Sunday, February 03, 2008

A no point night -- Thrashers 2 - Caps 0

Hockey is a strange game is a lot of respects. Not the least of such features is that despite the best effort, the lion’s share of the opportunities, and just plain luck (or lack of it), one player is the difference for the other guys.

That guy was Kari Lehtonen, the Atlanta Thrasher goaltender who pitched a 2-0 shutout gem last night at Verizon Center against the Caps.

Lehtonen stopped all 36 shots he faced, including a whopping 17 from the top line of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Viktor Kozlov in blanking the Caps for his third shutout of the year.

The Caps did not lack for chances, it was just a case of Lehtonen playing the sort of game that Thrasher fans would like to see more often. He was brilliant. On numerous occasions, he had Caps gazing into the rafters after making tough saves, generally with no rebounds.

The Caps show a video clip on the big screen at the start of the third period. In it, Al Pacino, playing football coach Tony D’Amato in “Any Given Sunday,” gives an over-the-top soliloquy on the matter of “inches.” Well, it came down to that last night – perhaps as little as one inch. That inch was the product of a shot by Todd White late in the third period. An inch further to the far side, and the puck White shot probably rings iron and skitters into the far corner. But White took a feed from Mark Recchi, beat a weak backcheck from Backstrom into the high slot, and fired on goaltendter Olaf Kolzig. The puck rang the iron (you could probably hear it in Bethesda), and instead of ricocheting away, found its way into the net to break what was then a scoreless tie. An empty net goal from Marian Hossa was a last minute insurance tally.

The loss came at the expense of some fine efforts by the Caps…

Ovechkin launched 17 shots at Lehtonen – seven found the mark, ten were either blocked or missed. He also had a pair of hits, a blocked shot, and a takeaway. His minus-two was pretty much as a bystander – White beating Backstrom to get a shot away, and being on the ice in the last minute when Hossa scored the empty netter. He might have been credited with a save (the blocked shot) when Atlanta had an empty net opportunity moments earlier.

Backstrom was showing that the one significant weakness of his game – faceoffs – was improving. He was 13-for-21 on the night. And he had six shots on goal, himself.

Donald Brashear does not appear much in the final score sheet, but he had a lot of jump and was doing a passable (well, faintly passable) imitation of Ovechkin or Alexander Semin in handling the puck.

Olaf Kolzig did not get much work, but he was solid in what he faced. There is probably a “Goldilocks” volume of shots that a goaltender needs to stay in a rhythm, but not to the point of being the target in a shooting gallery. Last night, Kolzig probably faced less than that optimal amount – he turned away 11 of only 12 shots (Marian Hossa had four of those; no other Thrasher had more than one) – and that can play with one’s focus. Kolzig was there when the Caps needed a save, and only when a puck found the pipe on the far side was he beaten on this night.

Shaone Morrisonn gutted out an 18:34 performance with a pad affixed to his injured foot. He even managed four shots on goal, doubling his previous high for the year.

Alexander Semin looks lost out there. We don’t know if it’s the lack of a reliable playmaking center (Boyd Gordon got the call to center that line last night) or he’s just making poor decisions, but between a lot of falling down, whiffing on shots, and turning the puck over, he’s struggling out there. Having such a high-risk, high-reward sort of game, such things might be the price to pay for when he’s on his game. But the Caps need more of the latter, and less of the former.

Give Atlanta credit. Coming in with their top goal-scorer on the shelf, they played a smart road game – making sure the Caps could build no momentum, that they had little space to make plays, and ultimately putting the game in Lehtonen’s hands. They deserved the win.

The second shutout in the last three games qualifies as storm clouds gathering. It is indicative of the cumulative effect injuries have had, and are having on this club. When the first line is on and is scoring, the Caps are a formidable club. But right now, when they don’t, then Washington struggles to score. It is a return to the problem that plagued their early games – a lack of supplemental scoring:

-- After six goals in six games, Semin is now four games and counting without one.

-- Fleischmann – the nominal second line right wing – is 1-2-3 in his last seven games.

-- Boyd Gordon and Brooks Laich – each of whom has taken a turn centering the second line – are a combined 1-1-2 in their last seven games.

-- Mike Green is without a goal in his last seven games and is minus-5.

-- Tom Poti still is without a goal this year and has but a single assist in his last 11 games.

-- Matt Pettinger – perhaps the biggest mystery this year – has three points since November 1st.

The injuries to Chris Clark, Michael Nylander, and Brian Pothier are perhaps starting to take their toll. Tom Poti looks as if he is still trying to grit his teeth though some physical problems. And this is not a team that is deep enough in talent or experience to easily deal with injuries (there is no Mark Recchi or even a Bobby Holik on this team to provide the veteran support that might be able to help the Caps weather their physical problems).

But it is what it is, and the Caps are going to do some more growing up in short order. One game is not the end of the world here, and the idea of “don’t let one become two” once more is the theme…but having alternated wins and losses over the last five games (2-3-0), we seem to be recalling that more often these days.