Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 2, Lightning at Capitals

The last time the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning met, the Lightning were dancing off into the Eastern Conference finals, and the Capitals were reserving tee times, the Lightning having swept the Caps in four games in the Eastern Conference semifinals last spring.

New year, clean slate. And the first chalk marks on that slate will be made tonight at Verizon Center as the teams renew their rivalry. Not that it matters a great deal, for if there is a difference between the regular season and playoffs, perhaps nowhere is it more stark than in the rivalry between the Caps and Lightning. The taste of that sweep no doubt will linger in the mouths of the Caps and their fans until they meet again in games played in the spring, but this will have to do for now.

And in regular season games, the Caps have owned the Lightning in the Boudreau era. Since Bruce Boudreau stepped behind the Caps’ bench, Washington is 19-3-1 against Tampa Bay, including a record of 4-1-1 last season.  Here is how the teams fared last season...

(click for larger pic)

But the Lighting own an 8-2 record in games and a 2-0 record in series against the Capitals in the post-season.  Caps fans probably remember the latter much more than the former.  But on to tonight's matchup.

A Familiar, If Haunting Face…

Those losses last season to Tampa Bay – in regulation and overtime – speak to a change in the Lightning that seems to have been made precisely with the Capitals in mind. On New Year’s Day, while the Caps were visiting the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Winter Classic, the Lightning were finalizing a trade with the New York Islanders that brought goaltender Dwayne Roloson to Tampa in exchange for defenseman Ty Wishart. Three days later, Roloson shut out the Caps, 1-0, in overtime. Eight days after that, he shut out the Caps again. And then, after he allowed four goals in a 5-2 loss on February 4th, he held the Caps to one goal on 30 shots in a 2-1 shootout loss in the season series finale.

Roloson changed the direction of the season series and the rivalry in his four appearances with the Lightning against the Caps last season. His 2-1-1 record was respectable enough, but it was his 1.22 goals against average and his .959 save percentage, with two shutouts, that provided the Lightning with the antidote to the Caps’ offense. He numbers weren’t quite as impressive in the playoffs – a 2.44 GAA and .925 save percentage against the Caps -- but he allowed only two third period goals in the four game Lightning sweep. If there is a “Cap killer” among goaltenders in the NHL, Roloson stands at the head of the class with an 8-5-4 win-loss record, but a 2.11 GAA, .923 save percentage, and four shutouts in 17 career appearances against Washington.

So Far…

It has been feast or famine in two games for the Lightning, a 5-1 win in the season opener and a 4-1 loss to Boston on Saturday. Of particular concern to the Caps is the fact that the 5-1 win over Carolina in the season opener featured a 32 save effort by Roloson (he did not play in the 4-1 loss to Boston). The Lightning have had the benefit of six goals from five different players – Martin St. Louis the only one with two – and points from 12 different players.

Big Three…

You might expect St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier to be featured prominently on the scoring rankings for the Lightning, and there are St. Louis, with two goals and an assist in two games, and Lecavalier, with a game-winning goal and an assist at the top of the list.

You might also expect Steven Stamkos to be right there with them, and he does have two assists, but he hasn’t found the back of the net on any of his seven shots in the Lightning’s first two games. It isn’t good news for Caps fans, either. In his first season Stamkos went his first eight games without a goal before getting a pair in Game 9. The following year, he went two games without a goal before scoring a pair in Game 3. Last year, it was a pair in the Tampa Bay season opener. Pairs to open the bidding is his habit. Stamkos is 8-4-12, minus-10 in 18 career regular season games against the Caps. He has four power play goals among the eight tallies, but he has no game-winners among them.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Tampa Bay: Ryan Malone (career vs. Washington: 28 games, 6-9-15, minus-3)

Since posting career highs in goals (27) and points (51) with Pittsburgh in 2007-2008, Malone has seen his numbers dip with the Lightning. In three years with Tampa Bay, his games played dropped from 77 in his last year in Pittsburgh to 70, to 69, then to 54 last year; his goals drop from 27 to 26 to 21 to 14 last year, and his points drop from 51 in that last year with the Penguins to 38 last season. He has received a modest amount of ice time in two games so far (averaging about 14 minutes), but he is making good use of it with a goal and an assist. In fact, he will come into this game having scored goals in four of his last five regular season games (he finished 2010-2011 with a goal in each of his last three games). He also had two of his three playoff goals in the four-game sweep of the Caps last spring. He has scored six goals in his career against the Caps – two on the power play, two shorthanded, and two at even strength.

Washington: Tomas Vokoun (career vs. Tampa Bay: 23 games, 11-7-1, 2.60, .921, one shutout)

The newcomer gets his first start for the Caps against a familiar foe. Vokoun has appeared in 23 career games against the Lightning, but might have had his best run of games last year against Tampa Bay. In three games he was 2-0-1, 1.26, .954 with one shutout. Vokoun had a GAA lower than that against only one other team he faced more than once last year, and that happens to be the one he is playing for now (0.99 against the Caps).


1. Don’t make it special. Here is a number to chew on – 0.99. Last season that was the 5-on-5 goals ratio of both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Carolina Hurricanes. One advanced to a conference final in the playoffs, the other sat out the dance entirely. But the Lightning were a top-ten team on both sides of special teams, sixth on the power play, eighth in penalty killing. The Lightning shut down the Caps’ power play quite effectively last spring, killing 17 of 19 shorthanded situations (89.5 percent).

2. Stymie Steven. Last season Steven Stamkos had only one goal in six games in the regular season, and the Caps were 4-1-1. He had two in four games in the playoffs, and the Caps lost all four games. He can score goals in bunches – he had four streaks of at least three consecutive games with a goal last year and eight multi-goal games last season. He also had 36 of his 45 goals in wins. Keeping him from lighting the lamp is essential.

3. Start up the Vokeswagon Bus. Tomas Vokoun did not get the opening night start, but he probably maintains an advantage over Michal Neuvirth in the latest edition of Goalie Sweepstakes. His value is in what he does in the spring, but getting off to a solid start is the kind of thing that only adds to the confidence his teammates have in front of him. He was 4-4-0, 2.37, .921 in October last season, but he was 2-7-1, 3.28, .912 in October the previous season. He is not unfamiliar with slow starts.

In the end…

It is not a revenge game. You don’t get back at someone for eating your steak dinner by stealing their bag of potato chips. This is another regular season game, important because it is a division opponent and a game on home ice – the kind of situation the Caps need to take advantage of to take care of divisional business. They can do that by imposing their game on the Lightning, being patient enough to defeat a 1-3-1 defense and using their speed across their forward lines to take advantage of a large, but somewhat plodding blueline corps. And just how long can this Roloson guy keep playing well in goal, anyway? Tonight, not well enough.

Caps 3 – Lightning 2

A TWO-point night -- Game 1: Caps 4 - Hurricanes 3 (OT)

The last time the Washington Capitals lost a home opener, Eric Belanger (you remember him) was on the ice... for the Los Angeles Kings in a 4-1 Kings win on what was then “MCI Center” ice in the 2000-2001 season opener. Since then, the Capitals won nine consecutive home openers going into last night’s contest against the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center.

The Caps made it ten in a row with a 4-3 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes last night.  It looked really good for a tenth straight opening win on home ice with 3:45 to go in regulation time when Brooks Laich scored the Caps’ first power play goal of the season from the doorstep, taking a rebound of an Alex Ovechkin shot off the end boards and backhanding it past Carolina goalie Brian Boucher to give the Caps a 3-2 lead.

It looked a good deal worse for keeping that streak alive 2:26 later when, with the Hurricanes’ goalie pulled, Carolina won a battle for the puck in the Olympia corner to the right of Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth. Eric Staal slid the puck out to the front of the Caps’ net, where Jeff Skinner redirected the puck to the left of Neuvirth. Jussi Jokinen stopped the loose puck with his right skate, kicked it to his forehand, and flipped it past a sprawling Neuvirth to get the ‘Canes even with 1:19 remaining.

It got worse for the Caps at the horn ending the period as the Caps would go to overtime having to kill a penalty, a boarding call against Alexander Semin. Carolina managed three shots on the 4-on-3 advantage before the Hurricane hero, Jokinien, went to the penaltiy box for a goat-horn fitting, taking a holding penalty against Karl Alzner at 1:29. Less than a minute later, the Caps spun a hit from years past. Nicklas Backstrom skated down the right wing boards with the puck with Carolina’s Tim Brent trailing him. Backstrom backhanded the puck out to Dennis Wideman at the right point. Wideman steered the puck to Mike Green on the other side. Green returned the puck to Wideman, then the two defensemen traded places at the top of the zone. Wideman sent the puck back across to Green, now at the right point and with some room to maneuver. Green stepped into the top of the right wing faceoff circle and let fly with a slap shot. The puck looked as if it might have taken a nick out of defenseman Bryan Allen on the way through, and it was enough for the puck to elude Boucher for the game-winner and a tenth consecutive home opener win, courtesy of “Game-Over Green.”

Other stuff…

-- The penalty kill did not get off to a good start against the Hurricanes. Carolina finished the night 2-for-5, and the Hurricanes recorded 12 shots on the five power plays. It might be worth noting that last season the Caps did not allow their first power play goal against until Game 7 of the season, a 4-1 loss to Boston.

-- On the other hand, there was the power play. It looked too much like last year’s ineffective squad, misfiring on their first three power plays, or more accurately, not firing at all, recording only two shots on their first three man advantages. But the Caps made up for it in their last two power plays, converting both, and in fact scoring on their last two power play shots on goal.

-- It is only one night, but the new guys were everything advertised on display. Troy Brouwer hits? He finished the night credited with six and had four shot attempts (two on goal) along with a plus-1. Roman Hamrlik is steady? He led the Caps with 23:18 of ice time and led all Caps with five blocked shots. Joel Ward adds some grit? Fifteen-plus minutes, a hit, a blocked shot, three faceoffs taken (all won), and displayed a nasty snap shot off a Brooks Laich feed early that might have put the Caps up in the game’s fourth minute.

-- It is worth noting that officially, the Caps scored their first three goals from an aggregate distance of 35 feet. Granted, two of them came on clean breaks – one by Alexander Semin and the other by Jason Chimera – but it seems easier to score from inside of 20 feet than it is from outside that distance.

-- Nicklas Backstrom might not have been named a star of the game, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t among the most effective players on the ice. In almost 21 minutes, two assists, seven shot attempts (three on goal), four hits (second to Brouwer), two blocked shots, and he won 15 of 25 draws.

-- Jeff Schultz…more than 15 minutes of ice time in which he blocked two shots and had two shot attempts of his own. Oh, and no goals scored against. Eighty two nights like that will be just fine, even if he doesn’t record a hit.

-- Brooks Laich had an effective game of his own, the variety of his game on full display. A goal on three shots on goal, three hits, two takeaways, two blocked shots, 10 wins in 16 draws taken, 3:13 in shorthanded ice time, more than any other Cap.

-- The Caps got balance out of their lines in terms of shots on goal. Nine for the first line, eight for the second, seven for the third, and three for the fourth, not to mention nine from the defense.

-- The Caps dominated draws in the offensive zone, going 15-for-25 and led by Backstrom’s 8-for-11. Jeff Halpern might have finished the night on the wrong side of 50 percent on draws, but he won four of six in the defensive end, and ultimately that is where he’s paid to win.

-- The record will show that Michal Neuvirth allowed three goals on 31 shots, but two of them were of the “he didn’t have a chance” category, as Eric Staal was all by himself on the weak side for a pair of open-net power play goals. Even on the last, with the Hurricanes having six skaters on the ice, Jussi Jokinen was left more or less unmarked on the weak side as the puck worked its way across from the far corner. He had a solid, if unspectacular game.

-- Will Alexander Semin be getting a call from Brendan Shanahan this week? That hit at the end of regulation on Bryan Allen was not the brightest thing Semin did yesterday, especially given the context…there was nothing Allen could have done with the clock about to tick to zero. It was a silly, stupid play that could cost Semin a pinch in the wallet, if not games in the press box.

-- On January 16, 2006, Alex Ovechkin scored what is famously referred to as “The Goal.” Phoenix goalie Brian Boucher was the victim of that career highlight. Ovechkin has not solved Boucher in any of the five games he faced Boucher since, including last night, failing to rustle the twine on either of his two shots on goal.

In the end, it was not pretty, and if body language means anything, Bruce Boudreau’s spoke volumes as he was leaving the bench. He looked like a guy who wanted to get his team on the ice right then and right there to correct some things…like a shaky penalty kill, like being too fancy on their first three power plays when they were content to pass around the perimeter instead of pounding the net, like not closing out a team when they had a lead with less than two minutes left.

It was the kind of game that made for a happy dramatic ending, but we don’t suspect those whose job it is to lead and evaluate these players will be happy with how it was achieved. It looked like a game that pitted a team playing its first game against one that got its feet wet the previous evening. We would like to say the Caps played better late than early, but this wasn’t really the case, either. Not when they allowed a game-tying goal in the last two minutes of regulation and succumbed to retaliation in the final second of regulation hockey.

The Caps have a full day to shake the cobwebs entirely out of their system, because they will jump up a weight class or two in their next opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning. To get two points out of that one, they will have to display a more consistent 60 minutes (or more) than they displayed last night.