Sunday, November 01, 2009

A ONE-point night: Blue Jackets 5 - Capitals 4 (OT)

If the NHL had a seismic detector, it would have registered 8.0 on the Richter scale at 6:10 of the second period of this evening’s Capitals-Blue Jackets game. It was then that Columbus’ Raffi Torres and Washington’s Alex Ovechkin collided in the sort of innocent collision that takes place dozens of times a game. Both players went down. Torres skated back into the play, Ovechkin skated to the Capitals’ bench shaking his head. He went immediately down the tunnel to the locker room and would not return in a 5-4 overtime loss that was a game bizarre enough that it should have been played last night – on Hallowe’en.

Ovechkin didn’t look right from the opening faceoff. He did not register a shot on goal until 6:02 was gone in the second period, just before his evening was done. He took two penalties, which would be his high for the year. There was the sloppy toe-drag that led to an R.J. Umberger breakaway 11 minutes into the first period.

Ovechkin’s departure cast a long shadow over a truly strange game, one in which the Caps really deserved better. They did a lot of things right…

There was the clinic put on by Nicklas Backstrom, Tomas Fleischmann and Alexander Semin in setting up the first goal that went Flesichmann to Backstrom, behind the back to Semin, over to Fleischmann, and back to Backstrom in the slot, all inside the Blue Jackets’ blue line, Backstrom ultimately banging the puck into a virtually empty net.

There was Brooks Laich stepping up into the void left by Ovechkin’s departure to pot a pair of goals to tie the game, then give the Caps a lead 2:08 apart in the second period. One came by getting dirty in front, potting a rebound on the power play. The other came when Laich found a seam down the middle, taking a pass from Brendan Morrison and snap the puck past goalie Steve Mason.

There was the unbelievable shift put in by Mike Knuble, who was a one man penalty killing effort in the Columbus zone, tying up the puck for what seemed like the entire Columbus power play.

There was David Steckel driving to the net and nudging a rebound of a shot back to Quintin Laing at the top of the crease for a goal.

But the Caps did enough wrong to lose, too…

There was Mike Green letting Rick Nash skate around him to the outside to glide in on Jose Theodore alone for a goal. The way Green moved – very stiffly, poking at Nash with his stick – you’d have thought he had a back injury. Such a thing shouldn’t be ruled out.

There was the inability to hold a third-period lead, something they actually gave up twice in this game, the last one with 23 seconds left in regulation.

There was Tom Poti leaving his feet in the overtime, giving Rick Nash the time and opportunity to pick his spot and find Umberger in front for the game-winner.

Nothing, however, beat the bizarre…

The puck that ricocheted strangely off the end boards to R.J. Umberger, who deposited the puck in an empty net with Jose Theodore behind the cage to collect the puck that never came.

The stick – Theodore’s – that got caught up in the meshing of the goal, leaving the goalie defenseless against a backhand wrap-around by Raffi Torres.

Ovechkin finally ending his evening after what seemed like an innocent nudge from Raffi Torres (although the injury might have occurred earlier in a scrum at the Columbus bench).

Other stuff…

Nicklas Backstrom led the team in shots in Ovechkin’s absence (six, tied with Alexander Semin). That ties a career high, accomplished twice, the last time also against Columbus last January 9th. What might seem odd about Backstrom’s number in this one is that all six of his attempts were on net.

Three Caps won at least ten draws – Backstrom (10-for-19), Brendan Morrison (10 of 14), and David Steckel (13 of 25). It was the second straight game that Backstrom won the majority of his draws after failing to do so in seven straight. For Steckel, he had the misfortune of losing his last draw, and Columbus scored the game-winner 12 seconds later.

Ovechkin still tied for the team lead in hits (three), despite playing only 7:43.

That’s nine straight games with at least one point. No team in the NHL has lost fewer games in regulation than the Caps (two).

By the same token, no team has lost more extra time games at home than have the Caps (three).

The goaltender interference call on David Steckel was lame. There really is no other word for it.

Only five giveaways in this game for the Caps, and Theodore had two of those.

The Caps yielded six power plays. With that many, there are likely to be a couple of silly ones. Knuble’s slashing penalty (which just expired when Columbus tied the game in the last minute) and Brian Pothier’s behind-the-play interference penalty were in that category. Both were penalties you might expect rookies to make, not veterans.

Time on ice… Who got those 13 or so minutes among the forwards that Alex Ovechkin didn’t skate? It wasn’t Nicklas Backstrom (18:26 against an average of 21:00 this year). It wasn’t Alexander Semin (19:44/19:51). It wasn’t Mike Knuble (16:33/17:24). On the other hand, Brooks Laich (20:49/19:18), Tomas Fleischmann (17:42/15:53), Matt Bradley (13:54/11:59), Quintin Laing (13:36/11:20), and David Steckel (16:16/14:14) got some extra time, some of it coming with the extra session.

The Caps played several games in this one, and it did not make for a good combination. There was the pretty phase, in which Backstrom, Fleischmann and Semin combined for a goal, then went silent thereafter (they had a combined two shots on goal in the third period). There was the grind phase, reflected the pair of goals by Laich and the goal by Laing. There was the gremlin phase of the game, which generally took place within a foot of wherever Jose Theodore might have been standing with the odd goals Columbus scored.

All things considered, this was far from a perfect game, but it wasn’t as bad as the final score indicated, either. Losing the best player on the planet for 34 minutes and overtime is going to leave an impression, especially when the club doesn’t have time to reorient itself to the loss. And, there might be an injury to Mike Green that isn’t being talked about. Jose Theodore will be on the hook for allowing five goals on 32 shots, but two were quirky, and a couple others were the case of Capitals losing track of some Blue Jackets in front of the net.

The Caps still have the fourth most points in the league, second best in the East. Things could be a lot worse… like if Ovechkin misses any significant time. Caps fans will be holding their collective breath the next day or so. That’s the bigger story than an overtime loss.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Blue Jackets, November 1st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s an early evening tilt today as the Caps host the Columbus Blue Jackets in what will be the home team’s third game in four days. The Caps just completed their first set of back-to-back games of the season by taking three of a possible four points with a win over... uh, with a win over Atlanta and an over time loss...uh... and overtime loss to the New York Island... can I help you?

“I’m sorry, sir, I was just happening to pass by, and I realized, you’re The Peerless Prognosticator, and I just had to say hello.”

Thanks, and you are...

“Columbo, sir. Lieutenant Columbo.”

Nice coat.

“Thank you, sir. Now, I see that you write a blog. Very nice, by the way. I could never do something like that. I’d get writer’s block. Did you ever have writer’s block, sir?”

Well, I’m having an attack right now...

“That’s too bad. I’d always be worrying that I didn’t have anything to write. I worry. I mean, little things bother me. I'm a worrier. I mean, little insignificant details I lose my appetite. I can't eat. My wife, she says to me, ‘you know, you can really be pain.’"

I can understand that.

“So, I take it you’re writing about the game today. Is that right, sir?”

Why, come to think of it, I am.

“And I’m guessing that you dreamt me up because my name sounds like the name of the team the Capitals are playing. Would I be right about that, sir?”

You’re smart.

“My wife says I'm the second smartest. She claims there are 80 guys tied for first. But back to the case, sir... I mean 'game'... Columbus is having some trouble these days, is that right, sir?”

Well, yes. They’ve lost five of their last six – one of those in a Gimmick – and they’ve given up at least four goals in five of six. They’re having trouble keeping their heads above water in the Central Division.

“Oh, I can’t swim, sir... I don’t even like a deep tub.”

Was there anything else, Lieutenant? I’m really pretty busy.

“Oh, I can see that, sir, with all your prognosticating and blogging to do. It must make you very, very busy. I won’t take up any more of your time.”

Thank you, Lieutenant.

“I’m sorry, sir, there are a couple of loose ends I'd like to tie up. Nothing important you understand...”

Yes, Lieutenant?

“The Capitals have sold out each of their first seven home games, is that right, sir?”

I’ll take your word for it.

“Do you think you can find a couple of tickets? It’s for the wife, sir. She’s had her heart set on seeing a hockey game for a long time, and I can’t think of anything better than a Caps game against Columbus... Columbus, Columbo... you understand, sir.”

I get it, Lieutenant, but I don’t think I can get you tickets. This one is probably sold out, too.

“I understand, sir...”

Is that all?

“Oh, there’s just one more thing...”

–sigh– Yes, Lieutenant?

“What’s with the bunny slippers... is that part of the official blogging uniform?”

Well, we all need inspiration, and the Caps could use some to get November off to a good start. The Caps might have been expected to suffer something of a letdown after playing four division winners from last year in their first seven games. But starting with a win in that seventh game against last year’s Pacific Division champion, San Jose, the Caps have earned points in seven straight games (6-0-1).

And as if they need any inspiration for today’s game against Columbus, it is that they have yet to score a goal on Columbus goaltender Steve Mason. Last year’s Calder Trophy winner as top rookie won both games against the Caps last year by identical 3-0 scores, stopping all 71 shots he faced. It’s not as if the Caps were the only victims of Mason shutouts – he had ten in the 2008-2009 season.

This year is a different story, though. Mason might be falling prey to the dreaded “sophomore slump.” He is 5-4-1, 3.48, .881 for the season, but he’s really had trouble in his last five starts – 1-3-1, 4.53, .833. Here is how the Blue Jackets compare to the Caps overall so far…

As far as the skaters are concerned, the word that comes to mind here is “young.” Of the 22 skaters dressing so far this year, the oldest – Samuel Pahlsson – won’t turn 32 until December. 10 are 25 or younger. And some of the youngest of this group are the most productive. It starts, of course, with Rick Nash (turned 25 last June). Nash leads the Blue Jackets in scoring and is tied for tenth in the league in goals scored. But the number to attach to Nash is “two.” He has scored two goals in each of two of his last four games, and he has two goals in each of three of the last four games he has played against Washington.

Jakub Voracek (turned 20 in August) is fourth on the team in scoring (4-4-8), following up a solid rookie campaign last year (9-29-38, plus-11 in 80 games). He got off to something of a slow start this year with only a pair of assists in his first five games, but he went 4-2-6, plus-5 in his next four games. He’s stumbled since, failing to register a point in his last three contests.

Derick Brassard (turned 22 in September) is fifth on the team in scoring (2-5-7). He had his season cut short last year with injuries, playing in only 31 games, but gives indications of being the sort of center who will be a fixture for years. If he has a problem this year, it is that he is minus-8 in 12 games (minus-5 in his last five), worst on the team. He has yet to register a point against the Caps (two games).

If there is a somewhat less pleasant surprise, it is Nikita Filatov (turned 19 last May). After netting four goals in eight games in his first taste of the NHL last season, he has one goal in eight games so far this season. He’s seen little ice time (9:51 being his high-water mark for minutes this year) and has been a scratch in four of the last eight Columbus games. He has no points in any of those games, and has gone scoreless since getting a goal against Vancouver in the second game of the season.

Among the defensemen, there are some odd numbers. First, all eight blueliners dressing for Columbus this year have registered at least one point. Then again, only one of five defensemen who have played in at least ten of the 12 games for Columbus are on the plus side of the ledger. Then again, Jan Hedja (who?) is plus-8 in five games, best among the defensemen. And while it has nothing to do with numbers, we just think it odd that defenseman Mike Commodore was born in Fort Saskatchewan… Alberta. That would be like being born in East Minneapolis… Ohio.

Here is your fun fact for Columbus to take to the rink. In eight seasons, the Blue Jackets are 21-32-13 on Sundays, and the worst year they’ve had on that day of the week was last year (1-5-1). OK, here is another... the Blue Jackets did not lose to a Southeast Division team in regulation last year. They have not yet played a Southeast Division team this season and in fact have played only one team from the Eastern Conference – a 4-3 Gimmick loss to Pittsburgh last Friday.

OK, let’s cut to the chase. The Caps are either going to score a lot, because Steve Mason hasn’t been very good, and the Caps should be looking for revenge. Or, the Caps aren’t going to score at all, because there is always one team that one goaltender owns. We thought it was Martin Brodeur that owned the Caps. Well, the Caps have scored on Brodeur, they haven’t scored on Mason.

If you’ve paid any attention to what we do here, you know which of these we think will happen…

Capitals 5 – Blue Jackets 2