Saturday, January 17, 2009

A TWO-point night: Caps 2 - Bruins 1

Yes we can.

It was a campaign slogan last fall, but it’s a phrase that bears saying over and over to Caps fans. Pessimistic by their nature, having endured a lot of years of disappointment and plain old bad teams, it’s time for Caps fans to look at this team and say, “yes we can.”

That’s what a hard-fought, playoff-like 2-1 win over the league leading Boston Bruins will do, a game where the Caps played solid in each zone and scratched out one more goal on a great individual effort to get the win.

For those of you keeping track, this was the 29th win for the Caps, the earliest the club has hit that mark in franchise history (46th game), besting the effort in 1985-86 when the Caps won their 29th victory in their 47th game.

It didn’t come easily. It wasn’t a fluke, either. In fact, if there was a flukish moment, it came on the Bruin goal in the second period when a shot by Chuck Kobasew on a Boston power play pinballed in front of Jose Theodore and squirted out to the right wing faceoff circle. Theodore looked to have lost sight of the puck and before he could find where it went, Marc Savard was winding up to fire a slap shot into the vacant side of the net for the game’s first goal.

That would be it for the Bruins as the Caps played a remarkably efficient defensive game. How? Here is your interesting number for the night – two. Of the 17 shots on net that Boston would have after the Savard goal, two would be the number that were launched from inside of 30 feet, none in the last five minutes with the game in the balance.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ice, the Caps got goals the way they get goals. Mike Green got lost on the right side of the ice on a Caps power play as all four Bruin penalty killers bunched up on the left side watching Michael Nylander hold onto the puck. Nylander eased down the left wing boards until he had a passing lane, then fired the puck past a Boston defender trying to kick it away. Green picked it up, took a stride toward the Boston net, then roofed a shot over goalie Tim Thomas’ glove to tie the game 70 seconds after the Savard goal.

The winner was scored as a product of a “holy crap, I’d better make up for that bonehead play” sort of effort. Milan Jucina had the puck at the Capitals’ blue line, but in an effort to move the puck across to Jeff Schultz he fanned on the attempt. The Bruins ended up with a 2-on-1 after Schultz couldn’t move the puck out of the zone, with Vladimir Sobotka feeding Martin St. Pierre and Jurcina back. Jurcina dove to stick check the puck off of St. Pierre’s stick into the corner and out of harm’s way. As so often happens on such a play – a chance that went for naught for the Bruins – the puck ended up going the other way with unfortunate results for Boston. Alexander Semin did a fine job of poking the puck past Mark Stuart and collecting it in front of the Capitals’ bench. Semin carried the puck into the Boston zone, and before Shane Hnidy could close the distance, Semin let fly with a slap shot in full stride that sailed over Thomas’ glove and under the crossbar to give the Caps the final lead.

Some other stuff…

If the season ended today, Zdeno Chara should win the Norris Trophy. When he’s out there, the left side of the ice is a no-fly zone for opponents. He was a warrior out there, skating the last 2:29 (with his running mate, Dennis Wideman) in an effort to get the equalizer. And the job he did on Alex Ovechkin, who rarely was allowed to skate into areas he wanted to go, was key in keeping the Caps to two goals.

The loss was the Bruins’ first on the road in their last eight tries. The last road loss?... Yup, here in Washington.

In the “defense-first” theme, the Caps won 10 of 16 draws in the defensive zone. David Steckel and Sergei Fedorov were a combined 10-for-13 (Nicklas Backstrom losing all three of his defensive zone draws).

Another “defense-first” note…the Bruins only had three shots on four power plays – all of them by Savard.

Neither Fedorov nor Nylander registered a shot on goal. Between them, they had only two attempts (both by Nylander).

We noted that Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman skated the last 2:29 for the Bruins. That doesn’t get the gold star for longest shift. Alex Ovechkin skated a 3:13 shift in the third period. In fact, on consecutive shifts in the third, Ovechkin skated 3:31, 1:16, and 1:59.

John Erskine got the second star of the game and deserved it (that elbowing penalty in the last two minutes was a pretty cheesy call). Almost 20 minutes, three hits, a blocked shot, and a big role in the Bruins not getting any shots from in close in the third period.

David Steckel got the hard hat – he won 10 of 16 draws, had three hits, a blocked shot, and a couple of shots of his own.

Boston gets a lot of scoring balance (though not tonight). They get balance in other areas, too… they had ten skaters with blocked shots (five of them forwards), they had eight skaters with takeaways, they had 13 skaters with hits. Boston is not a team that beats itself for lack of effort.

Washington matched the Bruins for effort in this one. You’d have to spend some time looking to find a bad effort (although that 4-for-12 effort on faceoffs by Backstrom is troublesome; that’s 17 straight games in which he’s failed to go over 50 percent on draws… the last time he did was against Boston).

Tonight was the eighth sellout in the last nine games for the Caps. The smallest crowd of the season to date is 16,792, against Florida on December 2nd. By this time last year, the Caps had only four nights when they exceeded that number and only one sellout.

The win puts the Caps at 5-3-0 for the month, and the team appears to have put that three-game losing streak behind them. And, defense is what does it. In the four wins in January coming into this one, the Caps allowed a total of nine goals (four of them on New Years Day to Tampa Bay). In the three losses they allowed 13 goals. As if a preview of what to expect in the playoffs, defense was the order of the evening, and the Caps played it well, even with Boston nursing some injuries. Pretty won’t do it in the spring, and the Caps showed tonight that they can win in gritty fashion. It was the kind of game to prove that when it comes to these kinds of nail-biters, “yes we can.”

Super job, boys.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Bruins, January 17th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s Inauguration Weekend here in Fortress Washington, and tonight, there is a 100 percent chance that the Caps will be hosting the only team in front of them in the East, the Boston Bruins. Since the last time these teams met – a 3-1 Caps win on December 10th – both teams have been rocketing forward in the Eastern Conference. The Caps are 12-4-0 since that meeting, the Bruins 14-2-0. But which team is better? For that, we bring in the pair in despair, the twins of spin, two in the zoo…Mr. Tony and Mr. Mike…

Guys, the numbers look like this for these two teams:

Which team do you think is better at this stage of the season? Mr. Tony?

The Bruins are 100 percent better. More goals, fewer allowed, higher in the standings. Case closed.

What do you mean, case closed? The Caps are 35 percent better. Why? Ovechkin, 100 percent the best player in hockey.

Mike, look at the numbers. The Bruins have 14 – fourteen! – players in double digits in points, nine of them with more than 20. A dozen players have at least one power play goal and 16 – sixteen! – with at least one power play point. They have Chara, they have Savard – who has learned the joys of playing in his own end for a change, I might add – they have Kessel…and who is this Wideman kid?... leads the team in power play scoring. They don’t have a single player – not one! – who has played 30 games and is a minus player…not one!

Tony, don’t get lost in the numbers. Let’s leave the sorry, no-account Southeast Division out of this for a moment. Do you know that the Caps have a better record than the Bruins against other Eastern Conference teams? The Caps are 17-3-3 against Atlantic and Northeast teams, the Bruins are 15-3-4. And look at that 14-2 record the Bruins have since they lost to the Capitals. Who’d they beat? The beat Atlanta three times. You and I and three production guys could beat Atlanta. Toronto… Carolina… St. Louis… Ottawa. You see any playoff teams in there, Tony? The Caps went to Montreal and won with a goalie who hasn’t finished his first cup of coffee in North America yet – in his first game in the NHL! They’ve won 12 games with mostly a defense that had been playing in Hershey, for heaven’s sake.

OK…OK. Let’s look at them individually. Coming into this year, Marc Savard was minus-74 in 659 games. He’s plus-30 this year…plus-30! And he’s still on a pace for a career year in scoring with 99 points. And he’s 7-35-42, +10 in 32 games against the Caps in his career.

He only has four points in his last five games, Tony, and three of those came against the decrepit Senators. And he hasn’t had any of those points against the Caps this year, either.

I have two words for you…Zdeno Chara. Ovechkin is going to wear that guy like an overcoat. Yeah, Ovechkin might be the second strongest guy in the league for all I know, but Chara tops that list.

Tony, Ovechkin is 7-8-15 in 13 career games against Boston. He had a goal and an assist in the first meeting this year. Chara’s great… Ovechkin’s something more.

OK, Ovechkin’s a beast, even though Crosby’s better. But Boston has this secret weapon – David Krejci. Is that how you say his name? Might as well be “criminee.” As in, “criminee, where did this guy come from?” 48 points, second in both goals and assists on the team.

I’ll see you your David Krejci and raise you a Nicklas Backstrom. He’s got 48 points, too, and he’s jumpstarted Ovechkin’s game. The Caps were always wondering, what could Ovechkin do with a center who could get him the puck? Well, a Hart, Pearson, Ross, and Richard Trophy later, I think we’ve found out.

We can’t overlook Phil Kessel, here. Leads the team in goals with 24. Seven on the power play, four game winners, and he’s only got ten penalty minutes this year – scoring and discipline like that in a 21-year old?

OK, Kessel is a nice story, Tony, with his comeback from cancer to put up numbers like that. But let’s look at the guy drafted in that same slot – fifth overall – a year later…Karl Alzner. The Caps had him ticketed for a year in Hershey, this being his first year as a pro. But with all the injuries the Caps have had, he was called up into service and played his way into staying. He’s second among Caps defensemen who will play tonight in ice time. He’s plus-3, and he only earned his first penalty in the NHL this past week against Edmonton. He has two penalties this year, combined in Hershey and Washington, both for delay of game. Talk about discipline, this kid has it in buckets, and he’s only 20.

But Boston is doing it with guys hurt – Kessel, Andrew Ference, Patrice Bergeron, Marco Sturm…all out for this game. Aaron Ward and Milan Lucic are day to day. And they’re still winning.

You want to talk about injuries? Look at who the Caps have had to dress on the blue line… Bryan Helmer, Tyler Sloan, Sami Lepisto, Sean Collins, Alzner for heaven’s sake – all guys who have been or should be getting the bulk of their playing time in Hershey. The Caps have had to put Sergei Fedorov and even Brook Laich back there because of injuries. They have only one defenseman who has played in every game – Milan Jurcina. They only have one forward from either of their top two lines who has played in every game – Nicklas Backstrom.

Well, I don’t know that we’ve settled anything here. Let’s go to the big finish…Stat Boy?

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder:

Boston: Tim Thomas

Manny Fernandez got the start in the December 10th contest, taking the decision in a 3-1 loss. Thomas figures to get the start here – he’s been in goal for the last three games, all wins and all games in which he’s allowed only one goal. He’s had a superb record against the Caps in his career – 8-1-1, 2.42., .922. But the last time he visited Washington, he gave up seven goals on 24 shots in a 10-2 Capitals win. The Caps are averaging 3.41 goals-per-game at home. Thomas will need to be sharp.

Washington: Jose Theodore

He of the new mask didn’t play in the first game of this season series, either. His experience against the Bruins has been one of misfortune, given his statistics. Despite a respectable 2.59 GAA and .917 save percentage, his record against the B’s is only 8-12-2. Two of those wins were shutouts. He hasn’t faced Boston since October 2005, a 34-save 4-3 win when Theodore was wearing the bleu, blanc, et rouge of the Canadiens. After winning six straight decisions, he dropped a pair – to Columbus and to Edmonton – before righting himself somewhat in a 6-3 win over Pittsburgh. He’ll need to move his play to a higher level in this one.

So, who won between our “oddsmakers?” Pfft…who cares? You know how this comes out…

Caps 3 – Bruins 2