Sunday, March 25, 2012

A TWO-point night -- Game 76: Capitals 3 - Wild 0

Practice makes perfect.

If the Washington Capitals get enough 3-0 leads, maybe winning those games will come more frequently. The Caps got goals from Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault, and Alex Ovechkin at one end of the ice, and they got 28 saves from Braden Holtby at the other end to defeat the Minnesota Wild, 3-0, at Verizon Center this evening.

It was not looking very good for the Caps early, perhaps a hangover from the disappointing 4-3 overtime loss to Winnipeg on Friday. They managed only seven shots on number three goaltender Matt Hackett, pressed into service with number one goalie Niklas Backstrom injured and backup Josh Harding having played on Saturday night in a 3-1 loss to Buffalo.

The Caps broke through in the second period in another one of those occasional trips down memory lane from games that might have been played two or three years ago. Stephen Kampfer collected a loose puck as he was gliding down the right wing in the Caps’ end and tried to center the puck. The puck went all the way through and out the other side, where only Alexander Semin was skating. Semin curled, picked up the puck as it bounced off the boards, and headed the other way. With four Wild skaters pinned in the offensive zone, including defenseman Kampfer, it was Semin and Jason Chimera on a two-on-one with only Clayton Stoner back. Semin froze Stoner with a curl and drag move, then slid the puck under Stoner's stick to Chimera on his left. Chimera buried it before Hackett could get across the crease.

Going hard to the net paid benefits on the second goal five minutes later when Troy Brouwer took advantage of some dicey defensive positioning and a bad attempt at a line change by the Wild. Alex Ovechkin curled through the neutral zone with the puck and sent a pass to Brouwer on the right side at the Minnesota line as one Wild skater was going off for another. It left Minnesota with no one on the right side of the ice and thin numbers in the middle as Brouwer skated in. It eventually became a two-on-one down low as Mathieu Perreault skated to the net. Brouwer sent a centering pass that hit Perreault in stride, and Perreault had only to redirect it past Hackett for his 14th goal of the season.

Ovechkin closed things out in the third period by ripping a page out of the Ovechkin songbook. It started with John Carlson sending a long cross-ice pass to Marcus Johansson at the Minnesota line. Johansson edged the puck into the zone before being stopped by defenseman Nate Prosser. It was enough for Ovechkin to come in behind the play and pick up the puck in stride. He skated into the left wing faceoff circle and using defenseman Tom Gilbert as a screen ripped a wrist shot through Hackett to close out the scoring.

Other stuff…

-- Unlike the game Friday night, the Caps did not go into a shell after getting the third goal. After Ovechkin scored at the 8:31 mark, the Caps did register seven more shot attempts (four on goal) and maintained possession for longer periods than they had Friday against Winnipeg when posting their 3-0 lead.

-- Doing simple things right pays dividends, and in this case it was going to the net. Chimera filling a lane with his stick on the ice; Perreault doing the same. They teach these things early in a hockey player’s life for a reason. They work.

-- Give Marcus Johansson some credit for taking a hit to make a play, or at least to allow one to unfold. He managed to get John Carlson’s pass into the offensive zone before taking a hit from Nate Prosser. It took Prosser out of the play and left the other defenseman – Tom Gilbert – in no-man’s land with no backside support when Ovechkin came charging through.

-- Ovechkin does not deal in retail. He is a wholesale dealer in shots from just about anywhere. He had 14 shot attempts in 26 minutes tonight, five on goal. He also had a pair of hits, two takeaways, and two blocked shots. But what might have been his best play was getting back with Mikko Koivu circling in to go in alone on goalie Braden Holtby. Koivu might have had an unimpeded path to the net, but Ovechkin had an angle on him as he was scrambling back on defense. Koivu started to cut in on Holtby, but Ovechkin slid across his path to sweep the puck away.

-- More going to the net. Troy Brouwer outracing Tom Gilbert to the puck behind the Wild net and centering Matt Hendricks on the doorstep in the first minute of the third period. Alexander Semin and Jason Chimera one more time in the third period on a two-on-one; Chimera heading for the net. Semin took the shot and was denied, but it was another instance of going to the net and forcing the defense and goaltender to make a play.

-- Fun fact… In the month of March the Caps have had three or more power play opportunities in four of 13 games. In each of those games they have a power play goal (and won three of them). In the other nine games – the ones in which they did not have at least three power play opportunities – they have failed to record a power play goal (with a record of 3-3-3). They had three chances against the Wild and scored one (Perreault).

-- Matt Hendricks, seven hits. He is coming up on the outside on Troy Brouwer for the team lead, trailing Brouwer by 231 to 201. The Caps are one of only three teams (Dallas and the Rangers being the others) with two players with at least 200 hits.

-- Mike Knuble had an interesting score sheet. In just under 15 minutes he had no shots, no shot attempts, no hits, no takeaways, no giveaways. But he did have four blocked shots, which tied Roman Hamrlik for the team lead.

-- The Caps went with seven defensemen, and it made for some odd time on ice totals. None stranger, perhaps, than John Carlson, who skated only 11:17. That was his lowest total ice time since he skated 9:06 in a 5-4 overtime loss to Ottawa on March 30, 2010. He still had three giveaways, though.

-- Braden Holtby has been nothing if not improvement personified. In his first appearance this season he allowed five goals on 35 shots to San Jose in a 5-3 loss. Then, three goals on 30 shots in a 5-3 win at Detroit. He followed that up with allowing only one goal on 28 shots in a 2-1 Gimmick loss to Philadelphia, then the 28-save shutout against the Wild on Sunday. His save percentages went: .857, .909, .964, 1.000.

In the end, every win is precious at this time of year, but this was one the Caps had to have and should have had. They started sluggishly, but took advantage of the fact that the Wild were in their second of a back-to-back set on the road. It sets the stage for the biggest regular season game in these parts in some time when the Caps host Buffalo on Tuesday for what might be the deciding contest in a fight for the last playoff spot. The winner will have a two-point lead with five games to play, and while the Caps will still have the advantage of the tie-breaker in the event the teams finished tied in standings points (the Caps have 36 wins in regulation and overtime to 30 for Buffalo), this will be one the Caps have to have. Disposing of the Wild in workmanlike fashion puts them in the position of controlling their own fate against the Sabres.

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