Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 45: Sabres at Capitals, January 12th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

When you are looking for perspective in sports and a quote to capture the times, do not go to football, where clich├ęs are the currency of the locker room.  Do not go to basketball, where the slam dunk is evidence of nuance.  Do not even go to hockey, where earnestness and youth suggest a certain callowness, a lack of depth.

Go to baseball.  And who other than the immortal Lou Brown, former manager of the Toledo Mud Hens and the Cleveland Indians, could capture what the current state of the Washington Capitals is…

“OK, we won a game on Thursday. We won on Friday.  It's called "two in a row".  And if we win again on Sunday, it's called a ‘winning streak’... It has happened before.”

That about covers it.  The Capitals, winners of games on Thursday and Friday against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs, step back onto the ice on Sunday afternoon against the Buffalo Sabres at Verizon Center.

The Sabres come into this game with the league’s worst record, 12-26-5.  Only once all season have the Sabres won consecutive games in regulation; only twice have they pieced together two consecutive wins at all.  No Sabre who has been with the team all season…
  • Ranks in the top 150 scorers (Cody Hodgson, tied for 194th)
  • Ranks in the top 150 in goal scorers (Hodgson and Tyler Ennis, tied for 155th)
  • Ranks in the top 150 in assists (Christian Ehrhoff, tied for 164th)

It gets worse.  No Sabre who has been with the club for half its games played has a plus-minus better than minus-4 (Bryan Flynn in 41 games).  The Sabres do have five of the top 69 players in the league in penalty minutes.  The Sabres have not won a road game in regulation time in more than two months (October 25th, a 3-1 win at Florida), and they have lost 11 road games in a row (0-9-2).

The only thing keeping this woeful band from challenging the Capitals for all-time futility is Ryan Miller in goal.  Miller, who is facing an astonishing 37.2 shots per 60 minutes of play, has a save percentage of .927, sixth best in the league.  Only five times in 30 appearances to date has Miller faced fewer than 30 shots on goal, games in which he has a record of 3-2-0.  Of particular note in this game, Miller has yet to face fewer than 30 shots in a road game this season.  Not that it has affected his save percentage, which is only three ticks lower (.925) than it is at home (.928).  He is getting next to no help in front of him.

Here is how the teams compare overall…

1.  It is hard to know whether it is injuries, ineffectiveness, wanting to look at a lot of players in a long season, or a combination of such factors, but the Sabres have had a lot of churn in their lineup.  Only 12 skaters have appeared in more than 30 of the team’s 43 games to date.  A total of 32 skaters have pulled on a Sabres sweater so far this season, a number surely to go higher as the team starts unloading players as a seller in this lost season.

2.  No Sabre, regardless of whether they are currently with the team or not, has a “plus” rating on the road this season.  Marcus Foligno is “even” in the most games played.

3.  If there is one thing Buffalo has done reasonably well lately, it is kill penalties.  Over their last 14 games the Sabres killed off 39 of 42 power plays (92.9 percent).  In nine of those contests they faced three or fewer shorthanded situations.  Only once did they face as many as five.

4.  Pity their power play is not as effective, at least from the perspective of a Sabres fan.  Buffalo is 6-for-61 (9.8 percent) over their last 19 games.  Five times in that stretch the Sabres had five or more power plays and were only 4-for-26 in those games (15.4 percent).

5.  When a team spends little time in “5-on-5 close score” situations, that might signal that they are a good team, that they get leads, add to them, and hold them.  If you go to the Web site,  you will find that this is, in fact, true.  St. Louis and San Jose, both of them teams on the far side of 60 standings points earned so far, have spent the least amount of time in 5-on-5 close score situations.  On the other hand, Buffalo has spent a fair amount of time in those situations, the 12th highest minute total in fact.  But they do so little with it.  They have the worst Corsi-for percentage and the worst Fenwick-for percentage.  They have the fourth worst PDO (sum of shooting and save percentages), despite having the 11th best save percentage.  The trouble is that they can’t get that goal to put them over.  They have the worst shooting percentage (4.8 percent) and, as a result, the worst goals for/goals against ratio in the league in that situation, giving up 56 goals while scoring only 26 themselves. 

1.  With the two one-goal wins coming into this game the Capitals now rank third in the league in one-goal wins.  Of their 44 games played to date, 24 of them have been decided by one goal.  Only six teams have played in more.  Maybe you think this is a good thing.  Maybe it’s not; five of the six teams with more one-goal games played are below the Caps in the standings (Montreal is the exception).

2.  Even with outshooting Toronto Friday night, only the Maple Leafs and Buffalo have been outshot in games more often (37 and 42 times, respectively) than the Caps (30).

3.  The Caps do not take leads into the locker room at the first intermission often, and when they do things to not end as they should.  Only 11 times in 44 games have the Caps led after 20 minutes.  Only five times have teams carried leads into the second period fewer times, and the Caps have the seventh worst winning percentage in the league in those instances.  On the other hand, they are still one of ten teams yet to lose a game in regulation when taking a lead into the third period.

4.  Alex Ovechkin has assists in three straight games.  It is the first time he has done that in-season since getting helper in three straight games March 2-7 last season.  Maybe this assist thing should happen more often.  The Caps are 9-4-1 this season when Ovechkin records an assist, 11-12-5 games played when he does not (does not include two games missed to injury).

5.  Possession is a fickle mistress.  In their last six games the Caps have been on the good side of 50 percent in Corsi-for percentage in 5-on-5 close score situations.  They are just 2-2-2 in those games, but they do have those two consecutive wins coming into this contest.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo:  Matt Moulson

Since the 2009-2010 season only 16 players in the NHL have recorded a total of 125 goals or more.  You would recognize the names of Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos, perhaps even James Neal and Patrick Marleau.  But Matt Moulson?  Yes, he is one of those 16.  In fact, only 11 players have more goals in that span of time than Moulson.  He also happens to be one of the most durable players in the league.  He has not missed a game to injury over those four-plus seasons (he missed one game last year to the flu).  He is the very embodiment of the term “underrated.” 

His scoring with the Sabres has come in fits and starts, though.  He has two goals in his first start with the Sabres after being traded to Buffalo with two draft picks by the New York Islanders for Thomas Vanek in late November.  He had consecutive games with goals twice, once at the end of November and again in mid-December.  However, since those goals in consecutive games back on December 14-17, Moulson has two goals in his last nine games.  He is 4-4-8 in 16 career games against the Caps.

Washington: Braden Holtby

So, is Braden Holtby now number three on the goaltending depth chart?  On the not-so-merry-go-round of Capitals goaltending these days, Michal Neuvirth had a solid outing in his first game in seven weeks in Friday’s 3-2 win over Toronto.  That makes Holtby low man on the totem pole in terms of ice time lately.  He has one appearance since December 21st, a span of eight games without an appearance.  And that one did not go nearly as well as hoped. A lot of goaltenders go through slumps, through crises of confidence, through dark nights of the soul early in their careers.  Remember, Holtby has not yet appeared in 100 regular season games.  Here is one thing arguing against Holtby starting against the Sabres.  This is a 3:00 start; Holtby is 3-2-0, 2.83, with just a .902 save percentage in career day games.  Still, he has to get back on the horse some time.


1.  Spike Ryan Miller’s morning coffee.  Fifty shots, one goal.  That was what the Caps managed against Miller in the Sabres’ 2-1 Gimmick win over Washington on December 29th.  If he’s that sharp, it might not matter what the Caps do otherwise.  Maybe he’s been bored, though.  He faced a total of only 53 shots in two appearances since that game.

2.  Nyah-nyah.  One of the things that worked against the Caps in the previous meeting of these clubs was that the Caps had but two power plays (the Sabres had none…watch to see who the refs are for this one; Rob Martell and Wes McCauley officiated the last one).  Buffalo’s penalty kill has been very good of late, but the Caps are second in the league on the power play and are three for their last nine chances.  If they can get the Sabres to take penalties, all the better.

3. Spike Ryan Miller’s morning coffee again.

In the end…

It has been a month since the Caps had a three-game winning streak.  On paper, that should be remedied in this game.  And, as a practical matter, it had better be.  After what looks (repeat, “looks”) like a walk-over game, the schedule gets a lot tougher with San Jose and Pittsburgh looming later in the week.  That is where the danger in this game lies, looking ahead.  That is the kind of thing, coupled with Ryan Miller (if he should be nearly as sharp as the last time these teams met), that could make for a maddeningly frustrating sort of game.  It will not be without its moments, but in the end…

Capitals 3 – Sabres 2

Washington Capitals: A TWO point night -- Game 44: Capitals 3 - Maple Leafs 2

When the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs took the ice last night at Verizon Center, the theme might have been “Fire Away Friday.”  The Caps and Leafs ranked 29th and 30th, respectively, in shots allowed per game.  Washington, despite some fine play by goalie Philipp Grubauer, had allowed three or more goals in four consecutive games before last night, while goals were being poured into the Leafs’ net – 18 in their previous three games – as if no one was playing in goal.

It might have been a surprise, then, that only five goals would be scored in this game, the Caps getting three of them in a 3-2 win to vault them into a tie with the Philadelphia Flyers for second place in standings points in the Metropolitan Division.

It was the first appearance for Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth in seven weeks, since dropping a 3-2 decision to the Montreal Canadiens on November 22nd.  It also happened to be the first time Neuvirth started a game against Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier since the two squared off in Game 6 of the Calder Cup semifinals in 2010.  Neuvirth won that one, 3-2 in overtime, to send the Hershey Bears past the Manchester Monarchs to the Cup final.

In this one, Neuvirth the Nervous and Bernier the Bombshelled (having faced an average of 37 shots in his previous six appearances) stopped all of the shots they faced in the first period, 25 in all (13 by Neuvirth, 12 by Bernier).

At 6:39 of the second period, though, the seal was broken on this fine bottle of wine of a game.  It started with Mike Green being a pest along the right wing boards.  Having pinched down the boards, Green occupied three Leafs, first James van Riemsdyk to poke the puck down the wall, then Tim Gleason and Tyler Bozak as Green kept digging and poking at the puck to keep it alive.  Green freed the puck off the wall to where Mikhail Grabovski could secure it.  Grabovski curled toward the middle and found Alex Ovechkin open on the weak side where no Leaf could be found (thanks, Mike Green).  Ovechkin wasted no time burying the puck past Bernier for his 32nd goal, matching his total of last year.

The Capitals being who they are, though, the lead would not last.  Van Riemsdyk tied the game less than three minutes after the Ovechkin goal when he redirected a Phil Kessel shot from the right wing wall over Neuvirth’s left arm and inside the near post.  The Leafs took the lead in the first minute of the third period when van Riemsdyk and Kessel traded places on the score sheet.  Kessel dug out a loose puck at the Leafs goal line and fed it up to van Riemsdyk on the left wing.  Van Riemsdyk skated the puck into the neutral zone and returned the puck to Kessel as he was approaching the Caps’ blue line (yes, Caps fans, Kessel was onside).  As Kessel flipped the puck at the net, defenseman Karl Alzner got the blade of his stick on the shot.  He didn’t get enough of it.  The puck changed its line just enough to dart past Neuvirth’s left shoulder and inside the left post to give Toronto a 2-1 lead.

Less than four minutes later it was Nicklas Backstrom to the rescue with an assist from… Jay McClement?  That’s right.  The whole thing started when Troy Brouwer broke his stick on a shot attempt.  Brouwer and defenseman Tim Gleason followed the puck to the corner where Brouwer kicked it down the wall.  McClement, with Brooks Laich bearing down on him, backhanded the puck along the back wall to Cody Franson behind the net. The puck was too long for Franson, though, and it was gobbled up by Backstrom.  From behind the net Backstrom circled out, spun, and threw the puck at the net. It looked to be headed wide on the long side, but then the Leafs went all weird.  Gleason, who was guarding the front of the net, had the presence of mind to lift his right skate to let the puck go through.  However, McClement, who was stepping out from behind the net, was neither so prescient nor so fortunate.  As he appeared from behind the cage, the puck struck his left skate and deflected into the net.

The Caps got their game-winner on the power play that wasn’t.  David Clarkson was sent off on a tripping penalty at the 9:44 mark.  The Leafs managed to burn off the two minutes, but could not clear the puck out of their zone.  The Caps spread the formation.  Green kept an attempted Carl Gunnarsson clear at the right point.  Green sent it across to Alex Ovechkin at the left point.  Ovechkin threaded the needle in the middle, sending a pass to Marcus Johansson at the far edge of the right wing circle.  Johansson slid the puck into the middle to Joel Ward.  Ward one-timed the puck past Bernier just seven seconds after the penalty to Clarkson expired.  Game, 3-2.

Other stuff...

-- For Ovechkin the game had several noteworthy accomplishments.  With his goal, Ovechkin has 62 goals in his last 82 games. His two-point game was his first in nine games.  However, it was his fourth straight game with at least one point.  He was also a plus-1.  Whatever one attaches to the plus-minus statistic, it has not been kind to Ovechkin this season (he is a minus-15 on the year).  It was his second straight “plus” game, the first time he has done that since ending on the plus side of the ledger against Detroit and St. Louis on November 15-17.

-- For Neuvirth it marked his highest save total (32) in a win this season.  OK, so it was only his third win.  Here is an odd Neuvirth stat.  He has a save percentage of better than .900 in five straight appearances.  At the moment that is the longest active streak for a Caps goalie.

-- More Neuvirth… in eight appearances this season, only once has he allowed more than three goals.

-- Here is an odd power play statistic for the Caps.  They drew a blank on four power play opportunities in this game.  It is the first time that the Caps had four or more man advantages without a goal since going 0-for-4 against Montreal on November 29th.  They had been 7-for-7 in getting at least one goal when getting four or more opportunities.

-- Another odd stat, this one involving John Erskine.  Six of the 16 shifts Erskine skated last night ended not with a shift change, but with a penalty.  Twice, those penalties were his.  His fight against Colton Orr was his first bout of the season.  He certainly didn’t pick a cream puff, but he reduced Orr to one.  Orr got the first punch off, but after that it was pretty much all Erskine until he flattened Orr with a straight right to his left eye.  It was the third time those two squared off in their respective NHL careers, the first time either did so for their respective current teams.

-- Meanwhile, Tom Wilson… five minutes of ice time, five minutes in penalty time, one shot, one hit, one fight (he is tied for third in the league in fighting majors).  It is a hard apprenticeship the young man is being asked to serve.  One hopes it hardens him, not breaks him.

-- All in all it was an oddly disciplined game for the Caps.  Of the 18 penalty minutes with which they were charged, nine of them were charged to Erskine (who also received a double minor, cancelled in part by a coincidental roughing minor to Dion Phaneuf), five to Wilson, two to Aaron Volpatti.  That’s 16 of the 18 minutes to fourth liners who don’t kill penalties and a defenseman who might have given the Caps a lift with his bout and who himself does not kill penalties.  Ah, but the odd penalty in that mix, the one to Mikhail Grabovski for tripping?  That’s the one the Leafs converted.

-- More “Backstrom to the Rescue.”  Nicklas Backstrom was 8-for-14 in offensive zone faceoffs.  The rest of the team was 2-for-10.

-- Joel Ward, who had his 13th goal of the season in this game, has now tied his second highest goal total for a season (13 in 71 games in 2009-2010 with Nashville) and is within sight of his career best (17 in 2008-1009 with the Predators).

In the end, it was a game that started slowly, took on a rock ‘em-sock ‘em theme in the second period, then was a closely fought game in the third.  Michal Neuvirth, if he did nothing else, improved his trade value.  He might have done more, though.  He was solid after a seven-week hiatus.  Both goals he allowed were redirects, one off the stick of a teammate.  He was otherwise sound and sturdy.  This was his night.