Sunday, January 27, 2013

A TWO-point night -- Game 5: Capitals 3 - Sabres 2

Even in 2009-2010, when the Caps finished the season with a franchise best 54 wins, they had to get a “first” win.  Today the Caps got their first win of the 2013 season, a 3-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in Washington.  It was not without its moments of suspense, especially late, but it was a win, and not the accidental or unearned variety.  The Caps played their most complete game of the season and got something to build on as they head out on the Canada Road this week.

It did not start out to the liking of the Caps or their fans, the visitors getting the first goal midway through the first period.  Tyler Ennis finished a nice triangle passing play that started when Drew Stafford pilfered the puck from under John Carlson’s stick and led a rush into the Washington end.  Upon crossing the blue line he dished the puck to Steve Ott on the left wing.  As Stafford continued his sprint to the net, Ott hit the trailer Ennis, who followed in Stafford’s wake and slid the puck under goalie Michal Neuvirth to open the scoring.

The Caps knotted the game with under four minutes to go in the first period when Jason Chimera collected a pass from Mike Ribeiro in the right wing corner to goalie Ryan Miller’s left.  Chimera spun and wristed the puck at the net, where Miller sticked the puck away.  However, in doing so Miller sent the puck up the middle where Joel Ward had slipped by Cody Hodgson (who had a brutal game for Buffalo).  Ward wasted no time in slamming the loose puck past Miller to tie the game, ending the scoring for the first 20 minutes.

Washington would get the only goal of the second period, a product of a John Erskine wrister from the left point that was screened by no fewer than four Sabres on its way to the Buffalo net.  The last Sabre – Hodgson – deflected the puck just enough for it to elude Miller for the tie-breaking goal. 

The last period was a return to the past, if but for a moment.  It started when Alexander Sulzer backhanded the puck over the glass to earn a delay-of-game penalty.  On the ensuing power play Mike Ribeiro picked up a loose puck as he was backing up to the goal line to Ryan Miller’s left.  Ribiero kicked the puck back out to Mike Green at the top of the right wing faceoff circle.  From there Green laid the puck off to his left where Alex Ovechkin was waiting in his office, the left wing faceoff circle.  Ovechkin one-timed the Green pass over Miller’s blocker and under the crossbar to give the Caps a 3-1 lead.

The Caps would need the insurance late as Marcus Foligno halved the Caps’ lead by swatting in a rebound from the top of the Caps’ crease, but Buffalo could get no closer.  The Caps might have added another insurance goal in the last 30 seconds with Miller pulled for an extra attacker, but Ovechkin rang a shot off the near post with an empty net in front of him to add a bit of drama to the last few moments.  No harm was done, though, and the Caps skated off with a 3-2 win.

Other stuff…

-  It was a day of firsts for the Caps…

  • The first win of Adam Oates’ head coaching career
  • The first win for the Caps this season
  • The first goal for Alex Ovechkin this season
  • The first goal for John Erskine this season
  • The first time the Caps led at an intermission this season (2-1 after the second period)
  • First win and first home win of the season

-  Ovechkin played in a manner to which his fans are more accustomed.  He had his first goal of the season, five shots on goal, one missed shot (the missed empty net), three hits, and a takeaway in 18:29 of ice time.  And, he ran down at least three potential icing calls and displayed a backchecking effort folks complain they do not see enough of.  He looked like a guy tired of losing.

-  With two assists on the day, Mike Ribeiro is now 1-5-6 and leads the team in points.  He has points in four of the five games the Caps have played to date.

-  Every Capital taking more than two draws had a winning percentage on faceoffs.  Small wonder; Buffalo came into the game dead last in the league in faceoff winning percentage and was under 40 percent (37.7 percent) in this one.

-  Joel Ward got his third goal in five games this afternoon.  Caps fans might remember that last year Ward had three goals in his first ten games, then had one in his next 27 games.  However, this has a different look to it; Adam Oates seems more inclined than was Dale Hunter, at least for the time being, for putting Ward in positions (mainly in close) where he can do some damage on rebounds.  At the moment, Ward has inherited the “Knuble” seat for the Caps.

-  Now that Ovechkin is off the schneid, and Mike Ribeiro is on a bit of a roll, the next order of business is to get Nicklas Backstrom untracked.  In 19:42 Backstrom had two shots on goal and no points.  He is now three games without a point and has not scored a goal in any of the five games, his longest streak without a goal to open a season since the 2009-2010 season (14 games).

-  That the Caps held the Sabres to two goals was not so much a product of stout defense as it was: a) Buffalo not having Thomas Vanek in the lineup, and b) Michal Neuvirth bailing them out after breakdowns in front.  Neuvirth was solid in his positioning and quick when he needed to be.  At the moment, he seems to have a solid hold on the number one goaltender position.

-  John Erskine skated 20:56 in ice time in this contest.  It was the first time he finished with more than 20 minutes in a game that ended in regulation since he skated 20:13 in a 5-2 win over the Sabres on December 23, 2009.

-  From the “who gets what” file, Jay Beagle had 10 defensive zone faceoffs taken (no offensive zone draws), Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro combined to take nine offensive zone draws.  This seems intuitively obvious from an ice management perspective, but it did not seem to be the case for the Caps last year.

-  Say what you will about Mathieu Perreault, but he does have a certain fearless (if at times futile) air about him.  Marcus Foligno is 6’3”, 226 pounds, but there was Perreault (5’10”, 185 pounds…maybe) at least making the effort to tie him up as Foligno got behind Mike Green (who was engaged with Patrick Kaleta) and was putting a rebound past Michal Neuvirth late. 

-  The Caps have now killed off nine of their last ten shorthanded situations.  In those ten shorthanded situations the Caps have allowed one goal on 15 shots.

In the end, it is one thing to say this was the most complete game that the Caps have played so far (it is), but it is another to say they played at a high level.  Remember, this Sabres team was lit up for nine goals in two games by Carolina and was missing its top goal scorer and point producer.  Still, this is not the Beauty Contest System of college football; you do not get extra standings points for winning pretty.  The Caps built on the baby step they took in New Jersey on Friday, and all of a sudden we can say that the Caps are on a points earned streak (1-0-1 in their last two contests). 

It gets harder from here, though.  Washington will go on the road to Canada to take on Ottawa and Toronto before playing three games in four against the Pennsylvania teams – Pittsburgh (twice) and Philadelphia.  It is a tough six-game stretch over which the Caps will have to raise their game another level of two again above what they displayed in this game.  But this game certainly was something on which they could build.

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