The official scoresheet will say that Maple Leaf goaltender Martin Gerber was the first star. We don’t agree, but we’ll get to that. Gerber, who wasn’t on the scrap heap of his career as much as he had already gone through the compactor and was as useful as a door stop, stopped – or perhaps “got in the way” of – 37 of 38 shots to give the Leafs a chance. It was a chance they capitalized on when Jose Theodore more or less kicked in with his heel a shot from behind the goal line by Lee Stempniak to break a scoreless tie in the third period. Pavel Kubina added a goal through traffic created by forward Jason Blake for Toronto’s other tally.
And there we see our first star.
Jason Blake did not register a point, but he was a force all night with his energy and his give-no-quarter approach to getting in Caps goalie Jose Theodore’s face. It was he who ran over Theodore to allow John Mitchell to swat the puck into the net on a goalmouth scramble – the goal being disallowed for Blake’s contact with Theodore. It was Blake who planted himself at the top of the crease and being a nuisance to Theodore that allowed Kubina to send his drive to the far side past Theodore’s glove for Toronto's second goal. It was Blake more than any Maple Leaf who had some real jump in his skates all evening. Blake’s ability to be a one-man traffic jam in front, and the Caps’ inability of unwillingness to do the same to Martin Gerber – especially on the power play – was the difference between this teams tonight.
The Caps actually did a pretty decent job of driving to the net tonight, but they could not finish and did not have enough bodies available in close to bat in any rebounds. There were a lot of pucks laying in the crease that Gerber couldn’t find that ached to have the blade of a stick slide them into the cozy confines of the net, but alas, ‘twas not to be (that Acme School of Creative Writing correspondence course does come in handy from time to time).
Some other stuff…
Points to Matt Bradley for holding his own with Ben Ondrus in tonight’s feature bout. Ondrus has had eight fights in the AHL this year and has had at least ten fights in a season (AHL and NHL combined) twice in his career.
We now know why it is that Alex Ovechkin has more than 100 more shots than his nearest pursuer for the shots-on-goal lead in the league. The rest of the team – or at least too much of it – is reluctant to send the puck on goal. It was in many respects the weakest 38-shot effort imaginable. It was the product of the “skill gap” between the Washington forwards and the Toronto defense, which didn’t really have a very good game, despite the score (although there is something to be said for the importance of results). Tomas Flesichmann took five shots, none of them from closer than 27 feet. Sergei Fedorov had six shots, none from closer than 46 feet (although to be fair, he took Poti’s spot on the blue line when Poti went out after one shift). Alexander Semin took seven shots, only one inside of 30 feet (his goal came on a 39-footer, according to the NHL play-by-play record). That accounts for 18 of the 38 shots the Caps recorded.
Michael Nylander gets a lot of grief, a lot of it unfair in our opinion. Even though God and everyone knew he had a “trade me” sign taped to his back on Wednesday, he played like the pro he is tonight. He just isn’t a very good fit in this offense. That’s not his fault, it’s not Bruce Boudreau’s fault. It just is. He did not attempt a shot on goal. He was one of three Caps who didn’t – Tom Poti (who played for seven seconds) and Donald Brashear (who played for 5:15) were the others.
Toronto scored their second goal with 9:47 to play in the third period. From that point forward, the Caps did not record a shot on goal until there were 52 seconds left – 8:55 of clock time. In that same span, Toronto recorded seven shots on goal. The Caps had three shots in the last 11:56 of a game they trailed. There just isn’t an excuse for that kind of ineptitude.
Considering that the Caps exchanged Michael Nylander for Alex Ovechkin, and that they were short another player when Poti went out early (Fedorov taking his spot on the blue line), 28 hits was a rather high number, especially since Verizon Center scorers seem to err on the side of caution when crediting players with hits. Other than Poti, who lasted only long enough to skate on and skate off for one shift, the only Caps not to record one were Viktor Kozlov, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tomas Fleischmann.
Mike Green played almost 12 minutes of the third period on his way to a 31-plus minute night. No one else on the ice was within six minutes of him (ok, Ian White was 5:59 within Green’s total).
Alexander Semin – three takeaways, no giveaways. While the Caps have hit a skid, he seems to be playing more responsibly lately. One wonders, should we take irresponsible in exchange for wins? Just kidding.
Beginning on February 18th, the Caps embarked on a nine-home-games-in-ten stretch. What’s more, that stretch includes five teams that the Caps would normally be solidly favored to beat at home – Colorado, Atlanta, Florida, Carolina, and Toronto. They beat only Atlanta in going 4-5-0 through nine games of this run with Pittsburgh looming to close the ten-game run.
If the Caps had earned, say, 12 of 18 points so far through nine games of this ten-game stretch, instead of eight points, they would be only four points behind Boston. Call that an opportunity wasted.
It would be hard to fault the defense or goaltending too much in this one, although Theodore probably wants that first goal back, and Jeff Schultz might not like to watch his play in front on film. But that isn’t why the Caps lost. Despite launching a total of 71 shot attempts at the Toronto net and getting 38 of them through to Martin Gerber, they just didn’t pay enough of a price to clean up the rebounds that were available. The Caps had the sort of chances all night that might have had fans saying, “ooh, they were this close (we did it a few times ourselves),” but those were of the pass-the-puck-across-the-rink sort that are high-risk, low probability chances.
Now, the Caps get Pittsburgh, and it won’t be the Penguin team that the Caps have used as a scrimmage partner for three games this season. The Penguins are 7-1-1 under interim coach Dan Bylsma, having won five in a row, and have rediscovered defense (allowing one or no goals in four of those last five games) – a recipe for success at this time of year.
A week ago, one might have been forgiven for contemplating a second seed – perhaps even a run at the top spot if Boston stumbled. And there was the possibility of a franchise-best home record. Well, the Caps now have to win all of their remaining home games (six) to get that all-time best home record, and they have wasted the chance Boston has given them to inch closer to the top spot. They still have an 11-point lead on second place Florida in the Southeast, but at this point the thought of what they did last year to Carolina might be creeping into their heads.
That will make Sunday’s game as close to a “must win” as there has been here lately. And “must win” games against Pittsburgh are not generally the sort the Caps have been successful in winning. It will be a useful exercise to see whether these guys are growing up or not.