Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Wednesday Roundup/Gamenight: Bolts @ Caps

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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.


cd said...

Nothing like some live hockey audio to make being in the office the day after the holidays a little less painful.

b.orr4 said...

I never like to say this next stretch of games will make or break a season, but I'm going to anyway. The next six games, four on the road, and two against Ottawa will go a long way towards telling whether the Caps are playing for a playoff spot or a lottery pick. If they get six or more points, they're still in the hunt. Four or less and it's probably see you next season. But if there was ever an absolute must-win, tonight is it.

JP said...

I agree - if the Caps are going to make a run, they're going to need to win almost every game they "should" win and a handful of games they shouldn't. Tonight's game definitely fits into the former category.

Oh, and I'm also stuck at work today. Es no bueno.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting comparison there Jon, and I suspect that you are on to something. I wonder if Ovechkin's .1 increase in scoring in the Southleast Division compard to the rest of the league is statistically significant though. It could just be random variation after all. Kolvachuk's, Lecavalier's, and St. Louis' increased scoring is no doubt statistically significant; however, the Bolts bipolar home-away record may skew the results for the latter pair. I suspect that Vinny does benefit from playing against weaker goaltenders, but I also think he probably wopuld still lead the league in scoring...he's just that good now.


JP said...

Yeah, some of the intra-/inter-divisional numbers are bigger than others, but the fact that every one of the top skaters I looked at in the SED scores more in intra-divisional games (which, as the Crosby/Zetterberg/Iginla numbers imply, is due to more than just getting ramped up for those rivalries) is somethin'.

If Sid got to face, say, Olie, Vokoun, Ward and Hedberg more often and Vinny was going up against Lundqvist, Brodeur, DiPietro and Biron, I think there might be a different scoring leader right now, but who knows?

To sum up my thoughts on this, Faux style:

1) The high-end offensive talent in the Southeast Division is phenomenal.
2) The goaltending in the division is, on the whole, below average.
3) The depth of skaters in the division is, on the whole, below average.
4) The result of the unbalanced schedule is somewhat-inflated offensive numbers for the division's high-end offensive talent and generally (though less consistently) somewhat better numbers for the mediocre goaltenders.

And these are small samples, both in terms of games played and players surveyed, but at least it forms the basis for some thoughts on the topic.

Focality said...

JP - is it possible that the SED is somewhat doomed due to the characteristics you wrote about? It seems that rather than "create new rivalries" as Bettman claims, the current schedule instead created some pretty skewed numbers as far as NHL stats are concerned, "protected" by fear, which is driven not so much by "new rivalries" but the cheapskate nature of some owners not wanting to travel too far.

I say doomed because you're not really testing yourself if you limit those tests to the most familiar. How would the Caps play if they faced the league's best teams more often instead of Florida?

It'd be interesting to see what next season's schedule brings stat-wise, besides seeing every team at least once--which is pretty cool in and of itself.

JP said...

I think that's an interesting thought. Maybe having so many games against inferior Southeast Division opponents is leaving the division's teams somewhat ill-equipped to take on the rest of the League (like Ohio State - play a Big Ten schedule and you think you're alright, then suddenly you get an SEC team and... not so much).

Tyler said...

If I weren't in an SF SBUX, on my way to SFMOMA, I'd look up what the Caps' GAA is under BB....

JP said...

@ Tyler: It's around 2.87 under Gabby and 3.00 for the whole season.

And be careful of the tigers out there...

JP said...

FYI - you can watch the Canada/Czech Republic game here right now.

Alzner, Godfrey and Neuvirth all playing.