Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Morning After -- Caps vs. Rangers

No points tonight, Caps fans.


That’s the word that comes to mind thinking about the Caps’ 5-2 loss to the Rangers last night. And there was a lot to be frustrated about . . . a basketball game earlier that day left the ice resembling a gravel parking lot more than a smooth sheet of ice with the pucks bouncing all over the place . . . there was the now-required damage to a pane of glass . . . there was the return to the 90’s refereeing (what was that about obstruction calls being, well, called?) . . . there was the sick feeling as Alex Ovechkin skated in alone on Henrik Lundqvist on a breakaway that there was no way he was going to score (he didn’t, as the puck rolled up the blade of his stick as he attempted a backhand) . . . there was Sean Avery . . . and there was the sinking feeling that this was it, that with the Caps being 8 points out of a playoff spot with 25 games to go and five teams to climb over, that this was the last meaningful game fans would see at Verizon Center this year.

The Caps now go on the road to play a Lightning team desperately hanging onto the eighth-place spot, a streaking Penguins team (14-2-3), and a solid Montreal club. The word coming to mind with respect to the Caps’ chances is, “bleak.”

Frankly, there was no excuse for this one. The Rangers came into Washington on the heels of a 5-0 whitewash of the Lightning, but they did play the previous night and had to travel. Still, the Caps ended up outshot in the first period 6-0 to start the game, 11-1 by the time the Rangers scored the first goal of the game 11:18 in, and 16-6 for the period. The Caps allowed the Rangers to set the tone and dictate the terms of competition pretty much the entire game.

Outwardly, this had the whiff of a “playoff” game for the Caps. Glen Hanlon shortened his bench drastically – four forwards (including Brian Sutherby) had less than ten minutes of playing time. Eric Fehr had one shift in the last 30 minutes. Matt Bradley – two shifts in the last 26 minutes . . . Donald Brashear – one shift in the last 28 minutes (although he did spend five of that in the box for pummeling Colton Orr) . . . Sutherby – two shifts in the last 23 minutes. Both teams trapped more than Jeremiah Johnson.

What this game came down to was experience and passing ability, the Rangers being on the long end of both. The Rangers arguably lost the stat sheet in many respects (hits, faceoffs, takeaways, blocked shots), but they won in one important respect – shots. Much of that was a product of having a club with accomplished passers – Michael Nylander, Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka – able to find lanes in the trapping Caps defense to get an open shot. By comparison, the Caps once more had a difficult time getting the puck out of their own end, and even when they did could not find open teammates for shots. There was a lot of empty cycling behind the Rangers’ net. Both Caps goals, it should be pointed out, were the product the mysterious "notch" . . . perhaps the result of the afternoon basketball game – odd bounces off boards assembled under time pressure . . . or perhaps the product of an elaborate fix perpetrated by the Caps (Larry Brooks saves some of the best whining in recent history for this problem, not to mention coach Tom Renney, who sounded like the coach of the losing team in the post-game) that resulted in goals by Alexander Ovechkin and Chris Clark. Neither goal was the result of an actual pass to a player.

The Caps did play a decent game on defense, the final score serving to obscure that point. The Rangers had only one 5-on-5 goal (Straka’s second of the night 6:09 into the third period). But the Caps gave the Rangers a bit too much time and space to make plays, and ultimately it broke them down. There is a fine line between giving a skilled opponent enough respect and giving them too much. That Nylander, Jagr, and Straka had a total of six points among them tonight suggests the Caps were on the wrong side of that line, and that is a problem only experience will solve. So fans . . .

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