Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A TWO-point night: Caps 5 - Sabres 2

Well, there’s a nice little present to start the Christmas weekend.

The Caps scored early (78 seconds into the game), scored late (two third period power play goals), and withstood an iffy middle 20 minutes in defeating the Buffalo Sabres, 5-2.

It was important to get a lead on the Sabres, because Buffalo plays well with a lead, the product of being able to rely on who is at the moment the best goaltender in the league in Ryan Miller. The Caps, however, were (as Mike Green put it in the postgame) “shooting to score,” not just shooting to get pucks on net.

That was evident on the first goal, a rocket from Nicklas Backstrom off a feed from Alex Ovechkin that sailed past Miller’s left ear and into the far top corner of the net. Mike Green added one five and a half minutes later when he got off a shot that was deflected off the stick of Derek Roy, and up and over Miller’s left shoulder, into the net for a 2-0 lead. In the first period the Caps netted the two goals and outshot Buffalo 15-4. The Sabres had just one shot in the first 17:10 of the period, and none of the four shots they managed came from inside of 35 feet. As Coach Bruce Boudreau said of the first period, you want to grab that and keep it.

It wouldn’t be a Caps game, though, without some adventure, and the second period provided enough of that. It started in the form of a two-on-one rush for the Sabres in the period’s sixth minute, Paul Gaustad finishing the play with something of an iffy five-hole goal on Michal Neuvirth, starting in place of Jose Theodore.

But Brendan Morrison got it back less than six minutes later. Sometimes, a player in a sport makes a fancy play because he can. Then there are those times when he makes a fancy play because it is all he has available. Such was the case for Morrison as Tomas Fleischmann sent the puck to the net. The biscuit dribbled to Miller’s left where Morrison was camped. Unable to get the puck settled for a shot, he pulled it between his skates, and with his stick poking back between his legs flipped it off his forehand over Miller into the roof of the net.

Two minutes later, though, Tim Connolly pulled the Sabres back within one, deflecting a shot by Steve Montador past Neuvirth. That was the way the period ended, and the outcome was hardly certain.

What was certain going into the third period was that the Caps had one power play in eight periods of hockey against the Sabres this season. That changed at 9:20 of the period, when Craig Rivet was whistled for a hooking penalty on Tomas Fleischmann. 1:09 later, Fleischmann drew another penalty, this one on Paul Gaustad, who flung his skate out at Fleischmann as he was skating by, earning a tripping penalty to put the Caps on a 5-on-3 advantage.

At this pivotal point in the game, Bruce Boudreau burned his timeout, and it had the intended effect. Only 26 seconds after Gaustad went to the penalty box, the Caps completed what looked like a set play using Alex Ovechkin as a decoy. With Alexander Semin along the left wing boards and Ovechkin parked at the top of the Sabres’ crease, Semin inched out and threw a pass across that looked as if it might be intended for Ovechkin. The puck sailed through, though, to Nicklas Backstrom at the bottom of the right wing circle. Backstrom settled the puck with his right skate, and in the same motion swung his stick, lifting the puck over Ryan Miller’s left pad.

The scoring was completed later in the power play when Ovechkin rifled a slap shot past Miller and off the inside of the post on the short side for his 24th goal of the season.

Other stuff…

-- He doesn’t have to deal with pneumonia, as he did last year, and he doesn’t have to deal with getting back into skating shape after having blood clots in his legs treated over the summer. Nope, Tomas Fleischmann is now showing how patience pays off. And what is most striking about Fleischmann, Version 2.0, is how strong he has become on his skates. He initiates contact much more than he did when he first came up, he is harder to take off the puck, and he has the capacity – as he showed tonight – to draw penalties.

-- Mike Green… a goal, an assist, plus-2, a couple of blocked shots. In his last 20 games he is 5-17-22, plus-11. He is not a defensive stopper, but he is the best offensive defenseman in the game, and he must be doing something right in the defensive part of the game, given that he’s averaged almost 25 minutes a night over that span (including an early exit when he was plastered into the boards by David Koci against Colorado) with a plus-11. He’s going to be hard to cut when the Canadians make their final decisions on their Olympic team a week from today.

-- If you allow a team like Buffalo to skate and get momentum through the neutral zone, they can make your life difficult. That was the middle 20 minutes (two goals on 20 shots). If you make them set up and force them into a “half court” game, they do not have the wherewithal to create enough traffic in front to do a lot of damage with second shots. That was the first and third periods (no goals, 14 shots).

-- Karl Alzner even showed some snarl by getting up in a Sabre’s face during a post-whistle scrum. Maybe he’s the enforcer Caps fans have been looking for.

-- An odd statistic – ten different Sabres took faceoffs tonight. Seven different Caps took draws. There was a whole lot of throwing out of players from the circle this evening.

-- We made a point of the Capitals offense coming from defense (or lack of it) a little while back. Tonight there was one shot on goal from a defenseman not named “Green.”

-- Ovechkin wins the score sheet buffet coupon for this one – a goal, an assist, plus-1, five shots on goal, nine attempts, four hits, a takeaway, a couple of giveaways, and a faceoff in almost 21 minutes of playing time.

-- 13 different Caps had blocked shots, led by Jeff Schultz (four).

-- Although Neuvirth allowed only the two goals on 34 shots, he looked uncomfortable in his own space for significant stretches tonight, as if he wasn’t entirely sure of his position relative to the pipes. Part of that might have been the lack of any action in his end in the first period, when a young goalie’s attention might wander. But he did have one tricky save on a long shot that bounced oddly in front of him late in the first period.

-- If one was to ask, “which Capital had the most shorthanded ice time tonight?,” how many names would you sound off before you said, Nicklas Backstrom?

The Caps now go into the Christmas break with a 23-8-6 record, third-best in the league. They are tied for the fewest home losses in regulation (two, with San Jose) in the league. They are on a pace for a team-record setting 115 points. There is a long way to go before the games really count, but the Caps have been what passes for a Christmas present to Washington area sports fans.

And that will do it for us until the weekend. To all of you, a happy and safe holiday.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps vs. Sabres, December 23rd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

‘Twas the night before the night before Christmas, and all through Washington, we can now focus on the Caps. The Nats are in their slumber until the end of February. The Wizards, well, suck. And the Redskins let the horse out of the barn because their “swinging gate” was left open a long, long time ago. And tonight, it’s the Buffalo Sabres lending to the yuletide cheer of the Capitals' season.

This is the third of four meetings between the Caps and Sabres, the most recent meeting coming on December 9th (a 3-0 Sabres win). Since then the Sabres are 5-1-1 in seven games, outscoring their opponents by a combined 18-13. Clearly, they are not doing it with offense. It’s been the case all year, as the overall numbers show…

How they have been doing it is goaltending. We can’t just insert the name “Ryan Miller” in here, because Patrick Lalime has two decisions in the last seven games. And although he is 1-0-1 in those decisions, his GAA of 0.97 and save percentage of .969 have been excellent.

But it is almost certainly going to be Ryan Miller for the Sabres in goal in this head-into-the-holiday matchup. He is 1-1-0 against the Caps this year (1.01, .966, one shutout). His shutout came in the December 9th meeting between the clubs, and since then he is 4-1-0, 2.19, .935. Miller comes into this game having not allowed more than three goals in a game in his last 14 appearances (dating back to November 18th) and has allowed more than two only twice in those 14 games.

Miller has had to be on top of his game this year, as this is not an especially potent Sabres team. They have no 30-point scorer (the Caps have three, and they’d have a fourth if Alexander Semin hadn’t missed nine games). They have no player with more than ten goals (the Caps have four). They have no player with 20 assists (the Caps have two, and they’d probably have a third if Alex Ovechkin hadn’t missed eight games).

In the last seven games for the Sabres, Jochen Hecht has given signs of rising from his season-long slumber. He is the Sabres’ leading scorer over that span (1-5-6, with points in four of his last six games). In 26 career games against the Caps, Hecht is 8-10-18, although he is without a point in either game played between the teams this season.

Derek Roy is the top goal-getter in the seven games since the Caps and Sabres met (three, with Patrick Kaleta) and second leading point scorer (3-2-5). He does have a pair of assists against the Caps this year to bring his career scoring mark against the Caps to 9-9-18 in 20 games.

Tyler Myers not only continues to impress as a rookie on the blue line, he now has to be given some consideration as being among the most impressive defensemen in the league, regardless of years played. He is 0-4-4 in the seven games since last seeing the Caps, but what is impressive is the time (and the related responsibility) he’s getting. In those seven games he hasn’t had less than 22:24 in ice time and has averaged 25:13 in that span.


1. Get out early. These teams are similar in this respect – they get out to early leads. The Caps have scored first in 25 of 36 games, the Sabres in 21 of 35. But while the Caps are something of a come-from-behind team when they do suffer the infrequent first goal scored by the opponent (a league-best 7-2-2 record), the Sabres predictably lose more often then they win (like 26 other teams in the league).

2. Leave fancy at the door. This is the first game back home for the Caps after a long road trip and only their third game at Verizon Center so far in December. There might be the tendency here to be feeling all happy and full of holiday cheer, wanting to decorate the rink with a bunch of fancy plays and slick passing. Leave it at the door. Just pound pucks at Miller and go chasing for rebounds like a starvin’ man on a Christmas ham.

3. Jose, Joy of Caps Desiring. OK, bad music pun there (for you Bach fans). Jose Theodore is the key element here for the Caps. Both games between these teams ended in shutouts (Caps winning 3-0 on the day after Thanksgiving, the Sabres winning 2-0 on December 9th). It was Theodore who took the loss in the most recent meeting, allowing three goals on 25 shots, although he probably didn’t play as poorly as the 88 percent save percentage might suggest. But Miller isn’t allowing any softies these days, and Theodore has to be equal to the task, at least with respect to allowing any iffy goals. If he stops all the ones he should stop, the Caps probably have enough fire power to solve Miller a sufficient number of times.

And with that, we leave you to your holiday cheer and with a verse or two for the boys…

Twas the night before Christmas, when all ‘round the rink
Not a creature was stirring, you could hear yourself think.
The stockings were hung by the lockers with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The Cappies were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of Stanley Cups danced in their heads.
With Gabby in warmups, and wearing a cap,
They’d just settled in for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the ice there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the tunnel I flew like a flash,
Knocked over some sticks and fell with a crash.

The lights in the arena on the new sheet of ice
Gave the lustre of mid-day, it was oh, very nice.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer.

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Brendan! now, Eric! now, Nicklas and Poti!
On, Gordo! On, Greenie! on, Clarkie and Ovie!
To the top of the glass! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As players that before the wild Hurricanes fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky.
So up to the roof-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the slate
The prancing and pawing of each little skate.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the stairs St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes-how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like Don Cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the stairs he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Caps 3 – Sabres 2