Friday, October 29, 2010

...So Many Miles From Home

I want to expand a point I made in yesterday's post, and in the process touch on the Caps', um, uninspiring loss last night in Minnesota. I'll preface this by saying it's obviously an easier point to make in hindsight...

I made a short plea yesterday to give Braden Holtby his first career start last night rather than Michal Neuvirth, who was coming off a dazzling 3-0 shutout. Bruce Boudreau went with Neuvirth. Which I understand, because it's the safe decision. Neuvirth's off to a terrific start in spite of some uneven play in front of him, and his effort Wednesday in Raleigh certainly warranted rewarding him with another start. And I know Washington played its most complete game of the young season against the Hurricanes, and BB can make the case for wanting to 1) reward Wednesday's excellent effort, and 2) keep building chemistry and consistency on a team beset by injury and inconsistency thus far. And I get that Neuvirth was all-world on the second night of back-to-back starts in the AHL. That's all well and good. But that awful performance last night against the Wild is exactly what I thought Boudreau might get, and could have avoided by starting Holtby.

Fans understand the unwritten rule that more often than not, the back-up goalie gets a start when a team plays on consecutive nights. Usually (but not always), he gets the second game. And the assumption is that it's done because it's a good excuse to rest your starter. Which is true. But it's not the only reason why it's done. Remember that the whole team is tired on the second night, not just the starting goaltender. More often than not you get 20 guys who are lethargic and out of sync, especially with back-to-back road games.

So now comes the dirty little secret: teams play better in front of their backup goalie. They play smarter, more responsibly. Have a greater sense of urgency. Exactly the sorts of ingredients that often go missing on night two of a back-to-back. On top of that, it would have been Holtby's first career me crazy, but I think the guys in the locker room are less likely to phone it in when their goaltender is making his NHL debut. What's more, the worst thing that happens is you lose (which you did anyway), and now you've got a rested starting goalie for the big Saturday Night Special in Calgary, still with a chance to get four points from a tricky little three game road trip (which was really the most you could realistically hope for anyway).

Yes, there is a case to the contrary. But I believe BB missed an opportunity last night to squeeze a little something extra out of his team. Now we know he got another nice performance out of Neuvirth, but that wasn't enough to steal a point and the Wild didn't exactly melt the ice with the way they played. Maybe that little something extra would have been the difference.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Game 9: @ Carolina

Michal Neuvirth
29 shots/29 saves, 3-0 win (1st career shutout)

Now that was a solid performance from Michal Neuvirth. Everyone is talking about the ridiculous glove save on Eric Staal in the second period (and it's a save worth fawning over), but it was a complete performance from start to finish.

What I liked:

-It was a solid first period on the road (for both he and the team), with some timely early saves including a good two shot flurry from in close off a face-off to his right. Washington scored the first goal, Neuvirth kept the 'Canes off the board, and the Caps we're in control after 20.

-Speaking of control, his rebounds were excellent. Anything he coughed back into the slot (including the first save on the aforementioned first period face-off flurry) came on chances where the original shot was particularly dangerous and the first save was excellent.

-The save of the night. No, not the glove save, although as I said it was highlight reel stuff. But his best save of the night came a few minutes earlier, when he absolutely flew post to post to keep out a Jeff Skinner wraparound and somehow managed to withstand the ensuing jabs and whacks as well. The play was reviewed but I never saw an angle that showed the puck in the net, which is amazing. However, he was really just cleaning up his own mess, having gone down too early, which leads me to...

Things to work on:

-Neuvirth is a butterfly goalie. He goes down on everything. Which is fine. But on that Skinner play, he went down when Skinner took the pass at the face-off dot to his left, popped right back up, then went down again once Skinner was past the goal line (anticipating a pass out front) but before Skinner had committed to the wraparound. It was a chaotic, late-developing play and those are always tough to manage, but he made even more trouble for himself by going down early. It may sound like halfhearted criticism, but I've seen him do this on similar plays at least once in each of his last three starts. And sure it's a detail, but it's a detail business...

-Additionally, I still don't love the decision-making when he handles the puck. He mishandled a dump late in the first that got Hendricks drilled behind the net, and turned it over unnecessarily early in the second, forcing himself into a tough deflection save before he was pushed into the net (bright side: great rebound control on that save). It should get better with time though.

All things considered, it was a terrific performance.

One final thought: Play Holtby tonight. I know Neuvirth can handle it and he was all-world on the second of back-to-back nights in the AHL and all Holtby. It's a trap game...the night after a big division road game, two days before a big Saturday HNIC game against a hot Flames team in Calgary. If you start the rookie, it'll keep the team focused and (presumably) disciplined instead of letting them look past tonight and lean on Neuvirth.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Road Apples

My college coach used to say that every goalie who gets a road start has one job: do not give the game away in the first 10 minutes. Home teams come out fired up... they win races to loose pucks, they forecheck with abandon, they jump on anything remotely resembling a fat rebound. Just something to keep in mind when considering three things to watch as Michal Neuvirth gets his eighth start in the nine games and the Caps begin a three game road trip.

1) Watch out for the aforementioned slow start. In seven starts, Neuvirth has surrendered the game's first goal five times; he's given up eight first period goals and only has one scoreless first period on the season. It's hard to play from behind, and it's hard to win on the road; trying to do both is a bad idea.

2) See how well (or not well) Neuvirth is able to control the pace of play. Washington is banged up, especially along the blue line, and you can bet Hartford Carolina will try to wear them down tonight...the Whale Hurricanes have very good team speed, but don't be surprised if they dump and chase more than people expect as an excuse to get physical with the Caps' defensemen. Neuvirth needs to do a good job handling dump-ins and keeping his D out of trouble when he can. Furthermore, while Washington's centers haven't been gangbusters winning face-offs, Carolina has been historically bad thus far. Neuvirth should freeze the puck every chance he gets to slow down the game and keep his players fresh.

3) Despite his great start to the season, Neuvirth could use a solid showing tonight. His last two starts have been decidedly average, with rebound control, over-commitment, and untimely goals all being somewhat troubling. I certainly don't mean to take anything away from his performance to date, and i think the Caps (and their fans) should be very pleased with his overall play so far. But with Varlamov still injured, the team having to play the second of back-to-back road games tomorrow in Minnesota (plus a third tough road game Saturday in Calgary), and a back-up who's never played a minute of regular season hockey at this level, don't be surprised if a soft game tonight raises questions about Washington's goaltending all over again.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Game 8: Home vs. Atlanta

Michal Neuvirth
32 Shots/29 Saves, 4-3 Win in OT

There was plenty to like about Michal Neuvirth's performance last night, beginning with finding a way for he and the team to grind out a gritty and much-needed win. In the second period, especially, he had a couple of very nice moments. His breakaway save on Jim Slater just after Mike Greene's goal had been waved off was especially huge...Neuvirth challenged well, stood his ground, and though Slater's shot wasn't especially well placed he still forced Nuevirth to make the play, and Neuvirth did. That's a massive save in the middle of a hockey game, down a goal, momentum hanging in the balance. He also had a nice sequence late in the second where he made two nice stops on Niclas Bergfors, the second a one-timer with a pass coming left to right...He got over in plenty of time, and held onto the rebound after Bergfors hit him in the chest.

I was also really impressed with his reaction on the tying goal. He had no chance to make that play, but he fought through traffic to see the initial shot, stayed right with the puck once it was deflected, and extended to his left to at least get the glove close after Evander Kane knocked the puck out of mid-air. Replays were inconclusive, but i think he may have even gotten the slightest piece of the puck. It would have been the save of the season thus far.

Now, there were some things not to like as well. Most obviously, Neuvirth had huge difficulty controlling his rebounds on several shots from the right halfboards (his left side). Each chance was a little different, but they all went stick side, six to 18 inches off the ice, and the rebounds all went right into the slot. He got away with it once in the first period, but not the second time, and then coughed up a third bad rebound late in the game that almost led to the tying goal. The placement of the shots in question is admittedly tough.... stick side, just above the pad is the toughest save a goalie has to make. But at the very least he needs to find a way to keep that initial rebound on the same side of the ice it came from. If he's squared up to the initial shot and can keep that puck in front of him, even if the rebound is a little chunky he's still in position for the next shot. Conversely, he made a great play shorthanded in the second when he made a blocker save from the same area of the ice and punched the rebound hard right back up the slot... the difference was that he knew all three Atlanta forwards were down near the goal line, and the slot was actually a better place for the rebound than the corner would have been. The puck went straight to a Caps forward who had time to corral and clear down the ice.

There's one more rebound trend worth watching from Neuvirth. He needs to do a better job holding onto shots that hit him in the chest. It's a tougher save to control than shots that hit him in the gut, but it's still manageable. I've noticed a couple of times that he drops is hands down a little bit on wider angle shots...that makes sense from those tough angles because Neuvirth goes down on every shot and from that angle he doesn't need to worry about extending his arms left or right to make a save; he's more concerned that nothing gets through his body. He's basically daring a shooter to blow one right over his shoulder from a bad angle, which could happen but won't often. But when he drops his hands down and the puck hits him right in the emblem on his chest, he can't get his hands up in time to swallow the rebound and it spills out into a dangerous area. Hasn't cost him yet, but it might down the road a few times.

One point on the Thrashers second goal...When an opponent has the puck behind his net and makes a pass out front, Neuvirth has to do one of two things with his stick: either he has to break up the pass, or protect the five hole. On Kane's first goal, he did neither. It was a good pass out from behind to net but it looked to me like Neuvirth could have gotten his stick on it. And while the defenseman certainly could have done a better job tying up in front, Kane didn't get much wood on that shot and Neuvirth didn't get his stick back in time. Not a bad goal, really, but it's a play he can do better on.

Two smaller critiques: It's never a good sign if a goalie ends up on his butt during the play. It's happened to Neuvirth a handful of times in his last two starts, and is something to keep an eye on early in games to get a feel for how under control he's going to be that night. If he keeps ending up on his butt, it's a good bet he's over-committing and getting caught out of position. Secondly (and this is a big pet peeve of mine), watch how many times goalies stop a dump-in behind the net, and throw it around the boards to a waiting opposition winger rather than leave it for a defenseman who's under some pressure but not really in a full-on race for the puck. Neuvirth did it once in the first period and got away with it. Mason did it in the second and Semin made him pay.

Last point....I hate it when goalies flop. I think it's embarrassing. Byfuglien definitely got a piece of Neuvirth, but Neuvirth went down like he'd been shot, and stayed down. Byfuglien deserved two, not five plus a game misconduct. By contrast, Ovechkin should not have been whistled for interference on Mason in the third...that was not a penalty. But my feeling is that when Nuevirth flails around and then stays down holding his head and then hops back up as soon as he gets the call, it makes the refs feel duped and makes both the make-up trip on Laich and the interference call on Ovechkin that much easier to make.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Men They Couldn't Hang

For hockey fans, the easiest way to evaluate goaltending is to treat it as a series of binary events. Either the puck goes in the net, or it doesn't. And there's something to be said for that school of thought in a results-oriented environment like the NHL. They are always stats like GAA and Save Percentage that are easy enough to compare and contrast, but as Mark Twain (and/or Benjamin Disreali) once wrote, "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." And any goalie will tell you that wins and losses are the only stats that really matter anyway. It's a basic concept, and it doesn't matter if you're watching your first hockey game or your 500th: the scoreboard isn't always fair, but it always tells the final truth.

And so it is that fans view goaltenders as ones and zeros. Goal, No Goal. Win, Loss. Comfort, Concern. Asset, Liability.

Except that goaltending is a detail business. And so this is a detail blog.


Last year the Washington Capitals finished the regular season with a record of 54 wins, 15 losses, and 13 overtime losses, good for 121 points and the Presidents Trophy as the NHL’s best regular season team.Then they got bounced in the first round by Montreal.But if you’re reading this, you know that already.Furthermore, you know that the Caps brought back essentially the same roster from 2009-2010, which makes sense given the year they had as a team.

But the goaltending….ah, the goaltending.Last year Jose Theodore led the team with 30 wins, and finished the season on a 20-0-4 run.Then he lasted roughly a game and a half in the playoffs before Semyon Varlamov took over and played just well enough to lose the series in seven. And now Theodore is gone, Michal Neuvirth is up from the AHL, and the best team in hockey is at the mercy of a pair of 22-year-old kids with a combined 73 career NHL games heading into the 2010-11 season.

Which brings us to why we’re here. I'm not a Caps fan per se, although I think they're a talented team and should be fun to watch more nights than not. I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen either goalie play. I am, however, a fan of goaltenders, having been one up through college, and I find the Caps goaltending situation too compelling not to follow closely. These guys don't need to be the best tandem in the NHL, but at some point one or both of them need to emerge as bona fide starters at this level. The point of this blog is to dive headlong into that evolution with the perspective of someone who knows the position but not the particular guys playing it, and maybe get a little nerdy about it. I'll watch as many games as I can with an eye not just on goals and saves, but also on decision-making, technique, patience, effort, consistency, and all the other details that matter at the NHL level.

Of course, not everyone considers goaltending a binary event, and this sort of study that may seem mundane at times, and even occasionally obvious. But with any luck, over the course of 82 games it might add extra insight into the season, the goaltenders, and the way people watch the position. Thanks for stopping by…