Friday, March 14, 2014

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 68: Canucks at Capitals, March 14th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-Let’s get rrrrrrrready to CRUMBL-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-LE!!!

The Washington Capitals host the Vancouver Canucks on Friday night at Verizon Center in a matchup of teams seeing their playoff chances melting faster than an ice cube in Death Valley. 

Take Vancouver, for instance.  On December 29th, the Canucks were 23-11-6, their 52 standings points being sixth in the Western Conference, but only five points behind the third-place St. Louis Blues.  Since then, however, the Canucks are 7-17-4, they have had four losing streaks of at least three games in length, they have not won consecutive games since January 18/21 (against Calgary and Edmonton, which should hardly count), and their 70 standings points are 10th in the West, four points behind the Dallas Stars for a wild card berth, the Stars holding three games in hand.

As for the Caps?  On December 20th they were a respectable 19-13-3, their 41 standings points being fifth in the Eastern Conference but only four points behind third-place Tampa Bay.  Since then the Caps are 11-14-7, that record made faintly respectable by a four-game winning streak wrapped around the February Olympic break.  The Caps have three losing streaks of at least three games over their last 32 games, including a seven-game skid (0-5-2) in January that pushed them from fifth in the East to 12th place in the conference.  They have not recovered.

These are teams clearly in, if not transition, then in search of some stability.  And nowhere is this more evident than in goal.  In Vancouver, goaltending has been an issue for quite some time.  You could say it goes back to the Canucks’ Stanley Cup final season in 2010-2011 when Roberto Luongo took the lion’s share of the work (60 appearances), but still had to endure the oft-stated opinion that Cory Schneider (25 appearance that season) was going to be, if he was not already, the best option in the Vancouver net.  It did not get better for Luongo when he dropped four of the last five games in the Cup final, allowing 18 goals on 117 shots (.846 save percentage).

In 2011-2012 the two goalies divided the work more evenly, Luongo getting 55 appearances, Schneider getting the call 33 times.  It was Schneider that put up superior numbers though, a better GAA (1.96 to 2.41) and a better save percentage (.937 to .919).  When Luongo lost Games 1 and 2 in the first round of the playoffs to the Los Angeles Kings, Schneider was given the task of repairing the damage.  He didn’t, although he played well, stopping 97 of 101 shots (.960 save percentage) in Games 3-5, two of which he lost to close out the Canucks.

Then, in 2012-2013, Schneider became the number one netminder, making 30 appearances to Luongo’s 20 as rumors and stories spread about where Luongo would be traded.  Luongo stuck around, however, and even put up superior numbers splitting time with Schneider in the first round of the playoffs against San Jose.  Neither could prevent a San Jose Sharks sweep in that series, though, so it was going to be another off-season of pick-a-goalie. 

Until draft day.  On June 30, 2013, it would be Cory Schneider who was traded.  The New Jersey Devils sent their first round draft pick to the Canucks for Schneider, essentially restoring Luongo to the number one-spot in the Canucks net.  And so it was.  Until it wasn’t.  Luongo appeared in 42 games for the Canucks this season until, at the trade deadline, he was sent to the Florida Panthers, along with forward Steven Anthony, for goalie Jacob Markstrom and forward Shawn Matthias.

Which brings us to Eddie Lack.  Except for 19:48 of ice time (that being Markstrom’s contribution to a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars on March 6th) the net since the trading deadline has belonged to young Mr. Lack, an undrafted 26-year old rookie from Norrtälje, Sweden.  He has 30 appearances with the Canucks this season, posting an 11-12-4 record with a 2.28 goals against average and .918 save percentage with three shutouts.   He is tied for third in wins among rookie goaltenders (behind the 12 that Antti Raanta has with Chicago and the 15 that Frederik Andersen has with Anaheim), tied for second in GAA (with Andersen) among rookies making at least 15 appearances, and fifth in that group in save percentage.

Lack is not just a placeholder, although his numbers have slipped of late.  He has appeared in each of the eight games for the Canucks since the Olympic break, posting a record of 3-4-1, 2.45, .906, with a shutout of St. Louis on February 26th.  Lack has never faced the Caps.

The usual suspects have topped the offensive rankings for the Canucks, the Brothers Sedin and Ryan Kesler.  Henrik Sedin is 10-31-41, his brother Daniel is 13-27-40, and Kesler is 22-18-40.  On the surface having three 40-point producers is a good thing (it’s one more than the Caps have).  However, Henrik Sedin has missed eight games this season to bruised ribs and has only one point (a goal against the New York Islanders on March 10th) over his last 14 games.  Kesler is out for this game, having been sent back to Vancouver for tests on an injured knee.  On top of that, Daniel Sedin has a strained hamstring and is on injured reserve.

On the back line the Canucks have enjoyed a measure of production.   Six defensemen have at least ten points, eight have recorded goals (the Caps’ numbers here are four and ten).  Jason Garrison leads the blueliners with seven goals, and folks know guys such as Kevin Bieksa and Dan Hamhuis.  But a word about a rookie – Ryan Stanton.  An undrafted native of St. Albert, Alberta, Stanton saw one game’s worth of action with the Chicago Blackhawks last season.  The Blackhawks placed Stanton on waivers in late September, and was claimed by the Canucks.  Fifty games later (he missed 15 games to an ankle injury and another for undisclosed reasons), he is 11th among rookie defensemen in points and tied for ninth in assists, despite missing those 16 games overall.  He has hit a rut, though, going without a point in his last seven games.

Here is how the teams’ numbers compare overall:

1.  Vancouver does not come by its recent hard times by way of luck.  Since January 27th they are 3-11-1 and have been outscored over that span by a margin of 48-24 (not including shootout goals) and have scored more than two goals in a game only twice, losing both contests, a 4-3 loss at Winnipeg on January 31st and a 7-4 loss to the New York Islanders last Monday.

2.  Special teams have been just as poor.  In those same 14 games the Canucks are 7-for-45 on the power play (15.6 percent), while the penalty killers are 40-for-52 (76.9 percent). 

3.  One thing in which the Canucks do excel, they do not allow shorthanded goals.  Only Nashville (0) and Colorado (1) have allowed fewer shorthanded goals than the two allowed by Vancouver this season.

4.  Only the New York Islanders (6) have lost more games in regulation time when leading after two periods than has Vancouver (5).  Only Phoenix (11) has more losses when scoring first than the Canucks (10).

5.  In a case of unexpected divergence, the Canucks are sinking like a stone in the standings, but they remain a respectable possession team.  In five-on-five close score situations Vancouver is tenth in Corsi-for percentage (51.7) and ninth in Fenwick-for percentage (52.0).

1.  That four-game winning streak wrapped around the Olympic break probably seems far away to Caps fans these days. Since then they are 1-4-1, the only win being the product of a five-minute burst in the third period in which they scored three goals to overtake the Phoenix Coyotes, 3-2.  In their last five games they have held the lead for 5:06 out of 300 minutes played, all of that coming in the win over Phoenix.

2. Over this 1-4-1 skid the Caps are led in scoring by Mike Green (1-4-5).  Jason Chimera also has chipped in four assists.  At the other end of the spectrum, Alex Ovechkin does not have an even strength point (he had a power play goal and a power play assist in the 6-4 loss to the Flyers on March 5th).  Only one of Nicklas Backstrom’s points in these six games, out of his 1-3-4 total, came at even strength (an even strength assist in the 6-4 loss to the Flyers).  Dmitry Orlov and Troy Brouwer lead the Caps in goals scored over this span with a pair apiece.

3.  The Caps have been out-shot 44 times in 67 games.  It is not surprising, then, that only two teams have suffered more losses when being out-shot (Buffalo, Edmonton) than the Caps, who have 20 such losses.

4.  Things happen when the Caps play four-on-four.  Only six teams have scored more times at four-on-four than the Caps (7), and only three teams have allowed more goals (8).

5.  The Caps recent struggles are reflected in their possession numbers.  In going 1-4-1 over their last six games they have well-aligned, albeit poor numbers.  In 5-on-5 close score situations they have a Corsi-for percentage of 43.7, a Fenwick-for percentage of 43.6, and a shots for-against ratio of 43.8.  Small wonder that they have been outscored by a 6-5 margin in those situations, and four of the goals they scored came in a 5-4 overtime loss to Philadelphia that started the skid.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Vancouver: Chris Higgins

Playing in 12 of 13 games spanning from January 18th through February 28th, Chris Higgins was 4-5-9, a respectable secondary scoring total.  Trouble is, the Canucks went 4-7-1 over those dozen games in which he played. Higgins is just 1-1-2 in March (both points coming in a 7-4 loss to the New York Islanders on Monday).  The Canucks are 2-4-0 in those six games.  This is what happens when primary scoring is absent.  Secondary scoring does not matter.  That is why the Canuck have only a total of 33 goals over those 18 games (1.83 per game) in which Higgins played, and the Canucks are 6-11-1 in those games.  Getting secondary scoring from players like Higgins can only help, but it is not sufficient to sustain a winning trend.

Washington: Jason Chimera

Speaking of secondary scorers, Jason Chimera is counted on to chip in some of that.  Unfortunately, he is 0-5-5 in his last 11 games, misfiring on 24 shots on goal in that span.  In fact, after potting goals in four consecutive games to end October and begin November, Chimera has a total of seven goals in his last 54 games, an 11-goal pace over a full season.  That said, he has been helpful.  As in assists.  He has already set a career high in assists for a season (22), surpassing the 21 he had with Columbus in 2006-2007, and his 34 points is within shouting distance of his career high in points (39) set with the Caps in 2011-2012.  If the Caps are going to make a run at the playoffs, it is likely to coincide with a record-setting year for Chimera.  He is 8-3-11 in 27 career games against the Canucks.


1.  First Five.  When a team is down, keep them there.  The best way to do that is start fast and keep them from getting all fat and happy.  This seems to be a challenge for the Caps, who rank 20th in first period goals scored this season.

2.  No Holes.  Vancouver has had trouble scoring goals.  It is a problem made worse with one less Sedin and no Ryan Kesler.  Don’t make it easier for them with giving up soft goals or letting them run free in your own zone. 

3.  Kill, kill, kill.  If you look at the rankings in the table above, these are remarkably similar teams in terms of performance, with one exception.  The Caps have an awful penalty kill at home, 26th in the league.  That nonsense has to stop…now.

In the end…

In the 2014 portion of their respective seasons, the Caps (10-12-5) and Vancouver (7-17-3) are a combined 17-29-8.  That is a 64-point pace over a full season.  These teams are playing as if they are jockeying for the first overall pick in the NHL entry draft this summer.  But there are the Canucks, just four points out of a playoff spot, and there are the Caps, just three points out.  Both teams are hanging by a thread, the Canucks playing in a tougher conference, the Caps with a difficult schedule through the end of this month.  Someone has to win this game.  It might not be aesthetically pleasing to the hockey purist, but we have a feeling it will be entertaining.

Capitals 5 – Canucks 4