Saturday, November 14, 2009

A TWO-point night: Caps 3 - Wild 1

When you are the team that has your opponent by 11 points in the standings, and the opponent is traveling overnight to play the second game of a road back-to-back, you’re supposed to win. That doesn’t make it easy, it just makes it expected. The Capitals met expectations in beating the Minnesota Wild tonight, 3-1. It was a game that was decided in the first period in an odd sort of way, given that the game was scoreless at the first intermission. Consider the following…


Those are the official time elapsed marks for the Capitals’ shots on goal in the first period. Three shots in the first seven minutes, followed by three in the next two minutes, followed by seven in a 17 second span. From the 9:25 mark of the period until the 17:04 mark, the Wild were held without a shot on goal. The Caps had 12 consecutive shots at Wild goalie Josh Harding in the meantime. It was the equivalent of a series of body shots that took the starch out of the Wild, tenderizing them for what was to come.

It wasn’t as if the Wild lacked for effort. We noted tongue-in-cheek in the pregame that the Wild had discovered their “inner Lemaire” in recent games. Well, yeah. It might as well have been their old coach, Jacques Lemaire, still pacing behind the bench. In the first third of the first period the Wild clogged the middle, forced the Caps to the side walls, prevented any diagonal stretch passes, and forced the Caps to send the puck deep without any momentum when the Caps could get the puck in at all.

The trouble is, the clock caught up to them. Try as they might to continue playing such a disciplined system, the legs of the visitors were not cooperating. And frankly, neither was the ice, which had the appearance of looking pretty bad. That only compounded the Wild’s endurance problems.

What that meant was that if the Caps could keep pressing with an honest effort, if they could be patient enough to keep pressing, even as Minnesota was frustrating them in the neutral zone, then the Caps would eventually have the advantage of rest and skill to break the Wild down.

Even then, it wasn’t easy. Washington outshot the Wild by 16-6 in the second period, and one might have been forgiven for thinking that the avalanche of goals would come in the third after that onslaught. But while the Caps had a lot of chances in close, the puck simply would not behave long enough for a Cap to swat it into the goal with Harding trying to peer around legs and sticks to see where it went. The teams went to the second intermission tied 1-1 on goals by Cal Clutterbuck for the Wild and Mike Green for the Caps.

What all of that meant was that the Wild had hung around long enough to make things very interesting in the third period. Brian Pothier notched a goal two minutes into the third to give the Caps the lead (making them 19-for-19 in terms of holding a lead at some point in a game), but the Wild had four shots on goal in the first five minutes of the period. The matter was hardly settled. Minnesota kept up as much pressure as they could and managed 14 shots in the final period overall. But at that point it was Caps’ goalie Semyon Varlamov’s game, and he was sharpest in the third period. You had the feeling it would take either a fluky bounce (not out of the question in Verizon Center) or a penalty to get Minnesota the equalizer. The Wild didn’t get that bounce, and the Caps played a disciplined period.

Other stuff…

- Green’s goal was his first power play goal of the season. Last year he had 18. He thanked the media after the game for pointing out that this was his first this year (he probably knew).

- Counting Gimmicks, Varlamov has stopped 66 of the last 69 shots he’s faced. Although, truth be told, the one he let in tonight off the stick of Cal Clutterbuck looked very stoppable. Other than that, though, he was sharp as a Bowie knife.

- And what is it with Clutterbuck... two games against the Caps, three goals.

- Another game, another injury. Mike Knuble will be out 3-4 weeks with a broken finger he suffered when he was pushed into the net by a Wild defenseman off a scrum in front. It could have been worse. Knuble almost went head first into the center post it the back of the net.

- Martin Havlat had the quietest eight-shot game you could ever imagine. I didn’t remember his even being out there.

- David Steckel abused the Wild at the dot – 15 up and three down. He won each of his 11 defensive zone draws taken. A virtuoso performance in one of the little things that matter, yet often don’t get noticed.

- We were scratching our heads over this one… you’re killing a penalty, and at your own bench you take a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty. How does that happen?

- If you discount Knuble by virtue of his playing only 4:47, only one Caps skater finished the night without a shot on goal (Shaone Morrisonn).

- In basketball, some guys make behind-the-back passes because they can, not because it’s the right play. Same thing in hockey – sometimes guys get cute because they can. But there were half a dozen or so instances tonight when the behind the back pass was the right play to make to free the puck from the edge and get momentum the other way.

- Is it me, or had Tomas Fleischmann really graduated into being not a guy who plays hockey, but a hockey player? He fought for pucks along the boards, he took hits to make a play, and he threw his body around with more abandon than I can ever remember.

- And speaking of throwing his body around, consider… Cal Clutterbuck is listed as 5’11”, 213 pounds and is built like a fire hydrant. Mathieu Perreault is generously listed as 5’10”, 174 and would not look out of place in the intermission mites game, size wise. But there was Perreault in the corner, fighting for the puck with Clutterbuck, shoving him off the play, and skating out with the biscuit. Forget the assist he had to get to 1-3-4 after five games (even if the assist was gorgeous). He is going to be very hard to send back down, even if it is for his own long-term good, just based on his compete level.

- It might not have been the smartest penalty to take – a retaliatory cross-check by Nicklas Backstrom right in front of a referee – but it is a signal of the further development of Backstrom. There is no “back down” in Backstrom. There is a nasty little edge growing into his game. One might quarrel about whether it was worth it, but last year, Backstrom probably just takes the abuse. Two years from now, he probably clubs the guy and manages to do it in a subtle way.

- If you look at Chris Clark’s line on the score sheet, you might think, “eh…” Four shots on goal, a hit. But we’re thinking there are a few of the Wild who will have visions of him in their sleep with all the harassing he was doing and crashing the net.

- That is the first time the Caps have won a game scoring fewer than four goals in almost a month (October 24th, 3-2 in overtime against the Islanders). Might not seem like much, but an ability to win close ones when the pucks aren’t flying into nets at both ends will be good to have in the spring.

If water drips on the rock for long enough, the rock yields. That was pretty much how the 60 minutes went. The Wild were probably a bit off from the travel, the Caps were rested with a day off after a home game on Wednesday, and the Caps just kept pressing with an honest lunch pail effort. Eventually the Wild cracked. Big nights with lots of sirens and flashing red lights are more entertaining for a lot of fans, but wins like this can be just as satisfying.

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