Sunday, February 17, 2013

A NO-point night -- Game 15: Rangers 2 - Capitals 1

If the Washington Capitals miss the playoffs by one point this season, their 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Sunday will weigh heavily on their minds as a point (or two) that got away.  Not that the Caps played well – with the exception of goalie Braden Holtby they did not – but their opponents consistently failed to put the Caps away when they had ample opportunity in the first two periods to do just that.

The Caps would break on top in this one just 79 seconds into the game when John Carlson fired a laser of a slap shot over Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s blocker.  It was the end result of an early flurry by the Caps that had Alex Ovechkin test Lundqvist, Eric Fehr find a post, and then Carlson score the goal, all in a space of nine seconds.

Braden Holtby made the goal stand up for almost 28 minutes.  But the Rangers, despite outshooting the Caps to that point by a 29-10 margin, finally scored on their 30th shot on goal, a redirect by Carl Hagelin of a Ryan McDonagh slap pass that snuck by Holtby’s left pad.

That would be how the teams stood until the fifth minute of the third period when the Rangers, on a power play, executed like you draw it up.  Brad Richards won a faceoff to Michael Del Zotto, who found Derek Stepan behind John Carlson to Holtby’s left for a short snap shot that slipped past Holtby for the game-winning goal.  The Caps would outshoot the Rangers, 7-4, after the Stepan goal, but could not get any past goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and the Capitals skated off with their modest three-game winning streak ended.

Other stuff…

-- Tomas Kundratek is a really nice story.  He is a young guy (23) formerly of the Rangers who might have been expected to toil primarily in Hershey with the AHL Bears.  He has been pressed into duty with the Capitals as the team deals with injuries and age on the blue line.  But what does it say about the state of personnel management on this team when a borderline NHL player is getting top pair minutes (23:25 in this game)? 

-- How good was Braden Holtby?  Well, let’s follow up on the last point.  For the defense in front of him, Tom Poti had not played since February 5th and is coming off having missed the better part of two seasons.  Kundratek had not played more than 11:09 in any of his five NHL games coming into this season and had not played more than 16:26 in any game this season.  Jeff Schultz had played in 12 games coming into this game but was averaging barely 12 minutes of ice time in his appearances.  John Erskine had appeared in only eight of 13 games.  John Carlson was replaying the misadventures of his 2011-2012 regular season, having been on ice for more goals than any other defenseman in the league through 14 games.   Only Karl Alzner was resembling a reliable working defenseman.  And yet, Holtby still stopped 38 of 40 shots by game’s end.

-- For you Fans of the Fenwick, the Caps had 39 Fenwick events in this game (28 shots on goal, 11 missed shots).  Alex Ovechkin had 11 of them by himself.  It bears noting that the Rangers had more shots (40) than the Caps had total Fenwick events.

-- One can take this whole Fenwick thing a bit far though.  Wojtek Wolski had three, one shot on goal and two misses.  The two misses were crippling for the Caps; he could have – should have – buried either or both of them.

-- The line of Mathieu Perreault-Eric Fehr-Joel Ward was arguably the most energetic of the forward lines for the Caps in this game, but the Rangers were very adept at denying them chances. They combined for three shots on goal and one point (an assist by Fehr, although that came on a power play on which he was matched with other forwards).

-- Some leaders lead overtly, by the well timed speech or getting in teammates’ faces when they deserve it.  Some do it by example.  What to say of the example of Ryan Callahan for the Rangers.  Six blocked shots, two of them rockets off the stick of Alex Ovechkin, including one in the last minute when the Rangers were hanging onto a one-goal lead.  What’s more, on that last block of an Ovechkin drive, Callahan still managed to get into the play at the other end of the ice and harass Karl Alzner and bleed a few more seconds off the clock.  Its a style of play that teammates might see and think, "I don't want to let him down."

-- The six-game streak with at least one power play goal came to an end with the Caps going 0-for-4 on the man advantage.  It was only the fourth time this season in 15 games that the Caps failed to record at least one power play goal.  It was not as if the Caps did not get the puck to the guys who needed to get it.  Ovechkin had six power play shots on goal, and John Carlson – subbing for injured Mike Green – had a pair of the Caps’ total of nine power play shots.

-- One has to wonder if there is something wrong with Nicklas Backstrom.  In 20-plus minutes, no shot attempts.  He is not generally a heavy volume shooter (2.32 per game for his career before this season), but 1.87 shots on goal per game?  He has only one game this season in which he recorded more than three shots on goal.  Right now he is not much of an offensive threat.

-- The Caps were 11-for-19 on faceoffs in the offensive end, but that is a bit misleading.  Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle – not generally relied upon for their offensive contributions – accounted for a perfect 5-for-5.  Oddly enough, those two were a combined 1-for-4 in the defensive end.

-- On the other hand, there was the Rangers’ power play goal… faceoff-pass-goal.  Seven seconds, game-winner.

-- The difference…the Caps could not convert from their strength, the league’s third best road power play going 0-for-4.  Meanwhile, the league’s worst power play converted just enough of their chances – one out of five – to get the win.  The power play game winner left the Caps 0-8-1 when they allow at least one power play goal and 1-7-1 when they allow more than three power play chances.

In the end, the Caps are right back where they started before their three game winning streak.  Here is a useful, if depressing, way to think about it.  When the Caps took the ice against the Florida Panthers on February 9th in a game that would begin their three-game winning streak, they were in 15th place in the East, five points out of eighth place.  Tonight, after the loss to the Rangers, the Caps are in 15th place, five points out of eighth place... right back where they started.

If the Caps had been able to bank wins against the likes of Tampa or Winnipeg or Toronto, they could afford the odd loss to a good team on the road, such as this 2-1 loss to the Rangers.  But there is nothing in the bank, and losses to any team become less and less tolerable if there are any realistic dreams of this team making the playoffs.  There is just too much ground to have to make up.  Although a team can only play games one at a time, as a practical matter the Caps almost have to sweep their upcoming three-game home stand to remain in the race.

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