Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Caps vs. Sabres Look-ahead

It's been crazy busy with the holidays so I haven't "blogged" since December 16th, and while a lot of hockey news has happened as well as Caps good things I've just been too swamped to blog. I have watched all the Caps games and I should get back to normal here this holiday season, I hope. Looking at tonight's game between the SE Division leading Washington Capitals and the Northeast Division leading Buffalo Sabres is real interesting contrast of styles.

The Caps come into the game off a four game road trip followed by three days off where they went 2-2-0 and are 7-3-0 in their last 10 games. The Sabres come into the game following a 3-2 overtime win on Monday evening in Toronto and are 6-3-1 in their last 10 games. This is the third of four regular season meetings between the two Eastern Conference rivals and so far the series is split 1-1-0 and each team has shut out the other on their home ice during their two prior meetings this season. For the Sabres you can slice it and dice it numerous ways but it will come back to what it has 99% of the time this season for them - goal tending. The last game between these two teams on December 9th in Buffalo, Ryan Miller was stupendous and his team managed to score 3 goals - a pretty solid evening for a team that is averaging 2.63 goals for per game so far this season. Of course in the prior meeting on November 25th here in DC Semyon Varlamov was pretty amazing stonewalling all 25 of the Sabre shots on goal to earn a 2-0 shutout.

The keys and key players for each team tonight are, assuming both teams continue to play smart hockey and not take many penalties, something they both have managed to do during the first two meetings this year:

Caps - Keys: 1) Play disciplined hockey and stay out of the sin bin; 2) Traffic, traffic and traffic - the likely Buffalo goaltender will be Ryan Miller, but regardless of whether it's Miller or Patrick Lalime, they are both excellent and for the Caps to keep up their 3.53 goals per game average they'll need at least a couple "dirty/gritty goals" in addition to putting up a fair amount of shots on goal; 3) responsible two way play - a deep, solid backcheck by all the forwards and no bad decisions and foolish odd man breaks allowed by the defense. Key Players: 1) Alex Ovechkin - he needs to play his game but not get ticked when the Sabres come at him like they are likely to do and he will get at least two good scoring chances as well as create a couple for others due to miscues by Tyler Myers, even though in 3 years or so we'll likely be thinking about Myers the way we think about Chris Pronger. 2) Michael Neuvirth - Should "Neuvy" get the nod tonight his play and the team defense in front of him will be key. Even when the Caps play their best defensive hockey, their propensity for high risk - high reward plays usually mean a goaltender is called upon to "come up big" at least once or twice a game. In his few outings this season here in the NHL there are nights where Neuvirth has done so and nights where he has not. The difference tonight could easily be the margin of victory for either team. 3) Centers Nicklas Backstrom David Steckel and Brendan Morrison - tonight the Caps need to control the tempo of the game, to do that you have to have the puck and to do that you have to win faceoffs and you need your best setup men to do exactly that. 'Nuff said as Backy, B-Mo, and Stecks can all do that in spades, tonight they should be hungry to prove they can execute after the 3-0 loss the Sabres handed the Caps in Buffalo.

Sabres - Keys: 1) Shut down the Capitals "Young Guns" + Tomas Fleischmann, the key to victories and their 0.714 points percentage has been their solid defense to maintain any sort of pressure on the Capitals the Sabres who average just 2.63 goals for per game will need to keep the Capitals formidable offense off the board. So far this season the Caps have scored only two goals against the Sabres in 120 minutes so look for some changes and urgency by the Caps, Buffalo's response and adjustments will be key. 2) Pressure Neuvirth and/or Theodore early. The Sabres won't want to play from behind against the Caps, especially with a loud, sold out home crowd rooting the Caps on. They will work hard to score first and take a lead into the locker room at each intermission. The Sabres are a hard working 60 minute opponent and will be so tonight as well. How the Caps respond to their steady intensity and whether the Sabres can be worn down without star Tomas Vanek will be a key tonight. 3) "Physicality" - the Sabres will need to play a hard, physical game and out hit the Caps in order to keep them off balance, disrupt the flow of the Caps as they work to penetrate the Sabres zone, and "turn the play" back around and into the Caps zone. Key Players: 1) Ryan Miller or Patrik Lalime - enough said already on these two. 2) Tim Connolly - the veteran center and scorer hasn't been scoring on pace with prior seasons and with Tomas Vanek out the Sabres really need him to pick up some of the missing scoring, especially if the Caps start to figure Ryan Miller out tonight. 3) Tyler Myers and Henrik Tallinder, the Sabres need these two guys to play very good or great games to continue to keep the Caps forwards "bottled" up.

Wild Cards: For the Caps - Alexander Semin and Mike Green, as always even if the Sabres manage to stymie Ovechkin and Backstrom, if Sasha or Green have a good night either can break a tight game like tonight's is likely to be wide open all on their own as well> For the Sabres - Clark MacArthur - co-leader in goals scored for the Sabres with the ailing Vanek but also -10 on the season.

Prediction: Caps 3 - Sabres 1.


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