Sunday, January 16, 2011

A TWO-point night -- Game 46: Caps 3 - Senators 1

The Washington Capitals put an end to their three-game losing streak by defeating the Ottawa Senators this afternoon, 3-1, at Verizon Center in a contest in which fans got three games for their money. We are not arguing that all three were to Caps fans’ liking.

The first game was the first 20 minutes, in which Ottawa took advantage of some rust on goalie Michal Neuvirth (he had one appearance before this game since December 23rd) to score a goal 72 seconds into the game. Nick Foligno started the play by dumping the puck from the Capitals’ blue line into the opposite corner where Ryan Shannon tracked it down. Shannon fired the puck across toward the Washington cage, where Neuvirth blocked it aside. Foligno tried to poke it in, and Neuvirth tried to cover it up, but it was Mike Fisher who nudged it past Neuvirth before he could control it to give the Senators the early lead.

Even after that early goal the Caps looked rather lethargic, recording only one even-strength shot on goal in the first 15 minutes against one of the least effective even-strength teams in the league. Washington managed only five total shots on goal in the period. Not included among them were two golden opportunities for Marcus Johansson who found himself on both occasions standing in front of the Ottawa goaltender with the puck on his stick and nary a Senator in the same area code, and he missed the net on both occasions. Add to that a third opportunity he had when crossing through the low slot with a scoring chance on his stick, and it was a perverse sort of “hat trick” of missed opportunities.

The second period (or the second "game" for the fans) was a lot livelier for the Caps, if not satisfyingly productive. The Caps managed 12 shots at goaltender Brian Elliott, but there was still the disturbing notion of getting one shot on goal, but not getting any follow-up opportunities. The Senators seemed content to play the game outside the faceoff dots and along the wall in a sort of rope-a-dope effort that left the Caps with unappealing shot opportunities save for one occasion when it seemed the entire Washington bench crashed the net in an effort to get the equalizer.

The Senators are in 13th place in the Eastern Conference for a reason, and it manifested itself in the eighth minute of the third period (the bet "game" of the afternoon for Caps fans). Mike Green reached the Ottawa line and sent the puck hard around to the other corner where Senator defenseman Erik Karlsson collected it. As he was absorbing a hit from Alex Ovechkin, he nudged the puck over to his partner, Chris Phillips. Phillips tried to hit Daniel Alfredsson with a pass, but there were two things wrong with that idea. First, Alfredsson was circling six feet from his own goaltender, which meant that Phillips was trying to clear the puck from behind his own goal line up the middle of the ice. Way bad idea. The second thing that was wrong with the idea was that he ended up executing a bad idea poorly, missing Alfredsson and putting the puck on the stick of Brooks Laich, who took advantage by wrong-footing a wrist shot past Elliott to tie the game.

Forty-five seconds later the Caps did precisely what you are supposed to do when a team takes liberties with one of your players. Milan Michalek, who had no play in front of him as the puck was sliding down the boards, pushed Karl Alzner head first into the half-wall near the Caps bench. He was sent off on a two-minute minor for cross-checking at 7:58. On the ensuing face off Nicklas Backstrom won the draw cleanly to John Carlson who fired the puck past Elliott to give the Caps the lead. Elapsed time of power play: two seconds.

Jason Chimera closed the scoring on a play you never expect an NHL goaltender to surrender, although it probably happens several times a year. Chimera had the puck just below the goal line in the left wing corner. He stepped out and walked the line for a few steps, just enough for Elliott to cheat on the pass he was expecting. That left a perfect opening for the left-handed shot of Chimera, who scooped the puck off Elliott’s back and into the net. Three goals in the space of 6:16, and the Caps’ losing streak was over.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps won the dot 43-19. 43-19? Winning 69 percent of the draws is hard to do in this league. They were a combined 36-14 (72 percent) in the offensive and defensive zones.

-- Alex Ovechkin “played” his best game in at least a month (even though he did not record a point). Not only did he have several excellent looks at the net, he created many of those opportunities on his own with an explosiveness not often seen lately. Then again, it was Ottawa, not Vancouver and not the next team the Caps are playing – Philadelphia.

-- You would have needed a supercomputer to keep up with the line juggling from Bruce Boudreau …Johansson-Ovechkin-Laich…Backstrom-Knuble-Hendricks…Backstrom-Andrew Gordon-and who knows who?

-- Another guy who “played” well (if his being shut out in points didn’t reflect it) was Mike Green. Eight shot attempts, (three on goal), five hits, and three blocked shots. And he was skating very well, not prone to the occasional leaving of the puck behind that seemed to creep into his game lately.

-- If there was a “buddy movie” to be made about hockey players, it might feature Karl Alzner and John Carlson. Alzner gets leveled against the boards to draw a penalty, Carlson picks up his partner two seconds later with a bomb from the point on the power play. Someone messes wit my partner, he messes wit me.

-- Not much on John Erskine’s score sheet – a couple of shots, a takeaway, a blocked shot, but he was making good decisions with the puck deep in his own end, and he was making sure Chris Neil wasn’t getting away with free shots at teammates.

-- Michal Neuvirth stopped the last 20 shots he faced over the last 58:48. That is called “slamming the door.” That is 15 wins in 28 games in this, Neuvirth’s rookie season. He is within shouting distance of the club record for wins by a rookie goaltender (18) set by Jim Carey in 1995.

In the end, the Caps “played” a lot better than the 3-1 final suggests. If Marcus Johansson and Alex Ovechkin cashed in on half the looks they had, it might have been a five or six goal game for the Caps. The giving up goals early is still a problem, though. And that is something that can get the Caps in a world of trouble on Tuesday, when they jump up several weight classes to visit the Flyers in Philadelphia.

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