Saturday, February 18, 2012

A TWO-point night: -- Game 57: Capitals 2 - Panthers 1

The longest journey starts with one step.

Maybe it will lead somewhere, and maybe they will trip and fall flat on their faces, but the Washington Capitals took that step last night in Florida by spotting the Panthers the game’s first goal, then coming back in the third period to take a 2-1 decision. The win pulled the Caps to within two points of Southeast Division-leading Florida and to within a point of eighth-place Toronto in the Eastern Conference.

This first step on the last part of this season’s journey was important in that the Caps have been a poor road team – worst in the Eastern Conference, in fact, going into this game (21 standings points being 15th in the conference). But they played a simple, uncomplicated game that gave Florida few chances on the ice and few chances for the announced crowd of 17,779 (half of which must have spent the entire game at the concession stands, because they weren’t in their seats) from getting into the game.

Not that the Caps played error-free. One thing that has seemed to be a lingering problem – late goals in a period – bit them again when Tomas Fleischmann converted a pass from Kris Versteeg with 40 seconds left in the first period for a 1-0 lead. That goal looked big at the time since the Panthers were 10-1-3 when leading after 20 minutes and 18-1-6 when scoring the game’s first goal. It looked even bigger when the Panthers carried that lead into the second intermission. They were 16-0-4 when leading after two periods of games this season.

But the Alexes took care of things for the Caps in the last 20 minutes. With Mikael Samuelsson off for a slashing penalty early in the third period, Alex Ovechkin converted the power play opportunity with a goal from a bad angle off a scramble in front of goalie Jose Theodore. It had the effect of tilting the ice in the Capitals’ favor, doubling Florida’s shot attempts, 10-5, over the next nine minutes. On the 11th attempt, Alexander Semin found the back of the net with a little bit of luck. A shot taken from the right wing boards caught the shaft of Sean Bergenheim’s stick and elevated ever so slightly, just enough to jump over the glove of Theodore, who looked prepared to defend what looked like a harmless shot.

After that, the Caps went into shutdown mode, limiting the Panthers to six shot attempts in the last 6:33 and only one shot on goal. It was enough to pump a bit of life into the playoff hopes of the Caps.

Other stuff…

-- All of a sudden, the Caps are a Gatling gun. Forty two shots on goal against San Jose, 41 last night against the Panthers. Now, about that shooting percentage. Five goals on 83 shots (6.0 percent) isn’t all that good. But at least getting pucks on net at one end helps limit pucks on their own net at the other end.

-- With his goal, Alex Ovechkin has seven in his last 13 games. That’s a 44-goal pace; not the Ovi of old, but not chopped liver either.

-- Alexander Semin now has goals in three of his last four games and four in his last seven (4-4-8). Last night’s goal was his first game-winner of the season.

-- Tomas Vokoun looked shaky at the start, as if he was fighting either nerves or the background in the arena. He was having particular trouble controlling pucks with his glove. But he finished strong and won his third game against the Panthers this season. He is 3-0-0, 0.33, .988 and two shutouts against Florida so far.

-- Every Cap had at least one shot on goal except for Jeff Schultz and Marcus Johansson. Schultz figures, he’s not much of an offensive defenseman, but Johansson’s lack of shots is becoming a problem. He has stopped shooting the puck. In his last 16 games he has a total of 12 shots on goal and has failed to record so much as one in eight of those games. This is something the Caps can’t afford from one who would be a top-six forward in Nicklas Backstrom’s absence.

-- Jay Beagle didn’t have a point, but he still had a nice game. Four shots on goal, five hits. He made his presence felt in ten minutes of ice time.

-- Speaking of Beagle, the line of Beagle, Joel Ward, and Jeff Halpern made a contribution in their “Occupy Florida’s Zone” game. This line had nine of the Caps’ 41 shots on goal. It meant that Jose Theodore didn’t get a break from the Washington attack when the fourth line was on the ice.

-- Mike Knuble… an assist and a disallowed goal. That disallowed goal could have been tough on the Caps, coming as it did with 45 seconds left in the second period and the Panthers having that unbeaten in regulation record when leading after 40 minutes. But the Caps won that third period,. As for the disallowed goal, it is hard to argue that it should have counted when Knuble was clearly in the paint before the initial shot by Brooks Laich and was not pushed in by any Panther. Still, that what the Caps have been missing lately, a big body to plant in the goalie’s face.

-- For weeks, it was the Caps who were on the short end of a shots/shot attempts margin. But last night they outshot the Panthers, 41-23, and outattempted them, 75-50. It is hard for any team to be on the short end of that and establish much in the way of consistent offensive rhythm. Last night, that was the other team’s problem.

-- The last time Tomas Vokoun and Jose Theodore faced one another in a game was November 12, 2010. Vokoun turned away 23 shots in beating Theodore’s Minnesota Wild, 2-1. Vokoun faced 23 shots last night in the 2-1 win.

In the end, it is only one step, but an important one. Falling six points behind Florida with 25 games to play could have been a fatal blow to the Caps’ chances to make the playoffs by winning the Southeast Division. But now they are two points behind the Panthers and get them one more time, in Washington on April 5th. Meanwhile, it is a road win, only their tenth of the season (only five teams have fewer). With four road contests in their next five games, it was important to take a strong first step. They get a chance to take another on tonight in Tampa.

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