Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend

"We will not go quietly into the night. We will not let fans who have a unrealistic sense of entitlement have their way. We're going to live on. We're going to watch the Malkin-Crosby-Ovechkin line."

So preaches The Pensblog. I would not have believed it, had I not seen it with my own eyes. Sometimes, you just have to set aside your differences for the good of the game. This time, Caps fans, take the advice of some Pens fans...

TEXT "OVIE" TO 81812

A TWO-point night: Caps 3 - Bruins 1

Sometimes, it takes a Bear to beat a Bruin.

Alexandre Giroux, who is leading the AHL in goals for the Hershey Bears this season, had the game-winner in the Caps’ 3-1 win over the Boston Bruins. Giroux’ goal, sandwiched by markers from Nicklas Backstrom and an empty-netter from Alex Ovechkin, was enough margin for goalie Brent Johnson to work with in the win.

Johnson earned the game’s first star – deservedly so – for stopping 33 of 34 shots, many of those shots being of the highlight reel variety. His stops on a Chuck Kobesew shot from the top of the crease after nullifying an attempt from Patrice Bergeron, and his sweeping stick save on a breakaway by Blake Wheeler were among the best saves by a Capital goaltender this year. His 8-4-2 record (2.47, .918) threatens to move him past the “goalie controversy” phase and squarely into the number one position. In 13 appearances this year, he’s allowed more than three goals only once (seven, to San Jose). He’s saved at least 90 percent of the shots he’s faced in 11 of those 13 appearances. He hasn’t been a fluke; he’s been very consistent.

As for Giroux, his goal was the product of soft hands at the doorstep as he converted a short rebound off a shot by Viktor Kozlov. Giroux was patient enough to back off a half step as Boston goalie Manny Fernandez was flopping to the ice, then calmly lifted the puck over him for the score. Giroux also had a penalty shot opportunity less than 90 seconds in to the third period that might have salted the game away right there, but his attempt to Fernandez’ blocker side went astray. But three shots, three hits, and a goal in ten minutes of work was a pretty efficient night.

Speaking of the Hershey contingent, Oskar Osala made his Capitals and NHL debut – he leads AHL rookies in goal scoring at Hershey. The youngster looked rather nervous in the first, but looked like a player who might be contributing sooner (as in next year) rather than later. He held his own in his battles along the boards, for the most part, and showed an eagerness to get the puck to the net in the second and third period

Osala made it an even ten – the number of players called up from Hershey so far this year (Osala, Giroux, Karl Alzner, Tyler Sloan, Sami Lepisto, Sean Collins, Chris Bourque, Keith Aucoin, Graham Mink, and Bryan Helmer). None of them could be said to have been a bust. Green they might be, but all of them managed to contribute to the effort to hold the fort while the injured heal, or otherwise showed that they have the potential to contribute in more meaningful ways as their skills develop.

As for the regulars, what’s gotten into Nicklas Backstrom? He’s attacking the net, shooting more (or so it seems), scoring all nine of his goals this season – including the first Caps score tonight – in the last 15 games. His redirect of an Alex Ovechkin drive was the kind of goal he probably wouldn’t have had last year.

Alexander Semin returned to the lineup tonight, and the time off showed. He had enough energy, but there were those moments when he’d make a few nifty moves to create some space, only to see the puck dribble away. He did have the primary assist on the Ovechkin goal, however, and added to his league leading plus-minus total (he was +1 tonight).

As for Ovechkin, a goal, an assist, five shots (11 attempts), four hits, and a blocked shot. We thought we saw him selling cotton candy in the 400’s at the intermission, too. It was a full night, and that with his wearing a Zdeno Chara jersey for most of the night.

Speaking of Chara, the Bruins didn’t even pretend to play anything but man-to-man, Chara on Ovechkin. Once Ovechkin was over the blue line, Chara was there. And Chara had a pretty good game. The one thing we noted about him is how “gentle” his game is. And by that, we don’t mean that he avoids physical play – far from it. It’s that when he gets the puck, he doesn’t spin and fire willy-nilly. He has become very adept at just chipping the puck out of danger. He isn’t the most adept puck handler – his size and that telephone pole he uses for a stick work against him as far as that goes. But he really has mastered taking advantage of the skills he has, and he put them to good use for the Bruins tonight. He tied for the team lead in shots (five), led the Bruins in total attempts (nine), had a couple of hits, a takeaway, a blocked shot, led the Bruins in ice time, and had an assist on the Bruin goal. And he was very effective on Ovechkin.

Back to the Hershey boys, Karl Alzner put on a show of not being showy. It was an object lesson in the kind of defenseman he’ll be down the road. You won’t notice him for anything in particular, but when the game is over, there he’ll be with a plus-two, a couple of hits, a takeaway, three blocked shots, all in 20-plus minutes of work…like he had tonight.

Tom Poti played the Mike Green role on defense about as well as one might expect. He was credited with an assist, but he was often the guy pushing the puck up the ice and getting it deep, carrying the play below the Bruin goal line. He even had a couple of hits and a couple of takeaways.

Viktor Kozlov did a lot of the dirty work maneuvering the puck in the offensive zone. It didn’t keep him from getting four shots of his own, which tied his season high. He also had a couple of assists .

As a group, the Caps owned the face-off circle. No Bruin other than Petteri Nokelainen was better than .500 in the circle (and Nokelainen took only two draws). Boyd Gordon and Brooks Laich were a combined 22 to the good, nine to the bad (71 percent).

It was also Milan Jurcina’s best game of the year. His Johnny (so to speak) on the spot stop of a Phil Kessel spin from behind the net – after which Jurcina flattened him – might have been the defensive biggest play of the night not authored by Johnson.

It was one of those games that the Caps dominated, although the final score suggested something closer. The problem for the Caps was missed shots. While they only had a total of 12 recorded, it seemed that every one was a scoring opportunity. Ovechkin alone had at least two such opportunities sail just past the post, and Boyd Gordon had one that he really should have buried.

The Caps might be getting healthier, if not quite healthy, as Alexander Semin returned to the lineup and a couple others might be close. When those players return to the lineup, some other players will be heading north on Route 15. But their contributions over these last couple of weeks shouldn’t be forgotten. They’ve represented Hershey quite well. Nice job, boys.