[AP Preview - WashingtonCaps.com Preview]
With Christmas now behind us, it's time for Santa's #1 elf to get back to his normal line of work - namely riding shotgun on Vinny Lecavalier's right wing.
Tampa comes into tonight's game at the Verizon Center losers of six of their last eight games (allowing 4.25 goals per game over that stretch) and carrying with them the League's worst road record (3-12-1). Of course, the Caps have the NHL's second-worst home record (6-10-1) and have lost at home to the Bolts once already this season, so this match up of the Eastern Conference's two worst teams is up for grabs.
In case you missed the end of that last sentence, allow me to reiterate - Tampa Bay has the third-worst record in hockey. How have the Bolts gotten so bad so fast? Lousy goaltending. Starter Johan Holmqvist has a 3.02 goals against average and an .888 save percentage while backup Marc Denis has a putrid 4.05 GAA and an .859 save percentage (by comparison, Olie Kolzig has a 2.95 GAA and an .893 save percentage). And as bad as those season numbers are, they're nothing compared to what the duo has done recently - Holmqvist has a 6.53 GAA and a .757 save percentage in his last three games and Denis has a 4.87 GAA and a .825 save percentage in his last two. Yikes.
Enter Kari Ramo, the Lightning's sixth round pick (191st overall) in the 2004 draft, who was recalled from the AHL on December 19 and has started Tampa's last two games, going 1-1 with a 1.51 GAA and a .955 save percentage along the way. A big goalie at 6'2", the 21-year-old Ramo is one of Tampa's top prospects, and presumably will be their starter tonight.
To beat the Bolts, the formula is fairly simple - score first and don't let their sixth-rated power play get them back in the game. Easier said than done, perhaps, but as Tampa has the second-worst winning percentage in the League when giving up the first goal, the fifth-best percentage when scoring first and trouble scoring goals five-on-five, the team that gives the Lightning that first goal or more than, say, four power play opportunities is asking for trouble - and more trouble is the absolute last thing the Caps need right now.
Question of the Day:
Four of the League's five worst team goals against averages belong to Southeast Division squads (Washington, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Atlanta). Is bad goaltending (and/or team defense) the reason the division has the League's leading scorer and three of the top five goal-scorers, or are guys like Lecavalier, Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin the reason the division's netminders have such poor numbers? Not to take anything away from these skaters, but it's got to be the former.
First of all, compare what these skaters have done against Southeast Division opponents versus what they've been able to accomplish against the rest of the League. Lecavalier is scoring .72 more points per game in intra-divisional games than in games against non-SED teams (that's more than 23 points over 32 games). Kovalchuk is scoring .18 and Ovechkin .10 goals per game more in such games (a difference of 5 and 3 goals, respectively over 32 games). Want more? Martin St. Louis: .61 more points per game within the division. Cory Stillman: .27 more points per game. Olli Jokinen: .41 more points per game. That covers the six Southeast Division forwards in the Top 20 in the NHL in scoring and it makes a pretty clear point - these guys are feasting on intra-divisional opponents. By contrast, of the other top five scorers in the League, Henrik Zetterberg (+.48) and Sidney Crosby (+.23) are scoring more outside their own division, while Jarome Iginla (-.05) has abused all opponents nearly equally.
But that's just one part of the equation. The other part is to compare what the division's goalies have done within and outside of the Southeast - if the division's snipers and playmakers were responsible for lighting up the division's goalies, you'd expect those goalies to have worse goals against averages within the division than against non-divisional opponents. And for two of the division's number one goalies (by minutes played), that's what you've got - Kolzig is giving up .22 more goals per game and Tomas Vokoun .36 more goals per game in Southeast match ups. But Cam Ward (.39 fewer goals per game), Johan Hedberg (.51 fewer goals per game) and Holmqvist (.64 fewer goals per game) have much better numbers within the division.
What does it all mean? It's hard to say. On one hand, it's interesting that the only goalie who has to face Lecavalier, Kovalchuk, Ovechkin and the high-powered 'Canes attack - Vokoun, who is also unquestionably the best goaltender in the division - does significantly better outside the Southeast. On the other hand, three of the division's five starters have used the Southeast to help their numbers approach respectability.
The bottom line to me seems to be that there's an overall lack of talent depth (skaters and goalies) in the division that allows some of the high-end talent to fatten up their stats a bit with so many intra-divisional games, while at the same time working to give the division's goaltenders a break from some of the more potent and deep extra-divisional opponents. Could Johan Holmqvist hack it in the Northeast Division? Doubtful. Could Cam Ward cut it in the Pacific? Questionable. But both are somewhat viable starters in a division in which every one of the teams boasts a ridiculously talented forward or two (or three) and, outside of maybe Carolina, little behind them. Eric Perrin is third on the Thrashers in scoring. 'Nuff said.
Would Vinny Lecavalier be leading the League in scoring if he was a Hab, facing the Sens, Sabres, Leafs and B's 32 times per year? Would Ilya Kovalchuk be the League's leading goal scorer if he was wearing an Islanders uniform? Would Alex Ovechkin be talking 60 goals if he was a Coyote? It's impossible to say. But it's pretty clear that these guys owe at least a portion of their gaudy numbers to the mediocre (at best) goaltending and team defenses that they face so frequently.
Elsewhere 'Round the Rinks:
These guys say they'll more or less be live-blogging the U.S. game at the World Juniors starting at 10 a.m. USA Hockey also will attempt a live audiocast.