely guest. Hockey is a sport that has an all too often unfortunate by-product of injuries to its players, and no team has had more misfortune land on it than tonight’s opponent, the New Jersey Devils. And who better to diagnose the problem than the eminent diagnostician, Dr. Gregory House of the Princeton‑Plainsboro Teaching Hospital here in New Jersey. Dr. House, welcome.

“My life is just one horror after another.”

Well, speaking of horror, this season has been one horror after another for the Devils as well.


The Devils.

“A biker gang?”

No, hockey team. They play in Newark.

“And you wonder why their season has been a horror?”

Be that as it may, the Devils are having what looks to be an epidemic of injuries. Zach Parise, Martin Brodeur, Jamie Langenbrunner…

“Are these real names, or are you making them up?”

No, they are real hockey players with real injuries, but the question is, why so many in so short a time on one team? Can you shed any light on this, Dr. House?

“Well, we would have to conduct a battery of tests to try to identify the likely problem, which we will then dismiss in favor of more tests 30 minutes later, then stumble upon the cause when two of my lackeys go through their locker room to find some unpronounceable bug when no one is around.”

I see. Well, what sort of tests are we talking about here?

“We could perform a blood urea nitrogen test, an erythrocyte sedimentation rate test, a radionucleotide cisternogram, a visual evoked potential test, and a technetium sestamabi, for starters.”

Are these real tests, or are you making them up?

We might never get an answer to that question, so let’s get on with the game at hand. The Capitals will travel to Newark tonight to take on the Devils, although many of the players that will take the ice for the home team do not resemble what we have come to know over the last decade and a half as “The Devils.” Already the Devils have dressed 28 skaters this season, including such as Alexander Vasyunov, Stephen Gionta (not to be confused with his older brother and former Devil Brian Gionta), Olivier Magnan, Bradley Mills, and Tyler Eckford. Injuries and poor performance have combined to leave the Devils gasping for air at the bottom of the league standings, a place they share with the punch line of the league these days, the New York Islanders. Overall, their numbers look like this (have the children leave the room before reading on)…

Here is how bad it is for the Devils. Through 20 games they have scored a total of 36 goals. Last season – one in which the Devils finished 19th in total scoring – they scored 52 goals in their first 20 games. A 31 percent drop off in scoring is bad enough, but the defense. Oh, the defense.  So far it has allowed 64 goals in 20 games. Last season the Devils did not allow their 64th goal until Game 30. At the moment New Jersey is allowing more than a full goal per game (3.20) more than they did through 20 games last season (2.15). How bad has it been overall? Well…

-- The Devils have not won consecutive games yet this season, but
-- They have three losing streaks of three games (including their current predicament)
-- The Devils scored fewer than two goals in ten of their first 15 games.
-- They have scored more than three goals in regulation only twice in 20 games.
-- They have allowed more than five goals twice. They didn’t allow any team more than five goals in a game last season.
-- They have only six power play goals for the season (only one in 39 chances on the road). By way of comparison the Caps have 11 power play goals this month.
-- The Devils’ leading scorer (Patrik Elias) has 12 points. Alexander Semin has 15 points in November. Alex Ovechkin, who has had a less-than-Ovechkinesque month, has 13 points this month.
-- The Devils’ leading goal-getter (Jason Arnott) has six goals. Semin has eight in November.
-- Mike Green (5-8-13) – a defenseman who has played in only 18 of 21 games – would lead the Devils in scoring with his total.
-- Only one Devil is on a pace for as many as 20 goals (Jason Arnott). Only two are on a pace for as many as 15 (Ilya Kovalchuk being the other).
-- The Devils have been shut out in three of eight games this month.

It’s been brutal on offense, perhaps no more so than on defense, though. It is little wonder why the Devils have struggled on the defensive side of the ledger, given that they have already dressed 10 defensemen this season (only two have played in all 20 games) and three goaltenders.

Lost in the wreckage of the season so far is the performance of Ilya Kovalchuk. And here is how bad that has been – he is on a pace for a 17-26-43, minus-43 season. He has one goal this month (one in his last 11 games, in fact). He has had one multi-point game since October 15th. In those 14 games he is 2-3-5, minus-9. And he is the third-leading scorer for New Jersey. His four goals and six assists total is matched on the Caps by the four goals and six assists of – drum roll please – Jason Chimera.

More was expected of Ilya Kovalchuk, and he has a bank safe of pressure on his back (to carry that $100 million contract) weighing him down. But more might have been expected of Travis Zajac, too. After registering 60-plus point seasons in each of the last two years, Zajac might have been expected to take the next step forward in his career development. Instead, he is stuck at 2-7-9 through 20 games (although he is one of four players on the team on the plus side of the ledger at plus-1). Of those two goals, only one has come since opening night, and he is on a six-game streak without one.

By current Devils standards, Jason Arnott is an offensive juggernaut. That’s what three goals in November means to a team that has only 16 in eight games this month. But those three goals represent Arnott’s grand total over his last 13 games. His six goals for the season is as many as Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, and Dainius Zubrus combined.

Speaking of Zubrus, he has two goals. That total ranks him seventh on the club this year, but it puts him on a pace to finish with eight tallies. That would be his lowest total for a full season since the 1998-1999 season when he had six split evenly with Philadelphia and Montreal.

With Martin Brodeur out resting his elbow for the next couple of weeks, the Devils’ goaltending situation is nothing short of a mess. Not that Brodeur was having a “Brodeur” sort of year. His 2.74 GAA, were he to finish with that number, would be higher than in any season since he got a four-game look and see in 1992 (3.36). His save percentage of .901 would be the lowest since that same season.

But with Marty on the sideline, well, welcome to the future Devils fans. It is coming faster than you all might like. In Brodeur’s place for the time being we have our first contestant, Johan Hedberg. At the moment, Hedberg is 1-2-1, 4.53, .855 in six appearances. He has one appearance in which his save percentage was over .900, two in which it was below .800. This is not a long-term solution.

Then we have Mike McKenna. No, not the Canadian musician, but the goalie from St. Louis, MO. He had his baptism this season in the Devils’ last game, coincidentally played in McKenna’s hometown. He lost to the Blues, 3-2, stopping 24 of 27 shots. He has, however, seen the Caps before. Three times, in fact, all in the 2008-2009 season with Tampa Bay. They were not pleasant memories. In the first he lasted 20 minutes, allowing three goals on 12 shots in a 5-1 loss to the Caps. Giving up goals to each of the Alexes is one thing, but he also allowed Shaone Morrisonn to rustle the twine. In the second he lasted all 60 minutes, but he did give up five goals on 30 shots in a 5-2 loss, including the next to last goal Michael Nylander would score for the Caps. His last appearance featured allowing four goals on 38 shots in a 5-3 loss, including Brian Pothier’s first goal in 15 months.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New Jersey: Anton Volchenkov

Volchenkov played 6:21 into his second game as a Devil when he has his nose broken on a shot by Nicklas Backstrom in the first meeting of these teams. He missed 12 games, but has returned to play in the last six Devils’ games. In those six games he is averaging more than 22 minutes and has been on the ice for only five of the 19 goals the Devils allowed in those games. He is likely to draw the big assignment of ensuring that Alex Ovechkin remains as quiet as he has been lately.

Washington: Jeff Schultz

“Mr. Plus-50” is minus-4 over his last three games and has had “minus” games in five of his last seven contests. The Devils have not posed a consistent threat on offense this season, but a team with Ilya Kovalchuk patrolling the wing cannot be taken lightly. Schultz is – and will be in this game – something of an indicator of the larger matter of whether the Caps are taking this game seriously. He isn’t going to put up points (he has no goals and five assists), but he is on the ice for a fair number of goals, being paired with Mike Green, and – when he and his teammates are on their respective games – is not on the ice for many goals. No Caps defenseman has been on the ice for more goals so far than Schultz, and this needs to change. No time like the present.


1. Hit the “trail.” Only one team in the entire league has scored the first goal of the game less often than New Jersey (Nashville). Only eight times have the Devils lit the lamp first. They are a .500 team when they do so (3-3-2).

2. Kill, Cappies, Kill. The Devils have only three power play goals this month in eight games. They are 4-for-46 in their last 15 games. Don’t be making things interesting by letting the power play off the hook.

3. Ready, aim…oh, heck, just SHOOT! For such a high-powered offense, you would think the Caps shoot a lot. Well, not really, at least as those shots get on net. Washington is tied for 12th in shots on goal per game. The Devils, whatever their other ills, can still hold teams off in getting pucks to the net. They have the seventh-lowest shots per game total in the league. But considering that the team save percentage is .878 (.861 by goaltenders not named “Brodeur”), the Caps need to get pucks on net, and good things are likely to happen.

In the end, there is no plausible excuse for losing this game. None. The Devils cannot compete offensively with the Caps, unless Ilya Kovalchuk goes absolutely nuts, and the Caps can put out any goaltender in their system at the moment and likely get a better performance than what the Devils have gotten from the backups. You could say, like they do in football, that “on any given night” any team can beat any other, but that just should not be the case in this game.

Caps 5 – Devils 1