Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 49: Capitals at Lightning, January 31st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The All Star Game is history. Goalie-Cam, Corey Perry’s stick, Patrick Kane’s Superman glasses and cape, white gloves… all put away. It is back to business, and for the Washington Capitals that means a 34-game sprint to the finish of the regular season that starts tonight in Tampa to face the Lightning. The Caps start the sprint from the pole position, first place in the Southeast Division by virtue of the fact that they actually win hockey games in the hockey portion of the hockey game. Despite their having the same number of standings points as the Florida Panthers, the Caps have 25 regulation and overtime wins to 19 such wins for the Panthers. That could be a big deal down the stretch, since it is the first tie-breaker if the teams finish the season tied in standings points at the top of the division.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Tonight the Caps visit Tampa Bay for the first time this season after winning the first two games of the season series in Washington. The left coast of Florida has been rather kind to the Caps, who are 10-2-0 against the Lightning in their last dozen regular season visits. They were 2-1-0 in their three visits last season.

The hosts come into this game riding a four-game winning streak after opening January 0-6-1. The difference between the two streaks has been defense and goaltending. In the first seven games of the month the Lightning allowed an average of 4.71 goals per game with an accompanying save percentage from their goaltenders of .849. In their four game winning streak they have allowed an average of 2.25 goals per game with an accompanying save percentage of .923. Here is how the two teams stack up overall for the season:

(click pic for larger image)

1. Even though there is a bright line separating the goaltending performance between the seven-game losing streak and the four-game winning streak in January, it hasn’t been a product of picking one goalie over another. In the seven-game losing streak, Dwayne Roloson was 0-2-1, 3.55, .870; while Mathieu Garon was 0-4-0, 5.36, .850. In the four-game winning streak, Garon is 3-0-0, 2.00, .926; while Roloson has won his only decision, allowing three goals on 33 shots. Roloson has the reputation as the Cap killer with an 8-6-5, 2.30, .916 record against Washington with four shutouts.

2. If Steven Stamkos is going to slow down in his goal scoring pace, he has given no signs of doing so yet. He has not gone consecutive games without a goal since December 21-23. In the 14 games since then he has 12 goals, and he is on a pace to be the only 50-goal scorer in the league (55). He has nine in 20 career regular season games against Washington.

3. Tampa Bay’s power play has struggled in the new year. In 11 games during January the Lightning are 3-for-33 (9.1 percent). The other side of the special teams has not been much better. The penalty killers are 29-for-37 (78.4 percent) over the same 11 games, although during the four-game winning streak they are 12-for-13 (92.3 percent).

4. Tampa Bay is the only team in the league to have allowed a total of at least 50 goals in each of the first, second, and third periods of games this season.

5. The Lightning lead the league in most losses by three of more goals (13). Only two teams have more losses by two goals. This is not a team that loses close.

1. For all the angst displayed by Caps fans this month over the team’s playoff chances, they are 5-2-1 since they laid an egg out on the two-game west coast trip. They have done it largely with defense, allowing an average of only 2.13 goals per game over those eight games.

2. Washington has the second worst combined power play/penalty kill index number in the league. Adding their 76.6 percent penalty kill to their 13.0 percent power play on the road makes their combined index of 89.6 second worst only to Columbus’ 87.6.

3. As if you need reminding, with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin out, your top three scorers taking the ice tonight for the Caps will be Dennis Wideman (9-25-34), Alexander Semin (12-16-28), and Marcus Johansson (10-18-28). Tampa Bay will start three players with more than 40 points (Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and Vincent Lecavalier).

4. Michal Neuvirth would appear to be ticketed to baseball cap duty tonight, but he does have an odd career record against the Bolts. He has won both decisions in four appearances against Tampa Bay, but he has a GAA of 3.38 in doing it.

5. This is the first of a back-to-back set of games in Florida. The Caps are 3-2-0 in the opening game of back-to-backs so far this season.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder:

Tampa Bay: Steve Downie

Two years ago, Steve Downie had a breakout season. With 22 goals and 46 points in 79 games, he gave indications he could be more than just a pot-stirrer. Last season, however, he dropped to ten goals in 57 games. This season he has eight goals in 45 games (a 14-goal pace), but is a minus-18, worst on the team and 822nd among 828 skaters in the league. He has been a little more productive of late, going 1-3-4, plus-1 in his last four games. But someone has to take some pressure off the big-three of Stankos, St. Louis, and Lecavalier, and Downie might be someone to look for to do that, and not just be the guy with 111 penalty minutes in 45 games.

Washington: Brooks Laich

Part of being Mr. Versatility for the Caps is not just being able to skate in all situations, but being able to produce in them. And that brings us to goal-scoring. Brooks Laich has one goal in his last 15 games (34 shots on goal) and is on a pace to finish the season with 15 goals, a total that would be his lowest since the 2006-2007 season. He has eight in 43 career games against the Lightning, but the bigger picture here is that even if Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin were in the lineup, the Caps need to get a bit more goal scoring from Mr. Versatility.


1. First 20. Any team coming off a long hiatus might be susceptible to a slow start in their first game back. The Caps are already a team that seems to have that problem, regardless of time between games. They are a minus-7 in the first period of games this season and have allowed the first goal 25 times in 48 games. The Caps are not in a position to let anyone get off to a fast start against them, given their struggles to mount offensive pressure in the last month.

2. Score by Committee.  As long as Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Green are out – and even when they are back, for that matter – the Caps need to do a better job of scoring by committee. Laich has that one goal in his last 15 games. Joel Ward has one in his last 35 games. Mike Knuble has one in his last 39 games. Even Jason Chimera, who started the season so hot, has only one in his last 15 games. The Caps are going to struggle to win games if this kind of production doesn’t change.

3. Play Smart.  Only one team has fewer power play opportunities at home than does Tampa Bay (69 in 21 games). Only seven teams have fewer power play goals at home than the Lightning (14). Don’t give them any cheap opportunities.

In the end, maybe treating the first half as a bad dream and tonight as if they were 0-0-0 is the best way to go. The first half was disappointing to say the least, but the Caps have an opportunity to make things right in the last 34 games. On paper, they are still the class of the Southeast, but they played those first 48 games as if “on paper” was enough. Starting tonight, they have to toss that paper in the waste basket and tend to their business on the ice.

Caps 4 – Lightning 2

Monday, January 30, 2012

What can one expect?

Over the course of his six-year career preceding this season, Alex Ovechkin has scored 105 goals in 171 games following an All-Star or Olympic Games break.  That works out to a 50.4 goals average per 82 games, precisely what his career average is overall for goals scoring per 82 games.

In the last two seasons he scored 21 goals in 46 games after the breaks, a 37.4 goal pace, slightly (but not significantly) higher than his 33.8 goals-per-82-games pace from the end of the Vancouver Olympics through the end of last season. 

Ovechkin is on a pace to score 33.6 goals this season, which means perhaps 14 more in the 32 games he is still eligible to play in before the end of the regular season.

Maybe it is the new normal.

The Cousins of the Roundtable: Part V

There is but one more question to have the cousins take a stab at, and it really is the only question worth asking at this point.

Will the Caps make the playoffs?

Fearless: Yes, and here is why. There are 14 games between now and the trading deadline, and the Caps’ schedule is set up in such a way that they can stick a fork in Florida’s chances and deal a harsh blow to Winnipeg’s to win the Southeast Division. The Caps will face the Panthers three times in the next nine games, and they might be getting them at the best time, if you are a Caps fan. The Panthers closed the pre-All Star Game portion of the season by going 4-6-5. Of the 13 points they earned in those 15 games, seven of them came in extra time (1-0-5). Their lone extra time win came in a Gimmick. And when they have lost in regulation, it hasn’t been close much of the time. Of their six losses four of them came by three or more goals, including a ghastly 8-0 whitewashing by the Boston Bruins.

Even if you set the Caps’ three upcoming games with Florida aside, things do not look good for the Panthers. This is a team that has not won a road game in regulation since December 8th (they are 1-4-4 on the road since then, their only win coming in a trick shot competition). What is worse, Jose Theodore has allowed seven goals on 66 shots since returning from a knee injury. Perhaps the All Star break gave him time to recuperate a little more, but that isn’t a stat line that should give much comfort to Panther fans.

As for Winnipeg, they are five points behind the Caps, and the Caps have two games in hand. Worse, they have been awful in the new year, going 3-8-1 since January 1st to drop back down to .500 (22-22-6). The Caps get the Jets here on February 9th, and the Jets have a road record that is worse than Washington’s, if you can believe that. On top of all that, Evander Kane – the Jet’s leading goal scorer – has missed the Jets’ last three games with a concussion, and Dustin Byfuglien hasn’t dressed since December 23rd as a result of a knee injury.

The Caps might not light up the sky with their play in the second half, but this is going to be a long slow march of attrition, the Caps being the ones standing at the end, albeit on unsteady feet going into the playoffs. Ninety-five points might be the cutoff point for the eighth place finisher in the Eastern Conference, but the Southeast Division winner (and third seed for the opening playoff round) might not crack 90.

Cheerless: Sorry, cuz. A team that more or less sleepwalks its way through the first half of the season, gets it coach fired, doesn’t do all that much better with the new coach, stinks on the road in all three zones at even strength and on special teams, can’t get out of their own end whether they are playing Pittsburgh or Plattsburgh, and is starting the second half with their captain in the hooskow for an illegal hit is not gonna find a pony in a barn filled with all the manure from the first half of the season. Sometimes, it’s just a pile of manure.

OK, that’s a bit harsh, but not by too much. Take a look. Y’know how many times Alex Ovechkin has had a points streak of more than one game since Thanksgiving? Three. He had a two-gamer on December 7-9, a seven-gamer from December 20th to January 3rd, and another two-gamer on January 13-15. That’s not goals, cuz, that’s points. He had his first three-point game of the year in the game that got him his suspension. He hasn’t had a game-winning goal since December 15th, which happens to be his only one of the year. He’s gonna finish with fewer game-winning goals than in his rookie season when he had five for a team that won only 29 games the whole year.

And it’s not like the rest of the team is lighting it up. Alexander Semin is on a pace to finish with 21 goals. Brooks Laich is on a pace to finish with 15. Joel Ward and Mike Knuble might not ever score again. Between them they have one goal since December 7th; that’s 22 games. Mike Green is out, Nicklas Backstrom is even outer. The Caps are giving 16 minutes a night to a defenseman who is in his first pro season and who was supposed to spend it in Hershey (Dmitry Orlov) and benched Jeff Schultz in favor of Tomas Kundratek. Y’know when was the last time the Caps won a road game against a team in the top-eight of their conference? December 7th, against Ottawa. OK, they’ve only had four such games since then, but in all road games since then they are 3-5-2.

And then there is the goaltending. Yeah, Tomas Vokoun was pretty much keeping the Caps in games there for a while. He had a stretch there where he was 5-2-0 in eight appearances, 1.88, .938, and a shutout. But since then he has allowed three goals in four of five appearances. Michal Neuvirth had a nice shutout in Montreal a couple of weeks ago after he had only 31 minutes of work since Christmas, but then he gave up four goals to Pittsburgh. Maybe that goaltending run is coming to an end. In any case, this team is a bigger mess than a baby’s diaper. Add it all up, and they are not making the playoffs.

Peerless: Well, we know how Cheerless got his name. We see only one viable path to the playoffs, and the road sign marking it says, “Southleast Division Champion, This Way.” Given the absences of Green and Backstrom to start the second half (and who knows if/when Backstrom will return this season), the persistent domination of opponents in shots and chances in the 20 or so games leading up to the All Star break, the lack of consistent offense, the too-hard leaning on goaltending to win games, and that awful road record, it is hard to see any way short of divine intervention that the Caps make the playoffs as an at-large team. Their best, and likely only path to the post season is to take advantage of the fact that the Southeast has once more reclaimed its rightful place as the worst division in hockey (and perhaps not as good, top to bottom, as either the East or the West Division in the AHL).

The Caps have what looks like a favorable road schedule through February. They get seven divisional opponents and four others below them in the standings over the 15 games through the end of next month. But then there is that whole “home-road” thing. Nine of the 15 games will be played away from Verizon Center, where the Caps have the third worst road record in the East and only two more standings points earned than 15th place Carolina away from home. If they do not turn that around and take advantage of the weaker teams on the slate, regardless of where the games are played, things get rougher on the schedule dramatically after that. In their last 19 games the Caps will play 10 games against teams that start the second half as playoff eligibles in their respective conferences. Three other games will be played against ninth or tenth place teams at the moment likely to be fighting for a spot in their respective conferences.

It all might come down to three letters for the Caps – “R-O-W.” Regulation and Overtime Wins. At the moment the Caps are fourth in the East in ROW with 25 such wins, and they might have all but insurmountable leads over Florida (19) and Winnipeg (21) in that category. It will be the first tie-breaker to determine playoff seeding for teams tied in standings points at the end of the season. It might be how the Caps find their way to the post season.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Cousins of the Roundtable, Part IV

We continue this little interlude with two more questions of a forward-looking nature. Let’s hope the cousins are up to it.

The NHL trading deadline is 3:00 p.m. (EST) on February 27th. The Caps have 14 games to go before that date, so there is some time to find out if they will be a buyer or a seller. Which will they be?

Fearless: A buyer. Of the 14 games to go between now and the deadline, seven of them will be against Southeast Divisions teams, and three others will be against teams below them in the standings. The Caps will not win them all, but they should be favored in all of them (Cheerless…” cough-road games-cough”).

Cheerless’ juvenile commentary notwithstanding, the other four games will be against strong teams such as Boston, the Rangers, and San Jose, but two of those are at home (the Caps will be at Madison Square Garden to face the Rangers on February 12th). If you look at the 14 opponents and their respective win-loss records at home; then compare them to how they fit those records into the Caps’ schedule, they have a combined 168 wins in 340 games. That’s a roundabout way of saying that it is not as tough a schedule of opponents as it could be.

Cheerless: Fearless, you are a certifiable, 200-proof idiot. The Caps scrooed the pooch getting to this point, cuz. They’re gonna be sellers. Take a good look at those 14 games until the deadline. Nine of them – nine! – are on the road. They have a three-game road trip coming out of this break; then they have a four-game trip in the middle of next month. Last time I looked, and that was about two wags of a dog’s tail ago, the Caps had the third worst road record in the Eastern Conference. Only Carolina has a worse road record in the Southeast, for cryin’ out loud.

Then there is the matter of whether Mike Green comes back healthy and effective, and whether Nicklas Backstrom comes back at all this season. Who is a number one center on this team with Backstrom out? Who is a number two center when he’s in? And this team hasn’t figured out a way to string a lot of wins together. Since the seven-game streak to start the season, the Caps have two winning streaks of more than two games, the same number of losing streaks of more than two games since then. Hard to see how they suddenly do more than tread water, and that schedule ain’t lookin’ too good, and it’s gonna be hard to be a buyer when you’re falling out of the playoff group. The Caps made their bed in the first half, and now they have to pay the band in the second half.

Peerless: Neither, at least in the sense a contender is looking to add the last pieces, and an also-ran is looking to sell assets for futures. The Caps have too many holes to think that adding a player like a Jason Arnott, or a Dennis Wideman, or a Sergei Fedorov is going to be the piece that makes them a good bet to go deep in the playoffs. The team has not displayed enough depth or production to warrant that kind of a conclusion. But there will be no selloff, either. One thing that will probably signal whether the Caps are going to be a “buyer” is what happens to Jeff Schultz. If he is traded at the deadline, it will not be for a top-six forward or a top-four defenseman. But packaging him with something else could yield an asset that could be valuable for the playoffs. If the Caps hold onto him, then perhaps it is a signal that they are going to cast their lot with this roster and for Schultz to regard it as a lost season for him, the aim being that perhaps next year he can be a more consistent contributor.

If the Caps do a face-plant out of the gate to start the second half, then one wonders what will happen to Alexander Semin.  The Caps could then become sellers, accelerating what some (ok, we) presume, that Semin will not be re-signed. He could be a valuable asset for a team looking for a forward with a history of scoring goals (whatever his performance this season). That is on the daring end of the spectrum in terms of team shake-up. But the fact is that the Caps have stumbled their way to their place on the edge of the playoffs. They have given little evidence that things are going to change by magic in the second half. And Cheerless, in his convoluted way, has a point – the Caps didn’t do enough in the first half, and now with the schedule putting them on the road, where they have not done well, things do not look promising.


So, you have offered your points of view on buying and selling. Who – or what positions – are bought and sold?

Cheerless: Heck, just about anybody with an expiring contract could be moved. It wouldn’t be the yard sale the Caps had a few years ago, but if the Caps are going to do some renovating, then maybe they start now instead of the summer. Even if they are not a “seller,” they might have to be a “seller.” The Caps don’t seem to have much, if any room to add a piece without sending out a piece. That might be the “Schultz” argument – sending out a player who does not fit into the team’s short term plans for a player who can help them down the stretch. The buyer would have to be a team thin on defense that is out of contention who wants to move an older player or expiring contract.

Fearless: The Caps do not seem to have much room to maneuver here and might have to buy in what amount to chewable bites. They might have to move money out as part of a two-step that brings in another player. In that instance, the first part that deal might not mean much except for what money it frees up. There might not be much return in that part of a deal. As for need and the kind of player the Caps might be bringing in, they have the perennial problems to solve – a second line center and some scoring support on the lower half of the forward lines. Another adept puck mover from the blue line might be nice to try to reverse this nasty trend of getting out shot, out attempted, and out chanced by opponents.

Peerless: One difficulty the Caps will face is that by the end of the month, there might be only half a dozen or so teams that are truly out of contention, the usual suspects for finding a spare part or two. Who might be a trading partner? Columbus has two forwards that might be of interest in Vaclav Prospal and Samuel Pahlsson. If Montreal drops further out of contention, perhaps a Travis Moen comes into play. Anaheim has a number of forwards on expiring contracts, but the Ducks are 8-1-1 in their last ten games and are showing signs that they might yet challenge for a playoff spot.

The point here is that there would not seem likely to be a clear fit of the sort Jason Arnott was thought to be last year, and a bombshell like having Sergei Fedorov come to D.C. is hard to see happening. If the Caps are to be buyers at the deadline, it would seem this year will be more like 2010, when the players obtained – Eric Belanger, Joe Corvo, and Scott Walker – probably were not on anyone’s radar but might have had fans thinking, “OK, that makes sense.” Let’s just hope that if they do go in that sort of direction, it makes more sense after the deals than was the case in 2010.

That Was The Week That Was -- Week 16 (January 22-28)

There was hockey not of an all-star game sort this past week, so let’s take a look at what the Caps did…

Record: 1-0-1

It could have been better, and it could have been worse. Getting three points out of four has to qualify as a pretty good week, though, given the opponents. The Caps went to Pittsburgh to face a team that had won five in a row and managed to get a point out of it, even after falling behind, 2-0, in the first period. But the Caps did have a lead in that game, taking a 3-2 lead early in the third on a goal by Alex Ovechkin. Pittsburgh evened it later in the period, but the Caps halted any further Penguin marches and squeezed out a standings point, even as Evgeni Malkin converted a friendly bounce off the end boards for a 4-3 overtime winner. The Caps returned home to win in unexpected fashion against the Boston Bruins, 5-3, the first time the Caps scored five goals in a game in 21 games. It made for the first week since Week 11 that the Caps did not lose a game in regulation and only the second time since their seven game winning streak to start the season.

Offense: 4.00/game (season: 2.81/rank: 9th)

Last week it was five goals on 80 shots on goal (6.25 percent); this week, eight goals on 43 shots (18.6 percent). Neither would seem to be the norm. But what does seem to be the norm is that inability to get shots on goal. With 20 against Pittsburgh and 23 against Boston, the Caps now have gone 19 consecutive games without going over 30 shots in a game, and they have been outshot by opponents in 16 of those 19 games (their last ten in a row). They are, however, 11-6-2 in those games. We do not see this as a long term recipe for success.

Individually, it was the Mathieu Perreault Show this past week. Perreault was 3-2-5, plus-4, including his first career hat trick in the 5-3 win over Boston. The Alexes – Ovechkin and Semin – each had a three point week, both going 1-2-3. Ovechkin got his in one game, having to sit out the second game of the week as a result of his suspension for a hit on Pittsburgh’s Zbynek Michalek in the 4-3 overtime loss last Sunday.

Defense: 3.50/game (season: 2.81/rank: 18th)

It is a broken record by now, but the Caps were badly out-attempted in shots this past week. Opponents launched 145 shots toward the Caps net, and 59 of them got through, seven of them for goals. Compare that to 100 shot attempts for the Caps, 43 of which made it to the net, eight of which found their way over the goal line. The Caps just are not doing a very good job of keeping opponents out of the Caps' own end. They are now allowing 2.5 more shots at 5-on-5 per 60 minutes than they are getting for themselves (numbers from behindthenet.ca). that might not sound like much, but there are two things to consider here. First, that 2.5 shots is 9.2 percent more shots than the Caps are getting. Second, let’s say that a typical goalie’s save percentage at 5-on-5 is .920 (a reasonable conclusion, since 20 of 38 goalies having played at least 20 games have that mark or better). Caps goalies have to have a save percentage of ,927 just to stay even. What is Tomas Vokoun’s save percentage at even strength? You guessed it, .927. Which brings us to…

Goaltending: 3.45/.881

Can’t call it a great week, even with the strength of competition. Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth split the work this week, each getting a game and each allowing at least three goals. If there was a ray of sunshine, it was that the two combined to stop 19 of 20 third period shots in the two games. Trouble is, that one goal tied what was a 3-2 game in Pittsburgh, and the Penguins went on to win in overtime. If anything, this week was an early warning that some fine goaltending that had gone to waste over the previous month might be normalizing a bit, and that is not a good thing. Tomas Vokoun allowed three goals to Boston, and that makes three in a row and six of his last eight appearances in which he allowed three or more goals. The Caps are 2-4-0 in those six games. Neuvirth has allowed three or more in three of his last five appearances (one of those appearances being a 20 minute stint in which he allowed one goal on eight shots). If the goaltending starts to sputter, and the Caps’ offense cannot find its rhythm, this team is toast for this season.

Power Play: 0-for-5/0.0 percent (season: 18.5 percent/rank: T-12th)

In the space of two weeks, the Caps have dropped seven places in team power play rankings, this week dropping four places on the 0-for-5 effort. They managed only two shots on goal in eight minutes of man-advantage time, including 19 seconds worth of 5-on-3 time and 1:13 of 4-on-3 time. Sure, Boston and Pittsburgh are good penalty killing teams (seventh and fourth, respectively, in penalty killing), but this was just short of awful, the only mitigating factor being that the Caps were missing their biggest power play weapons in Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, and Nicklas Backstrom against Boston, against whom they had no shots on goal on their only opportunity.

Penalty Killing: 5-for-7/71.4 percent (season: 80.8%/rank:23rd)

Well, at least they didn’t drop any more places in the league rankings. Other than that, it was not a very good week. The Caps have now allowed at least one power play goal in eight of the last nine games in which they faced at least one shorthanded situation. They are 28-for-38 over that span (73.4 percent) and have a record of 4-4-1 in those games. Allowing nine shots in 8:27 of penalty killing time isn’t awful, but the Caps are slowly digging themselves a hole by allowing power play goals on what is has become a regular basis. It is just one more thing that has to be corrected if this club is to have a chance at making the playoffs.

Paying the Price: 59 hits/46 blocked shots (season rank:14th/9th)

The Caps keep getting chances to block shots, so they block shots. Another two games this week with at least 20. On one level, that’s a good thing. The Caps are showing a willingness to try to make things easier on their goaltenders. On the other hand, it is a symptom of a lot of shot attempts against – the Caps blocked more shots this week (46) than they had shots on goal of their own (43). And there is this. The Caps rank ninth in the league in blocked shots. Of the eight teams ahead of them, only three – Minnesota, the Rangers, and San Jose – are among the playoff eligibles of their respective conferences.

Faceoffs: 55-for-116/47.4 percent (season: 51.1 percent/rank: 8th)

Faceoffs – another element that seems to reflect the inability of the Caps to start and keep plays going in the offensive end. Going 55-for-116 for the two games this week is by no means awful, being three wins short of a 50 percent week, but it is the numbers by zone that continue to be troubling. The Caps took 27 draws in the offensive zone this week (winning 13) and took 51 in the defensive zone (winning only 23 of them). That the Caps would earn three points for the week while starting plays in the defensive zone by almost a two-to-one margin compared to starts in the offensive zone either speaks to their goaltending or to a bit of Perreault-fed luck (or poor Boston defense in the 5-3 Caps win).

Turnovers: plus-3

One cannot help but think that this week’s results were a reflection of the scoring differences one finds from rink to rink. The Caps and Penguins combined for only 11 turnovers in the 4-3 Penguins win last Sunday in Pittsburgh (the Caps being minus-3 in that game), while the Caps and Bruins combined for 42 turnovers in the 5-3 Caps win on Tuesday at Verizon Center (the Caps finishing plus-6). Boston had a particularly sloppy game that played a pivotal role in the Caps’ win. On balance, though, there was not much to take away from the turnover numbers this week.


A 1-0-1 week is not to be sneered at, but the way the Caps won these points is not the kind of method one can or should count on over the last 34 games of the season. They had to claw back from an 0-2 hole on the road to get a point in the first game of the week, then they had the benefit of an opponent playing a poor defensive game to get a win in the other contest. Make no mistake, that win was a good one, coming as it did while the Caps skated with three big pieces out of the lineup in Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green. But in neither game did the Caps mount any consistent offensive pressure, and they showed cracks in their defense and goaltending in giving up seven goals in the two contests.

We made a point a couple of weeks ago that the Caps had six games on each side of the All-Star break that could very well make or break their chances to make the playoffs. We speculated on their chances to match their standings points mark last season after 54 games, which would come at the end of this 12-game stretch. Well, having finished the first half of that stretch of a dozen games with a 3-2-1 record, even a sweep of their next six games would leave them short of last year’s points mark after 54 games (they can finish with 67 points in 54 games, compared to 68 last season). And given the way the Caps have lurched from winning to losing in short spurts over the last two-and-a-half months, no reasonable person should be thinking “sweep” in the next six games.

The Caps have played this season like the story about a frog in a pot of water. Turn up the heat too fast, the frog jumps out. But if the water is heated gradually, the frog doesn’t have a clue what is happening until it is too late. The Caps have avoided the long losing streak for the most part this season, not having one of more than four games so far. But they have lost often enough in bits and pieces that the heat has been turned up gradually on their chances to make the playoffs. And if they don’t make something of these next six games, when the schedule favors them with four divisional games and another against a team behind them in the standings, the Caps might find themselves cooked.

The Cousins of the Roundtable, Part III

We are Day Four of the All Star break, and the cousins have been helping out in our look back at the first half. So let’s see…what to look at next.

Who is the most valuable player of the first half for the Caps?

Fearless: Nicklas Backstrom. Sometimes you do not know how valuable a player is until he is out of the lineup, and the fact is that the Caps are only 5-4-1 since Backstrom was elbowed by Rene Bourque in a 3-1 win over Calgary in the first game of the new year. When the Caps skated off with their 3-1 win over Calgary on January 3rd – a game in which Backstrom assisted on all three goals – the Caps were averaging 2.97 goals per game, ninth in the league in offense.

Since then, the Caps have a total of 22 goals in ten games. They have scored more than three twice in that span and have been shut out twice. In the first 16 games under Dale Hunter, the Caps wouldn’t make anyone think of a Gatling gun with their shots on goal, but they were averaging 26.2 shots per game. Since Backstrom went out, that has dropped to 21.6 shots per game. In those first 16 games under Hunter, with Backstrom in the lineup, the Caps were 11-for-45 on the power play (24.4 percent). In the last ten, with Backstrom out, that has dropped to 15.4 percent on 4-for-26 success. Backtrom’s value has been underlined by his absence from the lineup. He is the most valuable player of the first half for the Caps.

Cheerless: Well, if Backstrom is out, it’s good that Tomas Vokoun is in. He didn’t have such a good start with the Caps, even though he had a good record. Under former coach Bruce Boudreau he was 10-5-0, but he had a goals-against average of only 2.82, and his save percentage was only .905. And even after there was a change behind the bench, there were a few potholes on the way – Vokoun played in only five of the first 11 games under Hunter. He was 2-3-0, 2.80, .912 in those games.

Vokoun has played in 13 of the Caps’ last 15 games, though, and over that span he is 8-4-0, 2.17, .931. Although two of the losses came in the road trip out to California – Vokoun gave up four goals in each of the 5-2 losses to San Jose and Los Angeles -- in the other two losses the Caps were shut out.

Peerless: Well, you guys covered the obvious choices, so we will put in a plug for Dennis Wideman. The Caps have employed ten defensemen so far this season, but that number does not reflect the churning that has taken place on the blue line. Only three defensemen – Wideman, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson – have played in all 48 games; only four have played more than 30 games so far. With Mike Green hurt, Jeff Schultz benched, John Carlson having an up-and-down year, and Dmitry Orlov getting significant minutes as a rookie, Wideman has provided some semblance of stability on the blue line. Like a lot of Caps, he had a bumpy ride early. In 22 games under Bruce Boudreau, Wideman was 3-10-13, minus-6, but even that 22-game stretch could be cut in half. He had a difficult time in the second 11 games of that stretch, going 0-3-3 and a minus-14.

That has turned around with the change in coaches. Since Dale Hunter took over, Wideman is 6-15-21, plus 6 in his last 26 games. He is 3-7-10 on the power play, which has made up a large portion of the power play production one might have expected from Mike Green. If we could only keep him from playing teams from the state of New York. In seven games against Buffalo, the Rangers, and the Islanders, Wideman is 0-1-1, minus-8. He is 9-24-33, plus-8 in 41 games against everyone else.


Let’s assume that the Caps need to have the Young Guns firing with a little more frequency in the second have than they did before the All-Star Game. Who from among the rest of the players on the roster needs to raise his game from his first half performance for the Caps to make the playoffs?

Cheerless: Joel Ward. In his first dozen games with the Caps, Ward was 4-3-7, plus 6, and the Caps were 9-3-0. Since then, Ward is 1-6-7, even, and the Caps are 17-16-3. Even his four goals in his first dozen games was a bit of a stretch. He got them on a total of 12 shots. In his last 35 games he has that one goal on 39 shots. Of course, not all of the Caps’ slump can be placed at Ward’s feet, but it just goes to show that the Caps need to have some secondary goal scoring to jump up in the standings. And then there is this. In three seasons in Nashville, Ward averaged about two minutes of shorthanded ice time per game, never ranked lower than fourth in any season among Nashville forwards and second among Predator forwards in 2009-2010. He is averaging about half of that with Washington – 54 seconds per game – eighth among Caps forwards. Would Ward, and the Caps for that matter, benefit from his having more time a man down?

Fearless: John Carlson. One might have thought that having played for a season in juniors for Dale Hunter, that Carlson might have thrived in Hunter’s system. That has not been the case, at least so far. In 22 games skating for Bruce Boudreau, Carlson was 4-8-12, plus-5, and had only five “minus” games in all. But under Hunter, Carlson is 1-10-11, minus-5, and has had a total of 11 “minus” games in the 26 he has played under the new coach. His goal production has declined in step with his shot production – 54 in 22 games to start the year, only 42 in 26 games since the coaching change. More specific to his position, he has spent too much time and too many instances of seeing pucks head into his own net. To date this season, only five defensemen have been on the ice for more goals against. Part of that is ice time (he is second on the team to Wideman in total ice time per game), and part could be due to his assuming some more responsibility in the absence of Mike Green, but the 61 goals for which he has been on ice this season is almost equal to his entire total for last year (66). That is going to have to improve in the second half.

Peerless: I'm going to pull rank here and cheat by taking Alexander Semin. The fact that Alexander Semin has only 12 goals has to be considered something of a surprise. His pace of 21 goals for the season would leave him with a career low for a full season (he had 10 in 52 games as a rookie in 2003-2004). But looking for a cause does not seem to be a long trip. In 44 games so far, Semin has 89 shots on goal. His 13.5 percent shooting percentage is not far off his career average (14.4 percent). However, he is on a pace to finish with 158 shots on goal, about 30 percent lower than his average season shots on goal over the last five years. His shooting percentage is about half as high under Dale Hunter (9.6 percent) than it was under Bruce Boudreau (18.9 percent), even though his shots are up (2.26 per game versus 1.76 under Boudreau). Getting more production from Semin is going to be an important ingredient in ensuring the Caps finish these last 34 games of the season well.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Cousins of the Roundtable, Part II

We took a look at the roster changes the Caps have made and surprises from the first half. Now the cousins and I take a look at what might have been pivotal moments in the first half. Guys, are you ready?

If the Caps should make the playoffs and an eighth-seed by one or two points, can you point to one game in the first half and say that it was the critical win, the unexpected win, the big win that provided the extra point or two to put the Caps over the top?

Fearless: December 7th. The Caps were coming off an ugly loss in Florida in which they gave up five goals in the first half of the game to the Panthers, then fell short in a comeback try, 5-4. From there they traveled to Ottawa, a team that was just starting to turn things around after a mediocre start. The Caps fell behind 2-1 after two periods after allowing a couple of late goals in the period by the Senators. Ottawa almost made it 3-1 when Milan Michalek had a breakaway just five minutes into the third. Goalie Tomas Vokoun stopped him, and the Caps’ skaters took over from there. Nicklas Backstrom tied it 9:45 in, then Alex Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer scored 15 seconds apart to give the Caps a 4-2 lead. After Michalek got the Senators back to within one with less than four minutes left, John Carlson ended it with an empty net goal for the 5-3 win.

The Caps, coming off a bad loss, having a poor first 40 minutes in this one, could have just chalked it up as another road loss. But they did come back, got goals from the players who have to contribute on a consistent basis, then had Tomas Vokoun turn away five shots on goal in the last 90 seconds to help seal the come-from-behind win. Instead of skating off with no points, they got two, and it got the Caps started on a 13-7-2 record leading into the All-Star break.

Cheerless: Cuz, you gotta be kidding. Ottawa? I look at a game where the Caps lost two in a row, three of their last four, were coming home with three of their top Young Guns on the bench, their top scorer taking the ice being a defenseman, their top two goal scorers for the season that night being a couple of grinders – Jason Chimera and Troy Brouwer, two rookies in the lineup, a couple of others (Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle) with less than a hundred games of experience apiece.

And who do they get? A team with a plus-gazillion goal differential for the season and a goalie with a goals-against average you’d need a magnifying glass to see. Unless you were a player or a coach, or maybe Slapshot, you already chalked up the January 24th game against the Boston Bruins as a no-point night. But the Caps beat the Bruins, 5-3, and went into the All-Star break maybe feeling a little better about themselves. If they make the playoffs by two points, then these two points – two they had no business to expect – will have been the most important ones.

Peerless: Hey, Cheerless, I had the Caps in that Boston game, too. And I even had the Caps scoring five goals…

Fearless: Bragging is unseemly, cousin…

Peerless: Well, since Cheerless took the Boston game for two points the Caps had no business getting, I’ll take a game that they got two points in for how they can – and have to – play when motivated. December 28th against the Rangers. New York came to Washington feeling all fat and happy with a five-game winning streak, sitting on top of the Eastern Conference, being the toast of New York hockey. The Caps? Losers of two in a row, three of four, and four of their last six games. Even with the Rangers starting backup goalie Martin Biron, they had to be considered a favorite.

The Caps and Rangers traded goals in the first period, but then the Caps squeezed. They got goals from Troy Brouwer and Alexander Semin less than three minutes apart in the second period and went off after 40 minutes with a 3-1 lead and having held the Rangers to only 17 shots on goal. The Caps went into a defensive shell around Tomas Vokoun in the third and frustrated the Rangers, who failed to score on any of their first 14 shots of the period. Then Alexander Semin scored to ice things, Vokoun turned away one more shot for his 31st save on 32 shots, and the Caps had a 4-1 win.


Now let’s turn that on its head… If the Caps miss the playoffs by one or two points, what game in the first half to you think will be the one that did them in, the one game in which they should have come out with two points and didn’t?

Cheerless: October 27th in Edmonton. The Caps were 7-0-0, starting their first western road trip. The big game would be in Vancouver, but the Caps had that stop in Edmonton first. And it looked good early. The Caps outshot the Oilers, 7-1, in the first 11 minutes and got a goal by Karl Alzner, of all people, to take a 1-0 lead. But then the offense shut down for the rest of the period. Edmonton got a late 4-on-3 power play goal from Taylor Hall to tie things up, and whatever momentum the Caps had in the first ten minutes was pretty much gone in the last ten. The Caps had a flat second period, getting only two shots on goal in the first 11 minutes. Jordan Eberle scored a power play goal at 12:44 to give the Oilers the lead. After that, Edmonton left it in the hands of goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who had given up only five goals on 134 shots coming into this game, and that was enough. The Caps never regained the momentum they had early, even if they would get 19 shots on goal in the third period. It shouldn’t have come to that; this was a game the Caps should have won. The Caps seemed to be peeking ahead, and when they lost momentum after having it early, they squandered two points.

Fearless: You could end this conversation by picking an Islander game, and you would have choices. I’d take the game on November 5th. The Caps lost both games of that western road trip to Edmonton and Vancouver, but the won their next two, scoring five goals in each in games against Anaheim and Carolina. They were in the second half of a road back-to-back on Long Island, but they jumped on the Islanders for a pair of goals in the first period – one by Joel Ward, the other by Alex Ovechkin. But the Caps gave away their advantage in the second period, letting the Islanders tie things up while getting only seven shots on Islander goalie Rick DiPietro.

Again, and just like in that Edmonton game – momentum taken, then given away. And the Caps could not get it back. They did trade goals in the first half of the third period, but PA Parenteau gave the Islanders a 4-3 lead with less than two minutes left, they John Tavares iced it with an empty netter. The Islanders, muddling along with a 3-5-2 record coming into this game, took away a win from the Caps – a team with a 9-2-0 record entering this contest – that the Caps might regret down the road. Parenthetically, since he had a goal in that game, Joel Ward has had but one in 35 games since.

Peerless: It would be easy to pick the other ugly loss to the Islanders, the 3-0 shutout on January 17th, or even the 3-0 loss in Carolina three days later. But we are going with the 5-1 loss to Buffalo on November 26th. This was not a game that the Caps might regret for the two points in this game that they forfeited, but what it revealed about the team that laid bare the fact that they might not be the sum of their parts. The Sabres came into this game having lost three in a row, four of five, and five of their previous seven games. What is more, they were missing nine regulars from their lineup, forcing coach Lindy Ruff to patch together a lineup from spare parts and call-ups from the AHL.

The Caps lost five of seven, themselves, but surely against a patchwork lineup – one missing top goalie Ryan Miller, to boot – they would be able to muster enough to leave with a win. But Buffalo jumped on the Caps early with a pair of goals in the first period. Then they shrugged off a penalty shot goal from Jason Chimera in the second by getting a goal of their own. The two goals in the third period for the Sabres, the last coming on a shorthanded goal by Jochen Hecht, made for an embarrassing night for the Capitals. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom each were on the ice for four goals against (each finishing minus-4). The top line managed five shots on goal, one more than Mike Knuble had on his own. They turned Jhonas Enroth – a decent goalie (7-3-1, 2.40, .922 going into that game) – into a great one, shutting out the Caps save for a penalty shot. And they did this against a team that was not far above a good AHL squad in talent with the injuries decimating the Sabres. They didn’t give the two points away, they presented them to the Sabres on a silver platter. And it would be the last game Bruce Boudreau coached for the Capitals.

We have other things to cover, but that will have to wait for the next time.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Cousins of the Roundtable, Part I

The All Star Game break is a time to step back, take stock, reflect, and ponder. As the brightest stars gather in Ottawa to celebrate hockey this weekend, the cousins and I have a chance to take a look at the Capitals – where they have come from in their first 48 games, where they stand, and where they might be going as the league’s 30 teams start their sprint to the finish of the season.

“In other words, you couldn’t procure tickets to the All Star Game…”

Pretty much, Fearless. But let’s get started...

The Caps made some significant roster changes from last season. Jeff Halpern, Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik, Troy Brouwer, and Tomas Vokoun. Who has made the biggest contribution so far?

Fearless: One might not have thought so, perhaps, in the first 20 games, but I would go with Roman Hamrlik. True, he is on track to have his lowest goals and points totals of his career, and he had a difficult start – 1-0-1, minus-10 in his first 22 games, but since the coaching change he is 0-6-6, plus-9 in his last 22 games. But more than that, with Mike Green out, Jeff Schultz benched, a rookie – Dmitry Orlov – getting a lot of playing time, John Carlson in a funk, and the Caps resorting to bringing up Tomas Kundratek to help shore things up, Hamrlik has turned back into what folks might have expected when he was acquired – a steadying influence on the blue line, the kind of defenseman who won’t excite, but who will be consistent.

Cheerless: You forgetting about Tomas Vokoun, cuz? He’s had a season a little like Hamrlik’s – sucked early, great late. If you look at his first 22 games, ending with a four goals on 21 shots in 40 minutes performance against the Flyers that got him benched in favor of Michal Neuvirth, he was 12-8-0, .907, 2.81. He was played less like “Tomas Vokoun” – the goalie who didn’t have a save percentage for a full season since the lockout below .919 – and more like your garden variety $1.5 million goalie. But in 13 games since he returned to the lineup, he is 8-4-0, 2.17, .931. Only twice in that span has he allowed more than three goals and only three times has stopped fewer than 90 percent of the shots he faced in a game. Over the last month, as Vokoun goes, so go the Caps.

Peerless: I’m going to put in a plug for Troy Brouwer here. Of all the new acquisitions, he has been consistently as advertised – he hits, he goes into tough places, he will mix it up and agitate, and he is on a pace to set a career best in goals (24). Five of the 14 goals he has so far are game-winners, and that leads the club. I'm a little surprised at his versatility, or at least his being applied to different situations.  He has been able to contribute to a scoring line or to a checking line. He is fourth among forwards in shorthanded ice time; he gets almost as much power play time (2:06 per game) as Alexander Semin (2:26). He is much like Brooks Laich in his ability to play in a variety of situations, but with more of an edge to his game.

OK, guys, what surprised you most in the first half of the season?

Cheerless: Ovi. Not in a good way, either. Not for all this All Star Game crap. That is going to be forgotten by next weekend. It’s just that when he came to camp in September, it all looked like it would come back together for him. He looked like he was in better shape than last year; he looked like he had more focus than he had too often last season. He even though he had a decent start to the season -- 5-4-9 in his first nine games – it wasn’t any better than the start he had last season (4-5-9). Then, in his tenth game, he got benched for that last shift in regulation against Anaheim. In his next 12 games he had three goals, the Caps went 4-7-1, and his coach got fired. In 25 games since Bruce Boudreau left, he is 12-10-22, so he seems to be getting some of his game back. But keep in mind that after 47 games last season he was 16-30-46. This year, he is 20-19-39.

Fearless: John Carlson. Perhaps young defensemen are more prone to ups and downs early in their careers than forwards, but Carlson has had a curious season. The optics of his play give the impression he lacks awareness. Only five defensemen in the league have been on the ice for more goals (he was tied for 88th last season; and among the 30 defensemen playing all 82 games, only four were on the ice for fewer goals). What is especially confounding about his play is that he looks a bit lost in the system Dale Hunter is employing. He played for Hunter at London for a season and put up fine numbers (16-60-76, plus-23, in 59 games). He is only 1-10-11, minus-5 since Hunter took over and 0-4-4, minus-8 in his last 21 games.

Peerless: Dale Hunter. There is a bright line between the responsibilities of player and that of coach, between those who toil and those who manage. But we would have thought this team might have taken on a bit more of the Hunter personality as player. We don’t mean the nasty, sharp-elbowed, in your face personality of Hunter the player, but the simple matter of aggressiveness. The Caps have been – are, as a matter of fact – a quite passive team offensively. They have been consistently and significantly out-shot, out-attempted, and out-chanced by their opponents since the change behind the bench. The Caps have gone 19 straight games without more than 30 shots on goal; they have topped 20 in only three of their last seven games. I don’t think anyone would confuse Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter in terms of approach, but I don’t know that anyone might have expected this team to struggle so much in terms of puck possession and the ability to generate offense from it.

Well have more from the cousins and the roundtable in the next edition.

“Cuz, why do they call it a roundtable when we’re sitting at keyboards?”

Save it for next time, Cheerless…

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Ovechkin Redemption

An old con turned minor league hockey player ambles into a locker room. Red finds Ovi sitting against the wall, listlessly taping his sticks. Red waits for some acknowledgment. Ovi doesn't even look up. Red hunkers down and joins him. Nothing is said for the longest time. And then, softly:

Ovi: My old coach used to say I'm a hard man to know. Like a closed book. Complained about it all the time…He was sick, unbelievable. I love him. But I guess I couldn't show it enough... I didn’t win for him, Red. Because of me, the way I am.

Red: That don't make you a bad kid. Immature, maybe. Feel bad about it if you want. But wasn’t just you that didn’t win for him.

Ovi: No. I didn't. We all did, but I wound up here, taping sticks during All Star Game; suspended; hockey writers writing bad things about me. Bad luck, I guess.

Red: Bad luck? Jesus.

Ovi: It floats around. Has to land on somebody. Say storm comes through. Some folks sit in their living rooms and enjoy the rain. The house next door gets torn out of the ground and smashed flat. It was my turn, that's all. I was in the path of Shanny. I just had no idea the suspension would be as long as it is... Think you'll ever get out of there?

Red: To the NHL? Sure. When I got a long white beard and about three marbles left rolling around upstairs.

Ovi: Tell you where I'd go. Stanley Cup finals.

Red: Stanley Cup finals?

Ovi: In June. Downtown. You know what hockey writers say about the Stanley Cup finals? They say it is sick…unbelievable. That's where I'd like to finish out my season, Red. A loud finals that is sick, unbelievable. Score a couple goals. Win games. Get Cup from Commissioner and skate around... You know, a place like that, I'd need a man who can get me puck; you know, since Nicky’s hurt.

Red: Jesus, Ovi. I couldn't hack it up there. Been down here too long. I'm an AHL institutional man now. Like old Bruce Boudreau was in his playing days.

Ovi: You underestimate yourself.

Red: Bullshit. Down here I'm the guy who can get the puck to you. Up there, all you need are Nicky and Greenie, and maybe Sasha. I wouldn't know where to begin. Stanley Cup final? Hell. Like to scare me to death, somethin' that big.

Ovi: Not me. I didn't hit Michalek that hard, and I didn't have a tantrum about All-Star Game, and whatever mistakes I made I've paid for and then some. That finals and that Cup...I don't think it's too much to want. To take it back to Russia for a couple of days. Touch the names on it. Drink in the water from it. Feel free.

Red: Goddamn it, Ovi, stop! Don't do that to yourself! Talking shitty pipedreams! The finals are out there, and you're in here, doing your time, and that's the way it is!

Ovi: You're right. It's out there, and I'm in here. I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy winning or get busy dying.

(with apologies to Stephen King and his fine story, "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," and Frank Darabont and his wonderful script of "The Shawshank Redemption")

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A TWO-point night -- Game 48: Capitals 5 - Bruins 3


Head wear was the choice of fashion last night at Verizon Center as Mathieu Perreault recorded a hat trick in the Washington Capitals’ unexpected and unlikely 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins. It was a classic case of a player stepping up when adversity presented an opportunity. With Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green out due to injury, and with Alex Ovechkin taking a seat in the first game of a three-game suspension, the Capitals looked as if they would be offense-challenged against a formidable opponent.

And early on it looked as if Boston would make good on the formidable part. Boston recorded the first seven shot attempts and the first five shots on goal. The Caps did not get their first shot on goal until the 6:49 mark. The shots were 9-2 almost 12 minutes into the period. But even though Boston would draw first blood on a goal by Rich Peverley with 2:14 left in the first period, the Caps had started to tilt the ice in the other direction. They finished the first period with more shot attempts than did the Bruins, 22-20, although they were on the short side in shots on goal, 12-10.

The hard work that ended the first period yielded dividends in the second period as twice within 41 seconds in the period’s third minute, the Caps scored on rushes. First it was Cody Eakin taking a pass from Joel Ward at the Boston blue line, then cutting between Steven Kampfer and Adam McQuaid to take the puck through the left win circle. He snapped the puck at goalie Tuukka Rask, who appeared to trap the puck between his right arm and body, but the puck trickled through. Rask then nudged the puck backward with his blocker so that it bounced over the line to tie the game.

Mathieu Perreault scored 41 seconds later when he worked a nice give-and-go with Alexander Semin, finishing the play with a quick snap shot past a lunging Tuukka Rask. After Tyler Seguin knotted things up again, Perreault took advantage of two mistakes by the Bruins in the neutral zone. First, Johnny Boychuk tried to throw a blind cross-ice pass with a teammate blocking his view. The pass made it only so far as Perreault’s stick. And as Perreault was starting to move the puck the other way, Zdeno Chara was caught backing up to the faceoff dot on the left wing, opening up the middle of the ice. Perreault jumped into the hole and used his speed to outrace Chara and Boychuk to the slot. Perreault had easy pickings on Rask with no defenders back to give the Caps a 3-2 barely lead two minutes after Seguin’s goal.

Brad Marchand tied it once more on a power play at 17:42 of the second period, the teams played back and forth through the first half of the last period. But Roman Hamrlik did a fine job of keeping the puck in the offensive zone in the period’s eighth minute. He fired on net, where Rask made the first save. But defensemen Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid lost Perreault in the noise, and Perreault was left all alone in front to swat in the rebound, and it was Les Chapeaux Perreault. Dennis Wideman added an empty netter with 27 seconds left, and the win was complete.

Other stuff…

-- OK, it wasn’t Boston’s best effort. With rare exceptions, they looked as if they mailed it in after the first ten minutes. But give the Caps some credit. The line of Mathieu Perreault, Alexander Semin, and Marcus Johansson was 3-2-5, plus-6. Maybe that’s a second line when things settled down in a few weeks. Or maybe it’s a one-and-done thing. But it did look good last night.

-- The line of Cody Eakin, Jay Beagle, Joel Ward was 1-2-3, plus-2, and managed five shot attempts, which was not bad for a line that averaged less than 10 minutes of ice time per player.

-- Three goals off what were essentially cases of rushes coming off neutral zone pressure (Eakin, the first two by Perreault). Is this still in the Caps’ playbook?

-- The other side of that is that Boston’s defensemen, almost without exception, gave the Caps too much room entering the offensive zone, backing off and leaving themselves in poor position to defend or block shots.

-- Brad Marchand might be the “little ball of hate” (a nickname we though had already been taken), but the line of Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, and Matt Hendricks was sort of the “Line of Lumps.” They had only one point (an assist by Brouwer on the Wideman empty netter), but they managed 11 shot attempts, a combined nine hits, and four blocked shots. They earned their pay, although all of them were on for a Boston goal (Hendricks and Brouwer on the Seguin goal, Laich for the Marchand power play goal).

-- Territory continues to be a problem area. There were 25 faceoffs in the Boston offensive end (13 wins for the Caps), 11 in the Caps’ offensive end (four Caps wins).

-- You might expect that with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green out, that the Caps’ power play would struggle. It did, even though they had only one. They had no shots on goal in their two minutes of man advantage.

-- Boston outshot the Caps 32-23, but five of the Bruin shots came from Dan Paille, tied for the team lead. We think the Caps will take that.

-- Eleven of the 32 Bruin shots came from defensemen. They generate a lot of activity from their blueliners. The Bruins had three assists from the defense (two for Dennis Seidenberg, one for Steven Kampfer).

-- Tomas Vokoun was not at his sharpest, but in fairness, the Bruins did do a pretty good job of breaking the Caps’ defense down in deep to give the Bruins advantages in numbers in close.

In the end, this was a good win. Few would have though the Caps could win this game, let along finish the night with five goals against a goalie with a goals-against average well south of 2.00 coming into this one. Mathieu Perreault, a player who recorded 93 goals in three years of Canadian juniors, has no doubt had hat tricks before. But he sure picked a good game to get his first hat trick in the NHL. He did it using the skills he has – speed and quickness, and a certain fearlessness to mingle with big bodies in close, despite his slight build. These are things he can contribute on a more regular basis. That is not to say he is suddenly going to be a hat trick machine, but with the Caps struggling and missing key parts, his contributions are going to be important. Last night we saw what those kinds of contributions can mean.

(Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Transcript You Didn't Get to Read

Those pepperoni, anchovy, and marshmallow fluff pizzas did their work again last night.  The dreams, the dreams.  Now we're seeing Brendan Shanahan...

Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh, an incident occurred during the game between the Penguins and the Washington Capitals. At 8:27 of the second period, Pittsburgh defenseman Zbynek Michalek and forward Matt Hendricks of the Washington Capitals were chasing a loose puck in the Washington end of the ice. Michalek trailed Hendricks on the play, and as the players arrived at the puck, Michalek lifted his elbow and forearm to the back of Hendricks’ head and propelled him into the end glass. This is elbowing.

As the video shows, Michalek has Hendricks lined up for what could and should be a clean and hard body check. However, he uses his elbow to deliver a hit on Hendricks. This is a violation of the elbowing rule, which states: 'The referee, at his discretion, may assess a minor penalty, based on the degree of violence, to a player guilty of elbowing an opponent.” The referee exercised his discretion and called Michalek for elbowing Hendricks.

Although both players are pursuing the puck, the act of elbowing causes contact to Hendrick’s neck and head. Some interpretations of the video record indicate that as Michalek closed in on Hendricks, his knee hit Hendricks’ leg and caused Michalek to lose balance and lurch into Hendricks. It is as good an explanation as any.

Often when players are competing for or racing a loose puck, a violent collision will ensue as a result. This is one of those occasions. The fact that Michalek’s elbow made contact with Hendricks’ head was incidental to the play, and besides, in addition to “losing balance,” a situation I encountered often as a player (wink), as Michalek himself noted, “I know that I made a bad play and maybe I was still a little bit mad about the hit before [from Alex Ovechkin]. That’s how it is.”

There are occasions when violent collisions, even ones involving elbows in an opponent’s neck and head, just happen. That’s how it is. There also are occasions when a player is fresh from a hit he has taken, and takes out his anger on an opponent when the opportunity presents itself, either intentionally or unintentionally. That’s how it is.

We accept Michalek’s assertion that, “that’s how it is.” This absolves Michalek of any further responsibility for any contact to the head. It is important to note that Michalek has never been suspended by the league for prior transgressions or violations of the rules. He is not a repeat offender. Having been absolved as an offender in this instance, he cannot be a “repeat offender” if he should be involved in a similar incident in the future. On the other hand, Matt Hendricks is a tough guy and should just have just rubbed some spit on it and skated off.

To summarize: The players were competing for a loose puck. Michalek trailed the play and, as the players arrived at the puck, Michalek’s knee struck Hendricks’ leg, causing Michalek to lose balance and lurch forward, elbowing Hendricks in the back of the head and neck. Michalek was called for a penalty. However, he has never been suspended by the league and thus is not a “repeat offender.” We did not think the incident was much of a penalty, for that matter.

The department of player safety has decided against suspending Zbynek Michalek for his elbowing Matt Hendricks.

That’s how it is.

We Are No-Go for "Launch"

“Repeat Offender”

That was the headline on tsn.ca with a photo of Alex Ovechkin sitting on the bench, leaning over the railing of the boards and watching play. All that was missing was a set of cell bars PhotoShopped into the image.

Alex Ovechkin was give a three-game suspension yesterday by Brendan Shanahan, Senior Vice President for Player Safety and Hockey Operations for the NHL, for Ovechkin’s hit on Zbynek Michalek during last Sunday’s game between the Caps and the Pittsburgh Penguins. This is Ovechkin’s third suspension for excessively violent hits on players. The first came on December 1, 2009 -- a two game suspension for a knee-on-knee hit to Carolina's Tim Gleason. The second came on March 15, 2010 – another two-game suspension for was was called a "reckless" hit for boarding defenseman Brian Campbell in a game between the Caps and the Chicago Blackhawks.

Shanahan cited three factors in his decision to suspend Ovechkin. First, that the act constituted “charging” under Rule 42, which states: “A minor or major penalty shall be imposed on a player who skates into of jumps into or charges into an opponent in any manner.” Ovechkin was not penalized by the on-ice referees during the game for charging on the play (although in our opinion he should have been).

There can be little doubt that the collision between Ovechkin and Michalek was violent. The issue, though, is whether the hit constituted “charging” under the rule. If there is a tendency for some players to “embellish” calls on the ice to try to draw a penalty, the league should be considered of being guilty of “embellishment” in this instance to sell a decision. Shanahan used the word “launch,” or a variation of it, six times in a 409 word statement announcing the decision.

Ask yourself, which of the two verbs, “jump” (which is used in the rule) or “launch” – the verb of choice for Shanahan – is the more pejorative. Note that Shanahan does not used the verb “jump” except to recite the rule.  The word "launch" does not appear in the NHL rule book.

The second factor in Shanahan’s decision is apparently a mitigating one; Michalek suppered no apparent injury on the play. This is the 26th in-season suspension meted out by Shanahan this season, the average length being slightly more than three games (a high of eight games to Edmonton’s Andy Sutton for charging and a low of one that was given to three different players). This should be considered an “average” suspension in the Shanahan body of work. But that is after the mitigating circumstance of Michalek’s physical condition after the hit that presumably shave some number of games off what the nature of the hit merited on its own. Well, was it the nature of the hit that presumably merited more games, absent the state of Michalek’s health? Shanahan’s statement notes that “Although Michalek's shoulder might be the initial point of contact for this hit, the act of launching causes contact to Michalek's head (there is that verb, “launch,” again).”

This was not a head shot of the sort that, say, Rene Bourque received five games for – a suspension that did not have the mitigating factor of Nicklas Backstrom’s not being injured on the play (Backstrom has not returned to the lineup since that hit in a game on January 3rd; he has missed nine games). Was Ovechkin’s hit, absent the mitigating factor of Michalek’s returning to the game (and later inflicting his own hit on Capital Matt Hendricks that was reviewed by the league), the equivalent of Bourque’s hit on the merits in the league’s eyes? If one believes that Ovechkin caught a break because Michalek was not injured, then that would seem a reasonable conclusion. It would be hard to equate an elbow to the side of the head with a hit in which the first point of contact was the shoulder, though.

Third, Shanahan noted that Ovechkin has a “supplemental discipline history.” This is fun with words. The NHL does not consider Ovechkin a “repeat offender” because he has not been disciplined by the league in the past 18 months. But the fact that he has prior offenses weighs in the decision to apply a suspension and/or to settle on the number of games to be served. Either prior transgressions are, or they are not a factor. The “repeat offender” tag and the “statute of limitations” attaching to it would appear to have little, if any meaning.

The wild card in this is the fact that the Washington-Pittsburgh game was televised to a national audience in the U.S. During that telecast, the hit was replayed several times with voice-over commentary on what was wrong about the hit. We understand that this is the job of analysts such as Ed Olczyk and Pierre McGuire, who offered their own takes on the hit during those replays. But the commentary was lacking on Michalek’s hit later in the contest on Matt Hendricks when he elbowed Hendricks in the back of the neck and drove him into the boards. The worst that could be said of that incident in the commentary was that it was “pretty graphic” in the words of McGuire. Otherwise, it was treated as a garden variety elbowing penalty (for which Michalek was charged).

On balance, stripping away all the words, all the terms like “repeat offender” and “supplemental discipline history,” even who was involved, we are left with the act itself. Was a player hitting another player shoulder first upon leaving his feet (which the player did, in fact, do), then riding up and making contact with the opponent’s head, a penalty? We would think so. Hockey is played at high speed, and watching replays in slow motion do not do justice to the manner in which decision have to be made in the blink of an eye. But we think Ovechkin had sufficient time and space to either avoid the hit or to merely let Michalek know that he was there with a less violent hit. Was it a suspendable offense? If you are of a mind that the NHL is and should be trying to take collisions involving contact with the head out of the game, then a reasonable person could conclude that this hit was suspendable. But there is a curious sliding scale being imposed in these decisions, and two hits serve to make the point. Not coincidentally, they involve the same team.

In one instance, a player elbows another in the head and is a repeat offender in the eyes of the league (having been suspended only 16 days before this incident). The player is injured and has yet to return to the lineup. In the other incident, a player checks – charges into, if you will – another player into the boards without initial contact involving the head, is not a “repeat offender,” and the opponent does not miss a shift to injury.

If you take out the injury variable and the fact that the league apparently treats the terms “repeat offender” and “supplemental discipline history” interchangeably, it would appear that the Rene Bourque hit on Nicklas Backstrom and that of Alex Ovechkin on Zbynek Michalek are essentially one and the same. We beg to differ, and it makes one wonder if the league has improved itself in applying penalties consistently for the same offenses, or if it has merely settled on consistent length-of-suspension for hits that are very different, merely adjusting for whether the victim of a hit returns to the game. For the record, we probably would have given Ovechkin a game, but we will acknowledge that we see that through the red, white, and blue eyes of a Caps fan. Nevertheless, consistency seems still to be an issue with these things.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 48: Bruins at Capitals: January 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Somewhere up there, in the great hockey beyond, there is a ledger. And the person keeping it is a Boston Bruins fan. On it, they have one entry:

March 3, 2008. Washington 10 – Boston 2

And that person has been waiting for this day. It isn’t bad enough that the Boston Bruins, a team averaging almost a goal and a half more per game than their opponents and is scoring goals at 5-on-5 at an almost two-to-one clip over their opponents, is coming to Verizon Center to take on the Washington Capitals, losers of three of their last four games.

No, that would make the Bruins merely a “favorite” to win Tuesday’s matchup in Washington. The Caps will be missing three of their four “Young Guns” for this game. Nicklas Backstrom is still out with lingering effects from an elbow to the head offered by Rene Bourque. Mike Green is recuperating from sports hernia surgery. And now, Alex Ovechkin will be sitting out Tuesday’s game as a result of a decision handed down by Brendan Shanahan to suspend the winger for three games after his hit on Zbynek Michalek in Sunday’s game in Pittsburgh. That is almost 28 percent of all the goals scored by the Caps this season on the shelf against a team that ranks first in scoring and third in defense in the league.

Boston could start a top line of Tyler Seguin, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand, a trio that has 49 goals among them. The Caps might start a top line of Mathieu Perreault, Mike Knuble, and Alexander Semin (if Semin takes Ovechkin’s place on the top line that faced Pittsburgh). That trio has 19 goals among them, one more than Seguin has by himself.

As the teams prepare for Tuesday’s game, here is how their numbers look:

Yeah, that guy with the ledger has been waiting for this.

1. Boston is 16-1 in games decided by three of more goals. This is an amazing record until one realizes that in 46 games the Bruins have allowed three or more goals only 18 times (the Caps have done so 25 times). The only team to beat Boston by at least three goals? Carolina, in a 4-1 win in Boston on October 18th.

2. The Bruins are actually in a slump – 3-2-1 in their last six games and two of the wins came in a Gimmick. Both losses in regulation time came to teams from the Southeast Division – Carolina and Tampa Bay.

3. Boston’s power play is in a slump, too. In their last nine games, the Bruins are 4-for-32 (12.5 percent). You might think that their penalty killers are in a slump, too. They are 27-for-36 (75.0 percent) over those same nine games. But seven of the nine power play goals allowed came in two games – four of them in a 4-3 loss to Vancouver on January 7th and the other three in a 6-5 trick shot loss to Philadelphia in their last game, last Sunday.

4. Boston does not have a 20-goal scorer, but they do have seven players in double digits. They don’t have a 30-assist player, but they do have six with at least 20. The Bruins have 10 players with at least 20 points; they have 13 players who are at plus-10 or better… the Caps have one (Karl Alzner).

5. The Bruins even do the little things well. No Bruin having taken more than 250 faceoffs this season (there are five players in that group) has a winning percentage below 53 percent. But here are some things to think about… Boston is 25th in the league in hits (one might think a team with their reputation for toughness would have more). They are 24th in blocked shots, yet have allowed the fifth most shots per game in the league (maybe they just let their goalies get good looks at shots).

1. If you think of shots on goal against and shots blocked taken together as “shots defended,” the Caps have defended the tenth-highest number of average shots so far this season (45.5 per game). Only three of the nine teams defending more shots are currently playoff-eligible (New York Rangers, Nashville, and Ottawa).

2. Remember that 10-2 win over Boston? Dennis Wideman was there… for the B’s, that is. Stranger thing – he had a goal, and former Cap Marco Sturm had the other goal for Boston in that game.

3. That 10-2 game was played on March 3, 2008. Only three of the 20 Caps dressed for that game are likely to be in this one – John Erskine, Brooks Laich, and Alexander Semin. Three of the four Caps to record three-point games in that contest are gone – Matt Bradley, Eric Fehr, and Matt Cooke. The other one – Alex Ovechkin – will be taking a seat courtesy of Brendan Shanahan.

4. How long ago is that 10-2 game in hockey time? Tom Poti actually played in it (23 minutes, two assists, plus-3). Donald Brashear actually had a goal in it (oh, and two fighting majors). Tim Thomas was pulled, not once, but twice.

5. Washington is one of only five teams that have not scored a shorthanded goal at home. The others are: Tampa Bay, the Islanders, Calgary and… Detroit? Yup, Detroit.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Boston: Rich Peverley

Hidden among the Chara’s and the Seguin’s and the Lucic’s’s’s is Rich Peverley, a player of modest accomplishments (67 goals and 183 points in 316 career NHL games), but who seems to have a knack against the Caps. In 17 career games against Washington, Peverley is 5-8-13 and has scored on both the power play and while shorthanded. Last year he faced the Caps six times and was 2-3-5 in those games, his highest point total against any team. He comes into this game on a three-game points streak and is 3-11-14 in his last 14 games.

Washington: Alexander Semin

OK, it’s up to you to keep the Young Gun flame alive, Alexander. He is certainly capable; he is 7-9-16, plus-11 in his last 16 games, playing with a Whitman’s Sampler of linemates. And, eight of his 12 goals this season have come at Verizon Center. He has not had much success goal-scoring against Boston in his career – four goals in 18 games, but interestingly enough, he does have six power play assists in those 18 games. Against Boston on Tuesday, Semin is going to have to do more on his own if the Caps are going to fight through the absences of other players from the lineup.


1. Simplicity. You can almost hear the late Herb Brooks… “Cuteness? Gentlemen, you don’t have enough cuteness to win on cuteness alone.” Certainly this Caps team doesn’t (as if they did when completely healthy). The only reliable skill player they will have in this lineup is Alexander Semin, and by “reliable,” we mean he’s actually scored more than 30 goals in a season a few times. A team that is going to have Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Jason Chimera, and maybe Mike Knuble playing big chunks of minutes has to keep things simple. Get pucks to the net, pounce on pucks at the net, put pucks in the net.

2. Volume. The Caps troubles in getting shots on goal in the last month has been well-chronicled. But on the other side, Tim Thomas is facing almost 32 shots per 60 minutes, a higher number than you might think for a goalie on what might be the best team in the league. The Bruins are a team that will allow shots to get to the net. The Caps have to get them there.

3. Outside-in. If you look at the Caps, 13 of their top 15 shooters are forwards. The Bruins do things a little differently. Four of their top six shooters are defensemen. All of them – Zdeno Chara, Joe Corvo, Johnny Boychuk, and Dennis Seidenberg – have more than 90 shots. Only five Cap skaters have more than 90 shots. The Capitals will have to defend “outside-in” or at least prevent the Bruins from getting second chances when the defensemen get pucks to the net.

In the end, let’s do a little comparing. Boston has 28 goals at 5-on-4, the Caps have 25. Not much difference there. Washington has three goals at 5-on-3, Boston has two. Washington has ten goals at 4-on-4, Boston has five. Washington has two goals at 4-on-3, Boston has none. At something other than full and even strength, these teams are roughly comparable. But at 5-on-5… Boston has 118 goals (best in the league), Washington has 84. And on top of that, Boston has allowed only 64 goals at 5-on-5 (second best in the league), while the Caps have allowed 87. Boston plays an average of about 80 percent of their games at even strength. And the Caps will be facing that team with an offense that isn’t many rungs above an AHL roster at the moment. This is the magnitude of the challenge the Caps face. One would have to be of questionable sanity to think the Caps had even a glimmer of a chance in this one.

Well, question away…

Capitals 5 – Bruins 4

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A ONE-point night -- Game 47: Penguins 4 - Capitals 3 (OT)

The sun has risen in the east a trillion or so days in a row. Someday, that streak will end. All other streaks come to an end much sooner than that. So it was that the Washington Capitals saw their eight-game winning streak it the city of Pittsburgh end with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Penguins this afternoon.

Evgeni Malkin scored the game-winner when he took a puck that rebounded off the end boards and snapped it over Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth 1:31 into the extra session. Before Malkin's goal, it was a game the Caps were going to lose ugly, then win valiantly, but ended up losing frustratingly. The ugly part came early as the Penguins got off to a 2-0 lead less than six minutes into the game on goals by Kris Letang and James Neal on the second and fourth shots for the Penguins.

But the Caps made a game of it in the second period on goals by Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin. When Alex Ovechkin scored barely a minute into the third period, it looked as if the Caps would extend their winning streak in Pittsburgh to nine. But that lasted about six minutes when James Neal got his second goal of the game to tie things up and set the stage for Malkin’s game-winner in overtime.

Other stuff…

-- The eight-game winning streak the Caps had in Pittsburgh before this game tied a Penguin franchise record for consecutive wins by an opponent in Pittsburgh. A ninth would have left the Caps all alone with that record.

-- The goal and two assists was Ovechkin’s first three-point game of the season. It is the latest, by far, that he has gone into a season without a three-point game. He had never failed to record a three-point game before December 31st in any season before this, and this was the first time since the 2006-2007 season that he did not do it at least once in the first ten games of the season.

-- It might be the last chance Ovechkin gets to post a three-point game for a while. One supposes that his hit on Zbynek Michalek early in the second period will be looked at by the league and that a video message from Brendan Shanahan might be forthcoming. We did, however, find Pierre McGuire’s breathless commentary on the hit a bit over the top, though.

-- Another game, another finish without topping 20 shots. The Caps had just 20 shots, the fourth time in their last six games they have not had more than 20 shots. They did break a streak of ten periods without reaching the ten shot mark. They had 10 shots in the second period of this game. The Penguins out-attempted the Caps, 72-50. The had more shots (27), more shots blocked (25), and as many misses (20) as the Caps had shots on goal.

-- Another disturbing trend. The Caps allowed the Penguins five power play opportunities this afternoon. Since holding the Penguins without a power play opportunity when they beat Pittsburgh, 1-0, on January 11th, the Caps have allowed teams five or more power play opportunities four times in six games and are 2-1-1 in those games. It is also the fifth time in those six games that the Caps have allowed a power play goal (23-for-30; 76.7 percent).

-- On the other side, the Caps had four power play chances without success. That makes 19 straight games they have not had as many as five power play opportunities. And, since going two-for-four against Tampa on January 13th, the Caps are 1-for-15 on the power play (6.7 percent).

-- The Caps are still having difficulty starting plays at the offensive end of the ice. There were 16 faceoffs in the offensive end for the Caps (nine wins; 56.3 percent) and 26 faceoffs in the defensive end (10 wins; 38.5 percent).

-- Dale Hunter leaned heavily of Brooks Laich this afternoon. Laich led everyone on the ice for both teams in ice time (27:57), had more than four minutes of power play time, more than three minutes of penalty killing time (his 7”12 in special teams time being by far the most of any player for either team), and took 39 of the 60 draws in the game for the Caps. He had a goal, four shots, seven attempts, three hits, and two blocked shots. The bad news…he was on the ice for each of the Penguins’ four goals.  Laich is now tied for the third highest number of goals scored against/on ice in the league.  Only Eric Staal and Shawn Horcoff have been on ice for more goals scored against.

-- The Caps have had 19 fighting majors this season. Seven of them have come in the last eight games. Today’s contestant was Troy Brouwer (his third of the season), who squared off with Tyler Kennedy.

-- Speaking of penalties, a lot of games have the majority of the infractions called be those of the obstruction variety – holding, interference, tripping. Not so in this one. In addition to the coincidental majors for fighting to Brouwer and Kennedy, there were 11 minor penalties called. Six of them might be termed physical fouls – three for Washington (all cross-checking), three for Pittsburgh (high-sticking, elbowing, slashing).

-- The Caps opened with a top line of Alex Ovechkin, Mathieu Perreault, and Mike Knuble. As a group, they finished the game with four shots on goal and one goal (Perreault and Ovechkin split four assists as well). It was kind of like a meal that seems satisfying at the time, but leaves one hungry for more in short order.

-- The top three centers – Mathieu Perreault, Brooks Laich, Jeff Halpern. The Caps have had trouble with settling on a second line center for years now. Today, everyone played at least one level higher than they probably should have with Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson out.

In the end, one might say that it was a standings point hard-earned, that it was the tenth straight game earning a standings point in Pittsburgh, this one against a hot team. One could point to the fact that the Caps were without two productive centers, one of them being arguably their most valuable player so far this season. But if a team is going to be a Stanley Cup contender, moral victories go only so far. The Caps got behind the eight-ball early and had to scratch and claw to get even and then get a one-goal lead. But a thin team playing on a thin margin is going to have a tough time holding on to that lead after expending that kind of effort, and that is what happened to the Caps this afternoon. And when all is said and done about this, the fact remains that the Caps have played ten games in 2012 and have a record of 5-4-1. They are going to have to do better if they are to ensure that they play hockey past the first week in April.