Friday, January 13, 2012

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 1: "Same Story, Different Year"

We come to the end of the top ten stories of 2011, one that has been repeated with too much frequency in the history of this franchise and one that looms over it still as the race for the playoffs in 2012 unfolds.

In 35 seasons prior to the 2010-2011 season, the Washington Capitals qualified for the post season 21 times. In those 21 playoff years, the Caps advanced past the first round eight times. They advanced past the second round twice. They advanced to the Stanley Cup final once. The post season has been a place littered with disappointments for the Capitals and their fans, none more disappointing than their agonizing first round exit from the playoffs in 2010 as the league’s Presidents’ Trophy winner.

2011 was supposed to be different. The Caps were no longer the too-young and too-inexperienced squad that lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008. They were not the club that came up short in a Game 7 in the second round to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. And they certainly were not the team that succumbed to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 2010 playoffs after taking a 3-1 lead in games in that series.

No, the Caps were a team with elite talent entering their prime, their experience tempered by the disappointment of losing when many felt they should have won. They were a team that had been taught lessons and that had learned them well. They were, as Eastern Conference winners for a second consecutive year, primed for a long run at a Stanley Cup.

But what they were not, was healthy. Nicklas Backstrom sustained what appeared to be a hand injury when he was slashed in a game against Pittsburgh on February 21st. It certainly did seem to be a turning point in his season. To that point, Backstrom was 15-39-54 in 60 games (a 20-53-77 pace). Including that game, Backstrom was 3-9-12 in his last 17 games (a 14-43-57 pace).

Then there was the case of Mike Green. The defenseman enjoyed reasonably good health over the first 50 or so games of the regular season, missing three games to an upper body injury in October 2010, two games to an undisclosed reason in November and two games to the flu in December. Then, in early February, he took a puck fired from the stick of Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik in the side of the head, knocking him out of the contest after only seven minutes of ice time, and he would miss his next game. Green returned to play against Los Angeles On Feburary 12th, but then missed another five games, returning against the Rangers on February 25th. Green lasted 2:25 in that one, leaving the ice after a check into the boards by Ranger Derek Stepan. It would end Green’s regular season with only 49 games played.

Such was the state of the Caps that their best center and their best defenseman were nursing injuries as the playoffs began, but it would be hard to find any playoff team that was not dealing with some physical problems as the playoffs began.

The Caps drew the New York Rangers in the first round, the team they defeated in seven games in the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup tournament. And while there seemed to be little suspense in the outcome – the Caps won the series four games to one – there was in the little things that were harbingers of much larger things to come later.

For instance, the Rangers scored the first goal in three of the first four games of the series (in the fourth – Game 2 – they were shut out). Usually, allowing the first goal is the kiss of death to a team in a hockey game; teams played to a .373 winning percentage (standings points earned of those available) in games in which they allowed the first goal in the regular season. The Caps were, in fact, the best team in the league when allowing the first goal (23-19-5), but still won fewer than half of such games played.

Then there was the matter of the “who.” The Caps scored 13 goals in the five-game series against the Rangers. Six of them were split by players named “Alex” (Ovechkin and Semin). Seventeen other skaters split the other seven goals in that series. Given Semin’s streaky nature and Ovechkin’s being hemmed in for much of the season (32 goals), one might have wondered what could happen if those two had an off night or were taken out of the mix by schemes of a stronger opponent. Certainly the Caps were not getting a lot from the rest of the roster.

And there was the defense. Yes, it was nice to hold the Rangers to eight goals in five games, but the Caps had seen that movie before, too. They allowed the Rangers only 11 goals in the seven-game playoff series in 2009 (seven in the last games, two of which ended in shutouts). The Rangers were not a team to scare anyone with their offensive firepower.

That was the context of the five-game win over the Rangers that served as prelude for the second round series against Tampa Bay. The Lightning were a team against which the Caps had a regular season record of 4-1-1, outscoring Tampa Bay, 18-10. But that overstated the differences between the teams. The Caps won the first two games of the season series by a combined score of 12-3. In the last four games of the series, the Lightning pitched shutouts at the Caps twice, both courtesy of goalie Dwayne Roloson, acquired in a trade with the New York Islanders on January 2nd, seemingly with the Capitals in mind (Roloson had some success against the Caps over his career).

Sure enough, the things that went right for the Caps in the first round vanished in the first game of the second round…

-- Allowing the first goal? Tampa got an early goal from Sean Bergenheim. The Caps would leapfrog the Lightning on goals by Alexander Semin and Eric Fehr, but Tampa Bay stormed back to score the game’s last three goals.

-- The Alexes? Semin had a goal to tie the game less than two minutes after the Bergenheim goal that started the scoring, but it was the only point registered by an “Alex” in this game.

-- Defense? The Rangers had five 20-goal scorers in the regular season, but none (save Marian Gaborik) could be thought of as elite. Only Brandon Dubinsky would score more than one goal (he had two) in the playoff series against the Caps. In Game 1 against Tampa Bay, Steven Stamkos had what would be the game-winning goal with less than a minute left in the second period. Vincent Lecavalier had two assists. This was a deeper offensive team than the Rangers.

And there was Dwayne Roloson frustrating the Caps over the last 38 minutes after Eric Fehr put Washington in front, 2-1, stopping 26 of 28 shots overall.

It would be a formula that the Lightning would follow over each of the first four games. They scored the first goal in each game. The Alexes were held to three goals and three assists in those games; the rest of the roster split seven goals in four games. The big three for Tampa Bay of Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, and Martin St. Louis scored eight of the 16 goals scored by the Lightning in those four games.

And there was Roloson stopping 104 of 114 shots (a .912 save percentage); not spectacular, but solid enough and consistent. He did not allow more than three goals in any of the four games.

Where New York lacked enough offense either to score early or to score often, they could not compete despite having arguably the better goaltender the Caps faced in the form of Henrik Lundqvist. On the other hand, Tampa Bay had more offensive depth, could get and hold a lead, and parlayed steady goaltending into a series sweep in four games.

It left Caps fans with yet another year of disappointment and the Caps with questions. First, did injuries to Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green make the difference in the playoffs? Let us not pretend they did not. These are two of the best players at their positions in the league and certainly the best at their positions on that team. Backstrom’s injury was keenly felt in that he was better than a point-per-game player in 28 career playoff games before last spring (12-18-30) who did not register a goal in nine games and had only two points in nine games overall. Mike Green is important for his ability to move the puck and for his contributions on the power play; the Caps were 2-for-19 in the Tampa Bay series (he played three games but had only an assist and was a minus-1 in each of the games).

Second, did the Caps get enough from the rest of the roster? In nine playoff games, the Alexes, a banged up Nicklas Backstrom, and a just-back-from-injury Mike Green were a combined 10-14-24, plus-1. The other 16 skaters for the Caps scored a total of 13 goals, no one in that group with more than two. By way of comparison, Sean Bergenheim had four goals in the four-game series against the Caps. Tampa Bay had a player on the undercard step up in a big way. Washington did not.

Third, was the defense – especially goalie Michal Neuvirth – up to the task of shutting down opponents? Much was made (and we made some of it) of Neuvirth’s ability to raise his game in the playoffs. In Canadian junior hockey and the AHL he had a post-season win-loss record of 53-18 in 72 games. He backstopped the Hershey Bears to consecutive Calder Cups, being named the tournament’s MVP in one of them. And when he shut down the Rangers by stopping 140 of 148 shots in the first-round series (a .946 save percentage), it looked as if he would continue that run of strong play and bring the Caps along with him. It landed with a thud in the second round, though. Neuvirth allowed 15 goals on 113 shots (a .867 save percentage) to the Lightning, although in his defense, his shortcomings could be shared by a defense that did not perform well in front of him and a coaching staff that seemed incapable (or oblivious for the need) of adjusting to what Tampa Bay was doing.

And then there was the old “hot goaltender” theme, one that has been passed down from generation (Billy Smith, Kelly Hrudey) to generation (Sean Burke, Tom Barrasso) to generation (Johan Hedberg, Nikolai Khabibulin) to generation (Jaroslav Halak, Dwayne Roloson) of Caps fans.

In the playoffs, weaknesses and shortcomings are magnified. If a team is less than the sum of its parts, it might stumble to a playoff series win. It might find an opponent it can beat. The Caps have won two playoff series in four years, both opening round wins against the New York Rangers. But a team like the Caps that has been less than the sum of its parts cannot, will not, and in 2011 did not, go far in the playoffs. It has been and has become an old and tiresome theme that has haunted this franchise for 25 years and one that looms over it as the Caps seek to qualify for the post season in 2012. It does not mean it is not the top story of 2011.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 42: Lightning at Capitals, January 13th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals play Game 2 of their four-game home stand on Friday, hosting the Tampa Bay Lightning. And we here at Peerless Central want to take a moment and put to rest, for once and for all, one of those things that took place in a game between these teams that might have been interpreted the wrong way by some people.

Let us go back to March 19, 2009. The Caps visited the Lightning that night, and it was a case of two teams going in quite different directions. The Caps were 44-22-6, on their way to a Southeast Division title and a three-seed in the playoffs. The Lightning were 23-32-15, good – if that is the word – for last place in the Southeast and 14th place in the Eastern Conference.

It was a potential milestone night for one Capital. Alex Ovechkin was on the brink of recording his third 50-goal season, having put up 49 markers going into this contest. And with 12:17 gone in the game, Ovechkin scored the game’s first goal, his 50th of the season. What he did next, though, aggravated many in the Tampa Bay Lightning community. After scoring the goal, he set his stick on the ice and pantomimed warming himself by the heat of his flaming stick.

There are those who think Ovechkin was hot-dogging it or rubbing it in to the Lightning and their fans. Well, we can tell you that this is patently untrue. In fact, Ovechkin was paying homage to the city in which he realized this achievement. For you see, “Tampa” is thought by some to mean “sticks of fire” in the language of the Calusa Native American tribe that once lived in the vicinity. And here was Alex Ovechkin, being respectful of his hosts, showing the Lightning and their fans that he had a deep and abiding respect for the history of the city he was visiting.

And that, as they say, is the rest of the story.

As far as this game is concerned, the Lightning find themselves in much the same situation they found themselves on the night in March 2009 – buried in the Eastern Conference standings. The Lightning have not yet won a game in 2012, losing all four of the contests they played to date (0-4-1). It looked as if the Lightning might have been turning a corner by winning their last three games of 2011. But the Lightning have had much in the way of experience with streaks this season – three winning streaks of at least three games, three losing streaks of at least four games, including the one on which they currently find themselves (which reached five games on Thursday night). Here is how the Lightning find themselves compare to the Caps, numbers-wise (before Tampa Bay's game against Carolina on Thursday):

1. As Steven Stamkos goes, so go the Lightning. Stamkos has had a hand in 42.5 percent of the Lightning scoring so far this season (29 goals and 19 assists among the total of 113 goals scored). And, he has scored almost a third of all Tampa Bay goals over the last 13 games by himself (13 of 40).

2. The Lightning have not scored a power play goal on the road in more than a month (December 10th, in a 5-2 loss at Philadelphia). Since then, they are 0-for-20 in six road games.

3. In their last nine road games the Lightning have allowed power play goals in seven of them. They have allowed two power play goals in four of them. In those games, the Lightning penalty killers are 27-for-38 (71.1 percent).

4. Only one team in the league has a worse record than Tampa Bay when being outshot by their opponent (Carolina). Only one team in the league has a worse record when leading at the first intermission than Tampa Bay…that’s right, when leading at the first intermission (they are 4-3-1…it doesn’t happen often).

5. Vincent Levcavalier has provided, if unspectacular, at least consistent offense over the last five weeks. He has not had consecutive games without a point since December 8th. In his last 14 games he is 6-6-12.

1. The Caps have not allowed a power play goal at home under Dale Hunter. The last time the Caps allowed a power play goal at Verizon Center was in a 6-3 loss to the New York Rangers on November 25th. Since then, they are 26-for-26 in ten games.

2. Over that same span of ten games at Verizon Center the Caps are 8-for-27 on the power play (29.6 percent), eight for their last 20 opportunities dating back to a four-power play-goal performance against Toronto on December 9th.

3. Alex Ovechkin has 26 goals in 43 games against Tampa Bay, but none (at least in the regular season) since a 1-3-4 performance against the Lightning last February 4th. OK, it’s only two games.

4. Washington is one of only five teams in the league with a perfect record this season when leading after two periods (13-0-0). They have not lost a game in regulation time when leading after two periods since the 2008-2009 season. Over the last two-plus seasons the Caps are 74-0-7 when leading after 40 minutes.

5. Washington has scored only 77 of their 118 goals this season at 5-on-5. The 65.2 percent 5-on-5 goals is the ninth lowest as a share of total goals scored. Of the eight teams in front of them, seven are currently among the playoff-eligibles in their respective conferences. Good teams have to get goals in different situations.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Tampa Bay: Dwayne Roloson

Dwayne Roloson came in relief of Mathieu Garon last night when Garon gave up three goals on eight shots in 15 minutes. The Lightning are playing the second of a back-to-back set, and Roloson is at an age where back-to-backs are not necessarily the best thing for his statistics. Not only that, he has been flat out awful for almost two months now. Since he stopped 33 of 34 shots against Pittsburgh in a 4-1 Lightning win on November 17th, Roloson is 0-5-1, 4.53, .854 in ten appearances. The Lightning don’t seem to trust Garon all that much lately, since Garon has been pulled three times his last seven appearances in favor of Roloson. Goaltending is a mess for the Lightning, and whether Roloson can find the magic he had last year grows more and more doubtful.

Washington: Brooks Laich

Offensively, Brooks Laich is in a funk. He is without a point and is minus-5 in his last eight games. More disturbing, some of that has come with Laich taking over in the middle on the top line with Nicklas Backstrom out. If the Caps are going to cash in on the iffy Tampa Bay defense, Laich is going to have to put up some crooked numbers in this one.


1. For heaven’s sake, SHOOT already. Between Tampa Bay’s poor record when being outshot and the goaltending problems they are having, the Capitals have to take advantage by putting pucks on net. From anywhere, guys. Just get the puck to the net. Write… it… down.

2. No Marty Party. Martin St. Louis has been a thorn in the Caps’ sides ever since he showed up in Florida. But he has no goals in his last nine games. He is helping out, though, with ten assists in those nine games. Make him pay by making him play defense. He is minus-4 in those nine games, despite the ten points.

3. Press the D. The Lightning do not have the most fleet of foot defensemen – Pavel Kubina and Eric Brewer are more the hulking, crease-clearing types from another era, and Marc-Andre Bergeron, despite leading the team in plus-minus, is not generally thought of as being the most adept defender in his own end. Make these guys skate; pressure them when they have the puck.

In the end, there is knowing what to do (applying persistent pressure in the offensive zone on a team weak in defense and goaltending), and there is doing it. The Caps have scored more than four goals only once since Dale Hunter took over behind the bench. Only six times in 19 games have the Caps scored more than three goals in regulation time. This opponent is tailor-made to reverse that trend.

Capitals 5 – Lightning 2