February 05 2013 12:01PM
The Toronto Maple Leafs enter a game on a two-game losing streak for the second time this season. The first time they did it, they escaped with a 4-3 dramatic overtime win over Buffalo with Matt Frattin as the hero. The Toronto Maple Leafs also enter a game against the Washington Capitals for the second time this season. The first time they did it, they escaped with a 3-2 dramatic regulation win with Matt Frattin as the hero.
The obvious conclusion here is that Frattin steps up in big moments, and against the Washington Capitals. That is called "narrative", gentlemen, a flimsy premise based on one or two pieces of anecdotal evidence ignoring all context surrounding the event.
The more the Leafs lose, the more their top six struggles to score goals over a small span of games, the more this town and media pick up on trends that can be explained by statistical variance. In a good sports story, or any good theory, the things that can be explained by statistical variance are instead explained by some vague proclamation about the particular player it affects.
A player like Alexander Ovechkin can relate to Phil Kessel. Ovechkin has been the target of criticism due to slumping goal totals over the last few seasons. After hitting 65 goals in 2008, Ovechkin has declined every season but last, where he scored 38 goals in 78 games. He hasn't cracked 50 since 2010.
What's the logical reasoning here? Is he trying too hard? Did he deceive Russian authorities in his teenage years, faking his age to get ahead and his prime years between the ages of 20 and 23 really came between the age of 23 and 26? Or is it that Ovechkin, like many NHL players, took the sting from a reduction in penalties called in the NHL, saw less individual powerplay time, and started fewer shifts in the offensive zone decreasing his shot rate?
I went through the data last year and sure enough, Ovechkin is not getting the same help from his coach as he once was. He's still a primary scoring threat and the most dangerous player on the Capitals roster, but without the extra space to work with on the powerplay, as well as being 27 years old and on the wrong end of his prime scoring years, he's no longer the all-world talent people still expect out of him. When Ovechkin fails to reach lofty expectations, commentators pass it off as a flaw in Ovechkin rather than a flaw in their own predictive models and standards.
Kessel and Ovechkin are struggling for different reasons, but both players are dangerous hockey players, getting lots of shots and chances and can sympathize with one another:
I thought it might take a few more games before I'd resort to Chumbawumba, but here we are:
Puck drop: 7 PM EST
TV: Leafs TV
The first time these two teams played, the Leafs won 3-2, out-chancing the Capitals 10-4 at 5-on-5 and 15-8 overall. Kessel and line mate James van Riemsdyk were the most dangerous Leafs, each registering four shots that substitute scoring chance counter Thomas Drance qualified as shots quality enough to be scoring chances. Tyler Bozak set up a couple of those. van Riemsdyk and Nik Kulemin each had workmanlike goals in front of the net, and Frattin completed the comeback on a gorgeous improvised play by Nazem Kadri off a broken zone exit by the Capitals.
John-Michael Liles and Carl Gunnarsson played near-flawless hockey at even strength, and they turned into an excellent pairing until Gunnarsson got hurt. However, the Leafs second line got a boost last night when Clarke MacArthur returned to the lineup, allowing Jay McClement to vacate his spot in the top six and drop back down to the fourth line. The Leafs have missed Gunnarsson, badly, in the last two games, having surrendered 31 scoring chances to Boston and Carolina.
Washington's line combinations:
Alex Ovechkin - Jay Beagle - Joey Crabb
Wojtek Wolski - Nicklas Backstrom - Troy Brouwer
Jason Chimera - Mike Ribeiro - Joel Ward
Marcus Johansson - Matt Henricks - Eric Fehr
Karl Alzner - Mike Green
Tom Poti - John Carlson
Jeff Schultz - Tomas Kundratek
The Caps are scratching Roman Hamrlik and Mathieu Perreault. John Erskine is suspended and Tom Poti will take his place. Adam Oates likes to move Marcus Johansson up and down the lineup to take the odd face-off (or did against Toronto last game, if I'm reading the play-by-play sheet correctly) while Matt Hendricks generally centres Johansson and Eric Fehr.
You may also be asking "hey, there are two good centremen on that team. Why are they playing on the second and third lines and not with Alex Ovechkin?" Good question. I can't answer that. One of the reasons Kessel can sympathize with Ovechkin and vice-versa is that neither are playing with a bonafide No. 1 centreman. Ovechkin also plays with a minor leaguer on the opposite wing as well.
Neither line was really effective against Toronto in the first matchup. How can it be when you get just four chances at evens? When Ovechkin was out, Randy Carlyle would send out Mikhail Grabovski. Getting the matchup in Washington's turf could be difficult, but Carlyle can stick to zone matching, using his Grabovski-Kulemin-McClement line in defensive zone situations and keeping Kadri and Bozak's respective lines to the offensive end of the ice.
Last game, Carlyle's desire matchup for Kadri was on Mike Ribeiro, leaving Backstrom for Bozak and Co. The Caps don't get a lot of offensive zone face-off attempts, with Mike Ribeiro one of the four Capitals over 50% in offensive zone start opportunities with 51.3%. Given Carlyle's early tendency to keep Kadri away from the defensive zone, he may not get that matchup this time around, instead getting bits and pieces of the second line.
Carlyle against Carolina slowed his usage of the Dion Phaneuf-Mike Kostka line, instead giving a few extra minutes to Cody Franson and Mark Fraser who had a pretty strong game. There are some easy shifts against the Caps, so as long as they don't line up with the fourth line at any given moment, they'll have a good chance to come away with a plus-possession game again. John-Michael Liles and Korbinian Holzer will have to be better, particularly Holzer who got burned a few times past the first period last night. No lineup announcements have been made, but it may not be awful if Mike Komisarek draws back into the lineup next to Liles. That pairing can be reasonably competitive against the Caps.
No word on the starter yet for the Leafs, but at the tail-end of a back-to-back, you have to think Carlyle may play Ben Scrivens in favour of James Reimer. Michael Neuvirth is in for Washington.
Game Day Notes:
- Referees no help in Maple Leafs loss (Lance Hornby, Toronto Sun)
- Home ice still no advantage to struggling Leafs (James Mirtle, Globe)
- Maple Leafs facing bigger questions than Kessel slump (Nick Cotsonika, Yahoo!)
- Toronto Maple Kostkas vs. Washington Capitalvechkins (SkinnyFish, Pension Plan Puppets)
- Phil Kessel's shot choices and location (Steve Burtch, Pension Plan Puppets)
- Phaneuf, Grabo and Kessel, surprises and disappointments (Michael Langlois, Vintage Leaf Memories)