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.