Monday, October 11, 2010

A TWO-point night -- Game 3: Caps 3 - Senators 2 (OT)

Sometimes you overwhelm with sheer force. Other times you prevail with sheer will. For the Caps it was the latter tonight as they defeated the Ottawa Senators in overtime, 3-2. It did not have the fireworks that fans saw on Saturday, but two points is two points, any way you get there.

Alex Ovechkin, who was held in check for most of the night by a smothering Ottawa defense (and what looked to be an injured left hand) found his touch in overtime with a nifty move to change his shooting angle that prevented defenseman Chris Phillips from lining him up to block the shot.  It also prevented goalie Pascal Leclaire from squaring properly to the shot. The deft move to slide the puck to the outside was enough to give Ovechkin a shooting lane that allowed him to squeeze the puck through Leclaire’s five-hole for the win with 32 seconds left in overtime.

Until then, it was a long hard slog as Ottawa did its best to keep the Capitals from getting any sort of skating momentum, aggressively challenging puck carriers at the Caps blue line all night. It kept the Caps from generating any momentum or gaining the offensive zone with any speed, nullifying much of the Caps’ strength.

Alexander Semin got the Caps started by converting an odd feed from Brooks Laich. Laich was skating down the left wing boards where he was being challenged by Zach Smith and Chris Campoli. He outfought both for the puck and sent it puck across in a manner that suggested any of several players could intercept it… if any were there. But it floated all the way across to the inside of the right wing circle where Semin had time to shift his body to get the puck to his forehand, and he lifted it over goalie Pascal Leclaire to start the scoring less than 90 seconds before the first intermission.

Jarkko Ruutu got it back midway through the second period when he started and finished the play in the Caps end. From the top of the left wing circle he sent the puck across to Chris Neil, who redirected it back to Matt Carkner at the right point. Carkner sent a shot that looked as if it would be blocked away by goalie Michal Neuvirth, but before the puck could get to his blocker a cutting Ruutu swatted the puck past Neuvirth out of mid-air to tie the game.

Eric Fehr restored the Caps’ lead by converting pass from behind the net made by Matt Hendricks. Hendricks called for the puck from behind the Senators’ net, and Boyd Gordon found him. Hendricks threaded the puck along the ice to Fehr rushing the net. Fehr snapped the puck into the net from the left post before Leclaire had a chance to get across to defend the shot.

Ottawa got the equalizer that sent the game into overtime when Nicklas Backstrom and John Erskine were caught stepping up on Peter Begin at the Capitals’ blue line. The puck came free to Ryan Shannon with only John Carlson back on defense. Shannon backed Carlson off, then ripped a wrister past Neuvirth to tie the game in the eighth minute of the third period. All that was left was for Ovechkin to do what he does, getting his eighth overtime game-winner in his career.

Other stuff…

-- Matt Bradley skated three shifts in the first period and no more. The dreaded “lower body injury.”

-- Ditto Tom Poti, who was a late scratch.

-- Eric Fehr formula for success… 12 minutes (ok, 13), a goal. Except these days that goal isn’t coming from the top of the circle, it’s coming from in close.

-- These are not your father’s Ottawa Senators. The high-octane days of days of Alfredsson-Spezza-Heatley have given way to a grind-it-out mentality that worked for long stretches tonight. The Caps did not get their 20th shot on goal until the 51st minute of the game.

-- The power play looked discombobulated. Rarely did the power play gain the offensive zone with control, and on the few occasions on which they did, the Senators did a good job of denying the next pass. Bruce Boudreau said in the post-game that it will get better, citing a history of slow starts. But last year the Caps had power play goals in each of their first five games and were 7-for-24 (29.2 percent). They did have a slow start in 2008-2009, going 5-for-32 in their first six games (15.6 percent).

-- At the other end, the Caps killed off all five shorthanded situations they faced, and that makes them 12-for-12 in the early going this season. By way of comparison, the Caps were 14-for-17 on the penalty kill in their first three games last season. Killing all of them is good, facing five fewer situations in three games is better.

-- Matt Hendricks didn’t get a star, but he should have. An assist (a pretty feed from behind the net for Eric Fehr’s goal), four blocked shots, two hits, and a plus-1, but it was his energy on the fourth line that set the pace for the Caps.

-- John Carlson isn’t going to be a hero every night. He was on the ice for both Ottawa goals tonight. On the second – Ryan Shannon’s marker – he got caught backing off too far to allow Shannon space to get his shot off.

-- His partner, John Erskine, had a difficult night. Minus-2, three giveaways, and a blown tire that forced Neuvirth to make a save on Shannon in overtime. It’s worth noting that Carlson did good job of getting back and forcing Shannon to the outside – the only place from which he could shoot – making things easier for Neuvirth to make the save.

-- Ovechkin had the game winner, but the rest of his night did not escape notice. Bruce Boudreau: "Only Alex can play like he did and still score the OT goal and be the hero. Go ask him how he played. He’ll tell you, ‘Not too good.’”

-- You know, when referees gather at the center circle for their little secret handshake ritual before games? Once… just once, I wish they’d tell one another, “watch Ruutu for diving.” Every game, he starts something, and player brushes him, and he goes down like he was shot with an elephant rifle.

-- Nicklas Backstrom was the only Cap to win the majority of the faceoffs he took (7-for-13).

-- Mike Green skated 31:53 tonight. That puts him at 85 minutes of ice time for the year so far. He’s been on the ice for one goal against. But he can’t play defense… right?

-- Neuvirth, three games in four nights… 27 saves on 31 shots, 31 on 33, 29 on 31. Not bad.

-- Would you have thought that Eric Fehr and Boyd Gordon would combine for seven of the Caps’ 26 shots on goal? Me neither. Three of Fehr’s shots came on the power play.

You have to give the Senators credit. They came to play, fashioning a road game that might not have been long on skill, but had hard work very much in evidence. They did not allow the Caps to free-wheel much in any on the three zones and bottled up the skill players quite a bit. That they did not get the second standings point was not a matter of effort, but one of skill – Alex Ovechkin’s. A coach is relieved…

Caps Fans, The Seventh Man

Martin Brodeur after Saturday's game on John Carlson's goal...
“I was screened a bit, but it was far out. I should have had a better look at it. I just kind of lost it a sea of red there (almost all of the fans wear red shirts at Caps’ home games). I was talking to (Johan Hedberg) that any time they shot the puck high it was a big adventure out there because we’re not used to playing in a building like that."
The Adventure in Red

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Senators, October 11th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Caps righted the ship for the moment in the form of a 7-2 thrashing of the New Jersey Devils on Saturday (would ‘twere that they had thrashed the Thrashers in their opener on Friday).  And now they get the Ottawa Senators in the first battle of nation’s capitals this season.  It will be a chance for the Caps to build on the success of Saturday’s contest in which they tied a franchise best for goals scored in a home opener.  Hopefully, the Caps can build on that success without the extracurriculars of the sort that provided the Devils’ Pierre-Luc Leblond an unpaid vacation that…

“Makes him the worst…person…in the wor-r-r-r-r-r-r-rld!”

Guess I should have seen this coming.  Living in Washington, a game pitting the representatives of the nation’s capitals against one another, political cities both… we get talk show host Heath Golbermann.  And where there is a Golbermann, there is a…

“sniff sniff…sob sob…”

Benn Gleck.  Why the tears, Benn?

“That game Saturday was just…a beautiful thing to… watch

Absolutely.  Well guys, the Caps are taking on the Senators, and… oh God, he’s got his blackboard…

“Did you know that ‘Sidney Crosby’ is an acronym for ‘icy nerdy boss,’ which pretty much describes him.”

No, I didn’t know that.

“And he’s worst…person…in the wor-r-r-r-r-r-r-rld!”

“And if you just twist these words around just a little bit, you get ‘icy nerdy sobs,’ which is what he DOES on the ice… coincidence?”

“What do you expect for the worst…person…in the wor-r-r-r-r-r-r-rld?!”

"And here is the heart of the conspiracy, proof of how deep in the bowels of the NHL offices a plan was hatched to place Crosby in Pittsburgh… if you rearrange the letters in ‘Sidney Crosby’ thus… you get ‘scored by yins’… and ‘yins’ as we all know, is Pittsburgh slang for ‘you all.’  He had to go to Pittsburgh as part of Gary Bettman’s grand plan to turn the NHL into a radical Penguinist regime.”

“Gary Bettman…the worst person in the wor-r-r-r-r-r-r-rld!”

Uh, guys?  I’m sure we can agree on that, but what does that have to do with anything?  Oh, I forgot… that’s sort of what you guys do, but the Caps?  The Senators? 

That is the object of the exercise this evening as the Senators visit Verizon Center.  Ottawa will be looking for their first win of the season, having dropped decisions to Buffalo (2-1) and Toronto (5-1).  The Senators hope that moving south will warm up their offense, which has been limited to goals by Chris Kelly and Jason Spezza in 120 minutes of play so far.  It is not altogether surprising given how the Senators finished last season:

If the Senators’ “big three” scorers can be thought to be Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, and Alex Kovalev, none of them have exploded out of the gate just yet.  They are a combined 1-1-2, minus-4.  This is a threesome that could come back to scoring health against the Caps.  Alfredsson is 32-28-60 in 50 games against the Caps, Kovalev is 19-30-49 in 62 career games, and Spezza is 9-17-26 lifetime against the Caps in 23 games. 

Last year these three were a combined 6-10-16 against the Caps (each of them dressed for three games).  But they were also a combined minus-8.  And that gets to a problem the Caps had with the Senators last season.  Of the 17 goals Ottawa scored in the season series, six came on the power play (in 12 opportunities).  Ottawa won three of the four contests in last year’s season series, and in all of them they scored at least one power play goal (6-for-9 in the wins).  In their lone loss, they were held without a power play goal in three tries.  If the Caps’ penalty killing has improved with a new-found aggressiveness in attacking  penalty killers, it could get its first stiff test of the season against this club.

Ottawa will be tested, too, and in a manner that could cause problems, given Washington’s prolific offense.  The top two defensemen the Senators will dress – Sergei Gonchar and Chris Phillips – have skated a combined 1,858 NHL regular season games between them.  But the other four – Brian Lee, Chris Campoli, Matt Carkner, and Erik Karlsson – have a combined 553 games of experience, and Campoli has 322 of those. 

Much of this defense is very young, and it misses the departed Anton Volchenkov in an important respect.  Last season Volchenkov was seventh in the league among defensemen in blocked shots, despite missing 18 games.  So far, the Senators have a total of 18 blocked shots in two games, only half of those by defensemen.  In those two games they allowed 74 shots on goal (getting only 44 themselves).

That is putting a lot of pressure on goaltender Pascal Leclaire, who has a decent save percentage in two games (.905), but it means he has allowed seven goals on those 74 shots (a 3.53 GAA, good – if that can be the word for it -- for 32nd in the league).  Should he get the start tonight, he brings something less than a successful career record against the Caps to Verizon Center.  He is 0-2-0, 2.89, .903 in three career appearances against Washington.  He was in net for Ottawa’s only loss to the Caps last year, a 5-2 decision.  Perhaps Brian Elliott will get the call.  He has never lost to the Caps (4-0-0 in five appearances), but he’s accomplished this while posting a goals-against average of 4.03 and a save percentage of .850).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Ottawa: Jarkko Ruutu

We’re betting none of you reading this would have thought that the Caps and the Senators would rank in the top five in fights in the first week of the season.  But that is where these teams reside at the moment.  One of the players who sets a certain tone that could fester into a fight-fest is Jarkko Ruutu, a player who has a talent for agitation and, in the eyes of some (ok, lots), dirty play.  He hasn’t been involved in any of the Senators three bouts so far.  In fact, he hasn’t been involved in a fight against the Caps since 2006 (against Brooks Laich) and has only two of his career 34 bouts against the Caps.  But if there is a scrum, you can bet he’ll be somewhere in the middle of it (before he runs away).

Washington:  Michal Neuvirth

We pick him again because this will likely be his third game in four nights.  Last season he played on three consecutive nights on one occasion for Hershey in the regular season (coming in relief in the middle game), going 2-1.  However, he allowed only four goals on 66 shots (.939 save percentage) in the three games.  He played three games in four nights in the playoffs once (against Manchester), and went 1-2, but allowed only six goals on 93 shots (.936 save percentage).


1.  No letdowns.  If the Caps played “up” to their opponent on Saturday, they can’t afford to play “down” (again) to their opponent tonight.  The Ottawa offense might have been dormant in its first two games, but it has a history – with Alfredsson, Spezza, and Kovalev – of making some noise against the Caps.

2.  Four, no more.  In two games the Caps have surrendered only seven power play opportunities to their opponents.  Given the success the Senators had last year in piercing the Caps’ penalty kill, it would behoove the home team to avoid testing the notion of a revamped penalty killing unit too often.

3.  Fast out of the gate.  Ottawa has been outscored 3-0 in the first period of their two games so far.  The Caps also have been outscored in the first period of their two games (3-2).  Getting fast out of the gate means on defense as much as on offense.  If they play as sleepy a first period as they did against both Atlanta and New Jersey, it could allow the Senators to feel entirely too good about themselves.

In the end, the Senators are a club that probably overachieved last year in finishing fifth with 94 points.  They slumped at the end, going 8-9-2 in March and April, scoring 2.4 goals a game in the process.  They have two goals in two games so far and are 0-for-9 on their power play.  Unlike the Senator teams of the early 2000’s they are a club that has struggled to find consistent offense.  Sergei Gonchar was brought in to help alleviate that problem, especially on the power play.  But his presence tonight might not offset the departure of Anton Volchenkov, who could be counted on to shadow Alex Ovechkin around the ice (Ovechkin had one goal in four games against the Senators last season, that one coming in the Caps’ only win).  And the rest of the defense around him and Chris Phillips is likely to be too green to offset the pressure the Caps can apply.

Caps 5 – Senators 2