Friday, March 04, 2011

A TWO-point night -- Game 65: Caps 3 - Blues 2

One step at a time.

It was not a dominating performance, by any means, but the 3-2 win posted by the Washington Capitals over the St. Louis Blues last night was another small step forward. After stumbling through the middle portion of the NHL schedule over the last three months, the Caps might finally be giving indications that they are finding their stride.

Although there were many good things in evidence in last night’s game, the fact that there were some lingering bad things meant that the win did not come easy.

Good: The Caps came out strong again at both ends, holding the Blues without a shot for the first six minutes and outshooting them 5-2 in the first 13-plus minutes.

Bad: In the 14th minute, the Blues scored first when the Blues, quite inexplicably, managed to get a 3-on-2 advantage in the Washington end. Chris Stewart, skating down the left side, sent a pass to his left that Patrik Berglund let go through to the tape of Alex Steen’s stick. Steen wasted no time snapping the puck past Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth. The Blues were able to get a 3-on-2 because Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom got caught pushing the one-minute mark on their respective shifts, and both were slow to backcheck and prevent the advantage for the Blues.

Good: Nicklas Backstrom’s swat out of mid air of a puck deflected by Mike Knuble to give him his first goal at home since November 20th (a 5-4 Gimmick loss to the Flyers).

Bad: Concerning Backstrom, not much (the backchecking on the Blues’ first goal notwithstanding, but it was at the end of a shift). A goal, four shots, a couple of takeaways, a blocked shot, and he won seven of 12 draws, despite the injured flipper.

Good: Neuvirth stopped the last 17 shots he faced, keeping the Caps in the game when they fell behind twice, then slamming the door when the Caps finally took a lead.

Bad: Neuvirth did not have as smooth a game technically as he had against the Islanders on Tuesday. Against the Islanders one had the impression watching him that he was really trusting his positioning. Last night, he seemed to be swimming and lunging a great deal more. Shots he normally gobbles up were bouncing off him, making it necessary to lunge out in an attempt to smother the puck.

Good: The Caps showed that they are gaining confidence and growing more comfortable in these low-scoring, one-goal games

Bad: They keep falling behind in them (twice allowing the Blues to take one-goal leads).

Good: A swarming power play that created more chances on their first period man-advantage than they might have had in total over the past two weeks, several pucks barely sliding past the net or out of danger.

Bad: Well, the one power play. Part of converting power plays is getting power plays. The lone power play makes it three games in a row in which the Caps have had two or fewer opportunities and 22 such games this season.

Good: With two assists, Alex Ovechkin is now 5-7-12 in his last ten games. This is more the pace and consistency of scoring to which Ovechkin and Caps fans have become accustomed.

Bad: One shot on goal? Three attempts? No shot attempts in the last 32 minutes? Sure, the Blues are a step up in weight class on defense from the Islanders, but those are rather sparse numbers.

Good: Experience. Jason Arnott could have seen Alexander Semin pick up the puck with five minutes left and just skated hard at the net while Semin did what Semin does. But Arnott gave his teammate options. He opened his stance and gave Semin a real passing option. Semin used it, feeding Arnott for the game-winning one-timer before Patrik Berglund could get back to defend Arnott.

Bad: Nothing from the three new guys so far. Arnott has points in both games in which he played; Dennis Wideman skated more than 22 minutes, had five hits and two blocked shots; and Marco Sturm had six shot attempts (three on goal) and gave indications that it’s just a matter of time until he joins the scoring list for the Caps.

Good: Matt Bradley winning a fight. It does not happen often, and this one might have been his most convincing one, KO’ing Tyson Strachan late in the first period.

Bad: It did not seem to jump-start the Caps from their sluggish start. They did not record a shot in the last minute of the first following the bout and had only one shot on goal in the first three minutes of the second period before Scott Hannan scored to tie the game.

Good: Dennis Wideman getting five hits in 22 minutes is one thing. Matt Hendricks getting five hits in 12 minutes is something else. And there he was pounding his stick on the boards from the bench after the Caps made some fine plays to help kill a penalty. On the bench, on the ice…if Pat Verbeek was once the “Little Ball of Hate, Hendricks might be the “Little Ball of BOOM!”

Bad: Wish we saw that kind of enthusiasm a little more consistently from other Caps.

Good: A win

Bad: Not nearly enough to outweigh the good.

And some numbers…

38 – Number of times the Caps have allowed the first goal (which they did again last night). Only Toronto, Edmonton, and the New York Islanders have allowed the game’s first goal more often than the Caps.

35 --Last night was the 35th one-goal game played by the Caps – only Carolina and Florida have played more.

18 – The number of one-goal wins the Caps have after last night.

28 – The number of one-goal games in which the Caps have secured at least one standings point, tied for tops in the league (Tampa Bay).

4 – Number of multi-point games from Alex Ovechkin in his last eight (including the one he had last night). Might not sound like much for Ovechkin, but it is the most frequent instance of so many multi-point games since he had five in six games in early November.

2 – Number of power play shots on goal last night, both by Jason Arnott.

118 – the streak of games without a goal that ended for Scott Hannan last night. Taking a sweet feed from Ovechkin from behind the Blues’ net, Hannan was all alone on the weak side, where he had time to pick the corner over Blues goalie Ty Conklin’s left shoulder. Hannan had not scored a goal since November 23, 2009, in a 5-4 win over Philadelphia. This one ended more happily. After Hannan scored against the Flyers he took a blind-side shot to the chops from Danny Briere that flattened him and earned Briere a two-game suspension.

2 – The first time the Caps have won two games in succession at home since November 26th (6-0 over Tampa Bay) and November 28th (3-2 in a Gimmick over Carolina).

3 – The first three-game winning streak since the Caps capped a three-gamer with their win over Pittsburgh in the Winter Classic.

Maybe, just maybe, the Caps are finally awakening from their long winter hibernation. One cannot call any of the three wins on this mini-streak “dominating” (all were by one goal, and the Caps did not score more than three goals in any of them), but a team that chooses to play a shutdown kind of game isn’t going to be winning many 7-4 games, either. It is the fifth consecutive win in which the Caps have allowed two or fewer goals (a total of six in the five games). In fact, in 13 wins in the 2011 portion of the season, the Caps have allowed two or fewer goals 12 times, the 7-6 win over Anaheim the only blot on that mark.

The Caps have almost completely remade themselves into something unrecognizable to anyone who watched them play last season. But think upon this. Last season the Chicago Blackhawks closed the regular season having held opponents to two or fewer goals in nine of their last 11 wins. The year before, the Pittsburgh Penguins held their opponents to two or fewer goals in six of their last eight regular season wins. If this is the trend among teams that go on to success in June, the Caps would do well to continue what they are doing.