Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A TWO-point night: Caps 4 - Thrashers 2

The Caps beat the Atlanta Thrashers tonight, 4-2, in a game that a lot of fans will say was not a great game for the Caps. Well, we’re beyond that. Here is the important takeaway – since losing three in a row at home, ending with a 2-1 loss to Toronto, the Caps are 9-2-3. That’s 21 of 28 standings points in a stretch where folks might have said on a lot of occasions, “yeah, but they didn’t play well.”

We’re at the point of the season where it doesn’t matter. The Caps could look as scruffy as a playoff beard at this point, but as long as their number is bigger than the other guy’s number at the end of 60 minutes, or 65 minutes, or early in the next morning, all is good.

Bruce Boudreau noted after the game that he didn’t think it was an exciting game. He was right. The Caps sleepwalked through long stretches in this one, and the Thrashers couldn’t take advantage of the plethora of chances bestowed upon them (yes, we’re paid up on our correspondence course on good writin’). Why?...because Semyon Varlamov was pretty much lights out in goal for the Caps. 29 saves on 31 shots might not seem especially extraordinary (.934 save percentage) – it probably won’t get him a star of the night at NHL.com, for example. But it was how he did it that was borderline amazing.

Ilya Kovalchuk is going to be muttering to himself all the while on his drive home, asking himself, “how did he stop those shots?” Kovalchuk had four shots on goal, and it seemed that all of them required a SportsCenter highlight save by Varlamov to keep the puck out of the net. When not stuffing Kovalchuk (think Kovalchuk wants to tap the kid on the mask to say, “nice save” now?), he was swallowing shots in his equipment to prevent rebounds that Thrashers were in a position to pounce upon, or he was directing shots into the corners and out of harm’s way. That he didn’t get a star for the game seemed almost sinful.

Other stuff…

- Nothing reflected the apparent disinterest the Caps had in this game more than their performance in the circle. 23 up and 30 down. David Steckel was the only Cap on the good side.

- Need another example? Five blocked shots among three players (two for David Steckel and Mike Green, one for Brian Pothier).

- Need another? 31 Thrasher takeaways.

- Need another? Nine hits.

- Another? One penalty drawn. The league’s number two power play got one chance, and that one lasted a mere 47 seconds when Sergei Fedorov took an ill-advised boarding penalty. The Caps are 20th in the league in total power play opportunities on the road.

- Fedorov had a rather brutal night – three minor penalties taken, 4-for-13 in the circle, and not much on the good side. He wouldn’t have been credited with a goal absent the miracle of instant replay (when it was ruled that Zach Bogosian swatted the puck out of the air after it had crossed the goal line). One might say that it was a player playing as if his next real game would be on April 15th. To us, he looked kind of old.

- In the second period, I was watching what was passing for hockey by the Caps, and I was thinking to myself, “Bruce is going to sit Ovechkin pretty soon…” He didn’t, but it wouldn’t have surprised me if he did. Everyone has an off night, and despite a couple of assists, this looked like it was Ovechkin’s turn to have one.

- One of the problems the Caps have had for long stretches of the franchise’s history is a total inability to complete the simplest of passes. That’s what makes the sort of passing that resulted in the Caps’ second goal such a smile to watch. To see Nicklas Backstrom and Tomas Fleischmann stick-handle and pass in such tight spaces, leaving the puck where only Viktor Kozlov could do something with it…well, we’re scratching our head trying to figure out what combination of forwards in Caps history could make that play so smoothly.

- If there was one thing the Caps did well, when they still seemed interested, was head to the net. The four goals were scored from a combined distance of less than 50 feet from the net.

- Then in the second period, when they didn’t appear especially interested, they mustered a total of five shots. None of them were from inside 25 feet, and the Caps went almost ten minutes (from 5:43 of the period to 15:00) without getting a shot on goal against a goalie who wasn’t having a very good night.

- The penalty killing was good – six-for-six – but that’s probably more a function of Varlamov’s play than the skaters in front of him. Once again, clearing the puck out of the defensive zone was a problem.

- If you knew Michael Nylander would be centering Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr, would you also have figured out that it would be Nylander who would have four of the five shots on goal the trio would get? Would you have figured out that Nylander would have five of the six shot attempts? Not bad, considering Nylander got barely ten minutes of ice time and barely half of that in the last two periods, combined.

Just one more trip to Florida, and the Caps can get on with the playoffs. Frankly, even we’re sort of bored with the whole idea of games 81 and 82 at this point. But the Caps can set a franchise record for standings points with another win (or two extra time losses), and they can still tie the franchise record for road wins. Ovechkin can still catch Malkin, the Caps can still finish with six 20-goal scorers (Fleischmann needing one), and the Caps can finish with ten players with at least ten goals (Nylander needing one).

It could still be an interesting week.