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.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 5: Sabres at Capitals, January 27th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Washington Capitals return home on Sunday to try to build on their standings point earned in New Jersey on Friday night.  The Buffalo Sabres come to town in the midst of a two-game losing streak, dropping consecutive games in a back-to-back, home-and-home pair to the Carolina Hurricanes.

The next step for the Caps will be to climb out of last place in the league, which is where they still find themselves four games into the season.  Buffalo provides some interesting counterpoint in this game as the Caps try to start that climb.  It was against Buffalo that the Caps ended their six-game losing streak to start the 1993-1994 season, a win that allowed the Caps to avoid an 0-3-0 start at home.  As it is, the Caps will be looking to avoid recording their first 0-3-0 start (all regulation losses) at home since the 1978-1979 season.

The Sabres might be just the thing for the Caps.  Buffalo is 1-5-1 in their last seven visits to Washington, and as we noted, they are coming off consecutive losses to Carolina.  Not only that, but Thomas Vanek, who leads the club in scoring with three goals and nine points, is questionable with what is being called an “undetermined muscle strain.”

If Vanek is unable to go, that would leave the Sabres with two other three-goal scorers in their lineup.  Jason Pominville is 3-5-8 through four games so far and has points in each of the four games played to date. Pominville has been a particular thorn in the side of the Caps.  In his last 20 games against Washington covering five seasons he is 8-9-17, plus-3.

While Jason Pominville has a long and successful history against the Caps, the other three-goal scorer for the Sabres so far has neither.  Cody Hodgson was a tenth-overall draft pick of the Vancouver Canucks in 2008.  He was traded to Buffalo by the Canucks at last year’s trading deadline for Zack Kassian.  In his rookie season last year, split between Vancouver and Buffalo, Hodgson was 19-22-41, plus-1.  What he has not had is much in the way of experience against the Caps.  In two career games against Washington he is 0-1-1, even.  That is not to say that the Caps, or at least some of them, have not seen Hodgson before.  He was a member of the Manitoba Moose team that lost to the Hershey Bears in the 2009 Calder Cup final, a Bears team that included John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Jay Beagle, and Michal Neuvirth from the current Caps squad.  Hodgson was 1-2-3, plus-2 in five games against the Bears in that final.

The difficulty the Sabres have had so far is that their scoring has been so top-heavy.  They have only three players with more than one goal and only four players with more than one point.  And the Sabres have another problem – poor finishes.  Through four games Buffalo has yet to allow a goal in the first period.  The flip side of that is the fact that they have allowed six second period goals and six third period goals.  Here is how the two teams fared last season, numbers-wise…

1.  Only two teams have taken more minor penalties so far than the Sabres; only four teams have found themselves shorthanded more often (before Saturday’s games).  Three Sabres are in the top 11 in minor penalties taken so far (Tyler Myers, Thomas Vanek, and Patrick Kaleta, all with four).

2.  Those three three-goal scorers for the Sabres – Thomas Vanek, Cody Hodgson, and Jason Pominville – they have accounted for 53 of the 135 shots on goal taken by the team, leaving 82 shots for the other 16 skaters that have taken the ice for the Sabres over four games.  Buffalo is not generating much in the way of balanced pressure.

3.  If you had Jason Pominville as the Sabre with the most career goals against the Caps, you would be wrong.  Ditto if you had Thomas Vanek.  Or even Drew Stafford.  The Sabre with the most career goals against the Caps is Jochen Hecht with 11 in 34 career games.  Here is the thing, though.  If Vanek cannot go in this one, that might put additional pressure on Stafford and Hecht, neither of whom have a goal yet this season.  In fact, between them they have but one point (Stafford).

4.  Buffalo’s defensemen have more penalties (ten) than points (eight).  Christian Ehrhoff is the only Sabre blueliner with more than one point, and Tyler Myers has the only goal registered by the defense so far.

5.  A missing or otherwise less-than-full strength Thomas Vanek could have repercussions on the power play for the Sabres.  He has two of the four Buffalo power play goals through four games and has assists on the other two.

1.  No team has spent more time on special teams than have the Caps so far (before Saturday’s games).  Through four games the Caps have spent 68:19 either on the power play or killing penalties, more than a full game’s worth of minutes.

2.  Washington has not yet led at an intermission this season.  They have been tied once and trailed three times at the second intermission.  There have been too many holes out of which they have had to dig.

3.  The Caps have hardly been lights-out on the power play (or perhaps they have, considering the lack of red lights going on), but Mike Ribeiro has had a hand in each of the three Caps power play goals to date with a goal and two assists.  On the other hand, he has only one goal in 25 career games played against Buffalo, his lowest goal total against any team except the Caps (one in 18 games).

4.  Washington is currently in the middle of the pack in fighting majors so far with three, but Matt Hendricks has all of them.  Only Columbus’ Jared Boll has more (four).

5.  The Caps have already dressed 22 skaters in games, and that does not include Brooks Laich, who remains injured.  They are a long way from the 35 skaters they dressed for a season twice since the 2004-2005 lockout, but there has been some roster shuffling to start the season.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Buffalo:  Ryan Miller

If Buffalo is stuck in neutral at the moment, it is not a product of the play of goaltender Ryan Miller.  Now in his tenth season in the NHL, Miller has stopped 100 of 105 shots so far this season.  His .952 save percentage ranks sixth among NHL goalies, while his 1.67 goals against average ranks sixth.  In 23 career appearances against the Caps he is 13-9-0, 2.45, .919, with three shutouts.  If anything, though, he has suffered from lack of support in his recent history against Washington.  Over the last four seasons he has a mediocre 6-7-0 win-loss record, despite a 2.24 goals against average and a .930 save percentage.

Washington:  Matt Hendricks

Washington might be suffering an effort deficit so far this season, but Matt Hendricks has not been a part of it.  He has only one point so far, but he has been using whatever tools he has to try to send a charge through his teammates.  Unfortunately, those tools have too often been his hands used in anger.  He has three fights in four games.  He also has the only instance of a Capital scoring the first goal of the game this season, recorded in a 4-2 loss to Winnipeg in the home opener.  Hendricks is pulling more than his share of the weight so far, and he hasn’t even paralyzed anyone yet.  His effort is admirable, but if his is the top end on the effort meter on this roster, the Caps have problems.  More players need to rise to his compete level. 


1.  Be quick on the draw
.  Cody Hodgson, Tyler Ennis, and Jochen Hecht have taken the bulk of faceoffs for the Sabres through four games.  None of them have won as many as 40 percent of their draws.  The Sabres are dead last in the league in faceoff winning percentage, barely 40 percent as a team.  The Caps need to find a way to exploit this shortcoming.

2.  Kill, kill, kill!  The Sabres went 3-for-6 on the power play in their season opener against Philadelphia, a 5-2 win.  Since then they are 1-for-13, including 0-for-9 on the road.  The Caps have not been especially bad at even strength, but the only thing their penalty killing is killing at the moment is their chances to win.  The Caps need to extend the Sabres’ man-advantage futility.

3.   Make ‘em pay.  On the other side of special teams, Buffalo is playing with a new-found edge so far this season.  Last year the Sabres tied for the 14th fewest penalty minutes in the league.  So far this season only three teams are averaging more penalty minutes per game than Buffalo.  The difference is ten minutes per game from last season to this one.  If Buffalo is to try taking liberties with the Caps, the Caps are going to have to answer, preferably on the power play.

In the end, the Caps are not yet taking advantage of home cooking, and we are getting to historical levels of futility as far as the franchise’s history is concerned.  The Caps have not gone 0-3-0 at home in more than 30 years.  They are one of only three teams in the East without a home win so far, and one of them – Pittsburgh – has played only one home game.  Getting a point on the road against a good team playing well, as was the case against New Jersey on Friday, is an acceptable outcome in most cases.  Developing a habit of losing at home with distressing regularity is not.  Early as it is, this might not be a “must” win game for the Caps.  But it is a “should” win, a “they had better” win, in fact. 

The Caps have to establish a foothold from which they can build a string of successes, and here is why.  They are three points out of a playoff spot with 45 games to play.  You might not think this is significant, but consider that last season Buffalo was four points out of a playoff spot with 45 games to play.  They finished the season three points out of a playoff spot.  In fact, based on the standings on that day on which the Sabres were four points back with 45 games to play, only two teams not already in the top eight climbed into the playoff eligible group by year end – Washington and Ottawa.  And both teams were only one point back on that day in late December 2011.  The Capitals do not have all the time in the world.

Capitals 3 – Sabres 2