Thursday, January 31, 2013

A NO-point night -- Game 7: Maple Leafs 3 - Capitals 2

Another game in Ontario…

Another 2-1 lead after two periods…

Another 3-2 loss.

The Washington Capitals made it 0-for-2 on their Ontario road trip, dropping another 3-2 decision, this one to the Toronto Maple Leafs.  It was the Leafs’ first home win of the season in three tries.

It looked good for the visitors early when Jason Chimera pushed the puck around the end board behind the Leafs’ net to Mike Ribeiro.  From goalie James Reimer’s left Ribeiro circled around defenseman Matt Frattin and angled out in search of a passing lane.  He found it, snapping the puck across the slot to Joel Ward on the left wing side for an open netter that Ward buried.

James van Riemsdyk tied the game seven minutes later on the back end of what started as a 5-on-3 power play (Jason Chimera getting a double dose of penalty box time for hooking and yapping), one of eight power play chances the Leafs would enjoy in the first 34 minutes of the game.  That would be how the teams went to the first intermission, tied at one apiece.

Alex Ovechkin reached into the golden oldies bin to break the tie on the Caps’ third (and what would be their last) power play of the evening early in the second period.  It was Mike Ribeiro who made the play though, looking off Nikolai Kulemin as if he was going to pass the puck to the point.  It opened up a passing lane to Ovechkin at the top of the left wing circle.  From there, Ovechkin sent an old-fashioned wrist shot through Reimer’s five hole for what would be the only score of the middle period.

The Caps learned nothing from their lost 2-1 lead in Ottawa on Tuesday, though.  Toronto came out flying, pushing the Caps back on their heels and getting clean shooting lanes on goalie Michal Neuvirth.  The Caps finally cracked, allowing two goals in the space of 2:13 at the hands of Kulemin and Frattin, the two Leafs who were victimized by Ribeiro's passing on scoring plays earlier in the game. 

The Caps, having looked gassed for the first half of the period, applied heavy pressure in the last half of the period, but the damage was done.  When Alex Ovechkin whistled a shot just wide of the far post with four seconds left, it was over.  And if you didn’t DVR it, you can just replay the Ottawa game…same thing.

Other stuff…

-- In being showered with those eight power play chances in the game’s first 34 minutes, the Leafs managed to build up what was a 25-3 edge in shots attempted at one point.  As it was, the Leafs ended the game with an 84-46 edge in total shot attempts (40-22 in shots on goal).

-- The Caps season so far in a moment… Alex Ovechkin circling behind the Toronto net once..twice (shoot, he might still be doing it).  Other guys were standing around, and he had his head down.  They’re not giving him a passing option, and he’s not looking for one.  Game over.

-- Toronto had a total of 12:11 in power play ice time in the first 35:58 of the game.  More than a third of the elapsed time is time Ovechkin isn’t going to see the ice.  He had less than ten minutes of even strength ice time in the first two periods.

--  Michal Neuvirth deserved better…a lot better.  He had 37 saves on 40 shots and saved nine of ten on the penalty kill.  Look at it this way.  He face more even strength shots (27) than the Caps had in total (22).  He had a soft goal in there – the game-tying goal by Kulemin when he let the original shot squeak through his pads to the goal line.  But he more than made up for it just on his repeated robberies on Phil Kessel.

--  And where is Nicklas Backstrom?  In 18 minutes and change, two shot attempts (none on goal), and he lost 13 of 20 faceoffs (he was 2-for-7 in the offensive zone).  He did have an assist on the Ovechkin goal, but otherwise it would be hard to remember moment.

-- The Caps were 5-for-21 on offensive zone draws.  Backstrom and Ribeiro were a combined 9-for-25.

-- Caps season so far in a moment, part dwux… Marcus Johansson gives up the puck, they gets turned around in front of Neuvirth, Jeff Schultz is late to cover Frattin, and Frattin flips it off the pipe and in.  A day late and a dollar short.

-- Ovechkin did not have an even strength shot on goal in the game until there was 2:14 left in the game; it was his only even strength shot on goal of the game.  That’s ok…no Cap had more than two even strength shots on goal.

-- Ponder this for a moment.  In the year Alex Ovechkin scored 65 goals it represented 27.3 percent of total number of goals scored by the Caps in 2007-2008.  With his fourth goal tonight, Joel Ward has accounted for 26.7 percent of the Caps’ goals this season.  One is a good sign, the other is not.

-- It might surprise you to know that Eric Fehr dressed tonight. Getting only 4:11 in ice time (and no shifts in the second period), you might be excused for missing him. 

 -- John Erskine has had more “Ovechkin” in him than Ovechkin lately.  He had an even strength goal against Buffalo (Ovechkin does not yet have one), and his hit on Phil Kessel barely a half minute into this game had a very “Ovechkinesque” look to it.

-- Look, killing seven of eight shorthanded situations is a good thing, but if they go short eight times against the Penguins on Sunday, Pittsburgh is going to challenge double digits in goals. The Leafs power play was and is flat out awful.  The fact that the Caps have allowed power play goals in six of seven games does not give one a comfortable feeling heading into the weekend.

-- Early post game comments from the players seem to repeat the word “luck” a lot, as in “the Caps haven’t had any.”  Bull.  If you’re 1-5-1, losing from Florida to Canada and in-between, when you blow third period leads in consecutive games, you’re not unlucky, you’re just bad.

In the end, the Caps are looking right down the gun barrel.  At 1-5-1 they now get the Pennsylvania teams (Pittsburgh twice) and a rematch with the Leafs in the next four games.  By the time they get to face the almost equally hapless Florida Panthers on February 9th, the Caps could be 1-9-1.  If that comes to pass, their season is over.  They have to turn this around…right…now.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 7: Capitals at Maple Leafs, January 31st

The Washington Capitals wrap up their mid-week trip to Canada on Thursday with a visit to Air Canada Centre in Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs. The Caps’ struggles out of the gate have been talked about in just about every blog, column, radio show, podcast, bar, chat room, message board, and monastery within 50 miles of Washington.  Here is the summary…

They stink.  Goals per game…23rd.  Goals against per game… 29th.  Five-on-five play… 26th.  Power play… tied for 21st.  Penalty killing… 25th.  And now they head to ACC, where the Caps have had some (if not extraordinary) success.  In 23 decisions at ACC since it opened for hockey in February 1999 the Caps are 9-9 with two ties and three losses in extra time.  They have, however, won two of the last three decisions there.

And on Thursday the Caps have decent opportunity to add to the good on that record.  Toronto is 3-3-0 overall, but they have only two games so far under their belts at home this season.  Both decisions were losses, a one-goal decision to the Buffalo Sabres and a 7-4 strafing by the New York Islanders a week ago.  Here is how the teams stack up numbers-wise...

1.  Toronto has one clear problem so far this season, the pesky notion that a hockey game is 60 minutes.  Their offense has scored seven goals in the first period of games this season; only three other teams have more first period scores.  But from there it goes downhill – six in the second period, four in the third.  Meanwhile, the defense has allowed only four goals in the first period, also a respectable number (11th fewest).  But again, things go south from there – six goals in the second period and 10 (tied for the league high) in the third.

2.  At least Alex Ovechkin has a goal… In Toronto, Phil Kessel is still looking for his first of the season.  Kessel has averaged 34 goals over the last four seasons, but has only one goal over his last 14 games dating back to last season. In 21 career games against the Caps he is 5-8-13, even.

3.  It is early, but only two teams have had fewer shorthanded situations to face per game than the Maple Leafs (2.50/game).  They have enjoyed a 12-5 advantage in power play opportunities over their opponents in two home games.

4.  Mike Brown is sixth in the league with 29 penalty minutes, but he has played in at least one fewer game than any of the players in the top 11 in that statistic.  In earning those minutes he has more fighting majors (three) than minor penalties (two).  There is also a misconduct thrown in there for variety.

5.  Nazem Kadri (3-3-6) is already half way to his career high in points.  He has been consistent with points in four of five games to date.

1.  The 1-4-1 start for the Caps is their worst six-game start since going 1-4-1 (tie) to start the 2003-2004 season in which they finished 23-46-10-3.

2.  Only Los Angeles (6.3) and Colorado (6.0) have faced more shorthanded situations per game on the road than the Caps (5.7) so far.

3.  Scoring first in this league is supposed to matter, but the Caps and Columbus are the only two teams in the league with 0-2-0 records when scoring the game’s first goal.

4.  One of the signatures of “Hunter Hockey” last season was a propensity to block shots.  Not so this season, at least so far.  The Caps are tied with Columbus (being tied with Columbus in any team statistic, let alone two, shows how bad things are at the moment) for 20th in total blocked shots so far.  But they are ahead of Toronto (23rd).

5.  If one would have asked, “after six games, who among the Caps would rank in the top 20 in shooting percentage?," how many of you would have answered, “Matt Hendricks and Joel Ward (tied for 19th at 25.0 percent)?”

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Toronto: Dion Phaneuf

Washington is not the only hockey town in which the captain is struggling.  Of 218 defensemen having dressed so far this season, Dion Phaneuf ranks 218th in plus minus (ok, tied for 217th with teammate Michael Kostka).  Only four defensemen have been on ice for more goals against, and no defenseman has been on ice for more even strength goals (tied with Ryan Suter).  He gets lots of ice time (second in time on ice per game among defensemen), and he gets the tough assignments, but the captain is going to have to play better in Toronto, too.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

It was not supposed to be this way.  Fresh off a fine start to a season in the Kontinental Hockey League (he is still tenth in goals scored and 11th in points), Alex Ovechkin was supposed to get off to a fast start, silence the critics, and lead the Caps out of the gate.  Instead, he has been shuffled among the lines, flipped from one wing to the other, and here he sits six games into the season with one power play goal and one assist to his credit.  He is shooting (or at least getting shots on goal) with the lowest frequency of his career (3.3 shots per game) and is tied on his own team with John Erskine and Jay Beagle in points.  That the Caps have as many as one win with their captain producing this meagerly might be a miracle.


1.  Floor it!  Look, this is not likely to be a defensive struggle.  Toronto and Washington rank 26th and 29th in scoring defense.  The Caps need the players they depend on for offense to be offensive.  Ovechkin has 23 goals in 27 games against the Leafs.  Nicklas Backstrom has 14 assists in 17 games against Toronto.  Mike Ribeiro is 11-11-22 in 27 games against the Maple Leafs.  Even Matt Hendricks has a goal in seven career games against this team.  Unleash the fury, for heaven’s sake.

2.  When opportunity knocks, answer.  Toronto has not allowed much at home in the way of power play opportunity – only five shorthanded situations face and less than ten minutes of penalty killing time in total.  If the Caps get opportunities, they have to make good on them.  There might not be many.

3.  Get your playoff game face on.  How many times did we hear that a 48-game season was going to be like the playoffs?  Some teams are playing like it, and some are not.  The Caps have been in the latter category.  They need to start showing the mettle they showed last spring, some more than others (74, that means you).

In the end, the Caps are facing a team that is similar to Tampa Bay in terms of defense and goaltending (not all that good) without the Lightning’s offense.  And the Caps really should have beaten Tampa Bay.  They can’t afford any third period collapses or the odd shift spent daydreaming or just plain old lollygagging.  They have six teams they have to climb over to become playoff eligible, and there is no time like the present to start climbing.

Capitals 5 – Maple Leafs 3

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

A NO-point night -- Senators 3 - Capitals 2

For 38 minutes the Washington Capitals looked as if they were turning a corner against the Ottawa Senators.  They got goals less than five minutes apart late in the first period, added stifling defense (13 shots allowed), mixed in some effective goaltending (Micxhal Neuvirth stopping all 13 shots faced), and had a recipe for inching up a bit in the Eastern Conference standings (a win would have left them tenth in the Conference at the end of the night).

Then came the last 22 minutes.  The Senators scored three goals on their last 14 shots while the Caps  managed only 11 shots (none of which they scored on).  Washington took two penalties (one of which led to the game-winning goal with only 2:30 left).  The horn went off with the Senators winning a 3-2 decision and the Caps still in 14th place in the East.  It was an opportunity lost.

Other stuff…

-- More of the same… long stretches of not quite getting it interspersed with short bursts of looking like a functioning hockey team.  The Troy Brouwer goal was one of the latter.  It helped that Guillaume Latendresse started the play by doing something he had no business doing, cutting to the middle of the ice at the Caps blue line with Nicklas Backstronm standing right there.  Latendresse coughed up the puck to Backstrom, who led Wojtek Wolski with a pass for a 2-on-1 with Brouwer heading down the middle.  When Patrick Wiercioch loped instead of skated after Brouwer, Wolski had an open target for a pass. He made good on it, Brouwer deked goalie Craig Anderson to the ice, and the Caps had a lead.

-  The second Caps goal was more simplicity and hard work than the reflection of a system.  Matt Hendricks won a faceoff in the Ottawa end and made a bee line for the net.  John Erskine collected the puck and fired a shot that was blocked by Jim O’Brien.  Erskine stuck with the play and retrieved the puck, upon which he moved it over to Jay Beagle on his right.  Beagle fired, and Hendricks – still camped out in front of the Senators’ net – redirected the puck past Anderson, and it was 2-0.  

-  Ottawa’s fourth line was 1-2-3, even, with seven shots on goal for the game.  The Caps’ first line (in this one, arguably Nicklas Backstrom, Wojtek Wolski, and Troy Brouwer) was 1-2-3, even, with six shots on goal.  Not the sort of standoff you’re looking for, if you’re a Caps fan.  And the Ovechkin-Perreault-Crabb experiment to start the game?  That line was 0-0-0, plus-1, with five shots on goal.

-  The adventure that is John Carlson continues.  Six shot attempts, four on goal, three blocked shots, and a hit, but he was also on ice for two of the three Senator goals.  He has been on ice for 15 of the 22 goals scored against Washington through six games.  At this rate he will be on ice for 16 more goals in 48 games (120) han he was in 82 games last season (104).

-  Matt Hendricks… a goal (following a faceoff win), two hits, 6-for-7 on faceoffs in just under 14 minutes of ice time.  He is certainly doing his part out there.

-  Eric Fehr and Mathieu Perreault combined for three shots on goal in combined 18:08 of ice time with no points.  If they are out there to generate offense, it is not happening yet.

-  The penalty called on Karl Alzner last night was his first minor of the season and only his 30th in 221 career games.  It was probably the weakest of any of the calls against him, career-wise.  That is certainly not a penalty last January, and it probably is not a penalty a month from now.

-  John Erskine announced his presence with authority last night.  He was credited with eight hits.  But it was his staying with the play that led to the Caps’ second goal that stood out.

-  OK, so the leading at intermission thing is not such a big deal, after all.  The Caps led at both intermissions, and lost.

-  The Caps got power play shots from the guys you want taking them – Ovechkin, Backstrom, Wolski, and Mike Green.  Just not enough of them (one apiece).

In the end, if a team’s fourth line negates your top line in scoring; if their most dangerous scorer is out, and yours is just, well, not there; you’re going to lose.  Still, the Caps really have no excuse for losing this game.  A two goal lead in the second half of the game with the other team’s top scorer out; you need to close the deal with 22 minutes left.  The Caps did not, and it is another opportunity lost, this one against a team they might have been fighting with for a playoff spot.  A spot that even only six games into the season is starting to look like hope more than expectation.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Is the 2012-2013 Season Merely a "Training Camp?"

Elliotte Friedman does an incomparable job taking the pulse of the NHL in his weekly "30 Thoughts" feature.  This week's edition is heavy on the Washington Capitals references, but one "thought" stood out...

"Some of their opponents do feel Washington is one club badly hurt by the lack of exhibition games. It will take time to adjust from Dale Hunter's system to Adam Oates's. McPhee said that when the Devils made changes last season (with Oates on staff), 'It took 16-20 games before they were doing it right.'"

After 16 games last season the Devils had 66 more to hone their skills in the Oates system after getting to the point of "doing it right."  This year, no team has the luxury of what amounts to a 16-20 game shakedown cruise.  After 16 games last season, the Devils were 8-7-1, but then again, they started 3-1-1 in their first five games, not 1-3-1. 

Over their last 66 games the Devils were 40-21-5 and still finished sixth in the Eastern Conference.  This year the Caps will have fewer than half that to make up any ground lost over a 16-game break-in period by learning how to do things right in this system. 

They can mitigate that problem by speeding up the learning curve, but based on early results the chances of that seem iffy.  However, if they do not speed things up, the last 32 games of the regular season might be less of a chase for the 2013 playoffs than it will be an extended training camp in advance of the 2013-2014 season.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 6: Capitals at Senators, January 29th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals head to the road for their first trip to Canada of the 2013 season, first with a stop in Ottawa to visit the Senators, then to Toronto to take on the Maple Leafs.  As the Caps head to Ottawa they…

“Can we plan the parade route now, cousin?”


“The Caps are 1-3-1.  The last time a team in the Eastern Conference started 1-3-1 to start a 48-game season and wore red jerseys, they won the Stanley Cup.”

You’re speaking of the 1995 New Jersey Devils.


“Cuz, now you know that no team has ever lost its first three games in regulation and won a Stanley Cup.”

“I suppose you did all the due diligence in investigating that claim?”

“Naw, I just looked over there in the right side of the screen where Peerless put it.”

“So…do we do the Pennsylvania Avenue route, or do we do something around F Street and the arena?”

For what?

“The parade route, of course…”

“You’ve been hittin’ the special recipe pretty hard, haven’t ya cuz…”

“If you mean that tarnish remover you call a beverage, no, I haven’t.  I’m just using cool, clear logic, something you wouldn’t comprehend.”

“You’re using something clear and cool, alright, and I usually serve it in a mason jar, just so you…"

Guys!  Can we just play the games first?

Speaking of first, the Caps’ first game in Canada in this season will be played at Scotiabank Place, a place that has not been kind to the Caps.  Since opening as The Palladium in January 1996 Ottawa is 20-11-1 against Washington, although one of the stranger games in Caps history was played there in November 1998 (when it was renamed "Corel Centre").  As Rachel Alexander described it in the aftermath for the Washington Post…

“It was strange, it was ugly and it was breathtaking, all at once. But most of all, the wild, emotional ride the Washington Capitals took at Corel Centre tonight was a victory, an 8-5 triumph over the Ottawa Senators that halted their winless streak at six games.”

The game started innocently enough with the Capitals taking a 2-1 lead into the first intermission against the host team.  Then things got strange.  The teams combined for seven goals in the second period – four of them being consecutive scores by the Senators to drive an injured Olaf Kolzig out of the Capitals net and to the bench in favor of Mike Rosati, making his NHL debut.  Rosati shut out the Senators over the last 8:07 of the second period, and the teams went to the second intermission tied at five goals apiece.  Then the game turned off Strange Street and took a left down Bizarre Boulevard.  The Caps scored three goals in the third period, Rosati shut out the Senators over the last 20 minutes, and the Caps skated off with an 8-5 win over the Senators.  It would be Rosati’s only NHL career win in his only NHL career appearance in goal.

We’ll take that sort of strangeness in this one, as long as it provides the same result on the scoreboard (and no injuries to goaltenders).  Here is now the numbers work out for the two teams in the early going to date in the 2013 season…

1.  Ottawa has allowed only one goal on 65 shots in 125 minutes of hockey on Scotiabank Place ice so far.  That is due in no small part to the goaltending of Craig Anderson, who stopped those 64 shots in a 4-0 win over the Florida Panthers and a 2-1 Gimmick loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Overall, Anderson is 3-0-1, 0.73, .975 with one shutout.  It is a much better start than he had to open last season when he was 1-2-0, 4.99, .852 in his first five appearances.

2.  Kyle Turris was traded by the Phoenix Coyotes to Ottawa in December 2001 for defenseman David Rundblad and a second round draft choice (later traded to Philadelphia, who picked Anthony Stolarz).  Since that trade Rundblad has played in seven games for Phoenix, going 0-3-3, minus-3.  On the other hand, Turris is 16-18-34, plus-14 in 54 games (a 24-27-51, plus-21 pace).  That includes four goals in five games so far this season.  Seems like a pretty good trade for the Senators.  In two career games against the Caps, Turris has not recorded a point.

3.  Jason Spezza has a much longer – and more productive – career resume against the Caps than Kyle Turris.  In 30 career games against the Caps he is 9-20-29, minus-1.  However, in his last seven games against the Caps he has not recorded a goal and has only three assists to go along with a minus-4 rating.

4.  Last year the Senators did it by spreading the wealth.  Ottawa had 16 skaters with at least ten points in 2011-2012, nine player with at least ten goals.  They are off to a good start in that regard this season, too.  The Senators have ten players with at least one goal (the Caps have a total of 11 as a team).

5.  Sergei Gonchar has played in 1,137 career regular season games in the NHL, 654 of them with the Caps.  Since leaving Washington in a trade to Boston that would bring back Shaone Morrison, and two draft picks (one of which would become Jeff Schultz), Gonchar has been a Bruin, a Penguin, and now a Senator.  In two-plus seasons in Ottawa, Gonchar is 12-55-67, minus-19.  He is still a factor on power plays (seven of his 12 goals and 36 of his 67 points have come on the man advantage), but he can be something of a liability on defense at this stage of his career.  With the Senators he has been on ice for 143 goals in 146 games, including five of the nine goals allowed by Ottawa through five games this season.

1.  Only one Capital who played in each of the first five games is without a point – Karl Alzner.  Yes, that is not what he is paid to do, but he did have three points in his first five games last season.  What he is paid to do is defend, and he has been on ice for ten of the 19 goals allowed by the Caps so far, including six of the eight power play goals allowed so far.  Maybe it is him; maybe it is his erstwhile partner, John Carlson.  But those are not Alzneresque numbers.

2.  It is only two road games completed so far, but the scoring profile needs to change.  The Caps have eight players with points so far, but here is the list of those without a point… Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Troy Brouwer, Marcus Johansson.  Those four players had 36 goals and 84 points in 139 man-games on the road last season.

3.  Joel Ward has three goals so far this season to lead the club… on 11 shots on goal.  He is either this year’s “Mathieu Perreault (a 26.7 shooting percentage last season)," or there is some regression to his personal mean coming.

4.  Mike Green ranks third in the league at the moment in average ice time per game (27:52).  No player has a higher average ice time per shift than Green (1:02/shift).  In fact, the Caps have three of the top 10 players in ice time per shift – Green, Alex Ovechkin (third at 0:59/shift), and Roman Hamrlik (tied for tenth with 0:55/shift).

5.  Michal Neuvirth has crawled back to the first page of the goalie rankings in save percentage at  He is now ranked 30th at .889.  This is still a work in progress.  But among current and past Capitals goaltenders in the NHL, Neuvirth now ranks second in goals-against average (21st overall) with a 2.92 GAA.  He trails Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov, who at 2.47 leads current and past Caps goalies (16th overall).  If you were wondering, Braden Holtby is 38th overall in save percentage and 41st (last) in GAA.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Ottawa: Erik Karlsson

Karlsson has picked up where he left off last season when he won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.  He is tied for the team lead in points (five) and is tied for sixth in overall scoring among the league’s defensemen.  The difference, at least so far, is in goals against.  Last season he was on ice for 85 goals against in 81 games, 23rd highest among 297 defensemen dressing for games.  In five games so far he has been on ice for three of the nine goals scored on the Senators.  In ten career games against the Caps he is 2-5-7, minus-2.

Washington: Jason Chimera

Last season Jason Chimera had four goals on 16 shots in his first five games on his way to his first career 20-goal season.  Through five games this season Chimera has yet to record a goal on any of the 11 shots he has recorded.  He has only one goal in 17 career games against the Senators (1-5-6, minus-3), but the Caps are going to need secondary scoring such as his to build on the three points in the last two games the team recorded.


1.  Beware the second period blahs.  In five games the Caps allowed eight of the 19 total goals surrendered in the second period.  On the other hand, Ottawa scored eight of their 16 goals in the second period.   This arithmetic is not hard to figure out.

2.  Shoot!  At the risk of sounding like a beer-addled fan in the upper deck, shooting might matter here.  The Sens are 3-1-0 when outshooting their opponent, 0-0-1 when outshot.  The Caps are 1-1-0 when outshooting their opponent, 0-2-1 when outshot.  Yes, small sample size, we know.

3.  Don’t tempt fate.  Only two teams have fewer power play opportunities in the early going than Ottawa (15).  Only two teams have spent less time on the power play than the Senators (a total of 20:52, a little more than half that of the Caps).  But the Sens are 4-for-15 on those power plays.  They have the ninth most efficient power play in the league at 26.7 percent, although they are only tied for 15th in power play goals scored.  Stay out of the box; don’t tempt fate.

In the end, this is a team – one that can be expected to contend for a spot in the lower half of the playoff draw – that the Caps have to beat.  This is their competition for the playoffs this season.  

Capitals 4 - Senators 3

Monday, January 28, 2013

That Was The Week That Was -- Week (January 19 -27)

Week 1…plus

Here we are with the weekly installment of “That Was The Week That Was.”  This first installment covers games starting with opening night through January 27, a five-game stretch that was not the start the Caps were hoping for.

Record: 1-3-1

It is entirely possible that this is where the Caps could be expected to have started under a new coach – one with no previous head coaching experience – implementing new systems for a team seeing its third such installation (and fourth system) since December 2010.  This also happens to be a new coach with new assistants who did not have the luxury of a training camp to see and evaluate just what it is they had in terms of talent and personality.  It is the how they got to 1-3-1 that might be viewed as distressing. 

The Caps fought the Tampa Bay Lightning to a draw for 40 minutes before giving up three goals in the last 20 minutes to lose, 6-3.  They dropped their home opener to a Winnipeg Jets team that dropped their first two games, including a Gimmick loss in Boston the day before arriving in Washington to beat the Caps.  Then they dropped a home game to Montreal, who quite frankly is not very good.  The Caps salvaged some good will by the end of the week with a hard fought overtime loss to New Jersey in which they came back from two goals down with less than ten minutes left in the third period to force overtime, then beating the Buffalo Sabres to earn their first win and first home win of the season.

Offense: 2.20/game (season: 2.20/rank: T-25th)

The Capitals suffered from slow starts this week.  In five games they managed only three first period goals and only another three second period tallies.  It made for a situation in which the Caps did not take a lead into any intermission until closing the second period of their last game of the week with a 2-1 lead over the Buffalo Sabres.  The big guns were largely absent. 

Alex Ovechkin went his first four games of the season without a goal, the longest such streak of his career, before getting his first in Game 5 (the game-winner, as it turned out, against Buffalo). He might have had another but for ringing the post with an empty net in front of him in the last 30 seconds of the 3-2 win over Buffalo to close the week. 

Nicklas Backstrom went the entire week without a goal, and given that Alexander Semin is no longer around, a few more goals from Backstrom would seem essential to the Caps’ success this season.  Marcus Johansson, who started the 2011-2012 season with five goals in his first eight games, had none in his first four games playing significant minute on the top line.  He was benched in the last game of the week.

Defense: 3.80/game (season: 3.80/rank: T-28th)

It was a team effort, just not the sort one is looking for.  Here is a way of looking at it.  Two thirds of last year’s “Meat and Potatoes Line” – Joel Ward and Jason Chimera – is plus-3 apiece (Brooks Laich remains out with an injury).  Only one other skater is in “plus” territory for the week (Mike Ribeiro: plus-3).  There are 15 skaters in “minus” territory. 

One of the problems the Caps seem to be struggling with is the concept of keeping teams from getting a lead.  In four of the five games the Caps allowed the first goal, going 1-2-1 in those games.  Then there is the middle period.  Maybe it is the long change, maybe it is the opposition making first intermission adjustments, but the Caps were outshot 64-37 in the middle period and outscored 8-3 in the second period for the five games.

Goaltending: GAA: 3.75/SV: .877

Braden Holtby came into the season as, if not the clear favorite to assume the number one goaltending responsibilities, then certainly more than worthy of consideration given his performance last spring in the playoffs.  Giving up ten goals on 73 shots in two games to open the season, though, is not conducive to cementing one’s position as that number one goaltender.  Enter Michal Neuvirth, who seemed to have been the forgotten man in this subplot.  But after losing his first decision, a 4-1 loss to Montreal in which he allowed four goals on only 22 shots, he recovered to stop 54 of 59 shots (.915 save percentage) in an overtime loss and the club’s first win of the season to close the week.  He is, for the moment at least, the number one goalie. 

Power play: 4-for-23 / 17.4 percent (season: 17.4 percent / rank: 19th)

The best one could say about the Caps’ power play this week is that it is a “work in progress.”  Washington recorded one power play goal in four of the five games.  They did manage 30 shots on goal in 38:20 of power play time for the week.  One might expect a bit more efficiency than the 13.3 percent shooting percentage with the man advantage (shooting efficiency seems to be a general concern; they are at 5.9 percent at even strength).  Alex Ovechkin was zero for his first ten power play shots of the week before connecting on his last one, the game-winning goal in the 3-2 win over Buffalo on Sunday.  What the Caps probably cannot count on is another (or at least regular) two goals on four power play shots from Joel Ward.  Other players are going to have to step up.

Penalty Killing: 18-for-26 / 69.2 percent (season: 69.2 percent / rank: 25th)

The Caps were 9-for-13 at home on the penalty kill, and they were 9-for-13 on the road.  Lack of success was not dependent on either geography or the color of jersey they were wearing.  Part of the problem was opportunities.  The Caps found themselves shorthanded 24 times in their first four games, allowing eight goals.  Another problem was just plain inefficiency.  They allowed those eight goals on 39 shots, a 20.5 percent shooting percentage for their opponents.  They had a record of 0-3-1.  In their lone win they allowed the Buffalo Sabres only two power play opportunities and allowed the Sabres only two power play shots on goal.  As it is, only Philadelphia has allowed more shorthanded opportunities (29) than the Caps (26).  The best penalty kill is not having to kill penalties.

Paying the Price: 86 hits / 64 blocked shots (season rank: 21st / 13th)

The usual suspects are splitting up the hitting chores.  Troy Brouwer (13), Jason Chimera (12), Alex Ovechkin (11), and Matt Hendricks (10) account for 53 percent of the hits credited to the Caps so far.  A bit of a surprise is Mike Green, who has eight hits credited to his account (compare to last season, 27 in 32 games).  As one might expect, the defense lead the way in blocked shots with five of the top six shot-blockers for the week being blueliners.  John Carlson led the club with 11, his running mate (“former” running mate by the end of the week) Karl Alzner was second with eight.  Both players struggled in their own way on defense, though, despite the blocked shots.  Carlson finished the week having the second-highest number of goals scored against while on ice, and Alzner was tied for sixth.

Faceoffs: 148-for-296 / 50.0 percent (season: 50.0 percent / rank: 17th)

If faceoffs are an indicator, the ice was tilted against the Caps this week.  The Caps took 118 draws in the defensive zone (winning 63 for 53.4 percent), only 98 in the offensive zone (winning 45 for 45.9 percent).  Nicklas Backstrom (18-38) and Mike Ribeiro (5-for-17) did not get the Caps started on the right foot too often in the offensive zone (41.8 percent combined).  At the other end, though, Jay Beagle was a warrior in the defensive end, going 27-for-37 (73.0 percent).

Turnovers: minus-6

What might be the odd part of this number this week is the lack of takeaways from the defense.  As a group they have 11 of the team’s 33 takeaways, but John Carlson was credited with six of those (team leader) while five other defensemen had one apiece.  Carlson also happens to be second on the team in giveaways (four).  Things certainly do happen when John Carlson is on the ice, good and bad, and that is the Caps’ week in a nutshell.

In the end…

That the Caps would struggle at the outset was the opinion of many when the season started.  But truth be told, the Caps caught a break in the scheduling out of the gate.  They got a Tampa Bay team that is not all that accomplished a defensive team and ran out of gas in the third period of a 6-3 loss.  They got a team in their home opener – Winnipeg – that no one is picking to be a strong challenger for the Southeast Division title.  Montreal just is not that good, and the Caps looked awful against them.  They picked things up against New Jersey, a team that did start the year strong.  Then the Caps had Buffalo in Game 5, a team that was missing its leading goal scorer and seems to be a team that traded scoring balance for a more physical edge.  It is not clear that they upgraded themselves in the process.

Now things get tougher.  After a visit to Canada to face Ottawa and Toronto, they will play Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Toronto again, and then a second opportunity to face the Penguins.  It is a six-game stretch that provides a challenge, to be sure.  But challenges are merely opportunities, and if the Caps can take advantage of this “opportunity” to come out the other side by at least taking half the available standings points, they will be in reasonable good stead as they hit the quarter pole in the 2013 season.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A TWO-point night -- Game 5: Capitals 3 - Sabres 2

Even in 2009-2010, when the Caps finished the season with a franchise best 54 wins, they had to get a “first” win.  Today the Caps got their first win of the 2013 season, a 3-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in Washington.  It was not without its moments of suspense, especially late, but it was a win, and not the accidental or unearned variety.  The Caps played their most complete game of the season and got something to build on as they head out on the Canada Road this week.

It did not start out to the liking of the Caps or their fans, the visitors getting the first goal midway through the first period.  Tyler Ennis finished a nice triangle passing play that started when Drew Stafford pilfered the puck from under John Carlson’s stick and led a rush into the Washington end.  Upon crossing the blue line he dished the puck to Steve Ott on the left wing.  As Stafford continued his sprint to the net, Ott hit the trailer Ennis, who followed in Stafford’s wake and slid the puck under goalie Michal Neuvirth to open the scoring.

The Caps knotted the game with under four minutes to go in the first period when Jason Chimera collected a pass from Mike Ribeiro in the right wing corner to goalie Ryan Miller’s left.  Chimera spun and wristed the puck at the net, where Miller sticked the puck away.  However, in doing so Miller sent the puck up the middle where Joel Ward had slipped by Cody Hodgson (who had a brutal game for Buffalo).  Ward wasted no time in slamming the loose puck past Miller to tie the game, ending the scoring for the first 20 minutes.

Washington would get the only goal of the second period, a product of a John Erskine wrister from the left point that was screened by no fewer than four Sabres on its way to the Buffalo net.  The last Sabre – Hodgson – deflected the puck just enough for it to elude Miller for the tie-breaking goal. 

The last period was a return to the past, if but for a moment.  It started when Alexander Sulzer backhanded the puck over the glass to earn a delay-of-game penalty.  On the ensuing power play Mike Ribeiro picked up a loose puck as he was backing up to the goal line to Ryan Miller’s left.  Ribiero kicked the puck back out to Mike Green at the top of the right wing faceoff circle.  From there Green laid the puck off to his left where Alex Ovechkin was waiting in his office, the left wing faceoff circle.  Ovechkin one-timed the Green pass over Miller’s blocker and under the crossbar to give the Caps a 3-1 lead.

The Caps would need the insurance late as Marcus Foligno halved the Caps’ lead by swatting in a rebound from the top of the Caps’ crease, but Buffalo could get no closer.  The Caps might have added another insurance goal in the last 30 seconds with Miller pulled for an extra attacker, but Ovechkin rang a shot off the near post with an empty net in front of him to add a bit of drama to the last few moments.  No harm was done, though, and the Caps skated off with a 3-2 win.

Other stuff…

-  It was a day of firsts for the Caps…

  • The first win of Adam Oates’ head coaching career
  • The first win for the Caps this season
  • The first goal for Alex Ovechkin this season
  • The first goal for John Erskine this season
  • The first time the Caps led at an intermission this season (2-1 after the second period)
  • First win and first home win of the season

-  Ovechkin played in a manner to which his fans are more accustomed.  He had his first goal of the season, five shots on goal, one missed shot (the missed empty net), three hits, and a takeaway in 18:29 of ice time.  And, he ran down at least three potential icing calls and displayed a backchecking effort folks complain they do not see enough of.  He looked like a guy tired of losing.

-  With two assists on the day, Mike Ribeiro is now 1-5-6 and leads the team in points.  He has points in four of the five games the Caps have played to date.

-  Every Capital taking more than two draws had a winning percentage on faceoffs.  Small wonder; Buffalo came into the game dead last in the league in faceoff winning percentage and was under 40 percent (37.7 percent) in this one.

-  Joel Ward got his third goal in five games this afternoon.  Caps fans might remember that last year Ward had three goals in his first ten games, then had one in his next 27 games.  However, this has a different look to it; Adam Oates seems more inclined than was Dale Hunter, at least for the time being, for putting Ward in positions (mainly in close) where he can do some damage on rebounds.  At the moment, Ward has inherited the “Knuble” seat for the Caps.

-  Now that Ovechkin is off the schneid, and Mike Ribeiro is on a bit of a roll, the next order of business is to get Nicklas Backstrom untracked.  In 19:42 Backstrom had two shots on goal and no points.  He is now three games without a point and has not scored a goal in any of the five games, his longest streak without a goal to open a season since the 2009-2010 season (14 games).

-  That the Caps held the Sabres to two goals was not so much a product of stout defense as it was: a) Buffalo not having Thomas Vanek in the lineup, and b) Michal Neuvirth bailing them out after breakdowns in front.  Neuvirth was solid in his positioning and quick when he needed to be.  At the moment, he seems to have a solid hold on the number one goaltender position.

-  John Erskine skated 20:56 in ice time in this contest.  It was the first time he finished with more than 20 minutes in a game that ended in regulation since he skated 20:13 in a 5-2 win over the Sabres on December 23, 2009.

-  From the “who gets what” file, Jay Beagle had 10 defensive zone faceoffs taken (no offensive zone draws), Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro combined to take nine offensive zone draws.  This seems intuitively obvious from an ice management perspective, but it did not seem to be the case for the Caps last year.

-  Say what you will about Mathieu Perreault, but he does have a certain fearless (if at times futile) air about him.  Marcus Foligno is 6’3”, 226 pounds, but there was Perreault (5’10”, 185 pounds…maybe) at least making the effort to tie him up as Foligno got behind Mike Green (who was engaged with Patrick Kaleta) and was putting a rebound past Michal Neuvirth late. 

-  The Caps have now killed off nine of their last ten shorthanded situations.  In those ten shorthanded situations the Caps have allowed one goal on 15 shots.

In the end, it is one thing to say this was the most complete game that the Caps have played so far (it is), but it is another to say they played at a high level.  Remember, this Sabres team was lit up for nine goals in two games by Carolina and was missing its top goal scorer and point producer.  Still, this is not the Beauty Contest System of college football; you do not get extra standings points for winning pretty.  The Caps built on the baby step they took in New Jersey on Friday, and all of a sudden we can say that the Caps are on a points earned streak (1-0-1 in their last two contests). 

It gets harder from here, though.  Washington will go on the road to Canada to take on Ottawa and Toronto before playing three games in four against the Pennsylvania teams – Pittsburgh (twice) and Philadelphia.  It is a tough six-game stretch over which the Caps will have to raise their game another level of two again above what they displayed in this game.  But this game certainly was something on which they could build.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 5: Sabres at Capitals, January 27th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Washington Capitals return home on Sunday to try to build on their standings point earned in New Jersey on Friday night.  The Buffalo Sabres come to town in the midst of a two-game losing streak, dropping consecutive games in a back-to-back, home-and-home pair to the Carolina Hurricanes.

The next step for the Caps will be to climb out of last place in the league, which is where they still find themselves four games into the season.  Buffalo provides some interesting counterpoint in this game as the Caps try to start that climb.  It was against Buffalo that the Caps ended their six-game losing streak to start the 1993-1994 season, a win that allowed the Caps to avoid an 0-3-0 start at home.  As it is, the Caps will be looking to avoid recording their first 0-3-0 start (all regulation losses) at home since the 1978-1979 season.

The Sabres might be just the thing for the Caps.  Buffalo is 1-5-1 in their last seven visits to Washington, and as we noted, they are coming off consecutive losses to Carolina.  Not only that, but Thomas Vanek, who leads the club in scoring with three goals and nine points, is questionable with what is being called an “undetermined muscle strain.”

If Vanek is unable to go, that would leave the Sabres with two other three-goal scorers in their lineup.  Jason Pominville is 3-5-8 through four games so far and has points in each of the four games played to date. Pominville has been a particular thorn in the side of the Caps.  In his last 20 games against Washington covering five seasons he is 8-9-17, plus-3.

While Jason Pominville has a long and successful history against the Caps, the other three-goal scorer for the Sabres so far has neither.  Cody Hodgson was a tenth-overall draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2008.  He was traded to Buffalo by the Canucks at last year’s trading deadline for Zack Kassian.  In his rookie season last year, split between Vancouver and Buffalo, Hodgson was 19-22-41, plus-1.  What he has not had is much in the way of experience against the Caps.  In two career games against Washington he is 0-1-1, even.  That is not to say that the Caps, or at least some of them, have not seen Hodgson before.  He was a member of the Manitoba Moose team that lost to the Hershey Bears in the 2009 Calder Cup final, a Bears team that included John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Jay Beagle, and Michal Neuvirth from the current Caps squad.  Hodgson was 1-2-3, plus-2 in five games against the Bears in that final.

The difficulty the Sabres have had so far is that their scoring has been so top-heavy.  They have only three players with more than one goal and only four players with more than one point.  And the Sabres have another problem – poor finishes.  Through four games Buffalo has yet to allow a goal in the first period.  The flip side of that is the fact that they have allowed six second period goals and six third period goals.  Here is how the two teams fared last season, numbers-wise…

1.  Only two teams have taken more minor penalties so far than the Sabres; only four teams have found themselves shorthanded more often (before Saturday’s games).  Three Sabres are in the top 11 in minor penalties taken so far (Tyler Myers, Thomas Vanek, and Patrick Kaleta, all with four).

2.  Those three three-goal scorers for the Sabres – Thomas Vanek, Cody Hodgson, and Jason Pominville – they have accounted for 53 of the 135 shots on goal taken by the team, leaving 82 shots for the other 16 skaters that have taken the ice for the Sabres over four games.  Buffalo is not generating much in the way of balanced pressure.

3.  If you had Jason Pominville as the Sabre with the most career goals against the Caps, you would be wrong.  Ditto if you had Thomas Vanek.  Or even Drew Stafford.  The Sabre with the most career goals against the Caps is Jochen Hecht with 11 in 34 career games.  Here is the thing, though.  If Vanek cannot go in this one, that might put additional pressure on Stafford and Hecht, neither of whom have a goal yet this season.  In fact, between them they have but one point (Stafford).

4.  Buffalo’s defensemen have more penalties (ten) than points (eight).  Christian Ehrhoff is the only Sabre blueliner with more than one point, and Tyler Myers has the only goal registered by the defense so far.

5.  A missing or otherwise less-than-full strength Thomas Vanek could have repercussions on the power play for the Sabres.  He has two of the four Buffalo power play goals through four games and has assists on the other two.

1.  No team has spent more time on special teams than have the Caps so far (before Saturday’s games).  Through four games the Caps have spent 68:19 either on the power play or killing penalties, more than a full game’s worth of minutes.

2.  Washington has not yet led at an intermission this season.  They have been tied once and trailed three times at the second intermission.  There have been too many holes out of which they have had to dig.

3.  The Caps have hardly been lights-out on the power play (or perhaps they have, considering the lack of red lights going on), but Mike Ribeiro has had a hand in each of the three Caps power play goals to date with a goal and two assists.  On the other hand, he has only one goal in 25 career games played against Buffalo, his lowest goal total against any team except the Caps (one in 18 games).

4.  Washington is currently in the middle of the pack in fighting majors so far with three, but Matt Hendricks has all of them.  Only Columbus’ Jared Boll has more (four).

5.  The Caps have already dressed 22 skaters in games, and that does not include Brooks Laich, who remains injured.  They are a long way from the 35 skaters they dressed for a season twice since the 2004-2005 lockout, but there has been some roster shuffling to start the season.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo:  Ryan Miller

If Buffalo is stuck in neutral at the moment, it is not a product of the play of goaltender Ryan Miller.  Now in his tenth season in the NHL, Miller has stopped 100 of 105 shots so far this season.  His .952 save percentage ranks sixth among NHL goalies, while his 1.67 goals against average ranks sixth.  In 23 career appearances against the Caps he is 13-9-0, 2.45, .919, with three shutouts.  If anything, though, he has suffered from lack of support in his recent history against Washington.  Over the last four seasons he has a mediocre 6-7-0 win-loss record, despite a 2.24 goals against average and a .930 save percentage.

Washington:  Matt Hendricks

Washington might be suffering an effort deficit so far this season, but Matt Hendricks has not been a part of it.  He has only one point so far, but he has been using whatever tools he has to try to send a charge through his teammates.  Unfortunately, those tools have too often been his hands used in anger.  He has three fights in four games.  He also has the only instance of a Capital scoring the first goal of the game this season, recorded in a 4-2 loss to Winnipeg in the home opener.  Hendricks is pulling more than his share of the weight so far, and he hasn’t even paralyzed anyone yet.  His effort is admirable, but if his is the top end on the effort meter on this roster, the Caps have problems.  More players need to rise to his compete level. 


1.  Be quick on the draw
.  Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis, and Jochen Hecht have taken the bulk of faceoffs for the Sabres through four games.  None of them have won as many as 40 percent of their draws.  The Sabres are dead last in the league in faceoff winning percentage, barely 40 percent as a team.  The Caps need to find a way to exploit this shortcoming.

2.  Kill, kill, kill!  The Sabres went 3-for-6 on the power play in their season opener against Philadelphia, a 5-2 win.  Since then they are 1-for-13, including 0-for-9 on the road.  The Caps have not been especially bad at even strength, but the only thing their penalty killing is killing at the moment is their chances to win.  The Caps need to extend the Sabres’ man-advantage futility.

3.   Make ‘em pay.  On the other side of special teams, Buffalo is playing with a new-found edge so far this season.  Last year the Sabres tied for the 14th fewest penalty minutes in the league.  So far this season only three teams are averaging more penalty minutes per game than Buffalo.  The difference is ten minutes per game from last season to this one.  If Buffalo is to try taking liberties with the Caps, the Caps are going to have to answer, preferably on the power play.

In the end, the Caps are not yet taking advantage of home cooking, and we are getting to historical levels of futility as far as the franchise’s history is concerned.  The Caps have not gone 0-3-0 at home in more than 30 years.  They are one of only three teams in the East without a home win so far, and one of them – Pittsburgh – has played only one home game.  Getting a point on the road against a good team playing well, as was the case against New Jersey on Friday, is an acceptable outcome in most cases.  Developing a habit of losing at home with distressing regularity is not.  Early as it is, this might not be a “must” win game for the Caps.  But it is a “should” win, a “they had better” win, in fact. 

The Caps have to establish a foothold from which they can build a string of successes, and here is why.  They are three points out of a playoff spot with 45 games to play.  You might not think this is significant, but consider that last season Buffalo was four points out of a playoff spot with 45 games to play.  They finished the season three points out of a playoff spot.  In fact, based on the standings on that day on which the Sabres were four points back with 45 games to play, only two teams not already in the top eight climbed into the playoff eligible group by year end – Washington and Ottawa.  And both teams were only one point back on that day in late December 2011.  The Capitals do not have all the time in the world.

Capitals 3 – Sabres 2