Thursday, February 28, 2013

A NO-point night -- Game 19: Flyers 4 - Capitals 1

Live by the power play, die by the power play.

The Washington Capitals failed to convert on three power play opportunities, while the Philadelphia Flyers converted on two of their three chances, and that was the hockey game at Wells Fargo Arena last night as the Flyers defeated the Caps, 4-1.

It was not pretty…

-- cover boy Braden Holtby gave up four goals on 18 shots before being relieved by Philipp Grubauer, making his first NHL appearance. 

--  The Big Three of Alex Ovechkin, Mike Ribeiro and Nicklas Backstrom were held without a point and were a combined minus-3. 

--  Ribeiro made an early evening of it by taking an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a misconduct with four minutes gone in the third period.

--  John Erskine had more shots on goal (2) than Ribeiro (1), Eric Fehr (0), Backstrom (1), Troy Brouwer (0), Jason Chimera (0), and Mike Green (1).

-- 4:04 into the game the Caps had one shot on goal, the Flyers had two goals.  That was not an “eight ball” behind which the Caps found themselves, it was an “eight-boulder.”

-- The fourth line, from which not much offense is to be expected, might be expected to get at least a shot on goal.  In a combined 35:09 of ice time, Matt Hendricks, Joey Crabb, and Jay Beagle recorded no shots on goal and had only three shot attempts (all by Hendricks).

-- Tomas Kundratek (a shot on goal, four attempts, three hits, a takeaway, a blocked shot, and plus-1 in almost 18 minutes) and Tom Poti (an assist, three blocked shots, plus-1, and not on ice for any goals against), were arguably the Caps’ best defensemen last night.  That profile on the back end is not going to win a lot of games for the Caps.

-- Over the last nine games the Caps have been perfect on the penalty kill five times.  They won five times.  They allowed at least one power play goal four times, including last night.  They lost four times.

-- Holtby has a bit of an odd pattern emerging.  In his first game after his first shutout of the season he allowed five goals on 32 shots to Florida.  Last night – his first game after shutting out Carolina on Wednesday night, he allowed four goals on 18 shots.  Not the sort of hangover the club needs.  That extends back a bit in time, too.  After shutting out Minnesota on March 25th last season, he came back in his next game and gave up three goals on 18 shots in 22 minutes

-- The Caps were 7-for-19 on offensive zone faceoffs (36.8 percent).  Ribeiro and Backstrom were a combined 2-for-9. 

-- Hey, at least Grubauer played well.

In the end, the Caps looked dead.  Perhaps that is to be expected after playing the previous night, especially when the Flyers had the extra night of rest and were playing their fourth game of a five-game home stand – reaping the comforts of home, as it were.  Still, it was a missed opportunity to parlay the win over Carolina on Wednesday into a two-fer that would have propelled the Caps within two points of the Hurricanes atop the Southeast Division. 

Now the Caps have a tricky stretch.  First they take the long road to Winnipeg for another “Southeast” Division game before coming home to face the Boston Bruins, winners of 12 of their first 16 games so far this season.  Then they get very winnable (but very losable, given this team) games against Florida and the Islanders before a rematch against the Rangers.  It is a five-game stretch that the Caps need to set up well so that they go into their home-and-home against Carolina in mid-March with something to play for.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 19: Capitals at Flyers, February 27th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals, fresh off their 3-0 win against the Carolina Hurricanes, take their act up I-95 to the friendly confines of CoreStates First Union Wachovia Bailey Building and Loan Wells Fargo Center where the Philadelphia Flyers await them.  These teams have a deep and rich history, dating back to November 9, 1974, when the Capitals visited The Spectrum in Philadelphia and got pasted, 6-2.  Starting with that ignominious beginning, the Caps have a 73-96-19-4 regular season record against the Flyers and a 12-11 record in the post season (the Caps and Flyers have split four series).

Of more recent vintage, the Caps won the only meeting of these teams to date this season, a 3-2 win at Verizon Center on February 1st.  And that loss is part of the “Arthur Murray” approach to progress the Flyers have been on since late January.  Starting with a 2-1 loss to the Rangers on January 29th, the Philadelphia Two-Step has gone like this…

Two losses
Two wins
Two losses
Two wins

We would just as soon that pattern end with this game with the Flyers taking another loss.  The immediate problem the Flyers face, in addition to their finding themselves on the outside looking in at the top-eight in the Eastern Conference, is that their performance has had a “feast or famine” quality to it.  In their last seven games the Flyers are 3-4-0.  In the three wins they scored a total of 18 goals.  In the four losses they allowed a total of, you guessed it, 18 goals.  They have only one one-goal decision in those seven games, a 6-5 thrill ride of a win over the Pittsburgh Penguins a week ago.

The Flyers have split 52 goals evenly with their opponents over this last seven-game run, so defense and goaltending have been issues, even if the offense has not.  Oddly enough, perhaps, is that it is not the penalty kill that has “killed,” so to speak, the Flyers.  They are 25-for-28 on the penalty kill over their last seven games (89.3 percent). 

What the Flyers are not getting is saves.  Ilya Bryzgalov shutout the New York Islanders, 7-0, on 19 shots during this seven-game stretch, but in five other appearances has allowed three or more goals in each, has a 4.25 goals against average and a .846 save percentage.  If he was a star in the humangous universe, he would be an orange dwarf.

Notwithstanding Bryzgalov’s interstellar issues, let’s go right to the “takes” for this game…

1.  We have made much of the resurgence of the Capitals’ power play over the past few weeks, but that Philadelphia power play has been humming recently, too.  The Flyers are 9-for-34 (26.5 percent) over their last eight games.

2.  Jakub Voracek is just short of half-way to career bests in goals, assists, and points through 21 games.  His is 8-16-24 scoring line compares with his career high of 18 goals (set last season in 78 games), 34 assists (set in 2009-2010 in 81 games), and 50 points (also set in 2009-2010).  In 10 career games against the Caps he is 1-3-4, plus-1, but he was held scoreless with a single shot on goal in the clubs’ earlier meeting this season.  Trivia: Voracek shares a hometown (Kladno, Czech Republic) with former Caps Jaromir Jagr and Michal Pivonka.

3.  Which brings us to Claude Giroux.  The man thought perhaps ready to assume the title as “Best Player in the NHL” stumbled out of the gate to start the 2013 season.  He was only 3-4-7 in his first 13 games.  However, Giroux is 3-10-13 over his last eight games (3-7-10 in his last five) to jump into the top-15 in points.  He has not been especially effective against the Caps over his career, coming into this game with a 6-2-8, minus-2 scoring line over 14 career games against Washington.

4.  This would not be a Caps-Flyers game without making mention of penalties.  The Flyers have more minor penalties (107 in 21 games) than any other team in the league.  Toronto is the only club averaging more penalty minutes per game than Philadelphia. The Flyers have faced the most shorthanded situations in the league.  Playing nice with others is not a Philly thing to do.

5.  Flyer games seem to have a “rock ‘em-sock ‘em” feel in other ways, too.  They lead the league in hits.  They lead the league in blocked shots.  They are fourth in missed shots and giveaways.  Only four teams have a worse face-off winning percentage. Only Florida has been involved in more games decided by three or more goals (the Flyers are 2-6 in such games).  Lots of things happen in Flyer games, some of it good, some of it not.  They might be the most entertaining team in the league in terms of pure events/60.

1.  The Caps are on a roll with the man-advantage.  They are 13-for-28 over their last nine-plus games, going back to the third period of their February 3rd game against Pittsburgh.  On the season, seven different Caps have power play goals (Mike Ribeiro and Alex Ovechkin lead with five apiece), and ten different Caps have power play points (Ribeiro: 13).

2.  The Caps are one of only three teams that have a power play working at over 25 percent and a penalty kill working at over 75 percent (St. Louis and Pittsburgh being the others).

3.  The Caps scored first last night, but they remain one of three teams (Edmonton and Columbus being the others) with a sub-.500 record when recording the game’s first goal (5-6-0).  They happen to be one of only three teams, as well, with records below .500 when leading at the first intermission (2-3-0), Columbus and Colorado being the others.

4.  Beware the second period.  The Caps have allowed 24 goals in the middle frame, fifth most in the league.  It happens to be the period in which the Flyers have scored the most goals (21).

5.  Nicklas Backstrom (and we’ll get to him a bit more in a moment) has quietly put up points in three straight games and 10 of his last 13 contests (2-11-13).  His game-winning goal last night was his first since getting the game-winner in a 3-1 win over Buffalo on December 30, 2011.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Philadelphia: Kimmo Timonen

Kimmo Timonen has put together a very nice career – almost 1,000 regular season games over 13-plus seasons.  He has been quite adept at both ends of the rink, posting more than 500 points and managing to record a career plus-31.  Of special interest to Caps fans, he seems the guy who draws the short straw when it comes to facing Alex Ovechkin.  Hard work, but Timonen has done a decent job of it.  Not bad for a guy who gives up four inches and almost 30 pounds to Ovechkin.  He will be faced with trying to help contain a guy coming off his best game in (dare we say it) years.  Before Saturday, Ovechkin had not had a four-point game since February 4, 2011; and he had not had a hat trick since January 22, 2011.  The last time he had a hat trick or four points at home had been February 7, 2010, when he accomplished both feats against Pittsburgh.  Good luck, Kimmo.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom scored a goal in the Caps’ only meeting against the Flyers this season.  His two points against Philadelphia in that February 1st game happens to be one of only four multi-point games he has this season (he had 16 in 42 games last year).  But Backstrom had a goal last night and finished with a multi-point game.  Philly also happens to be a team that seems to bring out the best in Backstrom.  He has more points against the Flyers than he does against any non-Southeast Division opponent (8-23-31 in 19 career games).  If Backstrom is going to show improvement in the middle third of the season, last night might be a start, but this game might be an indicator if he is on that path.


1.  Happy Place.  These are, accounting for the era, a lot like the Flyers of old. They hit, they play loose with the rule book, they hound you all over the place.  The Caps do not have the depth, nor the constitution to get into that sort of a game.  In their first meeting the Caps only faced three shorthanded situations and killed them all.  Their own power play was no better (0-for-5), but given the state of the power play these days, if the Caps can find and stay in their “happy place” and not give in to retaliation, this should turn out well.

2.  Carry Throux with the Canceled Czech.  Over this 3-4-0 run the Flyers are on, Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek have combined to go 6-11-17 in the three wins.  These guys are the straws that stir the drink for the Flyers at the moment.  Washington will have to improve on its 22nd place ranking in shots on goal

3.  Volume, volume, volume.  It matters little if Ilya Bryzgalov faces a lot of shots or a little.  When facing more than 30 shots his save percentage is .912. When facing fewer than 30 and playing a full-game’s worth of minutes it is .910.  So, what is the variable here that leads to more goals?  More shots.  Washington will have to improve on its 22nd place ranking in shots on goal (27.9/game) to make this work.

In the end…

The Caps are on a bit of a roll with consecutive wins coming into this game.  They also happen to be 5-2-0 in their last seven games, consistent with the new found solid play of goalie Braden Hotlby.  The Caps have been solid at both ends, outscoring opponents, 26-14 over the seven games, and their special teams have been excellent – 9-for-21 on the power play (42.9 percent) and 23-for-25 on the penalty kill (92.0 percent).  They are in a good place right now, just in time for their visit to the City of Brotherly Love.

Capitals 3 - Flyers 2

A TWO-point night -- Game 18: Capitals 3 - Hurricanes 2

Staying home on the day before a game might become a trend.

Nicklas Backstrom was ordered to stay home on Monday with an undisclosed ailment.  Whatever home-remedy he took did the trick as Backstrom recorded a goal and an assist as the Washington Capitals took down the Carolina Hurricanes, 3-0, last night.

The goal was not a pretty one.  It was another power play goal made possible by deft passing more than nifty shooting. Alex Ovechkin found Mike Ribeiro on a wall-to-wall cross ice pass, then Ribeiro centered the puck to Backstrom at the top of the Carolina crease.  Backstrom out-muscled Joe Corvo to get his stick on the puck, deflecting it past goalie Cam Ward’s right pad for the game’s first goal

If Backstrom’s goal was not pretty, his pass on the Caps’ second goal was.  He started the play when he slid down the right wing wall as he entered the Carolina zone with possession.  He chose not to feed John Carlson, who was heading down the middle with stick cocked for a one-timer.  Backstrom chose, instead, to lay the puck off to the late-comer, John Erskine, who blasted a slap shot past Ward’s blocker to give the Caps a 2-0 lead just 31 secons into the second period.

Carlson did get his opportunity to get on the score sheet later when Ward could not handle a quick snap shot from Mathieu Perreault firing from the edge of the left wing circle.  The rebound shot out to the right wing circle where Carlson was waiting undefended.  Carlson wasted no time pounding the loose puck into the back of the net before Ward had a chance to scramble across, and the Caps had a three-goal margin with less than nine minutes left in regulation.

From there the only suspense was whether Braden Holtby would record his second shutout of the season.  He stopped the last five he saw after the Carlson goal, giving him 33 saves for the game, and the Caps had their win, only the second time they recorded consecutive wins this season.

Other stuff…

-- The only other time so far that the Caps recorded consecutive wins was a three-game winning streak, February 9-14, when they defeated Florida twice and Tampa Bay.

-- We thought Jason Chimera would break out in this game and get his first goal of the season.  He did not, but not for lack of effort.  His seven shots on goal (in less than 15 minutes of work) led both teams.

-- Speaking of shots, the 40 that the Caps recorded is a season high.  They had 39 in a 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on February 14th.

-- Over on the other side, Alexander Semin led the Hurricanes in shots (four), shot attempts (nine), and blocked a pair of shots.  Nice game…no points…good deal.

-- Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin finished the game with no shots on goal.  That is the first time that happened in a regular season game since he had none in a 3-0 win (imagine that) over the New Jersey Devils on March 18, 2011.

-- Adam Oates was really parceling out the ice time evenly.  Among the forwards no one played more than 14:26 at even strength (Jason Chimera), and no one had fewer than 11:17 (Matt Hendricks).

-- The Brothers Staal – Eric and Jordan – took 45 of the 60 faceoffs for Carolina, winning 23.  That just struck us as an interesting number.

-- A more interesting number regarding faceoffs might be this one – 26.  That is how many (of the 60 total) were taken in the Capitals’ end.  Keep in mind that despite the Caps’ 40-33 shot advantage, the shot attempts were even in this game at 68 apiece.

-- By scoring on his only shot of the game, John Erskine is now tied for tenth among NHL defensemen in shooting percentage (10.5 percent).  Unleash the Oisk!

-- Braden Holtby, with this shutout, is now 5-2-0, 2.01, .937 in his last seven appearances.

-- Another game, another power play goal.  The Caps have power play goals in three straight games, nine of their last ten games, and 14 of 18 for the season.  They are 13-for-28 going back to the third period of their game against Pittsburgh on February 3rd (46.4 percent).

In the end, the Caps are only four points out of first place in the Southeast Division, as close as they have been to the top spot since January 24th, when the Caps were 0-3-0 and the Tampa Bay Lighthing were occupying first place with a 2-1-0 record.  Things do get harder, quickly, though.  There is a trip to Philadelphia tonight followed by a trip to Winnipeg on Saturday.  Then the Caps return home to face the Boston Bruins, who have only two losses in regulation this season.

The Caps appear ready to meet that challenge, though.  They have looked quite crisp in their last two games, outscoring New Jersey and Carolina (both top-eight teams, it should be noted) by a combined 8-1 margin.  Special teams are on top of things, the power play going 3-for-7 in the wins, while the penalty killers were a perfect 5-for-5.

Bring ‘em on.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 18: Hurricanes at Capitals, February 26th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals wrap up their three-game home stand with their first meeting against the Carolina Hurricanes this season and their first meeting against their old friend…

…Jordan Staal, as a Hurricane.  HA!  Thought that was going to be an Alexander Semin reference, didn’t you? 

The Hurricanes, with the Brothers Staal and Alexander Semin, not to mention a host of other names Caps fans have become acquainted with over the years, will descend upon Washington looking to dig themselves out of a bit of a rut.  Carolina’s 4-2 win over the New York Islanders on Sunday broke a three-game losing streak, their longest of the young season. 

It was not a very productive week for the ‘Canes.  They were outscored by their opponents, 14-9, and twice they dropped three-goal decisions.  They have had an anemic power play (1-for-12), although their penalty kill was superb (a perfect 14-for-14).  But the big problem over these four games has been their third period play.  In the three-game losing streak, the Hurricanes allowed a total of 10 goals in the final frame on 33 shots.  They halted that slide, allowing the Islanders no third period goals in Carolina’s 4-2 win.

The Hurricanes’ first periods have been anything but electrifying, too.  In these last four games, including the win over the Islanders, Carolina scored one first period goal.  No team has fewer first period goals this season than Carolina (7), and only three teams have allowed more scores in the opening period than the 20 allowed to date by Carolina.  It has really put the Hurricanes behind the eight ball early.  In 17 games so far they have allowed the first goal 13 times with a record of 6-7-0 in those games.

What the early-game troubles had meant for Carolina is that even with a respectable record when trailing at the intermissions, they are fighting uphill – 4-5-0 when trailing at the first break and 2-4-1 when behind after 40 minutes.  Even though they lead the woeful Southeast Division, Carolina has been very accommodating in terms of letting teams get the early advantage.  Here is how the Hurricanes and Capitals compare in their season numbers to date…

1.  Cam Ward is in breathing distance of putting up the worst regular season numbers for a full season in his career.   His 3.16 goals against average would be almost a quarter of a goal game worse than his worst full season number to date (2.93 in 60 appearances in 2006-2007).  His save percentage of .898 is within a point of his current low, .897, also in the 2006-2007 season.  He does have a good career record against the Caps, though.  In 31 career appearances Ward is 16-10-4, 2.53, .922, with four shutouts.

2.  At the other end of the spectrum of bests and worsts, Jordan Staal is on a pace to obliterate his career best points per game average.  Last season he posted 50 points in 62 games while with the Pittsburgh Penguins (0.81/game).  Through 17 games to date this season he has 15 points (0.88/game).  He is on a pace to set a career assist mark (31, with 28 being his previous career high, in a full 82-game 2009-2010), despite this being a 48-game season.  He has had mixed success against the Caps, going 6-1-7 in 21 games, but with a minus-5 rating.

3.  The other Brother Staal – Eric – is having something of a renaissance year.  Last season Eric Staal posted his lowest goal total (24) since the 2004-2005 lockout.  He was a minus-20 and was on ice for more goals against than any NHL forward (98).  This season, though, he has nine goals in 17 games (a 43-goal pace per 82 games) and is a team-best plus-11.  So far he has been on ice for only nine goals against while being on ice for 26 goals of the 50 goals scored by the Hurricanes.  He has a fine career record against the Caps – 24-32-56, plus-7, in 54 career games.

4.  Carolina has dressed nine defensemen so far this season, including (we kid you not), Michal Jordan.  How’s that for a Carolina theme?  What it means is that only Jay Harrison has played in all 17 games on the Carolina blue line.  Harrison is tied with Joe Corvo and Justin Faulk with two goals to lead the defense, and he is tied with Faulk for the lead in points among defensemen with seven.  If there is a problem, it is that he has been on ice for 22 goals against, high on the team for the defense.

5.  Carolina might rank in the top-ten in scoring offense with 50 goals in 17 games (2.94/game) but five of them -- ten percent of their total – are of the empty-net variety, tied with Pittsburgh for tops in the league.

1.  Troy Brouwer likes southern cooking, apparently.  Of his eight goals so far, five of them have come in five Southeast Division games, including at least one against each of the three division teams he has faced to date.

2.  Washington has 12 power play goals over their last nine games.  That is more than 13 teams have in total for the season.  With 17 power play goals for the season they are averaging precisely twice as many per game (1.00) than they did last season (0.50), and it is their highest PPG/game since averaging 1.04 PPG/game in 2008-2009.

3.  Alex Ovechkin has now gone 96 games and 46 straight goals without one of those tallies being an empty netter.

4.  After starting the season 1-4-0, 4.73, .857; Braden Holtby is 4-2-0, 2.35, .926, with one shutout.  If he gets the start on Tuesday and wins it will be his best run of success since going 8-0-1 in his last nine decisions of the 2010-2011 season.  Of particular note in this recent run is that in his last three appearances he allowed only one even strength goal in each game.

5.  The penalty kill might have turned a corner.  Since going 1-for-3 against the Penguins on February 7th, the Caps are 21-for-23 (91.3 percent) over their last six games.  As it turns out though, in the two games in which they allowed a power play goal, they lost.  Both the goals were game-winners.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Carolina:  Alexander Semin

What?  You were thinking Drayson Bowman?  Alexander Semin comes into this game having busted out of a slump in a big way on Sunday.  After a five-game run in which he was 0-1-1, minus-1, he was 1-2-3, plus-1 in the Hurricanes’ 4-2 win over the New York Islanders.  Curiously enough, that five-game drought came on the heels of another 1-2-3 effort against the Islanders on February 11th.  Think of it this way.  Semin is 2-4-6, plus-5 in two games against the Fishermen, but he is 2-6-8, plus-5 in 15 other games.  Not bad, but not especially extraordinary, either.  One of the odd numbers in his totals so far has to do with shots on goal.  Semin recorded 35 shots in his first eight games.  He has only 26 shots on goal in his last nine contests.

Washington:  Jason Chimera

If you looked at his career numbers against Carolina, you might think, “nope, not going to happen tonight.”  Chimera, who is still without a goal so far this season, has only one in 19 career games against the Hurricanes (1-2-3).  What is worse, he has only three assists over his last 12 games (0-3-3, minus-6), and he has only 15 shots on goal in his last ten contests.  He has only seven goals over his last 66 regular season games.  He is ninth among Caps forwards in ice time per game.  Reading this, you might think us pessimistic about Chimera’s chances of breaking out of his drought.  You would be wrong.  He is breaking out… tonight.


1. Be a Front Runner.  Carolina has led a game at the first intermission once in 17 tries this season.  They have led at the second intermission five times.  In all of those situations, they won.  Do the math.

2.  Put 'em in a box.  Carolina has had a bit of an odd progression on special teams.  In their first eight games they faced 38 shorthanded situations, killing off 28 of them (73.7 percent penalty kill).  In their last nine games they have gone shorthanded only 31 times, killing off 25 of them (80.7 percent).  The Hurricanes suffer a problem similar to that the Caps have faced, an inability to deal with high volumes of power plays faced.

3.  40-60.  In eight losses so far this season the Hurricanes have allowed 14 third period goals and an overtime goal.  This is a team that has had issues with 60 minutes of play.  The Caps have not had extraordinary success in the third period (16 goals in 17 games, 13th in the league), but the Hurricanes are a team that has provided opportunities there.

In the end…

This is one of those “four-point” games that is worthy of the term.  The Caps can close to within four points of Carolina with a win (and Tampa Bay), with all of those teams stuck on 18 games played after tomorrow night.  It would be a good springboard for a road trip that will take the Caps to Philadelphia and Winnipeg.  If the Caps lose they drop eight points behind Carolina and would remain six behind Tampa Bay.  It would compound a problem they already face – too deep a hole and too few games left to dig out of it.  But with a 4-2-0 record over their last six games the Caps look more and more like the playoff contender folks expected when the season started.  Playing at that pace over the rest of the year would get them at around the 54-point mark, on the cusp of a playoff spot. It is important to keep up the pace.

Capitals 4 – Hurricanes 2

Monday, February 25, 2013

Your Washington Ex-Capitals

The National Hockey League is an ever-changing place.  The players you rooted against might be the players you root for tomorrow.  The players you vowed to hate last week are those for whom you might cheer today.  Trades, free agency, and waivers take care that the nature of rosters is that they are ever churning.

It makes one wonder as a Washington Capitals fan, what would a roster of active former Caps look like?  Well, wonder no more, because we can build such a thing…

If you were thinking that the Caps had off-loaded a bevy of players who would perform better than the current crop, well… you would be largely mistaken.  The leading scorer of this group is, as you might expect, Alexander Semin.  His four goals would rank no higher than fifth on the current edition of the Caps, tied with Eric Fehr.  His “ex-Caps” club leading 14 points would be tied with the Caps’ own Alex – Alex Ovechin.

Our old friend, Jaromir Jagr, leads the ex-Caps in goals with five, a total that would leave him tied with Joel Ward for fourth place on today’s Caps.

As a group, this is an offensive-challenged lot.  If this club had played in 19 games (the number played by Keith Aucoin and Scott Hannan), it would average fewer than two goals per game, by far the worst in the league.  It would be weak down the middle with a top line of Cody Eakin centering Semin and Tomas Fleischmann.  That line would have a total of 10 goals to its credit.  Its second line might feature Keith Aucoin centering Jaromir Jagr and Matt Cooke, a line with 12 goals (well, that one might be more productive than the Caps’ second line).

The defense is going to be speed-challenged.  Dennis Wideman and Johnny Oduya might make up the top pair, not a bad pairing, but Oduya might be Odoing a lot of covering for his partner.  A second pair might include Sergei Gonchar and Scott Hannan.  Gonchar seems ageless – he has seven points and is plus-2 for a good Ottawa team, but he is without a point in five games since Erik Karlsson went out of the lineup after being Ginsued by Matt Cooke.  Scott Hannan is displaying his customary lack of offense – it is not his thing – but he is minus-8 for Nashville, by far worst among defensemen for the Predators.  After that, Joe Corvo and Joe Finley?  Joe… My… God!

The goaltending is hot and cold.  There is Semyon Varlamov as the nominal number one goalie with two shutouts, but a 2.84 goals against average and a mediocre save percentage of .908.  And he’s the best of the lot.  Tomas Vokoun (.899) and Jose Theodore (.893) are both below the goalie’s equivalent of the Mendoza Line of a .900 save percentage.

On balance, if you take the goalies’ records and covert them to a 19-game record, this ex-Caps team would be 7-10-2.  Those 16 standings points would be good for 13th in the East, slightly better than the current Caps after 17 games (6-10-1), but the records are comparable.  Both teams suffer from leaky defense and inconsistent goaltending overall (the recent resurgence of Braden Holtby notwithstanding), although the current Caps are a more proficient offensive team.

Either way, for folks who think the grass is always greener on the other side, you might want to rethink your appreciation of the shades of green.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 5

It was a light week, game-wise, with only two contests on the schedule, but it was chock full of twists and turns.  And when it was over for the Washington Capitals, they were worse off than when they started the week, despite jumping a spot in the standings.  They started the week five points out of a playoff spot and finished it six points behind.

Record: 1-1-0

It was six periods of hockey against the New Jersey Devils this week.  If you look at it that way, the Caps “won” the week by a 7-4 margin.  Unfortunately, this was not a two-game, total goal series.  If you look at things period by period, the Caps “won” the week with a 2-1-3 record over six periods.  Unfortunately, the NHL does not award standings points by period.  No, the Caps lived and died – well, won and lost, actually – by the 60 minute game.  They lost a third period lead in Game 1 of the week, allowing a pair of goals in a 3-2 loss to the Devils.  They took and held a third period lead in Game 2 of the week, a 5-1 win. 

Offense: 3.50/game (season: 2.82 / rank: 12th)

The best you could say about the Caps offense this week is that it was patient.  And yes, that is intended as a compliment.  Washington had no goals on a total of 15 first period shots over the two games against the Devils.  The two first periods differed in type, too.  In Game 1 the Caps managed only four shots on goal against New Jersey, while in Game 2 they recorded 11 first period shots on goal. 

Things got better from there, though.  In the second period, which has been a problem for the Caps this season, Washington outscored New Jersey, 3-2, leaving the Caps either ahead (in Game 1) or tied (in Game 2) at the second intermission.  Against a team that squeezes the opponent and the clock over 60 minutes, neither was a bad outcome.  It denied the Devils the luxury of falling back into a prevent defense.

What the Caps did in Game 2 that they could not in Game 1 was close the deal.  They scored four goals on 10 shots over a 16:46 span of the third period of Game 2, three of them on special teams (two power play goals and a shorthanded goal to go with an even-strength score).  Of course, the problem in Game 1 was not so much offense as much as it was quick-stepping to the penalty box, which brings us to…

Defense: 2.00/game (season: 3.24 / rank: 26th)

There was the good and the bad in Game 1 of the week.  The bad first – six minor penalties in the third period, four of them of the obstruction sort (holding, tripping, hooking, interference).  Say what you want about the officiating, but there was a consistent theme that the Caps were a half-step behind.  If anything the Caps were better defensively when a man down in that third period.  At even strength the Caps were outshot 10-3 in the third period of Game 1 (30-12 for the game at even strength).

Game 2 was a different story.  The Caps allowed the Devils only 17 even strength shots for the game and only three of those by the trio of Ilya Kovalchuk (2), Patrik Elias (1), and David Clarkson (0), who came into the game with a combined 21 goals of the total of 45 scored by the Devils.  Kovalchuk scored on one of his even strength shots, tying the game in the second period on a defensive breakdown by the Caps, but otherwise this trio was not heard from at 5-on-5.  It was a much better effort.

Goaltending: 2.03 / .932 (season: 3.24 / .897)

It was Braden Holtby’s week, and he had a fine one.  He stopped 45 of 47 shots at even strength (.957 save percentage), and even his save percentage on the penalty kill (.909) was excellent (it is a small population of saves but the percentage is exceeded only by five goalies who have appeared in at least five games).  By period he was sturdy, going 18-for-18 in the first period and 20-for-22 in the third period of the two games.  Even the 17-for-19 record in the second periods this week was not bad (.895), in the context of his overall season save percentage entering the week (.888).  He gave the Caps a chance to win Game 1 of the week (before the parade to the penalty box) and kept the Caps engaged with the Devils until the power play allowed the Caps to shake New Jersey off in the final frame.

Power Play: 4-7 / 57.1 percent (season: 28.8 percent / rank: 2nd)

If you go 50 percent for a game, it is a good game.  If you go better than 50 percent for the week, you are on a run.  If you go 50 percent on the power play over 25 periods of hockey – more than eight games – you are pretty good.  The Caps finished the week with all of those statements being true, going 2-for-4 in Game 1 of the week, 4-for-7 for the week as a whole, and 12-for-24 over their last 25 periods of hockey as the week came to a close.

Penalty Killing: 8-9 / 88.9 percent (season: 77.0 percent / rank: 23rd)

There is no clearer indicator of wins and losses for the Caps than their performance on the penalty kill.  Coming into the week they were 1-7-1 when facing more than three shorthanded situations, 4-2-0 when they faced three or fewer.  They were 0-8-1 when allowing a power play goal, 5-1-0 when they did not.  And sure enough, the Caps lost the game in which they faced more than three power plays; they lost the game in which they allowed a power play goal.  They won the game in which they were perfect on the penalty kill; they won having allowed only three power play opportunities in that game.  Having to kill five power plays in the third period did them in, in Game 1.  The Caps simply spent too much time (almost eight minutes in all, including 2:28 in 3-on-5 time) killing penalties to develop any rhythm at the other end of the ice, and it provided New Jersey with too many opportunities for what would eventually be a tie-breaking goal in a 2-2 game.

Paying the Price: 55 hits / 31 blocked shots (season rank: 21st / 21st)

Going into the week’s play the Caps were averaging only 11 hits a game at home.  They more than doubled that in two games this week, averaging 27.5 a game.  Alex Ovechkin got his (nine in two games), but Matt Hendricks got his, too (eight in an average of 27:40 of total ice time).  But the number that might be most (or in a way, least) significant in the hits department  is “5.”  The Caps had five players with at least four hits in Thursday’s game… and lost.

Faceoffs: 74-for-126 / 58.7 percent (season: 50.8 percent / rank: 11th)

The Caps won all three zones for the week.  They were especially efficient in the defensive end, going 26-for-43 (60.5 percent).  It enabled the club to climb over 50 percent for the season.  The surprise was not that Mike Ribeiro and Nicklas Backstrom went 11-20 in the offensive end, or even that Backstrom and Jay Beagle went a combined 16-for-23 in the defensive end.  It was probably that Mathieu Perreault continued his improvement in the circle, going 12-for-19 (63.2 percent) to finish the week at 56.1 percent for the season (third on the team).  He gets some measure of protection in this regard (10 of his 19 draws came in the neutral zone), but possession is possession, and it is better to have it than not.

Turnovers: minus-5

The 23 giveaways stood out this week, especially since New Jersey was charged with only 11 combined for the two games.  But there were only eight giveaways by defensemen, perhaps a reason why the Devils did not have a lot of opportunities in the two games this week. 

In the end...

It was a nice finish to the week, especially getting the Captain untracked (a hat trick and four points in Game 2 for Alex Ovechkin), but that is not what the Caps need now.  They need “nice weeks” – plural.  They have one winning week in their first five, and the Caps sill have only one streak of consecutive wins this season (the three game streak from February 9-14).  They leave the Devils – the only team in the top eight the Caps have defeated this season – behind to take on three teams this coming week that are not among the league’s elite.  Of this week's opponents, only Carolina is in the top-eight, but as a group the Hurricanes, the Jets, and the Flyers went 7-5-0 this past week (Winnipeg and Philadelphia each went 3-1-0).  The Caps can either use their “nice finish” of the week as a springboard to a run of success, or they can lose contact altogether with the top-eight…if they haven’t already.

A TWO-point afternoon -- Game 17: Capitals 5 - Devils 1

And sometimes, it all comes together.

So it did on Saturday afternoon as the Washington Capitals defeated the New Jersey Devils, 5-1.  The big story, of course, was Alex Ovechkin recording his first hat trick of the season… first multi-goal game since March 23rd of last season… first hat trick since January 22, 2011… first hat trick at home since February 7, 2010…

Enough of the “first since” stuff, okay?

It was actually a case of the hockey gods rewarding Ovechkin for playing with an intensity over the last few games that was not there earlier in the year.  He averaged more than five shots on goal per game over his previous nine games, but had only three goals to show for it.  He matched that goal total in seven shots on goal on Saturday afternoon.

Ovechkin did it in familiar ways but by new means, beginning in the second period.  His first goal started on a rush down the right side – not his customary left side – when he took a breakout pass from John Erskine.  Then Ovechkin left the puck for Jason Chimera at the Devils’ blue line before drifting off to the left side in the New Jersey zone. Chimera laid the puck off to Mike Ribeiro, by which time Ovechkin set up camp in the left circle.  He needed only to one-time the pass from Ribeiro past goalie Johan Hedberg, and the Caps had a 1-0 lead.

After Ilya Kovalchuk knotted the game late in the second period, Ovechkin grabbed the lead back for the Caps early in the third.  Matt Hendricks sent a long cross-ice pass to Ovechkin, again heading down the right wing.  After crossing the blue line he used defenseman Anton Volchenkov as a screen – how many times have we seen that on the other side – and rifled a wrist shot past Hedberg on the long side.

Less than three minutes later Eric Fehr scored a shorthanded goal, then it was Ovechkin’s turn again.  On a power play, after missing a one-timer from the left wing circle, Ovechkin recovered his own shot to reset the offense.  His cross-ice pass missed its mark, but John Carlson flagged it down at the blue line.  Carlson to Nicklas Backstrom at the right wing wall, to Ribeiro at the goal line, out to Ovechkin at the edge of the left wing circle – bang… back of the net.

He was not done, though. On another Caps power play, the threat of his shot seemed to occupy Hedberg as a pass came to him in the left wing circle from Tomas Kundratek.  This time, though, Ovechkin one-timed a pass to Troy Brouwer in the slot,  Brouwer redirected the shot through Hedberg’s legs before Andy Greene could tie him up, and the Caps had their final 5-1 margin.

Other stuff…

-- Going 2-for-3 on the power play means that the Caps are 12-for-24 (50.0 percent) going back to the third period of their game against Pittsburgh on February 3rd, covering eight-plus games.  Whatever the Caps’ problems have been, the power play is not among them.  They are now second in the league overall at 28.8 percent.

-- All of a sudden, Alex Ovechkin is in the top-15 in goals scored (tied for 14th, actually).  Mike Ribeiro, who had two assists, is now tied for sixth in helpers and tied for ninth in points.

-- It was the best of $600,000 signings, it was the worst of $600,000 signings.  Eric Fehr picked goalie Johan Hedberg’s pocket with hustle to score a wrap-around shorthanded goal to give the Caps some insurance in the third period.  That makes four goals on just 18 shots in 14 games for Fehr.  He is fifth on the team in goals scored and sixth in points now, despite averaging barely ten minutes a game in ice time.

-- As for that “worst” part, it might be a bit unfair to characterize Wojtek Wolski’s signing as “worst,” but he is really in a rut.  He couldn’t finish a play with an open net in front of him, five feet away.  The puck might have been bouncing on him, but like a baseball hitter who is in a slump and squeezing the bat too tightly, there was Wolski flipping the puck wide of the net.  He is now without a point in his last seven games and is a minus-3.

-- If Ilya Kovalchuk is standing at center ice waiting to take a penalty shot, a goalie might be concerned (he was 11-for-14 in trick shots last season, if you need a comparison).  If it is Patrik Elias staring down at the goalie, it will get the goalie’s attention (Elias was 6-for-12 in Gimmicks last season).  Steve Bernier?  He was 1-for-4 in shootouts over a seven year career coming into this season.  It is not his forte.  He skated in on his penalty shot, pretty much telegraphed going five-hole all the way, and all goalie Braden Holtby had to do was the ol’ knee-dip with his right pad, and that was that.

-- Yup… John Carlson was on ice for another goal against.  Not really his problem, though.  He had Andrei Loktionov covered on his side as Ilya Kovalchuk slipped into a void created when John Erskine slid over to cover…Loktionov.  Huh?  By the way, that scoring play – Kovalchuk from Loktionov and (Alexei) Ponikarovsky – is the season leader for letters used in a scoring line.

-- Ovechkin had quite the line on his score sheet.  In addition to the three goals  and the assist he had seven shots on goal (tied a season high), twn shot attempts, and five hits.

-- Ovechkin did not lead the team in hits, though.  That would be Matt Hendricks, who had six in less than 13 minutes of ice time.  And, he chipped in an assist to boot.

-- With his goal, Troy Brouwer has points in nine of his last 12 games and is 7-4-11 over that span.

-- Part of the charm of playing goaltender for the New Jersey Devils is not having to face a heavy workload on most nights.  Johan Hedberg faced only 26 shots, but it was actually Braden Holtby who was the beneficiary of a lighter workload in this game.  Holtby faced only 22 shots, seven in the third period as the Caps were abusing Hedberg at the other end. 

-- The Caps were consistent in the circle.  Twelve faceoffs won in the offensive end, 12 in the defensive end, and 12 in the neutral zone.  All with winning percentages.  The “offensive” guys – Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro – were a combined 7-for-12 in the offensive end.  The “defensive” guys – Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle – were a combined 5-for-7 in the defensive zone.  And there was Mathieu Perrault going 8-for-10 overall.  Whodathunkit?

-- Speaking of faceoffs, Andrei Lokitonov was 0-for-10 for the Devils.  Geez, you’d think a guy would win one by accident.

In the end, one could consider this the best game the Caps have played this year, given their opponent.  It was the first time the Caps beat a team in the top-eight in the conference, and they did it after what might have been a disheartening loss to the same club in the third period less than 48 hours earlier.  They got a big game from their big game player.  They got solid goaltending.  They had a crisp power play.  They had an effective penalty kill.  They now get a chance to take a bite out of a divisional opponent when Carolina visits on Tuesday before heading out on the road.  Time to put a streak together.