Friday, July 08, 2011

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Capitals at Pittsburgh, January 1st

Halfway through the ten games that mattered, we come almost to the half-way mark of the season, perhaps to the most eagerly anticipated regular season game in quite some time…

January 1, 2011: Washington (22-12-5) at Pittsburgh (25-11-3)

Result: Capitals 3 – Penguins 1

The Background: From the day that it was announced that the Caps and Penguins would meet in the fourth Bridgestone Winter Classic – May 28, 2010 – this game was the one that had almost every hockey fan circling “January 1st” in red ink on their calendars. And when HBO announced in September that it would partner with the NHL to produce a four-episode series for the “24/7” reality franchise that would cover the run-up to the Classic, it was anticipation on steroids.

The HBO series provided the appropriate narrative as lead in to the game – a struggling Capitals team finally finding its way back to the win column; the Penguins a happy band of hockey players sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings. Each team led by their own megawatt star – Alex Ovechkin for Washington and Sidney Crosby for Pittsburgh – but backed up in each instance by a quirky supporting cast, whether playing pranks on teammates in hotels or tooling around in a Vespa.

It was perhaps fitting that the game itself would be unique, even by Winter Classic standards. Thanks to uncooperative weather in Pittsburgh, the game would be postponed from its 1:00 start to 8:00, making it the first Classic to be played under the lights.

Why It Mattered: Not a trivial consideration, the Caps would come into the game on a 4-0-1 run (the lone loss a shootout loss to Pittsburgh), while the Penguins were on their own 4-1-1 run. Only four points separated the two, and one could see this not only as the latest installment of the Winter Classic, but as a prelude to a potential Eastern Conference final matchup.

Heinz Field fairly sparkled under the night sky and, unfortunately, an intermittent rain. It didn’t seem to bother the 68,111 in attendance though. Those fans were treated to an evenly-played, up-and-down the ice affair in the first period that featured a fight (John Erskine and Mike Rupp) for good measure. If there had to be a concern for Caps fans, it was that even though the Penguins were awarded only one power play in the first period, the Penguins managed to record five shots on goal, all of them turned away by goalie Semyon Varlamov.

The Penguins’ persistence was rewarded early in the second when Evgeny Malkin scored on the Penguins’ 18th shot of the game (second in the second period) at 2:13, moments after at the other end Penguin goalie Marc-Andre Fleury foiled Alex Ovechkin on a partial breakaway. Mike Knuble got it back for the Caps later in the period when he jammed in a loose puck as part of a scrum in the Penguin crease as Pittsburgh was trying to kill off a power play.

Then things fell apart for the Penguins – for this game, and perhaps their season. Eric Fehr put the Caps in front when Marc-Andre Fleury roamed behind his net to play the puck and lost track of it. Marcus Johansson got to the puck before Fleury could locate it, then threw it out in front before taking a hit from Deryk Engelland. The puck ended up on Fehr’s stick, who only had to wrist it into the net before Fleury could maneuver back to his crease.

But neither Malkin’s goal, nor those of Knuble and Fehr were the biggest play of the period – or the season. In the dying seconds of the second period, the Caps took possession of the puck, and Karl Alzner moved it up ice to try to start something the other way. Sidney Crosby tried to block the clear, but missed, then turned to follow the play. In doing so, he turned into the path of David Steckel, trying to rush up ice himself with Matt Hendricks on his left. The paths of Crosby and Steckel crossed, and with Crosby’s head turned to see where the play was leading, he was unprepared for the collision he had with Steckel. He was knocked to the ice as time expired in the period, and he was plainly in distress as the teams headed off for the intermission.  It was an unfortunate moment that would reverberate for weeks to come.

In what only might happen in hockey, Crosby retuned for the third period and not only played, but recorded 9:28 in ice time, the most by period for Crosby in this game. What perhaps no one knew was that Crosby – at the time the leading goal scorer and point getter in the league, and the odds-on favorite for the Hart Trophy as MVP – was about to see his season end. He would dress and skate for 19 minutes in his next game, against Tampa Bay, but a hit he sustained in that game when boarded by Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman would effectively end his season, the victim of the concussion perhaps sustained with Steckel's hit and exacerbated by Hedman's.

In that third period, the Penguins got caught once more with their hand in the cookie jar when Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr were working the puck through the neutral zone. When Fehr passed the puck to Chimera on the left wing, Penguin defenseman Paul Martin got caught peeking a little too long at the pass and lost Fehr charging down the middle behind him. Chimera found Fehr breaking past Martin, leaving Fehr with the puck with nothing but clear (if soggy) ice between himself and Fleury. Fehr wristed the puck over Fleury’s left shoulder to provide the final margin in a 3-1 win.

The Takeaway: Where to start. First, it wasn’t just the game, but the look that fans got at two teams behind the scenes in mid-season, courtesy of HBO’s 24/7 series. It was entertaining and almost a lock to be an annual companion to the game itself. There was the nighttime aspect, which gave the game a very different look from that of the other three Classics, and one would not be surprised if occasionally the NHL and NBC (or whoever the television partner is) has a nighttime telecast of this event.

The aftermath of this contest was not kind to either team. The Caps lost four of their next five games and would be shut out twice. The Penguins would lose three of their next four, but more important would lose their captain and the league’s best player for the rest of the season, his career going forward still in doubt.

The game itself was unremarkable by hockey standards. Yes, it did pit two well-known rivals against one another, but it didn’t produce memorable moments – the SportsCenter save or the player making an end to end rush. It had unlikely heroes – Semyon Varlamov stopping 32 of 33 shots and Eric Fehr recording his first two-goal game of the season – but it was what it was, a hockey game in January. Perhaps a little more hotly contested under the circumstances, but not really rising to the intensity or competitiveness of a Stanley Cup playoff game.

The game was made more memorable by what surrounded it – reality TV, a game played outdoors at night, and of course, 68,000 fans of both teams yelling their lungs out. But in that sense, it was not just “a hockey game in January,” but hockey as spectacle, and that is why the 2011 Winter Classic as to be on the list of games that mattered in the 2010-2011 season.

(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America)

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Capitals at Bruins, December 18th

Time for Game 4 in our trip down the road of the 2010-2011 season and the games that mattered…

December 18, 2010: Washington (18-11-4) at Boston (16-10-4)

Result: Bruins 3 – Capitals 2

The Background: Things were looking bleak for the Capitals by mid-December. They had not won a game since the first day of the month, compiling a losing streak that reached seven games. They experienced the high and the low of such streaks in their previous two games, first getting pasted by the New York Rangers, 7-0, then losing late in overtime to the Anaheim Ducks, 2-1. Now, the Caps found themselves mired in fifth place in the East, only four points ahead of eighth-place Boston, a team that itself was trying to get out of a three-game losing streak. With the cameras of HBO hovering for the 24/7 series leading up to the Winter Classic and the losses piling up, one might be inclined to think the Caps bore the heavier burden coming into this game.

Why It Mattered: The Caps came out flat, and the Bruins applied the rolling pin to flatten them out a little more in the first period. Patrice Bergeron got the home team off and running at 3:27 when John Erskine and Mike Green both converged on Blake Wheeler, who found Bergeron coming late for a snap shot that beat Michal Neuvirth. The Bruins got their second goal of the period when Andrew Ference got two whacks at a slap shot. The first was blocked by Andrew Gordon, but as it happens to teams going poorly, the puck bounced right back to Ference, who took another whack and got it all the way through the screens and past Neuvirth. Matt Bradley tried to inject some life into the Caps by taking on Adam McQuaid on the ensuing faceoff, but it had no effect. When Bergeron returned the favor and fed Wheeler for an uncovered one-timer, one could see the Caps visibly shrink heading into the first intermission.

And then came, “The Speech.” Losing streaks seem to have a progression on a team’s psyche…

Confusion…”This shouldn’t be happening?”
Frustration…”Why is this happening?”
Acceptance…”It’s happening again”
Anger…”This isn’t happening anymore.”

In the first intermission, the Caps finally got to “anger.” Mike Knuble stood up, paced the locker room with barely restrained fury, and gave, if not quite a “Knute Rockne” version of romantic inspiration, a salty call to to his teammates to grow a pair…

"Today, it's 3-0 and it will not [censored] be one of these laughers again. It will not [censored] turn into a 5-0, 7-0 [censored] laugher. Where they're [censored] giggling getting out of their [censored] mess here. We are [censored] down 3-0 and we are going to come back and we're gonna [censored] win this thing. We're not [censored] going in the tank. That is enough right there. That's [censored] more than a year's worth. It's not going to happen again."

If the Caps didn’t explode out of the locker room to start the second period, at least they stopped the bleeding. And it started with the Caps beleaguered goaltender, Michal Neuvrith. Tyler Seguin skated between two Caps at the Washington blue line and sped in on Neuvirth on a clean break. Seguin tried to deke Neuvirth to the ice to get the puck on his forehad, but even though Seguin got Neuvirth to bite, Neuvirth flashed the left pad to foil Seguin. The Caps recovered the puck, took off in the other direction, and when the puck found its way to Bradley’s stick, he cut between two Bruins and fired a wrist shot past goalie Tim Thomas’ blocker on the long side to give the Caps some life.

Karl Alzner would get the Caps within a goal with 5:28 remaining, putting the Bruins on their heels. But Tim Thomas, despite facing 26 shots in the third period (Boston would have 21 for the game), foiled the Caps efforts, not the least of which was a backhand attempt by Alex Ovechkin with ten seconds left from just outside the crease.

Although in the end it was not quite enough, the Caps finally got angry. They “won” the second and third periods, 2-0, outshooting the Bruins, 36-10. It might have been the best sustained (as in “more than a couple of shifts”) effort during the eight game losing streak. But there was going to be more work to be done – the Caps, with this loss, found themselves looking up at both Atlanta and Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division, and found themselves in seventh place in the East, just two points ahead of the eighth-place Bruins.

The Takeaway: Losing streaks are often characterized by a certain asymmetry between effort and results, and it was true here. The Caps “played” very well for the last 40 minutes of this game, but the result did not reward that effort. Just the same, one could now see the end of the losing streak ahead. The Caps had had enough and more important, were playing as if they had enough. This would be the last loss in their December swoon, and from here the Caps would go 6-0-2 in their next eight games, providing an appropriate symmetry for their 0-6-2 losing streak.

It might not have happened, though, without a veteran taking it upon himself and venting his anger – at the losing streak, at the effort, at the other guys in the room, with himself. And without the cameras of HBO recording the moment, it might never have come to light. Fans would not get a glimpse of this until the next airing of HBO’s 24/7 series, and by that time the Caps would go on to break their losing streak with wins over Ottawa and New Jersey. But when they did, they got a glimpse of how, perhaps, one speech does make a difference in a long season. And that is why this game – and Mike Knuble’s moment – mattered in the 2010-2011 season.

(Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America)