Friday, July 08, 2011

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Capitals at Bruins, December 18th

Time for Game 4 in our trip down the road of the 2010-2011 season and the games that mattered…

December 18, 2010: Washington (18-11-4) at Boston (16-10-4)

Result: Bruins 3 – Capitals 2

The Background: Things were looking bleak for the Capitals by mid-December. They had not won a game since the first day of the month, compiling a losing streak that reached seven games. They experienced the high and the low of such streaks in their previous two games, first getting pasted by the New York Rangers, 7-0, then losing late in overtime to the Anaheim Ducks, 2-1. Now, the Caps found themselves mired in fifth place in the East, only four points ahead of eighth-place Boston, a team that itself was trying to get out of a three-game losing streak. With the cameras of HBO hovering for the 24/7 series leading up to the Winter Classic and the losses piling up, one might be inclined to think the Caps bore the heavier burden coming into this game.

Why It Mattered: The Caps came out flat, and the Bruins applied the rolling pin to flatten them out a little more in the first period. Patrice Bergeron got the home team off and running at 3:27 when John Erskine and Mike Green both converged on Blake Wheeler, who found Bergeron coming late for a snap shot that beat Michal Neuvirth. The Bruins got their second goal of the period when Andrew Ference got two whacks at a slap shot. The first was blocked by Andrew Gordon, but as it happens to teams going poorly, the puck bounced right back to Ference, who took another whack and got it all the way through the screens and past Neuvirth. Matt Bradley tried to inject some life into the Caps by taking on Adam McQuaid on the ensuing faceoff, but it had no effect. When Bergeron returned the favor and fed Wheeler for an uncovered one-timer, one could see the Caps visibly shrink heading into the first intermission.

And then came, “The Speech.” Losing streaks seem to have a progression on a team’s psyche…

Confusion…”This shouldn’t be happening?”
Frustration…”Why is this happening?”
Acceptance…”It’s happening again”
Anger…”This isn’t happening anymore.”

In the first intermission, the Caps finally got to “anger.” Mike Knuble stood up, paced the locker room with barely restrained fury, and gave, if not quite a “Knute Rockne” version of romantic inspiration, a salty call to to his teammates to grow a pair…

"Today, it's 3-0 and it will not [censored] be one of these laughers again. It will not [censored] turn into a 5-0, 7-0 [censored] laugher. Where they're [censored] giggling getting out of their [censored] mess here. We are [censored] down 3-0 and we are going to come back and we're gonna [censored] win this thing. We're not [censored] going in the tank. That is enough right there. That's [censored] more than a year's worth. It's not going to happen again."

If the Caps didn’t explode out of the locker room to start the second period, at least they stopped the bleeding. And it started with the Caps beleaguered goaltender, Michal Neuvrith. Tyler Seguin skated between two Caps at the Washington blue line and sped in on Neuvirth on a clean break. Seguin tried to deke Neuvirth to the ice to get the puck on his forehad, but even though Seguin got Neuvirth to bite, Neuvirth flashed the left pad to foil Seguin. The Caps recovered the puck, took off in the other direction, and when the puck found its way to Bradley’s stick, he cut between two Bruins and fired a wrist shot past goalie Tim Thomas’ blocker on the long side to give the Caps some life.

Karl Alzner would get the Caps within a goal with 5:28 remaining, putting the Bruins on their heels. But Tim Thomas, despite facing 26 shots in the third period (Boston would have 21 for the game), foiled the Caps efforts, not the least of which was a backhand attempt by Alex Ovechkin with ten seconds left from just outside the crease.

Although in the end it was not quite enough, the Caps finally got angry. They “won” the second and third periods, 2-0, outshooting the Bruins, 36-10. It might have been the best sustained (as in “more than a couple of shifts”) effort during the eight game losing streak. But there was going to be more work to be done – the Caps, with this loss, found themselves looking up at both Atlanta and Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division, and found themselves in seventh place in the East, just two points ahead of the eighth-place Bruins.

The Takeaway: Losing streaks are often characterized by a certain asymmetry between effort and results, and it was true here. The Caps “played” very well for the last 40 minutes of this game, but the result did not reward that effort. Just the same, one could now see the end of the losing streak ahead. The Caps had had enough and more important, were playing as if they had enough. This would be the last loss in their December swoon, and from here the Caps would go 6-0-2 in their next eight games, providing an appropriate symmetry for their 0-6-2 losing streak.

It might not have happened, though, without a veteran taking it upon himself and venting his anger – at the losing streak, at the effort, at the other guys in the room, with himself. And without the cameras of HBO recording the moment, it might never have come to light. Fans would not get a glimpse of this until the next airing of HBO’s 24/7 series, and by that time the Caps would go on to break their losing streak with wins over Ottawa and New Jersey. But when they did, they got a glimpse of how, perhaps, one speech does make a difference in a long season. And that is why this game – and Mike Knuble’s moment – mattered in the 2010-2011 season.

(Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America)

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