Sunday, February 19, 2012

A NO-point night -- Game 58: Lightning 2 - Capitals 1

One step forward, one step back, one step closer to an early spring.

The Caps wasted an opportunity to win consecutive games for the first time in more than a month, of catching the Florida Panthers in standings points at the top of the Southeast Division, and of passing the Toronto Maple Leafs for eighth place in the Eastern Conference.

And they wasted this opportunity before a team that had not won consecutive games of their own in February, had traded a reliable forward and a top-four defenseman before this game, and was starting a goaltender who ranked in the bottom ten in the league in goals against average and save percentage.

The Caps losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning by a 2-1 score should not have happened, but it looked as if they fell victim to the twin problems we cited in the pregame: a letdown after playing Florida in a big game, and Tampa rising up to act as spoiler.

There was also the problem of continuity, and in this lies the silver lining in this cloud of a game. Mike Green made his return to the ice tonight, and to manage risk in his return, the Caps dressed seven defensemen and 11 forwards. All seven defensemen played at least ten minutes (Green played 14:14), and all 11 forwards did th same. This made for a lot of forward line and defensive pair combinations.

On defense, the combinations generally involved Roman Hamrlik skating with Mike Green or Dmitry Orlov, and it was the Hamrlik-Orlov pair that was on the ice for Tampa Bay’s first goal. It was Orlov’s mistake – an ill-advised pass at the Tampa blue line – that was turned around for a Lightning rush into the Caps’ end that resulted in Tom Pyatt stuffing a loose puck under goalie Tomas Vokoun for the first goal.

John Carlson and Karl Alzner were the other pair victimized by a goal, but neither could do much about Steven Stamkos picking Matt Hendricks’ pocket just inside the Tampa Bay line and hauling the puck the other way on a clean breakaway, converting it for his 40th goal.

Two goals off mistakes. Still, it was two goals allowed against a team that was averaging almost three-and-a-half goals a game at home. Defense and goaltending was not the problem. The offense generally and the forwards, that was another story. With 11 forwards the Caps started with an Alex Ovechkin-Broks Laich-Mike Knuble top line. That line lasted two shifts. Knuble’s third shift was with Jeff Halpern and Joel Ward on the fourth line. Ovechkin’s fifth shift was with the Halpern-Ward pair (shifts from There would be Knuble-Ovechkin-Johansson, Knuble-Laich-Jason Chimera, Knuble-Alexander Semin-Mathieu Perreault. You get the point. And that is just focusing on Mike Knuble. Even the lone Caps goal – scored by Laich, the nominal top line center for this game – came with linemates Alexander Semin and Mathieu Perreault getting the assists. And there is the silver lining. If Mike Green passes his road test and the Caps return to six defensemen, the forward lines should not suffer the spin cycle treatment, and perhaps the continuity will result in some more offense.

Other stuff…

-- Even playing both ends of a back-to-back, Tomas Vokoun stopped 21 of 23 shots faced, making it 110 saves on the last 115 shots he faced over the past four games (.957). Over his last six appearances he has a goals against average of 1.32, a save percentage of .954, and two shutouts. He also has a record of 3-2-1. There is a lot of good effort being wasted in there.

-- Alex Ovechkin did not have his first shot attempt until the 13:21 mark of the first period (blocked by Adam Hall). He did not record his first shot on goal until the 8:34 mark of the second period, by which time the Lightning had a 2-0 lead.

-- The Caps dressed seven defensemen, and as a group they combined for one shot on goal on 13 shot attempts. Nine shot attempts were blocked.

-- Speaking of shots, at least Marcus Johansson was directing them at the net. We noted that he had only 12 shots in his last 12 games. He had two shots on goal last night on six attempts. Unfortunately, none went in. He has been stuck on 11 goals for six games now.

-- In fact, Johansson did everything but score. And we do mean “everything.” Two shots, a shot blocked, three misses, a hit, two giveaways, a takeaway, a blocked shot, wins in nine of 15 draws, and a slashing penalty. He was also one of three Caps forwards to skate more than 20 minutes.

-- Tampa went into shutdown mode in the third period. They directed only 11 shots at the Caps’ net in the last 20 minutes (two shots on goal). The Caps, with the Lightning playing rope-a-dope, managed only eight shots on goal of their own, only three of them coming from players not having “Alex” in their first name (Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, and Dennis Wideman). It is an indicator of how thin the Caps’ offense is these days.

-- The Caps had more than three minutes of power play time last night and managed one shot, that by Troy Brouwer. The power play looked like something you would see perhaps in the second exhibition game of the year. No clean entries, incomplete passes galore.

-- OK, we don’t have to say the Caps are undefeated with Mike Green in the lineup anymore.

In the end, if the Caps’ season was a movie, it might be one of those old adventure movies of the 1950’s or 1960’s, the ones in which some unfortunate soul takes a misstep and finds himself slowly sinking into a pit of quicksand. Slowly, relentlessly, inexorably, he sinks into the muck, first waist deep…chest deep…neck deep. Finally, he disappears below the smooth surface, never to be seen again.

That is the Caps right now. They are 1-3-1 in their last five games and have alternated losses and wins in their last five road games. The squirming in the muck has kept them right on the fringes of playoff eligibility, teasing fans with the possibility of getting in and, perhaps finding a spark once they do. But this has been going on for a while now. As we noted, the Caps have not won consecutive games in more than a month (going 5-7-3 since they did). Last night was their best chance to do that, facing a poor defensive team made even worse by selling off a checking forward and a solid defenseman, and starting a heretofore entirely average goaltender. And they get one goal on 23 shots and only 46 shot attempts.

Quicksand takes time to do its work.