Sunday, March 11, 2012

Think there is pressure in playing hockey in Toronto?

This was the banner at the Toronto Sun web site after the Maple Leafs lost to Washington:

And this was the Toronto Star...

At least the Globe and Mail saved it for the sports page.

A TWO-point night: -- Game 69: Capitals 2 - Maple Leafs 0

Another day, another win. The Washington Capitals made it three in a row tonight with a 2-0 win over the slumping Toronto Maple Leafs. It is the Caps’ second three-game winning streak in the last 17 days and makes it a fine send-off for their five-game road trip that starts Tuesday on Long Island.

In this one, the Caps got all they needed on a neutral zone blunder. Jake Gardiner was skating through the neutral zone midway through the first period, but not with much momentum. Gardiner tried to drop the puck to Phil Kessel who was circling behind him to gain speed. Brooks Laich read the intent of Gardiner and jumped between Gardiner and Kessel just as Gardiner was leaving the puck for Kessel. Laich interrupted the pass, and when the puck slid to the boards Laich was the only player in position to pick it up. He did, and he had a break on goalie Jonas Gustavsson. Before Kessel could close the distance, Laich fired the puck short-side over Gustavsson’s pad, and the Caps had the lead they would not relinquish.

The Caps got some insurance in the first minute of the third period. Dennis Wideman sent a long pass up to Alexander Semin along the boards at the Toronto blue line. Semin carried the puck into the zone and froze Mikhail Grabovski with a hard stop. When Grabovski tried to move up on Semin, the Caps winger spun around him as if Grabovski was a skating pylon. Semin stepped up and tried to curl and drag the puck past John-Michael Liles, but the puck squirted loose and to Gustavsson’s left. Only Mathieu Perreault was in the vicinity, and Perreault wasted no time burying the puck past the Leafs’ goaltender for the second and final goal of the evening.

After that, it was the Michal Neuvirth show, or more precisely, the “let’s do whatever we need to do to get Neuvirth a shutout” show. The Caps did, and Neuvirth finished the evening turning away all 23 shots for his third shutout of the year.

Other stuff…

-- Brooks Laich apparently saw the Toronto tendency for that neutral zone drop pass when he was home watching the Leafs and Flyers last night. In light of the way Laich was able to apply that lesson to game experience, one wonders how long it will take – given what has been written about Alex Ovechkin lately – for the captain to do more of that (whether he does already or not).

-- With the shutout Neuvirth is 5-4-2, 2.27, .921 with two shutouts in 14 appearances in the 2012 portion of the season. He is quietly rehabilitating his season after a slow start. And he did what he had to do to preserve his own shutout with a fine left pad save on a redirect from Matt Frattin in the third period.

-- Rule 53.2 states:

“Minor Penalty - A minor penalty shall be imposed on any player on the ice who throws his stick or any part thereof or any other object in the direction of the puck or an opponent in any zone, except when such act has been penalized by the assessment of a penalty shot or the awarding of a goal.

“When a defending player shoots or throws a stick or any other object at the puck or the puck carrier in the defending zone but does not interfere in any manner with the puck or puck carrier, a minor penalty shall be assessed.

“When the player discards the broken portion of a stick or some other object by tossing it or shooting it to the side of the ice (and not over the boards) in such a way as will not interfere with play or opposing player, no penalty will be imposed for so doing…”

Now…was that broken stick in the third period laying in the neutral zone accidentally slid into Alex Ovechkin’s path as he was skating through?

-- Jay Beagle did not have a point, but he did have two shots, two hits, two blocked shots, and he won five of six draws in just under 16 high-energy minutes. Finally, Caps fans might be seeing the contributions Beagle can offer that might not have been in his power to give for a while after he was concussed by Arron Asham in a fight in a game against Pittsburgh in the first week of the season.

-- How many times do you think Matt Hendricks led the Caps in shot attempts this season? At least once. He had six attempts tonight to lead the Caps (four on goal, which also led the team).

-- David Steckel played 16 shifts and took 10 faceoffs (winning eight) for Toronto. This is the definition of a “one-trick pony.”

-- Are the Caps willing to pay a price? Well, tonight they did in this respect. It was a game in which the Caps recorded 21 blocked shots. Often this season, that would have been the product of perhaps 65 or more shot attempts. Tonight, they recorded that many on 52 shots attempts – 40.4 percent of the shot attempts taken by Toronto.

-- The Caps allowed the Leafs only two power plays, shutting them out on both (while scoring one goal of their own). That makes 11 straight games in which the Caps have allowed fewer than five power play opportunities to the opponent. They are 24-for-30 on the penalty kill in those games. If the Caps aren’t going to be especially efficient (80.0 percent), and if they are not going to score power plays of their own (2-for-27 on the power play in those same 11 games – 7.4 percent), then they had better minimize opponents’ chances. They have done a pretty good job of that.

-- One of the things that might have made Michal Neuvirth’s job easier, in addition to his teammates blocking such a high percentage of shot attempts in front of him, was the fact that there were only nine faceoffs in the Washington end of the ice all night.

-- Dale Hunter might lean heavily on his top three lines, but not to the point where he abuses any of those lines’ ice time, at least not in this game. Looking at the lines as they started the game, the fourth line of Mike Knuble, Keith Aucoin, and Joel Ward skated a total of 34:03 at even strength. But the other three lines had a spread of only 4:42 between the line with the most total time and the one with the least. A little more than a shift per player. That meant that an Alex Ovechkin had only 16:02 in even strength ice time and only 17:44 for the game. Keeping fresh down the stretch will help everyone.

-- The win over Toronto came in the Caps’ 10th back-to-back set of the season. They have now swept back-to-backs three times, including their last two.

In the end, last week ended well, with two wins, and this one started well with a getaway win. And, the Caps have taken advantage of their games in hand with Winnipeg to pull out to a four-point lead over the ninth-place Jets. The wins haven’t been pretty, but at this time of year if you want pretty, take a walk around the Tidal Basin and take in the cherry blossoms. Now, it’s just about the wins.

That Was The Week That Was -- Week 22 (March 4-10)

Week 22…something we haven’t seen in a while, a winning week. But it could have been a lot more.

Record: 2-1-1

It was the first winning week since Week 16, but if you consider that the Caps had three of the four games on home ice and won their only road game, there is a sense of unfulfillment with the week’s record. The Caps left three points on the table in losing two games (one in overtime). Those points would have put the Caps in front of the Florida Panthers and in first place in the Southeast Division. The week did end on a high note, though, with the Caps taking two points out of TD Garden in Boston in a 4-3 win. And for a team with as poor a record on the road as the Caps, getting what was their second straight road win (they won in Toronto on February 25th) was a good sign, especially since the Caps had not won consecutive road games since games at Ottawa and Winnipeg on December 7th and 15th (they had two home games between those contests).

Offense: 2.50/game (season: 2.66/rank: T-13th)

The good news is that the Caps spread things around on offense. Eight different players had goals, and 14 different skaters had points. The bad news was that no Cap had more than two goals for the week (Jay Beagle and Brooks Laich), and the leading overall points producer was rookie defenseman Dmitry Orlov (four assists). The hard part was the lack of production from the big three guns still in the lineup in the home portion of the week. Alex Ovechkin did have a goal (the overtime winner in a 3-2 decision over Tampa Bay), the only one among the trio of Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Mike Green to have one (Semin and Green had no points on the five-game homestand). Semin did have a fine game against Boston to close the week, but Green sat that one out, having been suspended for three games for his hit on Brett Connolly in the Caps’ win over Tampa Bay.

Defense: 2.50/game (season: 2.79/rank: 21st)

It would have been a pretty good week but for the game against Carolina on Tuesday. In that one, the Caps went out to a 2-0 lead, then let it get away when the Hurricanes scored three goals in less than 17 minutes to take a 3-2 lead in a game the Caps would lose, 4-3 in overtime. It would be hard to quarrel much with the Caps’ week outside of that game. They held the Philadelphia Flyers – a team that led the league in scoring when they faced the Caps – to a single goal. And even against Boston – a team that was second in the league in scoring heading into Saturday’s game – three goals on Boston ice was not an indicator of poor defense. If there was a problem it was in not being able to hold early leads. In each of the three games in which the Caps scored they scored first (twice having 2-0 leads) and lost the lead in each of those games.

Goaltending: 2.43/.915

Tomas Vokoun won both games this week in which he appeared. Michal Neuvirth lost in both of his appearances. Other than that, their weeks were almost identical, Vokoun stopping 54 of 59 shots in 124 minutes of play and Neuvirth stopping 54 of 59 shots in 123 minutes of play. If there was a bright spot in the week for the goaltenders, it was that in four games they stopped 45 of 46 first period shots (.978 save percentage), at least giving their teammates a chance to get off on the right foot at the other end. The second period was another matter – 26 saves on 32 shots on goal (.813).

Power Play: 1-for-6/16.7 percent (season: 16.5 percent/rank: 18th)

Until the Caps scored on their last power play of the week, they had been 0-for-18 over their previous seven-plus games. During this past week they finished 1-for-6 in four games, but there were two general problems with that performance. First, not a problem of a power play, per se, but still a lingering problem is the inability to draw penalties in the first place. Eighteen power play opportunities over seven games – 2.6 per game. Even if the Caps had the best power play in the league (that belonging to Edmonton at 21.8 percent), it would have meant a total of three more goals over those 18 games. In this week, it does not rise to the level of providing the Caps with as much as a single additional goal.

The second issue this week was shots and who was getting them. Dennis Wideman…four. Alex Ovechkin…three. Brooks Laich…three. Add in one apiece for Alexander Semin and Troy Brouwer, and the right people from those available were taking them (to a point…we’ll get to that). But the Caps need to have these people converting their chances, too. Only Laich among this group potted a goal among the 12 power play shots on goal for the week. Absent from the shot totals was Mike Green, who did skate 5:31 on three power plays in the middle two games of the week (the Caps had no power plays in the first game of the week, and Green was suspended for the last one). Getting Green going on the power play could only improve the Caps’ performance on the power play down the stretch. He still does not have a point in ten games since returning to the lineup.

Penalty Killing: 6-for-8/75.0 percent (season: 80.6 percent/rank:22nd)

The Caps did a lot right on the penalty kill this week. Eight shorthanded situations faced (two per game) did not put the Caps in too much jeopardy. They allowed only eight shots in 13:23 of power play time. And it was not as if the shots they allowed came from particularly dangerous players. No one from the Flyers registered a shot on goal on their lone power play against the Caps. Neither Eric Staal nor Jeff Skinner had one for the Hurricanes in their game against Washington. Justin Faulk, who is tied with Staal for the team lead in power play goals, had but one shot. Against Tampa Bay, neither Steven Stamkos (ten power play goals on the season) nor Martin St. Louis (four) had one. And against Boston, neither Zdeno Chara (seven power play goals) nor Milan Lucic (seven) had a shot on goal.

But the Caps let shots from Ryan Malone and Teddy Purcell leak through – a tap-in by Malone and a redirect off a Caps skate on a shot from Purcell. A fine line between a perfect week and one that wasn’t.

Paying the Price: 101 hits/55 blocked shots (season rank: 11th/7th)

Games against the Flyers and two against divisional opponents – as close as we get these days to rivalry games – and a total of 85 hits for the Caps in those three contests. It probably would surprise no one that Alex Ovechkin had 15 hits in four games for the week, or even that Matt Hendricks had 14. But with 13, there was Dmitry Orlov, who is expressing more and more facets of his game as the games roll on.

Faceoffs: 106-for-230/46.1 percent (season: 50.1 percent/rank: 14th)

It was a bit of an odd week in the circle. The total numbers – 46.1 percent – do not look all that good. However, the Caps did manage a 50.0 percent mark in the offensive end (33-for-66) and one better than 50 percent (44-for-87; 50.6 percent) in the defensive end. Perhaps stranger was that the best performances came from the bottom half of the lines, at least in the offensive end. Brooks Laich and Mathieu Perreault were a combined 14-for-37 (37.8 percent), while Marcus Johansson (who played a lot of wing this week) and Jay Beagle were a combined 14-for-20 (70.0 percent). In the defensive end, performance was generally good among those players who took high volumes of draws. Laich, Perreault, and Johansson all finished above 50 percent and a combined 35-for-58 (60.3 percent).

Turnovers: plus-15

There is a logic in this result if you look at the Caps’ place in the standings. The threat of missing the playoffs (their being outside the top-eight for most of the week) begets a certain urgency. A more urgent team applies more pressure to their opponents. The stronger pressure leads to more takeaways. And that was the number that stands out this week – 46 takeaways in four games. And that includes only two takeaways in Boston, where the official scorer recorded a total of only eight turnovers for the two teams combined.

And it was guys one would normally call “grinders” who led the way. Troy Brouwer was credited with six takeaways, Jason Chimera and Brooks Laich four apiece. It was the sort of performance the Caps are going to have to have the rest of the way – aggressive on the puck on defense, stingy when they have it.


A 2-1-1 week is, at first glance, an improvement. As we noted, it is the first winning week since Week 16. But going 1-1-1 at home is a record one wants the Caps to have on the road, not what they need – or should accept – at home. And even the win was hard-earned with a late goal in regulation to tie and an overtime goal to win against Tampa Bay.

The home record for the week could have left a bitter taste in the Caps’ mouths with their heading off on the road to face a tough team in Boston. The Caps came out strong in that one and held fast when the Bruins made a push late. It was a preview of things to come if this team should make the playoffs, and they will have to demonstrate that they can go out strong and hold fast when they are on the road. They will get ample opportunity to demonstrate their ability to do that this coming week with the start of a five-game road trip after they host Toronto tonight.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 69: Maple Leafs at Capitals, March 11th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals look to make it three wins in a row when they come back home on Sunday to face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the last meeting of the clubs of the season. After losing the first meeting of the season, 7-1, in Toronto the Caps have taken the last two meetings – 4-2 at Verizon Center on December 9th and by the same 4-2 score in Toronto on February 25th.

Toronto comes into this game hanging on by their fingernails – by a fingernail – to playoff contention. And that fingernail is cracked and falling off. It looked a lot better a month or so ago for the Leafs. After beating Edmonton for their third win in a row on February 6th, Toronto was 28-19-6, in second place in the Northeast Division and in sixth place in the East.

Since then, however, Toronto’s season has gone right into the dumper. Starting with a 2-1 loss at Winnipeg on February 7th, The Maple Leafs are 2-11-2, one win coming in overtime against the Oilers and the other against the hopeless Montreal Canadiens. They have not won a game at home since that February 6th game against Edmonton. The numbers in that run are not pretty:

Goals for: 2.20
Goals against: 3.60
Power Play: 8-for-48 (16.7 percent)
Penalty Kill: 28-for-33 (84.9 percent)
One-goal wins/losses: 1/8
Wins/Losses by 3+ Goals: 0/2

Part of the problem is that their schedule has been grueling. Of the 15 games that make up their 2-11-2 run, nine of their losses have come against playoff-eligible teams. Two others have come against teams currently in ninth place (Winnipeg and San Jose). But even with that the Leafs are this close. In their last nine games, six of their eight losses have come by one goal, including one in overtime and another in a Gimmick.

Having come up on the wrong side of all these decisions has left the Leafs in a dark place – six points behind the Caps for eighth place with 14 games to play. For the Leafs, their season almost boils down to this game, a game in which they have to take the ice a day after losing in a trick shot competition to the Flyers and losing an hour of sleep in the process with the change to Daylight Savings Time.

Leafs fans probably smell a conspiracy in the whole setting the clocks ahead thing.

Here is how the two teams compare in their numbers:

 (click pic for larger image)

1. In one important respect Toronto’s goal scoring has been drying up. Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, and Mikhail Grabovski are the top three goals scorers for the Maple Leafs. In their last 14 games, Kessel has four goals, Lupul has four, and Grabovsky has three. For all of them, that is a goal-scoring pace per 82 games that is less than the number of goals each has right now.

2. Second periods have killed the Leafs this season. They have allowed the highest number of second period goals (84) and scored 61 of their own. Their minus-23 goal differential in the middle period is the worst in the league. The Maple Leafs are a “plus” team in the first and third periods (plus-6 and plus-8, respectively).

3. Toronto has allowed more 5-on-5 goals this year than every team except Tampa Bay. Having the ninth best 5-on-5 goal total has not been enough to offset the problems at the defensive end.

4. No one seems to reflect more the Leafs’ woes than goalie Jonas Gustavsson. He has one win in his last nine decisions covering 11 appearances (1-5-3, 3.51, .886).

5. And it’s not as if James Reimer has been much better, if at all. Reimer has lost his last four decisions and six of his last seven. In addition to his 1-6-0 record, he has a GAA of 4.27 and a save percentage of .862. Given that Gustavsson played an lost in the 1-0 Gimmick loss to the Flyers on Saturday, Reimer would seem to be the choice for Sunday’s game against Washington.

1. In three games against the Leafs this season the Caps are 4-for-12 on the power play. Except, all four power play goals came in on six opportunities in a 4-2 win on December 9th.

2. In the season series, 13 different Caps have points, and seven different Caps share the nine goals they have. Dennis Wideman is the leading scorer for the Caps in the series (2-2-4).

3. Jason Chimera has taken a minor penalty in each of the three games against Toronto this season. Overall the Caps have almost as many different players having taken penalties (11) as they have point-getters (13).

4. In the first game of the season series the Caps allowed Toronto 16 shots on goal in the first period, the Maple Leafs scoring three goals on their way to a 7-1 win. Toronto managed only a total of 17 shots on goal in the first period of the next two games of the series, scoring on none of them, as the Caps took a pair of 4-2 decisions.

5. Alex Ovechkin has 21 shots on goal in the three games against Toronto but does not have a goal. He does lead the team with three assists.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Toronto: Nikolai Kulemin

Last year, Nikolai Kulemin set a career high of 30 goals scored, almost doubling his total from the previous season (16). This year, the goals have been much harder to come by. He has seven for the season and only two in his last 26 games. He has only one road goal in the 2012 portion of the season. At the moment his seven goals is his lowest total of any of his years in organized hockey dating back to 2003-2004 when he was a 17-year old skating for Metallurg Magnitogorsk-2 in Russia. He is 2-4-6 in 14 career games against Washington.

Washington: Dennis Wideman

Since appearing in the All Star Game in Ottawa, Dennis Wideman is 1-7-8, minus-5 in 20 games. He has picked things up of late, though, with assist in each of his last three games and four in his last six contests. He has had his moments against Toronto over the years. He is 7-13-20 in 26 career games against Toronto, including his team leading scoring line of 2-2-4 in three games this year. Six of his seven career goals against the Maple Leafs have come on the power play


1. No Let Down. Winning two points in Boston was good, but giving them away against a struggling team at home would wipe out that good work. That means playing a first period a lot like the one they played against Boston, one that featured a more urgent pressure than they have exhibited in too many games this season.

2. Make Toronto work on defense. Toronto has not allowed a power play in any of its last five games. That might be a product of having faced only nine shorthanded situations in those five games. In fact, Toronto has faced more than three shorthanded situations only three times in their last 29 games. The Caps have struggled on their own in forcing teams to go shorthanded (only eight power plays in their last five games). Making Toronto work on the penalty kill with more frequency could be outside their comfort zone.

3. Big D. Only three teams have scored more goals on the road than the Maple Leafs. Even if they do have only 19 goals in their last eight road games (2.38/game), they are a team that has enough firepower to make the Caps’ evening difficult if provided too many openings.

In the end, this is one of those games that can pose problems. Guys come home after a trip, have to deal with what they have to do at home before they head back on the road. And there might be a bit of looking ahead to that five-game road trip since so much importance is being attached to it. But this is a chance to bury Toronto’s dim playoff chances once and for all, and if things break right, take over the Southeast Division lead with a win (if Florida loses in regulation time to Carolina on Sunday. What it boils down to is that the Caps are at a place on the calendar and the standings where focus should not be a problem.

Capitals 4 – Maple Leafs 2