Thursday, March 06, 2008

A TWO-point night: Caps 3 - Sabres 1

Another demon dealt with.

The Caps defeated the Buffalo Sabres last night, 3-1, for their fourth win in five games. In doing so, they continued a recent trend in dealing with demons – beating Martin Brodeur (a rarity in recent years), beating the Boston Bruins (just about as rare), and last night the Sabres (a team that has used the Caps as its personal scrimmage partner in the first three games this year).

And again, the star of the show was Alex Ovechkin – two goals (numbers 53 and 54 on the year), five hits, plus-3 in 20 minutes of work. But he certainly had ample help…

Nicklas Backstrom held onto his rookie scoring lead with a goal and an assist, won seven of 11 draws, and was plus-3 himself.

Viktor Kozlov chipped in a pair of assists and finished plus-3 with his other two linemates.

Olaf Kolzig stopped 27 of 28 shots, including 13 in the third period, five of those in the last three minutes of the game.

John Erskine made a save of his own on a puck that squirted through Kolzig’s pads near the 14 minute mark of the first period. Erskine swept the puck out of the crease just as it was trickling toward the goal line.

And with a team as balanced as is Buffalo, there needs to be shared responsibility on defense. It can’t be just a checking line or a top pair matched against the other guys’ top line. Everyone has to pitch in. The Caps got that last night, as no player finished on the minus side of the ledger. Buffalo could manage only a power play goal for the evening. It was made more impressive by the fact that the Caps played at even or shorthanded strength for 59:41 of the game. They had a grand total of 19 seconds of power play time of their own (Buffalo had 9:28).

Speaking of time, Shaone Morrisonn led the team in ice time (25:20) and had almost six minutes of penalty killing time. He was on the ice for the Pominville power play goal (and without that pppledge ppppin!!!), but otherwise had a solid evening.

If there was a negative to be found, it was in the five minor penalties whistled on the Caps. All of them were of the “obstruction” sort of penalty – two hooking calls, two interference calls, and a tripping penalty. Four of them were called on defensemen (Jeff Schultz twice, Mike Green, and Tom Poti). Fortunately for the Caps, Green gets no penalty killing time (he averages 15 seconds of shorthanded time this year). However, Poti and Schultz are among the ice time leaders for this team on the PK, and having them off could have resulted in more damage than the one-for-five result on the Sabre power play.

But all’s well that ends well, as the saying goes. And it certainly ended well for the Caps, using the win to close within two points of eighth-place Philadelphia (the Flyers hold a game-in-hand) and to maintain the three point deficit to Southeast-leading Carolina (the Caps hold a game-in-hand).

If Ovechkin was the first-paragraph of last night’s story, the next might be the subtle evolution of Nicklas Backstrom’s game. And by that, we mean confidence to go with the 20-year-old’s considerable skill. Known as a deft passer, he’s become more assertive in shooting the puck. Last night, in addition to scoring the game-winning goal, he had three shots on goal. It’s part of a trend. If one looks at his first 20 games, he took a total of 21 shots (1.1/game), scoring one goal. However, in his last 20 games, he has 47 shots (2.4/game) with two goals, scored in each of the last two games. While his shooting percentage hasn’t necessarily improved, shooting creates opportunities with the potential for rebounds or otherwise occupying the defense and goaltender to open avenues for teammates. One could argue that Backstrom himself is benefitting from the opportunities he’s getting when Ovechkin is shooting and opening up the ice, but that’s merely the other side of the same coin. Backstrom is taking advantage by asserting himself in those situations.

Outside the numbers, we’ve gotten used to singing and hearing the praises of Ovechkin and his plucky band of Capitals from local media and bloggers, but this quote is different…

“He’s so good for the game. His energy is so good for the game. He’s having so much fun playing the game. When Pat [Kaleta] scored the other night, it puts a smile on your face. It’s what the game is all about. There’s not a lot of fun moments in the game. [Ovechkin] makes it fun almost shift in, shift out. And he’s not a fun guy to play against. When he hits you, he hurts you. What an element to have as a player.”

That was Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff, after his team's loss. Then there was this…

The more Ruff talked Wednesday, the more obvious it became that Ovechkin is the best player of his generation. Yes, that includes Sidney Crosby. The Penguins superstar is the face of the NHL, but Ovechkin is the guy coaches want on their teams because the Great Eight dominates in so many ways.

You could scour NHL history books and not find another player quite like him. You need a scorer? Ovechkin leads the league with 54 goals and 92 points in 68 games. You need a leader? The Capitals would be long gone from playoff contention without his nine winners. You want a banger? Ovechkin is 6- foot-2, 217 pounds, plays 6-6, 260, and works the corners like a hot dog vendor. He led both teams with five hits
Wednesday night.

That comes from the game story in this morning’s Buffalo News, penned by Bucky Gleason.

But we’ll leave it to Ovechkin to interpret the recent turn of events…

"The last two years, we didn't play for something...We started thinking about vacation. It's more interesting when you play for something."

Interesting, indeed.

1 comment:

dave uk caps fan said...

"works the corners like a hot dog vendor"