Friday, December 28, 2007

A one-point night: Penguins 4 - Caps 3 (OT)

Last night, the Caps finished up a back-to-back set of games with a 4-3 overtime loss that left them with three of four points in what is – and will be – a difficult week of hockey.

Please, let that sink in…three of four points in back to back games. The fourth point went to a club that the Caps might have to fight for an eight-seed in the spring, but seeing as how the club also lost its starting goaltender to injury, its top scorer for the last 15 minutes of regulation and the overtime, and still plays without its captain, losing in overtime to a team that had been rested since Sunday wasn’t the worst result one could imagine.

Caps fans no doubt will indulge their sense of drama about the whole thing – a 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh in Mellon Arena in a game they led late – but in the larger scope of things, it was a point earned in the 38th game of the season. Pittsburgh fans will probably acknowledge it as an affirmation of a law of nature – that the Caps are fated to come up short always against the mighty black and gold – but they shouldn’t read too much into the game, either.

Let’s get the bad out of the way, first…

Much will be made of Olaf Kolzig perhaps tracking Sidney Crosby too aggressively on the last play, leaving the net all but empty for the Sergei Gonchar winner, but it never should have come to that…it was the sequence with just over two minutes to go in regulation that was the problem, and it is sort of what makes hockey, hockey. Brooks Laich lost a defensive zone draw to Eric Christensen in the dying seconds of a Penguin power play. The puck found its way to Darryl Sydor, who did what a defenseman is supposed to do in that situation – get the puck to the net. The shot was of a non-descript sort, at least until it struck Milan Jurcina on the way to the net. Unfortunately for Jurcina (and misfortune was a pretty good description of his game last night, he also deflected the Armstrong centering pass that ended up being an Armstrong goal), the puck didn’t get enough of him. The ever-so-slight redirection was enough to allow the puck to elude Kolzig for the game tying goal.

But even that should never have come to pass…Shaone Morrisonn taking a roughing penalty with less than five minutes in the game…against a top-ten home power play. The script writes itself after that.

But even that might not have mattered, but for a skate blade early in the third period. At that point of the game, the Caps were dominating the Penguins, not letting them out of their own end easily and putting a fair amount of pressure on Penguin goalie Ty Conklin. Then a skate blade took a piece out of Alex Ovechkin’s leg. He skated off uncomfortably from the Caps bench and would not return. Neither would the Caps’ dominating play. Although the Caps had a perfect record (10-0-0) when leading after two coming into this game, it was now a shaky proposition. And it was enough – Ovechkin’s absence, Morrisonn’s penalty, Laich’s faceoff loss, Jurcina’s deflection. The rest was just details.

As for the rest…

We realize that in any game Sidney Crosby finishes upright, he is going to be a favorite for one of the three stars, but for the life of me…the first star? The best player for either side last night was Evgeni Malkin. His scoresheet looks quiet, but he was in the middle of everything and gave a passable impression of Mario Lemieux when he carried the puck with a mix of stick-handling skill and an ability to ward off defenders with his size. The one thing Malkin doesn’t have (yet) that Lemieux did was the latter’s cold-eyed, almost shark-like character in finishing plays (in case Pens fans don’t get it, that’s a compliment).

Viktor Kozlov got an assist and was a +2, but that seems extraordinarily misleading. He is now without a goal in his last 22 games and has only three on the year. Last night, he gave the appearance of a fellow in the midst of a public skate. If there is one skater who really, really needs to pick up his game in the second half, it is Kozlov. It’s one thing for a player like Matt Pettinger to be thought of as disappointing for having only two goals all year, and one in his last 26. But Pettinger was envisioned as more a checking line contributor. Kozlov is a top-six forward with only 22 points in 38 games (he’s projecting to 6-41-47, a lower point total than either of the full years of the man he replaced to play with Ovechkin – Dainius Zubrus).

Pittsburgh isn’t going anywhere…not with that defense. There’s been speculation about whether Pens’ GM Ray Shero would seek a goalie in the wake of the injury to Marc-Andre Fleury. After looking at the sorry performance of the Penguin blueliners last night (that the Caps failed to exploit fully), it’s hard to envision that as a team that makes – let alone makes noise – in the playoffs. Pick an adjective to describe their handling of the puck – indifferent, lackadaisical, comedic…The exception was Kris Letang, who, for a somewhat undersized and inexperienced backliner, threw around his weight pretty well and played a generally solid game.

It’s getting to the point where some conclusions (and some kicks in the backside) might be made about the off-season moves. Here is a set of numbers…

10-52-62, -18

That is the combined goals-assists-points-plus/minus production of Michael Nylander, Viktor Kozlov, and Tom Poti (who also combine for $10.9 million of cap hit). Nylander’s projection for the season (16-50-66) is looking a lot like his career 82-game averages (19-43-62), but he’s also projecting to a -33…yeesh. Ditto Kozlov, although his projection (6-41-47) skews toward assists more than his career average suggests (18-30-48). Poti’s projection (0-26-26) doesn’t meet his career 82-game standard (8-27-35). Is it the players?...or who rated the players? That’s what this season is, in part, about. Even though two of them – Nylander and Poti – had bouts with injury this year, all three need to be contributing more if the Caps are to compete.

Boyd Gordon was missed…it’s nice to have him back. 0-1-1, a blocked shot, a couple of hits, and 9-of-12 in the dot…too bad he didn’t take that draw against Christensen.

Ditto Nicklas Backstrom…not the missing him part, just nice to have him around…two assists, three takeaways, and 8-of-12 in the circle.

Donald Brashear had about the most productive 9:31 a grinder could have…four hits, a goal, three shots, and a fight. It was a full evening.

If Brent Johnson is going to be out 2-4 weeks with a sprained knee (and don’t be ranting on Brent…he gave up a goal on a 3-on-1 and another when he’d already apparently injured that knee), at least the Caps will catch a bit of a scheduling break. They have no more back-to-backs until January 23-24, when they have a home-and-home against Toronto. Kolzig had better be sharp, though.

The Caps are 5-2-3 in their last ten games. Only Ottawa, Buffalo, and Florida have earned more points in the Eastern Conference over that time. The Caps haven’t lost sight of eighth place (six points out). The injuries to Johnson and Ovechkin are worrisome, although the wound suffered by Ovechkin was described as “superficial.” It doesn’t get any easier for the Caps, as they face the conference-leading and 8-1-1 in their last ten games Ottawa Senators in their next two contests.

This was a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty game. The Caps earned a point in a difficult place to play on the second half of a back-to-back with their starting goalie and top scorer injured in the game. The Caps also surrendered a point when they could not hold a one-goal lead in the last minutes of the game and looked somewhat disoriented after the Ovechkin injury. Who’s right? The coach is…

"We get ahead and it's like hanging on and protecting a lead rather than trying to get more. We have chances to put the game away and we have to have the killer instinct. I don't know how you get it. I don't know if you're born with it, but somehow we have to find it."


D'ohboy said...

Good Recap. It can be difficult to keep perspective after a disappointing loss like this.

So far, Boudreau's main weakness seems to be matching lines. I know that he likes to roll four lines and prefers to get everyone involved, but against Tampa he put out Brashear against the Lecavalier line TWICE (the first time led to several scoring chances, the second led to the second goal). Last night, either Gordo or Steckel should have taken the late draw--take a timeout if need be in order to get the lines correct.

As far as Kozlov goes, his lack of production is killing the Caps offense. He is second on the team with 97 shots, but scoring on a measly 3.1% of his shots. His career average is close to 8%. Last year, he shot a career-high 15%, which, no doubt helped him earn his contract. Pettinger, meanwhile, is fourth on the team in shots and scoring on 2.9%. His career average is around 10 and the last two years he shot around 14%.

Together, these guys are wasting a lot of chances. However, the optimist in me hopes that their performance will gradually regress (progress?) to the mean and that they're both due for a goal-scoring streak in the second half.

Hooks Orpik said...

As usual, nice perspective. It is, after all, just one game of 82 and if the Caps capture 3 out of every 4 points in long stretches they'll be looking a lot healthier in the standings.

Regarding the Pittsburgh defense: this was game one without Mark Eaton, who had silently been Gonchar's partner and is the only Penguin blueliner with a positive +/- rating.

I do agree an upgrade is needed, but considering one of the main cornerstones was suddenly removed, it's not surprising that it was a sloppy night.

There's no current comparison to make for the Caps current personnel to emphasize the importance of Eaton. At the risk of Cap-sacrilige, it's like losing Calle Jo (without the offensive abilities).

The Peerless said...

If he Caps still had Brendan Witt, that would probably be the comparison. Not so much that Witt was doing all that well here in later years, but he was the only defenseman of his specie on the roster -- a stay-at-home banger. Pittsburgh doesn't have that on their roster. Orpik comes close, but he has his interesting moments, too.