Sunday, December 20, 2009

A TWO-point night: Caps 4 - Oilers 2

And we thought we had to do a lot of shoveling.

While the Washington metropolitan region was digging out from under two feet of snow, the Caps were finding themselves having to dig out from under a two goal third period deficit in last night’s game against the Oilers in Edmonton. It helps when your big shovel has an “8” on its back, and the Caps used it to good advantage in roaring back from that two goal deficit to beat the Oilers, 4-2.

But Alex Ovechkin and his two goals was hardly the only story here. The Caps and Oilers played to a scoreless first period, but early in the second Jeff Schultz couldn’t cleanly corral a loose puck, then he tried to poke the puck across to Ovechkin but had it picked off by Patrick O’Sullivan. The Oiler forward headed in on a break on Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth (who was the other noteworthy story in this one). Neuvirth made the initial stop on O’Sullivan, but neither Schultz nor Ovechkin got back in time to cover up the trailer – Shawn Horcoff – who deposited the puck past Neuvirth.

The second Edmonton goal was equal parts effort and luck. Sheldon Souray used his long reach to keep a skittering puck in the Caps zone when it seemed certain to be headed to neutral ice. It ended up on the stick of Ryan Potulny, who fed it across to Andrew Cogliano. Cogliano didn’t get a clean grip on the puck, but did fish it out of the corner from where he tried to center it, although no Oiler was at the front of the net. However, Karl Alzner was, and the puck hit his skate and popped over Neuvirth to give the home team a 2-0 lead.

To that point Neuvirth was a victim of a bad play in front of him and a bit of bad luck in front of him. He was otherwise solid, having stopped the other 16 shots he faced. It was a case of keeping the Caps in the game until the skater could shake the cobwebs and press an attack of their own. It didn’t take long.

Mike Green carried the puck into the Oiler end in the first minute of the third period, but was rubbed out of the play along the right wing boards by Souray. The puck slid behind the Oilers’ net past Nicklas Backstrom but not past Alex Ovechkin, who had darted in from the other side. Ovechkin pulled it onto his forehand and back out in front of the net, jabbing at the puck several times before jamming it under goalie Jeff Deslauriers as he was being cleaned out by Souray and halving the deficit.

That was the grinding goal. Six minutes later he got the style goal by picking up the puck in the neutral zone and working his way down the right wing. At the top of the right wing circle he let fly with a slap shot that Deslaurier saved with his pad. The rebound, however, found its way back onto Ovechkin’s stick blade and from just above the goal line he snapped the puck over Deslaurier’s left shoulder and into the net on the short side. It was a shooter’s goal, an example of shoot, and good things can happen.

The game winner came in the 13th minute of the period when the Caps played a little tic-tac-toe high in the Oilers’ zone. Jeff Schultz moved the puck to Mike Knuble along the left wing boards, and he tapped it to Tomas Fleischmann at the top of the circles. Fleischmann turned and fired a one-timer over Deslauriers, and that fast, the Caps had a lead.

The last goal was all Nicklas Backstrom. The Caps’ center collected a loose puck and found a seam in the Oilers’ defense. He circled into it, drawing three Oilers to him as he moved in on the goalie. Backstrom sent the puck to Ovechkin in the right wing circle for a shot that Deslaurier stopped with his pad. Ovechkin collected his own rebound and skated around the cage, while Backstrom moved in front. The puck came out to Tyler Sloan while Backstrom was setting up at the top of the crease, taking some abuse from the Oiler defense. Sloan fired, and Deslauriers made the save, but he could not help a rebound, and Backstrom calmly collected it and lifted the puck past Deslauriers for the insurance goal.

Other stuff…

- Neuvirth played the role here that a starting pitcher sometimes has to play in baseball. He was the Caps’ “stopper.” Coming off a disappointing effort in Vancouver that the Caps lost, 3-2, the Caps looked equally lethargic early against the Oilers. Neuvirth kept the team in it, and when the Caps finally took a lead late, he slammed the door. Edmonton got five of their ten third period shots in the last 2:02 of the game in a furious effort to get even. Neuvirth turned them all away and ensured that one loss didn’t become “two.”

- Bruce Boudreau proclaimed Alex Ovechkin’s effort against Vancouver as “average.” Even Ovechkin said, "sometimes I just try to play way too fancy." Last night, he was anything but fancy. He got greasy in getting himself to the Oiler net to swat several times at a loose puck to get one goal, then simply fired a rocket at Jeff Deslauriers, who could not steer the rebound away from Ovechkin for another that found the back of the net. He almost had a hat trick on a feed from Backstrom (who would score moments later). Nine shots, 21 attempts, three hits, two goals, an assist, and a plus-1. That’s more of the “average” Ovechkin that fans are used to.

- Jeff Schultz had a very uneven night. A pair of assists, three giveaways – one leading to an Oiler goal. Boudreau stuck with him, though. Schultz skated eight shifts (including a long 1:28 shift late in the third) for 6:32 of ice time in the third period.

- It was a surprisingly choppy game, there being 72 faceoffs in all. It helped that the Caps won 42 of them, Brendan Morrison and David Steckel each winning at least a dozen (even Nicklas Backstrom finished on the plus-side of the ledger). How choppy was it? Zach Stortini played only 8:18 for the Oilers, yet he still took 12 draws – a faceoff every 42 seconds of play.

- As the game wore on, we kept thinking “DeLorean” whenever we heard the name “Deslauriers,” and sure enough – like the car, lots of style and flash early, but he couldn’t last in the end. He seemed to have an increasingly difficult time handling rebounds.

- The Caps out attempted the Oilers 85-49. They had more errant shot attempts (43 misses and shots blocked) than the Oilers steered on net (28). 15 of those Oiler shots came from three players (Souray, O’Sullivan, and Horcoff, who still managed to be a combined minus-2). They got almost nothing from anyone else.

- Chris Clark doesn’t get the ice time he once did for this club, but he makes what he gets eventful. His crashing the net and getting into Deslauriers’ face seemed to get the goalie a bit off his game for a time, and he did have a bout to add to his resume, that being with Steve Staios.

- Even with the own goal, Karl Alzner had a pretty solid game – a couple of shots on goal, an assist, a pair of blocked shots and 19 minutes of ice time.

- Quintin Laing acquitted himself rather well in his first game back from soft food. A tick under ten minutes, a shot on goal, a couple of assists… and no blocked shots.

- With this win, as well as wins by New Jersey and Pittsburgh, plus a standings point earned by Buffalo in the loss to the Penguins, there is now some clear separation between the top half of the playoff draw and the bottom half in the East. The Devils, Penguins, and Caps are separated by one point, and the Sabres are six points behind Pittsburgh with two games in hand.

The Caps have played seven of their last eight games on the road, and they went 4-3-0 in those road contests. If your motto is, “split on the road, win at home,” the Caps fulfilled that goal. They outscored the opponents in those seven road games, 26-17 (although 14 of those goals game in wins over Philadelphia and Colorado). Now the Caps get some home cooking with three games at Verizon Center (Buffalo, New Jersey, and Carolina) before heading to the west coast to end 2009.