Wednesday, April 06, 2011

A TWO-point night -- Game 81: Caps 5 - Panthers 2

The Caps made it four wins in a row tonight with a workmanlike 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers.  The last regular season home game for the Caps lacked flash, but meat and potatoes is what this team does these days, and the Caps served up portions of both, getting a lead with a suddenly effective power play and getting solid goaltending from Semyon Varlamov to put the Panthers in their place.

The Caps were off and running less than two minutes into the game when Mike Knuble sent Kanoobie into a frenzy, converting a feed from the left wing boards off the stick of Brooks Laich for an early power play goal. Then they got one in the dying moments of the first period when Nicklas Backstrom played a little bit of hide-and-seek behind the Panthers’ net. Giving goalie Scott Clemmensen the impression he was going to take the puck around behind the net, Backstrom caught Clemmensen peeking and fed Jason Chimera for the goal on the short side as Clemmensen was looking around the far side of the net.

In the second period, Sean Collins got the third goal of the evening when an Alex Ovechkin pass intended for Nicklas Backstrom clicked off a Panther skate on the way through and into open ice. Collins was trailing the play down the middle and was in just the right spot to collect the puck and lean into one, ramming the puck off the pipe and behind Clemmensen for his second NHL goal.

Matt Hendricks scored his ninth of the year when he was given time to write a novel at the post to the left of goalie Scott Clemmensen. Boyd Gordon found him from behind the Panther net, and with defenseman Clay Wilson more or less just watching, as opposed to defending, Hendricks chipped the puck past Clemmensen for goal number four for the evening.

Florida got one when David Booth converted a Sergei Samsonov feed for a power play goal with just over six minutes left, and Mike Santorelli bunted a pass from Samsonov just over the goal line with 91 seconds left, but Alex Ovechkin put an end to any thoughts of a miracle comeback when he took a feed from Nicklas Backstrom for an empty netter with 12 seconds left to seal the Caps’ 48th win of the year.

Other stuff…

-- Florida out-attempted the Caps, 33-11, in the first period. They had more shots (18), more missed shots (eight), and more shots blocked (seven) than the Caps had shots on goal (six).

-- The Caps’ third goal came on the sort of play that plagued the Caps last season. David Booth was at the offensive blue line for the Panthers because defenseman Jason Garrison tried to jump up into the play along the left wing boards. Booth, covering the left point, had the puck and tried to make a pass across the zone. He was rather lazy about it, sending the puck softly across to a spot already vacated by a backing-up Mike Weaver. The puck settled on Alex Ovechkin’s stick, and Ovechkin started the play the other way. It might have been just another harmless mistake, but Jack Skille was slow getting back to cover Sean Collins, and when Ovechkin’s pass attempt hit a Panther skate and ricocheted to Collins, he was wide open for the shot from the high slot.

-- When Matt Hendricks scored from the doorstep in the third period, it tied his career best of nine goals, set last year with Colorado.

-- With a three-point night, Ovechkin is 8-15-23, plus-11 in his last 16 games.

-- With a two-assist night, Nicklas Backstrom is 1-9-10, plus-5 in his last eight games.

-- Brooks Laich extended his points streak to five games, his longest of the season. He is 0-7-7 over that span.

-- Two power play goals tonight makes five in nine chances over the last three games. It is the third time this season that the Caps have power play goals in three consecutive games.

-- The power play goal for Knuble was his second in three games and his fourth goal overall in his last four games. He has nine goals in his last 12 games (three of them on the power play).

-- The win in regulation broke a streak of four consecutive games in which the Caps were taken to extra time.

-- After getting 18 shots in the first period, Florida had only 15 over the last 40 minutes.

-- Lost in the talk about Alex Ovechkin’s drop in goals scored this season is that with two assists tonight he has seven helpers in his last six games and is fifth in the league in assists.

-- Jason Chimera’s goal made it eight Caps with at least ten. Matt Hendricks got one to put him one away from joining the double digit club.

-- The Caps had a rather “meh” night in the circle. They were 4-for-15 in offensive zone faceoffs. Brooks Laich and Boyd Gordon made up for that at the other end, though. They were a combined 11-for-13 on defensive zone draws.

-- John Erskine…four hits, six blocked shots. He is another underreported story this season – a lot of solid play from a guy you might not have expected it from. He has had only one “minus” game in his last eleven games.

-- The record will show that Scott Clemmensen allowed four goals on 24 shots faced, but truth be told, the Panther defense was rather bad, and that isn’t just the defensemen. Hendricks got a goal when Clay Wilson left him standing there for what seemed to be a ten-count waiting for the puck at the post, and Jack Skille nonchalanted the backcheck to let Sean Collins cruise down the slot for his goal.

-- Semyon Varlamov kept the Caps in the game early, giving his teammates time to find their legs (which they only had in spurts tonight, anyway). He’s not going away in this goalie sweepstakes thing.

-- For all the hills and valleys of this season, a win on Saturday against this same Florida Panthers team would enable the Caps to finish the regular season with the second-highest standings points total in team history (109), the second fewest number of losses in regulation over a full season (22), and the fourth highest number of wins (49).

In the end, it was about what you expected. It was an unevenly played game pitting a team tuning up for the playoffs against one checking airline schedules to get out of town at the end of the weekend. No one appears to have been injured for the Caps, and that is probably the takeaway from this game. With 81 down and one to go, a repeat performance against this same team on Saturday will be just fine for the Caps.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Panthers, April 6th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It seems like only yesterday that Corey Masisak wrote this of the Washington Capitals’ home opener against the New Jersey Devils:

“If the Washington Capitals' goal was to show that they're better than the team that lost in the first round of the playoffs last spring after winning the Presidents' Trophy, consider Saturday night's 7-2 win against the New Jersey Devils as ‘Mission Accomplished.’"

Forty home games later, the Caps are about to close their regular season at Verizon Center a very different team than the one that buried the Devils under an avalanche of goals back in October. And tonight the Caps take that different team to the ice to host the Florida Panthers as a team that has dialed back the “Showtime” offense in pursuit of a style that balances the ability to score – especially when falling behind – with defense and goaltending in such a way as to frustrate opponents into thinking, “these are the Washington Capitals, right?”

On the other hand, the Florida Panthers are mired in another in a series of forgettable seasons. Missing the playoffs for the tenth straight season, the Panthers are playing out the string. And they are looking mighty ugly in doing it. Florida is 0-5-3 in their last eight games, a run plagued by an incapacity to score goals. They have only 11 goals in these last eight games, only eight in their last seven, and they were shutout twice. Overall, their numbers compare to the Caps like this:

Stephen Weiss – the Panthers’ leading scorer – is doubtful for this contest with a groin injury. In fact, he’s doubtful for the rest of the season. And if he does sit out the last three games for the Panthers, the club will finish the season without a 50-point scorer (Weiss has 49 points).

In fact, Weiss might finish the season as the Panthers’ only 40-point scorer. David Booth is stuck on 39 points at the moment. And although he needs just a goal or an assist to reach that 40-point mark, it isn’t a certainty. He is 1-1-2, minus-9 in his last ten games. If there is a whiff of hope here, it is in that Booth has had a decent season series against the Caps this year. In four games he is 2-2-4. In 24 career games against the Caps he is 6-7-13.

It says something about the Panthers that of their top-ten point-getters, five of them now play for other teams. Dennis Wideman (fourth) is in Washington. Michael Frolik (sixth) is in Chicago. Chris Higgins (eighth) is in Vancouver. Cory Stillman (ninth) is in Carolina. Bryan McCabe (tenth) is in New York with the Rangers. The locker room must have a sign on it, “CLEARANCE: EVERYTHING MUST GO.” So it is left to guys like Mike Santorelli try and cobble together something – anything – on offense. Santorelli has a shot at 40 points himself, with an 18-20-38 scoring line coming into Florida’s last three games. But he, too, is finding the going tough lately. In his last eight games, only an assist is credited to his score sheet. He is a minus-8 in those games. In four career games against the Caps he is 3-1-4.

Wih Wideman in Washington and McCabe in New York, Dmitry Kulikov bears the scoring burden for the defense. He is a respectable 6-20-26, minus-3 in that regard, but he is struggling at the moment (as if any Panther isn’t) with only an assist in his last seven games and a minus-8 to go along with it. He has three assists in four games against the Caps this season and a plus-3 mark, adding to a career record of 1-6-7, plus-4 in nine career games against Washington.

Tomas Vokoun might be joining Stephen Weiss on the sideline for the rest of the season. He is suffering a back injury, and that might leave it up to Scott Clemmensen to tend goal for the Panthers. He has been in the nets for the last three Panther games. He has not performed at a high enough level to lift the Panthers out of their late-season funk. In those last three games he is 0-2-1, 2.92, .898. That goals against average and save percentage is considerably worse than his season marks (2.51, .915). He has enough skill that the Caps should not take him lightly, but like the rest of the Panthers, it seems, the season cannot end fast enough. He is 2-5-1, 3.79, .864 lifetime against the Caps.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Florida: Sergei Samsonov

Sergei Samsonov might be the closest thing Florida has to a “hot” player. In his last ten games he is 2-7-9, minus-1. He has Florida’s last game-winning goal, the first goal scored in a 4-0 win over Toronto on St. Patrick’s Day. The well-traveled Samsonov (Florida is his sixth team in his 13 NHL seasons) is essentially playing for a contract. He is in the last year of a three-year deal that pays him $2.8 million this year. How he finishes might influence that next contract he signs.

Washington: Semyon Varlamov

With Michal Neuvith having gotten the call last night, it would seem Varlamov would get the call tonight. And now Varlamov finds himself in a tricky situation. Neuvirth getting the nod last night – a game against a desperate team in a big venue – all but screamed that the Caps have settled on Neuvirth to start the playoffs. Varlamov will, for the third straight year, be the guy who needs to be ready in the blink of an eye (or after a soft goal) to go in and be sharp. He played that role for the last two years, both times coming in relief of a shaky Jose Theodore to lift the Caps. But he was the favorite coming into the season to be the number one goalie for the playoffs, and after a season-long audition for the role (one marred by injuries limiting him to fewer appearances (26) than Neuvirth has wins (27), he seems destined to start the playoffs for the third straight year on the bench, but this time under a different set of circumstances. With that knowledge (or at least the suggestion having been made with last night’s choice of goalie), will he be sharp tonight? Something to look for.


1. Pay attention. A game against a cellar-dweller the night after a game in Toronto. You can almost see the Caps’ eyes wandering around, thinking “can’t we just go to next week now?” If that’s how they play, Florida might get the odd goal or three to win. And remember, the Panthers do have two wins in four games of this series so far this season.

2. Don’t turn an appliance bulb into scoreboard lights. Florida’s power play is awful – 30th in the league and 3-for-28 (10.7 percent) over their last 12 games). If Florida gets a power play goal, it’s a bad sign.

3. First things first. No team has fewer wins when allowing the first goal than Florida (seven). Only one team has fewer losses in regulation that Washington when scoring the first goal. This is a simple game.

In the end, the only thing to be gained from this game and next is to get them over with and no further physical damage to the club inflicted. Yeah, finishing first is nice, whether it is finishing first in the Eastern Conference or finishing first in a spelling bee. But that’s not the object of the exercise. There is no trophy for finishing on top of the Eastern Conference standings heap, and trophies – well, a Cup – is what the Caps are readying themselves to fight for now.

Caps 4 - Panthers 2

A TWO-point night -- Game 80: Caps 3 - Maple Leafs 2 (OT/Gimmick)

The Washington Capitals killed two birds with one shot last night, or more precisely, killed two and wounded another. The 3-2 win in the Gimmick over the Toronto Maple Leafs ended the playoff hopes of the Maple Leafs and the hopes of the Tampa Bay Lightning to overtake the Capitals for the Southeast Division title. The win also wounded the chances of the Philadelphia Flyers to win the top spot in the Eastern Conference, because while the Caps were winning the trick shot competition, the Flyers were losing to the Ottawa Senators, 5-2. The Caps now have a two-point lead with two games to play. While the Flyers control the tie-breakers at the moment (they have more “ROW” victories), the Caps now control their own destiny.

And controlling their destiny is something they enjoyed last night, once the hockey portion of the evening was completed. After Alex Ovechkin and John Erskine exchanged goals for the Caps with markers by Nikolai Kulemin and Joffrey Lupul for the Leafs, the teams went to the alternating shot format, Caps shooting last. And there, it seemed as if neither team was going to get one by either Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth or Leafs netminder James Reimer. But Mike Knuble took the fourth round for the Caps, and with a snap shot past Reimer’s glove, he shot the Caps into the lead in the East and to their fourth straight Southeast Division title.

Other stuff…

-- With the Caps’ first goal last night, Alex Ovechkin has 31 on the season and 300 for his career. The last time Ovechkin had consecutive games without a point was February 6th/8th. Since then he is 11-16-27 in 22 games and has points in 18 of those games.

-- John Erskine, scoring machine. His goal last night added to his career high in goals for a season (four) and points (11). It was his first goal since November 26th (in a 6-0 win over Tampa Bay) and first point since February 6th (a 3-0 win over Pittsburgh).

-- Michal Neuvirth allowed two goals on 21 shots, one of which he probably wants back. The shot by Nikolai Kulemin on the power play was a nifty piece of work using Erskine as a screen, but Neuvirth looked as if he whiffed on trying to glove it down. The other one isn’t on him as much as it is on Jeff Schultz, who looked to have plenty of time to tie up Joffrey Lupul as he was heading to the net. But he was late getting there, and Lupul was free and clear to convert a feed from Phil Kessel.

-- James Reimer might turn out to be a flop down the road, but we don’t think it would be the way to bet. He was the real deal, and then some, last night with 39 saves on 41 shots. And if Knuble doesn’t pick the edge of the net for the Gimmick tally, they might still be going on.

-- Knuble has two trick shot goals as a Cap. Both were the game-winner.

-- The Caps had 78 shot attempts for the night. Ovechkin had 17 of them. No Leaf had more than six, and Toronto had only 48 overall.

-- Who was second in shot attempts for the Caps? Go ahead, think about it. We’ll wait…

-- Toronto was credited with 50 – five-oh – hits. Every Leaf had at least one except Mikhail Grabovski. We think Brian Burke was credited with one when he passed George McPhee in the hall.

-- Ovechkin’s power play goal made it two games in a row that the Caps scored at least one with the man advantage. Hope springs eternal that the power play is finding its way to daylight.

-- On the other hand, it was the third time in four games that the Caps allowed a power play goal (8-for-11 on the penalty kill). Something to work on. The good thing is that it was the third straight game the Caps allowed only two power play opportunities.

-- The Caps have not lost consecutive games since dropping three in a row to a trio of Pacific Division teams in mid-February (San Jose, Los Angeles, and Phoenix). Since then, the Caps are 18-4-1. They are 8-2-0 against playoff-eligible teams in that span.

-- …Marcus Johansson had eight shot attempts. He also had a takeaway, a blocked shot, and split 14 draws.

In the end, the Caps finished the night with only one team in the league – Vancouver – with more wins (52 to 47) and more points (113 to 105). Only Atlanta has more wins in extra time. One might conclude that the Caps have been both good and resilient. But give a nod to the Maple Leafs, too, for their resiliency and grit. They did not go without a fight. Coach Bruce Boudreau remarked last night that “they looked a little tired -- mentally tired. It's hard hanging on and hanging on and hanging on. I thought as the game wore on we kept getting it deep and wearing them down a little bit." Well, that’s probably true, but Toronto was giving all they had in one last push to keep a longshot playoff run going. And a lot of that was due to James Reimer, on whose back the Leafs have put this run over the last few weeks. But Toronto has only to look forward to next year, now. The Caps still have business to take care of, and with a home-and-home against Florida to end the regular season, they look to be in a position to get down to business.