Saturday, November 13, 2010

A ONE-point Night -- Game 17: Sabres 3 - Caps 2 (OT)




That’s how the Washington Capitals saw their six-game winning streak and five-game extra time streak ended tonight as the Buffalo Sabres won their first game on home ice this season, 3-2, in overtime.

It ended with Thomas Vanek collecting the puck in the neutral zone, whereupon he circled into the Caps’ zone with John Carlson back. Carlson tried to sweep the puck off Vanek’s stick, but failed as the Sabres’ forward finessed the puck around Carlson to spring him in on goalie Braden Hotlby. The Caps’ goalie then tried to poke the puck off Vanek’s stick, but missed, and in doing so took himself to the ice and leaving him helpless to stop Vanek as he skated wide and backhanded the puck into the net to the delight of the HSBC Arena crowd.

But the Caps did earn a standings point for the seventh straight game, courtesy of Nicklas Backstrom, who scored seven minutes into the third period on a fine all around play by Backstrom, John Erskine, and Jason Chimera. Erskine got things started by by jumping up along the left wing boards and outmaneuvering Mike Grier to keep the puck in the offensive zone (as this screen capture from shows)...

Chimera collected the loose puck at the top of the left wing circle and instead of firing it on goalie Ryan Miller, slid the puck over to Backstrom who wound up for a slap shot...

Backstrom recognized, though, that he had time and a lot of space, so he hesitated just a moment to get Shaone Morrisonn to go to the ice to try to block the shot and Miller to drop into his butterfly...

Backstrom then fired and beat both Morrisonn and Miller to allow the Caps to escape with a point that they should not have earned...

That they did so was in part due to the play at the other end of the ice of goalie Braden Holtby, who looked solid once more in net. He stopped 21 of 23 shots in regulation, allowing only Steve Montador and Vanek to beat him. It was also due to an inspiring performance by the Caps’ penalty killers, who killed off two of three four-minute double minor penalties and allowed only one power play goal in seven power play chances for the Sabres.

All of that overshadowed Karl Alzner cranking up and rifling one into the back of the net in the first period to give the Caps a rare first-goal, first period lead. It was Alzner’s first goal of the season, the sixth Caps defenseman to score a goal in the last seven games (only Jeff Schultz has failed to light the lamp).

Other stuff…

-- Between Alzner’s goal in the first and Backstrom’s goal in the third, there was an ocean of suck on the part of the Caps. Over the intervening 39:06 the Caps outshot the Sabres 18-15 but were outscored 2-0 and managed only four shots in the second period while taking a pair of double minor penalties (Chimera for cross checking/unsportsmanlike conduct and Tomas Fleischmann for high-sticking).

-- Buffalo…seven power plays. Washington…one. If you’re counting, the Caps now have had two power play opportunities in the last 144:55 of play. It’s like the Ferrari that you’re keeping in the garage and never taking for a spin on the street.

-- The seven power plays allowed is the most for the Caps since allowing eight against Toronto last January 15th, a stretch of 52 games.

-- 17:38, one shot, no shot attempts in the third period or overtime, minus-1. Oh Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells. We can appreciate that Ovechkin is a big hitter, but when he has as many hits (five) as shot attempts (five), he’s doing the other team a favor. And if he scores on that breakaway in the first period, the rest of this post probably reads a whole lot different.

-- That’s two straight games of fewer than 18 minutes for Ovechkin. That’s the first time that has happened since January 15/17 (he was 2-5-7 in those games, wins over Toronto and Philadelphia).

-- Bruce Boudreau had more line combos tonight that McDonalds has in their drive thru. We could have sworn we saw Peter Bondra on one and Bobby Carpenter on another.

-- Carlson and Holtby were victimized by Vanek on the game-winner, but we’re not sure what Marcus Johansson was doing earlier in the play chasing Vanek like a driver trying to draft the car ahead of him at Daytona.

-- Got to give it to Holtby, he was not playing the cautious rookie on the last play by ducking into his own net as Vanek advanced. He took the gambler’s chance and just didn’t cash in.

-- Backstrom wins the ticket to the buffet. He sampled the whole score sheet tonight – one goal, plus-1, a double minor penalty, four shots, a shot blocked, two misses, a hit, a giveaway, a takeaway, a blocked shot, and he won 11 of 12 draws.

-- That’s right, Backstrom won 11 of 12 draws. He is now 15th in the league in faceoff winning percentage, higher than that of Sidney Crosby (we tireless await the praise from across the land to be heaped on Nicky for polishing yet another aspect of his game… yeah, right).

-- Alex Ovechkin has the reputation of being a big hitter among forwards, especially as a high end skill guy. But here is something… Ovechkin averages one hit per 6:15 of ice time. Matt Bradley averages one hit per 3:20 of ice time. He had three in fewer than nine minutes of ice time tonight. Every player needs to have something he is good at, and this is Bradley’s. Being abusive.

-- As Mike Vogel pointed out, Jeff Schultz should not have been recorded as on ice for the winning goal, that John Carlson and Karl Alzner were the defensemen. Here is the visual evidence (no, you haven’t been drinking too much…this screen capture is blurry)...

-- Tomas Fleischmann is going to want to get to Kettler early to keep the coaches from looking at the film of this one. One shot, a double minor, three giveaways, 11:36 in ice time (none in the last 4:36 of regulation and four minutes of overtime). He did win five of eight faceoffs, though. But the only thing keeping him from getting a seat in the press box might be Boyd Gordon being on the shelf with an injury. Your second line center can’t be 0-2-2 over his last five games and only once having a faceoff winning percentage over 50 percent.

In the end, it was a point the Caps probably did not deserve. They played a better first period than they have played lately, but had an atrocious second period and a not altogether together third period, too. That they gained a point was a product of skill (Backstrom) and solid play from someone who might not have been expected to provide it (Holtby). The other skill guys were dormant, and the secondary guys weren’t much in the game. This is the kind of game one might have expected tomorrow, which will be the Caps’ third in four days. It was not the sort of game one would have expected with a night off last night and against a team that was struggling on its own ice. When the Caps got the first goal, it could have been an opportunity to step on the throat of a fragile Sabres team, but the Caps wasted that chance with an effort in the second period that Bruce Boudreau said was “maybe our worst period of hockey since [he has] been here.”

In a way, this game was a window into the Caps and a chance to see if they have really learned certain lessons. The fact is, they didn’t play well with a lead. They got a goal to get ahead, then coasted to let the opponent overtake them, causing them to have to scramble late. Sound familiar? Or has last spring become a faded memory? The Caps still seem to struggle with the idea of playing with a sense of urgency when ahead early, of standing on an opponent’s throat and not letting them up off the ice.

Now the Caps have to play that third game in four days and do it with a short turnaround (the game starting at 5:00). But good teams overcome those kinds of obstacles and avoid making one bad period into bad habits that linger.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Sabres, November 13th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s back on the road for the Caps this evening as they visit Buffalo to take on the Sabres in a battle of haves and have nots. As for the “have not” portion of this matchup, the Sabres have not yet won a game at home this season, sporting a record of 0-6-1 in the unfriendly confines of HSBC Arena. But it could be worse. The folks in Buffalo haven’t experienced a win for either of their major professional sports teams – the Sabres or the NFL’s Bills – since April 6th when the Sabres beat the Rangers 5-2. The Bills make the Sabres look good, having but one win at home in this calendar year, that coming last January 3rd.*

Buffalo is a city with many nicknames… The City of Good Neighbors, The Queen City, The Nickel City, Queen City of the Lakes, City of Light. Uh, nice try. There is one, though, that really seems to fit, given the recent luck of its sports teams… “The City of No Illusions.” In fact, you might think of Buffalo as “The City of Associated with Really Bad Stuff.” Some examples…

-- The first man executed by the electric chair…yup, a Buffalonian. William Kemmler was executed for the murder of his common law wife. But not before the device was tested on a horse.

-- In the 1840’s Buffalo enjoyed prosperity as a major railroad hub. Didn’t last, though. A cholera epidemic swept through the city in 1849, thought to be a product of Buffalo’s rail activity making the city a magnet for new businesses and a popular tourist destination.

-- President William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo. He died of gangrene eight days after being shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz.

-- Millard Fillmore used Buffalo as a springboard to political office, eventually becoming Vice President under Zachary Taylor. When “Old Rough and Ready” died of gastroenteritis in 1849, 16 months into his term, Fillmore ascended to the White House. He served the remainder of Taylor’s term, but was not nominated by the Whig Party to stand on his own for election in 1852. He ran again in 1856, carrying the banner of the “Know Nothing” Party (officially the “American Party”). He’d fit right in today.

-- Jim Lorenz once killed a bat during a hockey game. That’s right, kids. It was Game 3 of the 1975 Stanley Cup Finals between the Sabres and the Philadelphia Flyers. It also was an unseasonably warm day in May that caused the ice in Buffalo's Memorial Auditorium to fog, leaving many spectators to guess what was going on down on the ice. Well, one of the things going on was that Lorentz noticed something flying overhead. Upon realizing that what he was seeing was a bat, he swung his stick at the animal and killed it. The Sabres won the game, but lost the series in six games. It would be their last trip to the Stanley Cup finals until…

-- 1999. Game 6, Sabres vs. Stars. Triple overtime, and then…

But tonight it is the Caps who visit Buffalo, hoping to add another brick to the monument to despair that seems to be, well, Buffalo. The Caps bring the league’s best record and a six-game winning streak to the proceedings, while the Sabres bring the league’s worst home record (the only team left not to have won a game at home) and losses in six of their last eight games overall into this contest. The overall numbers look like this…

For the Sabres, it starts in goal. Ryan Miller is the defending Vezina Trophy winner and has to be on anyone’s short list to identify the league’s top goaltender. This year, though, it’s been a string of bad luck for Miller. He started the season wildly inconsistent, allowing only one goal in four of his ten appearances, but allowing four or more in four of them, too. After ten appearances in the Sabres’ first 11 games he was 3-5-2, 2.71, .903. That is the record he will bring into tonight’s game, if he plays. Miller missed the last six games with a hip injury. The Sabres are 2-3-1 in those six games, the two wins coming by way of the Gimmick. Patrick Lalime and Jhonas Enroth allowed 21 goals in those six games (3.50/game), so Miller’s return cannot come soon enough.

Out in front of Miller, this is a team that struggles to score. The Sabres have scored 42 goals so far this season, eight of them coming off the stick of center Derek Roy. He comes into this game on a hot streak, having gone 2-3-5, plus-3 in his last three games. He is also something of a nuisance to the Caps with a 9-11-20 scoring line over his 22 career games against Washington.

Roy is tied for eighth in league scoring, giving the Sabres some punch from the middle. But after him it drops off quite a bit. Buffalo’s balance is reflected in the fact that six players are tied for second in goals with four apiece. One of them is rookie Tyler Ennis (4-6-10, plus-5). Caps fans might look upon Ennis as the “Eric Fehr” of the Sabres (as in, “We Coulda Had Carlson!”…Ennis was drafted 26th overall in the 2008 entry draft, one spot ahead of Caps defenseman John Carlson). But he is doing fine on his own. He had a cup o’ coffee last season, posting three goals and nine points in ten games. At the moment he has goals in each of his last two games coming into tonight’s contest.

If Tyler Ennis is a pleasant surprise in the early going for Buffalo, Thomas Vanek is an unpleasant one. Two years ago Vanek posted 40 goals, his second 40 or more goal season in three years. Last year he had 28, and so far this year his four goals is a 19-goal full year pace. He has gone seven games without lighting the lamp, last scoring a goal in a 6-3 loss in Philadelphia on October 26th. He hasn’t had a lot of success against the Caps – 6-5-11 in 19 career games – but he is one of the few true goal scorers the Sabres have and merits attention.

Tyler Myers is the defending Calder Trophy winner as the league’s top rookie. Ah, but this year, he’s not even the best player named “Tyler” on his own team. Myers is another one of those Sabres with four goals, but here is a stunning number – 27. Buffalo has allowed as a team 55 goals. Myers has been on the ice for 27 of them. Only two players in the entire league (Tom Gilbert of Edmonton and Andy Greene of New Jersey) have been on the ice for more goal scored by opponents than Myers. His minus-10 so far is bad enough, good for 687th among 695 skaters in the league. But had he not posted a plus-3 against hapless New Jersey on Wednesday, he would be dead last in the league in this statistic. He is not having a good year and appears to be missing his departed partner, Henrik Tallinder, now of the New Jersey Devils.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo: Steve Montador

On a club that has a team-wide minus-6 plus-minus score, a player with a plus-10 bears watching. Montador is far and away the tops on the Sabres in this number (the precocious Tyler Ellis coming in at plus-5). And he is doing it getting the third highest ice time total among Sabre defensemen and the second highest total at even strength. But Montador comes about his plus-10 in an odd sort of way. His defense (or at least his proximity to it) has not been especially effective. He is third among Sabre defensemen in total goals scored by opponents while he is on the ice. But no Sabre defenseman has been on the ice for more goals scored for – 22 overall (more than half of the 42 the Sabres have scored overall). He is going to have to play better defense if he is to finish with a “plus” in this one. The Caps are a few weight classes over the offenses the Sabres have faced recently.

Washington: Mike Knuble

Mike Knuble is a personal nuisance to the Pittsburgh Penguins, having scored 27 goals in 57 career games against them. But it is Buffalo that is second on his goal-scoring list of victims. In 46 career games against the Sabres he has 18 goals. However, none of those goals have come as a member of the Caps (his last goal against Buffalo was the game-winner in a 6-4 Philadelphia win over Buffalo on March 20, 2009). Knuble has awakened from a slow start, though, notching goals in each of his last two games.


1. DST. Set the clocks ahead for the Caps like we were going back to daylight savings time. Make them think it is 8:00 when the puck drops, not 7:00. Make them think it is the start of the second period, not the first. Because the Caps are still pitiful in the first period (outscored 17-7). Sooner or later, this will bite them in the backside.

2. Pressure the Tylers. Make Ennis and Myers play defense. Ennis can’t be effective in the offensive end if he is having to play defense, and Myers is just having a devil of a time playing defense at all. These two are young guys. Make them play like it with pressure.

3. It’s Ryan Miler, not “RYAN MILLER!” Ryan Miller is 10-6-0 with a 2.55 GAA in 17 career games against Washington. But he is coming off a hip injury, the current state of which he described as follows:

"It's just kind of something that, as you move forward, you play with. It is just a small hip issue that you let settle down and move forward. I just wanted to make sure I got ready and got myself in situations where if you sit out for a week, week and a half, your timing's not quite there. I just wanted to make sure I can do everything I need to do because I have to be at my best to help these guys."

Doesn’t exactly sound like a 100-percent healthy endorsement of the hip, now does it? Make him move, show him shots. He hasn’t seen a puck in anger in 16 days. Show him a lot of pucks.

In the end, you are what your record says you are. The Caps are the best offensive team in the league and are playing defense well enough to close down teams when they have to (a couple of recent third period hiccups notwithstanding). Buffalo doesn’t score much, has a ghastly power play, and missed their anchor in goal immensely, despite how well Jhonas Enroth played in Ryan Miller’s absence. If the Caps remember who they are and do not play down to the level of their opponent, the Sabres still will be searching for that elusive first home win of the season when the lights go dark at HSBC Arena tonight

Caps 5 – Sabres 2

* OK, the Buffalo Bandits of the National Lacrosse League did defeat the Boston Blazers, 13-10, on April 24th