Monday, February 28, 2011

Deadline Day...Does it Matter?

Well, does it?

By early this evening, the dust will have settled on Deadline Day 2011, and folks will be asking, “who won?” As in, “who improved themselves the most with their trades?” As in, “who got the best player?”

Well, they might be the wrong questions to ask, if winning the Stanley Cup is the object of the exercise. Much ink and many pixels will be devoted to Brad Richards and where he might land, he being the “prize” of this year’s potential players moving in trade. But for teams that could go on to win a Stanley Cup, winning this day might not matter.

Let’s look at the Cup winners since the lockout and see what they did:

Seeing any big stars there? No, me neither. Not that they were insignificant pieces. Mark Recchi would record seven goals and 16 points in 25 playoff games in a support/veteran role for the Hurricanes in 2006. Brad Stuart would be the rare defenseman obtained in a deadline day trade who actually made an impact for his team on their way to a Stanley Cup; he was plus-15 in 21 games for the Wings in their 2008 Cup run. Bill Guerin provided a reliable right wing for Sidney Crosby with seven goals and 15 points, while going plus-8 in the Penguins’ 2009 playoff season.

What is more, these teams did not give up much to get those pieces.  The Kunitz/Tangradi - Whitney deal by Pittsburgh was as much about moving Whitney as it was obtaining the pieces.  For the rest, it was spare parts and picks that were moved out.

These teams filled holes in what amounted to support roles; they did not plug a big piece into their lineup to address a significant deficiency. Teams that win Stanley Cups, at least recently, have already built their teams by this time of year and are tweaking their respective lineups. If a club is counting on that big star to come in and make the big difference – to be the last piece in the chase for the Stanley Cup – well, keep chasing. The deals that don’t get the bright lights shined on them might be the most important of all by the end of the day.

Keep that in mind as you're watching the Caps through the day.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Home and Home

There are a lot of reasons one might point to as a cause for the Caps’ struggles this year – an adjustment of philosophy to a more defensive style that has been painful at times, an impotent power play, injuries, an indifference to regular season results. But whatever the reasons are, they have had a distinct effect in one aspect.

Home sure ain’t where the heart is.

In the three seasons preceding this one the Caps posted a home record of 74-35-14 in the regular season. As the month of February closes on the NHL calendar the Caps are 17-8-7, the eight losses in regulation already exceed last year’s total (five) and is one short of the number posted in the 2008-2009 season (nine). While the overall record at Verizon Center isn’t bad, by any means (the 17 wins is fifth in the East), the record has been assembled in two distinct parts, as if the Caps iced two entirely different home teams. One covers the October-November portion of the season, the other covering December through February. You can look at the numbers and see for yourself:

The Caps started the season picking up exactly where they left off last year when they went 30-5-6 at home. In the first two months of the season they went 12-1-1 and were outscoring opponents by more than two goals a game. They were the most dominant team at home in the league. Then…

The Caps started December splitting a pair of road games, the loss in the second game becoming the first in what would be an eight-game losing streak (0-6-2). In that streak the Caps lost all four games of a four-game home stand (0-3-1), getting outscored 13-7 (not including a shootout-winning goal for Toronto in a 5-4 Maple Leaf win). In one respect it is a streak from which the Caps have not recovered. In 18 home games since the beginning of December the Caps are 5-7-6 and have lost their last three games on home ice.

What happened? Well, plainly put, the Caps stopped scoring. From an average of over four goals a game in their first 14 home games in October and November, the Caps have scored fewer than two goals a game in 18 home games over the last three months. Not even a better defense (2.33 goals per game over the last three months versus 2.50 in the first two months) has been able to give the Caps enough lift to salvage their home record recently.

Only twice in these last three months have the Caps treated their fans to games of four or more goals scored. They beat the hapless (at the time) New Jersey Devils, 5-1, and lost to Toronto in a shootout, 5-4. Both games were in December.

A big part of the problem is, as it is for the Caps in general, the power play. Humming along at almost 27 percent in the first two months in home games, the power play is only 6-for-71 – an 8.5 percent conversion rate – over the last three months. Had the Caps merely performed at a 20 percent level the last three months they would have finished with as many goals on the power play as they recorded in the first two months. Performing at that first two month level would have given the Caps 19 power play goals -- 13 more goals than they actually had (six). Given that the Caps had seven one-goal losses over the past three months at home, it made a difference.

But the drop in power play production accounts for only about 30 percent of the 2.24 goal drop in offense in the last three months. What else is going on? Well, drill down to the individual level. The “Young Guns” have been shooting blanks:

Even with Alexander Semin missing six of the 18 home games over the last three months and Mike Green missing three, a 25-goal drop in production from this quartet from one period to the other has cost the Caps almost two goals a game they are not getting now that they had in October and November. That neither Semin nor Nicklas Backstrom has a goal at Verizon Center since November is unfathomable.

It is laudable that the Caps – and this foursome – has embraced a more defensive posture this season, but the Caps showed (at home, at least) that they could play defense and abuse opponents’ defense during those first two months of the season. In the first two months the team goals-allowed-per-game was only 0.17 goals more than it has been over the last three months, while the offense was scoring 2.24 more goals per game than they have over the last three months. Embracing that ethic doesn’t seem to explain the offensive draught over the last three months.

It would be asking a lot to get Alexander Semin producing at the rate he displayed in October and November. Scoring 16 goals in 14 home games is one of those streaks that might come along once every half-dozen years for the most prolific of goal scorers. But Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Green need to raise their production. Backstrom and Green are fighting through injuries, making the task more difficult. But the plain fact is that the power play and the drop in production among the Young Guns go a long way to explaining what has happened to a once formidable team on home ice. These have to improve to make Verizon Center a difficult place for opponents once more.

A TWO-point night -- Game 63: Caps 3 - Islanders 2

If you are a Washington Capitals fan, you might have looked at tonight’s game against the New York Islanders and thought… I hope it’s like their season.

What do we mean by that? Well, the Caps didn’t show up early…like their season to date. They didn’t play well for long stretches in the middle… like their season to date. Then they rallied and came through in the end with a win… like Caps fans hope they will in their last game of the season (in the playoffs, if that isn't clear).

The Caps spotted the New York Islanders a pair of goals, then scored three in the last 30 minutes to get a 3-2 win over the Islanders in Uniondale, NY.

They say fights don’t change momentum. Well, maybe for the most part that is true. The Islanders scored a goal 33 seconds into the second period – an unassisted goal by Travis Hamonic that floated past goalie Michal Neuvirth, making it eight straight goals scored by opponents over barely 80 minutes of hockey (all of them coming at the expense of Neuvirth). That apparently was enough for Matt Hendricks, who dropped the gloves with Zenon Konopka 19 seconds into his first shift of the period, not two minutes after the Hamonic goal. Hendricks might not have won the fight (his 13th of the season), but it would be hard to argue against effect. Until that point, the Islanders had outshot the Caps 15-7 and outscored them 2-0. After Hendricks’ bout the Caps would almost match the Islanders in shots (15 to New York’s 16) and would outscore them 3-0. Hendricks might not have received a star for the game, but he might have been the player most responsible for changing the game’s momentum.

Other stuff…

-- It was a difficult game for the John Carlson/Karl Alzner duo. Alzner was victimized on Kyle Okposo’s goal when he backed in too far as Okposo was pushing the puck into the Caps’ zone, waved at the puck with his stick just as Okposo started to cut to the middle, then looked to screen his goalie as Okposo wristed the puck at the net. On the Hamonic goal Alzner tried to sweep the puck off the stick of Frans Nielsen and missed, then John Carlson could only clear the puck to the Caps’ blue line, where Hamonic stopped it, firing the puck at Neuvirth for the Islanders’ second goal.

-- With Nicklas Backstrom moved to the wing to accommodate his injured thumb, Brooks Laich took turns in the middle, and it seemed to rejuvenate his game. A goal, an assist (both the product of driving to the net with the puck), five shot attempts, eight wins in 15 draws taken. The two points were his first since also netting a goal and an assist against Anaheim ten days ago; they broke a four game streak without a point for Laich.

-- Of the 22 shots on goal for the Caps, one came from a defenseman (Alzner).

-- Two power plays…no shots on goal. Not enough, and not enough.

-- Go – to – the – net. Write it down in big letters on the white board. That’s now Laich scored, that’s how Knuble scored (sit down, Kanoobie). Even Alexander Semin sort of went to the net on his game-winner, backing Hamonic off enough to get room in the high slot for a wrist shot. If anything, the lack of offense has been a result of not enough of this behavior.

-- Hendricks had 13 shifts and only 6:38 of ice time. He had four shifts of under 20 seconds apiece. He does get his money’s worth.

-- Scott Hannan might not get a point for the rest of the year, and we won’t care a bit if he keeps playing like this. In more than 24 minutes he did not have a shot on goal, but he did have a hit, a takeaway, and six blocked shots to lead both teams. Most important, plus-2 and no goals scored by the Islanders when he was on the ice.

-- Not to pick on Jason Chimera, but he is somewhat indicative of the problem the Caps are having. He had no points tonight (two shots on goal in 11 minutes and change). He hasn’t had a goal in ten games and has only one point over that span. The Caps need more out of the third and fourth lines.

-- Semin had the game-winner, but less than 14 minutes of ice time? The lowest amount he has had (not counting a game in which he sustained an injury) since the Winter Classic, when he had only 12:54.

-- Marcus Johansson skated 6:24 in the first period, but didn’t do much with it, considering it was spent mostly on the top line between Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble. He did draw a tripping penalty on Islander goalie Al Montoya, but other than that he was silent. He is not ready for that role, but perhaps better to test drive the idea against this team than against a team fighting for the playoffs.

In the end, the Caps finished the month 6-5-1, scoring more than three goals twice in the 12 games. They gave up 31 goals in the 12 games (2.58 goals/game), but 12 of those goals came in two games (a 7-6 win over Anaheim and a 6-0 loss to the Rangers). If there is a bright side, the Caps extended a rather impressive run on defense in which they have allowed only 38 goals in their last 18 games, including those two six-goal games.

On the other hand, the Caps scored only 28 goals in 12 games for the month, a quarter of them in a 7-6 win in Anaheim. Only five of the goals came on the power play, and the Caps still have not had a multi-power play goal game since November 26th (39 games).

The Caps have been stuck in neutral now for three months, going 15-14-8 since December 1st, and this game was more of the same – an adequate effort (it was, after all, a win) against a team destined for a lottery draft pick. Fortunately, most of the East is marking time, too, with only one team (Boston) currently on a winning streak of more than two games (pending tonight’s game in Vancouver). One can take comfort in putting this one in the win column, but there is no comfort to be had watching this team and thinking about its chances in April. It is a team without an identity and without a sense of purpose about it. They look lost, which is what their season will be in another eight weeks or so if they don’t find both.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A NO-point night -- Game 62: Rangers 6 - Caps 0

The Washington Capitals went into the time machine to produce a remake of their worst beating of the season as they lost to the New York Rangers last night, 6-0.

“You sure you want to write this up, cousin?”

It was reminiscent of their 7-0 loss to the Rangers on December 12th, except this time the home team fans didn’t have to watch on TV or catch the highlights on HBO’s 24/7 series. They could see it live and in living…well, “living” might not be the word…color.

“You’ll be sorry.”

That makes nine shutouts of the Caps this season, tying this team for the third highest number of times shutout in team history. Only the 1998-1999 team (which lost 45 games) and the inaugural club of 1974-1975 (arguably the worst team in NHL history) were shutout more times than your Washington Capitals of 2010-2011.

“This isn’t going to end well, is it, cuz?”

“He’s not happy, Cheerless.”

The game started at 7:08 pm…it ended at 5:49 of the first period when Derek Stepan elbowed Mike Green into the boards, giving Steve Eminger the chance to score the first goal seven seconds later with Green still prone on the ice.

By the time the third period ended, the Caps could say they recorded one goal on their last 89 shots in their last three games against the Rangers.

And that, kids, is about all we’re going to say about this game.

Friday, February 25, 2011

What's In A Name...Or a Conference?

In yesterday’s online version of The Hockey News, Adam Proteau penned an interesting essay arguing that the NHL’s division structure should be scrapped in favor of straight-forward conference rankings. His is essentially a three-pronged argument. First, it completes the modernization job the league started back in 1994 (when the named divisions – Patrick, Norris, Adams, and Smythe – were retired in favor of geographic names). Second, it makes understanding the standings easier for the casual fan, who no longer has to ponder the meaning of a division leader getting an automatic ticket to a top-three conference seed. Last, Proteau offers an equity argument – it is fairer to teams that are more successful than a weak division winner that gets a free ticket to a top-three seeding.

Proteau makes a logical argument. What he argues would streamline the organization of teams (in fact, would go in the direction opposite to that which Major League Baseball has pursued over the last 40-plus years by adding divisions to a “league” structure) and would provide a level of competitive transparency (only one structure in which the teams compete).  I just don’t happen to agree with the prescription, and here is why. Rivalries.

Football markets the logo on the jersey, basketball markets players, and baseball markets its history. What does the NHL market? They have tried players, but that is pretty much an Alex Ovechkin/Sidney Crosby phenomenon, at least in trying to expand to the casual fan. The logo? Can’t compete with the NFL in that regard. History? Going to be hard doing that when you didn’t grow up in the game in the same fashion baseball fans generally do and develop a decades-long attachment to the sport from childhood.

I think Proteau is on to something in arguing against the competing divison/conference influences on seeding and the unbalanced schedule. The underlying argument – that divisions don’t matter, except to the team finishing first – is one I agree with. But I think there is a way to fix the problems in that arrangement and increase the volume of rivalries without abandoning divisions.

Make divisional play matter. Go back to four divisions. I would go all the way back to the Patrick – Adams – Norris – Smythe days, but those are details. No, go back to divisions and make them matter by establishing that the top four teams in each division make the playoffs (a nod to the past). Not only that, but you have to make it out of your divisional round (rounds one and two) to play for a conference title.

For the regular season, it makes divisional games matter more in that you are fighting for a top-four seed in that group, and that group alone (not for a top-eight spot against teams of other divisions as is the case now). Add to that the narrower geographic focus of a division-based organization and division-based means for making the playoffs, and rivalries could intensify, built around the natural ones that existed before the modernization began (some of which are preserved in the current alignment, like Detroit/Chicago or Boston/Montreal).  I think proximity matters here, and competition within smaller geographic areas creates more heat between fan bases than competition between conference rivals greater distances apart.

A 30-team league presents problems in balancing regular season schedules, and there really is no good way to solve this problem if you employ four divisions. In August 2009 we proposed a two-conference/four-division format with 32 teams (taking some liberties in moving/adding teams), but the point is creating a structure that intensifies rivalries in a context that means something to all of the teams involved. You are one of eight teams (or seven, for two divisions in a non-expansion scenario) fighting for four spots, period. No complicating factors such as whether a team finishes first and gets a guaranteed extra-divisional seed or relying on a weaker division to capture a playoff spot as a five-seed in the division (but with more points than the four seed in another weaker division). This is the pool in which you swim – top-four and you’re in, bottom-four and you’re out. Period.

Will that mean that a weak team wins a division, or worse, that a very good five-seed in a division will miss the playoffs while a weak four seed in another makes it? Yes. But the NFL endured sub-.500 team making the playoffs, and the world of sports was not reduced to rubble (they even won a playoff game against the defending league champion). Moreover, the nature of salary caps and free agency could very well mean that to the extent there are weak teams from time to time within a division making the playoffs at the expense of better teams in other divisions, this will be spread around the divisions over time. It is harder to keep teams together, and if there are five or six strong teams in, say, a reconstituted Patrick Division this year, chances are that in four or five years it might be the Smythe that has those strong teams.

But the key here is the playoffs. That is where the rivalries get amped up a few notches. And that is why it is important as part of this exercise that: a) four teams in each division make the playoffs, and b) that they play one another in the first two rounds. If familiarity breeds contempt (if not outright hatred), two playoff rounds against teams you’ve already had a long and presumably intense regular season series with will make players’ blood boil (not to mention their fans). That kind of intensity is something that could be of considerable interest to the fan that has not followed hockey especially closely.

I think the NHL lost something when it discarded a piece of its history in abandoning named divisions for points on a compass. I think it lost more when it abandoned divisions as a basis for competition in favor of conference seeding. They tried to get something from both worlds -- divisions and conferences -- and succeeded in creating the mush that Proteau (to his credit) would like to see remedied.  To me it has had the effect of sanitizing the sport – the rivalries don’t seem quite as intense. Six games with a division rival don’t carry with it quite the same intensity when you can make the playoffs at the expense of teams in other divisions (as is the case in conference-based seeding) than is the case when you are fighting with that team for one of four spots in the division in which you play. And, you have the possibility of having to face that team again (and one of two others) in the first two rounds of the playoffs just to get to a conference final.

Conference-based play has the charm of symmetry – 15 teams in each conference, and you can build a schedule around that which can accommodate the need to balance the number of intra-conference games you play, promoting a home-road balance in extra-division games, and still arriving at a total of 82. It would be harder to do this with the asymmetry of two divisions of eight and two of seven teams. But that problem is offset in large part by focusing on the fact that it is the intra-divisional results that matter for seeding. With a 30-team, four division arrangement you could start with the premise that each team plays a fixed number (six?, eight?) of intra-divisional games and build a schedule out from that to accommodate concerns over whether you wanted a team to face all 29 other teams in a season or if you wanted to designate another division for home-and-home games, etc.  In that respect the schedule might not look much different than what we have now, but the consequences of it change since it is the intra-divisional results that take on more meaning.

I was not much of a fan of the actions the league took in the 1990’s to abolish one connection with their history and to construct a divisional structure that mattered only in the context of the conference in which they competed. Completing that journey – abolishing divisions altogether – just does not seem to me to be the direction in which the NHL should go. I think it needs to establish an identity built around the restoration of the sort of rivalries that gave the league much of its personalities in the days of the Patrick, Adams, Norris, and Smythe divisions. I think it’s time to make divisions matter again for the players and for fans.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Rangers, February 25th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Hockey is back in DC after a two-week hiatus.

“Hi ate us?”

Yeah “hiatus”…a break, an interruption, a recess.

“The Caps went on recess? Did they play kick ball?”

Cheerless, you are as dumb as a box of rocks. Anyway, it’s hockey on a Friday night in…

“You know where the word ‘Friday’ came from, cuz?”

Oh, this oughtta be good.

"It’s a religious thing."

You mean, the day is named for a Norse pagan god, “Frigg?”

“No…jeez, get real. Friday? Fish? Lent? Fish ‘fry’?....FRY-day. You always make things so complicated, cuz.”

Well, while Cheerless contemplates matters of religion and days of the week, we’ll comtemplate tonight’s game. The New York Rangers come to town, clinging to a playoff spot despite having had a difficult month of February. The Rangers are 3-6-1 for the month, but are 3-2-0 in their last five games. Overall, their numbers going into last night’s action looked like this…

Looking at the numbers, the thing that jumps out from them is how much their profile resembles that of the Caps. Sixth and seventh in defense, 19th and 20th in scoring, 12th and 13th in 5-on-5 play, and so on. So why are the Caps sitting six points ahead of the Rangers? Well, even though the Rangers have ten extra time wins, it is their inability to get to that extra time that resulted in seven more losses in regulation for the Blueshirts, while the Caps managed six more points in extra time losses. It’s a rather thin margin.

And that could make for a close game tonight, even with the Rangers depleted by injuries to the likes of Ruslan Fedotenko, Chris Drury, and Marian Gaborik. Gaborik suffered a concussion, perhaps last Sunday against the Flyers, the latest in a series of injuries that has limited him to 47 games this season. His absence places more pressure on Rangers’ leading scorer Brandon Dubinsky (19-24-43 in 57 games), who comes into tonight’s game without a point in his last three contests after putting up a four-game points streak. One might be forgiven for thinking Dubinsky has been around for a long time, but he is still only 24 years old and in his fourth full season of play. In nine career games against the Caps he is 2-5-7.

Perhaps more important that Gaborik’s absence as a factor in tonight’s game is the possible absence of defenseman Marc Staal. He tweaked his knee against Carolina on Tuesday and did not practice with the team yesterday. He will be a game-time decision. Staal’s absence would be crippling. He is a minutes eater (almost 26 minutes a game), is one of the best shutdown defensemen in the league, and has added an offensive dimension to his game not present in his first couple of years. He is on a pace to finish with 30 points, which would be a career best, and finish plus-11, which would tie his career best. In the first three games of this season’s series with the Caps he has a goal and an assist and is a plus-2.

If you were asked, “who leads the Rangers in goals?,” your first inclination might be to respond, “Marian Gaborik.” Wrong. “OK, how about Dubinsky?” OK, he is, but only tied for the team lead. Know who the other player is? You’d stand there thinking a long time before you settled on Brian Boyle.

“Wasn’t he in ‘Caddyshack,’ cuz?”

No, that was Brian Doyle Murray. Brian Boyle was a first round draft pick once upon a time (26th overall, to Los Angeles in 2003), but after spending four years with Boston College in the NCAA, he had a tough time breaking in with the Kings. After skating for only 32 games in Los Angeles over two seasons, he was traded to the Rangers in June 2009 for a third round pick in the 2010 draft. Not the sort of deal that gets a lot of attention. And last season he did not give anyone cause to pay much more attention, because despite playing in 71 games for the Rangers he finished with only four goals and a pair of assists, skating about 15 minutes a game. This year, it’s been much different. He was fast out of the gate, recording ten goals by the end of November. He has not been as hot since – nine goals in 36 games since December 1st – but with 19 goals for the season (four of them on the power play), it isn’t just his size (6’7”, 244) that makes one pay attention.

And that brings us to Henrik…Hank…or “Henny,” if you are Stan Fischler, “The Hockey Maven.” That would be Henrik Lundqvist. The Rangers’ netminder has not had a vintage season, wins and losses wise (winning only 24 of 48 decisions), but his 2.30 goals against average and .920 save percentage are both 11th in the league. He shares the top spot in shutouts with Boston’s Tim Thomas (seven). There have been cracks, though, appearing in Lundqvist’s game recently. Not big ones, but certainly enough to make one wonder if the minutes are taking their toll (he has played more than 4,100 minutes in each of the past four seasons and has more than 2,800 so far this season). Since blanking the Toronto Maple Leafs, 7-0, on January 19th, he has allowed three or more goals in nine of 11 decisions (4-6-1). He split two decisions against the Caps in this year’s season series, playing to a 2.02 goals against average in doing so.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder:

New York: Dan Girardi

If Marc Staal cannot answer the bell tonight, the job falls to Dan Girardi to take up a bigger load to shut down the Caps. He is the Rangers’ top point-getter from the blueline (3-22-25), but he will have to play better in his own end than the 72 goals against he has been on the ice for this season – about 47 percent of the Rangers’ total – suggests.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

Ovechkin has looked much like his old self recently. In his last 15 games he is 9-8-17, plus-5, and he is on a four-game points streak, his longest since early November. He has power play goals in two of his last three games, which brings us to the point. He does not have a power play goal at Verizon Center this season. He has only 12 goals at home in 31 games. If he gets a goal or two, and especially if he gets one on a power play, it will be a big indicator that he is back.


1. Show up for 60 minutes…and maybe more. These two teams are among the league leaders in one-goal games played (32 for Washington, 31 for New York). These teams are likely to be hanging around one another all night…just so long as the Caps give a 60-minute effort…and maybe more.

2. Gather the wagons. The Rangers have outshot opponents 35 times in 62 games so far this season…and have a losing record in doing it (17 wins in 35 decisions). Keep those shots to the outside, and numbers won’t matter.

3. 60 minutes…part two. The Rangers have scored 39 first period goals this season, only one more than the 30th-ranked Caps in that measure. But they have scored 59 second period and 64 third-period goals (very similar to the Caps’ 61 and 60). They will be around at the finish. The Caps had better be, too.

In the end, these are teams that mirror one another quite closely in almost any number you care to use for comparison. Scoring, defense, special teams, the timing of the goals they score and allow. It’s like two cars speeding around a NASCAR track, one right on the tail of the other. And that is what will make playing a 60 minute game so important for the Caps. Sure, they would like to put on a show for the home folks after spending two weeks on the road, but this is the wrong team for that. The Rangers are not the kind of team that will play along in an up-and-down goal fest. This is one the Caps will have to earn the hard way.

Caps 3 – Rangers 2

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sittin' at the end of the bar...

Just some thoughts on a Thursday…

-- This looks like the first post-steroid season of home runs in baseball when you look at the goal-scoring leaders. Only one player – Steven Stamkos – is on a pace to top 50. No other player is on a pace for as many as 45 goals (yeah, we know…Crosby probably would have topped 50).

-- And look at that leader board…Ryan Kesler second in goals scored? Patrick Sharp (who is on a pace to shatter his career high of 36) is tied for fifth? Even Milan Lucic sitting there in a tie for 13th is a surprise, not to mention he has two more than Alex Ovechkin.

-- Speaking of Ovechkin, for all the grief he’s taken this year, he is still ninth in the league in scoring and a big night (five points) out of fifth. One third of the 24 goals he has are game winners (tied for tops in the league with Logan Couture).

-- If someone told you before the season started that as the NHL went into its last 20 games, Mike Green would be looking up at more than 40 (42, actually) defensemen with more points, would you have laughed hysterically in that person’s face?

-- Or if that person told you that Alex Ovechkin would be looking up at more than 70 players (73, actually) with more power play goals?

-- Or if that person told you that the Caps would have two goalies in the top 15 in goals against average?

-- In the “if you’re going to break the rules, smash ‘em to smithereens” category, George Parros of the Anaheim Ducks has only six minor penalties in 60 games this season. He has 22 majors.

-- The New York Islanders lead the entire NHL in at least one category, and it hurts (quite literally)….blocked shots. Ice bags all around!

-- Think Tampa Bay is a real contender? In games in which they score fewer than four goals they are 15-16-7. Only four teams in the NHL have more losses by three or more goals.

-- On the other side, which of these teams among the top three-or-more goal win rankings doesn’t fit?...Vancouver, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Nashville.

-- Only one NHL team has not shut a team out this season…Philadelphia.

-- Only one NHL team this season has not been shut out themselves…St. Louis.

-- Vancouver might lead the whole NHL in points, but when they are losing after the first period? They have lost every time (0-7-4), the only team in the NHL to do so this season. It just doesn’t happen too often to the Canucks.

-- And for those fans wanting to get a head start in traffic, the Ottawa Senators have only four wins all season when the other team scores first.

Drive Safely

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Search for "Sergei 2.0"

The press release on February 26, 2008 led with this…

“The Washington Capitals have acquired center Sergei Fedorov from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Washington draft pick Theo Ruth, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today.”

And thus, an important piece of the puzzle to finish the run the Caps had started when Bruce Boudreau took over for Glen Hanlon behind the bench was put in place. Fedorov’s numbers were not stunning in those late games of the 2007-2008 season with the Caps – 2-11-13, minus-2 in 18 games – but he provided stability and leadership in plugging a hole on the young Caps’ team.

Well, here we are again. The circumstances are different only in degree and consequence. In February 2008 the Caps were looking for that piece to provide a late spark for a successful run to the playoffs. Obtaining Fedorov (as well as goaltender Cristobal Huet and winger Matt Cooke) helped the Caps finish 14-4-0 after the trade and vaulted them into the playoffs.

This year, the Caps are looking for that piece of the puzzle that can launch them on a run deep into the playoffs and into position to win their first Stanley Cup. So, the question is, “Who might be Sergei 2.0?”

To answer that question, ask yourself what the profile is we are looking for here…

First, the player has to be available. That means a center on a club that is out of contention or sinking out of contention. In 2008 Fedorov was toiling for a Columbus Blue Jackets team that was 29-26-9 and in 11th place in the West (five points behind Nashville for eighth) on the day the trade was made. Even if your threshold is clubs that are more than five points out of a playoff spot (a margin that could be made up in ten days, under the right circumstances), you have a group of only seven teams to pick from this season: Toronto, Florida, New Jersey, the Islanders, Ottawa, Colorado, and Edmonton.

Second, the player has to be reasonably productive. Fedorov was, in some respects, a special case, a player bordering on legendary over most of his career. At 38 years old when traded to the Caps, he was clearly on the far down slope of his career, but still he posted nine goals and 28 points in 50 games for the Blue Jackets before the trade that season (a 15-31-46 point pace over 82 games for a struggling team). If you are looking at comparable (or reasonably better) production among players on non-contenders at this point, you’re looking at players such as Mikhail Grabovski in Toronto; Mike Santorelli (17-14-31 in 59 games), Stephen Weiss (16-24-40 in 58 games), or Marty Reasoner (11-14-25 in 59 games) in Florida; Jason Arnott (13-11-24 in 60 games) or Dainius Zubrus (13-11-24 in 59 games) in New Jersey; Josh Bailey (9-11-20 in 49 games) or Frans Nielsen (7-24-31 in 54 games) from the Islanders; Jason Spezza (10-16-26 in 39 games) or Peter Regin (3-14-17 in 55 games) from Ottawa; Ryan O’Reilly (5-11-16 in 52 games from Colorado; and Andrew Cogliano (9-15-24 in 60 games) or Shawn Horcoff (8-15-23 in 37 games) from Edmonton.

Third, you have to have a “get serious” moment. There are players in the group that are in their respective teams’ plans that would be untouchable or too hard to pry away, or have contracts that a team probably does not want to burden itself with, even for a rental. Taking that “get serious” deep breath, you can probably drop players like Grabovski, Santorelli, Bailey, Nielsen, Spezza, Regin, and O’Reilly from the group.

Fourth, you’d like a player with some miles. Not so many that he is running on fumes at this point in his career, but one who has the experience (and preferably playoff experience) to be able to understand and deal with what makes the playoffs a different creature from the regular season. That would make a player like Marty Reasoner (23 career playoff games) perhaps more attractive in this respect than a Stephen Weiss (no playoff game experience) in Florida. You might add Arnott (106 games of post season experience and a Stanley Cup) to the group before Zubrus (68 playoff games) from New Jersey. Edmonton’s Shawn Horcoff has 35 games of post season experience (including a trip to the Stanley Cup finals), while Andrew Cogliano has no such experience (and at 23 is probably too young and might still be in the Oilers’ plans).

So, we are down to Marty Reasoner, Jason Arnott, and Shawn Horcoff as our finalists in the “Sergei 2.0” challenge. Here is the tale of the tape…

As one might expect from players who might be available in trade, there are plusses and minuses with each. Arnott has the size to cope with the beasts of the East, Philly in particular. And, he has considerable playoff experience. He is the biggest scorer among the three over his previous three seasons. But he has never played on a team that plays at the pace of the Caps, at least not since he broke in with Edmonton in the mid 1990’s. Complicating the matter is the recent run of uncommon success by the New Jersey Devils that has propelled them to within shouting distance of a playoff spot (in 13th, nine points out of eighth). Jersey might not be inclined to move him, or would do so only for a high price likely to include players who could contribute now (unlike the price exacted for Fedorov – prospect Ted Ruth). He would be a rental with, given the Caps’ situation for the remainder of the season, an affordable rental (prorated $4.5 million cap hit).

Reasoner has enough size to compete and is a decent two-way center. Never having recorded as many as 25 assists in a season (and averaging 14 over his previous three seasons), is he a good-enough set up man to fill the need on the second line for the Caps. He would certainly be an upgrade over the current alternatives and would be a cheap rental (prorated $1.15 million cap hit), but one has the feeling that in the “filling the need” matter, he would fill it only a part of the way.

Horcoff has enough post-season experience (35 games) and can provide scoring punch (averaging 46 points over his last three seasons, one of which was limited to 59 games). But can he hold up his end at the other end (he is a minus-42 over his last five seasons, including this, although accommodations might be made considering the team he has played for). And, his 144 penalty minutes over 674 career games raises the question of whether he has the constitution to stick his nose into crowded spaces to get things done. This is complicated by the fact that he is not long in having come off a knee injury that sidelined him for 18 games. He also carries a $5.5 million cap hit through 2014-2015. That kind of cap hit for a player at 32 is one thing. At 37? Maybe not so much.

Of the three, Arnott looks like the best option from a hockey point of view; Horcoff or Reasoner easier to pry from their teams for lesser prices, although Horcoff has an unattractive contract. Looking at potential prices, Arnott was obtained by the Devils from Nashville last June for Matt Halischuk (who to date has played in 32 career NHL games) and a second round draft pick. Reasoner was traded twice last summer, the first time as part of the big Atlanta-Chicago deal that netted Dustin Byfuglien and others for the Thrashers (Reasoner, Joey Crabb, Jeremy Morin, and a first and second round pick for Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Bean Eager, and Akim Aliu), the second time traded by the Blackhawks to the Panthers for Jeff Taffe. Horcoff has played for no other NHL team but Edmonton in his ten NHL seasons.

Procuring the services of Sergei Fedorov, even at the late stages of his career, was a one-time event. A legend with some gas in the tank who could mentor a couple of young countrymen of whom big things were expected. That coincidence of circumstances is not likely to be repeated this year, or any other year. You, dear reader, might quibble with who we settled on as a potential successor to that role, but keep in mind that was the object of this exercise – Sergei 2.0. If you are thinking of someone else to fill the second line center role (and the astute hockey fan reading this almost certainly will be).  You might have a point, but you are also talking about a player probably outside the parameters for the comparison we chose to undertake.

What it comes down to, and this is something we think all of us can agree on, is that there is no “Sergei 2.0” likely to be found out there. This year is a particularly thin year for finding someone who could assume that second line center role for the Caps. But finding a solution to that problem is why George McPhee makes the big bucks. Maybe he can pull a rabbit out of his hat.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Anatomy of a Streak

The Washington Capitals have compiled a 10-0-2 record against the Pittsburgh Penguins over the last three regular seasons. It is the longest streak of games with points earned by a team in this series since the Caps went 15-0-1 from October 1983 to November 1985. What is more, in the 12-game streak the Caps have not lost to Pittsburgh in the hockey portion of either extra time games they lost, falling as a result of Bettman’s Miracle, once in March 2009 and again last December. Some other things of interest (well, to Caps fans) about the streak…

-- The Caps have outscored the Penguins, 47-27, over the 12 games.
-- The Caps’ power play is 12/40 (30.0 percent).
-- The penalty kill is 84.2 percent (48 for 57).
-- Doing the arithmetic, the Penguins have enjoyed 17 more power play opportunities than have the Caps in the 12 games…conspiracy theorists, have a blast.
-- The Caps do have three shorthanded goals, so there is that.
-- 16 different skaters have goals for the Caps in the streak, including five players no longer with the club: Tomas Fleischmann (four), Shaone Morrisonn (one), Sergei Fedorov (one), Michael Nylander (one), and Viktor Kozlov (one).
-- 26 different players have points, including eight no longer with the team: the aforementioned five plus Brendan Morrison, Eric Belanger, and Quintin Laing.
-- Although one might have the impression that the shot totals favored Pittsburgh heavily, the shots are almost the same over the 12 games – 380 for Washington, 375 for Pittsburgh; each team had the higher number of shots on goal in six of the games.
-- The Caps have held the Penguins to three goals or fewer in 11 of the 12 games.
-- They have scored four or more in six of the games and won by a 6-3 margin in three of them.
-- The Caps’ scoring over the 12 games looks like this:

An interesting fact… of Alex Ovechkin’s 13 goals against the Penguins in this streak, only one was a game-winning goal – last night’s rocket in the 1-0 win. Of his 13 goals, six have come on the power play, and two were empty net goals.

Mike Knuble almost deserves his own section. OK, he does deserve his own section…

-- Knuble continued his career as a Penguin killer – seven goals in the 12 games, and he only played in the last eight of them (he played for the Flyers in the 2008-2009 season).
-- Seven of the 43 goals Mike Knuble has scored as a Cap have come at the expense of the black and Vegas gold.
-- There is a “Mario-like” quality to his goal scoring performance. Among his seven goals he had three even-strength goals, two power play tallies, a shorthanded goal, and an empty netter. Nope…no penalty shots, but he does have a shootout goal.
-- Last night was the first time in his career as a Cap that he did not record a goal against Pittsburgh; he had single-goal performances in each of the previous seven games of this series.

The Caps have ten wins in this points-earned streak. Nine of the wins came in the hockey portion of the show (one came via The Gimmick). In the nine wins the Caps had eight different game-winning goal scorers: Sergei Fedorov, Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley, Mike Knuble (Knuble also had the winner in the lone Caps Gimmick win), Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Tomas Fleischmann (twice). They have spread things around.

It has not been often over the last two decades that a Caps fan can think of the rivalry with the Penguins in terms of dominance on the part of the Caps. Even if it is “only” the regular season (there being that pesky nonsense of the Penguins winning all but one playoff series between the clubs), it’s nice to look back on the last 12 games of this series and think, as a Caps fan…

…ahhhhhhhhh, sweet.

Quote o' the Day...

"We created a lot of chances, a lot of opportunities, but the goalie did a good job of keeping us from the second rebounds."

-- Jordan Staal, Pittsburgh Penguins

Compare that to this quote...

"This goalie isn't that good, all right? He will give us rebounds, he has, and he will give us cheesy ones on the net."

That was Dan Bylsma, Penguins coach, describing the same goaltender in a game between the Caps and Penguins last December 23rd.

Sometimes, you don't want to poke the bear.  Or in this case, the "ex-Bear," Caps goalie (and former Hershey Bear) Michal Neuvirth

A TWO-point night -- Game 61: Caps 1 - Penguins 0

Sometimes, it takes only one.

The Washington Capitals got a second period power play goal from Alex Ovechkin, and goaltender Michal Neuvirth made it stand up by turning away all 39 shots he faced to give the Caps a 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Caps’ first visit to Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

Ovechkin got his goal on the Caps’ third power play of the contest when Marcus Johansson gloved a loose puck out of the air, skated across the zone, and laid the puck out like a batting practice fastball where Ovechkin could lean into one. Ovechkin did just that (taking a swing that many other times might have resulted in a broken stick) and beat goalie Marc-Andre Fleury cleanly.

It was turnaround being fair play for Ovechkin and Fleury, reversing the fortune of a first period play when Nicklas Backstrom backhanded a stretch pass through the middle to spring Ovechkin on a partial breakaway. Ovechkin managed to skate in and get a clean backhand opportunity on Fleury, but the puck was deftly turned away by Fleury’s blocker to keep the game scoreless.

At the other end, Neuvirth played as if he has a very long memory. One got the feeling that he still harbored resentment at the disparaging comments of Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma in the Pittsburgh locker room the first time these teams met this season (captured on the HBO 24/7 series). And he had his moments, none bigger than when he robbed Jordan Staal with a fabulous glove save in the first period after a fine set up from Brett Sterling then foiled a shorthanded breakaway by Staal less than a minute before Ovechkin’s goal. He came up big in the end, too, stopping all 14 shots he faced from the Penguins in the third period to record his third shutout of the season, second in his last two appearances against Pittsburgh.

Other stuff…

-- Neuvirth, Ovechkin, and Fleury were the stars and rightly so, but Marcus Johansson had a fine game, too. He drew the penalty that led to the successful power play (by driving to the net) and set up the game-winner.

-- The Caps have now beaten the Penguins in three arenas this season (Verizon Center, Heinz Field, and Consol Energy Center) in extending their regular season run to 10-0-2 over the Penguins in their last 12 games.

-- Surprised that the Caps held the Penguins without a goal? Well, consider that no Penguin taking the ice had scored a goal against the Caps in the previous three games between the clubs. The three (that’s right, kids…three, in three games) goals were scored by Sidney Crosby, Yevgeni Malkin, and Chris Kunitz, all of whom were on the shelf last night.

-- That makes 97:47 of shutout hockey against the Penguins (and counting) since Malkin’s goal at 2:13 of the second period in the Winter Classic (edit: make that 157:47, as an astute reader pointed out...we jumped right past one of the shutouts). Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov have stopped the last 76 shots on goal taken by the Penguins.

-- Ovechkin had 19 shot attempts, eight shots on goal, and one tally (but for the fine effort of Marc-Andre Fleury in goal for the Pens, Ovechkin might have had a hat trick). He had a third of the Caps’ shots on goal (eight of 24) and 19 of the 51 shot attempts for the night. He was ready.

-- The score sheet looks mighty sparse for Scott Hannan in this one – a minor penalty and a shot attempt that was blocked. But he was a rock in more than 23 minutes of ice time, including 1:57 of the last 3:01 of the game.

-- And speaking of ice time…who led the Caps’ defensemen in shorthanded ice time? Karl Alzner and John Carlson, that’s who (3:18 apiece of the 6:00 minutes in shorthanded ice time). As you figured out, the Pens did not succeed on any of their three power plays.

-- 64 hits. Sometimes, that stat is as much a product of an over-zealous scorekeeper, but last night it seemed about right. Neither of these teams takes any of these games lightly. They bring a lunch and a tool box, ready for work.

-- If faceoffs are an indicator of zone dominance, the Penguins had it all over the Caps in this one. There were 30 faceoffs in the Caps’ defensive zone last night, 12 in the Penguins’ defensive zone. There is a chicken and egg matter of so many shots stopped by Neuvirth leading to draws, but that too is a product of the zone dominance exhibited by Pittsburgh.

-- If anything, the flow and shot differential was reminiscent of the first two games of the 2009 playoffs when the Caps won two games against Pittsburgh despite getting mauled for 72 shots on goal against. The difference, those games were in Washington, this one in Pittsburgh.

-- Marc-Andre Fleury kept the Penguins in the game. Having defensemen by the name of Strait, Engelland, and Lovejoy in front of him, there was the potential to suffer a lack of support. But give credit to the Penguins’ overall defense, too (including Strait, Engelland, and Lovejoy), in holding the Caps to only 51 shot attempts.

-- D.J. King…six shifts (none in the third period), two hits, 4:25 in ice time. Just thought we’d point that out. That’s not his problem. It just makes us wonder what the point was in making the trade to get him…was it more about moving Stefan Della Rovere?

-- Mathieu Perreault played only 8:09 for the game and took only one shift in the third period (that coming at the 1:01 mark).

-- OK, it’s nice that the Caps scored a power play goal, the third straight game in which they have done so (3-for-9). But while they had five shots on goal on their three man advantages, the Penguins had four shorthanded shots and a couple of excellent scoring chances. On the five-game road trip the Caps allowed seven shorthanded shots on goal and two goals.

In the end, a 3-2-0 road trip is not bad. And, the six goals allowed in Anaheim aside (in a win), seven goals allowed in four games isn’t bad either. The cherry on the sundae, though, is ending the road trip with the win in Pittsburgh that not only extends the points-earned streak to 12 games against the Penguins (10-0-2), but it was the second consecutive shutout of the Penguins after not blanking them in 79 consecutive games against them (dating back to an 8-0 whitewashing of the Penguins on October 29, 1991).

The win allowed the Caps to climb to within a point of the Tampa Bay Lightning for the lead in the Southeast Division. Tampa has two games in hand on Washington and will play again (hosting Phoenix on Wednesday) before the Caps take the ice again on Friday against the Rangers. But with the season series against the Penguins now in the rear view mirror, the battle is joined with the Lightning to see if the Caps can make it four straight Southeast Division crowns.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps at Penguins, February 21st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Finally, after four games over seven days, trips back and forth across the continent covering 5,105 miles, and splitting those four games into two wins and two losses, the Caps find themselves at the end – or perhaps the bottom, given the locale – of their longest road trip of the season.

Welcome to Pittsburgh, where among other things…

-- There are more bridges than any other city in the world, except Venice, Italy
-- The first emoticon was created (for the record, the “smiley”) by Scott Fahlman of Carnegie-Mellon University
-- The “Big Mac” was invented by local McDonald’s franchise owner James Delligatti
-- The game of “Bingo” was created
-- The “banana split” was invented (ok, it was actually in Latrobe, but close)
-- The city motto is “benigno numine,” or “by the favor of the Heavens.”

We’re thinking the Penguins’ motto should be “benigno bettmane.”

The Caps get an opportunity to break in Consol Energy Center the right way in this, their first visit to the Palace on Fifth Avenue (no, not that Fifth Avenue). And they will be hosted by a team that has been decimated by injury. Although the total numbers for the Penguins look rather good compared to those of the Caps…

…it bears noting that 85 of the 174 goals the Penguins have scored so far this season are on injured reserve. It means that the Penguins’ top three goal scorers are out and that their leading goal-scorer to dress for this game is likely to be Tyler Kennedy (12). Kennedy, a somewhat undersized fire plug of a player, has elevated his offensive game in the absence of the big scorers. He has five goals in his last nine games and points in six of nine. What he does not have, however, is a goal against the Caps – this year or any other year. In 13 career games against the Caps he is 0-2-2.

Matt Cooke is second on the Penguins in goals, at least among players likely to dress on Monday. He has never been considered much of a scorer, but over his last 26 games he is 7-6-13. Not a bad level of production for essentially a third line forward. But what overshadows his occasional contribution on the scoreboard is his interminable effort to retire the title of “Dirtiest Player in the NHL.” Cooke has 36 minutes in penalties in his last five games. And his rap sheet in those five games is a snapshot of the image fans have of him – two ten-minute misconducts, a five for fighting, a five for charging, two two-minute roughing calls, and a two-minute penalty for tripping. For the year he has nine roughing penalties, three fighting majors, a charging penalty, three boarding calls, a slash, a kneeing, a high-sticking penalty…you get the idea. When he is not the one committing the penalty, beware of him on the penalty kill – he has three shorthanded goals so far this year. In 18 career games against the Caps he has a goal and three assists…oh, and “only” 14 penalty minutes.

By comparison, Pascal Dupuis – the only other Penguin likely to play on Monday with at least ten goals – might be better named “Placid” Dupuis, even though he has 57 penalty minutes in his 59 games. His scoring has gone dark lately. Since getting the game-winner against Carolina on January 22nd, Dupuis has not lit the lamp in his last 11 games. He has only two goals in his last 25 games. However, Dupuis does have the only game-winning “goal” for the Penguins in the last seven contests between the teams, a Gimmick tally in the Penguins’ 3-2 win on December 23rd.

The Caps have their kiddie defensemen – John Carlson and Karl Alzner (193 regular season games played between them) – and the Penguins have theirs, although it is a relative term given the veteran blue line help the Penguins signed in the offseason. Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang each have played in all 60 games for the Penguins this season, 454 career games between them. Both have been productive offensively this season (Goligoski being 9-22-31, Letang 8-37-45), both have had success on the power play (each with four goals), both have been responsible enough overall (Letang is plus-16, Goligoski plus-19). And of the 32 game-winning goals for the Pens this season, they have six of them between them. Letang is 1-4-5 in 13 career games against the Caps; Goligoski is 1-2-3 in nine career games against Washington.

With Marc-Andre Fleury getting the nod in Chicago yesterday, Brent “Rocky” Johnson might be getting his first crack at the Caps this season. If you haven’t been paying attention, and odds are that you haven’t, Johnson is second in the league in penalty minutes this season among goaltenders, all of his 24 minutes earned in his last four appearances, and 22 of those coming in two games against the Islanders (no coincidence, the league leader in PIMs among goalies is the Islanders’ Rick DiPietro). Ten of the penalty minutes came courtesy of these tender moments captured on video…

The odd part of those two games against the Islanders for Johnson was that he had 20 saves in each. In the first, 20 saves on 20 shots in a 3-0 shutout in Pittsburgh. In the second, though, it was 20 saves on 27 shots in only 44 minutes of work in a 9-3 loss to the Islanders on Long Island. Until that second game, Johnson had put together quite a season as Marc-Andre Fleury’s backup – a 1.90 GAA and .929 save percentage, numbers that deteriorated to 2.27 and .917 after the adventure on Long Island. Johnson has not played since giving up those seven goals to the Islanders. In seven lifetime appearances against the Caps he is 4-2-0 with a 2.05 goals against average.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Pittsburgh: Jordan Staal

Jordan Staal has logged a ton of ice time since coming back from his own injuries that kept him out of the lineup until appearing in the Winter Classic on January 1st. In 21 games since he has averaged almost 21 minutes a game, and in his last nine games has averaged almost 24 minutes a game. That includes yesterday’s game in which he skated 20:45 before taking a puck to the face (it is uncertain whether he will play). With Sidney Crosby and Yevgeni Malkin out, Staal is the man in the middle for the Penguins. He has stepped up his game lately with three goals and three assists in his last five games. The question is, though, with all the additional minutes and the heavier offensive burden he has to carry, will it affect his play as one of the top defensive centers in the NHL? And if he is out, who centers Pittsburgh’s top line?

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom has had a problem very similar to Alex Ovechkin’s over much of the season. For long stretches, Ovechkin has not been able to score goals. In Backstrom’s case, it has been a lack of assists. Perhaps these are two sides of the same coin, but Backstrom has only two assists (both in the 7-6 slugfest in Anaheim last week) in his last seven games, only four in his last 11 games. When he is setting things up, the Caps are successful; he has 30 assists in 30 wins so far this season. When he isn’t? Well…eight helpers in 29 losses. He has 21 assists in 15 career games against the Penguins.


1. Play against the logo, not the names. The name plates on the back might say “Sterling,” “Conner,” and “Vitale” as they did in the game against Chicago yesterday, and they are 2-4-1 in their last seven games, but these are still the Penguins. Take them lightly, and it could be an embarrassing night.

2. No hanging around. Of the last seven Penguin wins, six have been of the one-goal variety. If the Caps let these guys hang around, they have been resilient enough to pull out wins.

3. Never give up, never surrender. The Caps have the second best record in the league when trailing first. Of course, this might be a product of getting so much practice. Only six teams have allowed the first goal more often than the Caps, who have done it 34 times in 60 games. In the two games the Penguins scored goal in this year’s season series (they were shutout once), they scored first. The Caps are 1-0-1 in those games.

In the end, the Caps are 9-0-2 in their last 11 regular season games against the Penguins. It is the longest points-earned streak of games in the history of this series since the Caps went 15-0-1 against the Penguins from October 25, 1983 through November 20, 1985 (and you young folks think the Penguins always won these games). Given the relative states of health on the respective rosters, the Caps should extend this streak. What is more, the Penguins might be showing cracks in the strongest part of their game – penalty killing. They are 31-for-37 on the PK this month (83.8 percent) and 11-for-16 (68.8 percent) in their last four games.

The Caps might not be at the top of their game, but the Penguins just are not (or should not be) healthy enough or talented enough to keep up. This could be the chance for a breakout. The Penguins’ best hope might be if Brent Johnson beats up Alex Ovechkin.

Caps 5 – Penguins 2

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A TWO-point afternoon -- Game 60: Caps 2 - Sabres 1

As many times as the Washington Capitals gave up standings points for less than sterling efforts this year, this time they managed to escape Buffalo with a pair of points with a less-than-spectacular effort as they defeated the Sabres, 2-1, this afternoon before a national “Hockey Day in America” television audience.

As frustrating as the last couple of months have been for the Caps and their fans (12-13-8 since December 1st), this ugly sort of contest might be the kind of game to turn things around for the last quarter of the season.

The Caps got goals from the two players who, for the moment, are competing for ice time on scoring lines to get the win. After a scoreless first period, Mathieu Perreault got the Caps off and running in the second by taking advantage of an imperfection in the rink. Matt Hendricks sent the puck deep into the Buffalo zone where it hit a support along the boards and rebounded into the slot in front of Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. Perreault cut behind Tyler Ennis where he was in position to receive the loose puck and snapped it past Miller before he could reset himself after starting to play what he thought would be a puck behind his own net.

Buffalo tied it on a power play less than three minutes later when Jason Pominville wristed a rising shot through a Scott Hannan screen (yes, he plays for the Caps) and over goalie Semyon Varlamov’s left shoulder.

The game remained tied until the 11th minute of the third period when Alex Ovechkin settled a puck in his own zone by bouncing it off his stick, catching it and dropping it to the ice. He skated the puck up ice into the Sabres’ zone where he fired it toward Miller. A rebound squirted out to the other side where it was found by Mathieu Perreault. Perreault sent the puck back toward Miller, but on the way it was deflected by Marcus Johansson enough to elude Miller for the power play goal and a lead that the Caps would hold over the last 9:40 of the contest.

Other stuff…

-- Five power plays, 12 shots on goal. They scored on their last shot, a deflection by a player passing in front of the goaltender. One-for-five is nice (20 percent), but this power play is just gawd awful these days (11.1 percent over their last 35 games).

-- With an assist today, Alex Ovechkin has 19 points in his last 19 games, 16 points in his last 14 games, and five points so far through four games on this road trip. He is getting back to the production to which fans are accustomed. Now, if the rest of the scorers could find their stride.

-- 39 shots on goal, but only five in the third period. Fatigue at the end of a long (distance-wise) road trip?

-- Odd Mathieu Perreault stat…he scored at 10:20 of the third period. He did not get another shift for the remainder of the game.

-- Few players cram as much action into their time on ice as Matt Hendricks and Matt Bradley (Matt Squared?). Barely 20 minutes between them, four hits, a blocked shot, a couple of shots on goal, an assist.

-- Karl Alzner…no shot attempts, no hits, even. And no goals scored when he’s on the ice. If no one is mentioning Karl Alzner’s name, he’s probably having a good game. He had one today.

-- Speaking of which…one goal lead in the last minute, and which pair is on the ice for the Caps. Yeah, Alzner and John Carlson.

-- In the last 13 minutes the Sabres did not get a shot on goal from inside of 30 feet. Pretty good collapsing of the defense around Varlamov.

-- Caps have allowed a power play goal in each of their last four games; longest streak since giving up PP goals in seven straight during eight game winless streak in December.

-- Caps had 39 shots on goal, but only five from defense, and Carlson had three of those. Three defensemen had no shots on goal (Alzner, Schultz, Sloan). Alzner and Sloan had no attempts. Not complaining, since the Caps gave up only one goal…just an odd result given the high volume of total shots.

-- Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson are still competing for that scoring line center position. They have seven and nine goals, respectively, after today’s game. This afternoon was the only game this season in which both recorded a goal in the same game.

In the end, it was two points the Caps needed. Yeah, it was the 13th time in 21 games in 2001 in which the Caps have scored two or fewer goals, but it was also the 13th time they allowed two or fewer goals in that span. If the Caps can get the power play going, they are likely to reverse that two-or-fewer goals scored number. Today might have been an encouraging sign in that the power play game-winner gave the Caps power play goals in consecutive games for only the second time since their first two games of December.

Today’s power play was a testament to perseverance. It was plainly awful in the first four tries, all of them coming in the first period when the Caps had a chance to get a lead and end the competitive portion of the afternoon. They had nine shots on those four power plays, but except for a marvelous glove save by Ryan Miller on one shot, the shots seemed once more aimed at the goalie’s pads. The Caps just look too tentative in shooting the puck, even when they have a mind to do just that.

Still, it is results that count, and two points is two points. The win puts the Caps in position to close to within three of Pittsburgh for fourth and within one of Southeast Division leader Tampa Bay as the Caps end the road trip with their first visit to Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh tomorrow. It is a chance to make it a successful road trip when things looked a bit bleak earlier in the week after the west coast portion of the trip.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A NO-point night -- Game 59: Sharks 3 - Caps 2

When we closed the preview to last night’s Caps-Sharks game by saying it would be “a return to normalcy,” losing was not what we had in mind. But the Caps did lose again – their fourth loss in five games – this time by a 3-2 count to the Sharks, extending their winless streak in San Jose to 11 games (0-10-1) since last beating the Sharks on the left coast in 1993.

The Caps got off on the wrong foot early, allowing a shorthanded goal to Joe Pavelski with less than two minutes remaining in the first period. But Alex Ovechkin got it back 22 seconds later on the same Washington power play – their only man advantage of the game – to get the Caps even at the first intermission.

That is how it remained until the third period when, in all too similar fashion to the last time these teams met, the Sharks put up a pair of goals. Ryan Clowe potted a backhand 4:27 into the third period, and Dany Heatley provided some insurance in the 11th minute of the period by getting a power play goal for the Sharks, their first in six games.

The Sharks needed that insurance as Nicklas Backstrom provided his own “Ovechkin” moment with under two minutes to go, when he collected a pass from John Carlson outside the San Jose blue line, curled into the offensive zone, cut to the middle, and wristed the puck past Sharks goalie Antti Niemi to make things interesting.

But the Caps could get only one more shot on goal in the last 1:55, a diving wrist shot by Ovechkin with nine seconds left that was turned away, and the Caps skated off with their losing streak in San Jose extended for another season.

Other stuff…

-- Nicklas Backstrom was 7-for-20 on draws last night. He was having a brutal game in that regard. So why, with 2.9 seconds left, was he taking the draw to the left of Antti Niemi against Joe Thornton instead of David Steckel, who leads the league in faceoff winning percentage? It’s not as if there was a lot of time for Steckel to display his offensive skills; all one might expect – or want – in that situation is to have him give the Caps a chance to get a shot off with a faceoff win.

-- Steckel took one draw last night (he lost it), which might have been the strangest statistic in a game that didn’t feature many memorable moments.

-- In the space of about 27 hours the Caps went from one end of the spectrum to the other in terms of hockey style. From the fire wagon hockey of the 7-6 goal-fest against the Anaheim Ducks that resembled the video game from hell, to the 3-2 result last night that at times looked more like two old farts playing checkers in the park.

-- The Caps had 44 shot attempts last night, and Ovechkin has almost a third of them (13, seven of them on goal).  He seems to be getting his game back, or at least seems more energized.  Now, about the rest of the guys...

-- Speaking of shots, the Caps had the right guys taking them for the most part (Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble had 14 of the 25 shots for Washington), but it would have been nice if “Mr. Hat Trick” could follow up Wednesday’s thrill ride with more than a single shot on goal, that one coming almost 58 minutes into the game.

-- John Carlson’s stat line looked pretty good, especially in the absence of Mike Green – two assists, two shots on goal, three blocked shots in almost 24 minutes of ice time. But he got his feet tangled up on the point long enough to lose the puck to Patrick Marleau, who sped off and set up Joe Pavelski for the shorthanded goal that opened the scoring.

-- Carlson was on the ice for four of the five goals scored in this game. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad…and sometimes it’s both (two for each team).

-- Marcus Johansson got as complete an audition as he has had lately as a scoring line center. He got 18:18 of ice time last night (and won nine of 14 draws), the most he has had since getting his career high of 22 minutes and change against Ottawa 13 games ago. In his last four games, he has 14:24, 16:45, 17:10, and 18:18. Is this a final shakedown to see if the Caps need to pull the trigger on a trade to shore up that second line center position?

-- One power play opportunity… So far in 2011 the Caps have had more than three power play opportunites only five times in 20 games (averaging 2.7 game). Their success was their first in their last six games (0-for-17 in the five games preceding this one).

-- The Caps lost a game when scoring a power play goal. That’s news. They were 18-2-4 in games in which they scored a power play goal before last night, and having won three of four when allowing a shorthanded goal, as they did last night, they were 21-3-4 in games in which a goal was scored on a Caps power play.

-- Jason Chimera played only 11:22 last night, only 2:25 in the third period and not at all in the last 6:42. He is without a point in his last six games and is a minus-6 in that span, having seen his ice time cut by about a third over the last three games.

-- Three games in four nights and this being the second of a back-to-back might have taken its toll. Not only did the Caps allow those two third period goals, the Sharks outshot the Caps 14-7 in the period. They just had more jump.

-- You could say Michal Neuvirth had a “meh” performance, but the thing that is starting to bite into his GAA and save percentage is that he and his teammates have allowed a power play goal in each of his last three appearances (which would be the team’s last three games, the penalty kill going only 4-for-7). The penalty kill has sustained the Caps to the meager degree they have been able to get wins in 2011 (8-7-5 overall). That can’t falter, not unless the Caps start scoring more often on their own power play.

In the end, if you define a “successful” road trip as breaking even, the Caps now have to get three points in their last two games of this trip for it to be successful (yes, we know…Bruce Boudreau defined success as going 4-0-1). That will be a tough chore, seeing as those games are back-to-back contests against a rejuvenated Buffalo team and a resilient Penguins squad.

There might be a temptation to look at the last two games as say, “look what going all-offense did?” Well, having a banana split is nice, but you’re not going to want it at every meal. The Caps went back to eating their vegetables last night, and but for a stumble on the part of one player and an inability to force an opponent to go shorthanded might have been rewarded. They “played” better in many respects than they did against Anaheim in the 7-6 win the previous night, even to keeping their wits about them when San Jose was playing “boring.” They just didn’t win the game.

And no, that is no consolation. But they are likely to win more games by a 3-2 score than they are by 7-6 margins.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Sharks February 17th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!


"What’s wrong, cuz? Had to much to drink last night?"

Uh-uh… I OD’ed on goals.


Yeah… 13 of ‘em. All those flashing red lights… I felt like I was watching a crime scene.

“Well, that Anaheim goalie…his play was a crime.”

The Caps’ kiddie pair wasn’t much better… six goals on 21 shots? Ughhh…

"Cuz…ya know we got another game tonight to preview…."


It’s another sunny day in California as the Caps complete their first set of back-to-backs inside of a week, tonight taking on the San Jose Sharks in a rematch of a battle between these teams only nine days ago. Since that 2-0 win over the Caps, the Sharks have split four games. In doing so they extended a trend Caps fans would be familiar with – an inability to score goals. Over their last six games heading into tonight’s contest with the Caps the Sharks have scored a total of 12 goals. Fortunately for the Sharks, they have allowed only seven goals in that span, getting two shut outs along the way in posting a 4-2-0 record. The overall numbers look like this…

Antti Niemi authored both shutouts, one against Boston, the other against the Caps. He was the goaltender of record in all six games, stopping of 163 of 171 shots on goal (.953). He is 1-0-1, 1.967, 2.03 career versus the Caps.

San Jose brings five 40-point scorers into this game, topped by Dany Heatley and Joe Thornton at 47 points apiece. Heatley is in his second season in San Jose, and while he has posted decent numbers (58 goals and 129 points in 140 games), he is not the efficient point producer he was in Ottawa, where he had a pair of 100-plus point seasons. But even with those seasons, Heatley has dropped in production to where he is about a point a game player. At the moment he is 1-3-4 in his last 11 games. In 31 career games against the Caps he is 11-23-34.

Thornton is another player whose production has slipped a bit in recent years. After going 42-164-206 in his first 140 games with the Sharks, he dropped to 96 points in the 2007-2008 season, following that up with seasons of 86 and 89 points. He is on a pace for a 69 point finish this season. He, like Heatley, is 1-3-4 in his last 11 games. In 32 career games against Washington he is 12-19-31.

Marc-Edouard Vlasic gave indications early in his career that he might grow into something of an offensive defenseman. He had a 26-point season in his rookie year and followed that up two years later with a 6-30-36 scoring line. But over the past two seasons he has only 28 points in 122 games. The drop in points has been a product of a lack of helpers. He certainly has had his troubles lately getting points, failing to record a goal since December 18th, a span of 25 games. He is plus-2 over that same stretch, though. He is 1-1-2 in five career games against Washington.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

San Jose: Logan Couture

Logan Couture comes into this game second among all rookies in scoring (24-12-36). Since getting the game-winner in the 2-0 win over the Caps nine days ago he seems to have hit a bit of a rough patch, going 0-1-1 in four games since then. Three of the last five goals he has are game-winners. But he’s struggled a bit at home, only 6-4-10 in 24 home games (versus 18-8-26 on the road).

Washington: Whoever gets the call in goal

After last night’s bizarre game, either of Semyon Varlamov or Michal Neuvirth have to shake off the poor effort (compounded by poor play in front of them) against Anaheim. Neuvirth has not allowed more than three goals in consecutive appearances this year; neither has Varlamov.


1. Don’t get happy. Seven goals is nice. But not when you’re in a game trading them with your opponent. San Jose is a different animal; resist the temptation to take shortcuts and cheat toward getting out of the zone early.

2. Focus! Last time these two teams met, it looked as if goalie Michal Neuvirth lost his edge a bit in the third period. He – or Semyon Varlamov – has to play 60 minutes, just like the skaters.

3. Don’t read the history book. The Caps have not won in San Jose since October 30… 1993. They are 0-9-1 in San Jose since that win. The have been outscored 18-5 in their last four visits there. Don’t dwell on it. That’s our job.

In the end, how do you follow up the journey into the Twilight Zone last night? Put it away and dig out the tape to watch over a few beers years from now, because this ain’t the 80’s, and teams aren’t going to be successful winning games 7-6. The Caps are still in search of that happy medium where they play responsibly, yet dynamically. The Caps are likely to face a better goaltender than what they faced last evening, and they need to be sure they are solid in their own end, too. A return to normalcy…sort of.

Caps 4 – Sharks 2

A TWO-point night -- Game 58: Caps 7 - Ducks 6

You want to tell me what the hell THAT was?!

The Caps beat the Anaheim Ducks last night, or rather “outlasted” them, 7-6 in a goal-fest in Anaheim. It was like watching Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa trading head shots over 15 rounds. Getzlaf on an early power play goal…Ovechkin splits the defense and scores…Laich picks off a pass attempt and converts the gift…Selanne, then Lydman, then Perry for the Ducks…now it’s Semin and Steckel for the Caps…

By the time it was over, it was Alexander Semin getting the tying and winning goals on his way to a hat trick to give the Caps the win in a game that treated goaltenders like they were playing in the All Star Game.

Other stuff…

-- Anaheim led 1-0, 4-2, 5-4, and 6-5…and lost. That’s gonna hurt.

-- Caps gave up six goals on 21 shots over 45:51. They did not allow a shot on goal in the last 14:09 of the game. They had only two shot attempts in that time (both blocked). See? They can play defense.

-- The hat trick by Alexander Semin was his fourth of the season, tying a record for the team held by Peter Bondra (1995-96) and Dennis Maruk (1980-81, 1981-82).

-- The 13 total goals was the most scored by both teams in a Caps game since the Caps beat Ottawa, 8-6, on December 29, 2007.

-- The Caps had only two power plays and had only one power play shot on goal, which did not find the back of the net. The Ducks also had one shot on the Caps power play… and scored.

-- Cam Fowler was on the ice for five of the seven Caps goals on his way to a minus-5. That makes him minus-18 for the year. Last among rookie defensemen.

-- At the other end of the spectrum, John Carlson was plus-4. He is now plus-17, second among rookie defensemen.

-- Lost in the hoopla was that Karl Alzner set a personal career high with three assists, his first multi-point game since December 6, 2008.

-- The Caps were guilty of trying to play too much defense by moving their sticks (taking swipes at passing Duck players) instead of moving their feet.

-- And top of that, while neither goalie was sharp for the Caps, it didn’t help that the skaters in front of them were setting screens almost as good as what Anaheim was setting, or deflecting pucks into their own net.

-- Seven hits for Luca Sbisa? Well, he does lead the Ducks’ defensemen in hits.

-- John Erskine came to the defense of teammate Matt Hendricks, who was plastered into the end boards from behind by Andy Sutton. Erskine got an instigator, a fighting major, and a 10-minute misconduct for his trouble – 17 minutes in penalties. That ended his night.

-- That meant that Scott Hannan and John Carlson had to log more than 25 minutes, Karl Alzner and Jeff Schultz more than 22 minutes.

-- Jason Chimera had a short night, too. He was whistled for goaltender interference at 8:46 of the third period and didn’t get onto the ice again in the last 11:14.

In the end, a truly bee-zarre game. A throwback, a reminder of what a lot of games were like in the mid-1980’s (the Caps, for example, played 12 games in 1985-86 in which at least ten goals were scored by both teams). It was nice to see the Caps break out, but not at the expense of a .714 save percentage on only 21 shots on goal. The Caps’ defense seemed to right itself late, after a time out taken by Bruce Boudreau. Allowing no shots on goal in the last 14:09 is pretty good, even in a game with as many goals as this, especially when it does come to close out the game. They will need that kind of tighter defensive play against the San Jose Sharks as the Caps look to sweep the first of two back-to-backs they play over the next week.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Problem is Still a Problem

The 2011 trading deadline is approaching for the National Hockey League, and no fan base waits with more anticipation for what might transpire than that of the Washington Capitals. The Caps filled one hole via trade this season already with the acquisition of defenseman Scott Hannan for forward Tomas Fleischmann in late November.

But what remains is something a lot of folks think of as a bigger hole, that of the center position behind Nicklas Backstrom. The Caps have held auditions for the part this season, including one for the traded Fleischmann. Since Fleischmann was traded, the focus shifted to giving a pair of rookies – Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault – an opportunity to grab the job by the throat.

In principle, the strategy made sense. Two rookies competing for the same job and with enough games remaining in the regular season to give coaches a comprehensive look at their plusses and minuses. And, since the Caps were an “elite” team then (as opposed to, well, now), they had the luxury of accommodating what was an extended audition for each while the more experienced, more skilled players contributed to a pile of wins.

Thinking the strategy as a sound one depends on an important outcome – consistent, or at least demonstrable improvement from the start of the audition to the end of it. We would hope, if not expect, that either or both of Johansson and Perreault would improve from the fall to February and beyond, thus giving the Caps’ front office some confidence that either could perform in the second line center role adequately for the playoffs. Or, at least there would not be the urgency (and thus, the potential for overpaying) for obtaining a second line center via trade.

So, how has it gone? One way to look at it is by examining each of the players’ performance over ten-game slices of the season. We took a look at “rolling” ten-game segments to try to smooth the effects of simply dicing their games played into a few ten-game segments. First, Marcus Johansson, who has played 44 games this season:

Next, Mathieu Perreault, who has played in 30 games this season:

Neither player has spent all of his time at the second-line center position, and in fact Johansson has spent time at wing in stretches. But what seems evident, at least in terms of being able to generate offense in general, is that both players could use more seasoning. Neither appears ready to take on the playoff responsibilities that accrue to a scoring line center. There simply hasn’t been enough demonstrable improvement in their respective offensive production.

Both players, in fact, have been reasonably consistent in their offensive production, Perreault hitting the ground running a bit more than was the case for Johansson (understandable, since Perreault did have some NHL experience before this season, and this is Johansson’s first year playing on the smaller North American rinks). Both are, for the moment, more or less high-20’s/low 30’s point getters on an 82-game basis. Based on current scoring among NHL centers, that might not get you into the top-100 centers in total points (Johansson currently ranks 107th, Perreault 116th among centers in scoring).  And their progression over the course of the year, based on the information reflected above, does not indicate that their current level of production is appreciably higher than the level of production they exhibited earlier in the campaign.

What it says is that the Caps had a problem coming into the year with their second line center position, and they still have that problem. While either or both of these players could in the future become contributing, even valuable forwards, the answer to the Caps’ second line center problem – for this year – is not to be found in house, at least between the rookies. This doesn’t address the matter of whether Brooks Laich is an answer or any of the other centers on the roster. Generally speaking, though, we cannot help but think (as we have for some time) that this year’s answer to finding production out of the second line center position comes from elsewhere. The Caps need to make a trade to address that problem.