Sunday, January 03, 2016

Washington Capitals Recap: A ONE-Point Night: Blue Jackets 5 - Capitals 4 (OT/Gimmick)

The Washington Capitals ended 2015 by seeing one streak come to an end.  They started 2016 seeing two more streaks come to an end as they dropped a 5-4 trick shot decision to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday night.

It was an odd game from the start.  Dmitry Orlov took a slashing penalty less than 90 seconds into the contest, and Jack Johnson set off the cannon at Nationwide Arena just eight seconds later when he pounced on a loose puck from in close to the right of goalie Braden Holtby.  Keep this goal in mind, we will get back to it.

It was a Capitals power play that led to the tying goal just under six minutes later.  It was almost a replica of the Columbus power play goal.  T.J. Oshie won a faceoff to Matt Niskanen at the right point.  Niskanen slid the puck to Nicklas Backstrom, who started a set play, passing the puck down to Marcus Johansson at the goal line extended.  Johansson relayed the puck to Oshie in the slot, and Oshie one-timed it past goalie Curtis McElhinney to tie the game.  It came eight seconds after the faceoff win by the Caps.

The teams exchanged goals again later in the first period.  Columbus grabbed the lead back when the Caps could not clear their own end.  Alexander Wennberg held off Nate Schmidt along the right wing wall, a battle that seemed to mesmerize the Caps, because as it was going on, Brandon Saad worked his way between the hash marks all alone.  He took a feed from Wennberg, faked Holtby to the ice, and snapped the puck in at the 7:56 mark.

Jaosn Chimera tied the game less than four minutes later on another Caps power play.  He set himself up at the top of the crease, getting and holding inside position on Jack Johnson as the Caps were working the puck around the perimeter.  Finally, Evgeny Kuznetsov fired the puck toward the net, and Chimera redirected it past McElhinney to tie the game at 11:47 of the first period.

The second period went comparatively calmly on the scoreboard, the Caps getting the only tally late in the period.  It was a case of basic hockey done well.  Zach Sill stated the scoring sequence by feeding the puck from his blue line to Chimera, who chipped it deep into the Blue Jackets’ zone.  Chimera followed up on the puck with hard pressure on Justin Falk, who was trying to chase down the biscuit at the end wall.  Falk was pressure by Chimera to throwing the puck back around the wall, where it was picked off by Tom Wilson.  From the corner, Wilson spied Marcus Johansson cutting to the net.  He fed the puck in front, and Johansson steered it past McElhinney to make it 3-2 heading to the last 20 minutes.

Columbus tied the game in the fifth minute of the period on a strange goal.  While on a power play, Ryan Johansen took a cross-ice feed from David Savard, then slid the puck to Jack Johnson just inside the blue line.  As Johnson wound up to fire a slap shot, Brooks Laich went one way, and Nate Schmidt went another out of the path of the shot.  In one sense it might have given Braden Holtby a better look at it, one the other, the shot seemed to explode on Holtby who did not react in time to stop the puck sailing low and through his pads.

Evgeny Kuznetsov restored the Caps’ lead less than a minute later on a delightful give-and-go with Tom Wilson.  Kuznetsov skated through the middle and slid the puck to Wilson as he crossed the blue line.  As Kuznetsov continued his advance to the net, Wilson feathered a delicate pass past the stick of Johnson to him, and Kuznetsov did the rest, faking McElhinney to the ice and sliding the puck past his left pad at 5:27 of the period.

Given the way the season has gone for the Caps to that point, fans might have been forgiven for thinking the Caps would lock things down and get out with a win.  They didn’t lock things down quite tightly enough.  With the clock ticking down to one minute in regulation, and the Blue Jacket net empty, Brandon Saad took a long feed from Jack Johnson, broke in on Holtby, and snapped a backhand past Holtby’s glove to tie the game a 4-4.

The came overtime, which might have been a Twilight Zone episode to be wedged into the marathon showing on cable television this weekend.  Just 55 seconds into the overtime, McElhinney fell awkwardly in his crease without having been touched, bending his knee beneath him at a painful angle.  He could not continue, and it was up to Anton Forsberg to take over in the Columbus goal with the teams skating at 3-on-3.

A little more than a minute after the goalie exchange, the Blue Jackets took a slashing penalty, Brandon Dubinsky to the box.  So, the Blue Jackets were down to their number three goalie (Sergei Bobrovsky still out with an injury), the Caps – the second-best power play in the league – were on a 4-on-3 power play, and a player averaging almost two minutes of penalty killing ice time per game was in the box.  This would be a slam dunk, right?

It was at that Point that Anton Forsberg turned into Georges Vezina, Ken Dryden, and Patrick Roy, all rolled into a Blue Jacket goalie sized jersey.  The Caps recorded eight shot attempts on the power play, six of them on goal.  None of them crossed the goal line.  Columbus escaped disaster and even ended up with a power play of their own to close out the last half minute of regulation, but the teams would go to the Gimmick.

In the freestyle phase of the competition, T.J. Oshie undressed Forsberg in the opening round, the goalie biting on the backhand fake like it was a dog being offered a soup bone by his owner.  Oshie ended up with nothing but an open net in which to slide the puck, and again it looked like it would be a slam dunk for the Caps. 

The only thing that got slammed was the door, though, as Forsberg held firm against Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, giving Columbus the chance to recover and get goals from Dubinsky and Johansson to upset the Caps, 5-4.

Other stuff…

-- About that first Jack Johnson goal.  The play started with the Caps shorthanded and the faceoff in their own end.  Nicklas Backstrom, who has been struggling a bit on faceoffs lately, took the draw and lost it cleanly to Ryan Johansen, setting in motion the events that led to the goal eight seconds later.  If he was healthy, does Jay Beagle – a 58.4 percent performer in the circle – take that draw? Then there was the second Columbus goal.  Orlov was caught following Scott Hartnell into the corner, and Nate Schmidt was hung up along the wall on the same side, leaving no defensemen to clog the route Brandon Saad took to take a pass and score from in close all alone.

-- Consider these two sets of four numbers – 27:25, 25:40, 28:25, and 32:04; 26:23, 20:24, 22:56, and 25:42.  Those are the ice time logs over the past four games for Matt Niskanen and Karl Alzner, respectively.  Those four games were played without John Carlson, who joined first defensive pair partner Brooks Orpik on the bench with an injury.  Niskanen skated 32:04 in this game, including a whopping 8:02 on the power play in place of Carlson.  Alzner, who gets no appreciable power play time as a rule, led the team in even strength ice time (25:04).   It is little surprise that it was Alzner that Saad snuck behind to break into the Caps zone on the last game-tying goal, and that it was Niskanen who could not quite close the distance to get his stick on Saad’s shot.  Those two are getting too many minutes at the moment.

-- Old diesel engines used to take forever to warm up, and that was what Alex Ovechkin’s game looked like in this one.  He did not record his first shot attempt until the 9:27 mark (blocked by Ryan Murray).  That late entry into the game in the offensive end was the first of what would be ten consecutive shot attempts that would not reach the goaltender (seven blocked, three misses).  He did not get his first shot on goal until the 10:03 mark of the third period.  In that last 10:03 and five minutes of overtime he recorded six shots, one shot blocked, and another five misses.

-- Braden Holtby allowed more than three goals in a game for the first time in almost two months.  The four goals he allowed broke a personal streak of 21 appearances in which he did not allow more than three goals (including one in which he allowed three in 29 minutes against Tampa Bay before he was relieved by Philipp Grubauer).

-- This was the first time this season that the Caps scored three or more goals in a game and lost.  They are 20-0-1 in those games now.

-- This was the first time this season that the Caps lost a game when leading after two periods.  They are still one of one of 11 teams that has not lost a game in regulation when leading after 40 minutes, and they remain tied with the Dallas Stars for the top spot in wins when leading after two periods (19).

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov recorded his fourth two-point game in his last seven contests.  He is 3-4-7 over those games.

-- Marcus Johansson recorded his third multi-point game in his last seven contests, going 3-5-8 over that span.

-- Tom Wilson had his second two-point game in a week.  He is 0-5-5 in his last five games and is now within two assists of tying a career best (13) set last season.  He also broke a four-game streak in which he took penalty minutes.

-- The Caps did just about everything right.  They outshot the Blue Jackets, 33-29. They had more power play chances (six) than Columbus (3).  They got points from eight different players, and the four goals were scored by four different players, so score on for balance.  They were out-Corsi’ed at 5-on-5 (48-42), and they lost the faceoff battle (36-29)…they didn’t get everything right. 

In the end...

The Caps did get enough right that they should have won this game, especially when presented with the advantages of a goalie making his first appearance of the season in the most difficult of moments – replacing an injured goalie in a 3-on-3 overtime.  Add in the power play that the Caps were awarded in the extra session, and this should have ended differently.  That it did not, ending the Caps’ streak of games without consecutive losses this season at 37, might now be cause for some concern.  The Caps can sponge some of that away when they take on the Bruins in Boston on Tuesday, but at the moment the injuries have peeled back the curtain to show a club that still has issues in their fundamental numbers, making it less capable of pulling out wins when the goalie has an off night.

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