Friday, March 28, 2008

Maybe it's coincidence...

...maybe not, but since the trading deadline, here are your Caps:

Record: 10-4-0
Goals for/against: 45-31
Power play: 15/58 (25.9%)
Penalty killing: 46/60 (76.7%)
Record in one goal-games: 4-2-0 (including extra-time games)

Sergei Fedorov: 1-7-8, -5 (58.6% on faceoffs)

Matt Cooke: 2-3-5, +1 (in 13 games, compared to 2-5-7, -11, for the guy he replaced -- Matt Pettinger -- in 56 games)

Cristobal Huet: 7-2-0, 2.03, .922 (no games with more than three goals allowed)

Has what transpired at the deadline, perhaps, if only by coincidence, kick-started others to a higher level?...

Alex Ovechkin: 13-12-25, +16 (one hat trick, two game-winning goals)

Viktor Kozlov: 3-6-9, +15 (12 of 14 games on the plus side)

Matt Bradley: 4-2-6, +3 (a game-winning goal and perhaps a higher level of pestitude)

Nicklas Backstrom: 5-11-16, +13 (two game-winners)

Brooks Laich: 7-4-11, -1 (one game-winner, nine games at least 50% on draws)

Olaf Kolzig: 3-2-0, 2.27, .912 (only seven even-strength goals allowed)

Chemistry, a balanced recipe, whatever...we're just sayin'

A TWO-point night: Caps 4 - Lightning 3 (OT)

When a team is down a goal with the clock winding down under five minutes to go in the game, its playoff hopes bleeding into bad ice, and they come back…not just to steal a point, but to win in overtime, it is tempting to say that there is a sense of destiny about that team.

We are a bit more pragmatic than that. The fact is, that team just wasn’t very good.

The Capitals – clearly the better team for long stretches of play last night – clawed their way off the St. Pete Times Forum ice with a 4-3 overtime win over the Tampa Bay Lightning last night. It wasn’t pretty.

There was a curious lack of urgency in the Caps’ play for the first 45-50 minutes, or about the time it took for the Lightning – with nothing to play for but an opportunity to play spoiler – to take a 3-2 lead.

Tampa Bay had a rather simple game plan to deal with the Caps’ firepower, especially its top line…keep things to the outside. If the ESPN shot chart can be believed, they largely succeeded.

More to the point, they kept the top line quiet, mainly by keeping them above the faceoff dots in their shots. Here is the spread of the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Viktor Kozlov:

And what that meant is that other players, in the end – literally, as it would turn out – had to step up.

Sergei Fedorov…watching this guy is like watching an old actor conjure up solid performance after solid performance. He might not have the spellbinding talent of years gone by, but his professionalism and moxie accumulated through years of experience in these situations shines through. While shorthanded, he marked Vincent Lecavalier in the Caps zone, forcing the Lightning center to pull up, then to lose his balance in coughing up the puck. It squirted to Brooks Laich, who fed the puck back to Fedorov gliding through the neutral zone. Fedorov tried to drop the puck for Laich as they entered the Tampa Bay zone, but the puck was poked away. Fedorov collected the puck once more, and with two Lightning defenders paying more attention to him than to Laich, he threaded a pass between them to Laich closing in on the Tampa Bay net. Laich flipped the puck over goalie Karri Ramo’s right pad into the net, and the Caps had a lead, largely due to Fedorov’s virtuosity.

Fedorov also authored the game-tying goal late in the third, as he has on a number of occasions, by winning a key offensive zone faceoff. He did so by beating Tampa Bay center Craig MacDonald with a spin move off the faceoff, giving him a chance to pass the puck, more or less, to Alexander Semin at the top of the right wing circle. Semin fired the puck in one motion past a late-to-react Ramo, and the Caps were breathing again.

Crisotbal Huet…he did not have his best game as a Cap, but he made several top notch saves to keep the Caps in it. He was especially hard on Lecavalier, who had four shots in the contest – three of them of the sort requiring Huet to make sparkling stops. The Lightning center was left on a couple of occasions staring into the ice or gazing into the rafters in frustration.

Brook Laich…sure, he had the goal – his 20th of the season – and he had an assist, too, but he was also 7-for-11 in the faceoff circle and had an otherwise pretty solid game.

Matt Bradley…had a goal that was odd, to say the least, mostly because of how much time and space he was accorded in getting it. Tom Poti edged down the left wing side and let a shot go. It hit a Lightning stick and popped into the air. Bradley, standing with his back to the net at the edge of the left wing faceoff circle, reached up, caught the puck and dropped it at his feet, stepped out to collect it on his stick, spun, and fired it past Ramo. He could have used some help, though, in his post-goal celebration…he looked as if he was struggling to extract his stick from his posterior regions…ouch.

Tomas Fleischmann…well, if David Steckel is out (4-2-6, +4, in six games against Tampa Bay this year), then Fleischmann will do as a Lightning-killer. Fleischmann’s game-winner in overtime put him at 4-1-5, +1, in seven games against the Lightning this year. If the Caps should find a way to finish in the top-eight, his backing-up, falling-down, hurry-up-and-put-the-puck-on-my-stick-Brooks goal at 2:27 of the extra frame will be one of the highlights. Good thing, too…in the 60-minute portion of the game, he wasn’t making a case for being a top-six forward.

Nicklas Backstrom…he might not have had a productive night on the scoresheet, but he was spotless in the circle, winning all five draws. Part of the trick over a long season is in doing the other, little things, when the goals and assists aren’t coming. Backstrom does that as well as anyone could expect for one so young. It’s even more amazing in that Backstrom has now played more than 30 more regular season games than in any of his previous seasons.

In case you were wondering, Alex Ovechkin played every second of Caps power play time last night – all 4:05.

On the other side, it’s no fluke that the Halpern-Ouellet-Darche line has been the most productive one lately for the Lightning. They were the best the Lightning had to offer last night.

Did Martin St. Louis dress last night? It was perhaps the quietest performance by the diminutive one in his career against the Caps…one shot, -1 in 23:39.

Oh, and nothing beats watching John Tortorella blow a gasket yapping at the referees from the bench (especially when, in fact, he had a point…Mike Green didn’t bust a gut to retrieve a puck that was called icing, which led to the Caps tying goal off the ensuing faceoff). Small consolation, but we suspect the Florida Panthers might smile at the thought, too.

Dan Boyle…we noted yesterday his getting whacked in the head by a teammate’s skate in practice. We didn’t know it would be prelude. On the game winner by Fleischmann, Boyle was sliced in the neck by Mike Green’s skate. It might have been worse – much worse – had Green’s skate not first grazed Boyle’s sternum. Boyle things up in tidy fashion, with respect to his own season, but perhaps that of his team as well…"Just a miserable year. What else can happen?"

We’re pretty much down to nine teams jockeying for eight spots. Buffalo – in tenth – would have to make up five points with five games to play…not good arithmetic. The Caps are that ninth team, still two points out of a playoff spot. But the possibilities multiplied with the win last night. The Caps find themselves only two points behind three other teams. All of those teams – Carolina, Philadelphia, and Boston – have a game in hand on the Caps. But the thing is, the Caps continuing to win puts added pressure on those teams to win that game in hand, and with multiple teams in that situation, the chances that all of them will succeed diminish.

The Caps have been in “playoff elimination” mode for a couple of weeks now. As sphincter-tightening as such situations are, there is no better preparation for what lies ahead, if they could just get into the top-eight. If the Caps were a team no one might have wanted to play in the first round in the first place, they are that much tougher for having been hardened in the grind of this road trip, one on which they are now 4-1-0. There is one more to go on this swing, and while we’d like to see the Caps play better than they have in the last two games – both settled in extra time – we’re also pragmatic in another sense…

Two points is two points.