Saturday, November 21, 2009

A ONE-point night: Maple Leafs 2 - Caps 1 (OT/Gimmick)

Well, didn't they lay an egg?

There is no explanation to do justice to losing to a team that had one win on its own ice in nine tries, whose wins coming into this game came against teams with a combined 22-28-12 record. But the Caps found a way to lose to such a team tonight, dropping a 2-1 Gimmick loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto.

It isn’t even as if Toronto played an especially inspired game. They didn’t. The Caps just didn’t seem to have what it took to pay a price to stomp the Leafs flat, especially at the top of the lineup. Here is an example. Here is how the shots on goal started for the Caps in this game:

1:13 – Tomas Fleischmann, 48 feet
2:57 – Jay Beagle, 22 feet
6:29 – Jeff Schultz, 54 feet
7:39 – Brendan Morrison, 163 feet
9:33 – Eric Fehr, 30 feet
12:57 – Brooks Laich, 22 feet

Let’s leave out the fact that the Caps registered only six shots on goal in 13 minutes against a weak defensive team. It took the Caps almost 13 minutes to get a shot on goal from inside of 30 feet from a top-six forward. Start a game like that, and all it does is invite a team to hang around and gain some confidence that, if only for tonight, they can skate with the big boys.

And that’s just what Toronto did. They stuck around. Even after Alex Ovechkin wired a puck past Leafs goalie Vesa Toskala to give the Caps another first goal of the game, the Caps skated as if they thought it would be easy after that, or convinced themselves that since it was the second of a back to back, they should be tired. Toronto, in the mean time, stuck around.

And when a team lets their opponent stick around, they not only have to rely on their goaltender to keep the back of the net clean, they have to rely on the hockey gods to turn the other way on the matter of bounces. The gods didn’t. Toronto managed to tie things up late in the second period when Niklas Hagman was in the right place at the right time, when a shot by Mikhail Grabovsky pinballed up and off Hagman’s right arm and behind Semyon Varlamov.

After that, it was the 11th commandment that “thou shalt have a Gimmick.” And so it was, and one wonders, was Mark Henderson driving the Zamboni to scrape the ice? It was a weird, not to mention drawn out production to prepare the ice for the Gimmick, and the Caps weren’t exactly pleased with the manner in which it was done, a process that required the referee to squeegee away snow that was left along the runway.

Having tidied up, it was left once more to the hockey gods to point a finger, and they pointed their collective fingers at the Caps shooters. It’s really quite hard to win a Gimmick without getting a shot on goal, but that’s what happened. OK, Eric Fehr will go into the hockey record books as having recorded a shot on Vesa Toskala, but by the time the puck left his stick, he was holding his stick in both hands… half in his left, and half in his right, after the twig broke in half. Note to Coach Boudreau, when it comes to the Gimmick, IT’S NOT FEHR!

When Alex Ovechkin launched his try high and wide right (Bobby Bowden is going to be visiting to see if he wants to kick field goals for Florida State), it was all but over. Nicklas Hagman lifted a backhand over Semyon Varlamov, and with the earlier trick shot success by Phil Kessel, the grisly spectacle was complete.

Other stuff…

- Can’t really fault the power play in this one, despite going 0-for-4. They did get 10 shots on goal in four power plays from an average of 15 feet and only one outside of 25 feet. They had their chances.

- Semyon Varlamov might have a bit of the barracuda in him. It was something Joe Beninati alluded to in the telecast, that (to paraphrase) Varlamov might sense that the number one goalie job is there for the taking. He was sharp, to say the least (38 saves on 38 shots that weren’t off a body part, 0-for-1 on shots off of arms). He has stopped 112 of the last 117 shots he has faced (.957), dating back to the third period of a 3-2 loss to New Jersey on November 4th. Since that loss, he is 3-0-1, 1.30.

- Bad number #1: The Caps were dinged by the official scorer with 18 giveaways tonight. 12 of them were by defensemen. That’s the kind of thing that can make a goaltender’s hair fall out (or his coach’s).

- Bad number #2: Toronto had 39 shots on goal. That doesn’t tell the half of it, literally. The Maple Leafs had 86 shot attempts in 65 minutes. That’s one every 45 seconds, or pretty much one for every single shift, generally speaking. The Caps, on the other hand 57 attempts in 65 minutes (one every 1:08).

- Bad number #3: The score sheet will show that the faceoff battle was almost split between the teams (Leafs 31 – Caps 28). But the Caps were 7-for-17 in the offensive zone, 9-for-21 in the defensive zone.

- The Caps got off lucky to get to the trick shot competition. They could have been whistled for boarding and tripping early in the overtime.

- Various reasons already tied to trial balloons as to why the Caps lost – tired from last night, the building was hot. If the Caps had lost to San Jose in this fashion, one could buy this. If the Caps lost to Tampa Bay in this fashion (Tampa has played in nine extra time games this year, including six that ended in Gimmicks), one could buy this. Not against the Maple Leafs.

- It wasn’t all bad. Chris Clark had five shots on goal, a couple of hits, and a blocked shot in 12:36. Brooks Laich had six shots on goal (tied for the team lead with Ovechkin), a couple of hits, and a blocked shot. Brian Pothier had three blocked shots and none of those dozen giveaways by Caps defensemen.

- Bad number #4: Jeff Schultz wears jersey number “55.” That’s a high number by NHL standards. It’s a high number for any team sport except football. Numbers higher than that are generally the sort you see in training camp, spring training, or… injury call ups. Five skaters wore numbers greater than “55” for the Caps tonight. Four of them started the year in Hershey – Andrew Gordon (63), John Carlson (74), Jay Beagle (83), and Mathieu Perreault (85); and Tyler Sloan (89) dressed for only his 12th game this year.

- Bad number #5: David Steckel won only five of 11 draws. That might not sound so bad, except it is only the second time this season Steckel has finished a game south of 50 percent, the other time being October 24th, when he won only four of 11 draws against the Islanders.

- Bad number #6: In the “he taketh, and he giveth away” category, we have John Erskine. He taketh four hits, and he giveth away the puck four times.

- Bad number #7: With Alexander Semin out, three young guns skated tonight. Two of them – Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green – did not register a shot on goal.

- Odd number #1: Six of the 18 skaters for the Caps averaged at least one minute per shift tonight (the best thing for guys skating on consecutive nights?). No Maple Leaf skated an average shift more than 55 seconds.

- Odd number #2. Of the 18 skaters for Toronto, 17 registered shots on goal. Jeff Finger took the bagel.

- Odd number #3: If under “Team Lead, Hits” you had “Mike Green,” you win. He had five for the Caps.

Bruce Boudreau was quite upbeat for a coach who was on the wrong side of the result. Look, he’s the expert in this sort of thing, so the fan here has to defer to his judgment. Still, we didn’t think the Caps were very much in this game from the get-go. And frankly, despite having devoted 1,367 words to this point, there really isn’t a good explanation for losing this game to that team.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Maple Leafs, November 21st

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s Saturday in Washington… Toronto, too. And that’s where the Caps find themselves this morning as they prepare to take on the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre. The Caps will be anxious to get the taste of a 3-2 loss to the Canadiens out of their mouths tonight, and…

“beep, oot, blat-blat… ooooooooooooooooooh”

What the…

“Oh, don’t mind him. He can’t wait for the ‘Star Wars: In Concert' show at the Air Canada Centre on Thursday.”

And you are…

"I am C-3PO, Human-Cyborg relations. And this is my counterpart, R2-D2."

I’m, uh… sure. And you’re here for a hockey game?

“Oh, yes. We find the action quite exciting. Much like the dogfights Master Luke fought when he defeated Lord Vader. This is our first such game in person.”

And you picked a Toronto Maple Leafs game to see…

“We seem to be made to suffer. It's our lot in life.”

And your little friend here… looks a little like Martin St. Louis.

“Sir, San Loo’ee is the Lord High Commissioner of the forest moon of Endor.”

Well, all I know is that he’s a forward for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“Tampa Bay Lightning, sir?....that sounds like the storms we encountered on Kamino.”

Whatever. At least you get to see the Caps for your first game in person.

“Oh, yes sir. And we’ve read so much about this ‘Alex Ovechkin,’ haven’t we R2?”


“He’s quite excited, sir. He was just remarking on our way over here that Ovechkin has more power than the Death Star.”

Well, I hope you two enjoy the game.

“We do have one question before you go, sir.”

Ask away.

“Do you know of any ‘Star Trek’ conventions in town? We just love to trash talk those pointy-eared twerps.”

While those two are going where no robot has gone before, we have a game tonight. You could not find a more dangerous opponent to face than the Toronto Maple Leafs. Not good, mind you, just dangerous. Why? Let’s look at the record. The Leafs started the season 0-7-1. In doing so, they scored a grand total of 15 goals. They allowed 35. Then, they gave indications of having a heartbeat. Not a strong one, mind you, but at least a pulse. They went 3-0-4, including a 5-1 whomping of Detroit, and Leafs fans were probably thinking about vantage points on the parade route in June.

That Detroit win was the Leafs’ last one, on November 7th. Since then, they are 0-4-1, scoring more than two goals only once (against Carolina, which is without the services of their top two goaltenders, so that one shouldn’t count). And then there are the numbers…

Yes, this game is dangerous because Toronto is so bad, a loss to them would be nothing short of embarrassing. OK, so… can the Maple Leafs embarrass the Caps? Yes. It wouldn’t be the way to bet (unless handing your money over to the fellow at the betting window, never to see it again, is a fetish of yours), but there are possibilities.

For one, Phil Kessel is back on the ice. He has goals in four of the eight games he’s played since coming back from shoulder surgery. He hasn’t had a lot of success against the Caps in his brief career (2-2-4 in ten games), but coming into this one 5-2-7 in his last six games, he’s coming in hot.

Tomas Kaberle – of the famous Rakovnik Kaberle’s – comes into this game tied with Mike Green atop the scoring rankings among defensemen. This is his 11th season of being the good soldier in Toronto playing for some mediocre (and some other ghastly) teams. He’s mentioned a lot in the usual spaces that talk about trade rumors, but there he is, still wearing the blue and white. He is 5-13-18 in 34 career games against Washington, and he has an assist in the team’s only meeting this year (a 6-4 Caps win in the home opener for Washington). He had quite a run in late October with a five game run in which he was 2-11-13. Since then, he’s gotten into a pattern, alternating games in which he records a point with those in which he does not. He had an assist for the Leafs in the 6-5 Gimmick loss to the Hurricanes on Thursday, so the pattern seems to bode well for the Caps.

After that, you have to wonder where the results are going to come from at either end of the ice for Toronto. After Kaberle, the Leafs do not have a player with more than 13 points (the Caps have seven players with more than 13 points, five of whom should dress tonight). They have only two players with more than five goals (Alexei Ponikarovsky and Niklas Hagman), and even if you put Kessel in this group of scorers, the Caps have five players with more than five goals, four of whom should dress tonight.

At the other end, Mike Komisarek has a torn quadriceps muscle (what, not a "lower body injury?”) and is on injured reserve. Filling the breach is Carl Gunnarsson, a 23-year old seventh round draft pick (2007) for whom this is his first year of professional North American hockey. However well thought of he is (and he is), he has 12 games with the Marlies and three with the Leafs on his North American resume. He’s averaged a few ticks under 20 minutes of ice time, and if he gets that many tonight, he is going to be matched against some formidable firepower. Perhaps not the Ovechkin-Backstrom line, but he will see minutes against the Morrison line.

In goal, things are a mess for the Leafs. Jonas Gustavsson has allowed three, four, and five goals in his last three appearances. Carolina – yes, Carolina – scored three goals in the last 12 minutes to take the game on Thursday into overtime, after which they won in the Gimmick phase. How bad is that? Carolina had scored three goals in 60 minutes of regulation in only five of 20 games leading up to the contest with Toronto.

That would leave Vesa Toskala, who is probably 2,324,567th on the Leaf fan’s holiday card mailing list these days. He is so adored by Leafs fans that he has not started a game on Toronto ice since October 10th (he lost, 5-2, to the Penguins). A knee injury contributed to his absence on the ACC ice, but it’s not as if coach Ron Wilson was taking extraordinary measures to get him home ice time in any case. Oh, but the way, Toskala hasn’t won a game this season. He is 0-4-2, 4.26, .854. He has one game this season (in eight appearances) in which he has saved at least 90 percent of the shots he faced. He lost that game, too.

There are no excuses here, not playing back to back, not playing on the road, not playing with injuries, not sunspots. The Caps can, should, must, had better win this game. Losing to a team this bad can only be accomplished as a product of effort, as in “giving none.” And that is why this game is so dangerous. As Caps fans know, a night of iffy effort is not something that has been expunged from the Caps operating manual. Recall the first meeting between the teams in the home opener, when the Caps scored three goals in the game’s first 14 minutes. They allowed things to get entirely too interesting in a 6-4 final score, as Toronto scored three times in the third period.

But if they give the effort tonight that they are capable of – and with a national television audience in Canada watching, that should be motivation enough – this could end ugly for the Maple Leafs.

Caps 6 - Maple Leafs 2

A NO-point night: Canadiens 3 - Caps 2

Sometimes, you lose a game.

Give Montreal credit. They played hard, and they played smart. It wasn’t the jaw-droppingly boring sort of “playing hard” that you might see by the plucky Islanders or the robotic Devils. Montreal played a game tailored to their own skill and that of the Capitals in a 3-2 Canadiens win last night. They took away the middle of the ice, they took away time and space from Alex Ovechkin to deny him shooting lanes and angles, they played an error-free game, and they got a solid game from goaltender Carey Price to get the win. Montreal coach Jacques Martin described the game in a nutshell in the postgame: ''The last 3 1/2 minutes were kind of hectic But up to that point I felt we were managing the game well.'' Yes, they managed the game well.

Make no mistake, even with that the Caps win that game absent two somewhat fluky goals that ricocheted of bodies and bounced oddly past goalie Michal Neuvirth. The Caps did not lack for effort as much as results.

Other stuff…

- OK, let’s get this one out of the way. The home town fans are always going to think they got hosed by the referees when they come out on the short end of a close game. But there was one sequence in a 2:28 span of the third period that fairly dripped with irony. At 3:21 of the period, Mathieu Perreault was whistled for hooking off Guillaume Latendresse from the puck, a man who outweighs Perreault by almost 60 pounds. It was a close call, but OK. 2:28 later Latendresse was whistled for hooking off Brendan Morrison, a man Latendresse outweighs by 45 pounds. And Morrison was sent off coincidentally for… diving? Are you bleeping kidding me?

- John Carlson didn’t get the fairy tale finish to his NHL debut – the Caps lost, and his best chance at a goal didn’t go in (even though it sure looked from our seat that it did – chalk that up to our sitting at the other end of the rink and wishful thinking). But he was solid in all three zones – he managed his own end well (finished the night even), used his body effectively (five hits), and was not shy in the offensive zone (five shot attempts). One thing we watched more of in this game – we kept tabs on Carlson a lot in the second period. It’s the long change for a defenseman, and since he plays on the right side, it’s the longest change. He played the period well in that respect, not getting burned on changes or staying past his time. Sure, he’s done this since he was a kid (Peerless, he’s still a kid), but playing one’s first NHL game might be something of a different experience. It was one game against a somewhat offensively challenged team, but there is so much upside to this fellow.

- Ovechkin had 14 shot attempts (five on goal), but really precious few good ones, and never any that Price didn’t get a good look at. Credit Montreal’s team defense, despite the high (or for Ovechkin, average) shot attempts total.

- Mike Green wakes up this morning as the leading scorer among defensemen (ok, tied with Tomas Kaberle). He’s doing it a lot differently than last year, when it seemed every game offered him at least one opportunity to pinch in and roof a puck over the goalie’s glove. That’s not there this year, but Green has assists in 14 of 21 games in which he’s played. He had two more last night. Give him credit for adjusting his game to take what the opposition gives, or more accurately, to take advantage of what the opposition takes – his space to take open shots – to find the open teammate.

- For one brief, blinding moment, you saw why Eric Fehr was a first round draft choice. That wrist shot that Carey Price could only wave at was a rocket. The trouble has been that such brief, blinding moments have been something else… too infrequent. But Fehr had a solid game last night in all aspects in 14 minutes of ice time.

- This game is why the Caps miss Mike Knuble. There were opportunities for cashing in rebounds lying in and around the crease last night, but no Cap was able to get a stick on the puck before Price calmly covered it up.

- Speaking of Price, that was the goalie was saw a few years back in the Calder Cup final against Hershey. He played “quietly,” with an economy of movement and good position. No swimming, no flapping, no happy feet. He was as still as a quiet lake for most of the game, even when, as coach Martin put it, things “were king of hectic” late in the game. If a team lets him get in a happy zone, he’s hard to beat.

- Carlson’s five hits led the team.

- Michal Neuvirth deserved better. The first two goals pinballed in front of him and caught him in position where he had no chance to keep them from bouncing in to the net. The third one was a nice deflection by Mike Cammalleri. If you look at his saving “only” 19 of 22 shots, you’d think he had a pretty mediocre night. He was better than that.

- Give John Erskine credit for guts and smarts. He had the guts to go with Georges Laraque (even if it was Laraque’s first game back from injury), and he had the smarts to get inside early and wrestle Laraque to the ice. Didn’t seem smart to let that think go on for long and allow Big Georges to find his timing.

- Tom Poti missed the last 35 minutes with what is an “upper body injury.” Hershey’s area code is 717.

Like we said, sometimes you lose a game. Losing this one was not a product of bad effort. The only complaint we have is that when Montreal went up 3-1 in the third, the Caps reverted to the individual style, each man trying to do too much himself. They got the goal late and put on a lot of pressure in the last minute. They just couldn’t solve Price one more time. It happens.

The trick is to make sure it doesn’t happen in consecutive games. They likely face a goalie tonight in Toronto who has struggled lately (Jonas Gustavsson has allowed three, four, and five goals in his last three appearances). The “results” need to match the effort.