Monday, April 14, 2008

Flyers 2 - Caps 0...we're tied, 1-1

OK, so 16-0 was a stretch.

The Caps lost, 2-0, yesterday to the Philadelphia Flyers to even the series at a game apiece. The series moves to Philadelphia for games 3 and 4 Tuesday and Thursday.

It still seems that there are games when the Caps look like they’re trying to cut corners, and this looked like one of them. For all intents and purposes, the game was decided in the first period, specifically when the Caps failed to put bodies in front of Flyer goaltender Martin Biron on four power plays that yielded five shots and no goals.

The Caps, meanwhile, played too loose on defense, allowing R.J. Umberger to split the seam at the Capitals blue line and take a long pass from Braydon Coburn so that he could break in alone and beat Cristobal Huet. Then, Mike Green was taken off the puck and off his feet as he was moving up ice, creating a two-on-one the other way for Mike Knuble and Jeff Carter on Shaone Morrisonn. Huet made the initial save on the Knuble shot, but Carter followed up for the goal that would end the scoring.

The Caps did not play well, but neither did they play so poorly. Huet, who gave up two goals on the Flyers first eight shots, stopped the last 33. Alex Ovechkin, who was dormant for long stretches of Game 1, had five shots, attempted six others, and had five hits. The second line – Matt Cooke in particular – played in a bit of bad luck as Biron saved his best work for that line in turning away chances.

If there was a big difference between this game and game 1, it was possession. The Caps tilted the rink steeply toward the Flyer end in game 1. In this game, especially as it wore on, the reverse was true. Part of that was losing the battles in the circles. The Caps were 58 percent on draws in game 1, 44 percent yesterday. Sergei Fedorov was the player most victimized in the reversal, going 55 percent in game 1, 32 percent yesterday.

Another part of it was lack of follow up. The Caps enjoyed a nice flurry in the first period right after the Flyer’s first goal in the first period with Boyd Gordon and Brooks Laich taking turns on Biron, which ended in a penalty to the Flyers. And then, immediately thereafter, a flurry from Alexander Semin, Ovechkin, and Nicklas Backstrom. However, that was more or less it, as the Caps got pushed to the outside...

One thing that occurs to us looking at the numbers is this…of the 24 shots, 16 came from the top two lines of forwards. That left eight shots for 12 other skaters. No other forward had more than one (and none of those in the second period as the Caps were trying to close the two-goal gap). The defensemen had a total of four. They were taken out of the game in the offensive end of the ice. The Flyers aren't getting to an Alex Ovechkin, but they are making guys like Mike Green and Tomas Fleischmann pay a price. Although Biron played well, he was given too much time off between facing the top scoring lines. Even if the third and fourth lines, and defensemen don’t score – they’re not expected to put up big point numbers – they are going to have to make Biron work a little harder, to tenderize him just a bit for the big guys to do their work.

Series take on a personality, eventually, but so far that has not happened. What does seem to be coming into focus, though, is that this series is going to turn on how well Washington plays, specifically on how much energy and pressure they can put on Biron. When Washington played well – the first ten minutes of the first two periods and the third period of Friday – they dominated the Flyers. When their energy is off, or they are not paying a price in front, or cutting corners (lack of a forecheck, for example), they are letting the Flyers back into the game.

This is best to four, not best to one (you’ll get sick of seeing that in these spaces, if you’re not already), and the series is 1-1. Wholesale changes are not needed, but unleashing the fury – as the saying goes – for 60 minutes is. If there are to be any changes between now and Tuesday, we’re wondering if Tomas Fleischmann sits in favor of Eric Fehr (Fleischmann looks overmatched physically in this series). And an attitude adjustment in their own zone is in order as Huet is spending too much time picking Flyers off his sweater. If the Caps (not to mention the officials) allow the Flyers to jostle Huet with impunity, it will be difficult to get to four.

The eight-game winning streak is over. Now, they have to stop the bleeding, and at this time of year, losing consecutive games would constitute the sort of bleeding to be avoided. They might have to bleed in more conventional ways to do so. Much will be (and is being) made about the Flyers’ orneriness in this series. The Caps have actually outhit the Flyers, 72-61, in the two games. But here is another way to think of that…are the Caps taking a hit to make a play? They were not doing that on the power play yesterday (and for a fair portion of even-strength play), preferring the artistic to the functional. The Caps won both games in Philly this year; it should not be an intimidating experience, much as the fans and players will try to make it one.