Sunday, March 13, 2011

A TWO-point afternoon -- Game 70: Caps 4 - Blackhawks 3 (OT)

When Marcus Johansson was sent off for two minutes -- the apparent infraction being causing Marian Hossa to throw his hands in the air, perhaps a new penalty in the NHL rule book – one had the feeling that the Washington Capitals’ seven-game winning streak was going to come to an end. And when Jonathan Toews converted on the ensuing power play to tie the game in the last minute of regulation, the product of a play on which a Capital was too earnest in trying to cover for his goaltender, you might have thought, nope…not today.

But Mike Knuble sent Caps fans home happy and Kanoobie into a frenzy when he took a pass from Marcus Johansson at the doorstep of the Chicago Blackhawk goal, pulled the puck across the crease from his backhand to his forehand, and lifted the puck over the left pad of goalie Corey Crawford for a 4-3 overtime win and the Caps’ eighth win in a row.

The Caps and Penguins might be the most dynamic rivalry in the NHL for the time being, but the games between the Caps and the Blackhawks might be the more entertaining. The Caps and Blackhawks played once last year, a game also decided in the Caps’ favor in overtime by a 4-3 margin, a win that came after the Caps fell behind, 3-0, and lost Alex Ovechkin to a major penalty and game misconduct when he shoved Blackhawk defenseman Brian Campbell into the end boards, breaking Campbell’s collarbone.

This afternoon, it was the Blackhawks that broke on top again, this time when Nick Leddy sent a shot through a maze of players – mostly Capitals – and through goalie Braden Holtby’s legs. Whether it was Matt Hendricks sliding to try to block the shot, or Boyd Gordon defending in the high slot, or John Carlson tied up with Michael Frolik in front of the net, Holtby did not appear to get a good look at the shot and depended on his position to stop the puck. Unfortunately, it found the hole that was available.

The Caps tied it when Patrick Sharp whiffed on an attempted keep-in on a Chicago power play. Sharp’s momentum took him toward the side boards, which gave Boyd Gordon a chance to zip past and pick up the puck with momentum through the neutral zone. Gordon skated into the Blackhawks’ zone on the right side, and with only Brent Seabrook back, he fired a laser past Crawford long on the stick side to tie the game.

It stayed that way until the Caps got a power play of their own in the last two minutes of the first period. With Bryan Bickell off for holding, Jason Arnott gave the Caps the lead when he fired a slap shot from the left point that eluded Crawford, who was being screened by Alex Ovechkin. If Arnott is not on that point, it is probably Ovechkin out there, and that has not been a place from which goals have been scored on the power play from that configuration. Chalk it up to another trade dividend.

Chicago tied it in the second on an unassisted goal from Tomas Kopecky, who scored from behind the Caps’ goal line when he fired the puck at the net just as Braden Holtby pulled ever so slightly away from the post. The puck hit Holtby in the numbers and deflected into the net to tie the game. That goal served to set the stage for a hard-fought third period. Brooks Laich got the Caps the lead once more when he converted a pass from Eric Fehr from behind the goal line that looked like it might have been redirected by Matt Hendricks on the way to Laich’s stick. Laich – who was all alone in the slot – had only to put the puck on net, and that’s what he did, beating Corey Crawford low to the stick side.

It looked as if the Caps might escape with the win, but the officials had not yet played their role in this one. That came with 1:50 to play when Marcus Johansson and Marian Hossa were circling out from the left wing boards in the Capitals’ defensive zone. Johansson made an attempt to lift Hossa’s stick and appeared to miss, hitting him in the midsection. That brought a hand up from the official at center ice – hooking, two minutes. Had that call been made when Hossa was in the midst of a scoring chance, it would be one thing. Still wrong, but you could almost see a way to understanding it. But Hossa was skating across the top of the zone with three Caps around him, with as much chance to do damage from there as perhaps I did from the balcony of Verizon Center. It was a bad call, period, but one that Hossa essentially sold to the referees by thrusting his hands into the air as if Johansson had yanked him off the puck the way one might have with a hook in a caricature of an old vaudevillian act.

Toews converted when Duncan Keith fired the puck wide off the boards and onto Jonathan Toews’ stick on the other side of the net. Braden Holtby tried to scramble across the crease, but Dennis Wideman was there at the post trying to prevent Toews from getting any space for a shot. Wideman and Holtby cancelled one another out, and Toews slid the puck in to tie the game with 38.5 seconds left in regulation. The stage was then set for Mike Knuble to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and make Kanoobie one happy pooch.

Other stuff…

-- Now we know what the Blackhawks do on their days of…acting lessons. Hossa’s flailing when he had his jersey smudged by Johansson’s stick was the climax, but there was also Corey Crawford in his interpretation of the death scene from Hamlet. Jason Chimera sped down the outside late in the second period, then cut across with the puck toward Crawford’s crease. Chimera tried to get a shot off, but in doing so bumped Crawford, who waited (…two, three, four) then flopped to the ice in a manner that you could almost hear him…“O, I die, Horatio; the potent poison quite o'er-crows my spirit” Here is a screen capture of Crawford being helped to his feet by his teammates...

-- Mike Knuble got the game-winner doing what Knuble does – heading to the net and picking up loose change. But the play was made by the hard work of Marcus Johansson. It started with Johansson outdueling Duncan Keith for the puck deep in the right wing corner in the Chicago end. Then from his knees he fed it in front to Dennis Wideman, who fired the puck just wide. Johansson recovered the puck behind the Blackhawks’ net, and then after a little back and forth with Wideman, feathered the puck around defenseman Chris Campoli’s stick and onto Knuble’s stick leading to the goal.

-- Another one goal-decision. And it really is the difference in these teams. The Caps are now 22-7-10 in one-goal decisions, while Chicago is 12-11-8. Chicago is only two points ahead of ninth-place Nashville and three ahead of tenth-place Anaheim in the West. If the Blackhawks fall out of the playoffs, they will have that one-goal game record to look at as a reason.

-- Once again, time management was a factor in this one. Despite almost 64 minutes of hockey, only Alex Ovechkin skated as many as 20 minutes for the forwards. Having a credible second line takes some pressure off the top line (although the absence of Nicklas Backstrom also requires more reliance on it), perhaps distributing the minutes a little better. Anyway, the Caps seemed fresher, outshooting the Blackhawks 18-9 in the third period and overtime (including 6-0 in the extra session).

-- The score sheet will say that Braden Holtby allowed three goals on 30 shots, but he appeared foiled more by teammates on two goals than by his own play. However, that second goal – the one from Tomas Kopecky – looked like a rookie mistake there, pulling off the post too early.

-- Pretty soon, we’ll be calling him “Brooks Laickel.” Seven for eight on draws this afternoon makes him 32-for-49 (65.3 percent) in three games since Nicklas Backstrom went out of the lineup.

-- Jonathan Toews plays in all situations. How do we know this? He was on the ice for a power play goal, the Caps’ shorthanded goal, and the Caps’ own power play goal. He has a sense for the dramatic (and inspires Pierre McGuire to gush about how his legend only grows), but it was not the kind of impactful game he has had many of recently.

-- Speaking of not having impactful games, Alex Ovechkin was rather quiet (or at least as quiet as one gets with having six shots on goal), but it was one nondescript play that showed the difference between last year’s Ovechkin and this year’s. Picking up the puck just inside his own blue line and with some ice ahead of him, he chose to curl back and feed the defense to start the play. The thing is, ahead of him on the play the Blackhawks were positioned to trap him if he advanced to the red line. Last year, he might have just went for it and carried the puck himself. This year, he takes the smart play and lets the defense start things, getting other teammates involved. A small thing, but evidence of a more important one – more maturity as a player.

-- You could argue that Corey Crawford might have tried to poke check the puck off Mike Knuble’s stick as he was pulling it across to his forehand for the game-winner. But it was also Duncan Keith who just couldn’t tie up Knuble despite being draped all over him (moments after he lost a battle along the boards to Marcus Johansson). That’s another difference between last year and this – Duncan Keith is not having nearly the year he had last year, and this was not an especially good game for him.

-- Maybe Keith’s problem was having to skate more than 30 minutes in this one. That was made necessary because Brian Campbell skated only eight shifts, none in the last 29 minutes of regulation and almost four minutes of overtime. He had only 7:05 in total ice time.

-- The shorthanded goal is nice, but frankly, getting as many shots shorthanded (two) as you get on the power play (two) has to qualify as fairly disturbing. Again, a product of getting so few chances on the power play (yeah, two).

-- Ovechkin had those six shots on goal, but he didn’t lead the team. That would be Marcus Johansson (seven), who from our seat deserved a star in this game. He is not a replacement for Nicklas Backstrom (who is?), but he is piling up a lot of valuable learning minutes in Backstrom’s absence while contributing in a positive way. That could be big in April, May, and (we hope) June.

In the end, this was a fair benchmark game, a game against a team that was 9-2-1 in its last dozen games and that was fighting for its playoff life. The game followed an old formula – give up the first goal, do good things late. Jonathan Toews almost threw a wrench into that (or rather, Marian Hossa did with his melodramatic antics to draw a penalty late in regulation), but the Caps had more gas at the end than did the Blackhawks.

The schedule now calls for six road games – five of the six coming against teams in the top-eight of their respective conferences, the trip bookended by games in one of the toughest arenas in the league for a road team to win (Bell Centre, where Montreal is 21-8-6 this year). But it is all about seeding now. Tampa Bay is fading (1-4-2 in their last seven and no wins in regulation this month), Pittsburgh is only 4-3-4 in their last ten and have two regulation wins in their last 15 games, Philadelphia is 2-4-1 in their last seven and suddenly have goaltending issues (ooh, there’s news, like they haven’t had them every year since dinosaurs and Bernie Parent roamed the earth), and Boston has lost four in a row (0-2-2). If the Caps can weather this six-game test laid out before them, they could be poised to earn the top spot in the East, a far cry from where this team appeared to be headed a few weeks ago.

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