Sunday, April 01, 2012

A TWO-point night -- Game 79: Capitals 3 - Canadiens 2 (OT/Gimmick)

When the Washington Capitals scored two goals in the first 16 minutes of last night’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, fans could almost smell the pizza, almost taste the wings. Discounts on such fare from local establishments are the prizes if the Caps score four or five goals in a game, and the Caps seemed well on their way to reaching those totals.

In fact, in the first ten minutes the Caps looked as if they were going to skate the Canadiens out of Verizon Center and into the Potomac River. The Caps had eight shot attempts (six on goal) to none for the Canadiens in the first five minutes, including a goal by Mathieu Perreault on a nice centering feed from Alexander Semin at 4:16. The shot attempts would reach 11-2 for the Caps (8-1 in shots on goal) by the time the clock hit 10:00.

When Jay Beagle converted a pass from the corner by Matt Hendricks at the 18:10 mark, the attempts had reached 21-5 (shots were 12-4), and the Caps were humming. Then, things took a turn. The momentum the Caps worked hard to build in the first 19 minutes slammed to a halt in the last minute of the period. Max Pacioretty picked up the puck deep in his own end and skated out and up the left wing. Marcus Johansson took a bad angle on him in the neutral zone that prevented him from halting Pacioretty’s progress. Then, the Montreal forward curled past defenseman Dennis Wideman and to the net. Goalie Michal Neuvirth made the initial save, but Erik Cole put back the rebound, and Montreal was back in it at 2-1 at the first intermission.

The Montreal momentum carried over to the second period, in which a Canadien score seemed like an inevitability almost from the drop of the puck to start the period. They finally converted in the 15th minute of the period on another case of beating a Caps defenseman wide. This time it was Tomas Plekanec beating Roman Hamrlik wide and flipping a shot over Neuvirth’s left shoulder and under the crossbar to tie the game.

After that it was a case not the Caps playing for food specials for the fans, but fans wondering if the Caps were playing themselves out of the playoffs. If not for Michal Neuvirth, who stopped the last 20 shots he faced after the Plekanec goal, the game would have ended in disaster for the Caps. But stop them he did from the late second period through overtime, and it was left to the freestyle portion of the show. And there, old teammates renewed acquaintances – Matt Hendricks and Peter Budaj, who played together in Colorado for the Avalanche.

One might have thought Budaj had seen “The Paralyzer” move in practice when the two played together, and perhaps this was on Hendricks’ mind when he picked up the puck at center ice. Whatever was on his mind, he skated in, did the mule kick as if to signal his signature move, and that seemed to freeze Budaj for an instant. But rather than go to his backhand, Hendricks pulled the puck onto his forehand and slipped it past Budaj’s left pad. After Hendricks’ score, and a save and a miss at the other end, it was left to Alexander Semin to decide it, and that he did, deftly slipping the puck between Budaj’s pads and sending Caps fans home happy, if perhaps a bit hungry.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps played in four trick-shot competitions in March. Matt Hendricks was 4-for-4 in them.

-- The Caps outshot the Canadiens, 8-1, in the first ten minutes. Over the last 55 minutes they were outshot by Montreal, 40-27.

-- The blue line really had a tough time in this one. Dennis Wideman had an especially rough game, consistently being beaten by faster Canadien forwards. Roman Hamrlik and John Carlson had their adventures, too.

-- Wideman was whistled for two penalties last night and spent what seemed to be entirely too much time yapping at referees about it and play in general. It did not help the cause.

-- Nicklas Backstrom skated 19:40 in his first game back after a 40-game absence to injury. Seven shot attempts (two on goal), one takeaway, and 12 wins in 18 faceoffs. Not as much rust as one might have expected after missing half a season.

-- What was it with the linesmen last night? Rarely will you find them getting in the way of so many passes and pucks as last night. There were at least half a dozen instances in which passes or pucks were otherwise deflected by officials’ skates.

-- The Caps had 33 shots on goal last night. Every Cap had at least one except Marcus Johansson. Of Montreal’s 41 shots on goal, every skater had at least one except for Petteri Nokelainen and Brad Staubitz, who had a combined total of 10:14 of ice time.

-- Although Montreal ended the game with a 41-33 shot advantage, but the teams ended the game even in shot attempts (68).

-- It is always nice to see a grinder get a star, and Jay Beagle has played his role well in March – three goals from a fourth liner, including a nice go-to-the-net goal last night. But we think Hendricks really deserved one. There was the Gimmick score, the pass out of the corner that set up Beagle’s score, and there was his flattening Brad Staubitz late in the second period that awakened the crowd. He won four of five draws for good measure.

-- Mathieu Perreault seems fearless. How many goals does he get inside of 20 feet? Last night he got one by sneaking down the middle while Alexander Semin was shooting, collecting a rebound, and reloading for a pass. But who was that who charged down the middle first, tying up Erik Cole and taking him out of the middle to create the opening for Perreault? Oh…Hendricks.

-- The Caps have played in three extra-time games in their last five.  In all of them they surrendered multiple-goal leads and relied on the Gimmick to win two of them (they lost the other in overtime to Winnipeg).

In the end, style points count for squat. It’s the standings points, and whether earned pretty or earned ugly, two points is two points. The Caps got theirs, and Buffalo did not. The two points also kept Washington within arm’s reach of the Florida Panthers for the top spot in the Southeast Division, an important consideration given that the teams could be playing for the Division title on Thursday. This win coupled with the win in Boston on Thursday not only leave the Caps in control of their own destiny once more, but give them some breathing room, since they now have that two point advantage over Buffalo and hold the tiebreaker advantage over both the Sabres and Florida in the event of a tie after 82 games. A two-game “winning streak" – their first consecutive wins in more than two weeks – has come at the right time.

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