Thursday, December 31, 2015

Washington Capitals Recap: A TWO-Point Night: Capitals 5 - Sabres 2

The Washington Capitals extended their season-long winning streak to nine games with a 5-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday night to sweep the home-and-home series, but the victory came at a price.  Jay Beagle suffered what was described later as an “upper-body injury” late in the second period and did not return.  Nicklas Backtrom sustained a similarly described injury on the last shift of the second period and did not return to the contest.

As for the game itself, it appeared as if the winning streak would come to an end in this game based on the first 40 minutes of play.  Buffalo opened the scoring just before the six-minute mark of the first period when Brian Gionta finished an excellent feed from Jack Eichel from the doorstep to goalie Braden Holtby’s left. 

The lead held for the Sabres through most of the second period, but with just under six minutes left in the frame, Justin Williams took advantage of a blunder by goalie Chad Johnson.  Trying to play the puck behind his own net, Johnson saw Evgeny Kuznetsov bearing down on him, turned to his left and slid the puck out, right onto Williams’ stick.  Williams stepped out and snapped the puck into the empty net to tie the game.

That lead did not last five minutes.  Zemgus Girgensons restored the Sabres’ lead, finishing another strong play by Eichel.  From the left wing circle and on his knees, Eichel backhanded the puck to the Caps’ net, where it was turned aside by Holtby.  It pinballed among a clot of players and dropped to the edge of the blue paint where Girgensons tapped it in. 

With the Caps down a goal and two centers heading into the third period, extending the winning streak looked like a daunting, if not impossible task.  It turned out to be another test that the team would pass.  Alex Ovechkin tied the game in the second minute of the period when he finished up a superb set up.  It started with T.J. Oshie beating defenseman Josh Gorges to the puck in the corner to the right of Johnson.  He slid it along the end wall to Kuznetsov behind the Sabres’ net, and Kuznetsov snuck it out on a back pass to Ovechkin, who was stepping around defenseman Zach Bogosian at the post.  Ovechkin backhanded the puck past Johnson’s right pad, and the game was tied once more, 2-2.

Washington took the lead for good on a power play mid-way through the period.  Evgeny Kuznetsov stepped up from the right wing wall and fired a shot from the inside edge of the faceoff circle.  Marcus Johansson got his stick on the puck to redirect it past Johnson, and it was 3-2 at the 8:32 mark.

Just 24 seconds later the Caps added some insurance. A hard forecheck yielded dividend on this one.  Brooks Laich pursued Gionta into the cornerand hounded him into trying to send the puck back around the wall.  It was intercepted by Johansson who, just before he was knocked off his feet by Bogosian, sent a pass through the slot to Andre Burakovsky in the right wing faceoff circle.  Burakovsky settled the puck and snapped it past Johnson to make it 4-2.

Ovechkin closed the scoring with an empty-net goal with 1:13 left, and the Caps had their ninth consecutive win, 5-2.

Other stuff…

-- Beagle’s injury appeared to be to his arm or shoulder.  He will require surgery and will be out for an extended period of time.  Backstrom was checked hard into the glass in the Olympia corner on his last shift of the second period and sat out the third.  He may play on Thursday night against the Carolina Hurricanes.

-- About that power play goal.  With Backstrom taking a seat for the third period and John Carlson still out with an injury, the defenseman role fell to Matt Niskanen, and the quarterback role on the right wing wall fell to Kuznetsov.  Both had assists on the Johansson power play goal. 

-- This is a place the Caps would consider a disaster in previous years for lack of a credible second line center.  However, Kuznetsov stepped up into Backstrom’s spot to record a power play assist and an assist centering the first line with Ovechkin and Oshie. 

-- The Ovechkin goal in the second minute of the third period came just after the Caps appeared to tie the game.  Replays showed clearly, though, that the puck that snuck through Chad Johnson’s pads was spinning on the goal line before it was swept out of danger by the Buffalo defense.

-- The Caps Corsi’ed the crap out of the Sabres.  They recorded 76 total shot attempts to 55 for Buffalo, and the edge was 62-40 at 5-on-5.  They almost doubled the scoring chances at 5-on-5 (35-19), and the 43 shots on goal overall was a season high (numbers from

-- Deuces were wild for Ovechkin in this game – two goals, two points, plus-2, two shots blocked (he had ten on goal), two givewaways, and two takeaways.  Don’t look now, but he has six goals in his last six games and is only three goals behind the league leader, Jamie Benn.

-- In reaching the 20-goal mark with his two goals, Ovechkin is the 22nd player in NHL history to record 20 or more goals each of in his first 11 seasons.

-- Marcus Johansson also had a two-point night and is now 3-4-7 in his last six games.

-- The much anticipated Zach Sill versus Nicolas Deslauriers battle did not come to pass.  Between then they recorded less than 20 minutes of ice time (Sill with 19:08 and Deslauriers with 9:09).

-- Johansson recorded a season-high seven shots on goal; Kuznetsov had six to fall one short of his season high (seven against Edmonton on October 23rd).

In the end…

The Washington Capitals, it is said, are a deep team.  That depth was tested in this game and will be tested for at least a few more games.  Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, and Jay Beagle were either in the locker room or in street clothes at the end of this game.  If a team has to be strong down the middle, these are the sorts of absences that can be especially hard on a team – the number one center, the top defensive pair, and the third line anchor who is among the best faceoff men in the league.

The flip side is that it is also an opportunity.  Caps fans saw Evgeny Kuznetsov and Marcus Johansson step up in this game, and they will have to sustain that level of performance to keep the Caps humming as they move forward.  Then there was the Captain, who had ten shots on goal and a pair of goals, and the steadfast goalie, who posted his 22nd game out of 29 in which he allowed two or fewer goals.  Others will have a chance to raise their games as well.

No team can lose four important players and not feel the effects.  There are some teams, however, that can feel those effects and yet play through them successfully.  The Caps could be one of those teams.

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