Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Capitals at Red Wings: March 16th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals, fresh off their 4-2 win over Montreal last night, head to the Motor City to visit the Detroit Red Wings in the back half of this first back-to-back of the six game road trip.

The Caps are catching the Red Wings in a bit of a slump. The Red Wings are 4-4-2 in their last ten games and losers of four of their last six contests. Over the last ten games, Detroit has been outscored by their opponents by a 29-27 margin, and their special teams have kept the Red Wings afloat. The power play has been superb, converting nine of 39 chances (23.1 percent) in the ten games, while the penalty killers skated off 31 of 35 shorthanded situations (88.6 percent). Overall, the numbers compared to the Caps look like this:

Detroit is an amazingly balanced team in terms of scoring. Twenty players have at least ten points, a dozen have at least 30, and four have at least 50. Among goal scorers, 11 players have at least ten goals, and the Red Wings have three with at least 20.

Among those 20-goal scorers, none might be more surprising than Danny Cleary. With 22 goals in only 55 games, Cleary already has a career high, and his 39 points is closing in on a personal best in total scoring (42 points in 2007-2008). He has hit a bump in the road lately, though, having not scored a goal in six games and having only one goal in his last nine contests. And not scoring has come with goals being scored with Cleary on the ice – over his last nine games he is a minus-7. In eight career games against the Caps he is 1-1-2.

Another of those ten-goal, 30-point players who might not show up on the radar is Darren Helm (11-19-30, plus-10, and one of only five Wings to have played in every game this season). Known primarily for his speed – he is among the fastest skaters in the NHL (called the “Energizer Bunny by coach Mike Babcock and “Usain Bolt on ice” in the Detroit locker room) – Helm has added a flair for the dramatic goal to his repertoire. He has a pair of shorthanded goals this season and two game-winners among the 11 goals he has scored. Helm is coming into this game on something of a hot streak. He has goals in three of his last four games and is 4-2-6 (the two shorthanded goals – one a game-winner – included) in his last seven games.

On defense, the Red Wings have enjoyed comparatively good health. Only eight defensemen have had to dress for the Red Wings this season, and seven of them have at least 50 games played on their season record. But Brian Rafalski has been nursing a bad back (he is expected to play tonight). Otherwise, the names are, for the most part, familiar. Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart. One name that might not be familiar, at least in a Red Wing sweater, is that of Ruslan Sulei. The veteran of 909 NHL games has only 67 of them played in this, his first season in a Red Wing sweater. He has contributed solid minutes (more than 18 a game) and is one of six defensemen with at least ten points for Detroit. But offense is not what he is there for – he averaged 0.71 shots on goal over his last 14 games, finding the back of the net once, that coming in his last game on Saturday in a 5-3 win over the St. Louis Blues. Sulei is there to provide some stability on the second or third pair, as needed, and could be an important cog in keeping the Caps from getting the sort of secondary scoring they need to have.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Detroit: Jimmy Howard

For better or worse, Jimmy Howard is the man in goal for the Red Wings. At the moment Howard is tied for the lead in wins among NHL goaltenders (33), although his 2.77 goals against average (34th) and .908 save percentage (tied for 29th) suggest he is as much the beneficiary of a powerful Red Wing offense (2nd in the league) as he has been dependably effective in goal. As the Red Wings offense has slipped just a touch over the last ten games (3-3-2 in the eight games in which Howard played), if scoring 3.00 goals a game in the games Howard appeared in can be called “slipping,” Howard has not ramped up his game. Along with that 3-3-2 record his GAA and save percentage (2.83, .909) are almost identical to his season average. With the Caps having averaged 3.00 goals per game on their nine-game winning streak (and with 14 goals in their last four games), Howard might have to be more of a difference-maker.

Washington: Michal Neuvirth

Well, it’s time. After 71 games we are getting to the nub of it – who is the Washington number on goaltender? Michal Neuvirth is almost certainly going to be that guy. We say “almost,” because we can’t crawl inside Bruce Boudreau’s head and figure out what he is going to do. But with 11 games left and some playoff-caliber competition coming up for the Caps, it might be time to get Neuvirth in a playoff frame of mind. This will be an interesting test for the youngster – a tough team, on the road, and in fact a team he has never faced in a building in which he has never played.


1. You are getting sleeeeeeepy… The Red Wings are a decent first period team. Their 64 goals scored ranks fifth in the league, but they have allowed 71 goals in the first frame, fourth most in the league. But they outscore their opponents 159-125 in the second and third periods, and overtime. Those 159 goals after the first period are more than New Jersey or Ottawa have scored all season. OK, that might not be the best comparison, but the plus-34 – about a half a goal a game – is worth noting. Teams might get lulled to sleep with first period success.

2. Will versus skill. This could be a contest of wills. In what is something of a reversal of roles, it is the Red Wings that are more of the run-and-gun sort (2nd in scoring, 18th in defense), while the Caps are the more reserved, button-downed team (22nd in scoring, 4th in defense). The team that dictates style – the one that imposes its will on the other – is the one that wins.

3. PP + S = W. You would expect goaltenders to have save percentages when facing a power play to be lower than their save percentages at even strength or when they enjoy the power play. But Jimmy Howard’s .876 save percentage when facing the opponent’s power play is 21st in the league among goalies that have played in at least 20 games. If the Caps can get shots – a challenge for that power play, especially with Jason Arnott and Nicklas Backstrom out – Howard might give up a couple.  Power plays plus shots equals a win.

In the end, this is one of those “benchmark” games that serve as a basis to gauge just how far the Caps have come with their revamped philosophy or responsible hockey. The Red Wings can score, and the Caps defense and goaltending will be tested by a club that is the gold-standard in puck possession hockey. If the Caps come out of this with a win, especially of the two-goals-or-fewer allowed variety, you will know they are the real thing.

Caps 3 – Red Wings 2

A TWO-point night -- Game 71: Caps 4 - Canadiens 2

The Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens exchanged goals, exchanged punches, had a power play for the visitors, had the architecture play a role at both ends of the ice, had a coach complaining to the referee, had a video replay of a potential goal.

And that was in the first 126 seconds.

The gremlins were out in force as the Caps pushed their winning streak to nine with a 4-2 win over the Canadiens in Montreal last night. The teams exchanged goals in the second minute of the game when Marcus Johansson took advantage of a strange bounce off the glass along the side boards to sweep a puck into an empty Montreal net, goalie Carey Price having circled to the back of the cage to play the puck that never came.

Twenty seconds later, Braden Holtby went to play the puck behind the Caps net, did so poorly (kids, there is a lesson in this), got tangled up with his own defenseman and the post of his cage, and couldn’t stop the drive from Travis Moen from a sharp angle along the side wall that tied the game.

At 2:06 the Caps thought they took the lead once more, Matt Hendricks thinking he nudged the puck out from under a goal mouth scramble under Price, just as the net was coming off its moorings. But after a lengthy review the video gods decreed that they could not see the puck crossing the line, and the decision was “no goal.”

The rest of the game, if not boring, might be considered anticlimactic. But for the record…

-- The Caps got three goals from centers (arguably their weakest position on the ice with Nicklas Backstrom and Jason Arnott out). Marcus Johansson got a pair – that freak goal to start things off and a backhand from in front of Price (defending his net on that one) in the seventh minute of the third period that was the game-winner. It was his first two-goal game in the NHL and extended his points streak to four games.

-- Brooks Laich got one late in the first period on a play stolen from last year’s playbook. Karl Alzner got control of the puck in the circle in the Caps’ defensive zone and saw Laich heading out and down the right side. Alzner flung a pass from inside the Caps’ blue line down and across the ice to the streaking Laich just outside the Canadiens’ line. Laich took the puck in stride, sped around the large, yet immobile Hal Gill, knifed to the middle and stuffed the puck past Price for a 2-1 first intermission lead.

-- It is probably no coincidence that a player such as Laich has four goals and eight points in his last nine games – coinciding with the winning streak. Getting that kind of secondary production is what the Caps have to have to be successful, especially with guys like Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Tom Poti out.

-- Mike Knuble got the Caps some insurance (and got Kanoobie dancing) with a one-timer from the left wing circle, a play made possible at the end of a 2-on-1 break by a fine saucer pass by Marco Sturm over the stick of Roman Hamrlik. Hamrlik was the only defenseman back because P.K. Subban got caught deep in the Caps’ zone after taking a pass and trying to circle deep around Boyd Gordon to find a passing lane, the puck pinballing out and onto the stick of Sturm to start the play.

-- Matt Bradley and Paul Mara provided entertainment for the fans of pugilism. Both players managed to get off some big right hooks of questionable effectiveness. Bradley might have had more blows land, but we scored it a draw.

-- Montreal’s long injury list got longer when both Tomas Plekanec and Jeff Halpern could not answer the call for the third period. LBI’s, both.

-- After his adventure, Holtby stopped 24 of the last 25 shots he faced.

-- Records… The Caps had already achieved their fourth consecutive 40-win season, a club record. But the six-game road winning streak achieved with the win tied a franchise record dating back to 1984.

-- It is important to get the secondary scoring from the likes of Johansson and Laich, but there is that primary scoring, too. Alex Ovechkin recorded an assist, setting up the Johansson game-winner, to make it 4-8-12 on the winning streak and 9-14-23 in his last 19 games (four game-winners in that goal total).

-- Eric Fehr played only one shift in the second period, 5:16 of ice time for the game… “UBI.” He might have been injured when he was denied by Price at the left post with less than two minutes to go in the first, but was taken down by Paul Mara in the process, landing on his shoulder.

-- Johansson might have had a hat trick, had he been able to convert a shorthanded break late in the first period.

-- The Caps penalty kill was outstanding. The held the Canadiens to three power play shots in three power plays, had an excellent scoring chance (Johansson), and drew a penalty of their own while killing a penalty off.

-- Meanwhile, it might have been but one game, but there was Ovechkin out on the left point once more on the power play…no power play goals for the Caps on five chances, no power play shots on goal for Ovechkin (note: sorry for the awkward grammar there...both items apply to Ovechkin; the Caps did have two power play goals).

-- Given the game Laich had, it probably comes as no surprise that he had six shots on goal, but that only tied for the team lead. John Carlson had six of his own.

-- We don’t follow the Canadiens as closely as we do the Caps, but it seems that Montreal is going to have trouble winning games when their team leads in shots on goal are David Desharnais and Tom Pyatt (four and three, respectively, of the 26 total).

-- For a guy who skated 15 shifts and played less than ten minutes, Jay Beagle managed to get through most of the score sheet buffet – a shot on goal, two shots blocked, a miss, three hits, a takeaway, and five draws taken (he lost four).

-- OK, does the pairing of Dennis Wideman and Jeff Schultz not work? Each was on the ice for both Montreal goals.

-- What’s up with Jason Chimera? He hasn’t had a goal in his last 18 games and has only a pair of assists in that span. He is also a minus-8 over that stretch. He played barely nine minutes last night, only the third time this season he played fewer than ten minutes.

-- Who led the team in giveaways last night? Braden Holtby. Your goaltender leading in that category (ok, he had two and was tied with Ovechkin and Tyler Sloan) is not generally a good thing.

-- One final note...that goal horn in Bell Centre sounds like the horn of an old Buick that got stuck in the on position. I wanted to kick the TV when Montreal scored to turn it off.

In the end, nine in a row is nine in a row. And 19 road wins in 34 tries is not too far off the pace of 24 wins in 41 road games set last season. It’s a good way to get things started, keeping the pressure on Philadelphia (who won last night to maintain their one-point lead in the Eastern Conference). The Caps will get a chance to reprise this effort when they visit Bell Centre again in ten days. We hope by then that road streak is still intact. But things do get harder…immediately. Detroit is waiting on the Caps.