Thursday, July 07, 2011

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Maple Leafs at Capitals, December 6th

Game 3 at our look back at games that mattered in the 2010-2011 season turns to one that was a harbinger of things to come…

December 6, 2010: Toronto (9-12-4) at Washington (18-8-2)

Result: Maple Leafs 5 – Capitals 4 (OT/Gimmick)

The Background: Even though the Caps had lost two consecutive games – at Dallas and against Atlanta – the Caps were sitting fat and happy, tied for first in the Eastern Conference (with Pittsburgh) when the sun came up on December 6th. Meanwhile, the Toronto Maple Leafs came to town fresh off a 3-2 Gimmick win over Boston after enduring a dismal stretch in which they went 4-10-3 and were shut out six times (that’s not a misprint). You might have expected that the Caps would right themselves in short order against a weak opponent and keep pace with the Penguins. Well, you’d have to rethink that before midnight struck.

Why it mattered: When the Caps jumped ahead of the Leafs less than three minutes into the game on Mathieu Perreault’s first goal of the season, you might have thought the Caps would make a quick night of it. Even when Toronto evened the score on a goal by Clarke MacArthur at 11:47, the Caps stole the lead right back barely three minutes later on a power play goal by Mike Knuble. When Perreault got his second of the game early in the second period, you might have been thinking about catching an early train back home. And when Alex Ovechkin scored to give the Caps a 4-1 lead 13:50 into the second period, you were probably looking at the schedule thinking that December might be a pretty good month.

Well, hockey is not a 40 minute game; there were still 20 left to be played. The Leafs scored in the fifth minute of the third period to cut the margin to two goals, but it probably didn’t seem like much cause for alarm. When Toronto scored at the 17:37 mark to cut the margin to a single goal, that made things entirely too interesting for Caps fans, who were probably looking at the clock thinking, “just hold ‘em for the next 2:23…”

They didn’t. MacArthur got his second goal of the game just 59 seconds after Tim Brent got the Leafs to within one, and the game was tied with just 1:24 left in the game. Michal Neuvirth, who allowed only one goal on 18 shots in the first two periods, had allowed three on seven shots in a span of 14:20 of the third period in one of the ugliest periods of Caps hockey in some time.

The Caps and Maple Leafs fought through a scoreless overtime, but the damage had been done. The Caps failed to find the back of the net with any of their last 17 shots on goal (going back to the Ovechkin goal in the second period), leaving things to the uncertainty of the Gimmick. And there the game came down to one shot that was the game in a nutshell. Mikail Grabovski picked up the puck and circled wide to his right. From there he knifed toward the net, picking up speed as he closed on Michal Neuvirth. As he got to the net, he slammed on the brakes, executed a spin-o-rama, and backhanded the puck past Neuvirth’s left pad, the only goal in the trick shot competition that gave the Maple Leafs the 5-4 decision. Just as Grabovski executed a turnaround perfectly, so did the Maple Leafs in climbing out of the 4-1 hole they dug for themselves.

Instead of disposing of an opponent that shouldn’t have been competitive, the Caps mailed in the last 20 minutes, and then could not regain any momentum in the overtime. Not only had the Caps failed to halt a two-game losing streak, but the losing streak stood at three and would eventually extend to eight. Not only did the Caps manage to draw the Leafs into just three shorthanded situations, they also managed only two shots on goal in the three power plays they had (scoring on one of them) in 3:43 of power play time. The Caps were exposed as having perhaps a soft underbelly on defense (again, since they recently allowed 14 goals in three games in three late November losses). A power play that was humming along at almost 22 percent through November was not getting many chances (three times with three or fewer power play chances in four December games) and, at least in this instance, wasn’t getting much pressure on the defense when they did have the advantage.

The Takeaway: This was Washington on full display. Explosive on offense when properly motivated, too loosey-goosey with a lead (they had 21 shot attempts in the third period – 12 on goal – that was 35 percent of their total for the game, suggesting there was no pulling back and focusing on defense). They did get a power play goal from Mike Knuble but otherwise struggled to get pucks to the net. They left things too much in the hands of their goaltender late.

The defensive problems would continue after this game, reflected in allowing three goals to comparatively weak offensive teams in Florida and Colorado, then getting hammered by the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden, 7-0. It would eventually cause the Caps’ coaching staff to rethink and retool their approach, applying more emphasis on defense and preventing chances for the opposition. In retrospect, you might have seen that coming if you looked at this game – one in which the Caps looked alternately talented and undisciplined, a lot like stretches in the 2009-2010 season. But the Caps weren’t scoring in 2010-2011 like they did the previous year, and the lapses in discipline would have them scratching their heads over results like this one.

It was the beginning of a series of dark nights in December that resulted in a different Caps team by Christmas. And that is why this game mattered in the 2010-2011 season.

(photo: AP/Luis M. Alvarez)

1 comment:

ephperson said...

I remember this game; the "We Want Wings" chant began, early and loud, in the second period.

Nobody ever chants "We Want Defense".