Sunday, June 06, 2010

The 2009-2010 season, by the "tens" -- Ten Games That Mattered: Washington at New York Rangers, February 4th

February 4: Washington (38-12-6) at New York Rangers (25-25-7)

The Result: Capitals 6 – Rangers 5

The Background: Truth be told, this game probably meant more to the Rangers than it did to the Caps. The Rangers were in danger of dipping below the .500 mark for the first time since they were 15-16-3 on December 17th. Worse, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist came into the game having lost his previous five decisions. And it was the wrong time to be in that situation, as the Rangers were fighting for their playoff lives. Meanwhile, the Caps were still in the midst of what would become a 14-game winning streak. A win here would be the 12th in a row for the club, but you could already see the wheels wobbling a bit. In the first eight games of the streak the Caps averaged an even 5.0 goals per game while giving up 2.25 goals per game. The offense then stumbled a bit, and unexpectedly at that, in relatively tame wins over Florida and Tampa Bay before going to Boston and disposing of the Bruins, 4-1. One might have had a sense that the streak was about to come to an end.

Why It Mattered: The teams split the previous two encounters in the season series, each team winning on the other’s ice. So, one might expect that the Caps would have no particular concerns about playing in Madison Square Garden, even if the Rangers drew first blood on a power play goal by Ryan Callahan in the game’s ninth minute, a goal that came off a deflection of a shot by Olli Jokinen that squeaked through the pads of Caps goalie Jose Theodore.

Sure enough, the Caps got the equalizer, courtesy of Boyd Gordon picking up some garbage in front of Lundqvist. But the Rangers struck back only ten seconds later on a goal by Vaclav Prospal to give the Blueshirts the lead at the first intermission.

Someone turned the juice on in the second period, as the power was ramped up – power play, that is. After Mike Knuble tied the game on an even-strength goal in the fifth minute, the next four goals would come via the man advantage. And the Rangers would get three of them. Alex Ovechkin got the Caps’ power play goal, which gave the visitors the lead. But the Rangers answered with a power play goal by Jokinen, then scored on both ends of a 5-on-3 power play, getting a goal by Prospal with a two-man advantage, then getting one by Brandon Dubinsky with on the ensuing 5-on-4 with just 1:12 left in the second period.

The last time the Caps allowed four power play goals happened to be the last time they lost in regulation before embarking on this winning streak, a 7-4 loss to the Lightning in Tampa. And trailing 5-3 with the clubs about to head off for the second intermission, it appeared as if the streak’s life was down to 20 minutes. But about a minute after Dubinsky’s goal, Nicklas Backstrom picked up a loose puck in the Capitals’ end, turned, and headmanned the puck to Alex Ovechkin heading up the left side. Ovechkin carried the puck into the Rangers’ zone and executed a curl-and-drag through the legs of defenseman Michal Roszival, slipped past the defenseman to the outside, leaned to the middle and one handed the puck over Henrik Lundqvist to get the Caps within one at the break. It might qualify as the best goal a player might ever score in his career, but this one might not have been a top-five on the Ovechkin resume. Still, to top hand the puck over a goalie with a defenseman trying to push you wide was quite a feat of skating and strength.

Instead of the Rangers carrying the momentum into the third period on the late power play goals, the Caps had the momentum opening the last 20 minutes. Tom Poti capitalized on that feeling, scoring the tying goal on, what else, a power play 59 seconds into the period. Nicklas Backstrom restored the lead for the Caps on (yup…) a power play at 5:34 of the third when the puck pinballed around and through the Ranger crease and out to Backstrom coming down the slot.

The Caps held the Rangers to four shots on goal the rest of the way and managed to stay out of the box, no small thing given that of the 11 goals scored in this game, only four were scored at even strength. That was what the Caps needed to escape with another come from behind win at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps not as thrilling as the 5-4 overtime win on this ice sheet in December 2008, when the Caps came back from a 4-0 deficit, but it was satisfying in its own way nonetheless.

The Takeaway: The whole nine yards was on display in this one – the ability of the Capitals to come back from multi-goal deficits, a lethal power play (3-for-9 in this game), a suicidal penalty kill (giving up four on six opportunities for the Rangers), the dazzling play of Ovechkin (2-1-3 on the night, including the highlight reel goal), the continuing emergence of Nicklas Backstrom (1-4-5 on the night, his second five-point night of the season).

In an odd sort of way, though, this game might have been the high point of the season. Almost all of the weapons that the Caps have were on display (Mike Green did not play, as he was serving the last game of a three-game suspension for elbowing Michael Frolik of Florida). The power play – a team strength for most of the season – was productive. The Caps showed once more an ability to wipe out a deficit. But if one looked hard, one could also see the wheels coming off at the end of a long winning streak. After this game, the Caps would finish 15-3-7, certainly a fine record. But they were never again as consistently dominant as during the 14-game winning streak. After this game the Caps two winning streaks of at least three games, but one of those – a five-gamer in the season’s last two weeks – came at the expense of teams that were out of contention (Columbus and twice against Atlanta) and a team that had little to play for (Pittsburgh). More ominously, the Caps sustained two streaks of three games in those last 25 where they failed to get a win. Three of those games came against playoff teams (Montreal, and twice against Ottawa) and another came against a team fighting for a berth (Calgary).

For the Rangers it had to be especially bitter, given how their season ended. Had the Rangers held on to win this game, their season might not have come down to a shootout in the last game of the season, and the playoffs would have looked very different for both the Rangers and the Capitals.

The 2009-2010 season, by the "tens" -- Ten Games That Mattered: Washington at Pittsburgh, January 21st

January 21: Washington (31-12-6) at Pittsburgh (31-19-1)

The Result: Capitals 6 – Penguins 3

The Background: The Capitals and Penguins played four times in 2009-2010. Each game had its own argument as a game that mattered. There was the “Snovechkin” game of February 7th that the Caps won in overtime, 5-4, coming back from a 4-1 deficit. There was the March 24th game that saw the lead change three times before Jordan Staal tied things up for the Penguins, only to see Mike Knuble, of all people, get the game-winner in The Gimmick. There was the 6-3 win on April 6th in which the Caps scored early and late to finish the season sweep of the Penguins, something they had never done before (the closest they came was going 6-0-1 in 1984-1985).

However, this the 6-3 win on January 21st probably mattered more in the scheme of things than the three games that followed. The teams were fighting for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, both with 31 wins coming into the game. Washington was coming off a tough 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings. And while the Caps had won seven of their previous eight games, this was Pittsburgh, in Pittsburgh. The last time these teams met, it was in one of the most deflating losses in the history of the Capitals, a 6-2 loss in Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals.

If this game could not wash away the pain of that playoff loss, it could re-establish the fact that the Capitals were a club that could more than compete against the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Why It Mattered: Any duel between the Caps and the Penguins begins with “Ovechkin vs. Crosby.” And to date, Crosby had the upper hand. In face-to-face meetings in the regular season, Crosby was 8-18-26 and won 11 times in 15 games, while Ovechkin was 8-10-18 and was on the high side of decisions in four of the 15 face-to-face contests. In their lone playoff meeting, Crosby finished the series 8-5-13, while Ovechkin was 8-6-14, but Crosby skated into the next round, not Ovechkin.

This game started off as if things would remain the same, Crosby getting the game’s first goal less than five minutes into the contest when Caps goalie Jose Theodore tried to collect the puck that was sliding down the ice into the corner. He misplayed the puck, deflecting it with his stick into the low slot, and Crosby swooped in to poke the puck into the net after a couple of tries while Theodore was still searching for it. But that was all the Penguins could do in terms of trying to put this one away early, despite some fine chances – Nick Johnson testing Theodore with a tough shot, then missing on a rebound attempt; Sergei Gonchar hitting the crossbar on a shot from the top of the offensive zone; Crosby failing to lift the puck over Theodore’s left pad from just off the post. The Caps struck for two goals sandwiched around the first intermission, Mike Knuble getting one of them on a rebound after Ovechkin dipsy-do’ed around defenseman Kris Letang, forcing goalie Brent Johnson to make the first save from the doorstep. Eric Fehr got the next one when he collected the puck after a shot that Johnson fended off into the corner. Fehr stepped out and around Johnson and appeared to get a shot off that defenseman Brooks Orpik knocked into his own net.

But the Penguins came back with a pair of their own – Nick Johnson and Letang making up for prior failures by getting the scores. Had the Penguins kept that lead going into the second intermission, they might have had enough momentum to carry the day. But with just over four minutes left in the period, Letang was in the middle of things again, this time taking a holding penalty drawn by Mike Knuble. Only 36 seconds later, the Caps made the Penguins pay for the error when Brendan Morrison walked the puck down the left wing boards, then passed it to Alex Ovechkin circling up into the middle of the zone at the Penguins’ blue line. Ovechkin stepped into one, wristing the puck past Brent Johnson to tie the game going into the third period.

The third period belonged to the Capitals. Tomas Fleischmann tok a lovely 40-foot saucer pass from Alexander Semin and scored on a breakaway, and Nicklas Backstrom added another goal before the period was three minutes old. Jose Theodore slammed the door on the Penguins, coming up especially big on a three-shot sequence midway through the period when the Penguins could have crawled back into the game. Ovechkin added an empty netter with 25 seconds left, and that was that.

The Takeaway: The Caps took an early punch in the nose – from Sidney Crosby, no less – and came back. They surrendered the lead to the Penguins and came back. They stood firm when the Penguins mounted a late charge and came back. Ovechkin led the team with a three point night (2-1-3) that would serve as a starting point for a season series in which he would score seven goals in four games against the Penguins. He did not score more goals against any other team in the league this season. Defenseman John Carlson recorded his first NHL point, an assist on Fleischmann’s goal.

It was the fifth consecutive win for the Caps in a streak that would eventually reach 14 games, and it was the first of four wins against the Penguins in which the Caps would score a total of 21 goals. After this game, the Caps would finish the season 22-3-7, and in only one of the ten losses would the Caps fall by more than one goal (a two-goal loss to Calgary on March 28th). This win, coming as it did in such decisive fashion against the defending Stanley Cup champion on their ice, cemented the Caps’ place as the best team in the league for the time being, no small thing in the scheme of games that mattered.