Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Blue Jackets, March 31st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Caps look to get back on the winning track tonight when they host the Columbus Blue Jackets at Verizon Center. The Blue Jackets come into this game…

“Hey…I have a beef.”

And you are?



You just dragged your fingers across a keyboard to come up with that, didn’t you?

‘No…I was a war chief of the Shawnee. I was also known as ‘Blue Jacket.’”

Oh, and…

“Yeah, all this crap about the Blue Jackets being named because they want to celebrate patriotism, pride and the rich Civil War history in the state of Ohio and, more specifically, the city of Columbus…yadda yadda yadda.”

You don’t think you’re getting enough credit?

“Got that right…”

Columbus comes to Verizon Center with their own blue jackets with only the proverbial “pride” to play for. With 79 standings points they are 11 points behind eighth-place Chicago in the Western Conference. And the Capitals have had success against Central Division teams so far this season, going 4-1-0 (A 3-2 loss to Detroit being the only blemish). But the Blue Jackets have had success against the Southeast Division, too, with no losses in regulation (4-0-1) to a Southeast Division team. For what it’s worth, the teams met twice in the preseason, the Caps winning both contests. Then again, Matt Hendricks had a hat trick in the first meeting (a 6-2 Caps win), so let’s not get carried away with that. Here is how the Blue Jackets square up with the Caps in the regular season:

If Columbus is going to miss the playoffs this year – and this will be the ninth time in ten seasons of franchise history that they will – there is some hope for the future in a pair of young forwards. Derick Brassard was the sixth overall pick in the 2006 draft, and after losing much of the 2008-2009 season to a shoulder injury has come back with scoring improvements in each of the last two seasons. This season he has already set personal bests for goals (15), assists (28), and points (43), and is second on the club in power play scoring (13 points). He has struggled of late, though, perhaps owing to a hand injury that put him on the shelf for eight games. Since returning to the Columbus lineup on March 9th, he is 1-3-4, minus-5 in 11 games. If there is a plus, Brassard has been more productive on the road (8-16-24, plus-1 in 32 games) than he has been at home (7-12-19, minus-7 in 36 games). Against the Caps, Brassard has a single assist in four career games.

The other forward that might bring hope to a forlorn Blue Jacket fan base is Jakub Voracek, taken by the Blue Jackets seventh overall in the year after they selected Brassard (those top-ten picks are a habit with the Blue Jackets; they have had ten in eleven years). After spending one more year with Halifax in the QMJHL after being drafted, Voracek joined Columbus for the 2008-2009 season and posted 38 points in 80 games. He has improved on that since, going 16-34-50 last year and 14-32-46 in 74 games this year with a chance to set career bests in goals, assists, and points. Unfortunately, though, he has been suffering the same frigid production as his teammate Brassard lately. He does not have a goal in his last ten games (only one assist) and is a minus-8 over that span. However, he is (like Brassard) more productive on the road, going 6-19-25, plus-3 in 37 games, versus 8-13-21, minus-1 in 37 games. Voracek has three assists in four career games against Washington.

About 700 miles east of Moscow is the city of Izhevsk, birthplace of Columbus defenseman Fedor Tyutin. From there he found his way to the Big Apple, where he spent four seasons with the New York Rangers. The Blue Jackets’ leading scorer among defensemen (6-20-26) is now in his fourth season with Columbus and has an outside chance at posting his third straight 30-point season with the Blue Jackets…a very outside chance. He has gone ice cold (see a pattern here?) in terms of scoring – no points in his last nine games and only 1-1-2 over his last 17 contests. Perhaps part of the problem is the lingering effect of having been one of Matt Cooke’s victims on his road show of horror this season. Cooke drilled Tyutin from behind in a 4-1 Blue Jacket win on February 8th, a hit that earned Cooke a four game suspension. Tyutin did not miss any games as a result of the hit, but he is also only 1-5-6 in the 23 games since. He still leads all Columbus defensemen in both goals and assists, but the fun fact concerning Tyutin’s scoring is that Thursday is the only day of the week on which he does not have a point this season (eight games played). In 19 career games against the Caps, Tyutin is 2-3-5.

It hardly seems to matter much which of Steve Mason or Mathieu Garon tends goal for the Blue Jackets. Mason is 2-5-4, 2.90, .899 in his last 11 appearances since winning four straight to close February. Garon hasn’t been much in relief, either. Since winning consecutive decisions to finish November, he is 4-11-5, 3.17, .885 in his last 25 appearances.

As for Mason, one has to wonder. Here is a goalie who in 2007 was the Ontario Hockey League goaltender of the year, who in 2008 won a gold medal with Team Canada in the World Junior Championships (not to mention being named top goaltender and MVP of the tournament), and who in 2009 won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie and was a Vezina Trophy finalist. In the two seasons since, however, Mason is 44-45-15, 3.01, .902. It is hardly the sort of progression expected of a goalie with Mason’s pedigree. Playing the Caps might be just the tonic for Mason. He is 3-1-0, 1.32, .962, with two shutouts in four career appearances against the Caps.

Garon is with his fifth NHL team in the Blue Jackets after stops in Montreal, Los Angeles, Edmonton, and Pittsburgh. His has been the role of backup for the most part, having played in more than 40 games only twice in his ten NHL seasons. In 272 career games played he has faced the Caps only seven times, posting a 2-1-1, 2.56, .904 record. Last year he faced the Caps twice. He played a total of 12:20 in the two contests. In the first he played all of 1:31 without facing a shot and did not figure in the decision (a 5-4 overtime win for Columbus). In the second he played 10:49 and allowed two goals on four shots. He did not figure in that decision, either, a 3-2 loss to the Caps.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Columbus: Rick Nash

For good or ill, Rick Nash is Columbus Blue Jackets hockey. He probably deserves better. Toiling for a franchise that has known little team success, Nash is in the midst of his sixth 30-goal season in the last seven years. His 259 career goals ranks 31st among active players. He has only three of those goals in his last 17 games. He has yet to score a goal against a Southeast Division team this season (five games played), the only division against which he has failed to record a goal. That could change tonight – Nash has seven goals in eight career games against Washington. And when Nash scores, good things happen for the Blue Jackets. Columbus is 17-3-4 when he scores a goal.

Washington: Alexander Semin

Alexander Semin scored a goal against Carolina on Tuesday, but took a hooking penalty with 3:19 to go in a 2-2 game. It put the Caps on their heels, having to defend a power play late in regulation to preserve at least one standings point. Semin did not see the ice for the remainder of the contest. It happened to end up being the first time this season that the Caps lost when Semin scored a goal (18-0-1). Well, we will see how he responds to the benching, we guess. He has a goal and an assist in each of his last two games, and he has been a streaky scorer this year. He is also 6-6-12, plus-10 in his last 15 games. If he adds to that scoring total tonight, chances are good the Caps will at least keep pace with the Flyers in the Eastern Conference race.


1. Positive Power Play Production. Columbus has struggled on the penalty kill this month (46-for-59; 78.0 percent) and has allowed at least one power play goal in each of their last five games (10-for-15). The Caps are 24-3-4 when scoring a power play goal. Do the math.

2. Milestone Magic. With two more goals, Alex Ovechkin will hit the 300 mark for his career. He has four in six career games against the Blue Jackets, those four goals coming in a pair of two-goal efforts, including this one.

3. Shoot! This is one of those times when the fan’s favorite exclamation might have merit. Columbus is 25th in the league in winning percentage when they are outshot. Put pucks on net, put a “W” in the win column.

In the end, this is the dead portion of the schedule leading up to the playoffs. The Caps completed a successful road trip, playing five games of the six game trip against playoff-eligible teams or teams fighting for a spot. But they looked sluggish against a Carolina team that, frankly, didn’t exactly look like the desperate team they should be as a ninth-place playoff hopeful. Now they get a team with less to play for before the Caps take on Buffalo on Saturday. It is one of those games that can fall through the cracks unless a team is mentally disciplined. Maybe the benching of Alexander Semin sent a message to the rest of the team – finish strong, both in games and to end the regular season.

Caps 5 – Blue Jackets 1

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A ONE-point night -- Game 77: Hurricanes 3 - Caps 2 (OT/Gimmick)

It was hard to figure out what to make of last night’s 3-2 Gimmick loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, because the Washington Capitals played well in spots, awful in others, almost successfully completed a shakedown cruise with two key players returning to the lineup, saw another one leave to injury, then tried to rely on Bettman’s Miracle in an effort to keep pace with first-place Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference race.

The result was a less-than-satisfying one-point result and a series of “on one hand, on the other hand” moments…

-- On one hand, the Caps had an excellent chance in the first minute of play when the first line of Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Mike Knuble combined to provide Knuble a tap in from the edge of the crease, but then Knuble pushed the puck wide as he was getting tangled up with a Carolina defender.

-- On the one hand, the Caps fired 16 shots at goalie Cam Ward in the first period; on the other hand, the shots came from an average of almost 40 feet. Ward was getting good looks at just about all of those shots.

-- On the one hand, Alex Ovechkin had his chances in his return. Several of the 13 shot attempts he had on goal were right in his wheel house – wrist shots from the high slot – but on the other hand they lacked the crispness of the usual Ovechkin offerings…understandable with having been out for a few games.

-- On the one hand, the Caps finished with 40 shots on goal, but eight of them (!) came from the stick of John Carlson. That speaks as much to an inability of Carolina defense and forwards getting into shooting lanes than anything the Caps did.

-- On the one hand, Alexander Semin scored a pretty roof top goal over Cam Ward’s shoulder and assisted on Marcus Johansson’s goal. On the other hand, he took a ghastly hooking penalty with 3:19 left that forced the Caps to defend a standings point instead of push for a second one in regulation.

-- On the one hand, Bruce Boudreau might have sacrificed a short term standings point to make a point by sitting Semin for the remainder of the game, including overtime (Semin does have an overtime game-winner this season). On the other hand, that might be the point by which the Caps finish second…or third, since Boston is three points behind the Caps with a game in hand.

-- On the one hand, Jason Arnott’s return seemed to spark Semin, but on the other he skated 14 minutes and change, failed to score on three shots on goal, took a roughing penalty, and was a minus-1 (although that last number he had nothing to do with…more on that in a bit).

-- On the one hand, Marcus Johansson scored his fourth goal in seven games. On the other, it was his only shot on goal. It was his only shot attempt.

-- On the one hand, Semyon Varlamov foiled Chad LaRose on a penalty shot, poke checking the puck off LaRose’s stick to keep the Caps within one (Semin scored his goal two minutes later). On the other, he bungled an innocent looking floater from Jeff Skinner from a severe angle that became the tying goal in regulation early in the third period (and giving Jason Arnott his minus-1). And he hardly looked sharp in the trick shot competition.

-- On the one hand, the Caps were 27-0-2 when leading after two periods. On the other, they are now 27-0-3. It was only Carolina’s fourth win in 33 tries when trailing after two periods.

-- On the one hand, Alex Ovechkin and Jason Arnott returned to the lineup and played fairly well. On the other hand, Dennis Wideman took a nasty hit from Tuomo Ruutu and left the game. At the moment, with Mike Green still out of the lineup, Wideman is a player that the Caps cannot long do without.

-- On the one hand, Marco Sturm finished the game a plus-1, but on the other, he did not have a shot attempt, and his only mark on the score sheet in almost 14 minutes was a hit.

-- On the one hand, of the 40 shots on goal the Caps had, 22 of them came from the top line and John Carlson. The other 14 skaters has 18 shots on goal (and, as it turned out, both goals).

In the end, the Caps got a point, but frankly should have had the other. Between a puffed up shot total (masking a so-so effort in the offensive zone against a shaky defensive team) and a couple of critical lapses (Varlamov’s failure to stop Skinner’s shot, Semin’s late penalty), it was enough to take the game to extra time. Those ills are certainly correctable, but you would hate to see bad habits creeping in at this time of year. For the moment, we prefer to think of it this way. A team that plays a more structured system – and the Caps do play that now – might be better equipped to weather a player leaving the lineup for the first game or two than they do trying to reintegrate that player immediately upon his return. Ovechkin and Arnott returned and looked pretty good, but not quite sharp. Ovechkin in particular probably buries one of the three or four good looks he had from the high slot when he’s game-sharp. And the Caps, when everyone is hitting on all cylinders, probably make this a 40-minute game that renders Skinner’s goal irrelevant.

Yeah…that’s how we are going to think about it. For now.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Hurricanes, March 29th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THR AIR!!!

The Caps return home from a successful 4-2-0 road trip to host the Carolina Hurricanes tonight. In doing so, the Caps will be facing a team on the edge. Carolina is sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, five points behind the eighth-place Buffalo Sabres and the last playoff spot in the East. With seven games remaining, Carolina almost has to win out to qualify for the post season. Why? Well, they have three fewer wins than do the Sabres. But in Bettman math, that number becomes “two” as a product of “regulation plus overtime wins” (i.e., total wins less those obtained via the Gimmick). If Buffalo was to win half of the standings points available (seven), Carolina would have to win 13 of 14 to pass them.

In other words, the Hurricanes come to Verizon Center a desperate team whose season likely hangs in the balance in this game. Here is how the desperate team stacks up with the Caps (going into Monday's games):

“Desperation is sometimes as powerful an inspirer as genius.” -- Benjamin Disraeli

Eric Staal might not quite qualify as “genius,” but he is the captain, the leading scorer, and the single player who has to perform in this seven-game sprint to the finish for the Hurricanes. Staal has begun to pick up his scoring pace, going 2-3-5, plus-1 in his last five games, including the game-winning goal in a 4-3 win at Tampa Bay last Friday. It has been a little bit of time coming in that Staal has had a sluggish month, scoring-wise. In March he is 4-5-9 in 12 games. Staal has had the faint air of underachiever since posting a 100-point season in Carolina’s Stanley Cup year (2005-2006). In four full seasons since he has had good numbers – an average of 34-40-74 – but it still seems to have fallen short of the promise that 2005-2006 season had. In 31 games against teams that would qualify for the playoffs in the East, Staal is 8-16-24, minus-6. But four goals and four assists of that total have come in five games against Tampa Bay. Against the Caps this year he is 2-1-3, minus-1 and is 20-27-47 in 47 career games against the Caps.

"Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances that we know to be desperate." — G.K. Chesterton

If these are desperate times in Carolina’s 2010-2011 season, they have hope for the future in rookie Jeff Skinner. Although he was drafted only last June and will not turn 19 until May, Skinner is second on the Hurricanes in scoring (26-28-54), and he leads all rookies in total points. He has been plugging along the last month, going 4-4-8 in 13 games, which might not seem like a flood of points, but he is still contributing when a lot of 18-year olds might be hitting a mental or physical wall after having played so many games (he has not missed a game this season). He has not been flashy (unless you think an 18-year old with 54 points in the NHL is flashy, and you’d have a point), but he has been consistent. Only once this season has he gone more than three games without a point. Against the Caps this season he has a pair of assists in five games.

“There is nobody more terrible than the desperate.” – Alexander Suvorov

One supposes there are different ways to take that. But one way you don’t want to take it is in being last among your team’s defensemen in plus-minus and minus-6 in the last full month of the season as your team is fighting for a playoff spot. It is not that Joe Corvo is an awful defensive defenseman (although he has been on the ice for 89 goals against this season – with Dennis Wideman, it should be pointed out – tied for tenth highest in the league), but that he is such a one-trick pony. Corvo is 5-16-21 this season on the power play, which puts him among the top-15 defensemen in the league in that scoring category. He is otherwise a minus-17 on the season, where he is tied with Los Angeles’ Jack Johnson for 287th out of 295 defensemen dressing for games this season. And it is a part of his game that has gotten progressively worse over the years. In 2007-2008 he was a combined plus-17 with Ottawa and Carolina. The following season he was minus-1 with the Hurricanes. Last season he was a combined minus-10 with Carolina and Washington (that included a minus-4 in 18 games with the Caps, so maybe it is not just the team playing around him), and he is minus-17 in 75 games this season. Is it a case of playing with progressively worse teams that drag his plus-minus numbers south, or is he just not an especially accomplished two-way defenseman at this point in his career? It is always a sliding scale on such things, but we are inclined to think more the latter. And at 33 years of age, he’s not likely to get better. The Caps have been exposed, if not to the full Corvo, at least to the unpleasant parts of it. He did not register a point in any of the five games he played against the Caps to date, but he is a minus-5 overall. He is 3-5-8, minus-7 in 26 career games against the Caps.

“A dog in desperation will leap over a wall” – Chinese proverb

Cam Ward is no dog, but he seems to get that kind of play in front of him too often. Ward is tied with Tim Thomas in wins among goaltenders with 32 (albeit in 15 more appearances), and his .920 save percentage is tied for 11th with Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury (who was named by his teammates as the Penguins’ most valuable player). However, Ward’s 2.64 goals against average is 25th in the league. The problem? Ward has faced more shots than any goaltender in the league, and it is not close for second. In 67 games Ward has faced 2,139 shots – an average of 33.0 per 60 minutes played and 138 more shots than the total faced by Montreal’s Carey Price (a 6.9 percent gap). In a league where goalies bunch up in the save percentage rankings (goalies ranked second through 12th are between .929 and .920 – Tim Thomas is in a league by himself atop the rankings at .939), the number of shots a goalie faces starts to come into play, and Ward has faced far too many for comfort. Consider that Marc-Andre Fleury, with whom Ward is tied in save percentage, has faced only 28.4 shots per game (4.6 per game fewer than Ward). That is why Fleury’s GAA is 2.28 and Ward’s is 2.64. Ward’s record against the Caps this year stands as stark testimony to playing well with less support than he probably deserves. In four appearances against the Caps this season Ward is 0-3-1, despite having a 2.25 GAA and a .930 save percentage. As has been the case this year, he has faced too many shots, 32.0 per game against Washington so far, and it has been just enough for the Caps to carve out four wins at his expense, three by one goal, one of those in a Gimmick. He is 13-8-4 in 26 career appearances against the Caps with a 2.57 GAA and .920 save percentage with three shutouts. Ward might not have to jump over a wall, but he is going to have to stand on his head if the Hurricanes are to make the dance.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Carolina: Erik Cole

Erik Cole is warming to the task of helping get the Hurricanes into the playoffs. He has four goals in his last four games (4-15 over that span). Carolina is going to need his scoring ability, especially in getting the tough goals from in close. Having averaged only 2.25 goals per game for the month of March, it is the kind of contribution the Hurricanes absolutely have to have.

Washington: Marco Sturm

Well, he got his first goal as a Cap against Montreal on Saturday. It still leaves him competing for ice time as the playoffs approach. With Jason Arnott and Alex Ovechkin due to return to the lineup, perhaps by week’s end, Arnott, Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble, Alexander Semin, and either Eric Fehr or Brooks Laich looks like a top-six group. A third line of, say, Laich, Marcus Johansson and Sturm has a certain charm to it, but you would like to see some more punch from a player who topped 20 goals in seven of the last eight seasons (the eighth being one in which Sturm played in only 19 games). If getting the first is the hardest, and Sturm can contribute at a goal every four game pace (a 20-goal annual pace), a merely average Caps offense becomes more formidable.


1. Home sweet home. The Caps are 11-4-5 at home following a road game (.675 points percentage), not too far off their winning percentage in other home games (11-4-2, .706). But the last time the Caps came home off an extended road trip – a five gamer in late February – they were slapped around by the Rangers, 6-0. Don’t want to see all the good work achieved in the road trip burned up in a result like that.

2. Score first. It goes without saying that scoring first is an excellent indicator of who wins games in the NHL. Only one team in the NHL has a below-.500 record when scoring first, and it’s not Carolina (it is Atlanta). But the difference between records scoring first and trailing first are so stark for the Hurricanes – 12th in winning percentage when scoring first, 22nd when trailing first – that scoring first will go a long way toward determining a winner here.

3. More power to ya. The Caps are 24-3-4 this season when scoring a power play goal. Carolina has killed off only 13 of 18 shorthanded situations in their last five games (72.2 percent). Not hard to figure out the importance of the power play here.

In the end, the Caps can play that role of “reverse spoiler” that they played when they faced New Jersey on the road trip. They can effectively end what dim playoff hopes remain for Carolina, just as they did New Jersey’s when beating the Devils 3-0. On the other hand, Carolina hasn’t exactly set the schedule on fire like a playoff hopeful needs to, going only 6-5-1 in March, with two of their wins coming in extra time. Carolina should be a desperate team, and perhaps having won three of their last four are finally playing like it. The Caps can put an end to that by getting on them early and showing some power play prowess. Sounds like a plan.

Caps 4 – Hurricanes 2

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sittin' at the end of the bar...Road Trip Edition

How ‘bout those Caps? Six road games, and they won four of them. And along the way…

-- They outscored their six opponents, 15-11

-- After having so much trouble scoring in the first period, they finished the trip with seven first period goals. They gave up only three, none in the last four games.

-- Four times they scored the first goal…four times they won

-- Twice they allowed the first goal…twice they lost.

-- The power play looked like it was emerging from its slumber with two goals on five attempts in the first game of the trip in Montreal. Then it went 1-for-13 in the last five games to finish 3-for-18 (16.7 percent).

-- Three goals on 21 shots for the power play; 21 shots on 18 power plays. Not especially good math.

-- On the other hand, the penalty killers were even better than their season to date. They killed 17 of 18 shorthanded situations (94.4 percent).

-- One goal allowed on 22 shots by opponents…a .955 save percentage for the goalies.

-- Speaking of the goalies, Michal Neuvirth went 2-1-0, 2.28, .931, and a shutout. Braden Holtby was 2-0-0, 1.00, .955, and a shutout. Semyon Varlamov was 0-1-0, 2.06, .913. Overall, that’s 4-2-0, 1.82, .935, and two shutouts.

-- For the skaters, it was the young and the old at the top of the score sheet. Mike Knuble led all Caps with four goals on the trip and tied for the team lead with three assists. The seven points topped all Caps in total scoring. Rookie Marcus Johansson was next in goal scoring with three and had an assist to tie for second in overall scoring with four points. John Carlson matched the four points, as did Alex Ovechkin (who missed the last three games of the trip) and Nicklas Backstrom (who missed the first two games of the trip).

-- Ten different Caps shared in the 15 goals scored. Jeff Schultz got his first of the year, and Marco Sturm recorded his first as a Cap. Dennis Wideman also scored his first goal in a Washington jersey.

-- Fifteen different Caps had points. Even players who rarely record points found their way to the score sheet. Scott Hannan had a pair of assists (to bring him to 1-4-5 in a Caps uniform), and D.J. King had an assist for his second point of the season.

-- Eight goals were scored in the Caps-Flyers game that the Caps won, 5-4, in a Gimmick. Dennis Wideman was on the ice for all eight goals.

-- The Caps finished the trip winning only 48.3 percent of their draws. Brooks Laich (41.9 percent) and Marcus Johansson (36.5 percent) struggled more than most. Boyd Gordon, on the other hand, won 57.5 percent of his draws.

-- One might expect that the Caps would miss Alex Ovechkin’s physical play as much as his scoring (well, almost as much). The Caps were credited with 54 hits in the first three games of the trip, Ovechkin recording ten of the hits and the rest of the club getting 44. In the last three games – those which Ovechkin missed – the Caps recorded a total of 47 hits.

-- Adding the takeaways the Caps had and the giveaways their opponents had and comparing the sum of those to the opposite numbers for opponents, the Caps won the turnover battle in five of the six games (tied in the sixth) and won overall by a 110-85 margin.

-- The last win on the trip was the club’s 22nd road victory of the season, tying this year’s Caps for second in the club’s record book for road wins with the 1983-1984 club that went 22-16-2.

In the end, the Caps had a successful road trip. Yes, it would have been nicer had the Caps not laid an egg in Ottawa, but winning four of six contests on the road, four of them against playoff-eligible teams and another against a club fighting for its playoff life with a spectacular run to get there. And the Caps won four of those five games, losing the other by a single goal. Given the absences of Nicklas Backstrom for two of the games, Alex Ovechkin for three, and Mike Green for the entire tour, it was an especially welcome result. It demonstrated the sort of resilience the team is going to need as they head into the second season that starts in just a few weeks.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A TWO-point night -- Game 76: Caps 2 - Canadiens 0

And the circle is complete.

The Caps finished their six-game road trip where they started it, at Bell Centre in Montreal. It was a happy ending to the tour, the Caps defeating the Montreal Canadiens, 2-0, behind 18 saves by Braden Holtby, and goals from Marco Sturm and Alexander Semin.

Sturm broke his personal scoring drought, potting a goal on his first shift of the game when he drove to the Montreal net and swatted a rebound of a Nicklas Backstrom shot past goalie Carey Price. It was his first goal with Washington in his 13th game with his new team and on his 22nd shot as a Cap.

That was it until Alexander Semin bought the Caps some insurance by converting a cross ice feed from Backstrom and roofing the puck over Price’s outstretched left pad with less than four minutes left.

In between, Braden Holtby stopped all 18 shots he faced to record his second NHL shutout and bring his record to 10-2-2 with the Caps.

And that was that…other stuff:

-- In football, field position is so important because it is difficult for an offense to move the ball 70 or 80 yards downfield without a turnover or having a mistake stall their momentum. So it is in hockey. If a team is always going to have to lug the puck up ice from deep in their own end it is hard to get the puck cleanly up ice on a consistent basis. And the Caps made moving the puck up ice difficult by forcing the Canadiens deep and clogging the neutral zone, preventing the home team from getting much in the way of forward momentum. It was a big factor in keeping the shot total down for Montreal. They had to work too hard just to gain the offensive zone and didn’t have enough offensive zone possession time.

-- The Caps played almost the perfect start to a road game. They outshot the Canadiens 10-1 and scored the first goal of the game in the first 9:50 (that Canadien shot coming from outside of 40 feet).

-- But the Caps could have iced the game early, having been the beneficiary of three power plays. They registered four shots on the three man-advantage opportunities without getting any past Carey Price.

-- Sturm and Semin got the goals, but Nicklas Backstrom had the primary assist on each, had seven shots on goal (tying a career high, set against Florida; January 29, 2010), and split 16 draws he took.

-- Every Cap had at least one shot on goal, except Matt Bradley and Jeff Schultz.

-- Part of that denial of territory game is being careful with the puck. The Caps won the turnover battle, getting 15 turnovers from Montreal (the Canadiens’ giveaways plus Caps takeaways) to seven of their own.

-- Brooks Laich led all forwards in shorthanded ice time, and he did a superb job in that role last night. He also won 11 of 17 draws, including all five he took in the offensive zone.

-- That’s three times shut out in a row for the Canadiens, having fallen to Boston (7-0) in their last game and to Buffalo (2-0) in the game before that. Seems they used up all their goals in the 8-1 win over Minnesota in the game before this three-game skid.

-- On the other side of the ice, the Caps allowed two or fewer goals in four of the six games of the six-game road trip.

-- Getting slapped around by the Rangers seems to give the Caps a wake-up call. After losing to the Blueshirts, 7-0, in December they went on a 6-1-3 run. Since getting whacked, 6-0, in late February the Caps are 12-2-0.

-- Holtby’s win makes it three Caps goalies with at least ten wins (Michal Neuvirth, 24; Semyon Varlamov, 10; Holtby, 10). No, it’s not a record. It is not even unique to this season. Tampa Bay has three goalies with more than 10 wins (Dwayne Roloson, Dan Ellis, Mike Smith). But Roloson is about as old as Holtby and Varlamov combined, there is that.

-- The Caps were 35-30 on draws, but going 15-10 in the defensive zone helped take the heat off Braden Holtby, too. No Cap had a losing percentage on defensive zone draws.

-- The Caps were 2-for-5 on the power play in Montreal in the first game of this road trip. After going 0-for-4 last night the Caps finished the last five games of the trip 1-for-13.

-- On the other hand, killing off all three Montreal chances tonight left the penalty killers 17-for-18 on the six-game trip.

In the end, it was a successful road trip, even with the egg the Caps laid in Ottawa. Going 4-2-0, allowing only 11 goals, and getting two shutouts has to qualify as a success, especially since the Caps missed Alex Ovechkin for the last three games of the trip, two of which the Caps won. Last night’s win gives the Caps 22 wins on the road this season (tying this club for second place in the franchise’s record book for road wins) to match the 22 wins they have at home. And home is where the Caps are headed, perhaps to end the Carolina Hurricanes’ faint playoff hopes on Tuesday.

A NO-point night -- Game 75: Senators 2 - Caps 0

As the season winds down, you would not think the Caps would have it in them to be setting any team records. After last night’s 2-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators, two club records are in sight, one good, one bad.

We’ll get the good out of the way first. In giving up only two goals the Caps kept their season scoring by opponents to 2.36 goals per game. Keeping up that pace will earn the Caps the top spot in club history for fewest goals allowed in a full season.

But even that thought is tainted a bit by how the Caps got there last night. Semyon Varlamov returned to the ice for the first time since February 20th, and for the most part played as if he had not missed a beat. He stopped the first 16 shots he faced and might have stopped the 17th, too. Colin Greening was credited with a goal after appearing to kick the puck with his left boot, that drive stopped by Varlamov’s left pad – but not frozen – and the puck then ricocheting back off Greening and into the goal. After a lengthy review the goal was allowed to stand.

The second goal…well, that’s on Varlamov, or perhaps a few lingering flakes of rust on his game. He looked to be taking his time to return to the net after stopping a puck sliding around the end boards and leaving it for Karl Alzner. Alzner tried to clear the puck out of the zone, but sent it forward but onto the stick of Milan Michalek, who backhanded a pass to Erik Condra. Condra did his best imitation of Peter Bondra and wristed a shot through Varlamov, who looked to be slow getting into position to defend the shot.

And that was all Senator goalie Craig Anderson needed. Playing his second game in two nights, Anderson stopped all 31 shots from Capital sticks to record his second shutout of the season and first since recording one in his first game as a Senator against Toronto in February.

Other stuff…

-- One might be inclined to say the game turned on a lucky bounce. Nope. This was a “performance” loss. The Caps sleepwalked their way through the first two periods, getting 19 shots on goal (few of much consequence or threat) and playing an extremely passive game in which they could not get or keep pucks deep. Twelve third period shots made the shot meter look good, but it was a futile effort at catch-up from a two-goal deficit as opposed to a concerted offensive effort.

-- And now, about that second club record in sight. Only the Toronto Maple Leafs have been shut out more often this season than the ten times the Caps have been shut out. The club record of 12 is in sight, a record set in the club’s inaugural season in 1974-1975, a season in which the Caps won only eight games. As it is, this club sits in third place for most times shut out (second place held by the 1998-1999 team – a team that missed 511 man-games to injury – with 11).

-- Mike Knuble’s consecutive three-point game streak came to an end with a thud (ok, it was two games). No shots on goal, only one shot attempt, and an otherwise blank score sheet.

-- If it could be said in a game like this, Brooks Laich gets the coupon for the score sheet buffet – seven shots on goal (ten attempts), three hits, a blocked shot, and one faceoff taken.

-- Rule 41.1 says… “A boarding penalty shall be imposed on any player who checks an opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to be thrown violently in the boards.” Apparently, stumbling falls into the “thrown violently” category.

-- At least Marco Sturm is back to shooting the puck. He is still looking for his first goal as a Cap, but after posting no shots on goal in either of his two previous games managed four on goal last night.

-- And as for shots, the Caps got them from the guys who have to take them in the absence of Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, and Jason Arnott. Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and Alexander Semin combined for almost half of the Caps 31 shots (15 combined). But there wasn’t much follow up, and Anderson was too sharp to have many of the “good look” shots squirt past him.

In the end, there had to be another stinker in here somewhere, and this was the candidate game that leaped off the page. And, it was – a stinker that is. One can look at it as a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty thing. On one hand, it was only the Caps’ third loss in their last 14 games. On the other, they have now split their last four games (2-2-0) and scored only nine goals in the process. Whether the Caps fill that glass a little more or drain it with another loss to end the road trip, well… that makes this evening’s game against Montreal – a potential playoff opponent – more important in the big picture than this game.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps at Senators, March 25th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Caps begin their weekend wrap-up to their six-game road trip with a visit to Ottawa to play the Senators tonight. The Caps are 3-1-0 so far on this tri…

“Hey, cuz, these guys named a coin after me.”

-sigh- What is it now, Cheerless?

“Lookie here, see this coin, cuz?”


“It’s from the exotic land of…Canada.”

I see…

“And did you know they named it after me?”


“The ‘loonie’!”

Yeah, I can see where you'd think that, Cheerless, but look at the coin. What do you see?

“Aunt Careless…”

No, that’s the Queen. Look at the other side.

“Uh, a duck?”

It’s a loon…loon…loonie. And did you know that a loonie was buried in the ice at the Olympics and that when the men’s and women’s teams won gold medals, it was thought the ‘lucky loonie’ brought the Canadians good luck?

“Haha…yeah, cuz. Good one. Now tell me why they have the guys who sang ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on their coin.”

Well, we do not have an answer for that one, so we’ll just get on with the prognosto. This is game five of the six-game road trip for the Caps, and their opponent is struggling. The Senators are last in the Northeast Division, last in the Eastern Conference, and 28th in the league in standings points. It is a team that has not scored more than three goals in a game this month, has only one player among the top100 in scoring (Jason Spezza, who is tied for 100th in points), has had to dress six different goaltenders this season, and despite going 6-4-0 in their last ten games, seems to be reverting to their struggling ways – 3-3-0 in their last six games, with two of the wins coming in extra time. The overall numbers look like this…

About that goaltending. The most recent contestant is Craig Anderson. Ottawa obtained Anderson in a trade with Colorado last month, sending goalie Brian Elliott the other way. The Senators looked at Anderson for 11 games, liked what they saw, and signed him to a four-year deal ($12.75 million). The reason? “Stability,” in the words of Ottawa GM Bryan Murray.

Well, stability is one thing, consistency another. In his dozen appearances with the Senators he is 7-4-0, 2.00, .940, with one shutout. But in those dozen appearances he has allowed one or no goals in eight games, four or more in three others (one of which he was pulled from after allowing four goals on 17 shots). He returned from a lower body injury last night in a 2-1 Gimmick win for the Senators over the Rangers. He is 3-4-0, 3.01, .905 against Washington for his career, including a 3-2 win over the Caps in December when he was tending goal for Colorado.

If he doesn’t get the call in the back-half of the back-to-back, perhaps it will be Curtis McElhinney. Caps fans will remember McElhinney’s only career appearance against the Caps – a 24-save effort while playing for Anaheim on February 16th. Trouble was, he faced 31 shots in a 7-6 Caps win. He was claimed off waivers by Ottawa, with whom he is 3-2-0, 2.14, .932.

Daniel Alfredsson is trying to return to the lineup despite enduring a problem with his back. He will not be returning tonight, though. With the Senators’ fourth-leading scorer out of the lineup, the burden falls heaver on Jason Spezza, who has missed 20 games to injury himself this season. Since his return from a shoulder injury on February 5th, Spezza is 7-17-24, minus-5, in 22 games. On a club that has struggled mightily this season (29th in the league in scoring), Spezza has been about the only bright spot. He has had a hand in nine of the Senators’ 15 goals over the last six games (3-6-9). Among the odder numbers for the Senators this season, Spezza has the only overtime winning goal for the team, getting that one in a 3-2 win over Tampa Bay last Saturday. Another set of odd numbers points to his consistency on one hand and the difficulties the team around him is suffering on the other. Spezza is 7-15-22 in wins this season, 9-13-22 in losses. He has been a reasonably consistent performer, win or lose, scoring-wise. But he is a plus-13 in wins, minus-22 in losses. Seems it is what the team does around him, independent of him, that has been a larger consideration. Spezza is 9-17-26, plus-1 in 25 career games against the Caps (no points in one game this season).

Ottawa has had its share of injuries, and having dropped far out of the running for the playoffs is looking at other players. What it means is that only two Senators have appeared in all 74 games this season. Nick Foligno is one. The son of former Red Wing/Sabre/MapleLeaf/Panther Mike Foligno comes into this game on a five-game points streak (1-4-5) to pull himself into a tie with his career best in points (32 and a career best in assists (20). But playing in all those games for a struggling team has its drawbacks as well, numbers-wise. He is tied for 851st in the league in plus-minus (-19). Only 11 forwards in the league have a worse mark. In 11 career games against the Caps Foligno is 0-4-4, plus-2.

Defenseman Chris Phillips is the other Senator to play in all 74 games this season. And this, his 13th with the club, is probably his worst. With only seven points this season he is almost guaranteed to finish with the lowest point total of his career for a season in which he played at least 60 games (2-12-14 is his lowest to date, 2000-2001). He has one power play point this season, and has been on the ice for 98 goals scored against the Senators. His minus-33 is the worst such number in the league – 871st among 871 skaters. He is 4-9-13, minus-1 in 46 career games against Washington.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Ottawa: Erik Karlsson

The second-year defenseman is tied for the team lead in overall scoring (13-31-44) with Spezza. He is 4-8-12 in his last 13 games and has not gone consecutive games without a point in that stretch. He hasn’t been shy about shooting the puck, either, recording 43 shots in those 13 games. That works out to a 271 shot pace, which would be second in the league, behind Atlanta’s Dustin Byfuglien. On the other hand, he has been on the ice for more goals against than any other Senator except Chris Phillips, and he also has been whistled for nine minor penalties his last ten games, putting his team behind the eight-ball a little too often. Things happen when he’s out there. Pay attention.

Washington: Michal Neuvirth

The Great Goaltender Sweepstakes of 2011 continues, and this is Michal Neuvirth’s last opportunity to influence hearts and minds (if he has not already) before Semyon Varlamov returns to the ice tomorrow night in Montreal. He is 18th in the league wins, but has appeared in fewer games than any goaltender ranked above him. He is 12th in GAA, which is tied with Hall of Famer in Waiting, Martin Brodeur. He is 22nd in save percentage, but that’s better than Ryan Miller. He is tied for 13th with four shutouts, but that is more than Roberto Luongo has. Unless he is a victim of the odd bounces that plagued his performance against the Flyers in his last game, he should be expected to have a good night against this opponent. So, the game is “does he meet expectations?”


1. Yawn. A big win last time out against a team the Caps might face down the road. A big game tomorrow in Montreal. An opponent tonight that is several weight classes below their own in talent and performance. That has all the characteristics of a dangerous sort of game, the kind a team can take too lightly. And the Caps haven’t been immune to playing down to their level of competition this season. If they do that, and remember that Ottawa has played the Caps tough this year in three losses (two one-goal losses, one in overtime), it could be embarrassing.

2. Five-by-five at five-on-five. Washington has outscored the Senators by 0.38 goals per game at five-on-five. If the Caps don’t win the five-on-five battle, this might not end well.

3. The big finish! Only two teams in the league have allowed more third period goals than has Ottawa. Washington is eighth in the league in third period goals scored and has allowed the fewest third period goals in the league. Let’s put this another way…Washington is plus-25 in third period scoring; Ottawa is minus-32. The math isn’t that hard to figure out. Washington should demolish this team in the third period.

In the end, one team is playing out the string, the other might be trying to maintain interest between big games in Philadelphia and Montreal. With Ottawa missing three of their top-eight scorers to injury (Alfredsson, Milan Michalek (questionable), and Sergei Gonchar), two others having departed to other teams (Alex Kovalev, Mike Fisher), and only Spezza with as many as 15 goals on the season, tonight’s opponent should find scoring very difficult… so long as the Caps take them seriously.

Caps 4 – Senators 1

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A TWO-point night -- Game 74: Caps 5 - Flyers 4 (OT/Gimmick)

Well, someone had to win it.

The Washington Capitals took advantage of shaky goaltending early and late, and survived some unlucky goaltending of their own, to escape Wells Fargo Center with a 5-4 Gimmick win over the Philadelphia Flyers last night.

The Caps made short work of rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, ending the youngster’s night after only 21:22 and nine shots faced. And Bobrovsky looked lost for much of his short stay. All three goals could be fairly said to be on him. The first, a harmless looking wrister from the stick of Nicklas Backstrom just inside the Flyer blue line in the eighth minute of the game, squeaked between Bobrovsky’s left elbow and hip as he was descending into his butterfly to try to stop the shot. The third one was a mirror image of it, coming off the stick of Dennis Wideman on a power play and sneaking between Bobrovsky’s right elbow and right hip to end his night. In between, he lost track of the play and was caught looking elsewhere as Jason Chimera fed the puck from behind the net to Mike Knuble, who chipped the puck over Bobrovsky’s left shoulder as he was being hauled down at the goalie’s feet.

After the Flyers sustained a chorus of boos for ineffective play in the middle portion of the second period they picked things up and found a little good fortune along the way. They got one back when Kris Versteeg took a shot from the right wing that glanced off the skate of off Dennis Wideman as he was taking the body of Andreas Nodl in front of net. The puck changed direction just enough to squirt behind goalie Michal Neuvirth.

Then the Flyers grabbed momentum heading into the second intermission when Claude Giroux kept a loose puck in the offensive zone with Alexander Semin draped on him, found space on the weak side as the puck moved to the other side of the ice, then took a slap pass from Nodl and fired the puck into the empty cage with Neuvirth defending the shot from Nodl that never came.

In the third, Neuvirth – and the Caps – lived out a six-minute nightmare starting midway through the period. With the game settling into what passed for a quiet pace, things started for the Flyers when Andrej Meszaros planted Jason Chimera on his keister at the Flyer bench at the nine minute mark of the period. It seemed to re-energize the Flyers, and the home team took advantage almost a minute later when Jeff Schultz had a brain cramp and tried to pass the puck up through the middle from deep in the corner in the defensive zone. Giroux got a stick on it and nudged it to Nodl, who was all alone in front of Neuvirth. Nodl flipped the puck over Neuvirth’s right shoulder to knot the game at three.

Just over four minutes later, Neuvirth and the Caps were victims of equal parts bad luck and good play. Kimmo Timonen took a half-shot/half-pass to the right of Neuvirth. Dennis Wideman was defending near the right post, and as the puck came whistling through actually nicked it with the blade of his stick. But it was not enough to keep it from going by, and Danny Briere had the blade of his stick angled perfectly to deflect the puck behind both Wideman and Neuvirth into the net to tie the score.

So…get out to a big lead, have the other guys come roaring back to take the lead, the crowd now setting off security alarms in cars in the parking lot with the racket it’s making. A team might have packed it up and called it a night. The Caps might have done just that last season on those rare occasions they found themselves in this position. They might have done it back in November or December. But a team that had played 40 one-goal games in this season before last night and that had the third best winning percentage when trailing after two periods knew how to deal with adversity, even if it did not expect to have to after taking that 3-0 lead.

Marcus Johansson got the last goal back when he found a dead spot near the top of the left wing circle, took a feed from Mike Knuble, and fired a shot past relief goalie Brian Boucher – a shot that Boucher probably should have stopped. That goal, coming with only 3:19 remaining in regulation, guaranteed that this game would complete the set – the fourth time in four games this season that these two teams went to extra time. And after a fun-filled, if ultimately unsettling overtime, it was left to Bettman’s Miracle to decide the outcome. And as if a microcosm of the game, if featured feckless goaltending. Neither Michal Neuvirth nor Brian Boucher managed to actually stop a puck in any of the three attempts for either team. If not for Claude Giroux getting his wires crossed trying to pull the puck from his backhand to his forehand and losing it off the blade of his stick, the teams might still be firing pucks into nets at Name of Large Interstate Banking Firm Center this morning. As it was, Alexander Semin finally brought this entertaining, if somewhat bizarre, game to an end when he foiled Boucher’s futile attempt at a poke check and backhanded the puck high over the sprawled goalie for the final 5-4 margin.

-- This is what the NHL has been reduced to…the equivalent of “everybody gets an award.” In the season series, both the Caps and Flyers finished 2-0-2. Go figure.

-- Hey, Claude…what do you have to say NOW?! Giroux spent a fair portion of the game chirping at his opposite number (28), Alexander Semin. Giroux had a goal and an assist in regulation, but Semin got the game winning trick shot.

-- Today’s question for Flyer fans… Is Brian Boucher this year’s Michael Leighton? He’d better be, or it might be a quick and quiet exit for the Flyers in the playoffs. Bobrovsky played scared, which is to say so overcome by the moment that he played himself into “slow.” Slow to get into his butterfly to prevent the first and third goals, slow to react to what was going on behind him on the second goal. And his body English after the third goal all but screamed, “get me out of here.”

-- Alex who? The folks at Japers’ Rink chronicled the record the Caps have in Alex Ovechkin’s absence and noted that the Caps have averaged 4.0 goals a game in posting an 8-5-1 record in such games. Last night, four goals on the dot, and it was a case of guys who have to step up stepping up. Nicklas Backstrom had a very determined game at both ends (although he drifted away from Giroux to leave him open, getting a little too close to Scott Hannan as Nodl was winding up for his slap pass). Mike Knuble had his second straight three-point game and is 5-4-9, plus-7 in his last six games. Marcus Johansson had that late game-tying goal and added an assist. The Caps got assists from Scott Hannan (his second in three games) and Jason Chimera (also his second in three games). Dennis Wideman recorded his first goal as a Cap (although it made him even on that score for the night, having deflected a puck into his own net) and is now 1-6-7 in his last eight games.

-- Mike who? Wideman’s goal was also his first power play goal as a Cap. It was the first power play goal scored by a Caps defenseman since John Carlson did it on January 16th in a 3-1 win over Ottawa (27 games).

-- Tom who? Karl Alzner and John Carlson skated 26:15 and 27:19, respectively to lead the Caps in ice time. They were the ones defending the chance for a second standings point by taking the last shift in overtime.

-- Jeff who? The saying goes, if you notice Jeff Schultz out there, it’s probably not a good thing. Yup, he made that ghastly pass that Claude Giroux picked off and turned into a goal by Andreas Nodl. But otherwise you didn’t notice him, and that was otherwise a good thing. Sure, there is the “but how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” aspect of that comment, but players make mistakes. It’s important to see what a player does after that.

-- The record will show that Michal Neuvirth stopped only 29 of 33 shots (the most goals he has allowed in almost a month). But how many of the four goals could be laid at his feet? Versteeg’s? Off a teammate’s skate. Giroux’? One might argue that Neuvirth overcommitted, but it might have been at least as much Backstrom having left Giroux alone to receive that slap pass from Nodl. Nodl’s? Please. Briere’s? Give credit to Briere for having his stick down and in position to make a play, but Wideman actually got his stick on the puck, just not enough of it to keep it from getting to Briere’s blade. We’re not going to begin to defend Neuvirth’s performance in the trick shot phase. We’re just thankful they don’t have those things in the playoffs.

In the end, you get a sense of the momentum of these teams by looking at the post-game quotes. You would wonder who won the game…

“In the last few months, I think it was, by far, our best game” – Claude Giroux

“We let them back in the game and just kind of sat back and figured they would just play it out. Then the momentum starts, you’re playing on the road and that’s when you’ve got to work harder at that point, when you’re up 3-0. You’ve got to really play even better, even harder, even more deliberate and take care of the puck even better, and that’s something that we kind of took a step back.” -- Mike Knuble

“From a team standpoint, I think it was a good point.” – Brian Boucher

“I think they came out harder in the second period and they worked us down low and I think from there it was tough for us.” – Nicklas Backstrom

The Flyers, who faced a depleted roster on home ice and had a lead with less than four minutes left in the game seem satisfied with the outcome. The Caps, who took a 3-0 lead on a shaky goaltender, gagged on it, came back, then stole the extra point in the fun show portion of the evening, seem annoyed with the outcome, the undercurrent being that it wasn’t a “good” win, rather one obtained despite a less-than-acceptable 60-minute effort. It is something of a reversal of personality of these teams since last season, at least as they were displayed on this night. And that's not a bad thing for the Caps.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps at Flyers, March 22nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Caps start the second half of their six-game road trip tonight with a visit to the City of Brotherly Love, also known as the Home of the Worst Sports Fans in America. If you haven’t heard, GQ magazine conducted what it called a “heavily researched, highly scientific accounting of the bleacher creatures, bottle-throwers, couch-torchers, sexual harassers, projectile vomiters, and serially indifferent bandwagon-hoppers marring our national landscape.”

If you’re going to be the best at something, there might be worse things. But the fans of the Philadelphia Phillies and the Philadelphia Eagles finished one-two in this assessment, which leaves the fans of the Philadelphia Flyers feeling, well, left out. After all, there was the episode in 1972 – before the Flyers would find their inner Philadelphians and become the Broad Street Bullies – when the fans got into it with the St. Louis Blues. It was a brawl that resulted in St. Louis Coach Al Arbour getting a gash in his head, four Blues players hauled off to the hooskow, and a statement from then Mayor Frank Rizzo (no shirinking violet himself) that “this community will not tolerate hooliganism [he was speaking of the Blues]…we probably didn’t need our police officers in that situation. I believe our residents could have taken care of the matter on their own.”

Then there was the more recent experience of Montreal sports writer Pat Hickey after a playoff game in Philly. It was not bad enough that the Flyers had trashed the Canadiens by a 6-0 score in Game 1 of the 2010 Eastern Conference finals. Hickey returned to his 1999 Accord in the parking lot to find that his car was covered in trash, had its Quebec license plates removed, and had a tire slashed. Hickey, in what must be the kind of reserve that is in a Canadian’s DNA, remarked, “it was a bit disturbing.”

And, of course, there is the incident from 2001 in which a Flyer fan confronted Toronto Maple Leaf Tie Domi, who was in the penalty box (perhaps in fairness, Domi was alleged to have been spraying water from a water bottle on fans in the first couple of rows). What makes this even more “Philly” is that the fan later sued Domi. And not just Domi, but the linesman, the Maple Leafs, and the owner of the arena and the Flyers.

Only in Philly.

Flyer fans have a chance to add to their storied history when the Capitals visit this evening with a squad that can only be referred to as “decimated.” Alright, not even that. The original definition of the term “decimate” had its roots in Roman history as a military punishment -- to select by lot from a group and kill every tenth member. The Caps will be missing more than a tenth of their complement of players this evening with Tom Poti, Mike Green, Jason Arnott, and Alex Ovechkin out. Eric Fehr and John Erskine are nicked as well, leaving the Caps severely undermanned in their effort to catch the Flyers in standings points atop the Eastern Conference.

While the Flyers will be catching the Caps at something less than full-strength, the Caps will be visiting a Flyers team that has been treading water for the last month. Since beating Florida back on February 16th by a 4-2 margin, Philadelphia is 6-5-3 and has seen an 11-point lead over the Caps reduced to a pair going into tonight’s game. The overall numbers look like this:

In the 6-5-3 run the Flyers have been outscored 45-37. And that speaks to a persistent problem for the Flyers – goaltending. At the moment it appears that the Flyers will be relying on a rookie to backstop them in the playoffs. Sergei Bobrovsky has had a fine rookie campaign (26-11-5, 2.56, .916), but he has been showing signs of hitting a wall in the late going. Since the All-Star Game break, he is 5-5-2, 2.91, .905. In his last five appearances he has allowed four or more goals twice, and in another appearance he allowed three goals on 18 shots in 33 minutes of relief work. As the Flyers wind their way to the playoffs, Bobrovsky is 10-9-3 against current playoff qualifiers. Against the Caps this season he is 1-0-1, 2.47, .922.

Only two Flyer forwards have dressed for all 71 games played this season, and one would be hard pressed to find to more different players. Claude Giroux is as close as the Flyers get to having a “finesse” player. Giroux has had two fights in his NHL career (Ottawa’s Nick Foligno and Colorado’s Marek Svatos, for the record), which almost disqualifies him for membership as a Flyer. But Giroux has shown himself to be a supremely skilled player who has improved significantly from year to year. As a rookie two seasons ago he provided a glimpse of his talent with 27 points in 42 games. He improved to 47 points last season, and this season he leads the Flyers with 66 points in 71 games. He has been carrying the load lately, too. In his last 13 games he is 4-10-14, plus-1. In three games against the Caps this season he has a pair of goals, and in his career is 3-1-4, minus-4 in nine games against the Caps.

The other forward playing in all 71 games for the orange and black is at the other end of the Flyer tough guy spectrum. Scott Hartnell leads the Flyers in penalty minutes this season (130), while his 20 goals and 43 points provides a mix of toughness and skill. The six fights he has this season is third on the team behind Daniel Carcillo and Jody Shelley. What he has not been doing lately, though, is scoring. March has been a rough month for him. Starting with a 17-penalty minute, no point, minus-2 performance in a 3-2 loss to Toronto, Hartnell is 1-2-3, minus-1 in nine games this month. Hartnell has one assist in three games against the Caps this season and is 10-7-17 in 21 career games against Washington.

On defense, the Flyers have five 20-minute per game players. One of them – Chris Pronger – will not dress tonight. That means that the role of big, ornery defenseman probably falls to Braydon Coburn. The Flyers are going to get little offense from Coburn, although he does have 14 points this season, including a two-point game against the Rangers on February 20th. However, in the 12 games since, Coburn has but one assist, and he is a minus-6 (after being plus-18 in his first 59 games). The plus-minus figure for Coburn is not necessarily a reflection on his play alone, but it mirrors the struggles the Flyers have had recently. He has struggled against Washington, even while posting respectable offensive numbers. In 20 career games against the Caps he is 2-6-8, but is also a minus-6. Tuesday also happens to be his worst day of the week this season for plus-minus. He is minus-6 in 12 Tuesday games.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Philadelphia: Mike Richards

Richards is the heart and soul of the Flyers, a player who plays bigger than his listed 5’11”, 195. He had a recent three-game streak without a point, but seems to have snapped out of that with a goal and four assists in his last four games. But of interest in this game is the fact that Richards is 7-11-18 in 21 career games against the Caps, and of that scoring line, half of his points (two goals, seven assists) have come on power plays. If Richards can solve the Caps’ third-ranked power play (fourth on the road), it is likely to be a good night for the home team.

Washington: Alexander Semin

The Alex that is playing tonight is a mirror image of Richards in terms of his record against this opponent. In 18 career games against the Flyers, Semin is 9-11-20, and half of his points (four goals, six assists) have come on power plays. Semin is the definition of “streaky.” Of his 25 goals, nine have come via hat tricks and another seven have come in streaks of three and four consecutive games. He does not have a goal in any of his last five games after scoring in three straight. And, Semin has struggled on the road this season with only eight of his 25 goals and 18 of his 48 points coming away from Verizon Center. If Semin scores tonight (he has played in two of the three games in the series this season, recording a goal and an assist), things will be looking good for the visitors.


1. shhhhhhhhhh… [Name of Large Interstate Banking Firm] Arena can be among the most intimidating venues in sports, let alone hockey. In a big game like this, if the Flyers get out to a lead early and get the crowd in it, things could turn nasty. The Flyers are fourth in the league in winning percentage when scoring the first goal, and they do it often – 42 times in 71 games with a 32-6-4 record. Getting that first goal will help turn the noise down.

2. Ready, Fire…Fire Again…Fire Some More. Sergei Bobrovsky is 19th in the NHL in save percentage while defending against an opponent’s power play (minimum 20 games). If the Caps get a power play (and these things are not guaranteed – in the Caps’ first visit to Philadelphia this season they had no power play opportunities), and they are whipping the puck around the perimeter, they are playing right into the Flyers’ hands by not taking advantage of a weakness in goal. Get pucks to the net.

3. Trust. With Ovechkin out, the temptation is for guys to try to do more. That could lead to a lot of free-lancing and one-on-one play. Trust the system you play.

In the end, this game probably means more to the Flyers than to the Caps. The Flyers have not beaten a playoff-eligible team in regulation in more than a month. The last time they beat a playoff-eligible team from the East in regulation at home was in January (Montreal, 5-2, on January 25th). This is a good team, but hardly a colossus. Even as depleted as the Caps will be tonight, there is no reason this should not be a competitive game at the very least. Hopefully, Flyer fans will be on (what passes for them) good behavior and limit their displeasure to boos, because when the final horn sounds…

Caps 4 – Flyers 2

Monday, March 21, 2011


This morning's number...8

As in goals...goals Braden Holtby.

In his last seven appearances with the Caps before being returned to Hershey, Holtby allowed a total of eight goals, posted a 6-0-1 record, 1.16 GAA, .961 save percentage, and pitched a shutout.

In his return to Hershey, Holtby has allowed eight goals in two games, posted  3.95 GAA, .837 save percentage, and has an 0-2-0 record.

Re-entry's a bitch, even if you're not an astronaut.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Figuring It Out

Last December, the Washington Capitals hosted the crew of HBO to film their run-up to the Winter Classic to be played against the Pittsburgh Penguins on New Year’s Day. In the second episode of the series, defenseman Mike Green said of the Caps' winless streak that was a theme in the early part of the series, “we’re being faced with a lot of adversity; at least we have time during the regular season to figure it out.”

Green was prescient. The Caps endured an eight-game winless streak while the cameras of HBO were rolling, but streaks can have an odd character to them. On winning streaks you can get a sense of when they are coming to an end when teams start to eke out wins when playing poorly by giving up too many chances, or winning by virtue of a lucky bounce or two, instead of winning with solid play. Conversely, you can tell when things might be getting better for a team on a losing streak when they start to tighten up their play and perhaps lose a game or two on an odd bounce.

Such was the case at the end of the Caps’ eight-game winless streak in December. After getting embarrassed by the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, 7-0, to run their winless streak to six games, the Caps tightened up their defense in a 2-1 overtime loss to Anaheim. After that loss to the Ducks, Bruce Boudreau said: "If we could play like that...we're going to win an awful lot of hockey games, and I see us winning a lot of hockey games in the future.” He might have been peeking into the future, too.

The Caps allowed three goals in the first period of their next game, a 3-2 loss to Boston, but tightened up by allowing no goals in the final two periods, and but for the acrobatics of Tim Thomas in goal for the Bruins – he stopped 25 of 26 third period shots – the Caps might have ended their streak on that night.

The Caps did end their winless streak the next time out, a 3-2 win in Ottawa. It was the first step in what would become – and still is – quite a run. With the 3-0 shutout of the New Jersey Devils on Friday, the Caps are 24-9-6 since that eight-game winless streak, and they have remade themselves in the process.

Last season the Caps were The Greatest Show on Ice, scoring goals often (a 3.82 average scoring rate, more than half a goal a game more than the second ranked team) and in bunches (22 of their wins coming by three or more goals). Defense? Well, yeah, as long as it didn’t get in the way of the show. The Caps finished 16th in the league in goals allowed per game, and of their 15 losses in regulation, six of them were of the three-or-more goal variety. That mix might have been fine in the regular season, where they could overwhelm most teams on most nights, but in the playoffs, where the playing field is more even in terms of talent, the approach did them in.

Which brings us to the 39 games since the Caps had their eight-game winless streak. It is a team unrecognizable to those who might not have seen the Caps since last season. On the one hand, the Caps have averaged only 2.46 goals per game, almost a goal and half less than they averaged last season and almost a half goal less than what they averaged in their first 34 games of this season (2.91) when they posted an 18-12-4 record. Last season, that 2.46 goals a game average would have been good for a tie for 28th in the league. One might have been forgiven if fans saw the red jerseys and wondered if the Caps and New Jersey Devils had changed cities (although last year the Devils scored 2.63 goals a game).

But despite that reduction in offensive production, the Caps have had an epiphany at the other end of the ice. The defense and goaltending has been amazing. In their last 39 games the Caps have allowed an average of 1.95 goals per game. Compare that to the 2.77 goals against they allowed last season and the 2.79 goals per game they allowed in their first 34 games this season. But here is the kicker. At their current pace of goals allowed for the season – 2.34 goals a game – the Caps will set a franchise record for fewest goals allowed in a full NHL season (192), besting the 194 goals allowed in 1999-2000. At the pace of the last 39 games (1.95), they will fairly shatter it with only 188 goals allowed.

Part of it has been an improvement in penalty killing. In the Caps first 34 games the penalty killers were 112 for 135 (83.0 percent), but improved to 112-for-138 (88.4 percent ) in the last 39 games. And what’s more, the Caps were able to minimize the occurrences of shorthanded situations. In the first ten games of this 39-game run the Caps allowed 4.6 shorthanded situations per game. In the second ten that dropped to 3.1, and in the third ten it dropped further to 2.6 occurrences. That number has jumped some (3.9 in the last nine games), but minimizing opponents’ opportunities has been a plus in this 39-game stretch. Overall, the numbers look like this:

Then there is the goaltending. You would be hard pressed to find a team in the NHL with the goaltending depth in prospects that the Caps have. Each of the three goalies dressing for the Caps this season – none of whom has yet reached his 23rd birthday – have nine wins or more for the season. But in this 39-game run of good fortune, it is arguably even better:

And each has his signature on this streak. Varlamov allowed more than three goals in only one of 14 appearances. Holtby did not lose a game in regulation time and allowed more than two goals only once. Neuvirth had three shutouts in 20 appearances and allowed more than three goals only twice.

And if all of this hasn’t been good enough, the Caps are showing signs of improvement in those parts of their game that have lagged a bit, even in this run. Specifically, the power play, which has struggled a lot this season, is 5-for-18 (27.8 percent) in the last six games after going only 10-for-103 (9.7 percent) in the first 33 games of the current run.

Despite having a reputation of being a run-and-gun offensive team, this Caps squad has done it with just about everything but offense. Consider the following. Their second leading goal scorer has missed 15 games this season (Alexander Semin). Their top defenseman (Mike Green), among the elite offensive defensemen in the game, has missed 24 games, and his return is a matter of uncertainty. Their sixth leading goal scorer is playing in his first pro season in North America (Marcus Johansson). Their seventh leading goal scorer has played in only 45 games (Eric Fehr). Their ninth-ranked scorer came to training camp on a tryout contract (Matt Hendricks).

If last year’s group was a herd of pure bred greyhounds, this year’s group is a bunch of mutts grinding away game by game in a manner that is a faint echo of the lunch pail group that played for the Caps in the 1980’s. In the 39 games since the eight-game winless streak the Caps have held opponents to two or fewer goals 28 times. Even though they have scored two or fewer a total of 20 times, themselves, the improvements on defense have enabled them to carve out a 24-9-6 record and challenge for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

If the style the Caps have forged over the past 39 games can carry them to playoff success, then the eight-game losing streak in December might have been the best thing that happened to them this season, ugly as it might have been at the time. Maybe in these 39 games the Caps, to use Mike Green’s phrase, “figured it out.” For in both streaks – losing and winning – perhaps they found their game.  Not as stylish or nimble as a Lamborghini, perhaps, but certainly capable of taking the Caps where they want to go.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A TWO-point night -- Game 73: Caps 3 - Devils 0

For one team, it was nice while it lasted. For the other, things might just be starting.

The Washington Capitals all but killed what remained of the New Jersey Devils’ playoff hopes tonight, and the weapons involved were the stick of Mike Knuble and the glove of goaltender Michal Neuvirth. In the 3-0 win the Caps might have served notice – even on a night when the energy wasn’t there for long stretches – that they are rounding into playoff shape.

Knuble potted a pair of goals, one of typical Knublian style, the other more…uh, stylish. After Jeff Schultz got the Caps off and running (a relative term in this game) with a goal off a feed from…Knuble, the Caps’ forward got the second and third markers on, first, a goal mouth re-direct off a fake shot/slap pass from John Carlson and, second, a wrister off a feed from Alex Ovechkin.

Michal Neuvirth made it stand up with a 33-save effort for the shutout, his fourth of the season and a club record for rookie goaltenders. In fact, it was Neuvirth who kept the Caps in it early when the skaters looked as if they were desperately in need of massive infusions of Red Bull in the first period. The Devils outshot the Caps, 12-2, in the first period and held an 18-3 lead in shots at one point. While the Caps were sleepwalking to the Devils' Neutral Zone Lullaby style in the those first 31 minutes as the home team built that 18-3 lead in shots, Neuvirth’s glove was where Devil shots were going to die. Brian Rolston in particular was sending rockets at the Capitals’ net, only to be stymied by Neuvirth over and over. Rolston was by no means alone in his frustration. Ilya Kovalchuk matched Rolston’s team high five shots, one of them being a breakaway that Neuvirth stoned – with a glove save – late in the third. On this night, “Be Like Mike,” didn’t refer to a basketball player by the name of “Jordan,” but to a forward and a goalie named “Knuble” and “Neuvirth.”

Other stuff…

-- Alex Ovechkin was held to one shot attempt (a miss). It was the first time he was held without a shot in a regular season game since January 19, 2010, in a 3-2 win over Detroit. The one attempt is a career low.

-- But within Ovechkin’s blank score sheet on shots is evidence of his maturity as a player. Midway through the third period, Ovechkin had the puck at the top of the offensive zone on the left wing. He had an opportunity to – and in fact showed as if he would – curl to the middle for a wrist shot. When he started in, it froze the Devils defense, especially goalie Martin Brodeur. It was enough to allow Ovechkin to thread a pass across the ice onto the tape of Mike Knuble, who roofed the puck over Brodeur’s left shoulder before he could get across his crease. Until this year, Ovechkin probably does not make that play.

-- With two assists, Ovechkin is now 9-13-22, plus-7 in his last 18 games and has not been held without a point in consecutive games in that stretch.  He has climbed to fifth in the league in overall scoring with 77 points.

-- Don’t look now – and don’t say it loud enough for Kanoobie to hear – but with two goals tonight Mike Knuble has four goals in his last four games and is 5-5-10, plus-6 in his last 13 games. That is the kind of scoring pace the Caps need from the big guy.

-- It was Knuble’s first multi-point game since December 11th (a 3-2 loss to Colorado) and his first three-point game since January 29, 2010 (4-1 win over Florida).

-- John Carlson did not face the Devils in his late-season stint with the Caps last year, but he is making up for it now. In the four-game series against New Jersey, the former Garden State resident finished 2-3-5, plus-7.

-- OK, so Nicklas Backstrom didn’t spray ink all over the score sheet as far as scoring goes in his return from an injury. But winning 13 of 17 draws might be an indicator that his hand is pretty healthy.

-- Jeff Schultz…a goal, two hits, and a plus-2 in 20-plus minutes. Oddly enough, the first time in almost a month Schultz got more than 20 minutes of ice time (breaking a nine-game streak with fewer than 20).

-- And sometimes, it’s just good being there…Marcus Johansson was on the ice for all three Caps goals for his plus-3.

-- Rolston had all those chances on which he did not convert for the Devils, and he paid. He was on the ice for all three Caps goals.

-- We thought that this game might feature fewer than 50 shots on goal between the teams, and it did (45).  We just didn’t see it as a 33-12 advantage for New Jersey. Rolston and Kovalchuk has almost as many shots between them (splitting 10 total shots) as the Caps had as a team.

-- In that respect the Devils got shots from the guys they want taking them, but the Devils also had nine inconsequential shots from defensemen, meaning that the other 10 forwards combined for a total of 14 shots (and half of those came from Dainius Zubrus and David Clarkson). Sometimes, shots can be misleading. The Devils got no push from the other forward lines.

-- For the second time this season the Caps did not benefit from a single power play (the other time – vs. Philadelphia on January 18th).

-- The Devils out attempted the Caps 50-21. Had every attempt been a shot on goal, it still would have been the fewest shots on goal for the Caps this season. Were the 12 shots on goal the fewest the Caps have ever recorded? Nope…not close. The Caps finished with seven shots on goal in a 4-1 loss at Philadelphia on February 12, 1978.

In the end, it is the end for the Devils. With 11 games left to play they would have to run the table to get to 92 points, and eight of those last 11 games come against teams currently in the top-eight in the East (Boston twice, Pittsburgh twice, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Montreal, and the Rangers). It was a wonderful run, but it’s over.

On the other hand, things are just beginning for the Caps. That the Caps held this opponent to fewer than two goals isn’t the achievement it might be if the opponent was more proficient in the offensive arts. But what was telling in this game was the Caps’ patience. They did allow a few more chances than might be preferred, and Michal Neuvirth was there to gobble them up. But the Caps showed remarkable patience in dealing with a team as disciplined on defense as are the Devils. The Caps did not have many opportunites, evidenced by so few shots and shot attempts. But they took advantage of those opportunities the Devils gave them, and the Caps did not try to force things too much against a team and a system that thrives on teams doing just that. It was another “playoff” type performance of the type that the Caps have been authoring more and more lately.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps at Devils, March 18th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Caps finish the first half of their six-game road trip with a visit with the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center -- The Rock – where the Caps will do their best to get back on the winning track…

“Their best…Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and f**k the prom queen.”

Uh, ok…and you are?

“Captain John Patrick Mason, General, sir... of Her Majesty's S.A.S. Retired, of course.”

I’m not a general, and you’re a long way from home, Captain.

“Yes, well, I was a long way from home with that Alcatraz thing, too, and all things considered, I would rather be there than in Newark.”

Did they bother to tell you who I am and why I’m doing this or are they using you like they do everybody else?

“All I know is you are big in hockey blogging; I found the link over at Japers’ Rink.”

Then you probably have no idea what it means to write some of the best copy on God's earth about hockey and then watch the post get messed up their own f**king idiot cousins.

“I don't quite see how you cherish the memory of your kin by killing another million pixels. And, this is not combat, it's blogging, General Sir. Personally, I think you're a f**king idiot.

You might have a point about that idiot part, but I’m not a General! Anything else, Captain Mason?

“Yeah…welcome to ‘The Rock!’”

We do not suppose the Devils will be in anything approaching a welcoming mood after losing 3-1 to the last place Ottawa Senators last night in Ottawa. It cannot have been a pleasant trip home for the Devils, who find themselves six points out of a playoff spot with 12 games to play and four teams they have to climb over to reach the top-eight. As they host the Caps tonight, their overall numbers look like this:

On January 8th the Devils lost their sixth game in a row and 15th in 17 contests – a 2-1 decision to the Philadelphia Flyers. It left them with a first half season record of 10-29-2 through 41 games. The next night they found themselves down 2-1 to Tampa Bay heading into the third period as they embarked on their second 41. And something strange and wonderful – if you are a Devils fan – happened. David Clarkson scored at the 4:14 mark of the third period. Then Jason Arnott at 7:52 to put the Devils in front. Then Dainius Zubrus at 14:06. Patrik Elias added an empty net goal at 18:45, and after Dominic Moore got one back for the Lightning 23 seconds later, Nick Palmieri (who HAS to play for New Jersey) closed things out with another empty netter to give the Devils a 6-3 win. Starting with that win, the Devils are 23-4-2 in their last 29 games. That is a 65-11-6/136 point pace covering more than a third of the season.

But the Devils might be seeing this glorious run coming to an end. They are 3-2-0 in their last seven, but two of the wins came in extra time, and none of the three wins came against a playoff-level opponent (Atlanta twice and the Islanders). Both losses came against last-place Ottawa, which might haunt the Devils right down to the equipment manager through the summer if they finish four or fewer points out of a playoff spot.

One player who really came alive in the 29-game run is Ilya Kovalchuk. The Devils finally got to see just what Kovalchuk is capable of doing as part of this run, Kovalchuk going 16-14-30, plus-11 in the streak. The 16 goals Kovalchuk has registered in these past 29 games is almost the same number as he recorded in his previous 57 games with the team (20) since being traded from Atlanta. But it is the goal he did not get that might be critical here -- he had a breakaway opportunity in the third period that would have tied the game with Ottawa had he converted.  He did not, and the Devils did not gain any ground on the teams ahead of them.  Kovalchuk is 24-28-52 in 47 career games against the Caps and recorded the first of his 11 career hat tricks against Washington on December 6, 2002, in a 7-6 loss to the Caps.

Brian Rolston was given up for the hockey equivalent of dead in December, placed on waivers by the Devils in the midst of a 2-2-4, minus-6 season through his first 15 games. But he was not claimed, and in the 23-4-2 run for the Devils, Rolston is 11-13-24, plus-9.  He also has four game-winning goals in that stretch. After losing to the Ottawa Senators on March 8th, Rolston said, “It could be a costly loss but we have to come back in the next one. I don't believe we're out of it yet." Having lost twice in nine days to the Senators, the realization that they are almost out of it might be settling in for Rolston and the Devils. He is 13-19-32 in 46 career games against Washington.

If there is one player who reflects the Jersey style and fortune this season, it might be defenseman Andy Greene. If you look at Greene’s overall numbers – 3-17-20, minus-18 – a couple of things jump out. First, he is the Devils’ leading scorer from the blue line. He was last season, too (6-31-37). That is not unusual. But what is unusual is that minus-18 number after going plus-9 last season and plus-3 (in 49 games) in the previous season. It is a reflection of the overall poor record for the Devils. But if you split Greene’s season into two pieces – before and after the start of the 29-game run – it is two very different seasons. In his first 41 games Greene was 3-10-3, minus-23. In the 29-game run he has not scored a goal, but he has seven assists and is a plus-5 while drawing the toughest defensive matchups and (with Henrik Tallinder) skating more than 22 minutes a night. On a defensive-oriented team such as the Devils, you do not have to look much farther than Greene’s numbers to see the difference before and after January 8th.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New Jersey: Martin Brodeur

Once the iron man of the NHL among goalies (12 4,000-plus minute seasons in his last 14 years), Brodeur’s body seems to be breaking down at age 38. He has played in “only” 47 games this season and would have to start (and finish) in seven of the Devils’ last 12 games to break the 3,000 minute level. That seems likely, health willing. In fact, it is not unthinkable that he get the call in each of the last 12 games for the Devils, or until they are eliminated. In the 29-game run since January 8th, Brodeur is 15-3-1, 1.70, .929, with two shutouts. More important has been his consistency. In this run he allowed as many as three goals (never more) only three times and has not done so in any appearance since January 26th (a streak of 12 appearances). If Brodeur is coming to the end, he’s doing it in Brodeurian style.

Washington: Matt Hendricks

For Matt Hendricks, the line against the Devils reads: two games, two fights, a win, and a loss (the win and the loss being the game decisions). Against a team like the Devils, it’s the little things that make a difference, the sort of things Matt Hendricks can provide. And he can provide a touch of scoring. He is 1-3-4 in his last eight games (the goal being the game-winner against Carolina on March 11th), which isn’t bad for a fourth liner. And in his last four games, he alternated five and four-shots on goal games with getting no shots on goal. If that continues tonight, Brodeur will be seeing some rubber off the stick of Hendricks. And given his record in the two games in which he played against New Jersey this season (a fight in each), a Devil is going to see some leather in the form of Hendricks’ gloves.


1. Hot Shots. No team in the NHL allows fewer shots on goal than do the Devils (26.3/game). They seem to like games when there are few shots; they don’t do well when outshooting opponents (14-21-3). When outshot by teams, they are 16-10-1. Watch the shot counter. The over/under on this might be 50. If there are fewer than 50 shots for both teams, even if the Devils are on the short side of the split, it seems likely to be a good night for New Jersey. More than that, could be a Caps night.

2. The Late Show. Fifteen of Ilya Kovalchuk’s 26 goals have come in the third period and overtime. A team can’t lose sight of him as the minutes go by in a game. He’ll appear when you least expect – and want – it.

3. Home Sweet Home. The Devils are 12-1-1 in the 14 games played during this big run, the regulation loss coming at the hands of their recent nemesis, Ottawa. And, in typical Devils style, they have not allowed more than two goals on home ice in any of their last nine games. This ain’t gonna be easy.

In the end, the Devils are the kind of team that, given the way they have played over the last two months, would frustrate the Caps of last season into mistake after mistake. They sure did so in a 5-0 win over the Caps last November, in what was a nightmarish outing for rookie goalie Braden Holtby, his last appearance in his first stint with the Caps before being returned to Hershey. But now, the Caps can play that grind-it-out, 2-1 sort of game, too. And frankly, that’s precisely what we think it’s going to be.

Caps 2 – Devils 1