Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A TWO point night...Caps 2 - Avalanche 1

Two five game stretches, two five-game tests. The five-game stretch from December 27th through January 5th was a test of the state of the Capitals’ progress under coach Bruce Bourdreau, whether the club could compete against quality teams. All five teams in that stretch were in the top-eight in the East. The Caps passed that test, going 3-1-1.

The second five game stretch started tonight and represents a test of will – whether in this five-game home stand the Caps are now the kind of team that can impose their will on an opponent and leave visitors unfulfilled. The first game of this test was a good one for the Caps. A depleted Colorado Avalanche team came to Verizon Center on the heels of a 1-0 loss to Detroit, and the Caps played with the kind of tempo that was meant to take what was left in their legs away from the Avalanche.

The result was a 2-1 win for the home team, the score hardly indicative of the pace of the game for most of the 60 minutes.

Scoreless through two periods of up-and-down-with-no-result hockey, the Caps broke through in the third on the sticks of the unlikeliest of producers. Matt Bradley collected the puck off a faceoff in the Avalanche zone and circled wide into the left wing corner. He backhanded a pass to Brooks Laich at the inside edge of the left wing circle. Laich one timed the puck, finding the back of the net past Colorado goalie Jose Theodore’s blocker on the far side. Laich was credited with the goal, but the decision was changed to credit Donald Brashear with the marker, he being at the top of the crease in an effort to screen Theodore and deflecting the puck on its way by.

The Caps lengthened the lead with just under four minutes to go when Boyd Gordon chipped the puck out of the Caps’ end to David Steckel skating up the right wing. Quintin Laing jumped into the play, and as Steckel was closing on the Colorado net he tried to center Laing, who had a half-step on defenseman Lyle Cumiskey. The puck never made it to Laing, though, as it deflected off Cumiskey and behind Theodore, who was sliding across in anticipation of Laing’s attempt.

Colorado spoiled Caps’ goalie Olaf Kolzig’s shutout bid when Marek Svatos and Wojtek Wolski executed a slow-developing give-and-go that left Svatos in alone on Kolzig. Svatos roofed the puck over Kolzig’s glove, and one might have been excused for thinking, “you guys sure aren’t going to make things easy on yourselves, are you?”

But Kolzig, who hasn’t stolen a lot of games this year, robbed Colorado of everything but their fillings, capping a superb effort by flashing a pad out of nowhere to deny Tyler Arnason on a spin-around drive from the slot with 35 seconds left, and then denying Arnason once more with 14 seconds left when he was Arnason was allowed to walk through a seam along the right wing circle for a clear shot.

For the Caps, this was a case of the unsungs stepping into the spotlight:

- Quintin Laing hurling his body in front of successive shots when the game was in the balance in the third period.

- Boyd Gordon following Laing’s lead and sliding in front of a shot late, coming up limping, but not bad enough to keep him from pursuing the play in the Caps’ end.

- Steve Eminger playing a “keep-it-simple” game and exacting more than a pound of flesh with four big hits and – yes – a blocked shot.

- Brooks Laich continuing a string of solid games with an assist (on the goal he didn’t get), three hits, and…three blocked shots.

- Matt Bradley, who – if he didn’t get a Gordie Howe hat trick – managed a hat trick of some kind…an assist, a fight, and winning the only draw he took.

It was an odd game in this respect…if you consider the “skill” guys to be Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, Michael Nylander, Nicklas Backstrom, and Viktor Kozlov, they combined for 11 shots, no goals, no assists, and -2.

And yet, the Caps won.

Why?...they paid a price to win. 13 skaters had hits (25 total, to 19 for Colorado), ten had blocked shots (18 total, to 14 for Colorado). They played the kind of game they needed to play against a team that played the night before – they put pressure on them early, bottling them up in their own zone. Then, they punished them when they did try to move the puck.

The Caps probably would have won this game more comfortably but for an excellent performance by Theodore, who denied Laich and Semin on one-on-none situations, denied Boyd Gordon on a fine chance when Gordon had a step on the Avalanche defenseman. Ovechkin rang the puck off the post twice, for good measure.

It was a low scoring game, but not a “low chances” game. There were equal measures fine goaltending and luck that some pucks didn’t find the net when the goalies were in vulnerable positions

It would be hard to find poor performances in this one for the Caps. Kozlov had another one of those nights when he looks like he’s skating around over streches without a clear purpose. And Alexander Semin just hasn’t found a comfort zone this season. Except for the chance denied by Theodore, he was uncertain in handling the puck and seemed rather disinclined to shoot the puck.

The defensemen, to a man, had solid games. Colorado played a defense that looked “rope-a-dopish,” allowing Mike Green to skate the puck into high scoring potential areas often. Jeff Schultz avoided the once-a-game brain spasm that has crept into his game lately and had just a good, solid game. Shaone Morrisonn did a splendid job playing cover for Green’s rushes. Milan Jurcina looked more like the Jurcina of last year, stopping Colorado players in their tracks. Eminger got some more minutes tonight, and he took advantage of the opportunity.

It was, even if the score doesn’t suggest it, a dominating performance by the Caps in terms of controlling tempo and territory. It was a good test to start this five-game test. The trick will be to carry this over to the game against the Flyers on Sunday, who will be another team on the back-end of a back-to-back when they visit Verizon Center.

But for now, this one should be a nice birthday present for the coach and The Big Guy. Happy birthday, Bruce and Ted.


DMG said...

I agree about Semin; it's not surprising since so much of his effectiveness is built on timing, agility and a great feel for the puck and you're going to missing that if you're in and out of the lineup with injuries.

If he manages to stay healthy, I think he'll be as good as last year though.

Hooks Orpik said...

An assist, a fight and a face-off win...

A Rod Brind'Amour hat trick??

The Peerless said...

A "brindy"

Anonymous said...

It's also worth noting that Laing received an arena-wide standing ovation for his twin blocked shots.

Chris said...

Good post and an enjoyable game. A couple of thoughts:

1. I am really starting to love Laing.

2. Okay, I know a lot of people out there like Brashear. But seriously, what was he doing out there with one minute to go in the game? I mean, really?

3. Open note to Alex Semin: we know you can stickhandle. You are a very skilled hockey player. Now, please, for the love of Pete, be a little less skilled.