Thursday, March 17, 2011

A NO-point night -- Game 72: Red Wings 3 - Caps 2

Well, the Penguins’ record of 17 straight wins is safe.

The Washington Capitals saw their winning streak stopped at nine last night, courtesy of the Detroit Red Wings, who held off the Caps in a 3-2 decision in Detroit.

It would be easy to write this off as the second game of a back-to-back played by a team with injuries in key areas against a strong team in their rink that was skating a comparatively healthy team. Yeah, all of that is true, but one can’t be especially happy with the result, considering a number of items that came up short.

For example, Michal Neuvirth played a whale of a game for the most part. He stopped 32 of 35 shots, including a 16-shot barrage in the second period. But frankly, the game-winning goal off the stick of Henrik Zetterberg – a backhander from the bottom of the right wing circle on a power play – is a shot he stops 99 times out of 100 and one he can’t allow past him with games on the line.

Alex Ovechkin had a goal, four hits, two takeaways, but he had a golden opportunity late in the second when he took a pass just outside the Detroit blue line, undressed Brian Rafalski, skated in, deked defenseman Jakub Kindl to his knees, and fired a wrist shot…that didn’t find the back of the net. A score there, on what would have been his second goal of the period, and the Caps likely take a 3-2 lead into the second intermission, and we’re having a different conversation this morning.

Alexander Semin has been playing excellent hockey of late. It was he who fed Ovechkin on his goal in the second period. But when Ovechkin returned the favor with the clock under nine minutes to go in the third, Semin skated in all alone on goalie Jimmy Howard but got in too deep with the moves he was trying to make and never got a good shot off, despite the fact that it looked as if he had Howard at his mercy. You could argue (and I would) that Nicklas Lidstrom got back to disrupt Semin just enough as he was cutting across the crease, but if Semin scores there to tie the game, the Caps might have escaped with a point.

Just as the Caps have been living on the safe side of the thin margin of one goal games lately, last night they found themselves on the other side of the divide, every decisive moment coming up “Red Wings” in this one. And that is the thin margin on which teams play in the spring.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps in a nutshell…things have been going good lately, and Brooks Laich has been scoring (4-4-8 in the nine-game winning streak) and winning draws (over 60 percent over the last four games). Last night he got torched in the circle (losing 15 of 19) and did not have a point. Not that he played badly – he had five hits and was a plus-1. It was just one of those nights.

-- If you had told me Jason Chimera and D.J. King would have recorded a point in the same game, let alone on the same goal (John Carlson), I’d have laughed hysterically. Mr. Greenberg, what does your Monte Carlo simulator say about this probability?

-- Someday, Marco Sturm will score a goal for the Caps. Four shots, seven attempts in 14 minutes and change. The effort is there, but the red light remains dark.

-- We said this would be a contest of wills in the prognosto. Well, who do you think won?…Detroit had 64 shot attempts (35 on goal), the Caps had 42 shot attempts (28 on goal). Fourteen Red Wing skaters recorded shots on goal, compared to only nine for the Caps. That’s Detroit’s kind of game.

-- Dennis Wideman was a rock out there. Almost 28 minutes, six blocked shots, and a plus-1. He was on the ice for the game-winner, but he was in his position, covering the middle against a Red Wing driving the net as Zetterberg was roofing his backhander.

-- Marcus Johansson hasn’t skated 20 minutes in a game since getting 22:16 in a 3-1 win over Ottawa on January 16th – his only 20-plus minute game this season. He almost made it two with 19:48 in ice time last night, including more than three minutes on the power play. The learning experience it provides cannot be overestimated. What’s more, he is performing well with the added responsibility as a result of Nicklas Backstrom’s injury.

-- A subtle hint at how the wheels start to fall off even during a streak. Going into last night the Caps had killed off 23 of 28 shorthanded situations over their previous six games (all wins) – not bad at 82.1 percent, but not up to their standard over the last few months. Last night, they allowed one goal – the game winner – in two chances.

In the end, streaks do not last forever, but even with Detroit’s puck possession dominance last night we had the feeling this one was there for the taking, if any one of a number of plays went the other way. And in that, perhaps Caps fans can take some solace in this loss. They played rather well against the Red Wings, a team far healthier than the Caps and more rested than the Caps (who played the previous night, then travelled to Detroit), having not played a game since last Saturday.

The trick here, as always, is to make sure “one” does not become “two” – as in “losses in a row.” The Caps have built quite a record in the past few weeks to climb to within a point of the conference lead. Preventing that “two in a row” will be difficult, what with heading to New Jersey on Friday, but it is a chance to play “reverse spoiler,” too. To stick a dagger in the chances of the Devils making good on their own good fortune over the past couple of months and all but put an end to their own chase for a playoff spot.