Sunday, October 10, 2010

Greatest Performance in NHL History or Suspension of Laws of Nature?

Uh, it's nice that Derek Stepan had a hat trick and that Alex Ovechkin had a three-point night, but if you make 42 saves on 40 shots with a save percentage of 1.050, you deserve something more than a third star...

A TWO-point night -- Game 2: Caps 7 - Devils 2

Tonight’s game between the Washington Capitals and the New Jersey Devils was a tale of two Russians.  One found his game, and the other lost his mind.  Alex Ovechkin scored two goals and recorded an assist as the Caps beat – and beat up – the New Jersey Devils, 7-2, in a game marred by four fights in a space of ten seconds of game time late in the third period, one of which featured the Devils $100 million man, Ilya Kovalchuk.

For the Caps, it was as if they played two very different games.  The first 20 minutes looked like an extension of the game in Atlanta on Friday night.  They were sloppy, lethargic, unengaged.  They were lucky to be on the short end of a 2-1 score after those first 20 minutes.  The Devils took the early lead when Marcus Johansson sent a weak backhand pass through the middle that was intercepted by Patrick Elias, who then fed Jamie Langenbrunner on the right side.  Langenbrunner fed the puck to the net, where it was stopped by goalie Michael Neuvirth, but not cleanly.  Jason Arnott stuffed the loose puck home for the goal.

The Caps got one back when Real Capital Hero John Carlson picked up an errant pass at the red line, skated in, and using Mark Frasier as a screen wristed the puck past goalie Martin Brodeur from 50 feet out.  Marty was not pleased.

But the Devils regained the lead when the Caps were pinned in their own end on a power play.  Dainius Zubrus collected a feed in the high slot.  Rather than shoot, he fed Henrik Tallinder coming down from the blue line.  Tallinder snapped the puck past Neuvirth for Jersey’s second goal on only their sixth shot.  They would register 27 more shots in the game, all of which would be stopped by Neuvirth, who played a much cleaner game than he did on Friday.

The Caps finally showed up in the second period.  They roared back into the game, first tying the game when Tomas Fleischmann converted a pretty feed from Alexander Semin over Brodeur’s right shoulder on the short side.  The game settled down for the next dozen minutes, but then folks were treated to a display of what makes the Caps so dangerous.  Alex Ovechkin cut across the Devils’ zone and sent a relatively innocent shot to the net.  But Mike Knuble went to the net and created havoc with Mark Fraser draped all over him.  The puck hit the pile and popped over Brodeur’s pad to give the Caps the lead for good.

Less than four minutes later, as the Caps were killing off a power play, Tomas Fleischmann gathered up the puck and patiently waited for Jason Chimera to exit the penalty box and head to the Devils’ zone.  Fleischmann sent a long cross-ice pass to the streaking Chimera, who skated in and snapped the puck under Brodeur’s right arm on the far side to give the Caps a two-goal lead.

Less than a minute later Ovechkin picked off a weak cross ice pass from Colin White at the Caps blue line.  Ovechkin batted the puck ahead, then caught up with it with White in pursuit.  As Ovechkin closed on Brodeur, White hauled him down, the referee signaling a penalty shot.  Ovechkin converted when he took the puck wide to the left wing side, curled in, teased Brodeur with the puck just out of stick’s reach, then lifted the puck over Brodeur’s glove to give the Caps a 5-2 lead at the second intermission.

The third period was equal parts icing on the cake and slapstick.  Brooks Laich ended the competitive portion of the evening with a shorthanded goal three minutes in, when a loose puck heading toward the Devils’ net was misplayed up the middle on an attempted clear by replacement goalie Johan Hedberg.  Laich blocked the weak clear and deposited the puck in the open net with Hedberg 20 feet out of his crease.

Eric Fehr completed the scoring with a power play wrister past Hedberg, but the entertainment was hardly over.  It all started harmlessly enough when Ilya Kovalchuk sent the puck along behind the net in the Devils’ zone, and Mike Green finished his check, banging Kovalchuk into the glass.  Kovalchuk took exception and whacked Green across the back of his legs.  Green turned, and he and Kovalchuk jawed at one another on their way up ice.  Suddenly, the gloves came off and almost $12 million in salary cap obligations were squaring off at center ice.  The fight, such as it was, looked less like a bout and more like pairs figure skating as each player grabbed the other’s jersey and spun his opponent around.  But it set the stage for a wild finish.

Rod Pelley for the Devils and Matt Hendricks for the Caps took their turn four seconds later, Hendricks landing a couple of square punches late in their bout.  Hendricks would remark rather matter-of-factly later on post-game radio that players didn’t like seeing one of their big-name guys going at it, and he knew what his role was.

He wasn’t alone.  Two seconds after that, David Clarkson for New Jersey walked into a straight right hand from Matt Bradley that ended their brief duel.  But the worst was saved for last.  On the ensuing faceoff, Pierre-Luc Leblond (he being a veteran of 11 NHL fights) took off after 20-year old rookie Marcus Johansson, playing in his second game in North America.  Leblond did his level best to land a punch, but Johansson was having none of it, protecting himself from the assault.  It was a rather cheap move by Leblond and Devils’ head coach John MacLean.  Under Rule 46.22, Leblond will get to sit a game, and MacLean will be $10,000 lighter in his wallet, that being the penalty for being whistled for an instigator penalty in the last five minutes of regulation time.

Other stuff…

-- It was a grim night for Kovalchuk.  Four shots (his last coming moments before Ovechkin was hauled down and converted the resulting penalty shot), no points, minus-1, and then he lost his mind out of frustration in the third period with his team down five goals.

-- It was a grim night for the Devils’ top line of Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, and Zach Parise.  They were a combined 0-1-1 (Zajac with an assist on Tallinder’s goal), minus-2, nine shots on goal. 

-- Anton Volchenkov took a puck to the face with 90 seconds left in the first period and did not return.  He was diagnosed with a broken nose.

-- Martin Brodeur looked… well, old.  He allowed five goals on 20 shots, including three on the last five shots he faced in the second period.  And frankly, not one of those goals was an impossible save opportunity.  Carlson’s goal was through a screen, but Brodeur usually eats those up with his glove.  He didn’t cover the short side on Fleischmann’s goal.  Ovechkin’s first goal might have been the one for which he could be excused as it hit someone and popped over his pad, but he didn’t track Ovechkin across on the penalty shot and was late covering the long side when Ovechkin lifted the puck over his glove.  Chimera’s shot had no business finding the back of the net.

-- Real Capital Hero John Carlson almost got the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick.”  A goal and two assists, and frankly he could have been credited with a third assist (that being on the Chimera goal when he worked the puck free from behind the Caps’ net).  He added a roughing call in the Leblond-Johansson scrap.  Maybe it was a “Mark Howe Hat Trick,” or a “Marty Howe Hat Trick.”

-- Marcus Johansson might be a quick learner.  After getting torched in the face off circle on Friday, he won seven of 11 draws tonight.

-- If you had “Mike Green” on the most hits card, go collect your winnings.  He had six to lead both teams.

-- Color us as really liking this year’s video intro.  There is an unspoken theme in it, beneath the “hockey capital” thing.  I watched and listened to it and the reaction I had was “we’re all in this.”

-- The fourth line looked better with Boyd Gordon playing on it than it did with David Steckel playing on it on Friday night.  It had more energy and forced more action. 

-- Speaking of more energy, the penalty killing unit looks like it is using entirely different players from those used last year.  That’s what a drastic change in philosophy will do.  As soon as a Devil turned his head, went to the boards, or was otherwise occupied doing anything but looking for a pass or shot, a Cap was charging right at him.  That’s 7-for-7 in two games.  Early returns are good.

-- Marcus Johansson is still finding his way.  But he is going to be a lot better player in April for the learning he is undertaking now… a lot better.

-- Last year, the Caps could be, if not exactly “intimidated” by an opponent when they got physical, they could be taken off their game.  In two games so far, this bunch seems much more willing to mix it up and fearless in coming to the aid of teammates.

-- It’s early, but Nicklas Backstrom doesn’t look quite right out there.  The fine tuning of his passing game isn’t there yet.  We’re betting it’s just a matter of time.  Maybe we’re spoiled by last year’s 3-14-17 in October (including eight assists in his first three games), but we also remember than in his first two seasons he was a combined 0-9-9 in 20 games in October.

-- When Michal Neuvirth is on, he is boring to watch.  He swallows pucks, allows few (if any rebounds) and steers the puck away from harm.  Tonight, he was really boring to watch in the last 40 minutes.

-- Things seem to work better when you get the puck to the net.  Friday night the Caps had 31 shots on goal and 36 attempts that didn’t make it there (23 of them blocked).  Tonight, 29 shots on goal and only 26 errant attempts (only 13 blocked).

-- That’s ten goals in six home openers for Ovechkin; he has at least one in each of his six home openers.

-- And that makes nine home opener wins in a row for the Caps, two of which have come against the Devils.

In the end, this is what the Caps can be, even against another playoff contender.  New Jersey is on the short list of teams that could come out of the East, and the Caps made them look inept in the second period, turning what had the look of another disappointing game into a rout in a matter of minutes.  It isn’t going to happen every night, but it was nice to see on this night.