Thursday, July 07, 2011

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Maple Leafs at Capitals, December 6th

Game 3 at our look back at games that mattered in the 2010-2011 season turns to one that was a harbinger of things to come…

December 6, 2010: Toronto (9-12-4) at Washington (18-8-2)

Result: Maple Leafs 5 – Capitals 4 (OT/Gimmick)

The Background: Even though the Caps had lost two consecutive games – at Dallas and against Atlanta – the Caps were sitting fat and happy, tied for first in the Eastern Conference (with Pittsburgh) when the sun came up on December 6th. Meanwhile, the Toronto Maple Leafs came to town fresh off a 3-2 Gimmick win over Boston after enduring a dismal stretch in which they went 4-10-3 and were shut out six times (that’s not a misprint). You might have expected that the Caps would right themselves in short order against a weak opponent and keep pace with the Penguins. Well, you’d have to rethink that before midnight struck.

Why it mattered: When the Caps jumped ahead of the Leafs less than three minutes into the game on Mathieu Perreault’s first goal of the season, you might have thought the Caps would make a quick night of it. Even when Toronto evened the score on a goal by Clarke MacArthur at 11:47, the Caps stole the lead right back barely three minutes later on a power play goal by Mike Knuble. When Perreault got his second of the game early in the second period, you might have been thinking about catching an early train back home. And when Alex Ovechkin scored to give the Caps a 4-1 lead 13:50 into the second period, you were probably looking at the schedule thinking that December might be a pretty good month.

Well, hockey is not a 40 minute game; there were still 20 left to be played. The Leafs scored in the fifth minute of the third period to cut the margin to two goals, but it probably didn’t seem like much cause for alarm. When Toronto scored at the 17:37 mark to cut the margin to a single goal, that made things entirely too interesting for Caps fans, who were probably looking at the clock thinking, “just hold ‘em for the next 2:23…”

They didn’t. MacArthur got his second goal of the game just 59 seconds after Tim Brent got the Leafs to within one, and the game was tied with just 1:24 left in the game. Michal Neuvirth, who allowed only one goal on 18 shots in the first two periods, had allowed three on seven shots in a span of 14:20 of the third period in one of the ugliest periods of Caps hockey in some time.

The Caps and Maple Leafs fought through a scoreless overtime, but the damage had been done. The Caps failed to find the back of the net with any of their last 17 shots on goal (going back to the Ovechkin goal in the second period), leaving things to the uncertainty of the Gimmick. And there the game came down to one shot that was the game in a nutshell. Mikail Grabovski picked up the puck and circled wide to his right. From there he knifed toward the net, picking up speed as he closed on Michal Neuvirth. As he got to the net, he slammed on the brakes, executed a spin-o-rama, and backhanded the puck past Neuvirth’s left pad, the only goal in the trick shot competition that gave the Maple Leafs the 5-4 decision. Just as Grabovski executed a turnaround perfectly, so did the Maple Leafs in climbing out of the 4-1 hole they dug for themselves.

Instead of disposing of an opponent that shouldn’t have been competitive, the Caps mailed in the last 20 minutes, and then could not regain any momentum in the overtime. Not only had the Caps failed to halt a two-game losing streak, but the losing streak stood at three and would eventually extend to eight. Not only did the Caps manage to draw the Leafs into just three shorthanded situations, they also managed only two shots on goal in the three power plays they had (scoring on one of them) in 3:43 of power play time. The Caps were exposed as having perhaps a soft underbelly on defense (again, since they recently allowed 14 goals in three games in three late November losses). A power play that was humming along at almost 22 percent through November was not getting many chances (three times with three or fewer power play chances in four December games) and, at least in this instance, wasn’t getting much pressure on the defense when they did have the advantage.

The Takeaway: This was Washington on full display. Explosive on offense when properly motivated, too loosey-goosey with a lead (they had 21 shot attempts in the third period – 12 on goal – that was 35 percent of their total for the game, suggesting there was no pulling back and focusing on defense). They did get a power play goal from Mike Knuble but otherwise struggled to get pucks to the net. They left things too much in the hands of their goaltender late.

The defensive problems would continue after this game, reflected in allowing three goals to comparatively weak offensive teams in Florida and Colorado, then getting hammered by the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden, 7-0. It would eventually cause the Caps’ coaching staff to rethink and retool their approach, applying more emphasis on defense and preventing chances for the opposition. In retrospect, you might have seen that coming if you looked at this game – one in which the Caps looked alternately talented and undisciplined, a lot like stretches in the 2009-2010 season. But the Caps weren’t scoring in 2010-2011 like they did the previous year, and the lapses in discipline would have them scratching their heads over results like this one.

It was the beginning of a series of dark nights in December that resulted in a different Caps team by Christmas. And that is why this game mattered in the 2010-2011 season.

(photo: AP/Luis M. Alvarez)

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Flyers at Capitals, November 7th

Next up on our tour of games that mattered in the 2010-2011 season is another goaltending tale, but not one we might have expected…

November 7, 2010: Philadelphia (9-4-1) at Washington (9-4-0)

Result: Capitals 3 – Flyers 2 (OT)

The Background: There was a lot going on here for a game in early November. First, the Flyers were coming into Washington on a six-game winning streak behind the white hot goaltending of their latest contestant between the pipes, Sergei Bobrovsky. The rookie goaltender earned the decision in all six wins on the streak, posting a GAA of 1.67 and a save percentage of .943. His efforts helped propel the Flyers to the top of the Eastern Conference standings, one point ahead of Washington.

Meanwhile, the Caps were on a streak of their own, having won three in a row, mainly by pummeling their opponents with goals – 17 in the three wins. It shaped up as a contest of the irresistible force of the Caps offense against the immovable object represented by Sergei Bobrovsky in goal.

Why it mattered: The trouble with easy narratives like the one described above is that something often comes in to intrude on the story. This game would be one of those instances, and it had its roots in the Caps' previous game, a 5-3 win over the Boston Bruins. In that game, the Caps carried what looked like a comfortable 3-0 lead into the third period, but three goals on five shots in the first 10 minutes of the third period put an end to the Caps’ feeling of comfort. Those goals also chased Caps goaltender Michal Neuvirth in favor of rookie Braden Holtby making his NHL debut. Holtby faced only four shots in the last ten minutes, stopping them all. Meanwhile, John Carlson scored with 6:35 left, and Alex Ovechkin added an empty net goal to give the Caps a 5-3 win and Holtby the decision in his first NHL appearance.

Holtby was named the starter for this game against the Flyers, hardly the easiest opponent to face in one’s first NHL start. The Caps, though, did a fine job of preventing Flyer shots on goal. In the first nine minutes the Flyers managed only eight shot attempts, four of which were credited as shots on goal, none of them from inside of 30 feet. Nevertheless, the Flyers opened the scoring at the 9:51 mark on a goal by Nikolai Zherdev, leading a 2-on-1 break. The Caps went back to work, though, holding the Flyers to only one shot on goal over the rest of the period and getting the game-tying goal from Eric Fehr late in the frame.

It was more of the same in the second – the Flyers finding it difficult to get shots off, let alone on net. In the first four minutes of the period the Flyers attempted two shots, one of which was on goal, but did have to kill off a penalty as well. Shortly after killing a high-sticking call on Jeff Carter, Ville Leino put the Flyers back on top at 4:04 with a tip-in of an Andrej Meszaros shot.

Allowing two goals on eight shots might not have been a case of Holtby having jitters as much as having so little work to keep him focused. Whatever the reason for the early goals, Holtby slammed the door after that. He stopped each of the remaining 17 shots he would face in the second and third periods, while Alexander Semin tied the game in the second period, the last goal either team would score in regulation.

In the latter stages of regulation time, the Caps caught a break. Two, in fact. Chris Pronger was sent off at the 16:05 mark on a double-minor penalty for high-sticking David Steckel. Then, with 19 seconds left in regulation, Sean O’Donnell was sent off for boarding Tomas Fleischmann (have you noticed we mentioned so many names no longer with the respective clubs?). The Caps could not capitalize in the final seconds of the third period, but their 5-on-3 would carry over into the extra session. Pronger came out of the box five seconds into overtime, creating a rare 5-on-4 in overtime. The Flyers would not get to reset the matchup back to 4-on-3, though. Shortly after Pronger returned, Nicklas Backstrom found Mike Green at the right point, and after stepping up into a void left by the Flyer defenders, Green rifled a slap shot over Boborovsky’s left shoulder to end it 29 seconds into overtime. In doing so, the Caps jumped over the Flyers to lead the Eastern Conference standings for the first time in 2010-2011.

The takeaway: Holtby could have wilted. Little work early in the game, allowing the Flyers to get leads twice in the first 24 minutes, a nail-biter of a game throughout where neither team had more than a one goal lead (and the Caps never led until the game-winner). But after allowing two goals on the first eight shots he faced Holtby stopped the last 17 (he did not face a shot in overtime).

Credit could be given to the skaters in front of him, as the Caps allowed the Flyers only 49 shot attempts (25 on goal). But Holtby was solid in goal, too, matching Sergei Bobrovsky save for save. As Mike Green put it after the game, “…as a defenseman I said this about [Michal] Neuvirth – I was so confident playing in front of him. All his rebounds – he was scooping them up. He wasn't staying in the net. He was diving out and covering them up. Maybe as a young goaltender you wouldn't put yourself out there like that, but these guys are confident and that's what we need to win.”

With his debut against the Bruins and his first start against the Flyers, Braden Holtby threw his hat into the ring in the competition to see who would emerge as the Caps number one goaltender. If not the favorite, at least Holtby pronounced himself ready and capable of competing at the NHL level. And that is why this game in early November against a long-time rival mattered.

(photo: Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)