Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On the Matter of Alex Ovechkin's Consistency -- Part I

Not long ago, Alex Ovechkin played in his 500th NHL game. Ovechkin recorded an assist in the 3-2 overtime win against the Ottawa Senators. His having reached the 500-game mark in the NHL serves as a convenient milestone to look at his production in the context of the “remarkable consistency” he displayed over much of his early career. Perhaps it is in returning to the notion of consistency that we can get an idea if it is possible to pinpoint an instance, an event, or an occurrence that is the “pivot point” after which his production went into decline. That is, if one can consider a player who managed 85 points in 79 games last season an example of “decline.” We are going to look at this in three parts, the first looking at the anecdotal evidence.

There are those who believe that Ovechkin’s drop in production is the product of the establishment of a “book” on him, that he has become entirely too predictable over the course of his career, and teams have figured out what his “go-to” moves are and how to stop them. Others point to a particular point in time – the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 in which Ovechkin’s Team Russia was eliminated earlier than predicted. As the team’s star, the failure to advance to a medal was laid largely at his feet. The narrative in this scenario is that he has not recovered from that disappointment.

The Vancouver episode got us to wonder if there was a “pivot point,” after which his performance slumped. Those pivot points could come in a variety of categories – injury, suspension, personal reasons, performance. There are several obvious pivot points among these categories marking Ovechkin’s career to date that merit examination. They could include:

-- November 2008; Ovechkin missed two games for personal reasons.
-- November 2009; injury (six games; shoulder injury).
-- December 2009; suspension (two games).
-- January 2010; he was named captain of the Capitals.
-- February 2010; Ovechkin finished a disappointing performance in the 2010 Winter Olympics.
-- March 2010; suspension (two games).
-- December 2010; Ovechkin and the Caps had to endure an eight-game losing streak under the watchful eye of HBO as part of its “Winter Classic 24/7” series.

The first instance, that in which Ovechkin missed two games in November 2008 for personal reasons (a death in his family) can be reasonably dismissed for purposes of this examination. After returning from his two-game hiatus, Ovechkin scored 54 goals in the last 71 games of the regular season, a 62-goal pace over 82 games not far off his 65 goals in the previous season. He also recorded 11 goals in 14 playoff games (11-10-21, plus-10 in those 14 games). If one is looking for a point in time after which his performance started to decline, look elsewhere.

On November 1, 2009, Ovechkin sustained a shoulder injury against the Columbus Blue Jackets that would cause him to miss six games. It would be hard to think of him having any lasting effect of this, given that he would record 28 goals over the next 40 games after his return – a 57-goal pace over 82 games.

And it is in those 40 games after his injury that Ovechkin endured his first suspension in the NHL. On November 20, 2009, Ovechkin was involved in a knee-on-knee collision with defenseman Tim Gleason of the Carolina Hurricanes. Although Ovechkin was injured on the play, missed the remainder of that contest, and likely would have missed time as a result of the injury, the league suspended him for two games, thus establishing Ovechkin as a “repeat offender” if he should run afoul of the law again. But despite missing those two games, Ovechkin recorded 24 goals over his next 33 games, a 60-goal pace. If fans were concerned that the suspension would change the style of his play enough to result in a drop in production, their concerns were misplaced.

On January 5, 2010, Ovechkin was named the 14th captain in team history. He did not record a point in his first game wearing the “C,” but he did celebrate with a three-point game the next time out, the first of a nine-game points streak over which he was 7-13-20. From January 5th through February 13th he would go 16-23-39, plus-25 in 21 games, an amazing 152-point pace. Being captain did not seem to have placed an undue burden on his game, at least in terms of his ability to produce at the offensive end.

Next up was the 2010 Winter Olympic break. The disappointment suffered by Ovechkin at the Vancouver Games is well-chronicled. We are interested if in the aftermath of those games there was a drop-off in performance that might point to the 2010 Winter Olympics as a turning point in his production in the NHL. In the last 18 games of the regular season following the Olympics, Ovechkin was 8-12-20. Not quite a slump, but not up to his pre-Olympics production, either (a 36-goal, 91-point pace). Perhaps it was the natural let-down from the excitement of the Olympics (and the unfortunate end to them), perhaps it was something else.

In his seventh game after returning from the Olympic break, Ovechkin and the Caps visited the Chicago Blackhawks for a nationally-televised game. He lasted 7:44, disqualified for boarding Blackhawk defenseman Brian Campbell, a penalty that not only earned him a major and a game misconduct penalty, but would result in his second suspension of the season. After returning from that suspension Ovechkin was 6-7-13, plus-4 over the last 11 games of the season. That is a small set of games from which to draw any conclusion, especially since he had a solid post-season (well, for five games) in the seven-game first round loss to Montreal – 5-4-9, plus-5 in the seven games.

Then there was the “streak.” Enduring an eight-game losing streak can be hard on a player, a team, and its coaches. Doing so when cameras are filming it in living color, when you are the captain of that team, might be an especially hard thing to deal with. Such was the case in December 2010 when the Caps went on an 0-6-2 run with HBO filming it as part of its 24/7 series previewing the 2011 Winter Classic in Pittsburgh. But consider that over his first 26 games of the season, up until the streak started, Ovechkin was 10-23-33. That is a 104-point pace, but only a 32-goal pace, far below his production up to that point in his career. And after that 26th game – from the start of the streak to the end of the regular season – he was 22-30-52 in 53 games. That worked out to a 34-goal pace over 82 games (he finished with 32 in 79 games).

It appeared that if there was an elusive “something” that could explain Ovechkin’s drop-off in production, it was not a product of anything that occurred in the 2010-2011 season. It had taken place already. But it is not entirely clear what that “something” might have been, if the explanation could be found in a single incident. Do his production data shed any light on this? That is where we will go in the second part of this look at the evolution of Alex Ovechkin’s on-ice production.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 29: Flyers at Capitals, December 13th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals take the ice to defend a two-game winning streak tonight against the Philadelphia Flyers at Verizon Center. The two-game “streak” matches their longest since they opened the season with a seven-game winning streak.

Meanwhile, their opponents – the Philadelphia Flyers – come to Verizon Center on a five-game winning streak of their own, their longest of the season and their longest since a five-game streak in mid-December of last season.

The Caps are facing the Flyers for the 189th time in team history and have a 72-94-19-3 all-time record against the Orange and Black. That record probably looks worse than it is when you consider that the Caps began their history against this team by going winless in their first 25 games against the Flyers. That’s right. From their first game – a 6-2 loss in Philadelphia on November 9, 1974 – through their 25th meeting – a 5-2 loss at Capital Centre in Landover on December 20, 1980 – the Caps knew nothing but futility. More than six years of futility wrapped up in an 0-19-6 record.

But that December 20, 1980 game against the Flyers was the first half of a home-and-home series, and the Caps went to Philadelphia on the following night and smacked the Flyers around in their own building, winning by a 6-0 score. For those of you who wonder about this rivalry, the box score of that game in instructive (from flyershistory.com).  Seventeen fighting majors were doled out. There were 21 misconduct penalties, five roughing penalties. There were 184 minutes in penalties…in the first period. There were 344 minutes in penalties for the game. Almost lost in the mayhem was the fact that Jean Pronovost had a pair of goals, and Mike Palmateer stopped all 44 shots for the shutout. It is all part of the rivalry that is going to be renewed when the teams are realigned with one another next season.

Here is how these teams match up with one another by the numbers:

1. Going into action on Monday night, the Flyers were the only team in the NHL with four players having ten or more goals. You might have expected Claude Giroux to be among them. You might not have been especially surprised to find Jaromir Jagr among them. But Scott Hartnell? His 14 goals puts him on a pace to finish with 41; his career high is 30 (with the Flyers in 2008-2009), and his career 82-game average is 21. If he should get a goal in this game, it will be Hartnell’s 200th career goal.

2. Then there is Matt Read, the fourth ten-goal scorer. Coming into this season Read did not have so much as a full season as a professional, having played 11 games with the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms after completing his eligibility at Bemidji State University last year. He is on a pace to finish with 35 goals, which would be the most he has scored at any level of organized hockey, including the year he had 34 goals with the Milton Icehawks in Ontario Junior “A” hockey in 2005-2006.

3. The Flyers come into this game having won five games in a row and seven of their last eight, outscoring their opponents in those eight games by a combined 28-19. Four of the wins have come by a one-goal margin, and three of them were won in overtime.

4. In two games against the Winnipeg Jets, the Flyers have allowed a total of 15 goals (9-8 and 6-4 losses). They have allowed 65 goals in their other 26 games (2.50/game).

5. The “bully” seems to be back in Broad Street Bullies, at least insofar as strict adherence to the rules – or lack thereof – is concerned. The Flyers lead the league in minor penalties taken (151, versus 114 for 22nd-least penalized Washington), have the sixth-most major penalties taken (18, versus nine for the Caps), are fourth in misconduct calls (five, versus one for the Caps), and lead the league in penalty minutes per game (16.3, versus 10.3 for 27th-place Washington).

1. In keeping with the rules theme, the Capitals have had nine fights this season. That would be two more than Flyer Zac Rinaldo has all by himself in only 24 games.

2. The Caps are one of six teams that have perfect records when leading after two periods (8-0-0). They are one of four teams that have better than .500 records when allowing the first goal (8-7-0).

3. The Caps are 4-0-1 in their last five home games against the Flyers, outscoring them 21-13. They have not lost to the Flyers in regulation since dropping a 4-2 decision at Verizon Center on February 24, 2009. The Caps are 7-0-3 against the Flyers since then.

4. Roman Hamrlik has 12 goals in 63 career games against the Flyers, including one this season in the teams’ only meeting. It is the most goals he has against any team over his career.

5. The Caps have recorded more hits than the Flyers this season (635 to 593) and have the third highest number of hits recorded at home this season (437, trailing Los Angeles and Dallas).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Philadelphia: Zac Rinaldo

As we noted, Zac Rinaldo has seven fights in 24 games this season. That would be good, in a manner of speaking, for a tie for fourth in the fighting rankings. The thing is, though, he does not seem to be especially good at it at this level of play. He is, after all, listed at 5’11”, 169, not what you would call a “heavyweight.” According to the Web site, hockeyfights.com, Rinaldo has a record of 0-5-2 in his seven fights thus far this season (winners decided by fan vote), and only one of the five losses could be considered close. But what he seems to be is fearless. He has taken on the likes of Dustin Penner (five inches taller and more than seventy pounds heavier than Rinaldo), he has taken on Zenon Konopka (a veteran of 84 NHL fights). He has taken on Brandon Prust (71 career fights), he has taken on Cody Bass (22 fights in the AHL over the last two seasons). If anything, he seems to resemble former Cap Matt Bradley, a guy who will take on any and all comers for his team, even if it means taking his lumps in the process. In fact, Rinaldo took on Bradley earlier this year. Bradley won with 91 percent of the vote on hockeyfights.com.

Washington: Alexander Semin

Alexander Semin represents risk and reward in this game. First, he is 9-11-20, plus-3, in 20 career games against the Flyers. Half of his points (four goals, six assists) have come on the power play. He has only three power play points this season (a goal, two assists), but all of them have come at home. On the other side, Semin has taken almost twice as many minor penalties this season (18) as the next highest Capital (Nicklas Backstrom: 10). Keep that in mind when you consider that the Flyers are 8-for-24 on the power play over their current five-game winning streak. Which Semin shows up – the one who has had scoring success against the Flyers, or the one who has a penchant for taking penalties – could spell the difference in this game.


1. “All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up.” No, it’s not a remake of “Sunset Boulevard.” But with HBO covering the Flyers, there is the question of whether the Flyers are ready for their moment in the spotlight and whether the intrusion will affect their game. HBO catches the Flyers in a place similar to that in which they found the Penguins last season – all fat and happy in the midst of a winning streak. Does that change?

2. Pace. The Flyers lead the league in first period goals scored. Only two teams – Detroit and Edmonton – have scored first in more games than the Flyers, who have done so 18 times in 28 games. They have the best record in the league – 11-0-0 – when leading after one period. The Capitals cannot let the Flyers establish a pace to their liking early. If they do, and the Flyers capitalize, Philadelphia is a hard team to haul down from behind.

3. Keep the Juice Flowing. The soft underbelly of the Flyers’ five game winning streak is that they have allowed power play goals in four of them. Overall their penalty killing is 15-for-20 in their last five games (75.0 percent). The Caps have five power play goals on their last eight man-advantage situations. If the Flyers get too frisky, the Caps have the means to make them pay.

In the end, this has the chance to be a high-scoring, entertaining game. Even without leading scorer Claude Giroux out for this game), the Flyers have considerable fire power with the suddenly hot Scott Hartnell, Cap-killer Danny Briere, the surprising Matt Read, and old friend Jaromir Jagr. Meanwhile, the Caps have scored 13 goals in their last three games, and they have outscored teams over those three games by 5-4 on the power play and by 8-6 at even strength. If the Flyers are missing Ilya Bryzgalov (listed only as probable for this game) they will pin their hopes in goal on Sergei Bobrovsky, who in three career appearances against the Caps has a 3.36 goals-against average and a .890 save percentage (numbers almost identical to Bryzgalov’s 3.36, .891 career mark). It could be a wild one.

Caps 5 – Flyers 4