Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Morning After -- Caps vs. Penguins

There are some games you just don’t lose. Games where a national television audience is tuning in. Games against a long-hated rival in your own building. Games where your star is outplaying their star for long stretches of the game. Games against an inferior opponent. Games where you roar out of the gate, score the first four goals, and hold a three-goal lead with 22 minutes left in the game.

There is no sugar-coating this one. The Caps gave three points away – the extra one they should have earned for the regulation win and the two they yielded when Pittsburgh came all the way back to win last night’s contest, 5-4 in a shootout. Instead of a five point standings lead and the Penguins squarely in the conference rear-view mirror, the Caps are two points in front of the Penguins this morning, with the Penguins holding a game in hand. As early as it might be to think about a stretch run, this team is one that will compete with the Caps for the last spot or two in the playoff eight. Giving points away to such clubs isn’t part of the business plan for the 2006-2007 season.

The good . . .

Chris Clark. Although the hype was – understandably – focused on Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, and Evgeni Malkin, Clark was the best player on the ice for either team last night. Playing in every situation, he scored, he fought along the boards -- he was the most complete player at either end.

Alex Ovechkin. The hockey gods did not smile on Ovechkin last night, despite his two assists. Although he dominated the offensive end whenever he was on the ice, the puck just didn’t cooperate. A two-point night could have been a five-point night with a few friendlier bounces. But even with that, he gave the fans quite a show.

Shaone Morrisonn. Seven hits, three takeaways, three blocked shots, and he was not on the ice for any Penguin goal. If this wasn’t his best defensive game as a Cap, it is on the short list.

The not so good . . .

The second line. Brutal. The worst game they’ve had in at least a month. Offensively, three shots – none after the first period. Defensively, exploited remorselessly by the Penguins in the last half of the game (they were a combined -5).

The rest of the defensemen. It’d be hard to find a highlight among Bryan Muir, Steve Eminger, John Erskine, Mike Green, or Brian Pothier in that game. The Penguins have a number of skilled forwards – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Mark Recchi. But geez . . . Maxime Talbot and Eric Christensen scoring on pretty much the same play from the right wing boards, being allowed to step in and fire what amounted to uncontested wrist shots?

The unlucky . . .

Even with all of that wreckage that was the last 22 minutes of regulation, it would never have come to that had a nine-second sequence gone a bit differently late in the second. With the clock ticking toward three minutes to go in the second, Brian Sutherby took a wrist shot that Marc-Andre Fleury couldn't control. Alexander Semin poked the puck to the right of Fleury, and Sutherby had a yawning net with Fleury down. Sutherby couldn’t get good wood (or composite or fiberglass or whatever his stick is made of) on the puck and sent it wide. If he pots that goal, the score is 5-1, and the competitive portion of the game is over. It might have been the end of the night for Fleury. But the Penguins scored a goal of their own 1:15 later, then another 35 seconds after that, and it was a game again.

Penguin fans are in a gloating mood this morning, and truth be told, they have a right to do so. The Penguins deserve full marks for not quitting on the game when it was 4-0. Although neither Sidney Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin had an especially noteworthy game, they were extremely opportunistic. If one finds Crosby alone in the high slot with the puck, one is going to be seeing a celebration soon after. If one leaves a puck lying around the crease with Malkin and his Lemieux-esque reach lurking, one will find the puck in the back of the net in short order. Except for those two plays, both players were relatively quiet. But, those two plays tied the game. That’s what elite players do.

Versus got everything they could have asked for in terms of television drama, and more, out of this game. Two young teams on the rise, the featured players getting on the scoresheet. A rock-em, sock-em start, a frantic finish, some adventures in overtime, and of course, Bettman’s Folly . . . the shootout. And it is this last item that leaves The Peerless not especially down this morning. Shootouts are a gimmick, not hockey. In the hockey portion of the game, these clubs found themselves where most folks would put them – just about even. As far as the television goes, if Versus and the league can’t sell the sport on the basis of this (despite its comparatively unaesthetic feel for much of the night), then hockey truly is in deep, deep trouble.

As gimmicky as it is, though, Bettman’s Folly is a part of the game when it comes to standings, and leaving that point on the ice as a result of the Caps’ inability to convert shootout chances (one-for-the-season) could be a problem.