Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 3: Montreal at Washington, January 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals wrap up their brief two-game home stand when the Montreal Canadiens visit Thursday night.  The Habs, meanwhile, take their act on the road for the first time this season.

From the 1915-1916 through the 1992-1993 season – 78 years, inclusive -- the Canadiens won 24 Stanley Cups, almost one every three years.  The longest they went without one in that run was 12 years, from the 1931-1932 season through the 1942-1943 season, a period in which they won only one playoff series.

But since that 24th Stanley Cup in 1993, the Canadiens – the most storied franchise in the history of the NHL – has failed to win the chalice.  The streak is 18 seasons, and counting.  Over those 18 seasons they missed the playoffs seven times, equaling the total number of times they missed the post season dating back to the 1920-1921 season through 1992-1993.  In the last 18 seasons they have won a total of six playoff series (the Caps have won seven).  They have advanced as far as the conference finals once, losing in five games to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2009-2010.

These clearly are not your father’s Canadiens. 

Last season the Habs finished 15th and last in the Eastern Conference, the only time the Canadiens finished last in the conference since there have been conferences in the NHL.  In a way their finish was surprising. They were poor, but not extraordinarily so on offense, finishing tied with Edmonton for 19th in scoring offense.  They were a reasonably effective defensive team, finishing 11th in scoring defense.  Their 5-on-5 play was in the middle third of the league (18th, wedged between the Stanley Cup finalists Los Angeles in 17th and New Jersey in 19th).  Their penalty kill was very efficient, finishing 2nd overall.

Their problem was a combination of a ghastly power play (28th in efficiency despite finishing third in total power play opportunities) and the worst record in the league in one-goal games. This was a team that was just good enough to lose and just good enough to finish 15th but only six points out of tenth place in the East.  Here is how their numbers from last season stack up with the Caps…

1.  This is a team that returns two 30-plus goal scorers from last season – Max Pacioretty (33) and Erik Cole (35), both setting career highs.  Neither has a goal in the two games played thus far by the Canadiens, nor do either have a point.  It has not been for lack of trying, at least in Pacioretty’s case.  He leads the team with eight shots on goal.

2.  All eyes are on Alex Galchenyuk, the pride of Milwaukee.  OK, he and his family moved to Europe when he was four (his father was a hockey player who skated for the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals when Alex was born, then later played in Europe).  He was the Habs’ first and the league’s third overall pick in the 2012 entry draft largely on the basis of a 2010-2011 year with Sarnia in the Ontario Hockey League in which he compiled 31 goals in 68 games.  He missed all but two regular season games with a knee injury in 2011-2012 but did return to the playoffs to record two goals in six games.  He was 2-6-8, plus-2 in seven games for the champion Team USA at the world junior championship tournament this past January.  He notched his first NHL goal in his last outing, getting the fourth goal in a 4-1 Montreal win over Florida earlier this week.

3.  Carey Price is a talented young goaltender.  Not that you would know it from his career statistics against the Caps.  In 12 career appearances against Washington he is 3-6-3, 3.11, .898.  That includes losses in both of his appearances last year, a 3-0 loss on January 18th in Washington and a 4-1 loss at Bell Centre in Montreal on February 24th.  His last win over the Caps came in a 3-2 Gimmick win in Washington on February 1, 2011.

4.  Montreal had one other problem that contributed to their dismal finish last season.  They had few tricks up their sleeves in the Gimmick.  Their 12 losses in the beauty competition was the most of any team in the league last season.  They had only 13 goals in 17 shootouts, five of those by David Desharnais.

5.  Michel Therrien is in his second stint as bench boss for the Canadiens.  From 2000-2001 through 2002-2003, when he was relieved after 46 games, he compiled a record of 77-77-13 with an additional 23 ties.  He was 6-6 in the 2001-2002 playoffs, falling to Carolina in the second round after dumping Boston in the opening round.  In between his Montreal stays he spent parts of four seasons in Pittsburgh with a record of 135-105-32, taking the Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 (losing to Detroit) before being relieved in favor of Dan Bylsma in 2008-2009, who took that Penguins team to the Stanley Cup.

1.  Tied for last in scoring defense… 24th in 5-on-5 play… 27th in penalty killing… tied for 26th in shots on goal allowed… tied for 27th in blocked shots… 26th in faceoff winning percentage.  Sounds very “0-and-2-ish” to us.

2.  They are 0-1-0 when scoring first, 0-1-0 when trailing first… they have been outscored in the first period of games, outscored in the last period of games (oh yeah, and the period in the middle, too)… yup, “0-and-2-ish.”

3.  Two games is, to be obvious, a small universe of data, but think on this.  If your top two lines are Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson; and Mike Ribeiro, Troy Brouwer, and Wojtek Wolski, then the scoring lines have… two of the five goals scored… 28 of 64 shots on goal… one power play goal among them… 24 of the 44 penalty minutes recorded… and are a combined minus-6.  Too, too “0-and-2-ish.”

4.  Braden Holtby will sit for this one in favor of Michal Neuvirth in goal.  One might question the wisdom of that, even if Holtby has been shaky early.  After all, in two career appearances against the Canadiens, Holtby is 2-0-0, 1.00, .955, with one shutout.  Then you look at Neuvirth and see that he is 4-1-0, 1.82, .939, with one shutout in six career appearances against Montreal.

5.  OK, who had Mike Ribeiro in the top five in penalty minutes as of Tuesday’s games?  Two years ago he had a total of 28 PIMs in 82 games played.  Mouthing off will do that, even with a dumb as rocks official listening.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Montreal: Andrei Markov

The 12-year veteran played in only 65 of 246 games over three seasons coming into this year, owing primarily to ankle and knee injuries.  In the first four seasons coming out of the 2004-2005 lockout Markov averaged 11-43-54, plus-4, per season, his point totals increasing in each one.  Then the injuries hit, but even his 7-33-40, plus-9 in those last 65 games coming into this season suggest a productive player (40 points would have placed him in the top-20 in scoring among defensemen).  His two goals in Montreal’s 4-1 win over Florida on Tuesday suggest he might be ready to pick up where he left off before the physical problems. Strangely, perhaps, Markov has never scored a goal against the Caps in 32 career games.  He does have 17 assists, though and is a plus-13.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin has no goals in two games so far this season.  It might seem early to raise that point, but the fact is that he has never gone the first three games of the season without scoring a goal.  Frankly, the Caps could use the help.  His shot totals are not of particular concern by itself (eight in two games), but he appears to be struggling with the concept of playing on the right side. His movement is neither fluid nor instinctual, which does raise a point about his shooting.  He has only three shots on goal so far at even strength, five on the power play where he does most of his work from the customary left side.  Add to this that he is getting almost three minutes a game killing penalties (sixth among forwards), and it is a fair amount of new stuff to incorporate.  Ovechkin’s bread and butter is scoring, and whether it comes from the right or the left side; at even strength or on special teams, he is going to have to start doing it.


1.  Let ‘em score first.  Yeah, yeah, you probably think we have lost our minds, given that the NHL rewards teams that score first.  However, Montreal was dead last in winning percentage in games in which they scored first last season, the only club with a winning percentage below .500.  The point is that leads might not be safe for the Habs.  Keep pressing if things start badly.

2.  Pound on ‘em.  Montreal does not have an especially big set of forwards.  Only Erik Cole, Travis Moen, and Rene Bourque top 200 pounds.  The Caps need to make them pay for their physical shortcomings.

3.  Feel the need for speed.  Three of the six defensemen who have dressed for Montreal this season are 34 or older (Markov, Tomas Kaberle, and Francis Bouillon).  Perhaps we will see if the Caps have taken some of the more up-tempo play to heart and use it against the creaky old-timers.

In the end, 0-and-3 is not the end of the world, but after playing Montreal the Caps head to New Jersey the next night, then they get the pesky Buffalo Sabres before heading to Canada for a road trip.  After that it is Philadelphia followed by two games against the Penguins sandwiching a visit by Toronto.  The Caps could find themselves in a deep hole barely ten games into the season.  That would be a stiff challenge to overcome in an 82-game season.  In a 48-game season it would border on disaster.  That is why this game against a thoroughly beatable opponent is important, one in which the Caps should thoroughly beat their opponent.

Capitals 4 – Canadiens 1

A NO-point night -- Game 2: Jets 4 - Capitals 2

When the Washington Capitals started the 1995 season after a lengthy lockout, they did so by stumbling out of the gate, tying and losing their first two games on their way to a 3-10-5 start.  They righted the ship (due in no small part to a hot rookie goaltender by the name of Jim Carey) to earn a playoff spot, but things were touch-and-go for quite a while in that abbreviated season.

The Caps once again have stubbed their toe on the door jamb as they get their 2013 season underway.  After dropping a 6-3 decision to Tampa Bay on Saturday the Caps made it 0-for-2 with a 4-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets in their home opener.  It was the first loss in a home opener since the Los Angeles Kings beat them in the 2000-2001 home opener.
It looked good early for the Caps when Matt Hendricks finished a nice passing play all around.  The play began with Alex Ovechkin turning out of the left wing circle in the Jets' end where he spotted Nicklas Backstrom sliding into the right wing circle.  Backstrom spied Hendricks set up in front and snapped the puck to the Winnipeg net where Hendricks had only to redirect it (with his right foot it turned out) past goalie Ondrej Pavelec for the game’s first goal.

By the time the Caps got their second goal, though, things had taken a turn.  Winnipeg would take the lead into the first intermission on goals by Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd, both on power plays.  Kane’s goal was a real momentum stopper, a shot from the goal line that looked to tick of the heel of John Carlson’s skate before hitting the inside of goalie Braden Holtby’s right skate and caroming in.

The Jets added even strength goals by Blake Wheeler and Jim Slater in the second period to double the entire goal output they achieved in their first two games.  For all intents and purposes the competitive portion of the game was over after the 40 minutes with the Jets holding a 4-1 lead.

Troy Brouwer added a power play goal of his own with 1:16 left, but it far too little, far too late for the Caps, who sank to 0-2-0 with the likes of the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes, and within whispering distance of last place in the East, now held by the 0-3-0 Philadelphia Flyers.

Other stuff…

-  Most folks knew and understood that the power play might take some time to iron out.  At 2-for-8 so far, that might be considered a rather pleasant surprise.  But the penalty kill smells like a fish freezer that had the power go out for a week. Giving up power play goals on their first two shorthanded situations in this game left the Caps 4-for-9 on the penalty kill to start the season.  Killing off the last three shorthanded situations left them 7-for-12 after two games, a 58.3 percent kill rate.  It might surprise you to know that 58.3 percent is not the worst in the league (it is 27th), but it is not a place the Caps can occupy for any length of time and have any hope of playing in the post season.

-  Top line…13 shot attempts, six shots on goal, no goals, two points (and those came with Matt Hendricks, not Marcus Johansson skating with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom).  This cannot become a recurring theme.

-- That brings us to young Mr. Johansson.  It is early, but there are already a couple of players who really need to step their games up (pretty much all of them do, but there are some outstanding examples).  Marcus Johansson skated only 10:30 last night with no shot attempts and two giveaways.  He had one shift in the third period.  The Caps have a shortage of scoring wingers, and he has to step up to be one of them.  In 27:45 of ice time Johansson has one shot attempt, one shot on goal.  He cannot be a passenger on the top line. He is not the sort of player to dig pucks out of trouble and start plays as a product of that.  He is not the playmaker on that line.  Perhaps he is ill suited to playing with Ovechkin and Backstrom, but if it is just a case of developing chemistry, the chemical reaction needs to be more… exothermic.

-- The Caps have allowed ten goals so far this season.  Nicklas Backstrom has been on ice for half of them.  The Caps have allowed five power play goals so far.  John Carlson has been on ice for four of them.  They might not be the root cause of the defensive problems, but those are not numbers one wants attached to their 2013 season resume, either.

-- There are folks who do not attach a lot of significance to faceoffs.  But here’s the deal.  The scoring line forwards on this team (Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Ribeiro, Troy Brouwer) are a combined 36-for-87 (41.4 percent).  Teams cannot score without the puck.  And wasting offensive players’ shifts with having to hunt down the puck after losing faceoffs does not bode well for scoring totals.  Silver lining?  They were a combined 8-for-15 in the offensive zone in this game.

-- Mike Green got a ton of ice time again – 27:35.  In two games he has been on the ice for 94:32 and has seen only two goals scored against while on ice (ok, that’s two of five even strength goals).

-- Mathieu Perreault skated a total of 4:58 in ice time last night, bringing his total to 8:50 in his two games.  The total ice time is less than 16 of the other 17 skaters recorded last night.  One has to think Eric Fehr is going to get a sweater sooner rather than later.

-- Braden Holtby looks to be playing at about 95 percent of NHL speed.  And that is quite enough to compile a 5.05 goals against average and a .863 save percentage.  His .706 save percentage on the penalty kill is 36th of 43 goalies having played so far.  We’ll chalk that up to its being early…right?

In the end, the Caps are not very good at the moment.  One can rationalize this away by saying it’s early, new coach, new systems, blah blah blah.  It has to stop…soon.  Or this season can get away from them by Presidents Day.  This is not 1995 when there were no Bettman points.  Teams earning those points late might have enough of a buffer to hold off a charging Caps team late that is trying to climb out of a hole.

Moral?... Stop digging!