Saturday, June 19, 2010

The 2009-2010 season, by the "tens" -- Ten Games That Mattered: Washington at Buffalo, March 3rd

It has been a little while, but we’re up to the sixth of ten games that mattered in the 2009-2010 season…

March 3: Washington (41-13-8) at Buffalo (33-19-9)

The Result: Capitals 3 – Sabres 1

The Background: The Capitals were coming off the Olympic break, a particularly disappointing one for the Capitals representing Team Russia, which was eliminated from medal contention far earlier than most predicted. Of more immediate relevance, the Caps were looking to hit the home stretch of the season running after stumbling into the break with three consecutive losses (0-1-2) and allowing 15 goals in those three games. With 41 wins in the bank and 20 games left to play, the Caps were in no danger of slipping out of the playoffs, but there were the matters of the top record in the league and the desire to generate some momentum heading down the home stretch that were of importance.

As for the opponent, the Sabres’ Olympian goaltender (representing Team USA) Ryan Miller was making his first appearance after the Games. Although Miller had a 1-2-0 record against the Caps for the season coming into this game, his one win was a 3-0 whitewashing of the Caps on December 9th, and he had shut out the Caps in two of the last three games he played against them on HSBC Arena ice.

Why It Mattered: Given that Miller could have been a goaltender the Caps might have faced in the playoffs, establishing a pattern of success against him was important. However, Miller certainly did his part to frustrate Washington and plant the seed that his domination of the Caps (a 10-5 career win-loss record coming into the game) was not about to end. He stopped all 11 shots he faced in the first period and the first 11 shots he faced in the second frame. Then, the Caps caught a break. Tomas Fleischmann skated out from behind the goal line and through two Buffalo defenders sent the puck out to Jeff Schultz out on the left point. As the puck was heading out to Schultz, Eric Fehr charged to the front of the net to line himself up as a screen against Miller. Jason Chimera also was heading to the net to provide some more traffic. Schultz fired, and as the puck was coming through, Tim Kennedy tried to tie up Fehr’s stick, but Fehr managed to tip the puck, whereupon it then deflected off Chimera and past Miller into the net.

Buffalo scored exactly 60 seconds later when Brooks Laich and Mike Green both were caught heading the wrong way as a loose puck found its way onto Jochen Hecht’s stick for a quick wrister past Jose Theodore. That sent the game into the third period as a 1-1- tie. But midway through the final period, the Caps did what they did best all season. Fleischmann led a jail-break into the Sabres’ zone with Chimera and Fehr charging toward the net. Flesichmann peeled off into the right wing faceoff circle, then found Mike Green trailing the play and steaming down the slot. Flesichmann put the puck on Green’s tape, and the defenseman made up for his gaffe in the second by sending the puck past Miller before the goalie could react.

After that, the Caps turned things over to Theodore, who turned away all nine shots he faced in the period, six of them coming after the Caps scored the tie-breaker, one of them a point-blank save on Chris Butler, who was left all alone in front with the clock ticking toward the four-minute mark to play. Boyd Grodon sealed the win with a 190-foot bank shot from behind his own goal line off the side boards and into the Buffalo net to seal the 3-1 win.

The Takeaway: The win in the first game after the Olympic break propelled the Caps to a three-game winning streak to start the month and a 13-2-5 finish to the season. After giving up 19 goals in the four games leading into the break (and a 1-1-2 record), putting the clamps to Buffalo was a welcome start to the home stretch of the season. It was an especially high note to start on for Jose Theodore in the post-Olympic portion of the season, given that he allowed 16 goals in his last four appearances before the break. Even though he was on a twelve-game unbeaten streak (in regulation, a 10-0-2 record), he wasn’t providing much comfort that he could continue that run. In fact, he would get a shutout in his next appearance, a 2-0 win over the Rangers, and finish the season with a 20-0-3 record in his last 24 appearances. If the story coming into the game was the Sabres’ goaltender, it was the Caps’ goalie by game’s end.

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