Monday, December 12, 2011

Establishing A Baseline For The Start Of The Dale Hunter Era Which Is Tomorrow Night

Tomorrow night is when I think we'll see the real start of the "Dale Hunter Era" for the Washington Capitals. Tomorrow's game against the Philadelphia Flyers comes as the first game since Dale Hunter took over as coach of the Capitals that they have had a couple of good practices in a row between home games. It will be the first time we'll get to see a Hunter coached Capitals team that may have had adjustments made that take more than an hour to practice. It also will be a game that is against a team that was a rival to the Capitals teams that Hunter played on. So we have an important game against a big rival at home after the Caps have had time to practice a few things and should be well rest. Thus the beginning of the "Dale Hunter Era" says me. mark it on the hockey calendars everywhere December 12, 2011.

So let's take a look and baseline the NHL on this day, the day before the Hunter era begins - December 11, 2011. The Washington Capitals are in second place in the Southeast Division; eighth place in the Eastern Conference; and seventeenth place in the league as we await the dawn of the Dale Hunter Era. How did the Capitals get here you might ask, we could debate the points and issues leading up to Bruce Boudreau's replacement till the cows come home and nothing we'd say really matters. We don't need to talk about or debate those things the only thing we need to do is to baseline where the Capitals are and where the teams that matter to them are around them as regards the NHL standings as of today. That way come April 7, 2012 the last day of the Caps' 2011-2012 regular season we'll be able to judge how far they've come from where they sunk to on November 28, 2011. In this week's NHL power rankings the Capitals rank a lowly 16th - the lowest you can be and still be in the rankings but hey at least over the last 10 games the Capitals are now 5-5-0 and playing 0.500 hockey, the comment in the rankings voices the question all of Cap probably shares with me - "Have they turned the corner?" We'll see, we'll see as we measure the progress against the current baseline.

So where do things stand today with the teams that matter to the Capitals?

The first team that matters to the Capitals this season is the Florida Panthers. Formerly the lowly Florida Panthers and now the Southeast Division leading Florida Panthers. The Panthers had been historically one of, if not the worst, teams in the NHL for the past decade. They haven't reached the playoffs since 2000, and haven't won a playoff game since 1997. They haven't even finished higher than third in the Southeast Division since the 2000-01 season. But thanks to a drastic overhaul by GM Dale Tallon, the Panthers have quickly emerged as one of the better and more exciting teams to watch in the League. Today they sit atop the Southeast Division with 37 points, third in the Eastern Conference and tenth in the League. In this week's power ranking the Panthers also rank tenth despite having a record in their last ten outings of just 5-3-2 (0.600 hockey). So far this season the Panthers have proven to me they are real, they have a respectable positive goal differential of +5 and they've played 0.616 hockey over 30 games; 0.667 over 12 home games and 0.556 over 18 away games. These guys are for real. That's really all that matters to us Capitals fans, that and the fact the Capitals really, really should work really hard to NOT loose any more "four point games" to the Panthers. Right now the Capitals are two games ahead of the Capitals and have played 0.554 over the 28 games the Caps have played this season. The Panthers are on track to finish the season with between 94 and 105 points. To catch and pass the Panthers I estimate the Capitals will need to ratchet up their own "game" ~20% and play 0.657 hockey to finish with 102 points; that's a pretty big delta but it could be achievable if the Capitals find their stride now and have a good "run/streak" between now and February 28th. It's also interesting to note that while the Caps and Panthers will face each other three times between now and March 1st, all three of those meetings occur in the month of February and with any luck for we Caps fans will be the most epic and important meetings between the two teams in at least a decade.

The next team that matters to the Capitals is the Eastern Conference lading Philadelphia Flyers - the same Flyers who the Capitals will face off against tomorrow night. If the season ended today, the Capitals would find themselves in the first round of the playoffs facing the Flyers. Over 28 games the Flyers have been playing 0.696 hockey and are on track to finish the season with between 108 and 120 points this regular season. The Flyers are 7-3-0 in their last ten outings and on a 5 game winning streak and they are doing it in spite of average goaltending from their net-minders (2.9 GAA last ten games), and a final and yet is they have a positive goal differential of +20 over 28 games to date (101 GF - 3.607 GF/Game and 81 GA - 2.893 GA/Game). Making up any of the four (4) full games the Flyers are ahead of the Capitals even over the 54 games remaining between now and April looks to be a daunting task. However tomorrow's match up is a four point game in that challenge and all the more reason to look at the game and increase it's importance in the Capitals minds.

The Boston Bruins who are now in first place in the Northeast Division and second place in the Eastern Conference are important to the Capitals. Between now and the end of the season the Caps still have all four of their match ups with the Bruins remaining and if they can manage to pass Florida, they will likely be battling the Bruins for the second seed in the opening round of the playoffs. The Bruins have played 0.661 hockey so far this season and have a whopping and league leading +35 goal differential. The Bruins are on pace to finish the regular season with between 102 and 111 points so it's very likely the Caps will need the Bruins to filter some in order to pass them in the standings even if the Caps can finish with 102 or 103 points. The Bruins are currently ranked atop this week's NHL power rankings.

The fourth place New York Rangers are another team, that even if the Caps have turned things around will still matter and come into play for the Caps this season. the Rangers have played 0.704 hockey over 27 games this season. They are as strong or stronger a team as either the Bruins or the Flyers and have a team goal differential of +23 and a 7-3-0 record in their last 10 games including a 6-1 blowout win over the Florida Panthers in their last outing. The "Rags" are on track to finish the regular season with between 106 and 118 points. They are currently ranked third in the NHL's power rankings.

The fifth place Pittsburgh Penguins are the next team that are highly relevant to the Capitals this season. The Penguins have played 0.633 hockey over thirty games this season despite Sidney Crosby's injury issues which unfortunately for hockey fans everywhere continue with no foreseeable end in sight. The Penguins have a +19 differential and 96 and 106 points. If the Caps have indeed turned things around and can finish with 102 points when they head into the playoffs there is a fair chance their road to Lord Stanley's Promised Land for the Capitals could well once again be through Pittsburgh.

What about the other guys in the East who could make the playoffs you might ask: Toronto, Buffalo, New Jersey, Montreal and Winnipeg.

Well Toronto at 5-4-1 in their last ten games and 13th in this week's NHL Power Rankings looks to be the real deal and could very easily finish the season as high as in 5th place and as low as 7th place with between 88 and 98 points for the season. In other words the Maple Leafs could very easily be the Capitals opponent in the first round of the playoffs, if the Capitals turn things around find a way to either win the Southeast or finish in fourth in the Conference.

The Buffalo Sabres are ranked 15th in this week's NHL Power Rankings, have played 0.552 hockey through 29 games, and have an even team goal differential to date. The Sabres are 3-5-2 in their last ten games and have a less than 0.500 record at home so far this season, while playing 0.727 hockey on the road. This team is an enigma to me but will likely remain battling Toronto, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Ottawa "on the bubble" assuming the Capitals can move forward on their current path and get off the bubble themselves. If that happens the Capitals likely won't be seeing anyone who finishes seventh or eighth in the Eastern Conference before the Conference finals, if at all.

So the as far as turning things around in the "Dale Hunter Era" the Florida Panthers may well have caught the spirit of things when they were billing the game between the Panthers and the Capitals as a battle for first place in the division and an important bout between the two.

So next up the Flyers at Verizon Center Tuesday Night - Be There or Be Square.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Are THE Capitals "Back"? and Does Realignment Pave The Way For NHL Expansion?

Well I missed the last two Capitals games - check updates, blogs and recaps of all after getting score alerts while driving northbound on the I-95 and the New Jersey Turnpike during the Senators game and southbound back that same route during the Maple Leafs game. So it's hard for me to make any sort of conclusive statements about the Capitals other than "I hope so and I'm an eternal optimist." From going through the statistics and reflecting on the couple of games I did actually watch first hand so far during the "Hunter Era" so far, I will say I like what I see and yes, I am optimistic. I think the Capital's core also does and is responding as well. So are THE Capitals back? Well with a 5-5-0 record in their last ten games it's a little too early to tell, but there is definitely reason for hope again in the neighborhood around 7th and F Streets. Now if the Caps can make up at least 1 of the 2 1/2 games they trail the Florida Panthers for the Southeast Division lead before the end of December, a period when they have 9 games remaining this month and Florida has 10 games remaining and the Caps can finish the month with a 8-4-2 record or better for the month overall (18 or more points), then I'll be convinced they are back on track. So that's pretty much the bottom line, but there are a bunch of promising signs that the Caps are off to a good start at moving back from "bubble team hell" to clear playoff team.

Now about the NHL realignment - first let's get this out of the way - I can't wait for next season, I love the new alignment and the the way it's worked out for the Capitals. The Division games next season will clearly be far more exciting, load and fun than the Southeast Division games this season and the 2013 playoffs assuming the Capitals make them - Whooaa. As @ovi8 would say, SICK. That said I've gotta believe that in a couple of years, no more, there will be two more teams in the NHL, my guess is Quebec and a team out west in the US and that would be either Seattle or Houston, IMO. I also think that would/could work out very well and there is enough talent available world-wide to support 32 great NHL teams. Now if they could have gotten rid of the shootout, or at least made every game a three point game and a win in regulation worth more than one in OT or the shootout .... That too is my bottom line.

Next up for the Capitals- the Flyers at Verizon Center on Tuesday.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tomorrow, Looking Ahead to the Caps - Panthers Matchup In Sunrise, Well Sort Of ...

So tomorrow evening in Sunrise, FL the Washington Capitals who have been struggling mightily of late to regain their confidence and swagger and their "game" play the Florida Panthers who have basically been doing the exact opposite, the Panthers are about 4/10th's of the way into their best NHL season in several years. It'll be the second of six meetings this season between Florida and Washington. The Capitals won the first meeting 3-0, that game was in a different universe, while it was on the same sheet of ice that tomorrow's game will be played on, it was apparently in a different time-space continuim, on October 18th while the Capitals were on a 7-0 tear at the start of the season. That was before the Capitals started looking even less than human while they were still super-heros who it seemed could do whatever they want and still win hockey games. it was before Bruce Boudreau was replaced by Dale Hunter and it was well before the Panthers amassed anything like their current 14-8-4 record and 32 points to take over the Southeast Division lead for the first time in more than a couple years. It was before the Panthers went 7-3-3 during the month of November.

The difference in current mindset and attitude of these two teams might be best ascertained by comparing their records over the past 10 games - Florida: 6-3-1; Washington: 3-7-0. That said, my thoughts might be going in a different direction than you think though. For Florida, their website is building the game up as the "Fight for First Place" as in the fight for the first place in the Southeast Division. That shouldn't even be a fight of course and it is but it's a meaningless one as we Cap's fans well know. Winning the division without winning the conference has gotten the Capitals little to nothing these past few post seasons. In that regard, it's about having home ice advantage and it's about being in position to "go deep" in the playoffs. So from that regard for Panthers it is indeed important. It's also about making sure they don't get shutout 3-0 again like they did last meeting; its about making sure they make Sunrise, FL a hard place for division rivals play against the Panthers.

For the Capitals the game is even more important and it is so for at least three really big, good reasons:

1) It could be the difference between knowing they might still have a season because they can win games against their Division foes on the road, heck right now it's important they beat anybody on the road. The worst loss of the recent face-plant in my book was in some ways, probably when they went up to Uniondale on November 5th and lost 5-3. The Capitals road record is 4-7-0 so far this season, for the Capitals to get their season back on track they need to start playing at least 0.500 hockey on the road and 0.600 hockey at Verizon Center. The time for that to get started is sooner rather than later, so what better time for Dale Hunter to get his second win and first win on the road as coach of the Capitals than tomorrow night at Sunrise, FL?

2) The Capitals need the two points a win against Florida will give them more that the Panthers need them. Right now the Caps are actually "the bubble team"in the Eastern Conference. They sit with a precarious hold on the eighth and final playoff spot with 27 points. the same point total as ninth place Ottawa and tenth place Montreal.

3) A win, especially a win in regulation would be put new Coach Dale Hunter's record at a respectable 2-2-0 and would also be the first win in regulation for the Capitals under Hunter. it would also be another brick in the rebuilding of a wall of confidence in the Capital Team's collective psyche' as regards the "Hunter Era". It could get even better if the Capitals top six forwards hit on all eight cylinders and get their offense as well as the defense in gear.

The other interesting battle that will likely play out tomorrow at Sunrise, FL will be Jose Theodore vs. Tomas Vokoun. Theo wasn't in the net the last time the two teams met, Jacob Markstrom was, as was the Vokoun who stopped 20 shots and was the first star of that game. During the Panthers last ten games Theodore has played in eight games posted a 5-2-1 record and a 0.933 SV%. The recent performances by both Theodore and Vokoun and the importance of the game for both teams make a showdown by the two against their former teams very likely tomorrow night... I'm looking forward to it, I hope you are two. I'm also looking very forward to seeing the Capitals forwards continue their return to the scene and to the job of scoring goals too.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Penguins 2 - Caps 1; Another No Point Night But ...

Okay let's get this out of the way early, the Caps and the Penguins met tonight at Verizon Center and the Penguins beat the Capitals 2-1. The Caps are now 2-7-1 in their last 10 games. That's not good and not what the Caps organization or we Caps fans want or expect from them this season. There's no ifs ands or buts about it things need to get fixed and the sooner the better.

Okay that out of the way, lets admit even though the Caps got outshot 35-17 and out attempted 69 - 42, the game could just as easily, and some (self included) would argue, should have finished regulation in a 3-3 tie. The Caps basically "missed" two wide open nets and penguins missed one. Had those plays been "properly" finished when the third period ends the score is 3-3 instead of 2-1. That said it's hockey, you know that game of inches stuff, and instead you have a no point night for Washington. Also on the bright side, the Caps have found their defense again and in the last two games Tomas Vokoun has delivered a SV% that we expect from a top tier number one goaltender in the NHL. Tonight his SV% was 0.943 - he stopped everything he should have and a few that might have gotten by a lesser goaltender, so you can't blame the Caps goalie for this lack of points. The two missed open nets, well Aex Ovechkin might have only had one SOG tonight but he was part of setting those two plays up. With 19:22 TOI, Ovechkin also led all Caps forwards in TOI and did so with an average shift length of 00:55 but didn't have any really long shifts except for one in third period that I saw. Ovie also led the Caps in hits with 10, all but one of which were good, solid hits that were appropriately timed and without putting him out of position, on one hit Evgeni Malkin got the better of the exchange, but let's all understand that that battle/competition has been going on for at least half of Ovie and Geno's lives.

The defense looked pretty solid, except for the second Pittsburgh goal, Chris Kunitz's game winner, where John Erskine tripped and fell and that sort of stuff can happen. Brooks Laich was a beast in the faceoff circle tonight with a win % against 67% (14 wins 7 losses) many of which came against Sidney Crosby. Laich has had some good games so far this season, but this might have been his best yet. Alexander Semin drew one penalty and got none. His feet were moving all night from what I saw and he was working hard. Had he not missed on a wide open net (one of two by the Caps) he'd have a goal to go with his 1 takeaway and 2 blocked shots.

Of the blue liners I felt Dennis Wideman, John Carlson, Dmitri Orlov and Karl Alzner all had solid outings. John Erskine, everyone trips now and then and even though it resulted in a goal, I'll gladly overlook that misstep to have a guy in the lineup who within the traditions of the game, holds Arron Asham accountable for his "go to sleep" celebration from the last time these two teams met when he knocked out Jay Beagle. Jeff Schultz what can I say, 21 shifts, 16:14 TOI, -1, 1 attempt blocked, 1 miss shot, 1 takeaways, 1 blocked shot, 2 takeaways saw them all including the one of the two takeaways that might have saved a goal. The two hits Schultz is credited with, I truly didn't see them and if I did they didn't seem like hits to me and certainly are not memorable. Let's give credit where credit is due, Schultz is one of the most positionally sound defensemen I've seen play ove rthe past three seasons in the NHL and he has a heckuva "active stick". Further, I know any guy who is at the NHL level, is 6'6" 230#, played his major junior hockey in the Western Hockey League for a team named "The Calgary Hitmen" and who represented his nation in the World juniors has to know how to execute a killer body check and "blow somebody up." he just has to. However in Schultz's five NHL seasons I don't know of one time during his 340 NHL games played that he's done it. Finally it seems to me that he's not being properly respected and he's certainly not in any way feared by opposing forwards these days. Maybe just maybe just a couple of times, he ought to risk not being exactly in position and "blow somebody up", not so we Caps fans know he can do it, but just so the guys who matter in his world - forwards on opposing teams - think twice before tring to skate through him. Now of course if somebody out there can show me a youtube clip of "Sarge" doing that i guess I'll be the one eating some crow around here.

Forwards, the forecheck was going, the Caps won 69% of the faceoffs Laich 67% and pretty solid as the guy required to shutdown Crosby; Backstrom won 88% of his faceoffs; even Marcus Johanson won 4 of the 9 draws he took. The problem pretty straightforward, the Caps only attempted 42 shots on goal and only 17 got through. Against a solid, actually very good, goaltender like Marc-Andre Fleury, unless he's having an anomalously bad night he's stopping 0.900+ of the shots he sees and unless your team's goaltender pitches a shutout, your probably not going to win. The story tonight is pretty much just that.

So it looks like Tomas Vokoun has found his goaltending Mojo again and has his groove back. It seems to me like the Caps re-found their "team defense" allowing just 2 goals in each of the last two games. Now they just need to get their offensive mojo back, a task clearly easier said then done, and we all will likely be happier with the results of the hockey games.

Next up the Ottawa Senators here at Verizon Center.