Friday, November 12, 2010
A TWO-point night -- Game 16: Caps 6 - Lightning 3
This was supposed to be the night when the Tampa Bay Lightning made a statement, that the upstarts from Florida would announce that the stranglehold the Washington Capitals had on the Southeast Division was at an end. Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, Victor Hedman, Dan Ellis, and a supporting cast skated onto the Verizon Center ice determined to skate off having shown the Capitals and themselves that they were back to the competitive form they had when making the playoffs in four straight seasons from 2002-2003 through 2006-2007.
Yeah, well… not tonight.
Instead, the Caps skated off with a 6-3 win to keep their hold on the top spot in the league. The Capitals got off to another disinterested start, giving up the first goal for the 12th time in 16 games and trailing at the first intermission for the 11th time in those 16 games, the result of a a goal by Teddy Purcell off a feed from Sean Bergenheim that eluded Brooks Laich, who got caught defending Purcell from the wrong side of his goaltender, giving Purcell an unimpeded path to the net to tap in the centering pass.
Tampa was up, 1-0. Ho-hum.
Well, it was really worse than that. Through 20 minutes the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble registered a grand total of no shots on goal. One could almost hear the legendary play-by-play announcer Harry Doyle up in the booth saying disgustedly, “For the Lightning, one goal and 13 shots. For the Caps, no goals, and let’s see… the top line didn’t get a shot on goal. Is that all they got, no #@$&ing shots?”
It was all Coach Bruce Boudreau needed to see to inject some Vitamin A into the top line – Alexander Semin. The move actually helped out the second line right away as Mike Knuble followed up a Tom Poti goal with a sweet goal of his own, sweeping the puck off his backhand into the far side of the net while standing below the goalline, linemates Brooks Laich and Tomas Fleischmann getting the assists. That is how the second 20 minutes ended.
Ryan Malone tied it early in the third period on a Tampa Bay power play, snapping in a rebound of a long-range shot by Martin St. Louis for his second goal of the season and first since Game 2 of the season, a game-winner against Montreal. But then, the Vitamin A kicked in…
Alexander Semin restored the Caps’ lead 1:50 after Malone’s goal. Although Semin finished the play, don’t lose track of the fact that it started with an offensive zone faceoff win to start the power play. Brooks Laich fought off Nate Thompson to win the draw, and the result was that the Caps controlled the puck in the Lightning zone until Nicklas Backstrom could collect the puck along the right wing boards and sweep it to Semin just inside the edge of the right wing faceoff circle. Finding a soft spot between three Lightning defenders, Semin had time to take a step in and wrist the puck off and over the shoulder of goalie Dan Ellis to give the Caps the lead they would not relinquish.
Just over six minutes later it was Semin again, but once more, don’t lose track of how it came to be that Semin finished the play. Alex Ovechkin dug the puck out of the left wing corner and pushed it to Nicklas Backstrom circling behind the Lightning net. From Gretzky’s Neighborhood he found Semin at the top of the right wing circle. Semin one timed the pass with a rocket past Ellis to establish a two goal lead, and things looked a lot more comfortable.
Steven Stamkos put an end to that, though, when he led a 3-on-3 rush through the neutral zone. Stamkos slid the puck to Martin St. Louis, who skated into the Caps’ zone and dropped the puck for Dominc Moore. Moore swung wide and pushed the puck to the net as Mike Green and Tomas Fleischmann were closing on him. Jeff Schultz – the third man back -- lost Stamkos as a result of being tied up with St. Louis in front of the net. It allowed enough time for Stamkos to wrist the puck into the top of the net and make things interesting again at 4-3, Caps.
Alex Ovechkin put an end to the suspense barely two minutes later. One more time, it bears noting how the finish was made possible. It was actually Ovechkin who started the sequence. With Victor Hedman and Teddy Purcell closing on him at the Caps’ blue line, Ovechkin threw the puck out into space, out ahead of Alexander Semin, but softly enough where Semin could collect it with some room to work. Semin closed on the goalie, but had Hedman swat him with his stick in a desperate effort to interrupt the play. As he was getting whacked Semin sent the puck wide, but followed it into the corner. He circled out cleanly and found Ovechkin, who was calling for the puck. An instant later, an Ovechkin wrong-footed wrister found its way to the back of the net, and the Caps had their two goal lead back.
Semin completed the hat trick with an empty-net goal in the last minute, making it two hatters for the season (the other coming in a 4-3 overtime win over Atlanta three weeks ago). And with that, the Caps had a 6-3 win and restored the Southeast Division pecking order.
-- Stamkos should never have scored his goal. No, not because goalie Michal Neuvirth made a bad play on his shot, but because at the other end of the ice, Pavel Kubina was taking a whack at Brooks Laich in the Caps’ offensive zone, hauling him down and freeing the puck to allow the Lightning to start the play that ended in Stamkos’ goal (screens from NHL.com)...
-- 44:17. That is how long it took for Chris Lee and Kevin Pollock to figure out that the rules permitted referees to call penalties on both teams in the same game. The penalty called on Dominic Moore was one of only two that would be called on Tampa Bay, the other one washed out when Ovechkin scored his goal.
-- Speaking of referees, it is now beyond tired that a player levels an opponent with a clean hit, has to endure one of the opponent’s teammates jumping him to answer to some sort of code, and then gets sent off with his dance partner for fighting without an instigator being called on the third man in the episode. Matt Bradley stepped up on Matt Lundin in the corner and leveled him cleanly, which inspired Adam Hall to jump Bradley. That lasted about six seconds, Bradley taking Hall to the ice to complete the daily double. The five minutes apiece we get, but where was the two minutes for Hall jumping into Bradley after the latter executed a clean hit? If the league wants to reduce the incidences of fighting, then there is not any lower hanging fruit to pluck than this situation. It has become reflexive. Hit…fight. Tack on the two – it would be a disincentive to fight while preserving the clean hit.
-- Mike Green can’t play defense. We know this. You know this. The whole of Canadian hockey media knows this. Aunt Fanny knows this. Even my idiot cousin Cheerless know this (well, maybe not). OK, then explain this (click for larger view)…
…that would be the graphical representation of Mike Green’s and Steven Stamkos’ ice time by period (thanks to timeonice.com). There seems to be a lot of overlap there. And Stamkos had but the one goal (i.e., the one he should not have had if either referee had a working pair of eyes).
-- The reconstituted top line was 4-8-12, plus-10. It might be like that dish you only make for the holidays, but when this line is cooking, it is the most dangerous line in hockey.
-- Starting with that hat trick game against Atlanta on October 23rd, Semin is now 10-6-16, plus-6 with two hat tricks, three power play goals, and a game winning goal (tonight) in nine games. And the oddest part of this run might be the fact that in four of the nine games he recorded only one shot on goal in each.
-- Speaking of hot, it might have escaped attention, but Nicklas Backstrom is 3-11-14, plus-9 in his last eight games. He might have flown under the radar a bit in this one, but he was smeared all over the score sheet in a good way… four assists (the first time he’s done that this year, making it the sixth time he recorded a four-assist game), plus-3, one shot, two hits, three takaways, two blocked shots.
-- The Caps now have three of the top five scorers in the league (pending the late games) – Ovechkin (9-14-23), Semin (12-9-21), and Backstrom (4-14-18).
-- The Caps won 40 of 71 draws. David Steckel had half of those faceoff wins, 20 wins in 29 tries. That pushed him up to fourth in the league in winning percentage. But there was Nicklas Backstrom winning 12 of 18, too. His 55.6 percent winning percentage for the season is impressive enough, but perhaps more impressive is the fact that he is sixth in draws taken. No longer a liability in the circle is he.
-- The record will show that Michal Neuvirth allowed three goals. But he stopped 38 of 41 shots faced (.923 save percentage), his high for workload so far this season. In fact this was only the fifth time in 15 appearances he faced more than 30 shots and the first time in seven appearances dating back to his facing 32 in a 4-3 overtime win over Atlanta on October 23rd. But hey, the Caps can’t play team defense.
-- The fourth line of Boyd Gordon, Matt Hendricks, and David Steckel did not record a shot attempt. Gordon left after skating only three shifts and 1:42 in ice time. He had what was described as an injury to his “lower extremities,” an injury that was also described as one he has dealt with before. Expected down time: a week.
-- How many nights does Alex Ovechkin get fewer than 18 minutes of ice time? Before last night it happened once in his previous 48 games (including playoffs).
-- We’re guessing no one reading this had Sean Bergenheim leading all players in shots on goal for this game. He had eight. Alexander Semin was the only Cap who had more than two (he had six).
In the end, it might not have been that elusive “full 60 minutes” fans and coaches like, but it was the sixth straight win for the Caps and the fifth game in that stretch in which the Caps scored at least five goals (ok, one of those included a Gimmick). In the six games they have outscored their opponents 30-17 (without the Gimmick), and the power play is 9-for-22 (40.9 percent). It would be nice to get more than the 3.67 power play chances the Caps have had in this run, and it certainly would be better to get more than the single (successful) chance they had tonight. And we’re not liking the fact that the penalty kill seems to have reverted to old ways – 18-for-23 (78.3 percent). But it’s hard to quibble with a 12-4-0 record (the Caps were 9-3-4 after 16 games last season).
Over the next four games the Caps play Atlantalo and Bufflanta... two against the Sabres and two against the Thrashers, who combined have only as many wins as do the Caps. It is a chance to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the division and perhaps the conference, but for now, revel in the sweet smell of a six-game winning streak.