Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A TWO-point night: Caps 5 - Sabres 2

Well, there’s a nice little present to start the Christmas weekend.

The Caps scored early (78 seconds into the game), scored late (two third period power play goals), and withstood an iffy middle 20 minutes in defeating the Buffalo Sabres, 5-2.

It was important to get a lead on the Sabres, because Buffalo plays well with a lead, the product of being able to rely on who is at the moment the best goaltender in the league in Ryan Miller. The Caps, however, were (as Mike Green put it in the postgame) “shooting to score,” not just shooting to get pucks on net.

That was evident on the first goal, a rocket from Nicklas Backstrom off a feed from Alex Ovechkin that sailed past Miller’s left ear and into the far top corner of the net. Mike Green added one five and a half minutes later when he got off a shot that was deflected off the stick of Derek Roy, and up and over Miller’s left shoulder, into the net for a 2-0 lead. In the first period the Caps netted the two goals and outshot Buffalo 15-4. The Sabres had just one shot in the first 17:10 of the period, and none of the four shots they managed came from inside of 35 feet. As Coach Bruce Boudreau said of the first period, you want to grab that and keep it.

It wouldn’t be a Caps game, though, without some adventure, and the second period provided enough of that. It started in the form of a two-on-one rush for the Sabres in the period’s sixth minute, Paul Gaustad finishing the play with something of an iffy five-hole goal on Michal Neuvirth, starting in place of Jose Theodore.

But Brendan Morrison got it back less than six minutes later. Sometimes, a player in a sport makes a fancy play because he can. Then there are those times when he makes a fancy play because it is all he has available. Such was the case for Morrison as Tomas Fleischmann sent the puck to the net. The biscuit dribbled to Miller’s left where Morrison was camped. Unable to get the puck settled for a shot, he pulled it between his skates, and with his stick poking back between his legs flipped it off his forehand over Miller into the roof of the net.

Two minutes later, though, Tim Connolly pulled the Sabres back within one, deflecting a shot by Steve Montador past Neuvirth. That was the way the period ended, and the outcome was hardly certain.

What was certain going into the third period was that the Caps had one power play in eight periods of hockey against the Sabres this season. That changed at 9:20 of the period, when Craig Rivet was whistled for a hooking penalty on Tomas Fleischmann. 1:09 later, Fleischmann drew another penalty, this one on Paul Gaustad, who flung his skate out at Fleischmann as he was skating by, earning a tripping penalty to put the Caps on a 5-on-3 advantage.

At this pivotal point in the game, Bruce Boudreau burned his timeout, and it had the intended effect. Only 26 seconds after Gaustad went to the penalty box, the Caps completed what looked like a set play using Alex Ovechkin as a decoy. With Alexander Semin along the left wing boards and Ovechkin parked at the top of the Sabres’ crease, Semin inched out and threw a pass across that looked as if it might be intended for Ovechkin. The puck sailed through, though, to Nicklas Backstrom at the bottom of the right wing circle. Backstrom settled the puck with his right skate, and in the same motion swung his stick, lifting the puck over Ryan Miller’s left pad.

The scoring was completed later in the power play when Ovechkin rifled a slap shot past Miller and off the inside of the post on the short side for his 24th goal of the season.

Other stuff…

-- He doesn’t have to deal with pneumonia, as he did last year, and he doesn’t have to deal with getting back into skating shape after having blood clots in his legs treated over the summer. Nope, Tomas Fleischmann is now showing how patience pays off. And what is most striking about Fleischmann, Version 2.0, is how strong he has become on his skates. He initiates contact much more than he did when he first came up, he is harder to take off the puck, and he has the capacity – as he showed tonight – to draw penalties.

-- Mike Green… a goal, an assist, plus-2, a couple of blocked shots. In his last 20 games he is 5-17-22, plus-11. He is not a defensive stopper, but he is the best offensive defenseman in the game, and he must be doing something right in the defensive part of the game, given that he’s averaged almost 25 minutes a night over that span (including an early exit when he was plastered into the boards by David Koci against Colorado) with a plus-11. He’s going to be hard to cut when the Canadians make their final decisions on their Olympic team a week from today.

-- If you allow a team like Buffalo to skate and get momentum through the neutral zone, they can make your life difficult. That was the middle 20 minutes (two goals on 20 shots). If you make them set up and force them into a “half court” game, they do not have the wherewithal to create enough traffic in front to do a lot of damage with second shots. That was the first and third periods (no goals, 14 shots).

-- Karl Alzner even showed some snarl by getting up in a Sabre’s face during a post-whistle scrum. Maybe he’s the enforcer Caps fans have been looking for.

-- An odd statistic – ten different Sabres took faceoffs tonight. Seven different Caps took draws. There was a whole lot of throwing out of players from the circle this evening.

-- We made a point of the Capitals offense coming from defense (or lack of it) a little while back. Tonight there was one shot on goal from a defenseman not named “Green.”

-- Ovechkin wins the score sheet buffet coupon for this one – a goal, an assist, plus-1, five shots on goal, nine attempts, four hits, a takeaway, a couple of giveaways, and a faceoff in almost 21 minutes of playing time.

-- 13 different Caps had blocked shots, led by Jeff Schultz (four).

-- Although Neuvirth allowed only the two goals on 34 shots, he looked uncomfortable in his own space for significant stretches tonight, as if he wasn’t entirely sure of his position relative to the pipes. Part of that might have been the lack of any action in his end in the first period, when a young goalie’s attention might wander. But he did have one tricky save on a long shot that bounced oddly in front of him late in the first period.

-- If one was to ask, “which Capital had the most shorthanded ice time tonight?,” how many names would you sound off before you said, Nicklas Backstrom?

The Caps now go into the Christmas break with a 23-8-6 record, third-best in the league. They are tied for the fewest home losses in regulation (two, with San Jose) in the league. They are on a pace for a team-record setting 115 points. There is a long way to go before the games really count, but the Caps have been what passes for a Christmas present to Washington area sports fans.

And that will do it for us until the weekend. To all of you, a happy and safe holiday.

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