Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 42: Capitals at Wild, January 4th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

As John Facenda might have put it, “we are here from the frozen tundra of the Land of 10,000 Lakes…”

“I never uttered that ‘frozen tundra’ quote.”

Uh, not to put too fine a point on it, Mr. Facenda, but aren’t you dead?

“As frozen as the tundra of Lambeau Field.”

What brings you out of the deep freeze, if I might ask?

“Because professional hockey in North America is a special game…a unique game…played nowhere else on earth…”

The folks in Europe might want to have a word about that.

“It is a rare game.  The men who play it make it so.  Pro hockey is a mirror of North America, reflecting toughness, courage, and self-denial.  The game is wide open, not confined.  X’s and O’s on a blackboard are translated to imagination on the ice.  It can be one man rising above the obscurity of the grim, no-glory duty of special teams.  It is the grinder clawing at the top of the crease and devouring the opponent. 

“The game is perpetual motion, a swirl of flying bodies and constant collision, a two-and-a-half hour carnival of color, sound and action.  There’s glory in the legends of this hard-muscled life, and there’s poetry in each season made of sweat and strife.  But now is the time to work and strain at a sport that tests the spirit and challenges the brain.

“Do you fear the force of the shots, the slash of the skates?  Go face them and fight them; be savage again.  A time for achievement, a time for purpose, a time for glory.” 

Couldn’t have said it better, myself.  But here in January, glory is a hard thing to come by. This starts the long hard slog that is the middle third of the season.  The holidays are over, the playoffs are but a fog in the distance, and the Olympics are a thrilling hiatus for only a few.

“Nice flourish, there.”

Thanks.  Tonight the Washington Capitals travel to the Land of 10,000 Lakes, all of them likely frozen, to meet the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center.  These teams have already met once this season, back on November 7th at Verizon Center.  The Wild and the Caps exchanged leads before Marcus Johansson scored late in the third period for the Caps to tie the game at 2-2.  After a scoreless overtime, Nicklas Backstrom recorded the only successful trick shot goal, and the Caps were 3-2 winners.

Just as the Caps and Wild matched one another goal for goal in their earlier meeting, so their recent histories have followed similar paths.  Washington is 3-3-4 in their last ten contests, while Minnesota is 1-6-0 in their last seven contests.

Over that seven-game stretch the Wild have had trouble keeping pucks out of their own net, allowing 27 goals over that span (3.86 per game).  As one might expect, scoring of their own has been comparatively rare with only 17 goals in those seven games (2.43 per game).  The odd part of their offense is that the Wild scored four goals in three of those games and lost two of them, a 6-4 loss at Winnipeg and a 5-4 loss to the New York Islanders.  The Wild beat Buffalo in their last contest, 4-1, to end what was a six-game losing streak.

While scoring overall has been hard to come by, two players expected to produce have over this seven-game slide for the Wild.  Jason Pominville leads the team with three goals over the last seven games (3-3-6), while Ryan Suter leads in points (2-5-7).  Dany Heatley has a pair of goals, as does Justin Fontaine (who has a name that sounds more like the opening act for a teen heartthrob concert).

Fontaine is actually an interesting fellow.  Undrafted, Fontaine went on to play four years at University of Minnesota-Duluth.  After his third season he was invited to the Wild’s development camp and had a chance to turn pro. He decided to play out his senior season at UMD, one in which he was fourth in the nation in scoring, and his Bulldogs won the national championship.  In this, his rookie season with the Wild, Fontaine is tied for seventh among rookies in goals with eight.

One thing of particular concern for the Wild is their goaltending situation.  Josh Harding, who has taken on the heavier load of games this season, has had two leg injuries, two illnesses (including one that kept him out of the last game), and missed four games in December to change his treatment plan for his multiple sclerosis condition.  Meanwhile, Niklas Backstrom has had to deal with a strained knee, a concussion, and a virus.  Against Buffalo on Thursday, Darcy Kuemper (recalled from Iowa) was Backstrom’s backup.

Here is how the two teams stack up overall so far this season…

1.  Minnesota’s power play has struggled of late.  Over their 1-6-0 slump the Wild are 2-for-26 with the man advantage (7.7 percent).  It is not a team that generates a lot of chances, either.  The Wild rank 24th in the league in power play opportunities per game (3.16), although they have had four or more chances in four of their last seven games.

2.  The penalty kill has had better success.  In their last seven games the Wild is killing penalties at an 85.0 percent rate (17-for-20).  They have been effective at minimizing their exposure to opponents’ power plays, averaging 2.86 shorthanded situations faced per game over that stretch.

3.  The Wild waived forward Zenon Konopka this week (he was claimed by Buffalo).  He took almost half of the club’s 17 bouts on the Wild fight card with him (seven in all).  Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner now hold the team lead in that regard with three apiece.  Ballard, who is in his first season with the Wild after spending the last three seasons in Vancouver, has had a rocky start with his new club.  He has missed 16 games to injury this season, seven to a concussion and nine more to the evil “upper-body injury.”  He is not much of a goal scorer – 36 in 571 career games and only three in his previous two seasons – and he does not yet have one for the Wild.  Caps fans, take note.

4.  Who is this smiling face?  Yes, Caps fans, it is Matt Cooke, reformed evil-doer.  Cooke, who once had a reputation for, well, doing evil, has only 20 penalty minutes this season, tied for 232nd among 798 skaters.  Twenty minutes used to be a decent week for Cooke. He has not been hit with a penalty in nine straight games.  What he is not doing, in addition to not taking many penalties, is scoring.  He has gone 13 straight games without a goal.  He has three assists over that span, but those have come over his last four games.  Caps fans might want to take note of that, too.

5.  Minnesota is just about smack dab in the middle of your possession statistics – 13th in Corsi-for and 15th in Fenwick-for percentages in 5-on-5 close score situations.  They rank a bit higher in shot differential in such situations, 12th overall in shots for percentage. 

1.  The Caps just finished their worst six-game stretch of the season, one win in those six games.  They have been just bad enough to be bad… 3.00 goals allowed per game, 2.33 goals scored per game.  They were outshot in four of those games, losing three of them.

2.  The power play has dried up of late, and we mean that on a couple of levels.  In their six-game, 1-2-3 slide, the Caps are 2-for-15 with the man advantage (13.3 percent).  As much as the efficiency is the frequency.  Fifteen power play opportunities in six games (2.5 per game) is not taking advantage of the Caps biggest advantage on offense this season.

3. Meanwhile, the penalty kill is a bit deceptive.  Yes, the rate has been disappointing over the last six games (76.5 percent), but the 17 shorthanded situations look pretty good.  That number is influenced by facing no shorthanded situations in a 2-1 Gimmick loss to Buffalo.  Washington has faced four shorthanded situations in three of their last five games, and while the kill rate was effective (11-for-12, 91.7 percent), the Caps lost all three games.

4.  You would expect that over a sufficiently high number of events, the sum of shooting percentage and save percentage on ice for an individual player would be 100.0 (the logic of the “PDO” statistic).  Here is a problem for the Caps in a nutshell.  Of the 12 defensemen to have dressed for the Caps this season, only four have “PDO”numbers of 100 or greater at 5-on-5.  Only one of them – Steve Oleksy – has played in at least 30 games.  

5.  The note above is a reflection of generally poor possession numbers, a fact that is not news to Caps fans following the club closely.  In those same 5-on-5 situations the Caps are 22nd in Corsi-for percentage and 25th in Fenwick-for percentage.    Those number deteriorate in 5-on-5 close score situations – 26th in both measures.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Minnesota: Dany Heatley

With Zach Parise out with what appears to be a fractured foot, the Wild could use some punch from the left side.  Enter Dany Heatley.  Once a 50-goal scorer –twice, actually (in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007) – Heatley has fallen into also-ran status as a goal scorer. In three seasons preceding this one he had 61 goals in 198 games.  That is a 25-goal pace over 82 games, which is not bad, but not what the Wild might have had in mind when he and his $7.5 million cap hit was obtained from San Jose for Martin Havlat in July 2011.  His eight goals in 43 games this year is an even more sluggish scoring pace.  He has two goals in his last 16 games, but he does have a history against the Caps – 12-23-35 in 34 career games against Washington.

Washington:  Mike Green

On the one hand, Mike Green is yesterday’s news.  Former Norris Trophy finalist, former top offensive defenseman, former “Game Over” Green.  From that perspective, and from that of a lot of Caps fans, he is in the last throes of his tenure in Washington, sure to be let go when his current contract expires at the end of next season.  On the other, he is still in the top-30 in points among NHL defensemen (tied for 27th), is top-20 in assists (tied for 19th), and remains an effective power play performer (14th in points among defensemen).  What is perplexing about Green is that for a guy on whose stick the puck spends a lot of time, he has been a middle-of-the-road possession player this season – 56th among 131 defensemen playing in at least 75 percent of games thus far in Corsi-for percentage in 5-on-5 situations, 65th in Fenwick-for percentage.  Once the most fearsome offensive defenseman in the league, Green struggled mightily early in the season.  However, he has 14 points in his last 28 games, not up to his early career productivity but not bad, either.  What he has not done is score himself. Three of those 14 points are goals, his only three of the season.  And, he has only one even-strength goal this season.  If the Caps are to make a stronger push for a playoff spot, those numbers have to improve for Green.


1.  Start fast.  The Caps have scored first in 19 of 41 games so far and have a total of only 27 first period goals (tied for 21st in the league).  Sluggish starts put this team in a bind that leads to a lot of other problems. 

2.  Pressure in close.  Minnesota allows only 27.0 shots per game, fourth fewest in the league.  One-and done is not going to do it.  Flurries – following up on initial shots – will put pressure on what might be a weakened goaltending situation that they are not used to, even when healthy.

3.  No yawning.  The Caps seem to have trouble getting up for games against clubs that are not marquee opponents.  Minnesota qualifies as such an opponent.  The Wild are the kind of club that can take advantage of that to lull a club to sleep and win in dull fashion.  No yawning.  Have some pep in your step!

In the end…

These are two clubs of similar records having arrived at them in somewhat different ways.  They are studies in differing styles.  Will the Caps get the Ovechkin-Backstrom rush to get a win?  Or, will the Wild make this a station-to-station game with few offensive chances on either side, winning close and late?  Will Mike Green come out of hibernation?  Will Ryan Suter play 30-plus minutes and have no goals scored against while on ice?  Two different teams, two different styles, one result.

Capitals 3 – Wild 2