Friday, December 01, 2006

The Morning After -- Caps vs. Stars

Well, they sure do make it entertaining, don’t they? The Caps won a game last night they had every indication of gagging on late in the third period, beating the Dallas Stars, 4-3. For 56 minutes, they were as dominating a club as this club can be. And this has nothing to do with the fact that Dallas chose to dress Mike Smith in lieu of Marty Turco in goal (Smith was pulled for the third period in favor of Turco after he gave up four goals on 14 shots). The Caps won more battles than not along the boards and in the corners, and played Dallas even in the grinding aspects of the game. They took advantage of their opportunities (well, that three-on-one where they never got a shot on net wasn’t pretty, and if you look up “snake-bit” in the dictionary this morning, you’ll see Alexander Ovechkin with the puck skittering off his stick on a penalty shot). They gave goalie Olaf Kolzig a comparative night off for those first 56 minutes.

Then there were the last four minutes of the game.

In those first 56 minutes, the Stars managed 27 shots on goal – a pretty average night for any average NHL team (and a lot less than the Caps usually surrender). In the last four minutes (actually, the last 3:43), the Stars had 11 shots on goal. A 4-1 lead was shaved to its thinnest advantage on a well-placed Stu Barnes shot from the low left-wing circle and 1:17 later a wrister from Jussi Jokinen from the slot when he was left uncovered on a rebound.

But, as is often – perhaps a little too often – the case, the game was placed in the hands of goalie Olaf Kolzig, who continued his sharp play (35 saves on 38 shots for the game). Kolzig turned away the last four shots taken in the last minute, and it was another “GAL LODI” night (getting tired of this, yet?).

Looking at the Caps’ performance for the night, what is remarkable is its balance. As was the case in the Tampa game, each of the goals was scored by a different player – Richard Zednik, Chris Clark, Matt Pettinger, and Alexander Semin. But, nine different players registered points (only Jakub Klepis had more than one point – two assists). None of those points were registered by Alexander Ovechkin (ending a modest three game scoring streak).

The Caps had more than one occasion to fold in this game. With a 2-0 lead to start the second period, Dallas got a quick marker 41 seconds in. Given the Caps’ problems in the second period this year, that could have signaled a meltdown. The Caps held the Stars to only eight more shots in the period.

The Caps could have seen the air go out of their balloon when Alexander Ovechkin missed a penalty shot midway through the second and the Caps holding only a 2-1 lead. But the Caps managed to net two more goals late in the period – one on a sweet move by Matt Pettinger to step over a desperate sweep check by a Dallas defender who was prone on the ice – to stake themselves to a 4-1 lead at the second intermission.

The Caps appeared to stop skating in the last half of the third period, perhaps thinking that all that was left was to run out the clock. They were burned for that with the two late goals, but they managed to grind out those last two minutes without surrendering the tying goal.

It was a gritty performance befitting the nature of the opponent and the kind of game the Caps have to play on most nights to win. There was perhaps more scoring in this game than one (well, The Peerless) might have expected, but in that is evidence of the Caps’ promise, too. Three of the goals were scored by players who can now be considered “foundation” players as the club goes forward – Clark, Pettinger, Semin. As the skill – or more precisely, the experience in applying that skill – catches up to the effort level, this could be a formidable team. They gave evidence tonight of two truths. First, they can compete with any team when their effort level is high. Second, they can find themselves in deep trouble when that effort level isn’t as high, since they don’t yet have the skill level to get by on skill alone.

The Caps are tied for tenth this morning, which is where they might be expected to be after 25 games. But on the plus side, they have negotiated the first two of this five-game stretch against some of the league’s better teams successfully. It will not get easier with Buffalo, Ottawa, and Anaheim coming to town, but Caps fans have no reason to think that the club can’t compete with these teams.

-- Congratulations to Olaf Kolzig. Last night was his first win against the Stars in his career. He had been winless in ten decisions against them to that point.

-- Jamie Heward took a Mike Modano skate blade to the face that opened up a nasty gash along the bridge of his nose and left cheek under his eye. It was an injury that looked ugly at the time and in pictures after the game. But, Heward being a gamer, he skated off strongly on his own. Although he’s listed as being out indefinitely this morning, we’re all hoping his is a quick recovery.