Monday, March 12, 2007

After-Math -- Caps vs. Thrashers

Nope…no points tonight, either.

It ain’t pretty. The Caps lost again, tonight, 4-2 to the Atlanta Thrashers. But for a couple of goals from Alex Ovechkin (neither being exactly a blistering shot ripping to the back of the net, but who can be picky at this point), the Caps offense was dormant tonight. It wasn’t for a lack of effort – well, for the most part -- but rather a lack of skill.

When a club is going as badly as the Capitals have been over the last however many weeks, they become brittle – one moment of adversity can break them down for the rest of the game, and that moment came late in the first period. With a Capitals defender hanging on, Bobby Holik slid toward the Caps net on his side and managed to redirect a feed from Eric Boulton past an unprepared Brent Johnson to put the Caps in a 2-0 hole. Even though Ovechkin would score goals to bring the Caps within one – twice – one got the feeling that this was the turning point in this game. The Caps just don’t have enough offense to climb out of holes they dig for themselves. The Peerless wonders, though, will Bobby Holik’s effort get nearly the same attention given to Sidney Crosby for scoring essentially the same goal in a game against Tampa Bay two months ago? We’re guessing, “no.”

The worst news of the night might be the bitter birthday present provided to Brent Johnson, who appeared to tweak (or worse) something when trying to deny Keith Tkachuk’s 24th goal of the season in the second period. Johnson finished the period but was replaced by Frederic Cassivi in the third period. Not the best way to celebrate the big “three-oh,” eh? Olaf Kolzig appears likely to return to the ice, perhaps as soon as Thursday against Boston, but the Caps could be reduced to the situation they faced at the end of the 2003-2004 season, when Matt Yeats was playing four of the last six games of that woebegone season.

For the Caps (and for their fans), the scoreboard is the last thing to be watching. There are games within the game, and tonight the “game” was “Where’s Alex?” No, not Ovechkin…Semin. The young winger has one goal in his last eight games (including tonight), but what was of concern tonight was the missing ten minutes. Semin was on the ice when Vyacheslav Kozlov netted the first goal of the evening at 11:26, then did not appear until the second minute of the second period. The same could almost be said for Mike Green – another culprit on the Thrasher goal – who saw but a few seconds on one shift over the same stretch of time (just enough to get a good view of the Holik goal). With a club like this, the currency a coaching staff can use is ice time, and the play of Semin and Green getting caught and giving up the puck in a vulnerable position – allowing the Thrashers to go the other way in numbers – was the price for a ticket to the bench. A bad record is not an excuse for sloppy play, and coach Glen Hanlon was right to use the tools at his disposal to drive that point home.

Green had an especially brutal game. Minus-3, ten minutes and change of ice time, a generally lackluster game. But he wasn’t alone. One got the feeling that if Hanlon could have sat all the defensemen at some point, he would have (with the possible exception of Jeff Schultz and Brian Pothier, who stood out not because of their own sterling play, but for the “what’s the use” attitude of some of their colleagues over stretches of this game).

The forwards, on the other hand, didn’t play a bad game. It is here where the lack of skill is most evident. They try – they really do. But this isn’t a group that is especially adept at either passing or shooting (the Alexes aside). It is an offense that is pretty much limited to whatever the Alexes can create on their own or luck. Luck was the predominant ingredient in the Caps’ offense tonight – the first goal was Ovechkin following a shot and nudging the puck enough to fool goalie Kari Lehtonen into thinking the puck was coming faster than it was. The second goal was off a Thrasher skate. That’s not enough on which to build an actual functioning offense.

The lack of offensive skill means the Caps don’t hold the puck long enough to take the pressure off a young defense. They end up spending too much time in their own end, giving up too many chances to the opposition. Eventually, they pay. Their 9-24-5 record since their high-water mark of the season means that they’ve paid – often.

But maybe that’s the price for the lessons they have to learn.

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