Monday, March 09, 2009

A ONE-point afternoon: Penguins 4 - Caps 3 (OT/Gimmick)

We will stipulate that any loss to the Penguins is anathema to Caps fans – at Verizon Center, in Mellon Arena, on a pond, in a pickup game, on NHL2009.


But there is a bigger picture to consider. There are no shootouts in playoff hockey, and now that we’re past the trading deadline, that’s the picture to consider. Yesterday’s 4-3 Gimmick loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins will no doubt leave Caps fans with a bad taste in their mouths (the taste of a season sweep having that of honey), and Penguins fans can gloat over one more Crosby-Over-Vechkin result. But when a team has lost three in a row at home, and has not come about those results by accident, then coming out of the slump is of paramount importance.

And anyone who has been anything more than a casual observer of sports knows that the end of a slump is often signaled more playing well than getting the desired result. And despite the result yesterday, the Caps played a very good hockey game, but for three mistakes on defense.

Let’s look at those. The Penguins got on the board first on what amounted to two misjudgments by Caps defensemen. Tom Poti made the first, stepping up on Chris Kunitz at the red line near the benches. Kunitz slid the puck ahead to Bill Guerin, who was now with Sidney Crosby on a two-on-one, Jeff Schultz back. The general thought there is to play the pass and let the goalie focus on the puck carrier. Instead, Schultz backed in, looking to depend more on his reach to try to distract Guerin, but he needed about another foot of reach to be able to poke the puck away. The result was that the defenseman played neither the shot, nor the pass, and Guerin passed to Crosby for the easy tap-in.

The Caps tied the score on a truly boneheaded move by defenseman Kris Letang (who the more we see, the more we think, “nope, he’s not the eventual replacement for Sergei Gonchar” – or maybe he is…he seems to make the same kinds of head-slapping bonehead plays Gonchar has often made in his career). Nicklas Backstrom was doing an “Avery” in front, harassing goalie Marc-Andre Fleury at the top of the crease while marking Letang behind the Penguin net. Letang tried to send the puck hard up the middle, and the only middle he succeeded in hitting was Backstrom’s. The puck lying at his feet, Backstrom backhanded it to Alexander Semin cutting to the net. Semin got Fleury down and leaning one way, then roofed the puck over his stick to tie the game. The mistakes were even.

The Penguins got their second goal on what amounted to a classic, standard hockey play on the power play. They moved it around the top of the zone, and Guerin – who is playing early dividends since the trade – was creating a ruckus in front. It got to where goalie Jose Theodore was engaged in trying to move him out of the way, and that was sufficient distraction to allow a slapper by Sergei Gonchar to find the back of the net. Those kinds of plays happen – although never, it seems, on a Caps power play – so we’ll chalk that up to Penguin performance rather than a lack of it on the Caps side.

We have more concern with the third goal for Pittsburgh, which was the product of the third error by a defenseman. Sidney Crosby received the puck at the Caps blue line and slid it to the middle for Bill Guerin, who was skating into the zone one-on-two, Eric Fehr and Shaone Morrisonn back. Guerin, not known for his happy dance moves, pulled the puck inside, and Morrisonn, oddly enough, stepped outside, as if to give Guerin a free shot at Jose Theodore. Guerin, who is known for having a good shot, picked the far corner of the net to give the Penguins a 3-1 lead.

The best predictor of wins in this league is a lead at the second intermission. No team in the NHL has lower than a .600 winning percentage when leading after two, and the team in last place in that measure – Toronto – has yet to lose a game in regulation when leading after two periods (14-0-8). At 3-1, one would have to have thought the Capitals were toast.

But the Caps started the third period with a power play. It didn’t take long to halve the lead, a product of the Caps’ own classic, standard hockey play. After a shot was blocked in front, the puck came back to Mike Green on the right point, who sent it rink-wide to Alex Ovechkin. Maxime Talbot could not rotate quickly enough to get into Ovechkin’s shooting lane, and Ovechkin wristed one past Fleury to halve the lead.

Then, the Caps took advantage of a line change by the Penguins. David Steckel battled with a pair of Penguins behind the Caps net. One of them – Guerin – ended up tangled with Mike Green, allowing Steckel to curl away with the puck. From the Capitals’ goal line he sent the puck up the middle to Brooks Laich breaking behind the Penguins trying to get onto the ice. Laich almost let the puck get away ahead of him, but corralled it, then faked five-hole before flipping it over Fleury’s right pad to tie the game 1:18 into the period.

After that, it was in the hands of the goalies, and both Theodore and Fleury kept their teams in it without allowing a goal over the remainder of regulation and the overtime. Things were left to the Gimmick, and since we write about hockey, not Gimmicks, we’ll leave that for others to cover.

One would not be able to condone, but could understand, the Caps skating through the motions in the third period. After winning one of the previous 16 periods of hockey they played and down, 3-1, they could have curled up and waited for the engines to spin on their flight out of town. That they didn’t is perhaps the best evidence that they are emerging from their recent funk.

In fact, because of the manner in which Pittsburgh has come out of their own funk recently, one might conclude that the Caps played their game more than Pittsburgh played theirs. Here is why…

- The 22 shots recorded by Pittsburgh in 65 minutes of play was the fewest they’ve had in ten games under Dan Bylsma. For a team with as much talent at the top of the roster as the Penguins, and for Bylsma’s philosophy of being aggressive on offense, it was a remarkable number. More to the point, the Penguins had only 41 attempted shots.

- The Caps, themselves a team rooted in puck possession, won 38 of 67 draws. Most notably, Nicklas Backstrom actually looked as if he was paying attention in the circle, fighting for draws, tying guys up, and working for the puck. He won 11 of 21, and many of his losses were the product, not of his inability to win the puck, but of teammates not supporting the effort when he was tying guys up.

- It was, by Verizon Center scoring standards, a big hitting game. There were 64 hits in all. You can tell things are shifting into playoff mode when Jeff Schultz is credited with three. More on him later.

- The Caps had only 18 turnovers – nine giveaways and nine Pittsburgh takeaways (the Penguins had 28).

- Mike Green looked more engaged in this one than he has in the last several games. Since he set the goal-scoring record, his game seemed to have gone into a shell. He was coming out of that yesterday, even once jumping into the hole for his signature weak side pinch. Fleury made a fine shoulder save as Green was trying to pick the near corner on the play.

- Evgeni Malkin had what charitably might be called a “difficult” day. He had three shots on goal, two of which were passes served on a platter to the blade of his stick that he should have buried.

- The Caps had only ten missed shots. For Team Misfire, that could be an important number going forward. Fleury had his best game, by far, in the season series in this one, making all the saves he should and a few he shouldn’t have. Not all goalies will be so fortunate (especially given the state of goaltending in the Southeast, where most of the Caps’ remaining games reside).

- It would be hard to say any Cap had a truly bad game, even Jeff Schultz. No one is going to want to get on the road more than this guy. The home fans just seem not to have warmed up to the guy. It was getting tiresome yesterday listening to fans in full-throated roar screaming at him to get off the ice, or attributing to him mistakes that were not of his making (like the first Penguin goal). For good or ill, he is now the lightning rod for everything that goes wrong for the Caps, and it does seem to have affected his game. This is unfortunate, because for all the grief he takes, he might be the one defenseman on this team who makes the best first pass in his own zone, perhaps second only to Tom Poti.

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are very different sorts of players, but they are alike in important attributes. One of them – and it might have been the difference here – is that when they get feeling all happy about themselves early in games, it is a recipe for trouble for the opposition. In the 5-2 game on February 22nd, the Caps were early, often, and constantly in Crosby’s face – bumping him, yapping at him, jostling him, being a nuisance to him. Not yesterday. Crosby got time and space to work, and for a guy whose game is predicated on taking advantage of time and space, it made for a difficult afternoon for the Caps. That they did as well as they did (he was 1-1-2, +1) was a signal that they played pretty well, but they should have looked at what they did last month and offered the same hospitality.

We can’t get all worked up about a Gimmick loss, even if it is to the Penguins, because if this game is played in April or May, the clubs might still be playing, and based on the way the game progressed, we were liking the Caps’ chances in that scenario. Truth be told, both teams got something out of this game. The Penguins got an extra point – one which allowed them to hang onto eighth place this morning. The Caps got a point they had no reason to think they’d get after the game was 40 minutes old, and they actually played like a functioning hockey team – something that has eluded them over the past couple of weeks.

In that respect, it was a very entertaining game for both sides and perhaps a prelude to an early round playoff series.

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