Sunday, November 14, 2010

A TWO-point night -- Game 18: Caps 6 - Thrashers 4

In October the Washington Capitals held opponents to two or fewer goals seven times in 11 games. With tonight’s 6-4 win over the Atlanta Thrashers, the Caps have now allowed three or more goals in six of seven games in November.

Sure, with the win tonight the Caps are 6-0-1 in November, but in the midst of all of that there is the unsettling feeling that this team is looking an awful lot like last year’s team – long on goal scoring, but not tightening up when they need to.

And this was the case tonight as the Caps, for the second straight game, took an early lead, only to give it away in a second period filled with errors. It started well enough as Alex Ovechkin took a pass from Nicklas Backstrom at the Thrashers’ blue line, skated in, and wristed a puck that Atlanta goalie Chris Mason manhandled into his own net to give the Caps an early lead 90 seconds into the game. And after Mike Green scored on a power play eight minutes later, it looked as if the Caps would be cruising.

Trouble is, they played like it. Mike Knuble and Alexander Semin took penalties 1:12 apart midway through the first period to give the visitors a 5-on-3 advantage. Just before the Knuble penalty was about to expire, Tobias Enstrom sent a rocket of a slap shot wide of the Caps’ net. The puck caromed straight back off the end boards where it appeared to hit the top of the net and then goalie Michal Neuvirth. Rich Peverley continued his peculiar abuse of the Caps, getting a stick on the stray puck after it hit Neuvirth and nudging it into the net at the 13:14 mark.

Alexander Semin restored the two-goal lead just before the first intermission, but that merely set the stage for the Caps second straight forgettable second period. Andrew Ladd scored for Atlanta 72 seconds into the period to set the tone. And after Matt Hendricks scored on a pretty goal from the goal line while backing away from the net (sending Chris Mason to the bench in favor of Ondrej Pavelec in goal for Atlanta), Bryan Little tied the game, first with a goal 45 seconds after the Hendricks tally. Then he tied the game with a shorthanded goal after pick-pocketing Alex Ovechkin on a Caps power play, skating in on Michal Neuvirth, and pinballing the puck off several Neuvirth body parts and into the net.

If you were pondering which Cap might be the one to reverse the momentum, you probably would have gone through a dozen or so players’ names before you settled on “John Erskine.” But there he was, taking a feed from, to mention another unexpected name – David Steckel, and stepping into a slap shot that beat Pavelec cleanly on the blocker side to restore sanity to the evening. The Caps clamped down from there and sealed the deal with a Steckel empty netter with 37 seconds left for the final margin. It was another win, but one might be forgiven for feeling uneasy in the manner in which it was earned.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps have mastered the 40-minute effort. Usually this season it has been the final 40 minutes of a contest. Tonight it was the first and last 20 minutes. In the first and third periods the Caps outshot the Thrashers 25-14 and outscored them 5-1. In the middle 20 the Caps were outshot 13-8 and outscored 3-1.

-- This makes two consecutive games in which Alex Ovechkin had no shot attempts in the third period. He had no shots on goal after scoring 90 seconds into the game. And here is an ominous statistic… he skated only 5:47 in the third period of what was a tied or one-goal game for all but 37 seconds of the period (his lowest ice time of the three periods). He just isn’t there right now. Or there is something going on that isn’t seeing the light of day.

-- Ovechkin did have the pass of the night, coming on the goal by Alexander Semin at the end of the first period. Skating with a full head of steam down the left side, he had a chance to use defender Brent Sopel as a screen for a wrist shot. But he saw Semin filling the lane on the other side, and he took advantage, laying a nice saucer pass over the stick of Sopel and out ahead of Semin, hitting his teammate perfectly in stride where he could backhand the puck into what was then an empty net.

-- John Erskine has scored on two of his last four shots on goal. Mike who?

-- Speaking of Erskine, he had less ice time than any other skater tonight – 12:29 – and only two shifts after getting his game-winning goal (one of those after the Caps scored the empty netter to ice the game). Hockey is a ruthless sport.

-- And another note about Erskine. We had bruises just watching his fight with Eric Boulton. Those two were throwing haymakers that made it look like the 15th round of Rocky Balboa against Apollo Creed.

-- OK, one more thing about Erskine. He would have had a Gordie Howe Hat Trick, having been credited with an assist on the Ovechkin goal. But the assist was taken away later. Yes, hockey is a ruthless sport.

-- Steven Stamkos is very good at scoring goals. Tim Thomas is very good at preventing goals. But you would be hard pressed to find someone who performs his specialty better than David Steckel right now. Since sitting out the game against the Rangers last Tuesday, he has won 49 of 69 faceoffs over three games (including 19 of 23 tonight). That’s a 71.0 percent winning percentage.

-- In October, Michal Neuvirth was lights out in the third period and overtime, stopping 68 of the 71 shots he saw (.958 save percentage). In November, no so much. Coming into this game he stopped 35 of 42 third period and overtime shots this month (.833). But perhaps closing the door in turning away all seven of the shots he faced in the third period tonight will signal a return to his stingy ways.

-- OK, so Mike Green had a goal and an assist. But color us just as impressed with his six blocked shots.

-- It’s nice that the Caps had three power plays . Better that they scored on one of them. But we were scratching out head over the fact that the Caps outshot Atlanta on their own power play by only a 4-3 margin and gave up a goal in the process.

-- At the risk of beating a dead horse… 14:22 in ice time (only four minutes in the third period), no points, no shot attempts, one hit, 4-for-11 on faceoffs. Tomas Fleischmann is not having a stretch to remember.

-- Lost in all the noise of Caps goals this month (31 in seven games) is the fact that Eric Fehr has only one of them, his only goal in his last 14 games (he did have an assist tonight).

-- Tyler Sloan had a pair of assists. That is the first multi-point game of his NHL career. He was also a plus-2, the first time he was that high on the positive side in almost a year (November 23, 2009, in a 4-3 overtime loss to Ottawa).

-- Steckel was a plus-3. That is a personal best for him in the NHL.

In the end, it was a win. Months from now no one is likely to remember how it was earned, but folks might remember the trend that seems to be reasserting itself. An ability to score often, but a little too loose defensively and lacking in a full and focused effort. In other words, getting by.

In fairness, as Bruce Boudreau noted in the post game, the team hasn’t practiced in eight days and systems are breaking down. This isn’t any different from any other performance activity. A musician isn’t going to be very good in concert if he or she hasn’t has the chance to put in the time practicing, and the Caps have been performing four of the last six nights and six of the last ten. It is hard to fit in a rigorous practice in that schedule.

But the Caps have a couple of days without a game. Tomorrow will be an off-day, and then they get that day to practice and put the wrenches to their systems to tighten things up. Hopefully it will yield benefits when the Caps get a chance on Wednesday to repay Buffalo for the overtime loss on Saturday.

No comments: