Thursday, February 14, 2008

A one-point night: Thrashers 3 - Caps 2 (OT/SO)

There are bad one-point games, and there are good one-point games. Last night’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Atlanta Thrashers qualifies as the latter as the Caps finally solved Thrasher goalie Kari Lehtonen for the tying goal in regulation with less than two minutes to play to earn the point.

It was a game that, for the Caps, involved a lot of unproductive energy. They pounded 41 shots at Lehtonen, but there were precious few of the rebound or follow up variety. It is probably instructive that the Caps’ first goal of the contest was scored when an Alex Ovechkin shot pinballed onto the stick of Viktor Kozlov, who had nothing but net to shoot at. For the rest of the game, Lehtonen was given the chance to see shots clearly and handle them cleanly.

Lehtonen also played Sidney Crosby for a moment, hitting Marian Hossa with a “long bomb” of a pass that Hossa took almost at the Caps’ blue line with less than a minute to go in the second period. Hossa scored what could be his last goal at home as a Thrasher (he is rumored to be on the trading block, and Atlanta does not return home until after the trading deadline) by skating in alone on goaltender Olaf Kolzig and sweeping the puck under Kolzig’s right pad.

Washington clearly had the territorial advantage in the game, especially in the first and third periods. And despite puring shot after shot at Lehtonen, no more than the usual level of frustration seemed to grip the club. At least they were consistent in continuing to shoot the puck. The persistence paid off with 1:21 left in the third period when Alex Ovechkin skated in and ripped a shot between Lehtonen’s glove and body for his 48th goal of the season.

The result left the Southeast Division a muddle. Three teams sit atop the division with 60 points. And, the teams seem to have settled into a pattern of close-to-.500 play as the record over each of their last ten games suggests:

The game was remarkable in one respect. A team getting off 41 shots is a team that has the puck a lot of the time. But the Caps didn’t generally start plays with the puck. The Thrashers won 39 of 60 draws (65 percent). Only David Steckel finished with more wins than losses in the circle (7-for-13). The trio of Bobby Holik, Eric Perrin, and Todd White won 32 of 49 draws.

Nicklas Backstrom had a pair of assists to tie Chicago’s Patrick Kane atop the rookie scoring list with 47 points apiece. While the rookie of the year race seems destined to come down to those two players, Tobias Enstrom continued to make a case for his efforts as well. The Thrasher defenseman led the club in ice time last night (26:32) and contributed an assist on the Eric Perrin goal that opened the scoring for the Thrashers. Enstrom is fourth among rookie scorers (35 points, 14 more than the next closest defenseman – Dallas’ Matt Niskanen) and is plus-three for a team whose defense is often a bit lead-footed.

The game was decided by Bettman’s Gimmick when Eric Perrin scored on a move that Caps TV announcers Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin described even before Perrin skated into the center circle to take the puck (skate in, fake backhand, pull puck across, lift forehand over goalie’s pad) and Slava Kozlov circled wide right, swooped in and snapped a shot past Kolzig’s right pad. For the Caps, Alexander Semin fired the puck wide to Lehtonen’s right, and Lehtonen closed the Caps out when he bobbled a shot by Boyd Gordon, but swiped the puck off the goal line to earn for the Thrashers the extra standings point.

Two points separates first and fourth in the division now, so each day promises a shakeup of the standings unless a team can put a streak together. Since the club “officially reached mediocrity” on January 19th, they’ve slowed their torrid pace under Bruce Boudreau. The 6-4-1 record is a bit off from the 15-7-4 pace set in the first 26 games under Boudreau, and it might be a reflection of the higher stakes for which games are being played and the continuing holes in the lineup left by the absences of Chris Clark and Brian Pothier.

The good way to look at this, perhaps, is that the Caps have something of a foothold on the top spot (they “lead” the division based on fewest games played among those tied with them at 60 points), and they have divisional games to come that present the opportunity to build on that.

Up next is the Florida trip – the Panthers and Lightning – and a chance to open a bit of room between themselves and those teams, at least. When the Caps return home next Thursday to take on the Islanders, they could be solidly in first place…

…they could find themselves in fourth place, too.


DaveUKCapsFan said...

Good stuff as ever Peerless. I totally agree that this, in the end was a point won rather than 1 lost.

I've seen elsewhere that it was the worst possible outcome but surely losting in regulation would have been worst.

Plus, the game was picked as the game of the week over here in the UK on the one free-to-air station that shows the NHL so I got to watch it all.

One last point, how is it that the announcers picked the move Perrin was about to use but Kolzig looked like he'd never seen it before. Do goalies not study video for such things? Also (ok so this is more than one last point) if Zilla is having a hard time in shootouts (he has been outstanding in games recently) could Johnny not have been subsituted in towards the end of OT for the shootout?

At least we have our playoff destinty in our own hands. We are not looking for others to fall for us to get in. The division title is there for the taking. I certainly would have been happy with that in September.

The Peerless said...

I was thinking myself last night about the idea of having Johnson replace Kolzig in the shootout.

However, Johnson hasn't played in a shootout this year (Kolzig has manned the net for all five such events). Last year, he was 0-5, giving up even goals on 20 shots (.650 SV). The previous year, he was 3-1, saving 11 of 13 shots against (.846).

If you look at both Kolzig and Johnson in their respective histories in the shootout, there isn't much of a choice here (record, saves/shots, SV):

Kolzig: 7-13, 58/94 (.617)
Johnson: 3-6, 24/33 (.727)

Johnson is better, or atleast has had better results, but even his .727 career save percentage would be 13th among goalies taking at least ten shots this year.

DaveUKCapsFan said...

Plus, Kolzig did win that marathon shootout against the Oilers in DC a few weeks back.

Probably not much to gain by swapping. Maybe the swap would put a few doubts into the minds of the opposing shooters? "Hey, what's THIS guy doing here? Maybe they know something we don't" sorta thing.

More likely the fresh goalie would come in the OT for the last 30 seconds to warm up, then let a weak shot in because he was cold.

I guess this is yet another example of why I'm not a Head Coach in the NHL!

dmg said...

Thank God for that game in hand...

Hooks Orpik said...

dave-- I'm certain that goalies know players tendencies and what moves they usually move. But in the actual shootout if you don't respect the move Perrin does, there's nothing to stop him from flipping the backhand in just as easily....Just because he usually goes forehand doesn't mean he has to.