Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A no-point night: Wild 4 - Caps 3

67.2 Minor Penalty – Player - A player shall be permitted to catch the puck out of the air but must immediately place it or knock it down to the ice. If he catches it and skates with it, either to avoid a check or to gain a territorial advantage over his opponent, a minor penalty shall be assessed for “closing his hand on the puck”.

A minor penalty shall be imposed on a player who, while play is in progress, picks up the puck off the ice with his hand.

Every Caps fan watching this evening’s 4-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild will have this rule memorized by morning. A penalty that doesn’t get called twice in a month was called on the Caps twice in the space of 27 seconds in the third period, and it led to the Wild scoring the third of their four goals en route to the win (Marek Zidlicky was called for this earlier in the game for the Wild).

They were two penalties out of six called on the Caps, five of which were what we might refer to as “passive” penalties – the kind teams playing tired and hurt seem to take (for the record: two holding, a tripping, and the two “closing hand on the puck” calls).

The story in this one, as much as the loss, was the short bench the Caps used. In addition to Mike Green, Alexander Semin, and Sergei Fedorov missing this one, the Caps had four players who skated fewer than ten shifts...

Boyd Gordon lasted five shifts (3:41). He had won five of six draws to that point. He apparently had back spasms.

Jeff Schultz skated three shifts (3:09) before leaving with what appears to be a broken finger. He had a pair of blocked shots.

Donald Brashear was on the ice for nine shifts – not unusual in the normal course of events.

Chris Clark skated eight shifts – only one in the third period (a total of 7:27) – and had a blank score sheet save for one hit. We keep thinking that there just has to be something not right with Clark, but whatever the case, he is having a devil of a time out there in what we suspect is about the most frustrating stretch of his career.

That left things up to Tom Poti to log almost 29 minutes on the blue line and Alex Ovechkin to skate almost 26 minutes. Even Brooks Laich and Milan Jurcina logged more than 20 minutes. For Laich it was only the third time he topped 20 minutes this year, and his 21:03 was the most time he’s spent on the ice so far. For Jurcina, his 21:25 was his top time-on-ice mark this year, 3:36 longer than his previous high.

And with all of that, if there is a silver lining in this one, it is that the Caps didn’t mail the last dozen minutes in the way they could have after the Wild took a 4-0 lead. Did the Wild sit back a bit and play an uncharacteristic prevent defense? Yes, they did. But the Caps took advantage, and one had to like the effort by Eric Fehr to outwork Kim Johnsson for the puck along the boards, Fehr’s effort to ward off Johnsson’s attempts to impede his progress down the wing, and his finding Matt Bradley coming down the middle for a goal. And there was Bradley sticking with it, taking a second whack at the puck while being upended by Nick Schultz in front of goalie Niklas Backstrom.

One also had to like the effort of Alex Ovechkin, despite wearing Wild defenders like a shawl for most of the night. Six shots (16 attempts), a goal, four hits, and three blocked shots (including one scary moment when he took a shot that looked like it hit him flush just above the boot of his skate) made for a very full evening. Frustrating as the Wild could be, he kept plugging.

It set a tone for the Caps in the last dozen minutes that allowed them to get the goal from Ovechkin, who treated the Wild fans to his signature move of skating down the wing, backing up the defenseman, then using him as a screen to snap a wrist shot past the late-reacting goalie. And finally, Nicklas Backstrom corralled a puck that deflected off a Wild player, then fired the puck past the other Backstrom before he could get to the near post.

In the end, though, it was a sour ending to a road trip that is thankfully over. And for this one, yours truly is going to take the blame. That’s right, the Caps lost this one because we picked that clutter-bucker Cal Clutterbuck as the Wild player to ponder. We thought he’d be a player to watch, mostly for his hitting. He didn’t disappoint in that regard, being credited with four hits in a little over ten minutes of ice time. What we didn’t think he’d do is score…and then he gets two goals, his first points in the NHL. Maybe we should have picked Marian Gaborik, instead.

The problem, though, is once more giving up a bunch of goals in a road game. Look, Minnesota has a fine system for keeping goals out of their own net, but they have shown almost no capacity to fill the net at the other end. Coming into this game they had scored as many as four goals in a game once in their previous 15 games. If the Caps could reduce their league worst 4.00 goals-against average on the road, this would be the team against which they could do it. You could say (and the guys on Versus covering the game did) that this was the fourth game for the Caps in six nights, but the Wild isn't a team that should be scoring four goals against the Caps.

The difficulties on the road impress us as a lack of maturity. Consider that the Caps have allowed only 15 goals in eight home games, yet have allowed 52 in 13 road games. What is killing them is taking penalties, and it did so again tonight. With the two power play goals allowed tonight, the Caps have given up a league-high 17 power play goals (tied with Nashville) away from Verizon Center. They’ve only allowed six in eight home games. It just seems as though it’s a reflection of a young team that loses focus, patience, and poise in some situations in hostile rinks, leading them to take untimely penalties, then failing to work things out in the two minutes they spend the man down. Tonight, four of the six minor penalties taken by the Caps were taken by defensemen, and with a group already depleted by the absence of Mike Green, and injuries to Jeff Schultz and later to John Erskine, it was just that much more to overcome.

At the other end, the Wild defensemen were effective at both ends. The last dozen minutes notwithstanding, they helped to constantly frustrate the Caps in entering the offensive zone. At the other end, they had a combined 12 shots and went 1-4-5, +1. The Caps blueliners had a total of four shots on goal and one assist.

We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. The Caps are going to have to play better on the road than they have. Only four teams in the East have fewer road wins than do the Caps (four), and those teams occupy the bottom four spots in the Eastern Conference standings. And, their inability to stop opponents from scoring in these road games has now left the Caps with the second highest number of goals allowed in the Eastern Conference (only Toronto has allowed more road goals). The good news in this is that the Caps have played 13 road games, compared to eight at Verizon Center. But the Caps aren’t going to go 40-0-1 at home, either (much as we’re likely to prognosticate that result).

This is a good team that will only become a great one when they can be as difficult for opponents to play when they host the Caps as when they visit them at Verizon Center. The Caps are not yet that team. Just as the Caps had to grow in adversity last year to discover that they were a good team, perhaps the next 61 games will be as valuable a learning experience in terms of becoming road warriors.
This was the kind of game that will have us reaching to grab a cold one...
...that is, unless Chris Ciamaga is going to whistle us for closing our hand on a bottle.

1 comment:

dougeb said...

A really superb report Peerless.