Sunday, January 11, 2009

This Weekend's Theme? "Not What I Expected"

So the theme for this weekend was "Not What I Expected." On Friday afternoon I expected to see the Capitals get at least two more points out of the four possible in this weekends game - what did I get - Not what I expected - the Caps go zero/nada/no points out of four possible in back to back games for the first time this season. I expected to see Carolina beat Arizona though I was rooting for the underdog Cardinals instead what did I get? An unexpected Cardinals win. I decided to go watch what I thought would be a fairly mindless war movie - Valkyrie instead of watching the Philadelphia Eagles lose to the NY Football Giants - when was the last time "my E-A-G-L-E-S" beat the Giants three times in a season anyway? Instead what did I get - I missed the Eagles beating the Giants for the third time this season and going to the NFC Championship Game in Arizona. Instead, I watched a very good, though anything but thoughtless action flick. I loved Valkyrie but if you are looking for some sort of Mission Impossible type of Tom Cruise action flick you will be disappointed. If you follow the theme closely, especially how the flick ends the point is more a German Military man's Schindler's List kind of thing. I knew there were numerous assassination attempts by sane, patriotic Germans in World War II. However, I did not know there were 15 such attempts by those opposed to Hitler for a variety of reasons. Good Movie - I recommend it, but ... again ... Not What I Expected.

Now back to those wild, wooly Washington Capitals. Last night was the first time this season the Capitals lost in regulation on nights where they had back to back games. Yes, the first time this season when the Capitals delivered two, two, two NO POINT games on back to back nights. It would be easy to dismiss this given the success they've had to date, despite facing and persevering through lots of adversity due to injuries. It would also be wrong to dismiss this and go on like nothing is wrong and no adjustments need to be made. I'm with Peerless who of last night's loss states: "... sometime you lose games you deserve to win. Uh, not tonight. They played their way to this loss with some rather poor defensive zone coverage, especially in the third period, when the Canadiens scored three goals in the first 4:31 to take a 4-3 lead and put the Caps on their heels." Further as Peerless notes "This is a dangerous part of the schedule for the Caps. Big game (Philadelphia) followed by middle-of-the pack opponent (Columbus), followed by another big game (Montreal), followed by another middle-of-the-pack opponent (Edmonton), followed by a game the next night against a big rival (Pittsburgh), then a showdown against the best in the East (Boston). It’s a six-game gauntlet in which the Caps now find themselves 1-2-0. And, more worrisome, they’ve allowed eight goals in the last two games. Edmonton is not a top-notch offensive team, but they aren’t incompetent, either. Pittsburgh is always dangerous, their recent struggles notwithstanding, and the Bruins are the gold standard this year. For all of the goodwill and standings cushion the Caps built to get to 27-11-3, they could go 1-5 really quickly and start seeing Carolina in their rear-view mirror. "

Time to panic no, but it is time for some changes, time to look back at the prior half season and take stock, it's been a great run so far but as the push for the playoffs hits the league here's a fact - everyone in the NHL bears down and gets to business. What was hard gets harder and there won't be many "gimmes." In fact there might not be any for the rest of the season. While, the Caps have done well so far this season against Eastern Conference and Southeast Division foes, now as everyone looks at what they need to "have a good season" - i.e. MAKE THE PLAYOFFS - and everyone, even the Islanders, Senators, Thrashers and Lightning will do so until they are mathematically "out of it," will do so - every game will be a battle. The Capitals need to set their sights on a 105+ point season and NOT take anything lightly or for granted, not that they have done so or are doing so right now, just a point. They need to look at every minor weakness and figure opponents will be working hard to exploit them. Right now that's mainly related to the TEAM DEFENSE - not just the guys playing on defense. Last night's game had some slick moves - for example Alexander Semin's second goal, but it also had some coverage lapses and subtle mis-steps. For example, I know I'm in the minority here but to me the turning point was the whole situation that turned what should have been a 5-4 Capitals power play into a 4-3 Canadiens power play in the X period. That was a real momentum shifter.

[ED NOTE: For convenience if you want to avoid a rant against the: a) DIVING RULE, especially when the opposition is called for tripping, and B) Players who shouldn't but do try and influence officiating with pre- and post game comments just ignore the subsequent highlighted text. I'll start with a basic rant.] To me the whole diving rule is pretty dumb and it's even dumber when an opposing player is called for ... wait for it ... TRIPPING. For the life of me I don't know how a player gets called for diving when it has been judged by the referee that the player was tripped. Technically the call is for "Diving/Embellishment" - here's what the rulebook says that was relevant on last night's call using Rule 64 as applied against Alexander Ovechkin at : " 64.1 Diving / Embellishment – Any player or goalkeeper who blatantly dives, embellishes a fall or a reaction, or who feigns an injury shall be penalized with a minor penalty under this rule. A goalkeeper who deliberately initiates contact with an attacking player other than to establish position in the crease, or who otherwise acts to create the appearance of other than incidental contact with an attacking player, is subject to the assessment of a minor penalty for diving / embellishment.
- 64.2 Minor Penalty - A minor penalty shall be imposed on a player or goalkeeper who attempts to draw a penalty by his actions (“diving /embellishment”)." If you watch the replay, I guess the fact that Ovie's arms flailed sightly was the basis and interpretation that was used to determine he "blatantly embellished his reaction" since he never totally fell and certainly didn't dive. So it's a really, really dumb rule that as you can see from it's original wording is another attempt by BET-MAN and his henchman Colin Campbell to make it harder for goaltenders to do their job but that can be applied to everyone on the ice and is rarely these days applied to anyone let alone goaltenders because it's a hard call to make. Why you would think one of the league's leading scorers would decide to delay a breakout rush from the top of the slot in his own zone to "blatantly embellish a fall or reaction" when historically he's something like 50% when he gets that odd man rush going is beyond me. Of course so was the so called charging penalty levied against Ovechkin last game - I'll cry in my beer and chalk it up to a whinny Flyer comment after they lost their last game against the Caps. [Now here's the rant on silly comments that I think started this whole junk after the Caps-Flyers game.] Here's what I know Ovechkin is a great, hard playing, CLEAN hockey player and I believe that the leagues officials will realize that pretty quickly as they give him greater scrutiny. What that means is that given a few more games of this extra attention and a lot of guys who try and "cheat" to keep up with Ovie by interfering with him, etc. will be spending more time in the sin bin for holding and/or interference. When that happens don't complain about the officials or Ovechkin getting favoritism, or get made that he starts to heat up and beat his goal scoring pace of last year. Please just send your cards and letters to this guy, especially you Scott Hartnell, yes you, I'll saw that face grab on Semin last game really well from my perch in 103 at the Phone Booth you, you, you bully you. I also enjoyed when Semin out you on your butt just about on the right face off dot at the other end like 15 seconds later. With love, a now dyed in the wool Caps Fan. [RANT OVER]
Now about the rest of the game.
- The Caps started a lineup of skaters last night that looked like this (numbers in parentheses = age and years of NHL experience based on this bloggers kind review of their career statistics) :

Forwards - 1st Line: Ovechkin (23/4) - Backstrom (21/2) - Semin (24/4)
2nd Line: Fehr (23/be kind call it 2) - Laich (25/5) - Kozlov (33/14)
3rd Line: Fleischmann (24/ Call it basically 3) - Nylander (36/14) - Bradley (30/8)
Energy Line: Brashear (37/basically 14) - Steckel (26/be kind call it 3)- Clark (32/9)
Defense Pairings: Alzner (20/rookie) - Jurcina (25/3)
- Sloan (27 /rookie) - Green (23/3)
- Morrisonn (26/call it 5) - Collins (25/rookie).

So when you look at this lineup and think "Hey if things start to get out of hand who will be the old reliable steadying hand to make sure the team stays within themselves and works the game plan? Your answers would/should be Michael Nylander (14 years experience, annual salary cap hit of $4.875M) and your team captain Chris Clark (9 years experience and annual salary cap hit of $2.63M) right? Well last night, the answer was, not so much; and that was the problem. As quoted in post game comments by Coach Bruce Boudreau, last night the Caps lost because they, especially in the third period, played "dumb hockey." Last night there were basically two games played. The first game was played from the first face off through the 16:59 mark of the second period and that game the Capitals won 2-1. Unfortunately, there are zero standings points given out to a team that is winning a game through the 19:59 mark of the THIRD period. You have to be winning the game or tied at the 20:00 mark of the third period to get a point or two. So far this season the Caps and the Canadiens have played nine periods of hockey, the Capitals have played their game plan for 156:59 of those 180:00 minutes. That's why they are 2-1-0 this season on the series. The reason they are not 3-0-0 is because they didn't play the game they needed to for the last 24:01 last night. Instead they got caught flat-footed a couple of times and tried to play the game the Canadiens wanted them to play last night. Like the Captials, the Canadiens can play either tight playoff, low scoring hockey or full on, high flying hockey. Last night they knew they were better rested then the Capitals and they knew that with the lineup the way it was if they got ahead, Coach Boudreau would find himself trying to play his top players more than he wanted to.

That's what happened and that's why the inflection point of this game was the diving call on Ovechkin. No diving call at 16:59 and the Capitals are on the power play for 2:00 worst case or score a goal and go into the locker room at the end of the second period with no penalty on Backstrom and the score 2-1. Instead they get a "dumb" Too Many Men On the Ice penalty, then right at the buzzer Backstrom gets called for a hook. The Habs have the intermission to think through their power play and start the period with a 5-4 that turns to a 5-3 when Tyler Sloan also gets a hooking penalty. Then to this bloggers minds eye, Karl Alzner misplays the 5-3 for the tying goal. Don't get me wrong, at least two or three times a game I watch Alzner and think this guy can't be a rookie. There were those moments last night for sure. Playing goalie on the weakside of the net rather then challenging the shooter or clogging the passing lane was NOT one of those moments. The net of it was that Robert Lang potted his goal with 5 seconds left in the 2 man advantage so the Canadiens stayed on the power play still with one man up. Alzner challenges and worst case the play gets in with the same result, though if he's not in the net with Johnsons reflexes and side to side speed if he needs to get over I say 50/50 at worst he does and makes the save. Also Alzner challenging Lang or clogging the passing lane has a lot, lot more possibilities for good then him trying to play goaltender without the right pads on. The result score tied 2-2, Canadiens still on a 5-4 power play.

The next goal came on that 5 on 4 just 43 seconds later thanks as Hockey Mom so aptly put it to those pesky Kostitsyn brothers, ugh. Never fear, here comes "Flash" to tie the game up just 1:36 later. But wait, why get back into the game plan and tighten up when this is so fun, let's let the Habs' respond just 00:16 later and regain the lead. So by 4:19 of the third period, in a span of just ~8 minutes of hockey on the , the Caps went from being in a tightly played 2-1 hockey game where they were leading by 1 goal to a high flying wide open game they were trailing in by a score of 4-3. WOW...that hurts.

What should have happened at this point but did not is the veterans should have come in and taken control and calmed things down. The truth is they sort of did, if the veteran leaders are Matt Bradley and Donald Brashear that is. Yes, they came out on the next shift and made sure that Montreal did not get an insurance goal and they established some more pressure at the Canadien end of the ice. However as far as leadership in the game what's it say when two players (Nylander and Clark) who account for ~$7M of cap space hit have a combined TOI for the game of 19:46 (remember that's COMBINED - Clark had 9 shifts and 6:51, Nyls had 12:55 on 15 shifts including 1:21 on the power play. If these guys are not hurt, then the Caps aren't getting the contribution from the they should be getting, regardless of who says or what inside the locker room. Sorry to be harsh but $7M is a lot of money; if they aren't hurt and according to reports, they aren't, then they need to be doing a lot more hustling. Nylander's production is horrible and has been all season. I'll give Clark a little more slack but not much. Compared to what Brashear and Bradley have be doing in their roles, at a total Cap hit of $2.25M compared to Clark's $2.66M we need "The Captain" to start getting some of those garbage goals we've seen in the past. To do that he needs to crash the net more. As far as Nylander, I just don't know; he seems to pair well with Fleischmann but their combined +/- numbers and 5 on 5 stats aren't that great and as I've said Nyls production is just abysmal this season. After sitting out the game against Columbus you would have expected a rested Nylander to come back and "step up to the plate."

Some other changes are needed as well.
- On defense Karl Alzner is indeed progressing nicely and his pairing with Milan Jurcina works. That said giving the rookie more than 20-21 minutes a game is IMHO a mistake. I think keep him to 19 to 21 minutes in regulation this season and you'll see the same amount of great plays with fewer "rookie/inexperienced" moves.
- Mike Green, well to me the benchmark/target should be 25 minutes TOI in regulation; then if you need to let him play 3 minutes of a 5 minute 4 on 4 OT, and he'll still have legs.

- Ovechkin needs to be kept to the TOI and shift numbers he had last night 23:00 TOI and 0:55/shift or less, as long as Semin is in the lineup too there is no reason to be otherwise. The Ovie - Backstrom - Semin line is great but should be used somewhat sparingly. When they aren't together then keep Ovie - Backstrom together and Federov - Semin together for the third man on those lines roll: Kozlov, Laich, and Clark. If Feds needs a break put Laich with Semin. If Clark isn't up to it then put Fleischman into the mix. When Fleischman is in that mix then make Nylander a healthy scratch, nobody else seems to be able to play with him these days without getting their rythm screwed up.
- Another thing the entire team needs to do is just once play an enitre sixty minutes in front of, really either goaltender, but especially Brent Johnson. The Caps leave both Johnie and Theodore "naked" a lot more than they ever left either Huet of Kolzig naked last season. Even when a game turns wide open like it did in the third period, the Caps need to mount both a better forecheck and a more consistant backcheck. When they do they'll win games like last night against really good teams like Montreal and really pour on the offensive zone scoring when they play weaker teams.
- Now what about Milan Jurcina, contrary to the rest of or at least a lot of guys in the blogsphere today, this game was lost long before Jurcina lost a puck between his skates that he shouldn't have lost. It was lost when the Caps abandoned what had been a winning formula so far this season against the Canadeans. That said you have three choices not four in that situation - take the puck, take the man, or take the stick. None of the above and look around is not an option. When you are the second leading checker on the team, I'm betting all your teammates are expecting you to take the man. Worst case you get an interference penalty and the Caps have to kill a penalty.
Time to worry net .... no, but changes are warranted. Just look at Pittsburgh and Florida and you'll realize how fast fortunes can change in the NHL. Take a look at Mirtle's take on the push for the playoffs - and yes it is defiantly time to start thinking that two short weeks Carolina and Buffalo have held there own while Pittsburgh has played themselves down into a playoff battle with a X-Y-Z record and Florida has played themselves up into one with a 4-0-1 record. Basically right now over in the Western Conference spots 5 - 12 are a battle and in the Eastern Conference spots 7 through 10 are a battle. [ed note: My definition of a battle is it'll take a better than 0.500 record for those teams to get 90 points but they don't need to win at least 25 or more out of their remaining ~40 games to get 90. It's arbitrary sort of in that basically the teams have to play between 0.500 and 0.590 hockey. I consider both Dallas (needs 0.675) and Toronto (needs 0.650) long shots but I wouldn't bet totally against Dallas who at 5-3-2 in the last 10 games is only slightly off that pace at 0.600; Toronto who is 3-7-0 in their last 10 games, well they're currently a bit more of a long shot and on a trajectory to battle for the lottery pick right now, but once again two weeks could make a difference.]

Here's another interesting look and thought. What's it going to take for each of the current Division Leading teams to capture 100 points t his season:

Next up, Edmonton, Tuesday Night at Verizon Center but I'll be at home watching on CSN.


sleza said...

Is Valkyrie worth of ~10 euros? If I'm still alive when it comes here...

Not sure if they've already tried it, but the Ovechkin-Fedorov-Semin was pretty sweet during World Championships (which unlike NHL, actually was on TV here, yippee)

Usually Frustrated Caps Fan said...

I only paid $8.00 US Dollars - it was worth that but it's not a "feel good" movie or an escape that is all excitement from beginning to end. To me it was worth it but that is personal taste.

The Ov-Feds-Senmin line has been used from time to time since it was successful at the Worlds but now it's mainly been Backstrom as the pivot.