Sunday, February 26, 2012

A TWO-point night: -- Game 62: Capitals 4 - Maple Leafs 2


The Washington Capitals made this last weekend before the trading deadline a profitable one on the ice by defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs, 4-2, at Air Canada Centre. Unlike the 7-1 pasting the Caps suffered at ACC at the hands of the Leafs in November, there would be no quick start for the home team. In that game, Toronto scored 1:39 into the game to get things off to a fast start. Last night, it was the Caps getting the early goal, a wrap-around by Marcus Johansson just 32 seconds in.

Alexander Semin made it 2-0 just over three minutes later on a series of weak efforts by the Maple Leafs. First, there was the breakout from the Caps’ end. Dmitry Orlov out-worked one, then two Leafs along the wall to goalie Michal Neuvirth’s left to get the puck free. After Mathieu Perreault scooped up the loose puck and circled behind the net, he moved it up to Dennis Wideman, who fed it forward to Jason Chimera. Not only was the breakout clean as a whistle for the Caps, but the Leafs just kept backing off and backing off as Chimera skated through the neutral zone. When Chimera gained the Toronto blue line, he fed it to Semin on the left side – wide open with two Leaf defensemen and a forward on the wrong side of the ice…

Semin fired the puck, but goalie James Reimer made the initial save. Note, though, that defenseman Jake Gardiner merely follows Semin around the back of the net as if he was on a leisurely public skate, while his partner Luke Schenn picks up the rebound…

Perreault jumps into the play to challenge Schenn’s breakout. As Schenn tries to avoid Perreault, he is not aware of Semin coming up from behind on his right. And there is Gardiner taking it all in from below the goal line having left Semin go completely…

Semin picks Schenn clean and now has a clear shooting lane with three Leafs all more than an extended stick length away from him…

Semin fires before Gardiner can get in the lane to block the shot or before Nikoali Kulemin can back check and interrupt Semin’s shooting motion. Still, goalie James Reimer has a good look and appears square to the shot…

The puck goes five-hole on Reimer as Schenn and Gardiner look on helplessly in what was a fairly leaky goal…

Reimer would get the blame for this, but it was really 200 feet of poor play by the Leafs that led to it.

It would be the game’s key goal for a number of reasons. First, it staked the Caps to a 2-0 first period lead, the first time they’ve had one of those on the road since they had a 2-0 lead in Montreal on January 18th in a 3-0 win. Then, there was the matter of the crowd. After that goal the home crowd cheered the most routine of saves. It is one thing to take the crowd out of the game, another to make them actively mock the home team. And, the Caps could thereafter dictate pace, denying the Leafs the opportunity to get their crowd back into the game.

The Caps doubled their fun in the second period on goals by Jeff Halpern and Keith Aucoin, the latter’s first of the season since being called up from Hershey. It ended the competitive portion of the evening, even as Toronto halved the lead in the third period. It was as solid a road game as the Caps have mustered in some time.

Other stuff…

-- More Toronto follies. The Halpern goal was essentially two Caps outworking most of the Leafs’ skaters. First, it was Halpern himself outdueling several Leafs along the wall for the puck, eventually pushing it out to Orlov at the left point. Then, when Phil Kessel moved up to challenge, Orlov deftly stepped around him and opened a shooting lane. He snapped the puck to the net where there was a scrum, but the Leafs left Halpern unattended at Reimer’s right. Halpern got a couple of free whacks at the puck, swatting it in for the 3-0 lead.

-- The Aucoin goal was more of the same, as in “what were the Leafs doing?” Tim Connolly started things on the play rather well for the Leafs, taking the puck away from Marcus Johansson just inside the Capitals’ blue line. He skated in and eluded a diving Mike Green, trying to sweep away the puck. But it was just enough to result in the puck rolling off Connolly's stick into the corner. Matthew Lombardi tried to center the puck, but it squirted all the way through. The result was a puck going in the wrong direction for the Leafs and three forward pinned deep and themselves going in the wrong direction. It turned into a 4-on-2 Capitals rush the other way, making it easy for an Ovechkin to Johansson to Aucoin tap-in for the goal.

-- Johansson, Halpern, Aucoin… secondary scoring. It helps.

-- Neuvirth had a more-or-less solid game. He was good when he had to be in the first 40 minutes, and even the goals he allowed had an odd character to them. On the first, Colby Armstrong’s struggle to keep his feet and control of the puck might have caused Neuvirth to lose his line in tracking Armstrong. He looked as if he was trying to adjust the angle several times on the play and got caught when Armstrong finally got the shot off. On the second one, as a shot was fired wide and behind Neuvirth, he got his right skate caught up with Lombardi as the latter was skating behind him through the crease in pursuit of the loose puck. Neuvirth could not gain purchase to get to his feet with Dennis Wideman standing over him. He was flat on his back as the puck went in.

-- Alex Ovechkin said after the game, "Against our line they played pretty well, especially in the first, I made a couple of moves but their 'D' did a great job, especially Phaneuf. I like playing against him. He's physical. When he hits me, I feel like I am in the game. I don't like when people don't hit me. I like being physical and I like it to be tough." In a game in which Toronto was credited with 43 hits, Ovechkin was the recipient only six times, two by Phaneuf. Only once did he take a hit after 1:44 remained in the first period. If they’d hit him more, Toronto might have ended up losing by half a dozen.

-- That was the ninth time this season the Caps were held to a single power play opportunity. They are 6-3-0 in such games, 3-2-0 when they do not score on their opportunity (they didn’t last night and were held without a shot).

-- Toronto held a whopping edge in zone draws, taking 30 in their offensive end and the Caps taking only 16 in theirs. The Caps largely neutralized that advantage by going 16-for-30 in the defensive end, Halpern and Brooks Laich combining to go 12-for-18.

-- Joel Ward had an assist. He had a goal against Montreal on Friday. That makes for the first time Ward has points in consecutive games since October 20/22.

-- It’s not the number, it’s the percentage. Often this season the Caps have topped the 20 blocked shot mark. Too often that has been an indicator of the ice tilted to far toward the Caps’ net, the opponent getting too many shot attempts. Last night the Caps had 25 blocked shots. Yes, the Leafs had 70 attempts, but 33 of them came in the third period. For the game the Caps blocked more than 35 percent of the Leaf attempts.

In the end, the Caps are off the scheid. Consecutive wins for the first time in more than a month. Those wins allow the Caps to keep in striking distance of a playoff spot – one point behind Winnipeg for eighth and a single point behind Florida for the top spot in the Southeast. But that also shows how hard it is to break through at this time of year. The Caps started the weekend three behind the Jets and two behind the Panthers and are still on the outside looking in after a pair of wins. The Caps cannot – and at the moment do not have to – rely on help too much, so long as they keep winning. They get that chance on Tuesday against the Islanders, a chance for their first three-game winning streak since that three-gamer in mid-January.

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