Monday, February 29, 2016

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 62: Penguins at Capitals, March 1

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The 2016 trading deadline is in the rear-view mirror, but the season goes on, and Tuesday night it picks up again for the Washington Capitals as they return home from a loss in Chicago to the Blackhawks on Sunday afternoon to host the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday night. 

Washington comes into this contest having lost two of their last three games, the first time this season that they lost two of three games in regulation time.  They will come into this game trying to avoid consecutive losses in regulation for the first time this season.

As for the Penguins, they come into this game having alternated wins and losses over their last nine games (5-3-1).  Over that span they outscored their opponents by a 25-23 margin, three of their five wins coming by margins of three or more goals. 

Caps fans might ask, “who is Scott Wilson?”  One answer might be “tied for the Penguins' team lead in goals over the last nine games.”  In fact, Wilson has goals in four of his last five games to achieve that lead, his only four goals this season.  In fact, they are his only four goals in 18 NHL games to date in his brief career.  Wilson was a seventh-round draft pick of the Penguins in 2011, and he while he had decent numbers at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell (30 goals in 109 games), they were not of the sort that suggested big NHL numbers down the road.  They he reached the AHL and found his goal-scoring touch.  In 89 games with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins he had 41 goals.  His performance was rewarded to promotion to the big club – several of them.  His most recent recall (February 1st) was his sixth over the past two seasons.  He has never faced the Capitals.

Defenseman Kris Letang is the Penguin’s top point-producer over the last nine games (1-7-8) and is the league’s sixth highest scoring defenseman (10-36-46) despite playing in more than ten fewer games (50) than any of the five defenseman ahead of him (or any of the nine behind him, for that matter).  Letang is already closing in on scoring totals he reached last season.  He is within a goal (10) of last year’s total (11) and has 36 assists (43 last season).  He is on a pace to finish with his first career 50-assist season.  Letang is also a minutes eater, tied for fourth in the league in total games logging more than 25 minutes (40 so far).  Letang is 4-6-10, minus-14, in 24 career games against Washington.

Marc-Andre Fleury is the all-time franchise leader in many categories for the Penguins.  He has appeared in 640 games (to 460 for Tom Barrasso), has 347 wins (Barrasso: 226), 203 regulation losses (Barrasso: 153), is tops in save percentage at .912 (Jean-Sebastien Aubin: .901; minimum: 100 appearances), leads in goals against average at 2.57 (Johan Hedberg: 2.88), and has 42 shutouts (Barrasso: 22).  This has been a rather typical season for Fleury, whose 2.39 goals against average is within the tight range he has posted over the previous five seasons (2.32 – 2.39), while his .920 save percentage is equal to last year’s mark, the best he has had since a .921 save percentage in 2007-2008.  Fluery has slipped a bit lately.  After pitching a 25-save shutout in a 2-0 win over the New Jersey Devils on January 26th, Fleury is 6-3-1, 2.80, .902 in his last ten appearances.  He is 18-11-2, 2.50, .929, with three shutouts in 32 career appearances against the Caps.

Here is how the teams compare overall:

1.  What the Penguins do not have in their last nine games is a power play goal.  They are 0-for-17, a run that is as amazing for averaging fewer than two opportunities a game as it is for being shut out.  Five times in those nine games they were held to a single power play chance.

2.  Penguin penalty killers have not been overly burdened, either.  Pittsburgh has faced just 20 shorthanded situations over their last nine games, killing 17 of them (85.0 percent).

3.  The Penguins do not score first often, but they are successful when they do.  They have taken the first lead of a game 25 times in 60 games this season and have a 21-3-1 record.  Their .840 winning percentage in those games is third-best in the league.

4.  Only five teams have fewer power play goals on the road than the Penguins (13). 

5.  Pittsburgh has the eighth-best Corsi-for at 5-on-5 overall on the road this season (50.9 percent).  They have a knack for applying offensive pressure in those situations, holding the fourth-best Corsi-for/60 minutes (55.5; numbers from

1.  The Caps have gone 15 games without a multi-point win that did not involve an empty net goal (6-3 against Columbus on January 19th).

2.  Washington is the only teams in the league with three 55-point scorers.  For the Caps it is Evgeny Kuznetsov (64), Alex Ovechkin (58), and Nicklas Backstrom (57).

3.  The Capitals’ 107.7 special teams index (power play plus penalty killing percentages) is third best in the league and best in the Eastern Conference.  Anaheim (108.9) and St. Louis (107.8) rank ahead of the Caps league-wide.

4.  The Caps are still undefeated when taking a lead into the first intermission of games (18-0-0).  The last team to go a full season without losing a game in regulation when leading after the first period was the 2012-2013 New York Rangers (13-0-1).  The last team with a perfect record when leading after one period was the 1994-1995 St. Louis Blues, who went 15-0-0 in a lockout-shortened season.

5.  The Caps are on a 14-game streak of scoring as many or more 5-on-5 goals than their opponents at home.  The last time the Caps allowed more 5-on-5 goals than they scored on Verizon Center ice was December 18th, when they allowed three goals and scored one in a 5-3 win over Tampa Bay (numbers from

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Pittsburgh: Mike Sullivan

Okay, so Sullivan is the head coach, but he has now been behind the Penguins’ bench for 32 games, and comparing his record to date to that of his predecessor, Mike Johnston, it is not all that different in terms of wins and losses.  Sullivan took over after Johnston’s Penguins started the season with a 15-10-3 record.  Sullivan’s Penguins are 16-11-5 since then.  Sullivan has opened things up considerably, but it has merely shifted performance toward more total goals, not a bigger goal differential for the Pens.  His club is averaging 2.84 goals per game compared to 2.36 under Johnston, but they are also allowing 2.75 goals per game compared to 2.32 under Johnston.  The power play is better (21.1 percent to 15.6 percent), but the penalty killing is a bit worse (82.8 percent to 84.2 percent).  When Sullivan took over, the Penguins were fifth in the Metropolitan Division and ninth in the Eastern Conference, one point out of a wild-card playoff spot.  As the Penguins head into Monday night’s game against Arizona, they are in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, three points ahead of Philadelphia and New Jersey for the second wild card spot.

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

There are 327 players in the league who have recorded 75 or more shots on goal.  Of that group, Nicklas Backstrom ranks seventh in shooting percentage (17.3 percent).  The thing is, though, Backstrom is averaging his fewest shots per game (1.69) in his nine-year career.  He has only seven shots on goal in his last eight games, and he does not have a goal since he recorded one in a 5-2 loss to the Florida Panthers on February 2nd.  That is 13 straight games without a goal.  He remains one of the most consistent point producers in the game, only twice in nine seasons averaging less than 0.95 points per game (he is at 0.98 this season).  It is just that in the midst of a five game stretch in which he does not have more than one shot attempt at 5-on-5 (and only 21 in his last 14 games; numbers from, he does not seem to be looking at the net much at the moment.

In the end…

For all the attention usually paid to the Penguins, they are have yet to put much space between themselves and their playoff pursuers since the coaching change in December or the recent resurgence of Sidney Crosby (19-18-37, plus-10, in his last 29 games).  They are a season-high ten games over .500, but they do not have the look of a sure playoff team.  At the other end of the rink, the Caps are in, what for them this season, a slump.  Having lost two of their last three games and not winning by more than one-goal (except for games with an empty net goal) in almost six weeks, the Caps do not look like the team that was marauding across the NHL landscape through mid-January.  It will be interesting to see which team can take advantage of the recent misfortunes of the other.

Capitals 3 – Penguins 2

The Washington Capitals Part Ways with Brooks Laich

The "Rock the Red" generation of Washington Capitals fans have never known a team without Brooks Laich being a part of it.

Until late Sunday evening.

Brooks Laich was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, along with prospect defenseman Connor Carrick and a second round draft pick, for forward Daniel Winnick and a fifth round draft pick.

Laich finished the Washington portion of his NHL career having appeared in 742 regular season games, eighth most in franchise history, and another 65 postseason contests, 13th in club history.  He is 19th on the Capitals’ all-time goal scoring list (133) and 22nd on the Caps’ all-time points list.

Laich came to Washington under what might have been difficult circumstances, arriving as a prospect in February 2004 along with a second round draft pick in a trade with the Ottawa Senators for Peter Bondra, the leading goal scorer in Capitals history and, along with Sergei Gonchar (who would be traded a few weeks later) and Brendan Witt, the last links to the Capitals’ only Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1998.

Laich moved up the development chain smartly, spending 90 games with the Portland Pirates in the AHL over two seasons before logging his first full season in the NHL in 2005-2006.  After that 2005-2006 season, with the Caps not qualifying for the postseason, Laich was returned to the Hershey Bears where he was a member of the 2006 Calder Cup champions.  It would be his farewell to the AHL. 

Laich became a player who could play any forward position and in just about any circumstance.  Over a five-year period, from 2007-2008 through the 2011-2012 seasons, Laich totaled 101 goals, 38 of them on the power play, and 238 points, twice topping 50 points.  Over those five seasons he added nine playoff goals and 30 points in 51 playoff games.

Then, the 2012-2013 lockout took place, and perhaps no one would be more affected in his on-ice level of performance than Laich.  With the league on hiatus as they sorted out their labor differences, Laich signed with the Kloten Flyers in Switzerland.  He played in 19 games with the Flyers before returning to North America after sustaining an injury

It was an injury that would permanently change Laich’s career trajectory.  After having missed only four regular season games over the previous five years, he appeared in only nine of 48 games in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season.  It was a frustrating period for Laich, who would appear in just 51 games the following season.  Despite repeated declarations that he was feeling well enough to play, it was clear that he was not the player he was before the lockout, and he eventually underwent surgery in March 2014 to repair his nagging groin injury

He might have been surgically repaired, but his performance on the ice remained damaged.  He appeared in 66 games last season and managed just seven goals and 20 points, becoming largely a fourth-line player.  This season he had one goal and seven points in 60 games and was averaging barely ten minutes of ice time a night at the time of the trade.  Over parts of four seasons after he suffered his injury in Europe, Laich was just 17-29-46 in 186 games.

What he had become over the years, though, was a player who was very accommodating to the media, often quoted over the course of a season.   And, he authored one of the most memorable stories of an athlete doing good on the spur of the moment in the immediate aftermath of a playoff series loss.  A couple of Caps fans heading home after the series-clinching loss had a flat tire on the Roosevelt Bridge linking Washington and Arlington, VA.  They were waiting on a repair truck when...well, we’ll just let the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg pick it up from there…

“Finally, an SUV slowed down ahead of them and pulled over. And then Brooks Laich got out and asked if he could help.

Since the AAA folks were already on the way, Mary Ann [Wangemann] asked Brooks -- whom she immediately recognized -- if he'd just wait with them by the side of the road. Instead, he asked whether they had a spare. Mary Ann said they did. So he took off his jacket -- he was still wearing his postgame suit -- got out the tire, and started jacking up the car.

‘He was like an angel, I'm telling you,’ Mary Ann told me. ‘Can't say enough nice things about him.’

The thing took a while, as late-night tire changes on the side of bridges often do. So they started talking hockey. Laich, who scored the team's only goal in Game 7, apologized to them for the Caps losing. They told him how great the season had been and how much they liked this team. Laich said he hoped they got a chance to stay together.

The jack fell down, and he had to start again. Lorraine stood behind him, mouthing to her mom over and over, ‘It's Brooks Laich! It's Brooks Laich!’ Laich was friendly but somber as he worked. Mary Ann -- who had never before cared about a sports team -- talked about why she liked this group so much, and how they seemed so nice off the ice.

‘We're just people, too,’ Laich said.”

And that might sum it up in a nutshell.  An athlete is not some hermetically sealed entity that gets unpacked a couple of hours before game time and resealed a couple of hours after the final horn to wait on the next contest.  They are part of the community, and their rise – and fall – in their professional life does not diminish the fact that they are part of the fabric of the community.  I never had the pleasure of meeting Brooks Laich, but he – like so many of his teammates – seems like a thoroughly decent fellow who happened to live his professional life here under a microscope, with all the cheers and jeers that such a life entails.

It can be hard as a fan to keep on-ice performance, the business aspects of the sport, and the personality of the players distinct.  So why do it?  It is entirely possible to entertain the concurrent notions that Brooks Laich is one of the good guys who had a tough break when he was in his prime as a member of the Caps.  He spent the last few seasons as a shell of the player he was in his best years here, but it didn’t make him any less worth rooting for.  If anything, at least to us, he became a more sympathetic figure as a hockey player precisely because he seemed like a decent fellow who was earnestly trying to recover and return to the level of performance he enjoyed a few years ago.

But sports being what it is, a sympathetic figure gets only so much consideration.  The club has a responsibility to its fans to do its best to compete for a championship, especially when this edition of the Capitals seems so close to being just such a team.  It does not make a decision involving a “loyal soldier” any easier, and General Manager Brian MacLellan alluded to the conflict a few days ago. 

What it means in the end is that there are things one must do because they are necessary, but that does not mean that one enjoys doing them.  Such was the case, no doubt, with respect to the club’s decision to move Laich.  And as a fan, one can sympathize with the cruel irony of his situation – coming to town in exchange for a legend as the team was seeking to rebuild, traded away for a player in a similar mold when the team is on the cusp, perhaps, of the championship that rebuild was implemented to achieve.

It was a move that the team and fans certainly seemed to feel was necessary, but neither the team nor perhaps most fans are likely to take any enjoyment out of it.  Here’s hoping Brooks does well in Toronto…just not against the Caps.

Photo: UPI