Monday, April 21, 2008

Game Six: Caps 4 - Flyers 2

The most satisfying sound in sports for a team on the road has to be the sound of the home crowd booing the home team in the waning moments of a game lost.

And that was the sound wafting through Wachovia Center in Philadelphia as the Caps scored four unanswered goals in a 4-2 win over the Flyers tonight, forcing a Game 7 at Verizon Center tomorrow night.

When you’ve been playing with what amounts to an “elimination” mind set for the better part of the past two months, you understand that even games are not sprints, but marathons. And falling behind, 2-0, to the Flyers might have been cause for concern, but not panic.

The Flyers got to that 2-0 lead on the strength of two power plays – the first two power plays the Flyers enjoyed in this game. But in that were the seeds of the Flyers’ undoing in this game…the lack of a five-on-five game. And there was a subtle, if distinct trend in this game that does not bode well for the Flyers. The Caps came out tentative – that much was clear. But as the game progressed, and they got their legs under them, they exerted a lot more pressure on the Flyer offense. Note this progression of shots, by period. From the first to the third period, the Flyers were pushed further away from the Caps’ net in their shots.

first period

second period

third period

Working from the inside out allowed the Caps to crawl back into the game, starting with one of the prettiest passing plays executed by a Capitals team in recent memory. Brooks Laich skated over the Flyer line, leaving the puck on his right for Alexander Semin. With the Flyer defense backing in and Laich driving the net, Semin and Nicklas Backstrom passed back and forth, and then back and forth once more, with Backstrom snapping the puck past goalie Martin Biron to get the Caps back in it.

What should not be lost in the play was the breakout pass out of the corner from the defenseman to Laich skating out of the Caps’ zone. That pass came from Steve Eminger.

The Caps tied it with less than two minutes in the period on what amounted to a misplay by goaltender Biron. At the end of an extended period of continuous play (almost five minutes of game time), John Erskine let fly with a shot from the left point. Biron got his catching glove on the puck, but could not squeeze it to stop play. It popped loose, and Semin, steaming across the slot, picked up the puck and rifled it top shelf with 1:57 to go in the second to tie the game.

photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

That set the stage for Alex Ovechkin to make his presence felt on the scoresheet. Ovechkin was oddly dormant in this game, with one good scoring chance on his stick in two periods (among five shots on goal), and no hits. But with just under three minutes gone in the third, Kimmo Timonen shot the puck toward the Capitals’ net. Ovechkin got the shaft of his stick on the shot, deflecting the puck to Viktor Kozlov just inside the Stanley Cup playoffs logo in the Capitals’ zone. Ovechkin broke immediately the other way on deflecting the shot and was behind Timonen, in perfect position to take a tape-to-tape lead pass from Kozlov. Ovechkin skated in, twitched his left leg, slid the puck to his forehand, and ripped the puck over a sprawled Biron and under the crossbar to give the Caps the lead.

photo: Tom Mihalek/AP

It was Ovechkin one more time eight minutes later to provide the insurance goal (or the most dangerous lead in hockey, depending on your perspective). With the Flyers shorthanded on a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty, Sergei Fedorov skated into the offensive zone and down the right wing boards. Braydon Coburn intercepted Fedorov and knocked the puck away, but could not clear it out of the zone. Brooks Laich followed in, picked up the puck, and sent a cross-ice pass to Ovechkin just inside the left wing circle for a one-timer that Biron could only wave at.

From there it was a case of playing smart to protect a lead, not play prevent defense. They managed to limit the Flyers to only five more shots in the 1ast 9:19 of the game following Ovechkin’s second goal, none after the Flyers pulled Biron for an extra attacker in the last minute.

It would be tempting to say that a number of Capitals had their best game of the series, but we don’t think that was the case...

John Erskine (who still frightens us and small children whenever he has the puck on his stick) is an exception. He had five hits, an assist and was plus-three in what looked to be his best game of this series. He also played with a fair amount of discipline when he might have otherwise been goaded into taking penalties.

However, while Ovechkin had the game-winner and the insurance goal, you might say that third period was his best period of the series…it was not his best game (we thought game one was his best, so far). But if that third period is a harbinger of what is to unfold tomorrow night, the Flyers will have their work cut out for them.

Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin might not have had their best games of the series, but they certainly do look comfortable playing with one another. That is an important ingredient to take some pressure off the top line and put more pressure on a Flyer defense that is starting to look leg-weary.

Brooks Laich had two assists, was plus-two, and had six shots on goal. He looks pretty comfortable on the Capitals’ power play at the moment and is starting to show a rather deft passing touch (he has five assists in his last four games)…but he was on the ice for those two Flyer power play goals.

Steve Eminger might not be a Capital come September (we’re wishing he’d still be here), but he’s more than made a case for getting playing time now. More than 17 minutes of ice time, that nice breakout pass to Laich to start the rush on the Backstrom goal, plus-three.

On the other side of the ice, though, it was really a rough night for the Flyers’ big guys…

Daniel Briere had a goal, but he also ended up -3 on the night and did not record a shot on goal in the third period (he had two shots for the game). He did win 13 of 19 draws and was credited with two hits…we’re still scratching our head over just what it was he hit.

Vaclav Prospal was minus-three, had three giveaways, and was called out indirectly by Flyers’ coach John Stevens in the post game for taking “a lazy hooking penalty.”

Scott Hartnell was -3, had no shots on goal

Scottie Upshall got 13 minutes of playing time…just enough to be on the early nominee list for a Razzie in the “worst actor” category for his “back…and to the left” routine at the end of the second period.

And frankly, the game probably turned on an “E-6” play by Martin Biron, who failed to glove the puck on a drive by John Erskine. The ensuing goal by Alexander Semin brought any momentum the Flyers had to a screeching halt.

Games seven are strange things. We are not a fan of an exciting finish, despite what you might have read. We’d just as soon the Caps put up four in the first and end the competitive portion of the evening quickly. We don’t really see that happening, though…

So hang on, Caps fans…and bring ear plugs.