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.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps at Blackhawks, March 13th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

This afternoon the Washington Capitals host the Chicago Blackhawks in a battle of defender and contender for the Stanley Cup. It’s not often that the Blackhawks come to town, and it reminds us of some of the great dishes from Chicago... deep-dish pizza, Italian beef sandwiches, pizza puffs, Chicken Vesuvio.

But what in the name of Ditka have they done to hot dogs? This is what passes for the hot dog, Chicago style…

A poppy-seed bun? Neon relish? And just what is a “sport” pepper, anyway? A chili that spend 30 minutes on the treadmill? Pickles, onions, sport peppers, tomatoes, and celery salt? Maybe this isn't so much a hot dog as it is what passes for salad in Chicago. But we can agree on one thing…

If the Washington Capitals are the hottest team in the NHL with a seven game winning streak and nine in their last ten, then this afternoon’s opponent – the Chicago Blackhawks – are right there with them. The Blackhawks have lost only twice in regulation in their last 14 games in posting a 9-2-3 record. They have, however, lost their last two contests – a 3-2 loss in Florida and a 4-3 Gimmick loss to Tampa Bay last Tuesday and Wednesday. Chicago has been off since that Wednesday game, however, and should be well rested for today’s game. Overall, their numbers compare to the Caps’ as follows:

One of the engines in the Blackhawks’ recent good fortune is their Captain, Jonathan Toews. The fourth-year player is 13-22-35, plus-17 in the 28 games of the 2010 portion of the season, and he has 11 multi-point games in his last 19 contests. He has put himself squarely in the conversation of who is most deserving of the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. And, with respect to this game, Toews is a more effective player on the road this season. In 32 road games he is 13-24-37, plus-19, with five of his 13 goals being game-winners. He has been bombs-away against the Southeast Division so far this season with four goals and four assists in four games. He also has 22 shots on goal in those four games and is a plus-5. In three career games against the Caps Toews is 3-1-4.

When the Blackhawks won their Stanley Cup last season, the bill came due shortly thereafter in the form of having to move contracts that would strangle the team this season. Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Brent Sopel, Colin Fraser, John Madden – six of the 14 players who dressed for 70 or more games for the Blackhawks have had to be replaced. One of the players doing the replacing is left wing Bryan Bickell. Playing in his first full NHL season (he played a total of 23 games over three seasons for Chicago), Bickell has chipped in 16 goals and 36 points in 65 games, while going a plus-9 (second among wingers to Marian Hossa). The 2004 second-round draft pick has been hot of late, too. He had a four-game scoring streak (2-3-5) broken Wednesday against Tampa Bay. If Bickell had a nickname, though, it might be “Captain Hook.” Five of his 14 minor penalties this season were of the hooking variety. Bickell has never faced the Caps in his career.

On the blue line, the Blackhawks rely a lot on the trio of Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, and Brian Campbell. All average more than 23 minutes a game, all have at least 25 points, all of them have two power play goals. But that is a lot of ice time to give these guys, and Campbell missed Wednesday’s game with an LBI (“lower body injury”) and will be a game-time decision for this afternoon's contest. What that means is that Chris Campoli, who arrived in a trade with Ottawa at the deadline, will have to assume a large role for the Blackhawks’ defense. Campoli was having a decent, if unspectacular, season with the Senators before being moved to Chicago (3-11-14, minus-3 for a struggling Ottawa team). With the Blackhawks he stepped in and skated more than 20 minutes a night, while contributing a couple of assists and being a plus player in his last four games (plus-5 overall). He has a bit of a chippy side to him, with a pair of fighting majors this season, as well as three cross-checking and four roughing penalties on his season’s resume. He has a goal and five assists in 18 career games against the Caps.

In the last month, Marty Turco has played a total of 38:32 in goal for the Blackhawks, all of that coming in a relief role after starter Corey Crawford allowed three goals on eight shots to start the game in a 3-2 loss to the Florida Panthers last Tuesday. He hasn’t won a game since February 1st, and that was hardly a highlight reel effort – four goals allowed in a 7-4 win over Columbus. You would not think Turco is getting the call in this one.

So that leaves Corey Crawford. Before this season Crawford appeared in a total of eight games over a three-season span. He was 1-3-1, 2.60, .914 in those games. This year is different. With Antti Niemi having been another casualty of the Chicago contract situation and left to go to San Jose, and Turco not filling the role of number one goaltender adequately, the job fell to Crawford. And he has filled it quite well. He is tied with Niemi for 13th in the league in wins (26), but has played in fewer games than any goaltender ranked above him. His 2.26 goals against average ranks fifth, and he has three shutouts. Did we mention he is a rookie? He leads all rookie goaltenders in wins, GAA, and minutes played; and he is second (to Toronto’s James Reimer) in save percentage. He had a personal eight-game winning streak broken in the loss to Florida last Tuesday, and he lost in a trick shot competition to Tampa Bay the following night. He has been quite consistent in his play, allowing more than three goals only four times in his last 33 games. Unless Turco is given the call, today will be Crawford’s first career appearance against the Capitals.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Chicago: Patrick Sharp

Irresistible force, meet immovable object. The Caps are third in the league in penalty killing, fourth on home ice. Patrick Sharp is third in the league in power play goals (12). But what Sharp hasn’t done lately is score power play goals. He has not had one in more than a month (February 11th at Dallas in a 4-3 Gimmick loss). The Blackhawks could use him – they are only 4-for-27 (14.8 percent) on the power play over their last 11 games, 1-for-16 in their last six.

Washington: The New Guys

Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm, and Dennis Wideman have played a total of 107 games against the Chicago Blackhawks in their respective careers. The rest of the skaters for the Caps have played a total of 132 combined games against the Hawks (73 of those from Scott Hannan and Jason Chimera). That is the kind of experience that is necessary at this time of year. Although the three are only a combined 1-6-7 in the six games in which they have played, they lend a sense of stability to the roster, especially Arnott with respect to the second line (and Alexander Semin in particular) and Wideman on the blue line. That contribution might explain the fact that the three are a combined plus-12 in the six games. And today, in a big game against a contender from the West on national television, it will be valuable.


1. First 20 minutes. Chicago has 74 first period goals scored this season, the Caps have 39. You would like the Caps’ chances if they were even after 20 minutes, because…

2. One goal matters. The Caps have 21 one-goal wins this season, one behind co-leaders Tampa Bay and Anaheim. On the other hand, Chicago has the fourth worst record in the league in one-goal games (and are 2-3-4 in their last nine one-goal decisions). The Caps have won their last eight one-goal decisions. Keep it close, and the history favors the Caps.

3. Opportunity. The power play returned to its old ways against Carolina, failing on two chances. It’s not so much the failure as the lack of opportunity. It was the fifth time in the last seven games that the Caps had two or fewer power play opportunities. Perhaps it was no coincidence that in the game they got five chances in that stretch they scored two goals. They are 17-8-3 when getting four or more opportunities.

In the end, this should be a good one, a contest matching contenders at the top of their games – the Blackhawks 9-1-1 in their last 11 games and the Caps 9-1-0 in their last ten. Further, each team is getting consistently effective performances from the big guys – Toews for Chicago and Alex Ovechkin for the Caps. The odd part of this game is the goaltending. Combined, Corey Crawford and Braden Holtby have 62 games of NHL experience. It might come down to which goalie shows his lack of experience least. And you know which one we think that is…

Caps 3 – Blackhawks 2