Sunday, December 28, 2008

A TWO-point night: Caps 4 - Maple Leafs 1


That seems the best word to describe the performance of the Capitals tonight as they defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs, 4-1, at Verizon Center on Mike Gartner Night.

It could have been worse, the word to describe it might have been “snake-bit.” That’s what it looked like might be in store for the Caps as they shot, shot again, and shot some more at Vesa Toskala over the first half of the game. At the 11:11 mark, the Caps had “out-attempted” the Leafs 21-5 (shots, shots blocked, and misses). After one period, it was 33-14 in attempts, and the Caps had nothing to show for it. This wasn't the way to be commemorating the retirement of Gartner's #11.

Making things worse, it was the Leafs who drew first blood in the first period. Mikhail Grabovski made the play by using his speed down the left wing to get a positional advantage before cutting to his right across the offensive zone and past David Steckel to get in deep. He sent the puck in front, where it pinballed off of two players before landing on the tape of Niklas Hagman’s stick. All that was left for Hagman to do was wrist it past a screened Jose Theodore for the first goal. It was only the 13th time in 36 games that the Leafs scored first.

The first half of the second period looked a lot like the first – the Caps clearly looked like the better team, generated more chances, generated better chances, but couldn’t find the back of the Toronto net. By the time the game reached its 33rd minute, the Caps had out-attempted Toronto 48-31. But in that 33rd minute, Brooks Laich – skating on a power play – took a pass from Nicklas Backstrom and stepped out from the right wing corner with the puck. With a clear path he skated unimpeded to the front of the Toronto net where he slipped the puck through Toskala on a shot that Toskala probably should have stopped. It was all the Caps could get in the second period, though, until…

Alex Ovechkin took the ice with 35 seconds left in the period. He then proceeded to kabong a pair of Maple Leafs, rang one shot off the post, and then seven seconds after ringing the chimes fired a wrist shot past Ian White’s stick and through goalie Vesa Toskala at the 19:50 mark to give the Caps the lead. It was all done in the space of 25 seconds. Nice shift.

It might have been the kind of momentum changer that could have led to a fast start in the third period that would have ended the competitive portion of the game, especially against a team that is defense-challenged, such as the Maple Leafs. You’ll note several “conditional” terms in that last sentence – might, could, would. That’s because the Caps didn’t attempt their first shot until the 6:47 mark. They had only two shots on goal in the first ten minutes. It was a case of “prevent defense,” and the Leafs were taking advantage by putting more offensive pressure on the Caps. The trouble for the Maple Leafs was, they were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, or at least on net. Over a six minute stretch mid-way through the period, their shot attempts looked like this:

Miss (Alexei Ponikarovsky)
Blocked (Hagman)
Miss (Hagman)
Shot (Hagman)
Miss (Grabovski)
Shot (Jason Blake)
Miss (Jeremy Williams)
Miss (Dominic Moore)

The “miss” by Hagman was actually a shot at an open net from just a few feet away that he bunted off the post. His problem was that being a left-handed shot at the right post, he had a somewhat tougher angle from which to shoot, but that’s a goal that should have been scored. It seemed fitting that it would be a whiff at the other end – an attempt by Toskala to move the puck out of his crease – that would lead to the insurance goal. Eric Fehr picked up a loose puck along the boards in front of the Capitals’ bench. He skated through the neutral zone and crossed to the left side before the puck was poked off his stick at the Leafs’ line. Laich picked it up and sent it in behind the Leafs’ net. Fehr pressured Tomas Kaberle into sending the puck in front blindly, where it was intercepted by Laich going to the net. Laich knifed across the crease and after taking a couple of whacks at it – Toskala missing on a chance to move the puck away from harm or to cover it up – sent it past Toskala.

All that was left was an empty netter from Ovechkin – his 25th of the season – to bring him within one of league goal-scoring leader Jeff Carter of the Flyers. You get the feeling it is only a matter of time (say, New Years Day?) before order in the universe is restored. Some other stuff...

- Milan Jurcina attempted four shots in the first 6:12 of the game. All of them were blocked. We're also betting that all of them hurt like hell.

- It is amazing that Ovechkin is ranked fourth in the league in hits. Where he plays his home games is killing him on this stat. He was credited with no hits in this game – none.

- Backstrom had two more assists tonight. He is now fifth in the league in that statistic. But what is more significant is that he now has 13 helpers in his last nine games.

- Who led the Caps in ice time?... Karl Alzner (22:39). That’s 12 of 16 games with more than 20 minutes of ice time. Three shots, four blocks, plus-1 (he’s only had four games on the minus side of the ledger). He’s staying.

- The Caps are fourth in the league in goals scored in the first period, but this was the fourth straight in which they failed to score in the opening frame. The Caps have allowed five goals in those four games, one of them to Toronto tonight.

- Is Matt Bradley the latest Cap to go down to injury? He was sent awkwardly and heavily into the boards late in the third period and did not look to be completely aware of his surroundings as he was being helped off.

- The only player in the league born in the Bahamas played in this one. That would be Andre Deveaux of the Leafs.

- Nikolai Kulemin led the Leafs in shots on goal. If you responded by asking, “who?”, you are probably not alone.

- Hey… don’t look now, but Theodore has stopped 64 of the last 68 shots he’s faced in eight-plus periods of hockey (including 23 of 24 tonight). Consistency has to start somewhere… maybe this is “somewhere.”

- The Leafs obtained Lee Stempniak from the St. Louis Blues for Alexander Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo on November 24th. Uh… why? He came into this game 2-5-7 in 15 games with the Leafs. Tonight he was scoreless, played less than 15 minutes (very quietly…no hits, no giveaways, no takeaways, no blocked shots…), and took a penalty.

- The Caps are now 15-1-1 at home (only San Jose has more wins at home) after winning their sixth straight game on the Verizon Center gravel pit.

It was a game that was closer than the final score indicated and closer than it really should have been. Toronto suffers from a weak defense and poor goaltending, and they don’t make up for it with an especially dynamic offense. Plus, their leading scorer – Matt Stajan – was out. But like we said at the top, this was a “workmanlike” performance that earned two points in the end, giving the Caps a ten-point lead in the Southeast Division and the fourth-best point total in the league. Good job, boys.

1 comment:

TJ said...

re: Bradley

You wrote "He was sent akwardly..." That probably ought to read "He sent himself akwardly..."

Also - on hits. This isn't the first time someone has mentioned the arena the team was in as a factor in how many hits the team was credited with (or giveaways or takeaways) - I think JP's mentioned it a few times. What's the deal? Is there an official definition of what constitutes a hit for scoring purposes? It doesn't seem to me to be something terribly subjective....