Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A TWO-point night -- Game 39: Caps 3 - Canadiens 0

It isn’t the same.

Yeah, the Caps had this game circled on the calendar, the first opportunity to face the Montreal Canadiens after the Canadiens ended the Caps’ season last spring. But truth be told, a game in late December can’t make up for losing a Game 7 on home ice.

However, what it can do is provide one more brick in the wall that is becoming the Caps’ defense. Yes, dear reader, the Caps’ defense. It was rock-solid tonight, holding the Canadiens to 25 shots (only six in the third period, none in the last 7:55), snuffing out five power plays for Montreal, and giving goalie Semyon Varlamov good looks, for the most part, at the shots he was called upon to defend. In the end, Varlamov turned away all 25 shots he faced to earn his second shutout of the season, fourth of his career, and improved his season record to 6-4-1 as the Caps skated past Montreal, 3-0.

It did not look good early, though. Twenty-three seconds into the game the Caps’ Matt Hendricks was whistled for a rather lame boarding penalty. The Caps killed off that shorthanded situation, but shortly found themselves a man short once more when John Carlson was sent off at 4:43 for high-sticking Benoit Pouliot. By the time that second penalty was killed off the Canadiens had opened up a 6-0 advantage in shots, but Varlamov kept the net empty.

Then it was Montreal’s turn to march to the penalty box, Alexandre Picard and Pouliot taking minors that the Caps failed to capitalize on, but that did serve to tenderize the Canadiens’ defense for what would take place about a minute after the second penalty expired. Jay Beagle tied up and out fought Picard for a loose puck behind the Canadiens’ net. It allowed Eric Fehr to jump in and fight off Maxim Lapierre and Yannick Weber to free the puck once more for Beagle. It was Beagle who circled out from behind the net to goalie Carey Price’s right, and as he did so it appeared as if Price was expecting Beagle (who had his back to Price) to lay off the puck to a teammate coming into the zone. But Beagle spun to his right and pitchforked a backhander over the right shoulder of a stunned Price, who barely moved as the puck flew by. It was Beagle’s second goal of the season, and as it turned out his second game-winner.

The Caps might have been satisfied to carry a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, but in the period’s last minute another opportunity presented itself. Working his way through the neutral zone, Jason Chimera sent a puck ahead in search of Eric Fehr. The puck was a bit long for Fehr to reach, and it ended up on Montreal defenseman Hal Gill’s stick. Gill tried to send the puck off the side boards, but managed only to put it on Nicklas Backstrom’s stick. Backstrom stepped up and tried to send a pass to Mike Green. A Montreal skate appeared to alter the path of the puck ever so slightly, but not enough to keep it from the blade of Green’s stick. Green wristed the puck past Price on the short side, and the Caps had a two-goal lead at the intermission.

The defense took over from there, stifling every thrust Montreal tried to use to get back into the game. The coup de grace was applied by Alex Ovechkin with 32 seconds left, out racing Weber for a loose puck along the left wing boards in the neutral zone and planting the biscuit squarely in the middle of the net for the final 3-0 margin.

Other stuff…

-- It’s one thing to be young and immature at a difficult position. It’s another to be stupid. What P.K. Subban was thinking when he tried to step up on Jason Chimera will forever be a mystery. He not only used poor judgment in attempting the hit, he whiffed on it, taking himself out of the play and creating a void that Mike Green filled seconds later to convert the pass from Nicklas Backstrom for the Caps’ second goal. Couple that with what seemed like Subban’s incessant yapping and playing to the refs every time he was hit, and it made for a bad night for a defenseman who hasn’t been around the league long enough to adopt the prima donna attitude.

-- The disappointment tonight was the Caps getting eight power plays, getting 15 power play shots, and failing to record a power play goal in 14:27 of power play time.

-- Speaking of the power play, even though Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green each logged more than 11 minutes on the man advantage, it appeared as if Bruce Boudreau was making a concerted effort to spread things around. Nine different Caps recorded more than four minutes of power play ice time. Shoot, even Scott Hannan got 24 seconds worth.

-- Things were spread around even more on the penalty kill. Thirteen different skaters recorded at least one minute in shorthanded ice time.

-- Just as a matter of observation, we weren’t entirely sure if the Caps’ ability to keep the puck in the Montreal end was a product of solid puck possession or the fact that the Canadiens were awful in their own end with the puck. But for the fact that Montreal successfully resorted to their collapse in the middle defense that they used to great effect last spring, it could have been a much worse result for the visitors.

-- It’s hard to argue with a goalie getting the shutout as the number one star, but Beagle was certainly “1A.” He was all over the place in his limited ice time (9:52), often pinning Montreal puck carriers to their own wall on the forecheck.

-- Even though he did not get a goal, this might have been Nicklas Backstrom’s best game in almost a month. He looked patient again with the puck and seemed to be seeing the ice better.

-- 36-for-52 on faceoffs? A 69.2 percent winning percentage is hard to do against air. And the Caps did it where it counted – 8-for-11 in the defensive zone, 17-for-22 in the offensive zone. Nicklas Backstrom won 10 of 12, and David Steckel won 15 of 22. The flip side of that is that Scott Gomez took a donut on 12 draws…oh-fer-12.

-- All you Jeff Schultz haters out there, bet you missed having that steady, consistent kind of defense back there the past few games. Smart first pass, effective use of reach, patient angling players off the path on which they want to go. A major yawn. Sure, it was only 13 minutes and change worth, but not bad for a guy who was in a full wrist cast not too long ago with a broken thumb.

-- It is a measure of how balanced a team the Caps might be developing that David Steckel would lead the team in hits (four), Eric Fehr would lead in shots on goal (six, tied with Mike Green), and John Erskine would lead the team in blocked shots (four).

-- Speaking of Fehr, the Caps had 11 shots in the second period… Fehr had five of them in only 3:49 of ice time.

In the end, one can’t really say the Caps are “back” – the power play going 0-for-8 should put an end to that kind of talk. But they are getting there, and they look like a much more complete hockey team along the way. Montreal was a good test, a team certainly good enough to make the Caps pay if they lacked focus by looking ahead to Saturday. That the Caps successfully squeezed the life out of the Canadiens, much as they had it done to them last spring, is a sign that the Caps are one step further along in shedding the notion that they are a one-note, offense-only team. At 4-0-1 since their eight-game slide,they are righting the ship.  And if tonight's game was not the same, not "redemption" for playoff losses in the spring, it served as one more piece of preparation to ensure that this spring's result is much more pleasant.