Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Gameday: Caps at Pens

One of the great things about hockey is the natural ebb and flow of the season…Just a few days ago the Caps were the golden boys of the NHL—winners of seven straight games after the Flyers had laid a 7-1 whooping on them. Just 24 hours ago the Penguins couldn’t catch a break, rumors of firing coaches abound. Now, all of a sudden, the Caps have dropped three straight games and Michel Therrien looks pretty smart for some of his coaching tactics. A lot can change even in the next 24 hours so let’s keep our heads on swivel.

TST comes to you from the shadow of Washington DC so let’s take a look at the opponent for our Penguin fan friends who don’t see the Caps as much as we do:

--John Erskine played last night for the first time in 23 games. Erskine is a physical defensemen, prone to making mistakes, but generally is a decent enough skater and nasty enough to get out of what mistakes he causes himself. Mr. Erskine missed those 22 games with a concussion. Last year Eric Godard (then of the Calgary Flames) gave Erskine a concussion in a fight.

--Brooks Laich is basically their Western Canadian version of Max Talbot; he’s a character player on the ice that is a character off of it. But Laich has gone cold recently, he’s pointless in six straight games and a -4 over that stretch.

--Many have been impressed by rookie defensemen Karl Alzner, who plays a very steady game. Alzner just took his first NHL penalty (for delay of game) in 23 games. But enjoy this look at him while you can, the Caps are in a crunch with the salary cap and expect Tom Poti and his $3.5 million salary back from long-term IR soon, which will probably banish Alzner back to the farm unless they pull some trades.

--In three games back from pneumonia Tomas Fleischmann has two goals. He’s up to 14 tallies on the season, but he’s also worst on his team in +/-, coming in at a -12. Watch when his line is out there if the Penguins can play puck control down in the Caps’ zone, it’ll be a very good sign.

--Nicklas Backstrom is off to a fine sophomore campaign, 45 points in 44 games. Centering that Ovechkin guy doesn’t hurt, but Backstrom’s added a new dimension to his game; last year he scored 14 goals (well, really 15) in 82 games and this year Backstrom’s already up to 12 goals in 44 games.

--8 of Backstrom’s goals have come on with the man advantage and defensemen Mike Green has 9 power-play goals. It’s not just Ovechkin one needs to mind, if teams focus on taking him away the Caps find an open man somewhere else. If teams aren’t vigilant on stopping AO then he finds open room and usually makes you pay with a shot. Sometimes he even puts the shot on goal.

--Ovechkin will shoot from anywhere at anytime. His 6.5 shots/game lead the league by far. We can’t find the totals for his shots blocked and missed the net but they are easily more than the ones he actually gets to the net. He’s a maniac that plays a manic brand of hockey. Hopefully, like the first meeting, he’ll be too occupied trying to run Evgeni Malkin and forget that he’s supposed to, you know, score goals.

Expectations for the game?

--Expect the Caps to out-shoot the Penguins. It seems like they usually do. This is not a bad thing, it certainly isn’t a good thing, it just is there. The Pens will give up shots but they will be manageable ones. It’s Marc-Andre Fleury’s job to manage them.

--Not much fireworks out of Crosby/Semin, at least between the two directly. The talk of the season has been the famous Alex “Deadwood” Semin interview with Puck Daddy where the Russian voiced an unimpressed opinion of Sidney Crosby. Crosby, ever the statesman off the ice, of course said the right and classy thing and let it blow over. It would be great to see Crosby ragdoll Semin like he did to Brett McLean, but that’s not in the works. Much like the Philly fans with their boos, Crosby will exact his revenge in a bigger way; on the scoreboard.

--At the end of the day, with so much talent on the ice it'll probably come down to who's players step up through the special teams and are able to convert or kill off more chances. Should be entertaining.

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