Saturday, January 14, 2012

Six of one, half a dozen of another

The Washington Capitals play six more games before the break for the All Star Game in Ottawa. These games present an opportunity for the Caps to jump several place in the Eastern Conference standings, for their opponents are not among the most formidable they could face (with current records):

Team shaded in green are below the Caps in the standings. Four of them lie at the bottom of their respective divisions (Carolina counted twice), and the other – Pittsburgh – is struggling with injuries that have contributed to what is at the moment a stretch of six losses in their last seven games. Even mighty Boston, a club that has only 11 losses in regulation this season, has suffered four of those at the hands of teams in the Southeast Division, against which they are only 4-4-0.

You could argue that here on the schedule is where the Caps must make their stand. And you would be half right. Because on the other side of the All Star Game break, the Caps will have a six-game stretch that resembles the one leading them into the break:

The difference here is essentially that the two games against Carolina leading into the break are replaced with two against the team immediately ahead of them in the Southeast Division standings – the Florida Panthers. The Panthers are struggling. They have not won consecutive games in regulation in more than a month and are 5-6-4 in their last 15 contests.

For the Caps to match their standings points mark after 54 games last season (68 points on a record of 29-15-10), they would need 20 points in these 12 games. That is a very tall order, but given the opposition, not impossible for this team (at least this team “on paper”). Boiled down, whether they make the playoffs or not is likely to be a product of what they do in these 12 games straddling the All Star Game break – six of one, half a dozen of another.

A TWO-point night -- Game 42: Capitals 4 - Lightning 3

When you see someone limping, you know they are in pain, but it can pain you to watch them, too.

Last night, the Washington Capitals limped to a 4-3 win over a Tampa Bay Lightning team that is in the midst of enduring the biggest challenges ever placed before a hockey team, a team that performed valiantly in the face of unimaginable obstacles…or perhaps “imagined” ones, but we will get to that.

The Caps have been accused from time to time…of not getting enough “secondary” scoring support – goal scoring from players not named “Alex” or “Nicklas” or “Mike.” Well, they got it in a big way last night. “Nicklas” (Backstrom) and “Mike” (Green) were out with injuries. The “Alexes” (Ovechkin and Semin) combined for a goal and an assist.

Troy Brouwer played in 279 NHL regular season games and 43 playoff games before last night. In those 322 games he scored a total of 64 goals; he had multi-goal games five times. Goal-scoring was not his game. His job description might have been a word – “havoc.” Banging bodies, creting traffic in front of goalies, getting under the skin of opponents. But last night, he became Wayne Gretzky. Or maybe Brett Hull. Brouwer recorded the first hat trick of his career, scoring his goals three different ways – power play, even strength, and even strength/empty net. He scored them in different ways.

-- There was Brouwer being Brouwer, planting himself in front of Tampa Bay goalie Dwayne Roloson on the power play while Dennis Wideman and Alex Ovechkin played catch with the puck at the top of the offensive zone. When the puck finally came to Alexander Semin at the left wing wall, Brouwer slid out along the goal line to Roloson’s right to give Semin a passing option. Semin sent a pass to Brouwer, and as he did, Marcus Johansson jumped toward the net on the other side of the play. Perhaps Roloson caught a peek of Johansson, because he left just enough room at the post for Brouwer to flick the puck behind him to give the Caps a 2-0 lead, building on an Alex Ovechkin goal to start the game.

-- There was Brouwer the opportunist. Mike Knuble was fighting with Eric Brewer for puck possession behind the Lightning net. The puck squirted out from behind the net where Brooks Laich gloved it down. With two Lightning players converging on Laich, and Brewer still tied up with Knuble to Roloson’s right, Laich found Brouwer all alone in the low slot. Brouwer had only to flick the puck into the open net…Caps 3 – Lightning 0.

-- Tampa Bay managed to close the gap to 3-2 on a late second period goal by Taylor Pyatt and a third period goal by Steven Stamkos with less than four minutes left, there was Brouwer the thankful. With just over a minute to play, the Lightning won a faceoff in the offensive zone. They could not capitalize, though, as Brooks Laich stripped the puck from Martin St. Louis at the boards and sent it out into space in the neutral zone where Brouwer was headed. Before Steven Stamkos could close on Brouwer, the winger fired from just outside the Tampa blue line and found the middle of the back of the net to complete the trick.

Other stuff…

-- This “woe is us” nonsense from Tampa Bay coach Guy “Dr. Joyce Brothers” Boucher really has gotten old. Anybody buy this schtick anymore? Even on the team? Some choice quotes…

"Two penalties for absolutely nothing calls that are never called the entire year, so right away they give (the Caps) a break, and they capitalize right away, and we're behind the eight ball the rest of the way."

Coach, you were down 2-0 with almost 55 minutes of hockey left and Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and Vincent Lecavalier on your team against an opponent that was giving up almost three goals a game. This was not the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae.

"Our players have played hard in ridiculous situations where the other team waits for you at home while you go to bed at 4 o'clock and you played the last night."

Coach, you pretty much fly first class, get to stay at nice hotels, and it is not as if the Lightning are the only team in the NHL to have to play the back end of a back to back on the road against a team that had the previous night off. As the line goes in the movie, “Too Big to Fail," “you’re not getting out of a Higgins boat on Omaha Beach!”

"We played enough to win tonight. I'm sorry...we’re not getting the breaks…it’s been like that for a long time; it’s the story of our season. We’ve got injuries over injuries and adversity on adversity, and the breaks are just not coming at all."

Coach…you want to trade your injury situation with Pittsburgh? Or the Caps, for that matter? Your “big three” of Stamkos, Lecavalier, and St. Louis have missed a total of five man-games (all by St. Louis, all in early December). And the only thing injured between your goaltenders is their talent.

-- At the other end, the Caps were out-shot (31-20), out attempted (64-38), outworked in the faceoff circle (32-for-68), and had more turnovers (15-14). Almost half of the Tampa Bay shots on goal (15) came in the last 20 minutes. The Caps played a good first 20 minutes, a middling middle 20 minutes, and a last 20 minutes they are not going to like watching on video…against that team playing the back half of a back-to-back.

-- The Troy Brouwer Hat Trick.. Three goals (on three shots), two minor penalties, and seven hits.

-- In being outshot 31-20 in this game the Caps have been outshot in nine of their last ten games and 14 of 20 since Dale Hunter took over behind the bench. In 12 of 20 games they have allowed at least 30 shots, including five of their last six. Five times the have allowed ten or more shots more than the number they took.

-- The three goals allowed was the first time since a 5-1 loss to Philadelphia that the Caps allowed more than one goal to an opponent on home ice. In five previous games, the Caps outscored the opponents by a combined 15-4, with one shutout.

-- The goal by Ovechkin broke a three-game streak without a point and left him with ten goals in 20 games since the coaching change (10-7-17).

-- On September 22, 2007, Karl Alzner fought J.D. Watt of the Red Deer Rebels. It was the last of three fights Alzner had in junior hockey and the last fight he had in an organized hockey game. Until last night. And you can’t say he picked a softie to test his skills. Steve Downie had a fight card of 29 fights in 236 NHL regular season games before last night. The decision had to go to Downie, but Alzner did get some licks in and kept chirping at him when the two repaired to their respective sentencing bins.

-- Hey, coach…just checking here, but your guys had five power plays in the game. The Caps had four.

-- Jason Chimera came into the game as the Caps’ second leading goal scorer (14). He skated only 9:53, his lowest ice time since he skated 9:13 in a 7-4 loss in Vancouver on October 29th. Only Cody Eakin and Jay Beagle had less even-strength ice time than his 7:02.

In the end, the Caps started strong an limped to the finish. It was not a smooth 60 minutes of hockey. If not for the heroics of Troy Brouwer, this could have been ugly, in fact. But then again, even people suffering a limp are making progress down the road.