Thursday, April 22, 2010

Goaltending Problems in Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge

OK, so who does Jacques Martin turn to now?

There have been no shortage of fiery goaltenders in the history of the NHL. Billy Smith, Ron Hextall, Patrick Roy, to name but three – all of them played at a high-level of performance and with an edge to their games. But more often than not, goaltenders are the calm, unflappable sort who maintain a keen focus on the puck as the chaos of skaters swirls about them.

Which brings us to Carey Price and the decision Jacques Martin faces for Game 5 in Washington on Friday. Price was hardly abused, hardly ruffled in the first two periods of play last night at Bell Centre. He faced nine shots in each of the first two periods and looked for all the world like a guy without a care in the world, tending his own little blue bubble of a crease.

Then came the third period. The Caps had six shots on goal before the period was three minutes old. It was the momentum borne out of a late shorthanded goal by Mike Knuble that came with 6.3 seconds left until intermission. And now, Price was standing in the path of the storm, his nice blue bubble not nearly so calm.

Price stood firmly against the Caps squeezing his crease, but in what would be a curious symmetry to the game, the Caps scored on their ninth shot of the period (making them 1-for-9 in each of the three periods). The problem was that the goal, scored by Alex Ovechkin, came with 8:51 yet to play and gave the Caps a lead.

The Caps then scored on their next shot, a put back of a Matt Bradley attempt by Jason Chimera from the other side of the crease. After the goal Price, who had up until now the demeanor of a cadaver, retrieved the puck from his net and shot it at the Caps celebrating the goal along the wall.

Two minutes, pouting.

Price wasn’t done. With the Caps holding a 5-2 lead, he was pulled for an extra attacker with more than two minutes remaining. Mike Knuble, however, found the empty net with 2:27 left to give the Caps a 5-2 lead. Dominic Moore got that back with a goal less than a minute later, giving the Canadiens a breath of life with 1:18 left and down a pair of goals. Price was pulled again. He could only stand and watch, though, as Nicklas Backstrom potted a second empty-netter with 11 seconds left. Except “stand and watch” wasn’t exactly what he did. As Backstrom was heading to the bench to receive congratulations, he passed the Canadiens’ bench, at which point Price took a two-handed swipe of his goalie stick at Backstrom’s legs.

Two minutes, sore loser.

We get the frustration part, and often times that plays out with extra-curriculars among the skaters in the waning moments of a game. But a goalie taking a swipe with his stick at an opposing player from his own bench? You’d have to go back pretty far in time to find that one (at the moment, we can’t think of a similar instance, but readers are free to contribute).

If that is Price’s mental state as Game 4 ended, you would have to question whether he would be fit to give Montreal a chance to win in Game 5. Sure, there are 48 hours before that game starts, long enough for tempers to settle. But Price has been stewing, more or less, on the Canadiens’ bench for most of the stretch run and was a fall-back in response to the problems that Jaroslav Halak had in Games 2 and 3. More to the point, the shooting of the puck at the Caps and the bench antics seem entirely out of character for Price. That isn’t a temper thing, That might be the product of lingering frustration over the year he’s had.

It leaves the Canadiens’ goaltending a mess. Halak has been ratted out as Montreal’s answer to Jim Carey (with that yawning void over his catching glove), and Price went loopy twice in the space of eight minutes of the third period.

All of a sudden, the Caps’ goaltending looks mighty fine.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 4: Capitals 6 - Canadiens 3

Game, set…

Well, not quite match, but based on tonight’s 6-3 thumping of the Montreal Canadiens, you might be forgiven for thinking that “match” is only a couple of days away. It might have been a 2-2 game after 40 minutes, but the Caps, who outscored the Habs 5-3 in the third period of Games 1 through 3, outscored the Canadiens 4-1 in the third period tonight to cement the win and put their skate blades to the jugular of the Canadiens heading into Game 5 on Friday.

Tonight was a night for the top line to shine. Yes, the top line got empty net goals from Mike Knuble and Nicklas Backstrom, but overall the top line went 5-3-8, plus-10. The Canadiens simply had no answer to this. But even with the top line accounting for five goals and eight points, ten different players recorded points.

As much as the first line shown on the stat sheet, the fourth line of Matt Bradley, Boyd Gordon, and Jason Chimera had a whale of a game. A 1-2-3, plus-2 night doesn’t really tell the story for that trio. Gordon contributed eight wins in 12 faceoffs, and Bradley had four hits to tie for the team lead. Chimera delivered the game-winning goal by crashing the net and following up on a loose puck. It was once more a case of the superior depth of the Caps wearing the Canadiens down and making the third period their own.

Other stuff…

-- Semyon Varlamov will not earn an NHL star of the night, but he should for the second period performance he had. Twenty saves on 21 shots. Allowing only one goal in three power play opportunities when the Canadiens could have taken control of the game.

-- 16 goals in the last 142 minutes of hockey. That works out to 6.75 goals per 60 minutes. Does Jacques Martin have another goaltender he’d like to try?

-- Montreal’s top line took it in the teeth again. Plekanec, Cammalleri, Kostitsyn went 1-0-1, minus-5. The series has largely boiled down to the significant talent and performance gap between the teams’ top lines.

-- Gee… two empty net goals, and Ovechkin didn’t get either of them. Wonder what folks (read: Penguin fans) will complain about.

-- For all the worries about Washington’s defense and goaltending, and the fact that playoff hockey is played so much more tightly to the vest, this series has been played on Washington’s terms with respect to style. 38 more shots on goal makes for 158 in the series (39.5 a game).

-- The flip side of that is a bit disturbing, though, and that is the ability on the part of Montreal to get pucks to the net. The Canadiens missed only five shots all night, and the Caps blocked only 14 of the total 58 attempts on net. That is an awfully high percentage of shots (67.2) getting all the way through to Semyon Varlamov.

-- That Boyd Gordon to Mike Knuble tap-in on a shorthanded 2-on-1 had Kanoobie doing flips in front of the TV, but Roman Hamrlik looked as if he was checking out and heading to the tunnel to the locker room with that brain cramp in the neutral zone that left Josh Gorges the only man back to defend the play with less than ten seconds left in the period.  Instead of being in a position to assert control heading into the third period, the Canadiens might have been left wondering if yet another chance had slipped away.

-- No player in the playoffs has launched as many shots on goal with so little success as Alexander Semin. Four shots on goal last night leaves him with 20 shots on goal for the playoffs and nothing to show for it. San Jose’s Patrick Marleau is next on the frustration meter with no goals on 15 shots.

-- The Caps finally got a power play goal (1-for-19 for the series), leaving Nashville and Buffalo as the only teams left having not scored a power play goal in the playoffs.

-- On the flip side, Montreal did get a power play goal, meaning that they have one in each game of the series. But the key there is that they have only one in each game of the series. Holding the Canadiens to that has allowed the series to be decided so far at five-on-five, and the Canadiens have not been able to compete successfully in those situations.

-- Varlamov is 27-for-28 in the first period of games so far (.964 save percentage) and 36-for-39 in the second period (.923). Keeping Montreal from getting off to good starts (or in Game 2, to sustain good starts) has been as key as the top line making the Canadiens goaltending look like swiss cheese.

-- Does one get the feeling of a certain inevitability that the Caps and Penguins are going to have to go through one another to reach the Cup finals?

-- Through four games, the Canadiens have outscored the Caps, 4-3, in the first period of games. But the Caps have had a big finishing kick, outscoring Montreal 6-3 in the second period and 8-4 in the third period.

-- Of the 18 goaltenders ranked thus far in the playoffs, three have a goals-against average of at least 4.00. Two of them are Canadiens. The Caps lead all teams in scoring and are second in shots-per-game. Only one Canadien who has played in all four games is as high as “even” in plus-minus (Hal Gill). The Caps have five players at plus-5 or better. You get the feeling it isn’t just the goaltenders for Montreal who are overmatched.

-- And keep in mind, the Caps are doing this with a power play than has converted one of 19 chances (5.3 percent).

-- The Caps were 15-for-23 (65.2 percent) on draws in the defensive zone. Little things matter. Or, if you prefer, there are no little things in the playoffs.

-- That Game 1 performance by Alex Ovechkin seems but a hazy memory now, doesn’t it? He has four goals on his last six shots dating back to Game 2.

-- On the bad side, that first Montreal goal was just a rancid tub of defensive goo on the part of the Caps. From losing a faceoff cleanly (Mike Cammalleri beating Brendan Morrison) to Glen Metropolit getting a little too much time and space behind the Capitals’ net to make a play, to Mike Green and Jeff Schultz both caught looking at Metropolit as Cammalleri was coming down the slot to Eric Fehr not tying up Cammalleri’s stick (all that on display below…

…all ultimately allowing Cammalleri to pop the puck over Varlamov for the first goal. It was a case of just not being gritty enough in tight to prevent a pass, a rebound, and a shot.

-- But speaking of Varlamov, the save he made on Cammalleri with under seven minutes in the second period – a glove save on a shot from the inside edge of the right wing faceoff circle – is one to keep in mind if the Caps move on and face a team in black and Vegas gold later on… that’s Sidney Crosby’s workshop.

In the end, this game – and this series, in fact – was captured in an eight second sequence early in the third period. Brian Gionta beat Tyler Sloan to a puck in the corner in the Capitals’ end. Sloan pinned the smaller Gionta to the wall, the puck squirting free to Alexander Semin at the goal line. Semin fought off a trailing Scott Gomez all the way to the Montreal line. As three Canadiens converged on Semin as he crossed the line, Semin shoveled the puck to Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin treated Hal Gill like a skating pylon, cutting across the grain and leaving Gill flatfooted, capable of only waving his stick at Ovechkin. Ovechkin then wristed a rocket past the glove of goalie Carey Price, and the Caps took a lead they would not relinquish. It was Montreal not being able to compete along the boards to retain possession of the puck, not being able to track down a faster Capital heading up ice, and not being nimble enough in their own zone to fend off a high quality scoring chance that found the back of the net.

The Caps have outscored the Canadiens 15-5 in the last eight periods of hockey (including a 31-second overtime). The Caps have too much history in being up 3-1 in games to say that this one is over. But it is going to take something close to divine intervention for Montreal to turn this around.