Sunday, March 25, 2012

A TWO-point night -- Game 76: Capitals 3 - Wild 0

Practice makes perfect.

If the Washington Capitals get enough 3-0 leads, maybe winning those games will come more frequently. The Caps got goals from Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault, and Alex Ovechkin at one end of the ice, and they got 28 saves from Braden Holtby at the other end to defeat the Minnesota Wild, 3-0, at Verizon Center this evening.

It was not looking very good for the Caps early, perhaps a hangover from the disappointing 4-3 overtime loss to Winnipeg on Friday. They managed only seven shots on number three goaltender Matt Hackett, pressed into service with number one goalie Niklas Backstrom injured and backup Josh Harding having played on Saturday night in a 3-1 loss to Buffalo.

The Caps broke through in the second period in another one of those occasional trips down memory lane from games that might have been played two or three years ago. Stephen Kampfer collected a loose puck as he was gliding down the right wing in the Caps’ end and tried to center the puck. The puck went all the way through and out the other side, where only Alexander Semin was skating. Semin curled, picked up the puck as it bounced off the boards, and headed the other way. With four Wild skaters pinned in the offensive zone, including defenseman Kampfer, it was Semin and Jason Chimera on a two-on-one with only Clayton Stoner back. Semin froze Stoner with a curl and drag move, then slid the puck under Stoner's stick to Chimera on his left. Chimera buried it before Hackett could get across the crease.

Going hard to the net paid benefits on the second goal five minutes later when Troy Brouwer took advantage of some dicey defensive positioning and a bad attempt at a line change by the Wild. Alex Ovechkin curled through the neutral zone with the puck and sent a pass to Brouwer on the right side at the Minnesota line as one Wild skater was going off for another. It left Minnesota with no one on the right side of the ice and thin numbers in the middle as Brouwer skated in. It eventually became a two-on-one down low as Mathieu Perreault skated to the net. Brouwer sent a centering pass that hit Perreault in stride, and Perreault had only to redirect it past Hackett for his 14th goal of the season.

Ovechkin closed things out in the third period by ripping a page out of the Ovechkin songbook. It started with John Carlson sending a long cross-ice pass to Marcus Johansson at the Minnesota line. Johansson edged the puck into the zone before being stopped by defenseman Nate Prosser. It was enough for Ovechkin to come in behind the play and pick up the puck in stride. He skated into the left wing faceoff circle and using defenseman Tom Gilbert as a screen ripped a wrist shot through Hackett to close out the scoring.

Other stuff…

-- Unlike the game Friday night, the Caps did not go into a shell after getting the third goal. After Ovechkin scored at the 8:31 mark, the Caps did register seven more shot attempts (four on goal) and maintained possession for longer periods than they had Friday against Winnipeg when posting their 3-0 lead.

-- Doing simple things right pays dividends, and in this case it was going to the net. Chimera filling a lane with his stick on the ice; Perreault doing the same. They teach these things early in a hockey player’s life for a reason. They work.

-- Give Marcus Johansson some credit for taking a hit to make a play, or at least to allow one to unfold. He managed to get John Carlson’s pass into the offensive zone before taking a hit from Nate Prosser. It took Prosser out of the play and left the other defenseman – Tom Gilbert – in no-man’s land with no backside support when Ovechkin came charging through.

-- Ovechkin does not deal in retail. He is a wholesale dealer in shots from just about anywhere. He had 14 shot attempts in 26 minutes tonight, five on goal. He also had a pair of hits, two takeaways, and two blocked shots. But what might have been his best play was getting back with Mikko Koivu circling in to go in alone on goalie Braden Holtby. Koivu might have had an unimpeded path to the net, but Ovechkin had an angle on him as he was scrambling back on defense. Koivu started to cut in on Holtby, but Ovechkin slid across his path to sweep the puck away.

-- More going to the net. Troy Brouwer outracing Tom Gilbert to the puck behind the Wild net and centering Matt Hendricks on the doorstep in the first minute of the third period. Alexander Semin and Jason Chimera one more time in the third period on a two-on-one; Chimera heading for the net. Semin took the shot and was denied, but it was another instance of going to the net and forcing the defense and goaltender to make a play.

-- Fun fact… In the month of March the Caps have had three or more power play opportunities in four of 13 games. In each of those games they have a power play goal (and won three of them). In the other nine games – the ones in which they did not have at least three power play opportunities – they have failed to record a power play goal (with a record of 3-3-3). They had three chances against the Wild and scored one (Perreault).

-- Matt Hendricks, seven hits. He is coming up on the outside on Troy Brouwer for the team lead, trailing Brouwer by 231 to 201. The Caps are one of only three teams (Dallas and the Rangers being the others) with two players with at least 200 hits.

-- Mike Knuble had an interesting score sheet. In just under 15 minutes he had no shots, no shot attempts, no hits, no takeaways, no giveaways. But he did have four blocked shots, which tied Roman Hamrlik for the team lead.

-- The Caps went with seven defensemen, and it made for some odd time on ice totals. None stranger, perhaps, than John Carlson, who skated only 11:17. That was his lowest total ice time since he skated 9:06 in a 5-4 overtime loss to Ottawa on March 30, 2010. He still had three giveaways, though.

-- Braden Holtby has been nothing if not improvement personified. In his first appearance this season he allowed five goals on 35 shots to San Jose in a 5-3 loss. Then, three goals on 30 shots in a 5-3 win at Detroit. He followed that up with allowing only one goal on 28 shots in a 2-1 Gimmick loss to Philadelphia, then the 28-save shutout against the Wild on Sunday. His save percentages went: .857, .909, .964, 1.000.

In the end, every win is precious at this time of year, but this was one the Caps had to have and should have had. They started sluggishly, but took advantage of the fact that the Wild were in their second of a back-to-back set on the road. It sets the stage for the biggest regular season game in these parts in some time when the Caps host Buffalo on Tuesday for what might be the deciding contest in a fight for the last playoff spot. The winner will have a two-point lead with five games to play, and while the Caps will still have the advantage of the tie-breaker in the event the teams finished tied in standings points (the Caps have 36 wins in regulation and overtime to 30 for Buffalo), this will be one the Caps have to have. Disposing of the Wild in workmanlike fashion puts them in the position of controlling their own fate against the Sabres.

That Was The Week That Was -- Week 24 (March 18-24)

Week 24… and we can’t tell if the Caps were treading water or drowning.

Record: 1-1-2

The Caps brought their five-game road trip to an end with an ugly loss to Chicago, a nice win against Detroit, and what might have been a good point in a Gimmick loss to the Flyers, except when you have left a lot of points on the table this season, that extra point left on the table in Philly was big. It would look a lot better than that one-point result against Winnipeg in which the Caps coughed up a 3-0 lead in the last 33 minutes of regulation time, then lost in overtime.  In terms of standings points, it was the fifth consecutive week in which the Caps had a .500 or better week, but having gone 8-6-3 in those five weeks.

What was frustrating about this week is that the Caps managed the first goal in three of the four games and lost two of them (both in extra time). What was anger-inducing was that the Caps scored five goals in each of the first and second periods of the four games this week, but only one in the third period and none in overtime. Meanwhile, the four opponents scored six second period, four third period, and an overtime goal among the 13 scored against Washington this week. That is the kind of wandering focus that has plagued this team for more than three games…more like three years.

Offense: 2.75/game (season: 2.67/rank: 12th)

The Caps had 11 goals for the week. Alex Ovechkin had six of them. That Ovechkin would have six goals in four games is unusual over the last couple of seasons, but it is not unheard of in his career. But five goals from the rest of the lineup? And when you realize that two of those came off the stick of Mike Knuble, who had not scored goals in consecutive games since getting three in two games last March 31/April 2, and the Caps’ offense was otherwise absent.

One of the problems was the shots not being there in the third period. The Caps had five goals on 32 shots in the first period of games (15.6 percent shooting percentage) and five goals on 41 shots in the second period of games (11.9 percent). In the third period, though, only one goal on 21 shots (4.8 percent), and the Caps did not have a shot on goal in 7:23 of overtime play.

Defense: 3.25/game (season: 2.80/rank: 21st)

It would be tempting to say that if the Caps went into a shell in the third period of games on offense this past week, it cost them at the other end of the ice. The Caps did go into that shell, but it was not as if the Caps allowed a significantly larger number of shots as their own number diminished. Opponents registered 42 first period shots, 44 second period, an 41 third period shots in the four games this week, plus four overtime shots for good measure.

One could argue that part of that was a scoring effect in the Detroit game, the Caps holding a 4-1 lead after 38 minutes. But the Caps almost gave up that lead (they got an empty net goal late in a 5-3 win), and then they lost a 3-0 lead built over the first 26 minutes in their game against Winnipeg, a game that they lost, 4-3, in overtime. It is one thing to resist the urge to take chances at one end, but one has to clamp down at the other too, and the Caps didn’t do that, a combination of passive play and goaltending that did not come up big when the need arose.

Goaltending: 2.91/.908

The Caps lost one game by getting behind early, another by not being able to score, and another by going to sleep after getting out to a big lead. If there was one thing in common about those games, and the win over Detroit for that matter, was a weak performance in goal in the second period of games. Caps goaltenders were a combined 41-for-43 in the first period of games (.954 save percentage), including a perfect 31-for-31 in the last three games of the week. They were 37-for 40 (.925) in the third period of games. But that second period? They were 38-for-44 (.864) and allowed at least one second period goal in each of the four games for the week. Third period comebacks do not get completed if they do not get started, and they got started in that second period. It almost cost them against Detroit; it did against Winnipeg.

Power Play: 3-for-9/33.3 percent (season: 17.3 percent/rank: T-14th)

It was something of a deceptive week. The Caps came into it only 4-for-44 over their previous 17 games (9.1 percent). They failed on their only opportunity against Chicago to open the week, then they lit up the Detroit Red Wings for three on four chances on Monday. They reverted to form to close the week, going 0-for-2 in each of their last two games of the week. Getting two goals from Alex Ovechkin on five shots is what the team is looking for. Getting no shots on goal from Alexander Semin in 5:25 of power play ice time is not. Getting three shots from Mike Green is good, getting no goals isn’t (he hasn’t had a goal of any kind since October 22nd). The raw numbers looked pretty good, and even though the Caps don’t beat Detroit without those three power play goals (one of which was an empty netter), it was at best an uneven week.

Penalty Killing: 6-for-7/85.7 percent (season: 80.8 percent/rank: 21st)

On the other hand, the Caps penalty killers had what was probably a better week than killing six of seven shorthanded situations suggests. The one power play goal allowed did let the Detroit Red Wings start to crawl back into the game on Monday, but overall the Caps allowed only the one goal on nine shots in 12:55 of penalty killing time. It was a case of few opportunities allowed, few shots allowed, and as a result just one goal in a game the Caps won. That has to be considered a good week.

Paying the Price: 105 hits/67 blocked shots (season rank: 10th/6th)

The surprising number in this category might be “12.” That would be the number of hits credited to Alex Ovechkin this week, five of them coming in the 4-3 overtime loss to Winnipeg. Not a big week for the big guy in that regard. On the other hand, there was Matt Hendricks with 18 hits in just 60 minutes of ice time for the week.

Faceoffs: 113-for-231/48.9 percent (season: 50.0 percent/rank: T-15th)

If there was a strange number in this category this week, it was 56.3. That was the faceoff winning percentage of the “non-centers” who took draws this week – Jason Chimera, Mike Knuble, and Troy Brouwer. The players who play at least some amount of time regularly as centers were 48.4 percent for the week. Brooks Laich continues to take the lion’s share of draws – 73 of 231 (31.6 percent of all draws), of which he won 32 for a 43.8 percent winning percentage. Mathieu Perreault was far behind in total faceoffs taken with 38 (24 wins for a 63.2 percent winning percentage). Overall, the fact that the Caps took 69 draws in the offensive zone and 87 in the defensive zone was an indicator of too much time spent in the defensive zone. And winning only 46.0 percent of their defensive zones did not help.

Turnovers: plus-14

The Caps did a pretty good job of managing the puck, at least in terms of turnovers. Then again, the fact that they had only 17 giveaways for the week might be another reflection of not having the puck a lot late in games.


Splitting games in Chicago and Detroit could be seen as a plus. But given the points the Caps have left on the table this season, the two they left there in the last two games of the week, both extra time losses to Philadelphia and Winnipeg, is just that much more disappointing. At a minimum it undid a lot of the good that winning in Detroit provided. The loss to Winnipeg, coming after the Caps went out to a 3-0 lead, will be the one that haunts them if they should miss the playoffs by a single point. The Caps didn’t lose ground this week, but it sure felt that way with what was there for the taking.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 76: Wild at Capitals, March 25th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals try for the third time to reach 38 wins on Sunday as they host the Minnesota Wild at Verizon Center. It is a bit late in the day for that, seeing as how the Caps hit the 38-win mark on March 9th last year, February 2nd in the 2009-2010 season (really?), and February 22nd in 2008-2009. In the 2007-2008 season, when the Caps embarked on a furious finish to make the playoffs, they hit the 38 win mark on, wait for it… March 25th, in a 3-2 Gimmick win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Now the Caps try to repeat this little slice of history when they take on a team that, let’s face it, is not that good. Not that the season lacked promise for the Wild. On December 10th, Minnesota defeated the Phoenix Coyotes, 4-1, to go 20-7-3. They sat atop the Northwest Division and the Western Conference, the first team to hit the 10-win mark at home and on the road. They had a five-point lead over the Chicago Blackhawks for the conference lead. They were on a seven-game winning streak.

Then things took a turn. Minnesota gave up a 1-0 lead at Winnipeg and lost, 2-1, on a late goal by the Jets (they seem to do that). They would lose again, and again, and again. Their losing streak reached eight games (0-5-3, all of the extra time losses coming in the Gimmick) before they finally ended the string in a 4-3 win over Edmonton. Not that it provided much relief. It was a mere rest stop on a road to oblivion. Since that seven-game winning streak and the high-water mark of their season, the Wild are 11-26-7. They have won consecutive games in regulation time just once in that span (they have two other two-game streaks, both a product of trick shot wins in the second game).

The Wild come into this game having won one game in regulation this month, a 2-0 shutout of the Vancouver Canucks. Overall they are 3-7-1, including a 1-3-1 record on the road. And it is not as if the Wild have been playing teams especially close. Only three of the eight losses were of the one-goal variety (including a 5-4 trick shot loss to Montreal). On the other hand they have a 6-0 loss at the hands of Detroit and a 7-1 loss to Colorado.

Offense is a problem. Eighteen goals in 11 games in March, and they have been shut out three times. They started the month going 0-for-18 on their power play over seven games before getting power play goals in each of their next three games. Overall the Wild are 3-for-31 in March (9.7 percent).

Not that the Minnesota defense has been much to get excited about. The Wild have allowed 36 goals in 11 games (3.27 goals per game) and have allowed four or more in five of those games. The penalty kill is only 27-for-36 in March (75.0 percent). But the Wild seem to have come out of their funk a bit lately, having won two of their last three games and getting back to “Wild” hockey, as it were, with only five goals allowed in the three games and one shutout of their own. Here is how the two teams compare as they head into this game:

(click pic for larger image)

1. Minnesota is 30th and last in the NHL in offense. They do not come by this for lack of consistency. The Wild are last in first period goals scored, 29th in second period goals, and 28th in third period goals. For good measure, they are tied for last in overtime goals scored – one (Devin Setoguchi, if you are keeping score, way back on November 1st in a 2-1 win over Detroit).

2. As you might expect, Minnesota has fewer wins by three or more goals than any team in the NHL (four). They have not had one since a 5-2 win against Dallas on January 21st,and that one happens to be their only such win since their 4-1 win over Phoenix on December 10th that was the last win in their seven-game winning streak that was the high point of their season.

3. If there is an odd number for the Wild it is this – three. The Wild have the third best record in the league when trailing after the first period (12-18-1). Of course, no team has as much as a .500 winning percentage when trailing after 20 minutes.

4. Minnesota has only 151 goals scored this season. That total is fewer than the 5-on-5 goals scored by five other teams

5. Miscellaneous stuff…Minnesota has 692 blocked shots on the road, by far the most in the league. That total is 69 more than the New York Islanders (a 10 percent difference)… only two teams in the league have had more overtime power plays than the Wild (four)… only four teams have spent more time killing penalties on the road than Minnesota… no team in the league is out-shot by a larger margin that the Wild on a per-game basis (5.2 shots per game, 1.5 per game more than Edmonton).

1. Washington has fewer wins against Western Conference opponents (seven) than any other Southeast Division team except Florida (five). They have fewer wins against Northwest Division teams (one) than any of the teams in the Southeast. The Caps are 2-0-0 against Detroit, 5-10-0 against the rest of the Western Conference.

2. The Caps’ 5-3 win over Detroit was their first win over a Western Conference opponent since they beat Calgary, 3-1, on January 3rd. OK, they have played only four other teams (Chicago, Los Angeles, and two against San Jose).

3. Jeff Halpern is currently tied for fourth in the league in faceoff winning percentage (58.3 percent, with Manny Malhotra). You would have to go to page three of the leader rankings to find the next Cap (at least the next one not on injured reserve). Brooks Laich is tied for 66th (48.3 percent).

4. Only two teams in the league have had fewer power play opportunities at home than Washington (109). At their home power play conversion rate, if they had as many opportunities as Philadelphia (158), they would have ten more goals. In six home games in March the Caps have yet to have more than two power play opportunities in any game. They are 0-for-8 at home over six home games in the month. They are 0-for-22 on the power play at home over their last nine games and have not had a power play goal at home since Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin each had one in a 3-2 Gimmick loss to Winnipeg on February 9th.

5. The perfect run is over. The Caps were one of only two teams in the NHL to have an unblemished record when leading after 40 minutes (22-0-0, with Boston at 28-0-0). The overtime loss to Winnipeg on Friday dropped the Caps to 22-0-1. They are one of nine teams not to have lost a game in regulation when leading after two periods.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Minnesota: Dany Heatley

Dany Heatley leads the Wild with 21 goals. That is tied for 69th in the league. It happens to be the lowest goal total to lead a team – Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog broke the tie with his 22nd goal on Saturday night. There are 14 teams in the league with at least three players with more goals than Heatley’s team-leading total for Minnesota. The Western Conference seems not to have agreed with Heatley’s scoring results. In seven seasons in the Eastern Conference with Atlanta and Ottawa, Heatley averaged 42-46-88 per 82 games. Since going west, first with San Jose and now with Minnesota, he is averaging 30-37-67 per 82 games. Against the Caps he is 12-23-35 in 32 career games.

Washington: Mike Green

In a way, Mike Green might be the canary in the coal mine for the Caps, both good and bad (if such a thing could be said, seeing that the canary doesn’t usually come out of this very well). First, for those who think the news of Nicklas Backstrom being cleared for practice signals either: a) that he will be joining the lineup soon, or b) that when he does he will be productive right away; look at Green. In 15 games since returning from surgery and rehabilitation, Green has a scoring line of 0-1-1, even, in 18 games. Even if one accounts for a different role for Green under Dale Hunter than he had under Bruce Boudreau, his offensive output has lagged. On the other hand, if Green can start chipping in here and there, it could be the difference down the stretch as the Caps try to outlast Buffalo and Winnipeg for the last playoff spot in the East.


1. Find consistency. In a period, in a game, on the schedule. The Caps come into this game having lost four of five after winning four in a row. They get out to a big lead and cough it up. They pound pucks at a goalie early and go into a shell late. Playing defensive hockey with a lead does not mean treating the offensive zone as if it is radioactive. Just be smart. Push the puck deep, put pressure on it. Which means…

2. No silly high-risk chances. Minnesota is a team that is going to struggle scoring goals under normal circumstances. If the Caps don’t make poor judgments with the puck, Minnesota would not appear to have the fire power to get goals with much frequency.

3. “Coast” is not a gear. Consider this string of numbers… three, two, three, three, zero, zero, three. Those are the goal totals for the Caps at home over their last seven games. Two goals a game is not going to do it. They have scored a first period goal and taken a lead in each of their last four home games but have won only two of them. If these are like “playoff” games, then play them like playoff games.

In the end, you have to wonder about a team that just does not display much in the way of a killer instinct or much consistency in giving a 60-minute effort, even after 75 games and even when their playoff eligibility is in jeopardy. If the Caps play to form, they will get out to a lead in this game and give it back when they start looking ahead to Tuesday’s matchup with Buffalo that could mean their season (they have had leads in each of their last three games and lost two of them). Or maybe they will wake up and realize that there are only seven games left in the season… seven games. About a playoff series length of time.

Capitals 3 – Wild 1