Sunday, March 15, 2009

A TWO-point night: Caps 5 - Hurricanes 4 (OT/Gimmick)

It’s the time of year when no one should think anything is going to come easily.

The Caps fought off a game Carolina Hurricanes squad last night, 5-4, in a Gimmick to increase their Southeast Division lead to 14 points and match their high water mark of the year, going 22 games over .500.

It was the sort of “playoff intensity” game you might want to see if you’re a suit at NHL headquarters. Shooters for both teams had their way with both defenses. Specifically, it was a night for the top lines for both clubs.

Carolina’s top line of Eric Staal (1-2-3, +3), Erik Cole (1-1-2, +3), and Ray Whitney (1-1-2, +4), who got time with the other two in place of Tuomo Ruutu, was virtually unstoppable for the Hurricanes. They had a hand in three of the Hurricanes’ four goals.

On the other hand, the Capitals’ trio of Alexander Semin (1-3-4, -3), Alex Ovechkin (1-1-2, -2), and Nicklas Backstrom (1-1-2, -2) abused the Hurricanes penalty killers – the Caps were 3-for-4 on the power play – and had a hand in all of the Caps’ four goals.

As suggested in those last two paragraphs, this was two distinct games within a game. At even strength, the Hurricanes had a 4-1 advantage. Meanwhile, the Caps won the special teams play, 3-0. Perhaps most important for the Caps, that zero was a product of having to kill off a penalty in the overtime session, part of a six-for-six save performance in the extra session for goalie Jose Theodore.

Watching this game was like watching teams that are echoes of one another…

Alex Ovechkin – he of the gaudy shot totals – had 14 attempts, eight on goal. Eric Staal – he of gaudy stats of his own lately – had 16 attempts six on goal.

Mike Green – the top scoring defenseman in the league – had five shot attempts. Joe Corvo – the Hurricanes’ leading scorer among defensemen – had nine shot attempts.

Alexander Semin – the top scorer no one seems to pay much attention to – had eight attempts. Ray Whitney – the guy who seems to get lost on the Hurricanes’ roster – had six attempts.

Jose Theodore – seen as perhaps the weak link on this team – stopped 28 of 32 shots (many of them high quality), including all six he faced in overtime, then shut the door on both Carolina shooters in the Gimmick. Cam Ward – who seems to have spent his recent career trying to justify his winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs – stopped 27 of 31 shots (many of them high quality), including both shots he faced in overtime.

Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, the scoring went:

Ovechkin: 1-1-2
Staal: 1-2-3

Green: 1-1-2
Corvo: 0-0-0

Semin: 1-3-4
Whitney: 1-1-2
Theodore: 1.000 save percentage in the Gimmick (2-for-2)
Ward: .333 save percentage in the Gimmick (1-for-3)

And what the Hurricanes don’t have is an answer for a guy like Nicklas Backstrom, whose 1-1-2 line gave him points in 15 of his last 16 games. His assist gave him a total of 55 for the season to match his total for last year.

Speaking of Backstrom, a slight detour is in order. If you’re looking at last year’s Calder finalists, the race looks like this…

If the Caps didn’t have a monster night hitting Hurricanes (well, given some of the totals we’ve seen at the Verizon Center, maybe their 28 total hits was “monster”), they spread it around. Only Nicklas Backstrom and Michael Nylander didn’t register one.

It isn’t often that the Caps get out attempted in shots, especially at home. But last night, Carolina tipped the scale far in the direction of the visitors, out-attempting the Caps 79-46. The flip side of that is that Carolina got 32 of their attempts on goal (45.1 percent), while the Caps got 31 of theirs through to Cam Ward (67.4 percent).

Paul Maurice played with a pretty short bench for Carolina. Ryan Bayda took two shifts in the first period (1:28 total) before retiring for the evening. Tim Conboy took three shifts in the first period (2:36 total) and didn’t return for the evening. At least Patrick Eaves lasted into the second period, but he played a total of 6:06 and didn’t appear in either the third period or overtime.

It was a reversal of fortune for the Hurricanes in one respect. The last time these teams met, the Hurricanes managed only one even-strength goal, but had two short-handed, one power-play, and a penalty shot goal. Last night, no special teams theatrics, but they did have four even-strength goals.

Last night’s splatterage trophy on the score sheet goes to Chad LaRose for the Hurricanes. One shot, two shots blocked, four misses, two hits, a giveaway, a takeaway, a blocked shot, and three faceoffs (all losses) to go along with a plus-1. He didn’t however, have a point.

The Caps had a deceptively effective night in the faceoff circle. Carolina was 16-for-30 in neutral zone draws, but five of those wins came against guys who might not be the first go-to center to take draws – Keith Aucoin, Tomas Fleischmann, and Brooks Laich. Meanwhile, Nicklas Backstrom won 12-of-21 draws, including 8-of-13 (combined) in the offensive and defensive zones. David Steckel was 10-for-13, including 7-for-9 (combined) in the offensive and defensive zones. Even Michael Nylander was 3-for-4 in defensive zone draws.

It was an entertaining game, but probably not the sort one is going to see in the playoffs. Coach Bruce Boudreau alluded to as much in his post-game comments…

“It was like pond hockey, and in the playoffs you have to play much more structured.”

There was a lot of up and down – mostly down, if you’re looking toward Jose Theodore. Carolina had four clean breakaways in the second period alone, including a shorthanded break by Chad LaRose. Ray Whitney had one, following a 5-on-1 Caps rush at the other end that netted nothing, which Theodore stopped. But he couldn’t stop Eric Staal swooping in to collect the loose change. Theodore, despite allowing four goals, might have been the best player on the ice for either team in this one. He simply had too many high-probability scoring chances to have to defend.

But part of winning is getting that extra point when the other guys are playing their game their way. Carolina might be the fastest team – top to bottom – in the Eastern Conference. Adding Erik Cole provides a power dimension that now must be reckoned with. Both speed and power were on display for Carolina last night, and yet the Caps still got the extra point, because they are a team of superior skill. And it was the Caps’ skill guys who paved the way…with more than a little help from the goaltender no one outside of DC seems to have much use for.


Lisa said...

As I'm sitting here reading your post, McGuire and Milbury are critiquing Theodore, among other goalies, after the 1st period of the NBC game. McGuire said he looks "small in goal" and Milbury complained about his "inconsistency" and then they showed a clip of the Wild game. Wow, how timely! Talk about shallow analysis although you have to consider the source.

By the way, thanks for the Backstrom stats. Very interesting!

Mark B aka: Usually Frustrated Caps Fan said...

Peerless: Great recap and analysis - as always. I'm so glad there is someone besides me who thinks this will be a solid year for Theodore, I think he can do it. I'm much happier with his perfromance now then what we'd be seeing from Huet if we were Blackhawks fans....

@ Lisa: Your right but I just say it much simpler: McGuire, Milbury and Don Cherry are all tools. I say we hang them in effigy during the Stanley Cup Paradae on "F" Street in June - how about you?