Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Perils of a Midnight Snack

Those pepperoni, anchovy, and marshmallow fluff pizzas got us again. We had dreams about names and sports teams… names… sports teams… Dale… Dale… Norman Dale… Hoooooooosiers… Ca-a-a-a-a-a-aps… zzzzzz…

Dale Hunter? Norman Dale? Coach arrives in hockey backwater years after famous suspension for “dirty” hit on opponent in playoff game that resulted in longest suspension on record in NHL. He knows the game, having played it for 19 seasons in the NHL and coaching it for more than a decade in Canadian juniors, but will the fine folk of Hickory… uh, D.C., who like their hockey fast and with lots of shooting from everywhere, give him a chance?

Alex Ovechkin? Jimmy Chitwood? Gifted player, but one who has become an enigma, once thought of as being among the best in the sport, but largely disappearing from the game as he tries to focus on fundamentals. Will he see the character in the old coach that inspires him to a triumphant return to the top of his sport and winner of its ultimate prize?

Alexander Semin? Rade Butcher? Headstrong, plays to his own tune despite benching and getting his playing time cut. A good kid underneath it all and probably knows coach is right, but he can’t help himself. Takes too many penalties and develops a reputation among referees.

Mike Knuble? Buddy Walker? Strong, hard-working, gets those garbage points. Doesn’t say a lot, but you just know when he does, folks listen.

Nicklas Backstrom? Strap Purl? A player who plays with an “inner voice” speaking to him, plays with a serene calmness while chaos swirls around him. Oh, and God wants him on the ice.

Mike Green? Everett Flatch? Quiet, introspective. Was close to the old coach, has a thing for getting all banged up and having to leave the game.

Brooks Laich? Merle Webb? Probably best known for being a good quote, like “Let's win this game for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here,” or “"If you want money, go to the bank. If you want bread, go to the bakery. If you want goals, go to the net."

Cody Eakin? Ollie McClellan? C’mon, are you kidding me?

Maybe Ovechkin will stand up and announce he’s playing hockey again. Maybe the Caps will get big games out of unsung heroes like Buddy and Merle…uh, Knuble and Laich. Maybe Ollie…uh, Cody will pot that big goal in a playoff clinching game as the season is winding down. Maybe the Caps will beat the taller, stronger, more athletic team from South Bend…uh, Pittsburgh to go to a Stanley Cup final.

And maybe Coach Dale will lead the Caps to a place they haven’t been before, taking Washington to the 2012 Stanley Cup championship.

God, I gotta find a new midnight snack.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A NO-point night -- Game 23: Blues 2 - Caps 1

So much for the storybook ending, at least for the first game.

The Caps took the ice expecting to play a hockey game and ended up wondering who filled the Verizon Center rink with quicksand as they dropped a 2-1 decision to the St. Louis Blues in Dale Hunter’s debut as head coach for the Caps.

It was a pretty simple case of a team on top of its game playing a pretty simple style – forecheck the crap out of the opponent, win the battles along the wall, and don’t give a puck carrier time to look around for an outlet. As a result, the Caps managed a single goal on just 19 shots and spent an awful lot of time dumping the puck out of their own end or into the Blues’ end, and having the Blues come out with the puck and momentum at either end.

Nicklas Backstrom got that lone goal for the Caps on a feed from Alex Ovechkin. The play started with Backstrom taking a hit to make a play, nudging the puck forward from inside the Caps’ blue line to Ovechkin as he was being stapled to the wall by David Backes. Ovechkin took the puck and crossed diagonally through the neutral zone from the left to the right wing. As he eased down the right side, Troy Brouwer crossed in front of the trailing Backstrom, who beat Backes down the ice. Brouwer’s cross caused a moment’s indecision between the two Blues defensemen, both sliding to Brouwer. It left Backstrom open as the trailer, and the pass from Ovechkin was taken by Backstrom and snapped it into the net. “Snapped” might not be the right verb there; the puck didn’t come cleanly off Backstrom’s stick, and it appeared to fool goalie Jaroslav Halak.

The Caps lead at 10:15 of the first period was short-lived. St. Louis would get the first of two second-effort goals at 15:48 when Alex Steen rang the puck off the crossbar. The puck deflected down into the crease, and T.J. Oshie pounced on it to bang home the rebound before goalie Tomas Vokoun could recover.

The Blues got the game-winner in the ninth minute of the second period when Matt D’Agostini followed up his own shot, taking a rebound offered up by Vokoun around the back of the net, tucking in it inside the post to Vokoun’s right.

It made for a quick, tidy, and ultimately unfulfilling game for Caps fans hoping for some Hunter magic in his first game behind the bench.

Other stuff…

-- It really was a glass-half-empty/glass-half-full sort of game. Yes, the Caps had a devil of a time trying to solve the St. Louis forecheck, but on the other hand they were patient at the other end, not trying to force plays by trying to skate through Blues defenders standing up at their blue line. Dump and chase isn’t exciting, and it isn’t a style this team has found natural for most of the last few years, but they did stick with it.

-- That dump and chase style was resulting in a lot of frustration early as the Caps couldn’t often manage to finish the “chase” part of that play and gain possession of the puck. But they were somewhat more successful as the game wore on. Call it a work in progress. No, not even that. Call it something to work on (Hunter alluded to this after the game when he specifically cited the forecheck as something that needs work).

-- Still…St. Louis had 30 shots on goal; the Caps had 30 shot attempts. And depending on where you sit, having fewer shots on goal (19) than you had blocked shots (the Caps blocked 20 Blues shots) is either anemic offense or a nice effort by the defense.

-- Roman Hamrlik had six of those 20 blocked shots. And he was not on the ice for either St. Louis goal. Baby steps.

-- Alexander Semin continues to confound. He did have two of the Caps’ eight shots in the third period, but they were his only two shots. And there is the matter of ice time – 14:37. That’s the fourth time in his last nine games he logged fewer than 15 minutes after not getting less than 15:22 in any of his first 13 games. Part of it is skating with Cody Eakin and Marcus Johansson, each still at an age where minutes might be managed. But it means that the Jason Chimera-Brooks Laich-Joel Ward trio is the de facto second line if you measure such things by ice time.

-- Every Blues player had a hit, save one – Jason Arnott. We think Keith Tkachuk and Al MacInnis had a couple.

-- Only nine of 43 faceoffs were taken in the Caps’ offensive zone. The hallmark of a Ken Hitchcock-coached team is denying the other team any offensive opportunities. This is one way of doing that. Don’t take whistles in your own end.

-- The crowd was announced as another sellout – 18,506. But it sounded more like 8,506. We would have expected a little more energy in the building.

-- Alex Ovechkin didn’t have a breakout game, but frankly, who would have expected it in this game? He had one shot on goal, and St. Louis is a disciplined enough team to keep even a player of Ovechkin’s talents away from places he wants to go. Still, with the assist on the Backstrom goal he has points in four of his last five games.

-- With a bit more luck (and a Caps defender shutting off a second chance), Tomas Vokoun might have had a shutout. As it was, he allowed only two goals in a full 60 minutes of work for the first time since he dropped a 2-1 decision to Nashville on November 15th (coincidentally, on both nights he stopped 28 of 30 shots). Over five appearances (one a 41 second spin around the crease) he had allowed 15 goals on 94 shots (.840 save percentage).

In the end, the loss was disappointing but not unexpected. The Caps were in turmoil before tonight (otherwise, why dismiss the coach?), and the team they faced tonight was 8-2-2 for November. Moreover, the Blues had allowed more than two goals once in 12 games in November coming into this game, had three shutouts, and had three other games in which they allowed only one goal. This is about as well as they are going to play.

The Caps though, should improve. They are not as bad as the 5-10-1 record they are sitting on after their 7-0-0 start. Vokoun hasn’t suddenly forgot how to tend goal. The defense, even without Mike Green, will find a way to settle out the pairings, even if they become only “competent” in some respects. If Ovechkin picks up his pace just a little bit, he would be on a 35-goal pace and not the 29-goal pace he is on. Marcus Johansson will only get better. Even Cody Eakin is getting valuable experience.

Put it all together, and the fact that tonight didn’t have a storybook ending is only mildly disappointing. You want that storybook ending for, well…the end of the story, not its first chapter. And that is what this team needs to be building for, one step at a time.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 23: Blues at Capitals, November 29th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Technically, tonight’s game between the Washington Capitals and the St. Louis Blues is the 23rd game on the schedule for the Caps. But it is Game 1 in the NHL coaching career of Dale Hunter. For the Caps, Hunter is the 15th coach in team history, and it the experience of the other 14 is any indication, his first game will be memorable. That is not necessarily a good thing. For example…

-- Jimmy Anderson was the first coach in Caps history. He lost his first game, a 6-3 loss at the New York Rangers. Anderson would go 1-2-1 in his first four games, not a terrible start for a brand-spanking new expansion team. But then he would lose ten in a row, go 0-13-1 over 14 games, and eventually be relieved of his duties on February 9, 1975 after compiling a record of 4-45-5.

-- His successor was Red Sullivan, who won his first game behind the Caps bench – a 7-4 win at home against the Rangers. He was 2-2-0 after his first four games, but then went 0-14-0 in his next 14 games and was dismissed on March 22nd.

-- The next two Caps coaches – Milt Schmidt and Tom McVie – lost their respective first games on their way to a combined 54-156-38 record. That made the debut of Danny Belisle all the more promising when the Caps won on opening night of the 1978-1979 season (their third straight opening night win – go figure). And he was undefeated after two games (1-0-1). But an 0-5-1 skid put an end to that. Belisle lasted into the next season, but was relieved of his duties on November 5, 1979 (November, as you no doubt have figured out, is a month in which Caps coaches might want to disconnect their phones).

-- Enter Gary Green. At the age of 26, he was the youngest head coach in the history of the league. It did not keep him from being a loser in his first game with the Caps, making Caps coaches 2-4-0 in their first games. Green did not make it to age 30 as Caps head coach, asked to turn in his whistle on November 5, 1981 (what is it with November?).

-- Interlude…Roger Crozier coached one game behind the Caps bench. He lost.

-- Then came Bryan Murray, who stepped behind the Caps bench on November 11, 1981. He lost his first game, too. But he would win 343 times, making him the winningest coach in Caps history before he would turn over the keys to his brother Terry on January 15, 1990.

-- Terry Murray made what is perhaps the most emphatic entrance as a new coach with this team. The Caps entered that game on an eight-game losing streak and had a 18-24-4 record. The Caps took the ice on January 16th and pasted the New Jersey Devils, 9-6. The goals came from a who’s who of ex-Caps – two from Michal Pivonka, two from Geoff Courtnall, one from Dino Ciccarelli, another from Kevin Hatcher. Bob Rouse, John Tucker, and Stephen Leach rounded out the scoring to give Murray only the third first-game win in Caps coaching history. But after four seasons in which he posted better than .500 records, his team stumbled to a 20-23-4 start in 1993-1994, and he was dismissed on January 27, 1994.

-- Jim Schoenfeld was next up. His first game was memorable in that he returned to where he spent the bulk of his career – Buffalo. Not that he would want to remember this visit. The Caps were plastered by the Sabres, 7-2. Seven different Sabres had goals at the expense of Caps goalie Rick Tabaracci, and Schoenfeld established himself firmly in the pantheon of Caps coaches who had difficulties in their first game. Schoenfeld would coach in two abbreviated seasons, finishing up the 1993-1994 season (19-12-6) and then coaching in the shortened 1994-1995 season (22-18-8). In his first “full” season he was 39-32-11, but when he finished the 1996-1997 season 33-40-9, he was relieved in favor of Ron Wilson.

-- Ron Wilson won his first game as Caps head coach, a 4-1 win in Toronto on October 1, 1997. Then he won his next game…and his next…and his next. Wilson’s Caps started the 1997-1998 season with a 7-1-0 mark and finished it as a Stanley Cup finalist, the only time the Caps would reach the final in their history. It would arguably be the high point of his tenure. In fact, it might have provided some good will for the following season when the Caps would go 31-45-6 and miss the playoffs entirely (losing more than 500 man-game to injury probably had something to do with it, too). Wilson rebounded with a 102-point season in 1999-2000, but after dropping to 96 points the following year and 85 the next (that last year being the first one for Jaromir Jagr in Washington), Wilson was excused.

-- Next up was Bruce Cassidy. At the age of 37, the Caps were taking something of a chance. First time NHL coach, not much older than many of his players. And there was that whole “Jagr” thing to navigate. Cassidy won his first game, a 5-4 win over Nashville, and won his first three games. But the Caps had trouble all year getting any sort of traction. They had only one winning streak of as many as four games and finished 39-29-8-6. A collapse in the first round of the playoffs – losing the last four games after winning the first two against Tampa Bay – left a bitter taste, and when Cassidy opened the 2003-2004 season with an 8-18-1-1 record, he was asked to leave in favor of Glen Hanlon.

-- Glen Hanlon was promoted from within, elevated from the head coaching job with the Portland Pirates. He won his first game, a 6-5 win over the Boston Bruins on December 11, 2003 (parenthetically, Boston's Mike Knuble scored the first goal in that game before the Caps jumped on the Bruins for three goals in less than three minutes in the first period). However, his 15-28-9-2 record over the rest of the 2003-2004 season was not enough to lift the Caps to the playoffs. But this is when the Caps started undertaking their rebuild in earnest, and Hanlon’s ability to get the most out of his players merited his return. He would never compile a season record of .500, nor would his teams ever make the playoffs. When it became evident that the young talent on hand was not a good fit with his schemes, and when the Caps dropped five in a row – the last an ugly 5-1 loss to Atlanta at home – Hanlon was dismissed.

-- Bruce Boudreau took over on November 22, 2007 – Thanksgiving Day in the States. He stepped behind the Caps bench for the first time the following day in a difficult setting – Philadelphia. The Caps sped out to a 3-0 lead barely 34 minutes into the game. But the Flyers came back to tie it with less than five minutes left in regulation. Nicklas Backstrom made things alright, though, taking a feed from Alex Ovechkin and ending things 1:55 into overtime to give Boudreau a win in his first game – the fourth straight first game win for Caps coaches. Boudreau would become the second-winningest coach in Caps history in his tenure with the Caps, the fastest to 200 wins in modern NHL history. But the great promise of his regular season teams did not carry over into the playoffs, and when the Caps fell flat with a 5-9-1 record after starting this season 7-0-0, it was time for another change.

And that brings us to Dale Hunter. Although Hunter has more than 450 wins in Canadian junior hockey, he has no experience behind and NHL bench. That combination makes him an intriguing figure. Add in the history he has with this franchise – 12 seasons as a player and five as captain – and Hunter might be the most interesting of the 15 men to stand behind the Caps bench. Certainly, Caps fans feel a keen sense of anticipation of what Hunter brings to this team as a coach and whether the character he displayed as a player can be conveyed to this team of what to date have been underachievers. It will not be dull.

Caps 4 – Blues 2

(click pic for larger image)

Monday, November 28, 2011

A New Era Begins

Day One in the Dale Hunter Era was not a happy one. Not when a predecessor gets word at 6:30 in the morning that he is being relieved, not when the team who is changing coaches is in the midst of a 5-9-1 slump, not when questions swirl about this player or that and whether they tuned out the departed coach.

Hunter did have a big grin on his face as he took the ice, though, and for a coach who is getting his first opportunity behind an NHL bench it was altogether understandable. It was a strange practice in a way, attended as it was by more than the usual contingent of fans (we didn’t anticipate going, but we are on a break, and hey, what the heck?), populated by the whole gamut of Washington hockey media (and those from other outlets), and the brain trust of the Caps – Ted Leonsis, Dick Patrick, and George McPhee – looking on from above.

The focus of the exercise was, of course, Hunter. It was not a typical practice in that Hunter spent the first 45 minutes of the noon session looking on as Dean Evason and Bob Woods ran the drills. Hunter was working the wall, stopping by players and sharing a few words (or in the case of Tomas Vokoun, a lot of whacks of Vokoun’s pads with his stick). Watching him linger a few minutes with Alexander Semin at the bench made one wonder, “will he be the one to pick the lock of Semin’s talent?” And one might have been wondering what Hunter said to Alex Ovechkin as they stood together at center ice – what they said, one captain to another.

In the last 20 minutes of the session, Hunter took more of a command role, drawing up plays on the white board at the Caps bench, probably an effort to feed them a little bit at a time after he looked on for 45 minutes wondering what he was that he inherited.

If anything, the players seemed energized, but given the state of the club the last few weeks it might have been a “first day of school” kind of energy when kids are trying to impress the new teacher. If the Dale Hunter that Caps fans knew for 12 seasons is the one taking over as coach, “new teacher” is going to give way to “stern taskmaster.” And for this team it will be quite a culture change. Change for the better? We have 60 games – and hopefully a lot more – to find out.

Here are some pics of this morning (which made us regret being downstairs trying to find a clear spot in the glass)…

Two Coaches, Same End

Hockey is a strange sport. Not more so than when it comes to coaching. There are two poles on the hockey coaching axis. One is “system.” Different coaches have different schemes, different philosophies, different approaches to the “X’s” and “O’s.” But whatever “system” a coach uses, it imposes a certain structure on a team. Roles are well defined, players know where they need to be and what they need to do when they get there. Repetition, familiarity, reliability. Systems are the constant. And they almost never, ever, are the reason a coach is relieved of his duties.

At the other pole is “motivation.” These are the dark arts of coaching, always in motion, methods always in need of refreshment. What motivates a team or a player today might not work a month from now. Different players need different approaches; the same team at different points on the calendar need different motivations. Here there is no structure. Variety, spontaneity, imagination. And this is almost always the underlying reason a coach is fired.

Bruce Boudreau was relieved of his duties as head coach of the Washington Capitals this morning, almost four years to the day since he was named head coach – November 22, 2007. And there is an eerie similarity between his departure and that of his predecessor, Glen Hanlon. In talking about that Thanksgiving Day, 2007, and his dismissal of Glen Hanlon, General Manager George McPhee said:
"He knew as soon as he saw me this morning. He said, 'I wouldn't have known what to do today.' "
Compare that to what Bruce Boudreau said after the Caps’ 5-1 loss to Buffalo on Saturday when asked how a team recovers from adversity:
“It’s got to come from within, I’ve got to believe. I’m hoping that’s got to come from within because if I’ve got to teach them how to be tough, then I don’t know quite how to do that.”
Two coaches, two instances of having nothing left with which to motivate. Hanlon was lost without a remedy; Boudreau knew what the Caps needed but admitted to not knowing how to get them there.

And that is how a room is “lost.” It is not as if the players did not, or do not want to win. It was not, and is not a case of a coach suddenly becoming stupid. It was, and is, a case of a coach no longer having anything left in the bag to motivate his team to be their best. There is no message left to impart to the players, they are no longer listening.

Few coaches get to leave on their terms, and even if Bruce Boudreau is one of the many and not of the few, it bears noting just how accomplished his tenure here has been:

-- In 329 games, posted a record of 201-88-40. He won 61 percent of the games he coached.
-- Fastest head coach to 200 wins in modern NHL history.
-- Coached Caps to a 54-15-13 record in 2009-2010, the best record in franchise history and the best most standings points ever recorded by a non-original six team.
-- Only coach in Caps history to lead team to consecutive 50-win seasons.
-- Winning coach in the Caps first and only appearance in the NHL Winter Classic.
-- Won Jack Adams Award (2008) as NHL’s top coach.
-- Second in total wins in franchise history (201; Bryan Murray had 343).

But in the end there are only so many tricks and strategies a coach can use to motivate his team. Systems are constants (although Boudreau radically altered his in mid-season last year), but motivation is a constantly changing challenge. Generally, you can see the end coming…more frequent changes (lines, drills, etc.), more evident frustration, self-doubt creeping into the coach’s comments, body English that screams of the ever-widening gulf between coach and players. It all adds up to the oft-used (and abused) phrase, “losing the room.”

Bruce Boudreau was a coach of a certain type, what one might call a “players coach.” He gave players a long leash, but it was not as effective as anyone would have liked in terms of post-season results. This year was going to be different. Boudreau was going to be the “accountability” coach. If a player did not meet his standards, he would not be allowed to play out of it. He would sit. It did not matter if it was a youngster, such as Marcus Johansson. It did not matter if it was a highly-regarded free agent, such as Tomas Vokoun, who sat in the season opener. If did not matter if it was the Captain, who was benched for a last shift with the Caps on the wrong side of a one goal game.

But if a coach has spent three years cultivating and nurturing a relationship with players that gave them a lot of freedom, how credible can that coach be when he tries to be the demanding parent? It did not work, and nowhere did it work worse than with the Captain. The body English between Boudreau and Alex Ovechkin just never seemed the same after that benching against Anaheim in the first game of the month. And if the choice comes down to a player with nine years remaining on his contract and who is the franchise, for all intents and purposes, and a coach who – however skilled he might be – is as replaceable a commodity as there is in pro sports, there is no choice to be made. Bruce Boudreau is the casualty.

Any teams contemplating a coaching change for the rest of this season is going to have Boudreau on their short list of candidates. Although is future in Washington has come to an end, he has one in the NHL. He will have choices.

Meanwhile, in Washington the focus will shift to Dale Hunter, named as Boudreau’s replacement. Hunter has no NHL coaching experience, either as an assistant or a head coach. But two things should be noted. First, he has a record of 451-189-23-25 in 10-plus years as head coach at London in the Ontario Hockey League. Second, it is worthwhile to remember this record when one considers that before he ascended to the Pittsburgh Penguins and led them to a championship, Dan Bylsma had a total of 54 games of head coaching experience at any level, the NHL not among them.

Hunter was a particular type of player. There are those who will remember him as dirty, but what Caps fans will remember is a player having an impeccable work ethic on the ice. And he certainly had results in London – three seasons of 50 or more wins (in a 68-game season) and on pace for a fourth this season, an amazing 59-7-2 season in 2004-2005, six divisional championships, ten playoff appearances, a Memorial Cup championship.

If Bruce Boudreau did not quite know how to teach this team to be tough, things might change in a hurry in Washington. In 19 seasons in the NHL, no one could lay claim to being a tougher player than Dale Hunter. And he has a certain credibility in one respect that neither Glen Hanlon nor Bruce Boudreau could claim – Hunter has played in a Stanley Cup final. And that is the standard now.

It’s a tough job for a tough guy.

That Was The Week That Was -- Week 7 (November 20-26)

Week Seven was better than Week Six, but these things are relative. At least the Caps won twice this week. But since their 7-0-0 start they are 5-9-1 in their last 15 games. To put that into perspective, the worst team in the league, the Columbus Blue Jackets, are 6-7-2 in their last 15 games. Right now, this is not a very good hockey team.

Record for the week: 2-2-0

It is said that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. In other words, what have you done for us lately? And when you win the first two games of the week in barely get outta town fashion, then lose the last two by a combined 11-4 score, well…you didn’t finish the week very well. At the moment the Caps are on a pace for 93 points. If you are going to find a silver lining in that, it is that when the Caps went to their only Stanley Cup final, they finished the season with 92 standings points.

Offense: 3.00/game (season: 3.14/game, rank:4th)

If you are looking to rationalize the 12 goals for the week as not so bad, you do it by convincing yourself that the Rangers, Coyotes, and Sabres are all top-half teams in the league’s goals-against rankings. But the guys who have to produce are not. With Mike Green still out, that means Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Alexander Semin have to contribute on a regular basis, and this week was middling at best. For the week, this trio was 4-5-9 in four games. When one remembers that Jason Chimera scored three goals by himself, this total is not all that impressive. And that is especially so when one considers that Nicklas Backstrom was 2-3-5 for the week, a very good points output. The Alexes?... 2-2-4. Not awful, not good. A whole lot of “meh.”

Defense: 4.25 goals/game (season: 3.27, rank: 29th)

Awful. At the end of Week 2 the Caps had allowed 2.00 goals per game and were tied for the fifth best goals against per game in the league. As this week ends they are ranked 29th and have allowed 58 goals in their last 15 games (3.87/game). And here is the scary part. The 11 goals in consecutive games to end the week is the second time the Caps have done that in their last six games (they lost 4-1 and 7-1 decisions to Winnipeg and Toronto on November 17th and 19th). In their last 11 games they have allowed ten or more goals in consecutive games three times. The Caps had not allowed as many as ten goals in consecutive games since dropping a 3-2 decision to Colorado and a 7-0 decision to the New York Rangers last December. It is not as if teams are peppering the Caps with shots – 109 for the week. But 17 goals? That brings us to…

Goaltending: 4.22/.844

This was a communal suck for the week. Tomas Vokoun played in three of the games and allowed 11 goals on 76 shots (.855 save percentage). Michal Neuvirth allowed six goals on 33 shots in his only appearance for the week (.818), cementing his position as keeper of the baseball cap. When the week ended, Vokoun had four consecutive appearances with at least three goals allowed (seven of his last ten appearances), and Neuvirth had three of his own with at least three goals allowed (six of his eight appearances this season). Goaltending was not supposed to be a problem for this team. At the moment, it is.

Power Play: 2-for-16/12.5 percent (season: 16.3%, rank:16th)

It isn’t getting better, at least not much. This is a team that has not had more than one power play goal in a game since the last game of their 7-0-0 start. This week the Caps were 2-for-16. In 26 minutes and change of power play time they managed a total of 23 shots on goal. Alex Ovechkin had two of them in 14:25 of power play time. In 6:57 of power play time in three games, Alexander Semin did not have a shot on goal in the man advantage (that’s two weeks in a row without a power play shot on goal from Semin). What is worse, the Caps were outscored for the week on their own power play, allowing three shorthanded goals (one of those was a penalty shot). It did not matter a lot in the larger scheme of things – the Caps won the game in which they allowed two shorthanded goals and were already out of the game in which they allowed the third – but it was indicative a grisly week overall. As for the power play, though, does it all start with Mike Green? The Caps were 8-for-27 with him in those first seven games (29.6 percent), 6-for-59 since (10.2 percent). Here’s the thing. In those first seven games Green had three power play goals and was on the ice for each of the other five. Think it matters?

Penalty Killing: 10-for-11/90.9 percent (season: 80.0%, rank:T-22nd)

Hard to find a lot of fault here. Only 11 opportunities allowed; only once allowing more than two power play chances to opponents. And the Caps allowed only ten shots on goal in those 11 shorthanded situations in almost 16 minutes of shorthanded time. It was an especially welcome outcome after allowing three power play goals on five chances to Toronto to close the previous week.

Paying the Price: 130 hits/49 blocked shots (season rank: 15th/24th)

Getting more than 30 hits in a game might be a product of scoring idiosyncracies, but averaging more than 30 over a four-game week was indicative of at least trying to engage physically. Almost a third of those hits, though, came from Troy Brouwer (25) and Alex Ovechkin (17). Brouwer had a 10-spot in about 19 minutes of ice time in the 4-3 win over Winnipeg on Wednesday. Ovechkin had eight in the 6-3 loss to the Rangers on Friday. On the blocked shots, Karl Alzner had seven for the week, but none in either of the last two games of the week. But it was Dennis Wideman who led the Caps with eight – one fewer than the number of goals he was on the ice for in the four games. He was on the ice for nine of the last 13 goals scored against the Caps for the week.

Faceoffs: 118-for-234/50.4 percent (season: 50.4 percent, rank: T-15th)

The Caps won 48 of 82 draws in the defensive zone (58.5 percent) and still allowed 17 goals. That’s how bad things were on defense this week. All in all, Jeff Halpern had the best week in the circle, winning 24 of 35 draws (68.6 percent). What that meant was that the rest of the team was not all that great. Of the other big three on faceoffs – Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and Marcus Johansson – they were 85-for-174 (48.9 percent). But hey, they did win something this week. Let’s not be too picky.

Turnovers: minus-28

The Caps lost every game and the week in this measure. They had 47 giveaways for the week, 30 more than they were charged with in the previous week. Almost a third of them were charged to Dennis Wideman (eight) and John Carlson (seven).


Two one-goal wins, two losses by at least three goals. It was not a good week for any individual or for the team. The losses are especially distressing. The two losses by three or more goals makes six in the last 14 games, four in the last six. Even in the eight game losing streak last season the Caps had only two losses of three or more goals. Five of the losses in that streak were of the one-goal variety, two of them in extra time. The Caps have now lost eight of their last 11 games, and only once did a loss come on a one-goal decision.

This week the Caps fell behind first in three of the four games and in fact gave up at least the first two goals each of those three games. It is the profile of a team that just is not playing well at all. At least in last year’s losing streak there was fight in the team, and they just were not being rewarded for effort. This team just does not have the look of one that cares very much at the moment. Last week we said that this was on the players, and we still believe that. But just as a coach sometimes pulls a goalie to send a message to the skaters, the coach might be “pulled” soon if the players can’t find their way out of this funk.

And this week does not provide a lot of promise in that regard. The Caps’ first opponent this week – St; Louis – has allowed more than two goals just once in 12 games in November. Pittsburgh, who visits on Thursday, is 3-0-1 since the return of Sidney Crosby (the loss came in overtime to St. Louis). Even Ottawa, the Caps’ opponent on Saturday, won three in a row before dropping decisions to Vancouver and the Penguins. They beat Carolina on Sunday.

With 60 games left, one would have to think the Caps will work this out at least well enough to secure a playoff spot. Right now, though, this is a team that doesn’t seem to be doing much right and seems to lack any urgency to correct their deficiencies. One would like to think that the low point was the last game, a 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres in which five Caps were a minus-3 or worse, and Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin were each a minus-4. Ovechkin had been as bad as a minus-4 only three times in his career before Saturday night (none since November 20, 2008), and Backstrom had recorded a minus-4 only once before (November 20, 2008). Both Ovechkin and Backstrom are minus-8 over their last 10 games.

In the end, over the last two weeks there is almost nothing anyone can point to and say, “this…this is what we can build on.” And that is a really bad place to be.

Three Stars of the Week:


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Programming Note

We will be hobnobbing with our fellow wizards over the next few days, leaving this place dark.  In the meantime, we remind you of what inspires us...


A TWO-point night -- Game 19: Caps 4 - Coyotes 3


The Washington Capitals and Bruce Boudreau shook the gorillas off their backs last night in taking a 4-3 decision from the Phoenix Coyotes. The Caps ended a four-game losing streak, and Bruce Boudreau won his 200th game behind an NHL bench on his fifth try. It did not come easy.

It looked for all the world as if this would be another one of “those” games, one in which the Caps get their chances by the bushel, but find a way to make the other goalie look like Ken Dryden, then manage to give the other guys goals on the few chances they get.

And so it was – the Caps recorded the first three shots of the game, all on a power play courtesy of Lauri Korpikoski’s tripping penalty drawn by Mathieu Perreault. But the Caps gave the Coyotes a break when John Carlson’s lazy cross-ice pass attempt at the top of the offensive zone was swiped by Radim Vrbata, who sped off down the ice. Tomas Vokoun looked entirely unprepared for what came next as Vrbata skated in, bent to his right, and flipped a forehand around Vokoun, who never seemed to move from the center of his crease. Caps fans everywhere might have been thinking, “here we go again,” especially after the Caps outshot the Coyotes 13-5 in the first period, yet found themselves down by that 1-0 score.

Caps fans then might have been found smacking their DVRs thinking they were stuck in a loop when the Coyotes’ Boyd Gordon and the Caps’ Brooks Laich both went after a loose puck near the Phoenix blue line. Gordon won the race, poking the puck out of the zone and to Korpikoski, who got behind defenseman Dennis Wideman. Korpikoski had a step of an advantage all the way down the ice, Wideman trying to hook his elbow, his arm, his knee, swipe his wallet, pull his hat over his eyes, anything to slow Korpikoski up.

All it did was give the referee a chance to call for a penalty shot when Korpikoski’s weak shot was snuffed after all the abuse. Korpikoski scored on the ensuing freebee, and Caps fans might have been tempted to tune in on the debut of “The Sidney Crosby Show.” Given that Phoenix came into the game with a record of 9-0-3 when scoring first and a record of 10-0-0 when leading after two periods, it did not look good.

But then something strange happened. Phoenix made a mistake. Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson tried to send the puck up the left wing boards from his own goal line, but Joel Ward annoyed him enough in doing it that the attempt was weak. The puck settled on John Carlson’s stick, and the defenseman had time and space to tee one up. He did, the puck pinballing past goalie Jason LaBarbera to halve the lead.

Enter “Rally Balloon.” A red balloon drifted down over the Verizon Center ice as the clock was winding down under nine minutes left in the period. It was hovering there like an angel sent to offer comfort to the boys in the red jerseys – or give them a kick in the ass. Whatever, “Rally Balloon” was there to see Cody Eakin tie the game on another drive from outside that nicked defenseman Keith Yandle on the way in, the puck bouncing under the stick of LaBarbera to tie the game. All of a sudden, the astute Caps fan would realize, “maybe there’s a chance.” For you see, Phoenix had not won a game this season when tied after two periods (okay, it was only two games, and both were lost in extra time anyway).

(photo: Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press)

It made for an interesting third period, thanks to Nicklas Backstrrom. The centerman scored his sixth goal of the season as the end product of good work by the Caps to prevent Phoenix from clearing the puck out of the zone. The relentless pressure resulted in the puck finding its way to Backstrom’s stick at the doorstep to Labarbera’s left, where he roofed a backhand over the goalie to give the Caps their first lead. He then started a play by winning a power play faceoff – a basic play, but one the Caps have had trouble executing lately. Unable to get possession of the puck, the Coyotes were left to defend a wide-open Brooks Laich for a slap shot that found its way through a maze and past LaBarbera to put the Caps up by two.

The Caps would need that fourth goal, because Phoenix would have a breath of life left, Korpikoski getting his second of the night mid-way through the third period. But the Caps had enough grit left to keep Phoenix from any more mischief, and the losing streak was over.

Other stuff…

-- The 4:02 sequence in the second period following the Coyotes’ second goal might be just another few minutes of a long season, or it might be the turning point of this one. Given the circumstances – the Caps on a losing streak, having fallen behind by two goals, playing a team that knows how to play with a lead – the competitive part of the game might have been thought to be over. But John Carlson scored 53 seconds after that second Phoenix goal, and Cody Eakin scored 3:09 later. In between, however, there was Tomas Vokoun foiling a breakaway by Radim Vrbata – the player who scored on a penalty shot earlier in the game. It might have been Vokoun’s biggest save of the season.

-- On the Caps’ fourth goal, Nicklas Backstrom made something out of the tools he had available. In this case, his foot. On the face-off starting the play, Backstrom had his stick tied up by Martin Hanzal, but he managed to kick the puck back to the point to get things started and from where Brooks Laich would finish them with a goal. If the Redskins had that foot on Sunday in overtime, they might have beaten the Cowboys.

-- Alex Ovechkin recorded an assist on Backstrom’s goal, ending a four-game streak without a point. Thus, he avoided setting a career high for consecutive games without a point.

-- Dmitry Orlov finished his NHL debut with a decent performance. He skated just under 12 minutes (with Karl Alzner as his chaperone), had three hits and a blocked shot. But he got lost in front of his own net on the Korpikoski goal to get the Coyotes back within one, and he did not see the ice again.

-- The Caps knuckled down on defense after that third goal. They allowed Phoenix only two shots on goal in the last 8:32 of the game.

-- If the Caps have stopped the slide for the moment, we still wonder about Ovechkin. One shot on goal in 18 minutes of ice time, none in the last 34 minutes of the game. It’s one thing to add defense to become a better two-way forward, but at the moment he is more of a “no-way” forward. It’s like watching a hitter in baseball or a golfer whose swings are a mess. Right now, Ovechkin’s offensive game is a mess.

-- Troy Brouwer didn’t have a point, but he did what he’s out there to do. Six hits, and he set an effective screen on the Laich goal.

-- Matt Hendricks…ten minutes, three hits, two shots on goal, and a fight. No one on the team pays a bigger price to earn his pay check.

-- What goes up…stays up? Cody Eakin’s goal gives him points in four of his nine games, andhe is a plus-5, despite playing more than a dozen minutes in only two of them.  Getting hard to send him back down to Hershey.

-- Strictly speaking, the Caps allowed two shorthanded goals. And no, it is not a record. The Caps have allowed three shorties in a game three times, but none since allowing three to Los Angeles in a 7-4 win over the Kings on January 10, 1992.

-- Paul Bissonnette…seven shifts, five minutes, one hit. Not much to tweet about.

-- Boyd Gordon being Boyd Gordon…he won six of eight draws in the defensive zone. But he was on the bench, having already skated the first 1:06 of a penalty kill, when Martin Hanzal lost a draw to Nicklas Backstrom that ended up being the Caps’ fourth goal.

-- Once upon a time, the Caps had “Rally Pigeon.” Well, now they have “Rally Balloon.”

In the end, it is one game, and that having been drowned out by other events taking place around the league. But when all is said and done, this could have been a game that the Caps mailed in after falling behind after giving up a shorthanded goal and a penalty shot. They didn’t. They demonstrated a character they have displayed often in the past – an ability to come back after falling behind in games.

It doesn’t instantly make the Caps the 7-0-0 juggernaut that they were to start the season. They allowed Phoenix too many chances, and the big guns still aren’t firing true on a reliable basis (and that’s hard for one of them – Alexander Semin – to do from the press box). But it is another step on the road – the 19th of 82, in fact – on the way to preparing for the playoffs. It was a good start to the week.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 19: Coyotes at Capitals, November 21st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Thanksgiving week is upon us, and it is time for all of us to give thanks that we have hockey here in Washington. Even though the Caps have hit a rough patch, it is not like being a Redskins fan or a Nationals fan or a Wizards fan. The Caps are still above .500, still in the playoff mix, and still with more than 60 games to figure out what ails them. The three-game home stand that is Thanksgiving week opens with a visit from the Phoenix Coyotes.

The Coyotes have been something of “The Little Engine that Could” this season, not putting together much in the way of winning streaks (three is their longest) or enduring long stretches of adversity (they have not lost more than two in a row so far this season). They just keep on plugging, puttering along with a 10-5-3 mark so far. Here is how they stack up with the Caps so far this season:

(click pic for larger image)
(note: The Caps dropped to ninth place in the East after we first published this)

What the Coyotes do bring is a dedicated adherence to a system approach to the game, allowing little in terms of scoring by opponents and playing conservatively on offense. The result is that they are 7-2-1 in their last ten games and have allowed more than two goals in regulation only twice in those ten games.

1. Since Dave Tippett took over behind the Phoenix bench the Coyotes are 103-56-23. This without a player with as many as 25 goals (Radim Vrbata had 24 in 2009-2010), more than 60 points (Shane Doan had 60 points last season), or as much as a plus-20 (Adrian Aucoin was plus-18 last season). If there is a team that is more a product of “system” hockey, it would be hard to find.

2. Former Capital Boyd Gordon has already matched his point total of last season. Through 18 games Gordon is 3-6-9. What’s more, his plus-7 is on pace to leave him with his a career best total in that number (he was plus-10 with Washington in 2006-2007). He remains one of the best faceoff men in the league, currently ranking 11th with a 55.7 percent winning percentage.

3. Phoenix has the third lowest shooting percentage allowed of any team in the league. Opponents are converting only 7.1 percent of their shots on goal so far. They have allowed more than 30 shots on goal in 10 of their last 11 games, yet have allowed only 26 goals (on 385 shots – 6.8 percent shooting).

4. The Caps have had a thing for balancing ice time this year, but they have nothing on the Coyotes. Only one skater is averaging more than 20 minutes a game – defenseman Keith Yandle (22:14). On the other hand, 13 skaters are averaging more than 15 minutes per game.

5. Phoenix knows how to milk a lead. No team has more wins when leading after two periods than the Coyotes (10). No team has more wins when scoring first (nine). Of course, the flip side of that is that the Coyotes are 0-5-1 when trailing after 40 minutes, and only one team has fewer wins when allowing the first goal (the Coyotes have one win in six such games).

1. On the matter of ice time, the top five Caps in that category are all defensemen in terms of average ice time per game. No Cap forward averages more than the 18:46 of Alex Ovechkin (that is not a misprint – 18:46). Ovechkin has only five games this season in which he has more than 20 minutes. His season high is 21:47, a number he exceeded 39 times last season.

2. So far, no “Young Gun” has a game-winning goal in regulation time. Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green each have one, both coming in overtime. But they have dominated for the Caps on the power play. Of the 12 power play goals the Caps have, that quartet has seven.

3. Marcus Johansson is second on the team in goals (six), leads in game-winning goals (three), and is second on the team in shooting percentage (22.2 percent). He also has only four shots on goal in his last six games, not recording more than one shot on goal in any of them.

4. New guys… Joel Ward does not have a point in his last six games, Roman Hamrlik does not have one in his last 12, and Jeff Halpern does not have one in his last six. If not for Troy Brouwer (4-5-9 in his last 13 games), it would be quite a drought for the new guys.

5. Playing it close has been best for the Caps so far. They are 1-2 in games decided by two goals, 4-4 in games decided by three or more goals. But in one-goal decisions, the Caps are 5-1-1, the third best record in such decisions in the league.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Phoenix: Paul Bissonnette

“BizNasty2point0” has 173,937 followers on Twitter. He has fewer than 600 minutes played in the National Hockey League. He is the Lady Gaga of the NHL.

Washington: Jason Chimera

No Cap will go into this game with more career goals against Phoenix than Jason Chimera (six in 26 career games). He is 2-2-4 in his last five games. He has not had a run of points in five of six games since he opened the 2008-2009 season with five in six games as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He is tied for second in points, tied for fourth in points, second in plus-minus, has both a shorthanded and a game-winning goal on his ledger this season for the Caps. On a roster with too many underachievers at the moment, Chimera is not among them.


1. Win the 5-on-5. Phoenix and Washington are two of the least penalized teams in the NHL. The Coyotes have the fewest penalty minutes per game so far (8.3), and the Caps have the fourth fewest (9.9). The Caps have slumped considerably in five-on-five play since their seven-game winning streak to open the season, and they are currently ranked below the Coyotes in this category. The Caps need to get back to basics, and it doesn’t get any more basic than winning at 5-on-5.

2. Best players playing best. The Caps are 1-5-1 in their last seven games. Over that span, Mike Green has been sidelined, but his fellow travelers on the Young Guns roster – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin – are a combined 4-4-8, minus-15. It isn’t the scoring as much as it is the indifference they seem to be showing in playing 200 feet of hockey. That minus-15 screams off the page.

3. Have fun, for cryin’ out loud. You’re getting paid to play a game. You are the best at your profession. You’ve been fantasizing about this sort of thing since you were kids on a pond or in a rink. Winning is fun, but fun is winning, too. If you’re not having fun, chances are you’re not going to be winning much. “Play” the game. Don’t make it look like 9-to-5 drudgery.

In the end, all streaks come to a close. Winning or losing, they all have a shelf life. This 1-5-1 nastiness will end, too. And then the matter will be what the Caps do from then on. They have shown a certain resiliency when enduring similar streaks in the past few years, finishing strong over the rest of the regular season. If they can put this behind them and perform in a similar fashion, then all this will be an unpleasant memory, leaving Caps fans with only the terror that is confronting the playoffs. But if the Caps continue to founder, then things will become very interesting over the next couple of weeks, and not in a good way.

Phoenix presents a difficult obstacle for the Caps to overcome in trying to right their ship. They are dedicated to a stifling style that will bore you to sleep and that adds another notch in your loss column more often than not. The Caps have to assert themselves and impose their will on the Coyotes to end this slide.

Caps 3 – Coyotes 2

That Was The Week That Was -- Week 6 (November 13 - 19)

Week Six was a week to forget. The Caps looked bad on the ice, were subjected to any manner and number of “what’s wrong” navel-gazing exercises from hockey intelligentsia, and fell almost all the way out of the Eastern Conference’s top-eight. Four weeks ago they were 7-0-0 and dreaming sweet dreams of success. Four weeks later they are 3-7-1 since then and have nightmares that they are playing like also rans. So what did this week have in it?

Record for the week: 0-3-0

The Caps are not entirely strangers to the kind of adversity they endured this past week. This is the first week the Caps have gone without registering at least one standings point since losing three in a row in regulation during the week of December 27, 2009 – January 2, 2010. Now here is the thing. After that three-game losing streak the Caps finished the 2009-2010 regular season 30-4-7. In 2008-2009 they had an “oh-fer” week to open March, but they finished the regular season 10-3-3. In 2007-2008 they had a five-game losing streak with no standing points earned just before Thanksgiving, the streak that cost Glen Hanlon his job as Caps head coach. But they then went 37-17-7 to finish the regular season. Remember that even last season the Caps had that eight-game losing streak in December (0-6-2; they did not lose all their games of any week in that streak in regulation). They finished the regular season 30-11-7.

It is not the losing streak, which is bad enough, it is what the Caps now do in the midst of it. The Caps have demonstrated a resiliency – again, in the regular season – in responding to this kind of adversity. If they cannot this time, then it will be a clear sign that changes should be made.

Offense: 1.00/game (season: 3.17/game, rank:4th)

This was an embarrassment. At the end of the week, the teams the Caps lost to this week – Nashville, Winnipeg, and Toronto – were 13th, 25th, and 27th in goals allowed per game. It is one thing to be held to one goal by the likes of Pekka Rinne, a truly elite goaltender. But when did Ondrej Pavelec become the second coming of Dominik Hasek, or Jonas Gustavsson the cloned offspring of Patrick Roy? The latter two offer two disturbing images of the Caps’ ineptitude. Pavelec is 7-7-3, 3.17, .898 so far this season, a thoroughly pedestrian record. But in his last four decisions against the Caps he is 4-0-0, 0.50, .986, with two shutouts. Gustavsson allowed a goal on the first shot he faced in Saturday’s game in Toronto but stopped the last 40 he faced. Until that effort he had faced 40 or more shots three times in his career and allowed at least five goals in all of them. It was a pitiful week.

Defense: 4.67 goals/game (season: 3.06, rank: 23rd)

If the offense was bad, the defense certainly challenged it for ineptitude. True, the three opponents this week finished the week all in the top-15 in goals scored per game. But it was a complete meltdown on the defensive side of the ledger. Seventeen of 18 skaters dressing for the week were on the ice for at least one goal (Cody Eakin was the only Cap not to have been on ice for a goal in any of the three games). Dennis Wideman and Alex Ovechkin were on ice for five goals against; Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and Jeff Schultz were on for four against.

But it is worse than that. The meltdown is in the landslide of goals that followed each of the Caps’ goals this week. They scored first against Nashville, then the Predators answered with three unanswered tallies. Winnipeg…the Caps scored first, then allowed four unanswered goals. Toronto…Washington tied the game 51 seconds after the Maple Leafs scored the first goal, then Toronto scored six unanswered goals. Pitiful, pitiful.

Goaltending: 4.68/.856

No one is going to say that either Tomas Vokoun or Michal Neuvirth were sharp, although Vokoun did stop 28 of 30 shots against Nashville. But they had so little support in front of them. There were too many instances in which the Caps were broken down high in the defensive zone resulting in odd-man matchups deep. Vokoun and Neuvirth were left on too many occasions defending 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 situations at the edge of their own creases. But it wasn’t as if they were stealing chances away from the opposition, either.

Neuvirth’s week was especially troubling. In 93 minutes and change he allowed seven goals on 42 shots (.833 save percentage). It is part of a longer slump in which he has allowed 14 goals on 97 shots (.856) in 218:26 since he beat Carolina, 5-1, on November 4th.

Power Play: 0-for-13/0.00 percent (season: 17.1%, rank: 16th)

What can you say? The Caps are getting more opportunities (13 this past week and 17 in their last four games) and doing less with them (no goals in those 17 chances). In the three games this week the Caps had 22 shots on goal in 22:06 of power play time. Less than a shot per minute isn’t the kind of peppering of the net that is going to generate much in the way of second and third chances. Consider that Toronto had eight shots in 6:03 and scored on three of them. Of the 22 shots on goal, 19 of them came from Dennis Wideman (six), Brooks Laich (five) and Alex Ovechkin (eight). It is hard what to make of this. In the absence of Mike Green, these are the guys you want shooting the puck. But there is a name conspicuously absent from the shot totals despite getting 11:23 in power play ice time this week – Alexander Semin.

Penalty Killing: 7-for-12/58.3 percent (season: 78.3%, rank: 25th)

Another case of one side of the ledger being every bit as ghastly as the other. Allowing 12 power plays over three games is not bad, but allowing five goals in those 12 chances is. But here is what is worse. Those five goals were allowed on the last nine chances of the week. Opponents’ shooting percentage over those nine chances was 33.3 percent (5-for-15). It is often said that a team’s best penalty killer is its goaltender. Neuvirth was the goaltender of record for four of those five power play goals this week. Draw from that what conclusions you will.

Paying the Price: 27 hits/29 blocked shots (season rank: 24th/24th)

Sometimes these statistics (and their sisters in arbitrariness – takeaways and giveaways) are products of official scoring. But in three different cities this week the Caps registered much lower totals than the previous week, 69 hits, 34 blocked shots). It was indicative of a week in which the Caps just did not seem to have much energy sustained in any of their games. The Caps you would expect to do the hitting didn’t (Alex Ovechkin had five hits for the week, Troy Brouwer had one). The Caps you might expect to have the blocked shots didn’t, either (John Carlson had seven, Karl Alzner had two).

Faceoffs: 101-for-182/ 55.5 percent (season: 50.4 percent, rank: 15th)

The Caps won the week and each game of the week. Not that it mattered much. The top four Caps in terms of total draws – Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, and Jeff Halpern – were a combined 90-for-159 (56.6 percent). And even situationally it was better than the Caps’ performance so far this season. For example, Nicklas Backstrom was 21-for-27 in the offensive zone (77.8 percent), while Brooks Laich was 12-for-20 (60.0 percent) in the defensive zone. This is the sort of result one is looking for. But again, not that it mattered much.

Turnovers: plus-15

It was 48 up and 33 down for the week. The Caps won each of the three games, but it was a light week. Again, these are often the product of the variations in official scoring, but it was not a high-volume week on either side of the ledger for the Caps, especially in the first two games of the week (a total of 43 turnovers combined for the Caps and their opponents).

The Caps only had 17 giveaways for the week, but in thinking about it we wonder if it wasn’t the case of not having enough possession time to provide more opportunities. The Caps were credited with only seven takeaways for the week in three games, six of them coming in the game against Nashville. Joel Ward was the only Cap with more than one (two).


We look at this week and the season as a whole, and we are left scratching our head. But if you look further back, going to last season and the way it unfolded after the eight-game losing streak, there is a bit more clarity in what we are seeing. And that is the talk of Bruce Boudreau and his job security is like looking for lost keys under the lamppost, even if you lost them in the alley. The light might be better, but it isn’t where you are going to find what you are looking for.

Boudreau might be a casualty of poor play at some point – just about every coach suffers that fate sooner or later. But the picture that emerges after looking at the last 65 games or so is that when the Caps are faithful to the systems and strategies that Boudreau and his staff teach, the Caps are successful. When they are not, they are not successful.

This is on the players. When this season started, George McPhee said with respect to the core of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin:

“They have to lead the team. They’re exceptional talents and they have to play better than they did last year. All of them underperformed, to some degree. They weren’t at the levels they’ve been at before and we need them to get back to those levels. It looks like they’re prepared to have good years, because they’re physically and mentally in the right place now.”

It’s their team, and they need to take on the responsibility for how it plays at least as much as Bruce Boudreau. Right now, they are shirking their responsibility.

Three Stars of the Week:

What, are you kidding me?

Happy Caps, Sad Caps

What a difference four weeks makes...

Ovechkin Time

Today’s contributor to the “What Ails Alex?” issue is Larry Brooks of the New York Post. Let us quote Brooks at length to get a flavor for his take on what ails Alex…

“So I look at Alex Ovechkin’s pedestrian numbers and forget the seven goals and 14 points in the first 17 games. The one that leaps off the page as most pertinent and most inexplicable is the 18:43 of ice time per game that as of Friday ranked — get this — 67th in the league among forwards who have played at least 10 games.

“Then I hear Bruce Boudreau, the coach responsible for that astounding stat, talk about how using four lines makes the Capitals a better team and my thoughts turn to Al Arbour, who back in the day cut Mike Bossy’s minutes so he could get Hector Marini on the ice more often, but wait, no, that didn’t happen, and of course that didn’t happen, are you crazy?

“Unless Ovechkin simply is not in good enough condition at the age of 26 to play approximately the 23:03 a match he averaged over the course of the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons during which he was the NHL’s most electrifying athlete, then limiting his ice time so people such as Cody Eakin or Joel Ward can get a few extra spins is strategy from another planet that is doomed to fail.”

Well, is there any merit to this? The simplest way to look at this, since time (or lack of it) is the factor in question, is to break up his career into those games in which he logged 20 minutes of ice time or more and those games in which he played less. And what you get is this:

At first blush it is not clear that time is a factor here. Over his career Ovechkin has, in fact, posted better numbers (on a per-82 games basis) when he received more managed minutes. More goals, more assists, better plus-minus, more power play goals. But that is a span of six-plus seasons and almost 500 games. Is there anything in the recent history to shed some light on this?

In his last 82 games, Ovechkin’s ice time has been split into 32 games of less than 20 minutes and 52 games of 20 minutes or more. Those break down like this:

In his last 82-game block of games Ovechkin has recorded a larger share of games with fewer than 20 minutes (32 of 82; 39 percent)) than his career share (124 of 493; 25 percent). But again, he has better numbers in general when skating fewer minutes (again, on a per-82 games basis) – more goals, more assists, more points, a better plus-minus. The only areas in which he has not performed better are in power play goals and shots.

But now, turn the data sideways, compare his career averages per 82 games with his last 82 games for games with ice time lower than 20 minutes, and ice time of 20 minutes or more. And now, we can see some differences:

He is down across the board in his last 82 games from his career per-82 game averages in almost every category, regardless of whether he plays more or fewer than 20 minutes. And it is his “personal” production – things for which he is directly accountable (goals, shots) that show the most marked drop offs.

Whether Cody Eakin or Joel Ward deserve an “extra spin” around the ice is one thing. But it is not the same as saying Ovechkin should be returned to logging 22-24 minutes a night. His production, whether over his entire career or over his last 82 games, just doesn’t clearly point to ice time as his problem.

The answer to that question continues to elude hockey minds more astute than ours.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A NO-point night -- Game 18: Maple Leafs 7 - Capitals 1

In the larger scheme of world events, a 7-1 loss in a hockey game doesn’t amount to much. But in the world of the NHL, the Washington Capitals losing to the Toronto Maple Leafs by that 7-1 margin was, and yet might be, a significant event.

The Caps were beaten early (a goal 99 seconds into the game), late (a goal in the last minute of each period for the home team), and often (tying the most goals allowed in a game this season). They were beaten on the right side (Tomas Vokoun, he of the right handed catching glove, allowing four goals on 18 shots). They were beaten on the left (the left-handed catching Michal Neuvirth allowing three goals on 11 shots).

We could summarize the carnage, but there are limits to our masochism. Let’s just go to the stuff…

-- In every sport, you learn certain things very early on – like when you’re five years old. In hockey, one of those things has to be “never, ever, pass the puck up the middle from deep in your own end.” But there was Jeff Schultz with Joffrey Lupul gliding in on him with a gentle forecheck, and instead of pulling the puck back and sending it around the boards to Roman Hamrlik at the left wing wall, Schultz tried to lift the puck past Lupul. All he managed to do was flip it into Lupul, who collected the puck and found Tim Connolly for the first goal 99 seconds in.

-- Alexander Semin was whistled for a penalty, the seventh game in a row he has been called for a penalty and the 13th game out of 18 this season. But this was, most assuredly, not his fault and not warranted. It was entirely a “reputation” call (he was called for “diving”), but it was a call that made no sense. A player looking to embellish a call does not do it by more or less boarding himself feet first into the side boards.

-- 28:42. That is how long it took for Alex Ovechkin to register a shot attempt. Not a “shot on goal”… a shot “attempt.” By that time, it was 4-1 Toronto. Ovechkin had ten shot attempts in the last 31:18 (eight on goal), but at that point, as fans at Verizon Center might ask, "WHO CARES?!” The joy looks to have been sucked entirely from Ovechkin’s game. Without that, there is no energy. Without energy, there is no fire in his skating. And without that, there is what you got tonight… a whole lot of nothing.

-- Folks talk about Ovechkin having been “figured out” by opposing teams, but there is something else that has been “figured out” that might have more important ramifications. The Caps miss Mike Green. We get that. But what it means is that Jeff Schultz, John Erskine, and Roman Hamrlik are being exposed for their lack of foot speed. And if John Carlson and Karl Alzner are a steady pair, then two of those three will be paired with one another, the third with Dennis Wideman. One of those three was on the ice for five of the first six Toronto goals.

-- Not that the forwards were doing much to give evidence that they were paying attention on defense. Time and time again, Caps forwards were too high in the defensive zone, looking to high-tail it the other way, leaving the Leafs to pound shots at Caps goaltenders, especially early. Toronto had 32 shot attempts in the first period, 16 of them on goal.

--The flip side of that is that the Leafs had only 25 shot attempts in the last 40 minutes…and scored on four of them. Not shots on goal, shot “attempts.”

-- Jonas Gustavsson allowed a goal on the first shot he faced, a score by Brooks Laich 51 seconds after the first Toronto goal. He stopped the last 40 shots he faced. This was the fourth time in Gustavsson’s career in which he faced 40 or more shots. In each of the other three he allowed five or more goals.

-- The Caps had not allowed seven goals to the Leafs at Air Canada Centre before tonight. The last time they allowed that many in Toronto was on October 13, 1993, at Maple Leaf Gardens. Here is how long ago that is. The goalie of record in that game was Olaf Kolzig. No surprise there. But it was Kolzig’s seventh game in the NHL, and it would be another 14 months before he would earn his first NHL win.

-- Joel Ward was the only Cap credited with a takeaway in this game. Fitting, because there is just nothing to take away from it.

-- Could the hockey gods script things any better than having David Steckel kick the extra point with a shorthanded breakaway in the last minute of play? Still, it seemed like it took him a minute and forty-five seconds to get from one end of the ice to the other. Parenthetically, he lost nine of 16 draws in this game, only the fifth time in 20 games he finished south of 50 percent on faceoffs.

-- There was that Lupul guy carving up the Caps again. Joffrey Lupul came into the game with 13 points in ten regular season games against the Caps, and he had four more tonight (1-3-4).

-- Slump within a slump… Michal Neuvirth did not get the decision tonight, but in allowing three goals on 11 shots he is 0-2-1, 3.85, .856 in his last four appearances.

-- In the “yeah, like it would have made a difference” category… The Leafs scored on two lay-ups that were a case of bad luck for the Caps. Tyler Bozak scored when a pass clicked off defenseman Karl Alzner’s skate right onto his tape at the doorstep. Phil Kessel had similar good fortune, a pass deflecting off John Erskine’s skate onto his blade for a slam dunk.

-- Only one Cap who dressed tonight was not on the ice for any goal. In any other game, you could be sure that such a player is the guy in the baseball cap – the backup goaltender. But with Vokoun and Neuvirth getting multiple helpings of abuse, that player was… Cody Eakin.

In the end, the Caps stunk from the inside out in all directions. There was not a single part of this game the Caps can point to and say, “we did this right,” unless you count “not shooting the puck into their own net” as doing something right. They were bad in all three zones, they were bad at even-strength, on the power play, and shorthanded. And what is worse, they looked as if they did not have even the energy to try to use more physical play to try and scare up some momentum. They had their lunch taken from them, and they were meek in allowing it to happen.

“The room” is going to be a term used a lot in the days to come. Has Coach Boudreau lost “the room?” Will someone in “the room” stand up and make a statement? Will guys in “the room” suck it up and realize that they have a lot of hard work to do? Fans can’t know what goes on in “the room,” but they can see what is going on down on the ice. And at the moment what they see is a team that is 3-7-1 in their last 11 games and a team that looks as if it doesn’t have a clue, let alone an answer.

We are reminded of what we wrote after the Winnipeg game

“[The Caps] head on the road to play that team on a big stage – Air Canada Centre in Toronto with a national television audience in Canada looking on. They do it squarely in a slump, playing indifferent hockey. The last time they faced this situation was on a cold night in New York City, and it ended as perhaps the ugliest game the Caps played all year.

Deja new…”

“Deja new,” indeed.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 18: Capitals at Maple Leafs, November 19th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s Hockey Night in Canada, on which the Washington Capitals will visit the Toronto Maple Leafs with a national television audience tuning in on “Hockey Night in Canada.” It is a big stage on which the Capitals are playing, one on which the Caps have won their last two games. They swept the Maple Leafs in Toronto last season, winning the first contest by a 4-1 margin in January, then winning in a Gimmick by a 3-2 score in April.  Here is how the teams fall out so far...

(click the pic for larger image)

But it is a new season and a new Maple Leaf team. Or is it? The Leafs come into this game as one of the early season surprises, sitting in a tie for the fourth highest standing points total in the East (22 points, with Buffalo). But the hot start has unraveled some, mostly because of injury and ineffectiveness in goal. James Reimer, who announced his presence in the NHL with authority in the second half of last season (20-10-5, 2.60, .921, three shutouts), started this season 3-0-1 in his first four appearances. But in his fifth appearance, against Montreal, he was left dazed after being hit by Montreal’s Brian Gionta as Gionta was cutting across the crease. Reimer did not return after the next intermission, and he has not appeared in a game since. The diagnosis: “concussion-like symptoms.”

Jonas Gustavsson took Reimer’s place, but he has not been the answer. In nine appearances this season he has allowed three or more goals seven times, and in one other he allowed two goals on six shots in 24:45 in a 7-0 loss to Boston.

The goaltending issues have caught up with the Leafs, who have lost their last three games and five of their last six (1-4-1), the only win coming in a Gimmick. In those six games, Gustavsson and the latest contestant in the Leafs’ goaltending sweepstakes – Ben Scrivens – have been the netminders of record as the Leafs have been outscored 25-8 (excluding trick shot goals). Although for different reasons, the Leafs look like the Caps in terms of their recent win-loss history.

1. Phil Kessel is getting a lot of the attention for his early start (13-12-25 in 19 games), and he does have three goals in his last four games. But if there is a thorn to be found in the Caps’ side in this one, it is more than likely to be Joffrey Lupul. In ten career regular season games against the Caps he is 5-8-13. Since the lockout Lupul has faced the Caps nine times in the regular season, and he has points in all of them. He has only one playoff goal in his career against the Caps, but he made it count…

2. Caps fans have not had much of a chance to see defenseman and team captain Dion Phaneuf against Washington. He has only five career games in the books against Washington. Known as a big hitter, he is also an accomplished scorer from the blue line. At least until he arrived in Toronto. After recording 75 goals in five seasons in Calgary, Phaneuf has a total of 12 in 111 games with Toronto. There are only five teams in the NHL he has not scored a goal against, and Washington is one of them. This season he has two goals, both against Montreal.

3. Only three Leafs will dress for this game with as many as five goals for the season. In addition to Kessel and Lupul, there is Clarke MacArthur (6-2-8). He has more career goals against the Caps (six in 16 games) than he has against any other team in the U.S. (he has nine against Ottawa and seven against Montreal).

4. Only Carolina has more losses by three or more goals this season (six) than Toronto (five). It goes a long way to explaining how the Leafs can have a record of 10-7-2 while having a net differential of -11, which is ranked 13th in the Eastern Conference. When the Leafs are bad, they are awful.

5. Toronto has allowed at least one power play goal in 11 of 20 games so far this season, including six of ten home games. They have allowed at least two in seven games.

1. Alex Ovechkin has played at least ten games against 14 of the league’s 30 franchises. Against only one of them has he averaged a goal a game – Toronto. He has 23 goals in 23 career games against the Maple Leafs.

2. The Caps are losing the battle of the third period. When tied or behind after 40 minutes they are 4-6-1 (3-4-1 when tied after two periods). On the other hand, the Caps are dead last in the league when scoring the game’s first goal. They are 3-4-1 in such situations, the only team with a below-.500 record in terms of standings points earned. Silver lining…Washington has the best record in the league when allowing the first goal (7-2-0).

3. Washington has played eight games at home, nine on the road. But they have been credited with exactly 100 more hits at home (219) than on the road (119).

4. From the “Did You Know?” file…Did you know that the Caps are at 50.1 percent on faceoffs?

5. Matt Hendricks has yet to light the lamp in 17 games this season. But he does have one goal against the Maple Leafs in four career games. It came in Toronto as part of a 4-1 win over the Leafs last January 22nd.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Toronto: David Steckel

Of course. This will be Steckel’s first appearance against his former team as a member of the Maple Leafs, or any other team for that matter. When last we left Mr. Steckel, he was a top-notch player on faceoffs, a somewhat overrated penalty killer and defender, and a player not likely to pot a lot of goals (his career high is eight). At the moment he is 61.7 percent on draws (tops in the league), no Leaf has been on the ice for more power play goals against, and he is a minus-4 for the season (18th best on the club). He had a three-game goal scoring streak in late October, but he hasn’t had one since over a span of 11 games.

Washington: Tomas Vokoun

“Stopper.” It is an archaic baseball term and used to refer to a team’s starting pitcher who was most adept at stopping a losing streak. That is what goaltender Tomas Vokoun as to be in this instance. The Caps are 1-4-1 in their last six, and in their last four games have experienced a disturbing progression – one goal, two, three, and four allowed. And none of those games have come against high-flying offenses. Vokoun had a difficult stretch in which he allowed 11 goals in only 141 minutes over three games (a 4.66 GAA), but in his last two starts has stopped 60 of 63 shots on goal (.952 save percentage). His career record hints at his chances to be the “stopper” for the Caps. Vokoun is 8-3-0 against Toronto, with a 2.07 GAA and .933 save percentage along with two shutouts.


1. Keep shooting. Toronto has allowed four or more goals in four of their last six games, all losses. Of the 25 goals allowed in those six games, ten of them have come in the third period (they shut out only one of those six teams in the third period). Only one team in the league has allowed more goals in the third period (Carolina). Keep shooting, and this team will likely crack.

2. Beware the power play. If the Leafs have done one thing right lately, it is scoring on the power play. In their last four games Toronto is 4-for-12 (33.3 percent). The Caps had killed off 15 shorthanded situations in a row until giving up two in their last four situations against Winnipeg on Thursday.

3. Don’t worry about quantity…worry about quality. Phil Kessel has 13 goals, but they come about in an odd way. Seven times this season Kessel has five or more shots on goal in a game. He scored goals in four of them (five total). In nine games in which he had three of fewer shots on goal, he has goals in five of them, five goals in all. It doesn’t seem to matter how many – shots that is – just how.

In the end, we are left with two teams who are in the same place by similar paths. Hot starts followed by a cool down. It might have been expected from one team – the Leafs – and not from the other. The Caps’ problems are matters of process – maintaining focus, paying attention for 60 minutes, being faithful to their systems. Toronto’s problems are more structural. Their best goaltender is out, and they have suffered considerably as a result. If the Caps keep their focus, pay attention for 60 minutes, and do things the right way, they win. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

Caps 4 – Maple Leafs 2