Tuesday, November 29, 2011
A NO-point night -- Game 23: Blues 2 - Caps 1
The Caps took the ice expecting to play a hockey game and ended up wondering who filled the Verizon Center rink with quicksand as they dropped a 2-1 decision to the St. Louis Blues in Dale Hunter’s debut as head coach for the Caps.
It was a pretty simple case of a team on top of its game playing a pretty simple style – forecheck the crap out of the opponent, win the battles along the wall, and don’t give a puck carrier time to look around for an outlet. As a result, the Caps managed a single goal on just 19 shots and spent an awful lot of time dumping the puck out of their own end or into the Blues’ end, and having the Blues come out with the puck and momentum at either end.
Nicklas Backstrom got that lone goal for the Caps on a feed from Alex Ovechkin. The play started with Backstrom taking a hit to make a play, nudging the puck forward from inside the Caps’ blue line to Ovechkin as he was being stapled to the wall by David Backes. Ovechkin took the puck and crossed diagonally through the neutral zone from the left to the right wing. As he eased down the right side, Troy Brouwer crossed in front of the trailing Backstrom, who beat Backes down the ice. Brouwer’s cross caused a moment’s indecision between the two Blues defensemen, both sliding to Brouwer. It left Backstrom open as the trailer, and the pass from Ovechkin was taken by Backstrom and snapped it into the net. “Snapped” might not be the right verb there; the puck didn’t come cleanly off Backstrom’s stick, and it appeared to fool goalie Jaroslav Halak.
The Caps lead at 10:15 of the first period was short-lived. St. Louis would get the first of two second-effort goals at 15:48 when Alex Steen rang the puck off the crossbar. The puck deflected down into the crease, and T.J. Oshie pounced on it to bang home the rebound before goalie Tomas Vokoun could recover.
The Blues got the game-winner in the ninth minute of the second period when Matt D’Agostini followed up his own shot, taking a rebound offered up by Vokoun around the back of the net, tucking in it inside the post to Vokoun’s right.
It made for a quick, tidy, and ultimately unfulfilling game for Caps fans hoping for some Hunter magic in his first game behind the bench.
-- It really was a glass-half-empty/glass-half-full sort of game. Yes, the Caps had a devil of a time trying to solve the St. Louis forecheck, but on the other hand they were patient at the other end, not trying to force plays by trying to skate through Blues defenders standing up at their blue line. Dump and chase isn’t exciting, and it isn’t a style this team has found natural for most of the last few years, but they did stick with it.
-- That dump and chase style was resulting in a lot of frustration early as the Caps couldn’t often manage to finish the “chase” part of that play and gain possession of the puck. But they were somewhat more successful as the game wore on. Call it a work in progress. No, not even that. Call it something to work on (Hunter alluded to this after the game when he specifically cited the forecheck as something that needs work).
-- Still…St. Louis had 30 shots on goal; the Caps had 30 shot attempts. And depending on where you sit, having fewer shots on goal (19) than you had blocked shots (the Caps blocked 20 Blues shots) is either anemic offense or a nice effort by the defense.
-- Roman Hamrlik had six of those 20 blocked shots. And he was not on the ice for either St. Louis goal. Baby steps.
-- Alexander Semin continues to confound. He did have two of the Caps’ eight shots in the third period, but they were his only two shots. And there is the matter of ice time – 14:37. That’s the fourth time in his last nine games he logged fewer than 15 minutes after not getting less than 15:22 in any of his first 13 games. Part of it is skating with Cody Eakin and Marcus Johansson, each still at an age where minutes might be managed. But it means that the Jason Chimera-Brooks Laich-Joel Ward trio is the de facto second line if you measure such things by ice time.
-- Every Blues player had a hit, save one – Jason Arnott. We think Keith Tkachuk and Al MacInnis had a couple.
-- Only nine of 43 faceoffs were taken in the Caps’ offensive zone. The hallmark of a Ken Hitchcock-coached team is denying the other team any offensive opportunities. This is one way of doing that. Don’t take whistles in your own end.
-- The crowd was announced as another sellout – 18,506. But it sounded more like 8,506. We would have expected a little more energy in the building.
-- Alex Ovechkin didn’t have a breakout game, but frankly, who would have expected it in this game? He had one shot on goal, and St. Louis is a disciplined enough team to keep even a player of Ovechkin’s talents away from places he wants to go. Still, with the assist on the Backstrom goal he has points in four of his last five games.
-- With a bit more luck (and a Caps defender shutting off a second chance), Tomas Vokoun might have had a shutout. As it was, he allowed only two goals in a full 60 minutes of work for the first time since he dropped a 2-1 decision to Nashville on November 15th (coincidentally, on both nights he stopped 28 of 30 shots). Over five appearances (one a 41 second spin around the crease) he had allowed 15 goals on 94 shots (.840 save percentage).
In the end, the loss was disappointing but not unexpected. The Caps were in turmoil before tonight (otherwise, why dismiss the coach?), and the team they faced tonight was 8-2-2 for November. Moreover, the Blues had allowed more than two goals once in 12 games in November coming into this game, had three shutouts, and had three other games in which they allowed only one goal. This is about as well as they are going to play.
The Caps though, should improve. They are not as bad as the 5-10-1 record they are sitting on after their 7-0-0 start. Vokoun hasn’t suddenly forgot how to tend goal. The defense, even without Mike Green, will find a way to settle out the pairings, even if they become only “competent” in some respects. If Ovechkin picks up his pace just a little bit, he would be on a 35-goal pace and not the 29-goal pace he is on. Marcus Johansson will only get better. Even Cody Eakin is getting valuable experience.
Put it all together, and the fact that tonight didn’t have a storybook ending is only mildly disappointing. You want that storybook ending for, well…the end of the story, not its first chapter. And that is what this team needs to be building for, one step at a time.