Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Morning After -- Caps vs. Senators

A show of hands . . . how many of you were watching on TV last night and thought, “geez, they’re going to run us out of the building?” How many of you in the arena were thinking, “well, if I leave now, I can catch the rest of ‘Deal or No Deal?’”

Five shots, three goals. It was conjuring visions of November 13, 2001 . . . and an 11-5 pasting at the hands of the Ottawa Senators.

But if there is a rallying cry for this bunch, it’s “never give up – never surrender!” Nothing could have illustrated that more than the Caps’ plugging away over the rest of the first period, finally getting a deflection by Matt Pettinger on a shot taken by Jamie Heward at the top of the offensive zone with only 46 seconds left in the frame. But the hard work was done by Mike Green, who fought off the Senator defense to maintain possession of the puck, eventually pushing it out to Heward at the Ottawa blue line. That was the part that was probably lost in the telling, and ultimately was probably the most important play of the night. If the Caps go to the locker room down 3-0, then the game probably takes an entirely different course.

Deflections and mis-hits would play a big part of this game. The Caps’ second goal would come on a deft deflection by Alexander Ovechkin of a drive by Alexander Semin from the left wing circle. Senator goalie Martin Gerber barely flinched as the puck flew over his right pad as the deficit was cut to one.

But the Caps then found themselves – especially Alexander Semin – snakebit in trying to get off shots. Semin, who was quite entertaining in his making Senators defend air as he stickhandled around them, whiffed on or mis-hit no fewer than three excellent chances from the slot or from the right wing circle. On a couple of other occasions, his effort to move into a better shooting position only provided the Senators time to take space away. But even here, Semin showed a certain resiliency that characterized the rest of the club. His inability to find the back of the net did not diminish his effort.

The Caps would be rewarded – on another deflection – late in the third after Ottawa defenseman Chris Phillips took a tripping penalty. Alexander Ovechkin, who had some fine opportunities to rifle wrist shots from the left wing circle all night (but usually finding his efforts blocked), sent a harmless enough looking shot from the far edge of the left wing circle. The puck threaded its way through a maze of legs and appeared to surprise Gerber in that the puck got through. Gerber bollixed up the save, and the puck deflected off a pad into the net.

Frankly, anything after that was gravy. A point – even at home – in a game in which the club was left for dead less than a dozen minutes in would have been a moral victory. But, the days of “moral” victories appear at an end. The club is not satisfied with “winning lite.” The Caps took the play to the Senators, almost scoring on the first shift as Ovechkin had a fine chance from in close. Barely a minute later, though, Alexander Semin threw the puck to the net from the right wing boards. Chris Clark got a blade on the puck on its way through from about 25 feet out, and the biscuit bounced past a frustrated Gerber, who tried to smash his stick over the crossbar in frustration (that didn’t seem to work, either).

It would be easy to give the Caps credit for keeping their focus and fighting back – and they deserve those accolades. But The Peerless couldn’t help but remember who is behind the Ottawa bench, either. The Peerless has seen this movie before – back in the 1980’s. Bryan Murray teams do not have a killer instinct. They didn’t then, and they don’t now. This is not to call Murray a bad coach – no one with more than 500 career wins can be said to be a bad coach. But there is that persistent inability to close the deal, and Ottawa failed in that regard in spades last night (to be fair, it isn’t as if the Senators have displayed much of a killer instinct – regardless of who is behind the bench – over the past several years). To the Caps’ credit, they jumped all over that failing.

The scoresheet says Alex Ovechkin was the game’s first star. Well, ok. But the slice o’ pie goes to Glen Hanlon. It can’t be easy for a coach who is a former goalie to pull a goaltender (although no one should know better when to do so). But Hanlon wasn’t hesitant about making the change to Brent Johnson and taking the time out to remind the boys that despite the score, it wasn’t as if the game was out of reach.

Ovechkin was 2-0-2, even; Semin was 0-3-3, +2; Clark had the game winner and was +1. But in the background, credit needs to be given to the reconstituted Matt Bradley-Brian Sutherby-Ben Clymer “CBS” line. They closed the door on the Senators over the last 48 minutes – Sutherby winning a ton of draws (11 of 17), Clymer showing a higher comfort level in this responsibility, and Bradley pretty much hitting anything in a white sweater.

Nothing really jumps out of the stat sheet, which is a good thing in this instance. This was a team comeback. The skill guys did their thing (five points for the Alexes), the grinders did theirs, and Brent Johnson made very save he had to make, which was – every save.

The Caps have consecutive wins. Now it’s on to Carolina on Thursday to try to make this a real winning streak. But before we close, let’s do a little comparison . . . right now, there is a darling duo over which much of the hockey media is fawning . . . in 20 games between them, they are 13-18-31.

Well, gee . . . here in DC we have the Alexes – Ovechkin and Semin. In 28 games between them, they are 18-15-33, and Ovechkin has four consecutive multi-point games. Crosby and Malkin aren’t the only dangerous duo in town.