Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Cousins of the Roundtable, Part II

We took a look at the roster changes the Caps have made and surprises from the first half. Now the cousins and I take a look at what might have been pivotal moments in the first half. Guys, are you ready?

If the Caps should make the playoffs and an eighth-seed by one or two points, can you point to one game in the first half and say that it was the critical win, the unexpected win, the big win that provided the extra point or two to put the Caps over the top?

Fearless: December 7th. The Caps were coming off an ugly loss in Florida in which they gave up five goals in the first half of the game to the Panthers, then fell short in a comeback try, 5-4. From there they traveled to Ottawa, a team that was just starting to turn things around after a mediocre start. The Caps fell behind 2-1 after two periods after allowing a couple of late goals in the period by the Senators. Ottawa almost made it 3-1 when Milan Michalek had a breakaway just five minutes into the third. Goalie Tomas Vokoun stopped him, and the Caps’ skaters took over from there. Nicklas Backstrom tied it 9:45 in, then Alex Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer scored 15 seconds apart to give the Caps a 4-2 lead. After Michalek got the Senators back to within one with less than four minutes left, John Carlson ended it with an empty net goal for the 5-3 win.

The Caps, coming off a bad loss, having a poor first 40 minutes in this one, could have just chalked it up as another road loss. But they did come back, got goals from the players who have to contribute on a consistent basis, then had Tomas Vokoun turn away five shots on goal in the last 90 seconds to help seal the come-from-behind win. Instead of skating off with no points, they got two, and it got the Caps started on a 13-7-2 record leading into the All-Star break.

Cheerless: Cuz, you gotta be kidding. Ottawa? I look at a game where the Caps lost two in a row, three of their last four, were coming home with three of their top Young Guns on the bench, their top scorer taking the ice being a defenseman, their top two goal scorers for the season that night being a couple of grinders – Jason Chimera and Troy Brouwer, two rookies in the lineup, a couple of others (Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle) with less than a hundred games of experience apiece.

And who do they get? A team with a plus-gazillion goal differential for the season and a goalie with a goals-against average you’d need a magnifying glass to see. Unless you were a player or a coach, or maybe Slapshot, you already chalked up the January 24th game against the Boston Bruins as a no-point night. But the Caps beat the Bruins, 5-3, and went into the All-Star break maybe feeling a little better about themselves. If they make the playoffs by two points, then these two points – two they had no business to expect – will have been the most important ones.

Peerless: Hey, Cheerless, I had the Caps in that Boston game, too. And I even had the Caps scoring five goals…

Fearless: Bragging is unseemly, cousin…

Peerless: Well, since Cheerless took the Boston game for two points the Caps had no business getting, I’ll take a game that they got two points in for how they can – and have to – play when motivated. December 28th against the Rangers. New York came to Washington feeling all fat and happy with a five-game winning streak, sitting on top of the Eastern Conference, being the toast of New York hockey. The Caps? Losers of two in a row, three of four, and four of their last six games. Even with the Rangers starting backup goalie Martin Biron, they had to be considered a favorite.

The Caps and Rangers traded goals in the first period, but then the Caps squeezed. They got goals from Troy Brouwer and Alexander Semin less than three minutes apart in the second period and went off after 40 minutes with a 3-1 lead and having held the Rangers to only 17 shots on goal. The Caps went into a defensive shell around Tomas Vokoun in the third and frustrated the Rangers, who failed to score on any of their first 14 shots of the period. Then Alexander Semin scored to ice things, Vokoun turned away one more shot for his 31st save on 32 shots, and the Caps had a 4-1 win.


Now let’s turn that on its head… If the Caps miss the playoffs by one or two points, what game in the first half to you think will be the one that did them in, the one game in which they should have come out with two points and didn’t?

Cheerless: October 27th in Edmonton. The Caps were 7-0-0, starting their first western road trip. The big game would be in Vancouver, but the Caps had that stop in Edmonton first. And it looked good early. The Caps outshot the Oilers, 7-1, in the first 11 minutes and got a goal by Karl Alzner, of all people, to take a 1-0 lead. But then the offense shut down for the rest of the period. Edmonton got a late 4-on-3 power play goal from Taylor Hall to tie things up, and whatever momentum the Caps had in the first ten minutes was pretty much gone in the last ten. The Caps had a flat second period, getting only two shots on goal in the first 11 minutes. Jordan Eberle scored a power play goal at 12:44 to give the Oilers the lead. After that, Edmonton left it in the hands of goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who had given up only five goals on 134 shots coming into this game, and that was enough. The Caps never regained the momentum they had early, even if they would get 19 shots on goal in the third period. It shouldn’t have come to that; this was a game the Caps should have won. The Caps seemed to be peeking ahead, and when they lost momentum after having it early, they squandered two points.

Fearless: You could end this conversation by picking an Islander game, and you would have choices. I’d take the game on November 5th. The Caps lost both games of that western road trip to Edmonton and Vancouver, but the won their next two, scoring five goals in each in games against Anaheim and Carolina. They were in the second half of a road back-to-back on Long Island, but they jumped on the Islanders for a pair of goals in the first period – one by Joel Ward, the other by Alex Ovechkin. But the Caps gave away their advantage in the second period, letting the Islanders tie things up while getting only seven shots on Islander goalie Rick DiPietro.

Again, and just like in that Edmonton game – momentum taken, then given away. And the Caps could not get it back. They did trade goals in the first half of the third period, but PA Parenteau gave the Islanders a 4-3 lead with less than two minutes left, they John Tavares iced it with an empty netter. The Islanders, muddling along with a 3-5-2 record coming into this game, took away a win from the Caps – a team with a 9-2-0 record entering this contest – that the Caps might regret down the road. Parenthetically, since he had a goal in that game, Joel Ward has had but one in 35 games since.

Peerless: It would be easy to pick the other ugly loss to the Islanders, the 3-0 shutout on January 17th, or even the 3-0 loss in Carolina three days later. But we are going with the 5-1 loss to Buffalo on November 26th. This was not a game that the Caps might regret for the two points in this game that they forfeited, but what it revealed about the team that laid bare the fact that they might not be the sum of their parts. The Sabres came into this game having lost three in a row, four of five, and five of their previous seven games. What is more, they were missing nine regulars from their lineup, forcing coach Lindy Ruff to patch together a lineup from spare parts and call-ups from the AHL.

The Caps lost five of seven, themselves, but surely against a patchwork lineup – one missing top goalie Ryan Miller, to boot – they would be able to muster enough to leave with a win. But Buffalo jumped on the Caps early with a pair of goals in the first period. Then they shrugged off a penalty shot goal from Jason Chimera in the second by getting a goal of their own. The two goals in the third period for the Sabres, the last coming on a shorthanded goal by Jochen Hecht, made for an embarrassing night for the Capitals. Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom each were on the ice for four goals against (each finishing minus-4). The top line managed five shots on goal, one more than Mike Knuble had on his own. They turned Jhonas Enroth – a decent goalie (7-3-1, 2.40, .922 going into that game) – into a great one, shutting out the Caps save for a penalty shot. And they did this against a team that was not far above a good AHL squad in talent with the injuries decimating the Sabres. They didn’t give the two points away, they presented them to the Sabres on a silver platter. And it would be the last game Bruce Boudreau coached for the Capitals.

We have other things to cover, but that will have to wait for the next time.