Monday, November 29, 2010

A TWO-point night -- Game 25: Caps 3 - Hurricanes 2 (OT/SO)

For the Carolina Hurricanes tonight goaltender Cam Ward was their best player. It was not enough, though, as the Washington Capitals shook off a tying goal with 2.2 seconds left in regulation to beat the Hurricanes, 3-2, in a Gimmick-decided result.

It did not look as if the Caps would have to worry late, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in the first period and outshooting Carolina 17-7 in the first 20 minutes. Marcus Johnasson started and ended the play that resulted in the first goal, beginning the sequence by sending the puck deep and around the boards from just inside the Carolina blue line. Eric Fehr then took advantage of Joni Pitkanen’s inability to control the puck cleanly coming around to the right wing corner. Fehr picked Pitkanen’s pocket and slipped the puck out to Johansson, who had moved to goalie Cam Ward’s left. Johansson turned and pulled the puck across the crease, just outside Ward’s reach to poke it away, then tucked it under Ward’s right pad to open the scoring.

Alexander Semin staked the Caps to a two-goal lead late in the first period when he converted a ice feed from Alex Ovechkin, who worked his way down the left side on defenseman Tim Gleason. Ovechkin had options as he was moving in on Gleason – shoot through the legs, turn and cut to the center, go wide around him. But what Ovechkin did was something he might not have attempted, let alone converted before this season. He feinted as if cutting to the middle, then cut wide, reaching around Gleason to snap the puck across to Semin coming down the right side. The pass caught Semin right in stride, and all that was left to do was to flick the puck high over the sliding goaltender and into the back of the net.

Carolina evened the game with goals early in the second – a doorstep goal from Erik Cole 50 seconds into the period – and late in the third period. The late goal came on a goal-mouth scramble in the last eight seconds of regulation. It started in the most improbable way. Eric Staal and David Steckel skated in to take a faceoff in the Caps’ defensive zone with eight seconds left. Staal came into the game with one of the worst faceoff winning percentages in the league (42.8 percent ), Steckel with one of the best (64.3 percent). And in this game Steckel had already won eight of ten, while Staal won only 10 of 23. But no one wins them all, and Steckel lost this one cleanly to Staal. That started a flurry that ended in front of the Caps’ net and Staal flipping a loose puck in the paint over goalie Semyon Varlamov to tie the game with 2.2 seconds left.

Overtime passed without a goal, but not without its dicey moment. Varlamov kept the Hurricanes from enabling the Caps to get to the skills competition with a chance to get the second standings point they could not secure in the hockey phase of the contest. After Jeff Skinner failed on his attempt to start off the proceedings, Alex Ovechkin converted the first chance for the Caps by going wide, circling in, patiently waiting for Cam Ward to commit, then and lifting the puck over Ward’s left pad. The Caps would not score again, but at the other end Semyon Varlamov didn’t allow the Hurricanes even a crack in the door of opportunity. He stymied Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu to seal the win, the Caps’ third in a row after their three game losing streak.

Other Stuff…

-- At the 25-game mark the Caps are two points ahead of last year’s franchise record-setting points pace (36 points to 34) and three wins ahead of its record-setting wins mark from a year ago (17 to 14). Of course, last year featured a 14-game winning streak, but even in the absence of that in this season the Caps are on a pace to finish 56-20-6, a 118-point pace.

-- Late in the game, Darren Pang tweeted…

OK, fair enough. Staal won the faceoff late and scored the game tying goal. Meanwhile, Alex Ovechkin gave up a shooting opportunity for a better chance on the stick of Alexander Semin in the first period and buried the game-winning goal in the skills competition. If you are not aware, the assist was Ovechkin’s 22nd of the season, putting him atop the list of wingers in the assist column. And to reduce more finely by position, he has a whopping lead (22-16) in assists over his closest competitor at left wing.

-- The Caps have scored 84 goals in 25 games. The 3.36 goals/game is down from last year’s full-year mark of 3.82. However, it is almost exactly the number of goals they scored through the first 25 games last season (85).

-- Eric Staal might not be the best faceoff guy in the league, and he did have a losing record in this game (12-for-25), but Tuomo Ruutu… oh-for-10? Small wonder he is 88th of 90 skaters on the faceoff leader tables. In fact, Carolina has three of the worst seven players among faceoff leaders – Staal (84th of 90), Ruutu (88th), and Brandon Sutter (89th).

-- Tom Poti would have had a really nice game…except for those last eight seconds. Jeff Schultz was able to get inside position and tie up Jussi Jokinen in the pile-up in the final seconds, but Poti could not tie up Staal’s stick, despite having inside position on him on the play. The play started with Poti on the goal line to receive the draw from Steckel, were he to win it (pictures captured from highlights on…

When Steckel did not, Poti tried to cut Staal off from getting position driving to the net, which he appeared to do…

…but he could not tie up Staal’s stick, and Staal’s reach allowed him to flip a backhand past Varlamov to tie the game…

-- Ovechkin had 12 shot attempts for the game, seven of them on goal with none of them finding the back of the net. But there didn’t look to be an easy save in the bunch for Ward.

-- Not often you see the losing goaltender get the game’s first star, but it was deserved. A lesser goaltending performance – against Ovechkin alone – and this game would have been over at the first intermission. If it was against a different opponent, we would say that Cam Ward deserved a better fate.

-- We are starting to get the feeling that there is no “number one” defensive pairing. The top two pairs of defensemen – Mike Green and Jeff Schultz, and John Carlson and Karl Alzner – had almost identical ice times, ranging from 23:08 (Alzner) to 25:09 (Carlson). Part of that was Mike Green going off after blocking a shot, but the rookies (we still think of Alzner as a rookie) are taking their place in the rotation of responsible minutes and doing good things with those minutes. Carlson had four hits, four shots, and three blocked shots; Alzner had four blocked shots and a takeaway.

-- Tomas Fleischmann had two shots on goal in the first minute of play… one over the last 64 minutes. He did, however, win nine of 13 draws. But it is worth noting that he started the game getting more than five minutes of ice time in the first period, almost four in the second, and just over three in the third (also a 40 second shift in overtime).

-- The Caps have a very efficient power play, but the continuing problem with it is not having the opportunity to unleash it often enough. Tonight they had one – one! – power play. They should have had one in overtime when Erik Cole upended Alex Ovechkin, but...

-- As it was, the Caps managed twice as many shots on goal on their lone power play (four) than Carolina had on the three power plays they had (two). In fact, the Caps had as many shorthanded shots on goal (two) as the Hurricanes had on their own power plays.

-- It is also worth noting that Semyon Varlamov has faced only 77 shots in the three games since his return (25.7/game). That he has a save percentage of .948 in those three games suggests that for the moment he has moved ahead of Michal Neuvirth in the goaltending order. But with 57 games to go, this is likely to be a back-and-forth thing, hopefully of the sort that finds one or the other turning in fine performances when called upon.

-- The Caps blocked 25 Carolina shots tonight. Jeff Schultz had almost a third of them (seven).

In the end, it was another one-goal win (eight, tops in the league), another extra time win (six, most in the league). Precisely the testing ground this club might need to prepare for closer-to-the-vest games that they will see in the playoffs. What is more, these one-goal games are not fire wagon games with lots of goals. Of the 11 one-goal decisions the Caps have had (8-1-2), they allowed only as many as four goals in regulation twice. They allowed two or fewer in regulation in eight games.

You could look at the 42 goals allowed in 14 games this month and conclude that the Caps haven’t done a very good job on defense. But remember, too, that 14 goals were allowed in a three-game stretch. Otherwise the Caps have allowed 28 goals in 11 games, a respectable 2.55 per game. That three game stretch has to be looked at as an anomaly. In their last 18 games the Caps have allowed more than three goals five times, three of them coming in that three-game stretch. There isn’t likely to be a Jennings Trophy at the end of this for the Caps’ goaltenders having allowed the fewest goals in the league, but it is a defense that is improved over last season.

Now the Caps go on the road, first to a place where few teams (well, two) have visited and won this season – St. Louis – then to a city where the Caps have had difficulty winning (13-22-8 overall, 2-7-1 in their last ten visits). It will be quite a test for a club looking to hold off the Philadelphia Flyers and the charging Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in the East. But they got off to a good start with a good getaway game tonight for their league-leading 17th win.

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