Sunday, March 31, 2013

A ONE-point night -- Game 35: Flyers 5 - Capitals 4 (OT)

Live by the last minute goal, die by the last minute goal.

The Washington Capitals experienced both in the space of 24 hours, coming back from a two-goal deficit on Saturday night to tie the Buffalo Sabres in the last minute of regulation before overtaking them, 4-3, in a Gimmick, then failing to hold a two-goal lead against the Philadelphia Flyers, allowing a tying goal with ten second left before dropping a 5-4 overtime decision in Philadelphia.

The game between the Capitals and Flyers was entertaining, but one also could see why both teams are on the outside looking in at the playoffs.  Washington owned the first ten minutes of the game, scoring first on a Nicklas Backstrom goal when he tipped a shot by Jack Hillen out of mid-air and outshooting the Flyers, 7-0, in the first 9:30 of the contest. 

The Flyers then took over, scoring on their second shot of the game at the 10:26 mark, courtesy of Max Talbot, then scoring just over four minutes later on a breakaway by Matt Read.  As dominant as the Caps had been over the first ten minutes, so were the Flyers in the last ten minutes of the period, and it was the Flyers taking a 2-1 lead into the first intermission.

The Caps had the only tally of the second period, Mike Green getting his fifth of the season when he broke out of the penalty box after serving a holding penalty, taking a long lead pass from Brooks Laich, and beating goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to tie the game.

It made for a bizarre, wonderful, tragic, and head-scratching finish in the third period and overtime.  The bizarre came when Steve Oleksy dropped Claude Giroux with what looked to be a clean check in open ice.  Jakub Voracek came to his teammate’s defense, his head in the right place, but unfortunately for him, protected by a helmet and a visor.  Voracek got two for instigating, five for fighting, an extra two for instigating while wearing a visor, and a ten-minute misconduct.  With Oleksy getting only five for fighting, the Caps had a four-minute power play.

To that point the Caps’ power play was pitiful, getting only three shots in four power play opportunities.  But this time the Caps made the Flyers pay, converting both ends of the double minor penalty.  The first came off a turnover by Claude Giroux that ended up on the stick of Marcus Johansson, who wristed a shot past Bryzgalov to give the Caps the lead.  Just 26 seconds later, John Carlson – who appears to have mastered the feed for the one timer – set up Alex Ovechkin for just that, Ovechkin wiring the puck past Bryzgalov’s blocker to give what appeared to be an insurmountable 4-2 Caps lead with 13:12 left in regulation.

However, just as the Caps came back from a two-goal third period deficit on Saturday night against Buffalo, the Flyers would put the Caps on the other side of that ledger.  Giroux made up for his earlier miscue with a one-timer of his own from the left wing circle at the 12:48 mark, leaving the Caps clinging to a 4-3 lead.  The Caps held that lead for 7:02.  Trouble was, they needed to hold it for 7:12.  The Flyers tied the game with ten seconds left in regulation in the cruelest fashion.  Just as Mike Green tied the game on Saturday night by ringing a shot off the post and off the goalie with 39.2 seconds left in regulation, so did Kimmo Timonen fire one off the pipe and in behind goalie Braden Holtby with just those ten ticks left. 

In the overtime, the Flyers made short work of it, Timonen figuring heavily in the game-winner, too, with his feed to an open Ruslan Fedotenko to Holtby’s right.  The pass barely eluded the stick of defenseman John Carlson, but elude the stick it did, and Fedotenko had an open net in which he buried the game-winner.

Other stuff…

-- Needless to say, if the Caps miss the playoffs by one point, this is the standings point they will have nightmares about all summer.  Losing a lead with ten seconds left is not what teams with playoff aspirations do.  And the Timonen goal to tie the game was really more than a minute in the making.  Defensemen Steve Oleksy and Jeff Schultz stepped onto the ice with 1:26 left to play.  You would figure that they might skate a 35-40 second shift and get off for the final shutdown pair.  That would have worked but for a dubious icing call with 49 seconds left, a result of Timonen (who should have been the first star of the game) taking the great circle route to catch up with the puck.  Prohibited from changing out his defensemen, head coach Adam Oates had to stand and watch, depending on a faceoff win and a clear to swap out his defensemen.  Claude Giroux beat Nicklas Backstrom cleanly on the ensuing faceoff, and the Caps could never clear the puck out of the zone.  Thirty-nine seconds after winning that faceoff and pinning the Caps in their own end, Timonen scored with the exhausted Oleksy and Schultz still on the ice.

-- Another game, another power play goal for Alex Ovechkin.  His power play tally in the third period was his 12th power play goal of the season (tops in the league) and his fifth over his last seven games.  He is on a 8-4-12 scoring run over his last eight games.

-- Ovechkin’s six shots on goal and 16 shot attempts give him 16 shots on goal on 33 shot attempts over his last two games.

-- At the other end, Mike Ribeiro did not record a shot attempt in almost 21 minutes of ice time, the only Cap to do so.

-- Mike Green’s goal gave him markers in consecutive games for the first time since he recorded goals in four consecutive games from October 30-November 7, 2010.

-- Nicklas Backstrom’s goal makes it three in six games after recording three in his first 29 games.  Backstrom is 3-6-9 over his last eight games.

-- Marcus Johansson had his fourth multi-point game in his last eight contests.  Over that span he is 3-6-9.  “3-6-9” must be a Swedish thing.

-- The seven power play chances were the most for the Caps since they had eight back on January 25th against New Jersey.  They lost that game in overtime, too, 3-2.

-- The Caps allowed a power play goal tonight, the third time in four games that they have allowed one.  They have not won any of those games in regulation (two Gimmick wins, a regulation loss, and tonight’s overtime loss).

-- Getting eight shots on seven power plays is not especially impressive, and it is made worse by allowing four shorthanded shots on goal.

-- Karl Alzner was minus-3, the first time he finished a game there since he was a minus-3 against the New York Rangers in a 5-4 Gimmick loss on February 11, 2009.

-- Steve Oleksy had five blocked shots.  That vaulted him into fourth on the team in blocked shots with 33 in just 15 games.

-- The Caps finished the month 9-6-1, a 97-point pace per 82 games.

In the end, it was a lost opportunity for the Caps.  Had they won this game they would be ninth place, behind the Rangers for eighth place by virtue of the Rangers holding a game in hand.  As it is, the Caps remain in 11th place, tied with Carolina in points but with the Hurricanes holding two games in hand.  It sets up Tuesday’s game in North Carolina as being just that much more important.  As for the weekend, it was a case of winning a game they should have lost and losing a game they should have won.  Three points out of four on the road would almost always be looked upon as a good thing.  But it is that point that got away that is going to linger, at least until late Tuesday night.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 35: Capitals at Flyers, March 31st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals, fresh off their thrilling 4-3 skills competition win over the Buffalo Sabres in upstate New York, head down to south Philadelphia to visit the rugged Flyers in an early evening…

“Rugged?... good one, cuz.”

What, you think the Flyers lack a certain edge? 

“Cousin, have you been reading the papers?”

I like to think I keep up with current events.

“Well, geez, cuz, even I can see that the Flyers have lost eight of their last 11 games.  And, they have only 23 goals scored in those 11 games.”

Cheerless, I’m impressed.

“They ain’t Flyers, they’re die…ers.”

Well, nice try.

“You have to give him an ‘A’ for effort…”

There is that, Fearless.

The Flyers are in the midst of a late-season swoon, going 3-6-2 over their last 11 games, getting outscored by a 35-23 margin.  They have not been able to string together consecutive wins since they beat Washington and Ottawa more than a month ago.  And what it means is that even with their 3-1 win over the Boston Bruins on Saturday afternoon, the Flyers are in 14th place in the Eastern Conference.

Offensively over those 11 games, it has not been a case of being bad as much as it has been being just not good enough.  Jakub Voracek is 5-5-10 over those 11 games and can be said to be carrying at least a fair share of the scoring load.  However, Claude Giroux, of whom more might have been expected so far, has three goals in those last 11 games.  Good, but not quite what the Flyers need.  Ditto for Scott Hartnell.  Having played in only 18 games as a result of suffering a broken foot earlier in the season, Hartnell has three goals over the Flyers’ last 11 games.  For a guy who had a career-high 37 goals last year, it is not bad, just not good enough.

Here is what the Flyers are not getting offensively – any offense from their defensemen.  Only one of the 23 goals scored by the Flyers over the last 11 games has come from a blueliner, that coming from Kimmo Timonen back on March 7th in a 5-4 loss to Pittsburgh.  It also happens to be the last time the Flyers scored more than three goals in a game (the streak with three or fewer now at nine games).  In fact, that goal by Timonen is the only goal by a Flyer defenseman over Philadelphia’s last 15 games.

Ilya Bryzgalov has appeared in goal in each of the 11 games in this 3-6-2 slide.  His record of 3-5-2 over that span (Brian Boucher has the other decision) is consistent with a 3.13 goals against average and a .892 save percentage.  It is not as if this record is all that different from his season marks.  He is another of those “second page” goalies in the statistical rankings – 35th of 48 goalies in goals against average (2.77) and 36th in save percentage (.902).

These are not your father’s Flyers.  And here is how they compare to the Caps overall this season…

1.  In one sense, the lack of scoring from the Philadelphia defense and the leaky defense generally should be of little surprise.  Of the eight players listed in the injury listings (the source for the table above), six are defensemen, and five of them are on injured reserve.

2. Of the 28 players to dress for the Flyers this season, only three have “plus” totals: Ruslan Fedotenko (plus-6), Max Talbot (plus-1), and Tye McGinn (plus-1); and McGinn has played in only 17 games.  On the other hand, 19 players are in minus territory, and five of them are minus-10 or worse.

3.  Think the “sophomore slump” is a myth?  Well, perhaps sometimes, but in the case of Sean Couturier it would seem to apply.  Last season Couturier was 13-14-27, plus-18 in 77 games.  Through 32 games this season the sophomore is 2-6-8, minus-13 and has the 15th highest number of goals scored against among forwards while on ice.

4.  No team has scored more power play goals than the Flyers (32), and only one team -- New Jersey -- has scored fewer goals at 5-on-5 than the Flyers (50).

5.  Mike Knuble has a third of the Flyers’ goals over the last two games (two of six).  With four goals in 20 games this season, he is in striking distance of matching his total with the Caps last season (six in 72 games).

1.  Nicklas Backstrom has taken over the team lead in assists for the Capitals (25).  He has six helpers in his last seven games.

2.  Even though the Capitals outshot the Buffalo Sabres, 38-23, in their 4-3 Gimmick win on Saturday, the Caps have out-shot opponents only nine times in 34 games. They are tied with Edmonton for the fewest instances of outshooting opponents.  It is, perhaps, unfortunate since the Caps have the fourth best winning percentage when outshooting opponents (6-3-0, .667).

3. From the “do power plays matter” file… the Caps are 13-9-1 when scoring at least one power play goal and 6-7-1 when they get at least four power play opportunities.  On the other hand, the Caps are 3-9-1 when allowing more than three power play opportunities, 4-14-1 when allowing a power play goal. The answer is, “it depends.”

4.  Jason Chimera recorded two shots on goal (and one expletive) against Buffalo on Saturday. That broke a string of three games in which he did not record a shot on goal, which happened to be his longest run of games without a shot on goal since he went four games without one from March 28-April 3, 2010.

5.  Troy Brouwer’s shorthanded goal on Saturday night was his first as a Capital and his first since November 25, 2009, when he scored for the Chicago Blackhawks in a 7-2 win over the San Jose Sharks.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Philadelphia:  Claude Giroux.

Claude Giroux has come alive of late, going 2-4-6 in his last five games.  He has been winning faceoffs – 50 percent or better in nine of his last ten games.  He has been logging big minutes, topping 20 minutes of ice time in 17 of his last 21 games without consecutive games under 20 minutes.  And yet, the Flyers are struggling.  With as many injuries as the Flyers have had to contend with, Giroux is going to have to find another gear in his game if the Flyers are going to make a chase for the playoffs. He had a goal and an assist in a 4-1 win over the Caps on February 27th and is 7-3-10, minus-2, in 15 career games against Washington.

Washington: Mathieu Perreault

No one was more excited on the Washington bench after Saturday night’s win over Buffalo than Mathieu Perreault.  Now, it is time to apply that enthusiasm to the ice.  Actually, that enthusiasm is there, but the results have not been lately.  Since he had a three-goals-in-four-games stretch earlier this month, he is without a goal in his last six games and has only seven shots on goal in those games.  Secondary scoring is important to the Caps as they start their stretch run, and Perreault is going to have to be a part of that.  He is 1-1-2, minus-1 in seven career games against the Flyers.


1.  Storm the wall.  It was rather noticeable in the win over the Sabres that the Caps were not winning a lot of battles along the wall.  Philadelphia will be even stiffer competition in that area of the rink.  The Caps cannot play just between the faceoff dots.  They will have to give as good as they get along the boards.

2.  Win the first period.  The Flyers have the worst record in the league when trailing after 20 minutes.  They are a perfect 0-12-0 when behind at the first intermission.  That has been a challenge for the Caps, as noted above, having carried a lead into the first intermission only nine times in 34 games.

3.  Buzz Bryz.  If Ilya Bryzgalov starts this game and has a save percentage below .900, the Flyers have almost no chance of winning.  Bryzgalov has failed to hit the .900 save percentage mark in 13 appearances this season.  The Flyers’ record in those games is 1-12-0.

In the end, one is good, but two is better.  The Caps got off to a good start on this three-game road trip with their come-from-behind win over Buffalo on Saturday.  They will need to take it up a notch against a club that is still formidable in its own building (10-5-2 at Wells Fargo Center).  A win in this one, and the Caps could find themselves in ninth place, tied with the eighth-place New York Rangers in standings points (the Rangers would hold a lead based on fewer games played).  That would set up perhaps the season’s most important game for the Caps on Tuesday against Carolina.  But first things first.  There are Flyers to bring to earth.

Capitals 4 – Flyers 3

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A TWO-point night -- Game 34: Capitals 4 - Sabres 3 (OT/Gimmick)

For 22 minutes, the Washington Capitals looked as if they might go meekly into the spring sunset against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center.  But after falling behind by a pair of goals twice, the Caps roared back in the third period to tie the game, then win it, 4-3, when Matt Hendricks and Alex Ovechkin earned perfect 10’s on the judges’ scorecards in the freestyle competition.

The game started poorly for the Caps.  Christian Ehrhoff snapped a shot off the post and behind Caps goalie Braden Holtby 3:01 into the game to give the Sabres a 1-0 lead.  That is how things stayed for the rest of the first period and a minute into the second frame.  Then, Ville Leino put the Sabres up by a pair when he stuffed in a rebound of a Tyler Ennis shot past Holtby at the 1:19 mark of the period.

At that point, things looked grim, but Alex Ovechkin stopped the bleeding.  And we don’t mean his stitched up chin.  With Ennis off for tripping and the Caps on a power play, the Sabres did the unthinkable.  Defenseman Mike Weber and forward Steve Ott stood in place on the left side of the ice and watched Ovechkin circle around the edge of the left wing circle with the puck.  Neither was in a position to defend when Ovechkin then ripped a wrist shot over goalie Jhonas Enroth’s glove to get the Caps within a goal just 62 seconds after the Leino goal.

Leino restored the Sabres’ two-goal lead midway through the period when he poked a loose puck lying behind Holtby the last 18 inches, and that was how the second period ended, the Sabres on top by a 3-1 margin.  The third period was something else altogether.  With John Carlson off for the Caps for a delay of game penalty, Braden Holtby stopped a dump-in behind his own net.  He reversed the puck, sending it back up the left wing wall where it eluded Andrej Sekera.  It was enough to spring Troy Brouwer free with Nicklas Backstrom on a 2-on-1 break, Jason Pominville back for the Sabres.  Brouwer held the puck as he glided in, and as Pominville slid across, Brouwer snapped a shot to the short side past Enroth’s blocker to get the Caps within a goal once more at 3-2 with 2:43 gone in the third period.

Despite dominating territory over the next 17 minutes, it looked as if Enroth had every answer for the Caps’ efforts.  Then, with Holtby pulled for an extra attacker, Enroth’s luck ran out.  The Caps set up as if it was a power play, deploying in a 2-3-1 formation with the extra attacker, Joel Ward being the extra forward down low and Mike Green at the top of the zone.  It succeeded in keeping the puck in the Sabres’ zone, the Caps feeding Green as the trigger man.  The first time Green was set up, his shot from the high point went wide.  But the rebound off the boards came to Nicklas Backstrom at the right wing wall.  Backstrom fed Green again, and after a hitch in his windup, Green made good.  His slap shot hit the post to Enroth’s right, rebounded back and off Enroth’s right shoulder, then back into the net to tie the game with just 39.2 seconds left in regulation.

That is how the 60-minute portion of the game ended, and after a five-minute overtime in which each team recorded a pair of shots, the contest went to the skills competition.  Buffalo chose to shoot first, and Jason Pominville rang his shot off the left post behind Holtby.  It was the last bit of room the Caps needed.  Matt Hendricks resurrected his “paralyzer” move, beating Enroth to the blocker side.  Then, after Tyler Ennis was stuffed on his shot attempt, Alex Ovechkin skated out as the potential game-winning trick shot.  Ovechkin skated slowly in, and with Enroth looking as if he was expecting one more move, Ovechkin snapped a shot through the five hole of a frozen in place Enroth to give the Caps the extra standings point.

Other stuff…

-- The 38 shots on goal for the Caps was the most they recorded in a game since they peppered Carolina for 40 on February 26th.  Over their previous 15 games the Caps had reached the 30-shot mark only once (33 in a 4-1 loss to Boston on March 16th).  Conversely, the 23 shots allowed was only the second time over the Caps’ last 17 games that they allowed fewer than 30 shots.

-- The win in extra time preserved a mark for the Caps.  Only one team in the league has fewer losses in extra time than the Caps, who have but one such loss.  Pittsburgh has not yet lost in extra time.

-- The Caps had 66 shot attempts for the game.  Alex Ovechkin had 17 of them (and we believe the official scorer missed two other missed shots late in the third period).  His ten shots on goal was a season high and was the most he had in a single game since recording ten shots on goal in a 5-2 win over Tampa Bay on February 4, 2011.

-- The two point game for Mike Green (1-1-2) was his second of the season and first since a two-point effort in a 3-2 overtime loss to New Jersey on January 25th, the Caps only extra time loss this season.

-- It was a four-square night for Mike Ribeiro, or rather “four-cubed".  Four shots on goal, four faceoff wins, four faceoff losses. It seemed as if each of Ribeiro’s shots were excellent chances, including what was the save of the game when Ribeiro pounced on a rebound to the left of Enroth.  With the goalie down, Ribeiro had an almost empty net at which to shoot.  Even though it was a tough angle shot, Ribeiro had the advantage of having the puck on his forehand, but Enroth managed to get his glove up from a prone position and snare Ribeiro’s drive.

-- For the most part, Jack Hillen had a tough game.  But he gritted out a second-highest among Cap defensemen 25:19 of ice time, including 3:01 of ice time in the overtime.

-- Brooks Laich had a bit of difficulty in this one.  In 19:33 of ice time he did not attempt a shot on goal, won only three of ten draws, and looked to take a skate toe in the leg when he threw a hip check.

--  Ovechkin’s power play goal made it a league-leading 11th for him, and it was the sixth time in the last seven games that the Caps recorded a power play goal.  Ovechkin has four of them.

-- Consider these time on ice numbers:  27:16, 25:19, 24:55, 21:45, 13:44, 11:05.  What two look out of place?  Yeah, those are the ice time numbers for the defense, and the last two are those of Steve Oleksy and Jeff Schultz.

-- Joel Ward…no shots, no shot attempts, no hits, no giveaways, no takeaways, no blocked shots, no faceoffs taken.  But for a plus-1 (the Green game-tying goal), he had a clean score sheet.  Yeah, and Buffalo didn’t score any goals with him on the ice, either.  We'll call that a pretty good game.

In the end…

(image: SB*Nation)

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 34: Capitals at Sabres, March 30th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Ah, Cherry blossom time in Washington.

The trees are about to bloom, the city is abuzz with tourists and sightseers, and the air is fresh and clean.

Meanwhile the Washington Capitals are in Buffalo.  Figures, doesn’t it?  But Buffalo is where the Capitals might be making what will be their last push to play meaningful hockey this spring.  This road trip – starting in Buffalo before heading to Philadelphia and Raleigh – is the last long stretch of games away from Verizon Center this season.  By the time the Caps return they could be over .500 for the first time this season (if they sweep the three games), or they could be 13 points behind Winnipeg for the Southeast Division lead (if the Caps are swept in all three and the Jets win all three of their games over the same period) and ten points behind the New York Islanders for eighth place (if the Isles sweep their three games).

But first, the Caps take wing (get it?...”wing?”…”Buffalo?”) to First Niagara Center for an evening tilt against the Sabres.  And despite their troubles – 13th place in the Eastern Conference – they are playing somewhat better of late. Since dropping a 5-3 decision to the Caps on St. Patrick’s Day, Buffalo is 3-1-1 over their last five games.  And it is not as if the Sabres played a bunch of stiffs in these last five games.  They beat Montreal twice and Toronto once, both teams that will make the playoffs.  The Sabres' trouble is that then they let up against comparative patsies this week, dropping a 2-1 decision to Tampa Bay and a 5-4 Gimmick loss to Florida.

Buffalo spread 14 goals scored over those last five games rather liberally.  Ten different players recorded goals, four of them – Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno, Thomas Vanek, and Steve Ott – getting two apiece.  Ennis led the Sabres in overall scoring over these games, going 2-3-5.

The most common feature of these last five games for the Sabres has been the margin of victory.  All five games were settled by one-goal margins, three of them going to extra time, and two of them to the freestyle competition.  Here is how the teams compare overall this season...

1.  Was a two goal performance by Thomas Vanek in a 2-1 win over Montreal last Saturday a signal of a reawakening of his goal-scoring production, or merely a blip on the radar of a weak second half in that regard?  Vanek scored 11 goals in his first 11 games this season, but even with that two-goal performance against Montreal has only five over his last 18 games.  It might not matter, though.  Vanek suffered an “upper body injury” in a 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay on Tuesday and is questionable for this game.

2.  For you members of the Washington chapter of the Steve Ott Fan Club… two goals, two assists, 10 penalty minutes over five games since his tour-de-force performance in agitation in Washington on March 17th.  Looks as if he should be in fine form for an encore performance tonight.  The thing is, though, he has never scored a goal against the Caps.  He is 0-1-1 in six career contests against Washington.

3.  Buffalo has only nine wins in regulation and overtime this season (only Florida has fewer in the NHL).  Defensemen have the game winning goals in four of those games (Christian Ehrhoff, Alexander Sulzer, and twice by Tyler Myers).

4.  Speaking of wins in regulation and overtime, Buffalo has only three such wins at home this season, only one since February 15th, that coming against the New York Rangers in a 3-1 win on March 12th.

5.  The Capitals’ power play should be salivating.  Buffalo might not have the worst penalty kill in the league, but they can see bottom from their 27th place ranking.  The thing is, no team has allowed more power play goals overall than the Sabres (25).

1.  The Caps have stopped the bleeding in terms of wins and losses, going 5-3-0 over their last eight games since suffering a three-game losing streak earlier this month. They have made a bit of a dent in their deficit from a playoff berth in the meantime, cutting their deficit from the Southeast Division lead from ten to seven points, and from eighth place in the conference from seven to four points over those games. 

2.  The Caps are 16th in the league in first period goals scored, 18th in goals scored in the second period.  They are tied for sixth in third period goals scored.  Maybe if that was reversed, the record would have been better.  Then again, maybe not.  Pittsburgh and Chicago – two strong teams – are first and second in first period goals scored.  Calgary and Philadelphia – two teams looking forward to the off season – are third and fourth.

3.  Washington has allowed more power play goals when playing 3-on-5 (six) than any team in the league.  The Southeast Division seems to have cornered the market on this statistic.  Three of the worst five teams in 3-on-5 goals allowed are from the division (the Caps, Winnipeg, and Tampa Bay).  But so is Pittsburgh, so there is that.  Oh yeah…and Buffalo.

4.  Only five teams have a worse winning percentage than the Caps when leading at the first intermission.  Even Florida has a better points percentage (.778) than the Caps (.667).

5.  In 14 games so far in March, the Caps have reached the 30-shot mark once.  They have held opponents under the 30-shot mark… once.  They have been outshot by an average margin of 7.8 shots per game in those 14 games.  That is a lot of pressure to put on Caps goaltenders to be sharp.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo:  Ryan Miller

Yeah, who else.  He is the face of the franchise.  A former Vezina Trophy winner.  And he is a goaltender you do not expect to be a “second page” goalie on the statistics list – 41st of 48 goalies in goals against average (2.91).  He does crawl back onto the first page of rankings in save percentage with a .911 mark (tied for 24th among 48 goalies), but even this is unexpected territory for the ten-year veteran.  Part of the problem – perhaps the problem – is that Miller has been pelted mercilessly with shots on goal.  He has faced more shots than any goalie in the league, almost 100 more shots (952) than Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec (856).  By the same token, Miller has almost 100 more saves (867) than the second place goalie (Pavelec with 775).  Miller is the guy in the bowels of the ship bailing water…and falling behind.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

Ryan Miller is going to keep his right eye peeking over at Alex Ovechkin in the left wing circle on the Capitals’ power play.  The Caps have six power play goals in their last eight games, and Ovechkin has four of those goals and assisted on a fifth.  Ovechkin has a healthy 19-12-31 scoring record in 29 career games against Buffalo, and 16 of those 31 points (nine goals, seven assists) have come on the power play.  Couple that with the Sabres’ weak penalty kill, and Ovechkin looms as a large figure in that left wing circle on the Caps’ power play in this game.


1.  More power!!!  We’ve sort of covered that, but this really is the fault line on which this game is likely to be settled.  Neither team is strong at 5-on-5, but the Caps power play has performed so much more efficiently on their power play than has Buffalo on their penalty kill that the Caps have to do damage here. 

2.  Play desperately…as a group.  The Caps are, from time to time, a team that when adversity strikes, dissolves into a squad in which each individual plays his own game trying to do to much on his own to make up the deficit.  The Caps have to play as a desperate squad, not as five desperate skaters.

3.  Simple equals success.  It is a road game.  Play it as a road game…simple, solid, strong in the corners and on the wall.  And when opportunity knocks (you would think it would knock often against a team such as Buffalo, which gives up lots of chances), by all means, let it in.

In the end, the month of March has been one of a seemingly never-ending series of “must win” games for the Caps… back-to-back games against Carolina, back-to-back games against Winnipeg, back-to-back games against teams from New York.  Well, here we are coming to the end of the month and perhaps the last “must win” games. Because if they don’t win this road trip, there are not likely to be anymore “must win” games for the Caps this season.  So…win.

Capitals 4 – Sabres 2

Friday, March 29, 2013

Washington Capitals -- The Tortoise or the Hare

“The hare laughed at the tortoise's feet but the tortoise declared, 'I will beat you in a race!' The hare replied, 'Those are just words. Race with me, and you'll see! Who will mark out the track and serve as our umpire?' 'The fox,' replied the tortoise, 'since she is honest and highly intelligent.' When the time for the race had been decided upon, the tortoise did not delay, but immediately took off down the race course. The hare, however, lay down to take a nap, confident in the speed of his feet. Then, when the hare eventually made his way to the finish line, he found that the tortoise had already won.”
The moral of the fable, credited to the ancient story-teller Aesop, is that resolve, determination, and perseverance wins the race over the lazy and indolent.  It would seem to have a perverse relevance to the Washington Capitals these days.  Recently, Ed Frankovic and pucksandbooks at On Frozen Blog authored essays that spoke of the dilemma facing the Capitals these days, that being whether or not to trade center Mike Ribeiro for futures.

Generally, both seem to agree that holding on to Ribeiro does not serve the mid-to-long term interests of the club, that Ribeiro could be moved for some combination of picks and prospects that would improve the club 2-3 years hence.  We agree, primarily because doing so aligns those assets better with what Caps fans hope is the emergence of Filip Forsberg and Evgeni Kunzetsov as the next generation of highly skilled players to complement those who by that time will be comparative grizzled veterans – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Brooks Laich.

But the sturm und drang attaching to this matter brings into stark relief a problem with this franchise.  To its credit, it applied a cold, calculating eye to what it had in 2003-2004 – an aging, underperforming, overpaid squad that might, if things fell into place, might squeeze perhaps another playoff appearance out of itself.  But it was not a team that had much promise going forward.  So, the Caps tore it out, root and branch, shipping players hither and yon for draft picks and prospects.  We covered this in some detail over the years that followed. 

It was all part of a “plan” to return the Capitals to competitiveness, to make them compelling to watch, and make them a more complete hockey team, one that could challenge for a Stanley Cup.  One of the elements of the plan, perhaps the most important one, was another “C” word – “commitment.”  The Caps committed to a plan that might not (and in fact did not) bear fruit immediately.  But adopting the mindset of the tortoise – resolve, determination, and perseverance – the club committed to the long term.  The “rebuild” would be slow, steady, and sure (although winning a ping-pong ball drawing for the top overall draft pick in 2004 did not hurt, either).

By 2007-2008, the Caps were competitive, securing a playoff spot with an incredible closing kick.  By 2009-2010 they were the best team in the sport…ok, in the regular season.  Even the most callous and cynical observer would have to agree, the plan was working. The unbroken upward arc of performance signaled that it was not a matter of “if,” but “when” the Caps would finally hoist the Stanley Cup.

But here we are, three seasons removed from the Presidents Trophy season of 2009-2010, and the “plan” looks stale.  The tortoise no longer looks determined as much as he looks slow.  The players who had career years in 2009-2010 (those who remain with the club) struggle now to rise above also-ran status.  The club that lost only 15 games in regulation over the entire 82-game regular season in 2009-2010 has already lost eight times in regulation in 16 home games this season.  The team that might have been called “The Greatest Show on Ice” in 2009-2010 is not even the greatest show in its own city.  Sure, the Caps still sell out Verizon Center and have a long sellout streak, but that statistic seems to have less and less meaning every day as the club’s fortunes on the ice dim from week to week.

It is a good thing to be the tortoise – resolved, determined, purposeful.  But in running the race, you had better be sure that the hare does not possess those qualities.  Since the Caps climbed to within sight of the summit of 2009-2010, they have been passed along the way by the Chicago Blackhawks (Stanley Cup winners in 2010), the Boston Bruins (2011), and the Los Angeles Kings (2012).  Their nemesis of the past two decades, the Pittsburgh Penguins – the team with which the Caps were supposed to be competing for Cups for a decade – won a Cup in 2009 and are heavy favorites to win the Cup this season.  The Carolina Hurricanes and Winnipeg Jets would seem to have caught the Caps, at least for the time being, in their own division.  The Rangers, the Senators, the Devils…the Caps are looking up at all of these teams these days.

The Mike Ribeiro situation is a symptom of something deeper that troubles this franchise.  Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, considered a great military strategist in the 19th century, said words to the effect that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.”  To the Capitals’ credit, their plan survived half a decade.  But now, their plan (such as it is) seems to depend heavily, perhaps too heavily, on what Filip Forsberg and Evgeni Kuznetsov – neither of whom has yet to play a minute in anger in North America – can bring to the table down the road.  And if Ribeiro is not moved for assets that align with that notion, then a lot of eggs are being placed in the baskets of Forsberg and Kuznetsov.

We believed five years ago, and do so now, that the draft is the most reliable way of building a roster, both in terms of aligning with a philosophy of hockey and doing so in the most economical way.  That is a philosophy, though, not a plan.  If your plan is to be the tortoise – resolved, determined, purposeful – the hare cannot have those same qualities.  Because if it does – and Pittsburgh, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and a handful of other teams certainly appear to have those attributes -- you lose.

Sittin' at the end of the bar...

It’s a little known fact…

-- Reason 3,826 why the Southeast Division sucks… no team in the Division ranks in the top eight in the Eastern Conference in home win-loss record.  Tampa Bay is the only division team with a record over .500 (9-7-1).  The Caps are 8-8-0.

-- The good and the bad… Looking at the individual points rankings, there are the Penguins with the first and second ranked point getters, and there is Tampa Bay with the third and fourth ranked scorers.  One is a prohibitive favorite to win the Stanley Cup. The other… uh, no.

-- Caps fans know that Mike Ribeiro is having a fine season.  But there is another statistic of note that Caps fans might not be paying attention to with respect to Ribeiro’s season.  He currently has 41 penalty minutes in 33 games.  He has never finished a season in his career averaging more than 1.0 penalty minutes per game.

-- Since the lockout of 2004-2005, only one qualifying player in the NHL finished the season with a shooting percentage of greater than 25.0 percent – Mike Ribeiro in 2007-2008 with Dallas (25.2 percent).  At the moment, four qualifying players have at least a 25.0 percent shooting percentage: Patrik Berglund, Chris Kunitz, Alex Tanguay… and Ribeiro.

-- That Sidney Crosby leads the NHL in assists is probably not a surprise to anyone.  But Chris Kunitz tied for sixth with 24 in 35 games?  He’s never had more than 35 in a season.  Oh, and Ribeiro is tied with him.  So is Nicklas Backstrom.

-- It’s all very nice that Steven Stamkos has 23 goals and all, but really… 43 goals against while on ice?  41 of them at even strength (no non-Lightning forward in the league is close)?  Hey, Milbury, how ‘bout talking about this guy playing in his own end.

-- More Ribeiro… he’s tied for third in the league power play points with that guy in Pittsburgh.  No, not Iginla.

-- Troy Brouwer has “only” 69 recorded hits in 32 games, tied for 41st in the league among forwards.  We say “only” because he ranked seventh last season (247) and fifth in 2010-2011 (262).

-- It might not be too much of a stretch to be unsurprised that Jason Chimera leads the Caps in minor penalties taken.  It would probably surprise you more, dear reader, to know that Alex Ovechkin is tied with him (13 apiece).

-- Matt Hendricks has as many fighting majors for the Caps as the rest of the team combined (6).

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A NO-point night -- Game 33: Islanders 3 - Capitals 2

Well, that was a cold splash of water in the face, wasn’t it?

The Washington Capitals fell behind, caught up, then gave up a third period goal last night to the New York Islanders, finally losing their contest by a 3-2 margin, letting two points on home ice get away in their late-season rush to try and secure a playoff berth.  Not only did the Caps let those two points get away, everything that could go wrong in the standings did just that.

The win allowed the Islanders to jump over the Caps in the standings into ninth place.  The Winnipeg Jets extended their Southeast Division lead to seven points by defeating the Carolina Hurricanes.  The New York Rangers beat the Philadelphia Flyers to extend their lead over the Caps to four points for eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

The Caps fell behind in the first period when the Islanders scored two goals less than three minutes apart from almost the same spot on the ice – first Michael Grabner in the slot on a feed from Keith Aucoin, then Josh Bailey converting a pass from Kyle Okposo.  In both instances the islanders caught the Caps overloaded to one side of the ice, leaving no one to cover the shooter on the weak side.

However, the Caps got even in the second period with two goals of their own separated by barely three minutes.  The first came when Brooks Laich hauled the puck down the right wing wall, then left it for Mike Ribeiro at the Islander line.  Ribeiro took over, cut to the middle, eluded a poke check attempt from Marty Reasoner, then wristed the puck past goalie Evgeni Nabakov.

Just 3:23 later, the Caps tied things up when John Carlson took the great circle route through the Islander zone.  It started when Carlson beat Matt Moulson to a loose puck along the right wing wall.  He then picked it up and circled around the back of the net, coming out on the left wing side where he fed it to Alex Ovechkin.  As Carlson skated back around to the point, Ovechkin fired a shot that was blocked.  The puck skittered to the right wing corner, where it was picked up by Marcus Johansson.  He then fed Carlson, who by this time was back at the right point.  Carlson walked the puck a couple of steps to the middle and let fly with a slapper that sailed past Nabokov to tie the game.

That is the way things remained for the next 21 minutes and change, heading into the late stages of regulation time.  And then, when Caps fans might have been entertaining thoughts of overtime or a second straight freestyle competition, the Caps went brain dead for 13 seconds.  It started with Brooks Laich skating after the puck as he was approaching the end of his shift. Keep in mind that this is a player who missed the first 28 games of the season – he looked like he was at the end of his shift, a bit gassed.  He managed to catch up to the puck inside the Caps’ blue line and send it back to what looked like safety behind the Caps’ net.  Mike Green picked it up there, but he was immediately hounded into a giveaway by Matt Moulson at the side of the Caps’ net.  Green lost track of the puck, Moulson found it, and he snapped a pass to John Tavares, who jumped into a void that might have been occupied by Laich or his replacement on the shift.  No Cap was there, and Karl Alzner was too late to keep Tavares from wristing the puck past goalie Braden Holtby for what would be the game-winning goal in a disappointing loss and a lost opportunity.

Other stuff…

-- The loss snapped a three game winning streak for the Caps, denying them their first four-game winning streak of the season, and it also snapped a streak of four games in which the Caps allowed two or fewer goals.  It was the fourth straight game at home in which the Caps allowed three or more goals.

-- The Caps saw their five-game streak with at least one power play goal ended.  It ended with a thud.  One power play shot on goal in six minutes of power play time.

-- Alex Ovechkin’s goal-game streak ended at five, but he extended his points streak to six with an assist on the Carlson goal (6-4-10).

-- With his primary assist on the Carlson goal, Marcus Johansson is now 3-5-8 over his last seven games.

-- The Caps either did a horrible job at getting shots to the net, or the Islanders did an extraordinary job of getting in the way.  The Caps had more shots blocked (26) than they had shots on goal (22).  And as if to add insult to injury, they missed almost as many shots (18) as shots on goal.  The silver lining there, one supposes, is that they had 66 shot attempts to 51 for the Islanders.  Unfortunately, that is not how score is kept.

-- Jason Chimera did not record a shot on goal in 9:34 of ice time.  That is three games in a row with no shots on goal recorded.

-- In the former Cap department, Keith Aucoin had a tidy 10:54 in ice time – four shots on goal, three blocked shots, and he split eight faceoffs to go with an assist on the game’s first goal.

-- When a team records only seven shots on goal in the third period against a team that leads the league handily in goals allowed in the third period, it is fair to say “focus” is not a part of your game.  Such was the case with the Caps last night.  The Islanders were averaging 1.47 goals allowed per game in the third period going into last night, including nine in the three losses the Islanders suffered last week.

--  Wojtek Wolski… at least he got 6:51 of ice time.

In the end, maybe it was jet lag.  Whatever it was, the Caps just never could find that top gear in this one.  And the breakdowns in their own end were persistent – you could use a hula hoop to cover the spot from which the Islanders scored all three of their goals.  This can’t happen to a team on the wrong side of the playoff divide against a team it should beat at home.  Now, the Caps find themselves just that much further out of a playoff spot with just that many fewer games left to play.  And with another road trip leading up to the trading deadline next Wednesday.

Oooh, the DRAH-muh.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 33: Islanders at Capitals, March 26th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals return home the conquering heroes, having gone to the farthest edges of the Southeast Empire to vanquish Winnipeg Jets twice before taking their road campaign to Gotham to subdue the New York Rangers.

And now the conquering heroes led by their field general, whose theories of warfare appear finally to be taking hold, take up arms – well, sticks – once more in an effort to repel the Islanders of New York.  After spending the last week on the road,  the Capitals will be taking on an opponent desperately in need of a victory of their own. 

The New York Islanders come to Verizon Center in a foul mood, for they had a bad week last week. After climbing over the .500 mark with a win over Florida to close the previous week, the fishermen went 1-3-0 last week.  The joke here is that they lost all the games in which they allowed a goal.  Goalie Evgeni Nabokov recorded a 3-0 shutout over Florida (should games against the Panthers even count any more in the standings?) to salvage what had been an ugly week to that point.

In their first three games of the week the Islanders were outscored, 14-7, and their special teams might have been saved by lack of work.  The power play was a paltry 1-for-12 (8.3 percent) in the three losses, 2-for-14 for the week (14.3 percent).  The penalty kill was 5-for-7 in the losses (71.4 percent), 7-for-9 for the week (77.8 percent for the week).  As long as the penalty kill did not face more than two shorthanded situations it was fine (5-for-5 in three such games), but was 2-for-4 in a 5-2 loss to Montreal.

There was not a lot of punch in the Islander offense last week, just ten goals overall.  As might be expected, John Tavares led the team in goals overall (tied for the team lead, actually), but having two cannot be considered especially impressive.  Two was the number also obtained by Josh Bailey and Lubomir Visnovsky, while Matt Moulson led the Islanders in points with four (all assists).

If there is one thing that characterized the Islanders last week it was the third period collapse.  Nine of the 14 goals allowed by the Islanders in their three losses came in the third period.  They scored no third period goals in those three losses.  It is part of a larger trend.  No team in the NHL has allowed more third period goals than New York (47 in 32 games), and they have the worst goal differential in the third periods of games this season (minus-15).

Evgeni Nabokov tended goal in three of the those four games last week and had uneven results.  He was 1-2-0 with only a .902 save percentage.  However, he did have a respectable 2.36 goals against average and a shutout.  He benefitted from having to face only 24.2 shots per 60 minutes, a relatively light shot workload.  Here is how the two teams stack up, numbers-wise:

1.  The Islanders have not defeated a non-Southeast Division team in their last nine games.  They are 4-0-0 against the Southeast (including a 5-2 win over Washington on March 9th), 0-4-1 against everyone else.

2.  Giving up goals in the third period has been a problem for the Isles… so has scoring them in the first period.  Only three teams – Winnipeg, Columbus, and Phoenix have scored fewer than the 20 scored by the Islanders in the first period of games this season.

3.  Only Calgary and Florida have allowed more 5-on-5 goals this season than the 74 allowed by the Islanders.

4.  The Islanders have the most efficient power play on the road, by far, converting 31.4 percent of their opportunities (Montreal is second at 23.1 percent).  The flip side of that is no team has fewer power play opportunities on the road than the Isles (35 in 13 games).

5.  Whether it is the product of official scoring or not, no team other than the Islanders is in the top five in both giveaways (second) and takeaways (fourth) this season.  Okay, it’s a scoring thing…they rank in the top five in both at home and in the bottom ten in both on the road.

1.  The New York Islanders are now the only team in the Eastern Conference against which Marcus Johansson has yet to score a goal.

2.  Since Alex Ovechkin went without a shot on goal against Carolina on March 12th, he has recorded 35 shots on goal in seven games and has vaulted into a tie in shots on goal with Winnipeg’s Evander Kane (136).

3.  The Capitals are the only team in the league with two players among the top-five forwards in the league in assists.  Mike Ribeiro and Nicklas Backstrom (24 apiece) are tied for third in assists among forwards.

4.  Washington is one of two teams with three forwards in the top-15 in power play points.  Mike Ribeiro (17), Alex Ovechkin (15), and Nicklas Backstrom (13) are matched only by Pittsburgh with three forwards in the top-15.

5.  Alex Ovechkin is a team worst minus-9 in games outside the Southeast Division.  Only three Caps – Joel Ward (plus-3), Tom Poti (plus-1), and Dmitry Orlov (plus-1) are in plus territory outside the division.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Matt Moulson

Matt Moulson must be the quietest 30-goal scorer in the recent history of the NHL.  Coming into this season he had 30 or more goals in each of the last three seasons (one of nine players to do it).  Through 23 games this season he was on a pace to take things to the next level, an 82-game pace of 48 goals.  However, Moulson is without a goal in his last nine games and has only one goal in his last 13 contests.  He has been piling up the assists, though, with nine in those same 13 games.  That might not sound extraordinary, but Moulson has not had more than 33 assists in any of his five seasons coming into this year.  His 22 assists to date has him on an 82-game pace for 56 helpers.  Moulson is 4-3-7, plus-1, in 13 career games against Washington.

Washington: Brooks Laich

After missing the first 28 games of the season (Caps’ record: 12-15-1), Brooks Laich has returned to the lineup.  It seems to have made a difference (Caps’ record: 3-1-0).  Laich is getting into game shape and is getting more and more time.  His ice time has jumped from 12:51 in his first game back, against Pittsburgh, to 16:54 in his last game, against the New York Rangers.  His shifts have risen from 19 to 25.  He is still a bit under his average ice time from last season (18:29), but he should be at that level shortly. Laich’s presence provides a certain stability among the lines that did not exist in his absence, in this case providing continuity on the second line on the left side.  His versatility has already manifest itself, his being on ice for only one goal against in the four games in which he played.  The ripple effects of his presence might be the secret ingredient in the Caps’ ability to compete for a playoff spot down the stretch.  He is 8-7-15, plus-1 in 27 career games against the Islanders.


1.  Pressure.  Islander goalie Evgeni Nabokov has not faced more than 30 shots in any of his last seven appearances.  Not that it has mattered much.  Nabokov’s save percentage in those seven contests is .894.  His third period save percentage has been even worse -- .846.  The Caps need to test him, pressure him.

2.  Make Tavares play defense.  John Tavares is having a very nice season – 19 goals in 32 games, tied for second overall.  But he also has been on ice for the ninth highest total of goals against on ice among NHL forwards, and his 47.2 percent faceoff winning percentage is not remarkable (he leads the Islanders in draws taken).  Make him play in his own end.

3.  Brick by brick.  The fear here is that after putting together a nice road trip, the Caps will come home, pay the bills, feed the dog, check their phone messages, and lose focus in their first game back.  This is the only home game they have in an eight-game stretch that ends next week.  They have to take advantage of the home cooking opportunity.

In the end… this is a bit of a novelty, a game the Caps should win.  They are at home against a team that has struggled of late.  But before anyone gets too cocky, the Islanders stuck it to the Caps with a three-goal third period in a 5-2 win on Long Island on March 9th, and the Caps are only 2-1-0 in their last three games against New York on home ice, both wins coming in overtime.  It will not be an easy task.  But the fans will no doubt be cheering their warriors later this evening.

Capitals 4 – Islanders 2