Friday, March 18, 2011

A TWO-point night -- Game 73: Caps 3 - Devils 0

For one team, it was nice while it lasted. For the other, things might just be starting.

The Washington Capitals all but killed what remained of the New Jersey Devils’ playoff hopes tonight, and the weapons involved were the stick of Mike Knuble and the glove of goaltender Michal Neuvirth. In the 3-0 win the Caps might have served notice – even on a night when the energy wasn’t there for long stretches – that they are rounding into playoff shape.

Knuble potted a pair of goals, one of typical Knublian style, the other more…uh, stylish. After Jeff Schultz got the Caps off and running (a relative term in this game) with a goal off a feed from…Knuble, the Caps’ forward got the second and third markers on, first, a goal mouth re-direct off a fake shot/slap pass from John Carlson and, second, a wrister off a feed from Alex Ovechkin.

Michal Neuvirth made it stand up with a 33-save effort for the shutout, his fourth of the season and a club record for rookie goaltenders. In fact, it was Neuvirth who kept the Caps in it early when the skaters looked as if they were desperately in need of massive infusions of Red Bull in the first period. The Devils outshot the Caps, 12-2, in the first period and held an 18-3 lead in shots at one point. While the Caps were sleepwalking to the Devils' Neutral Zone Lullaby style in the those first 31 minutes as the home team built that 18-3 lead in shots, Neuvirth’s glove was where Devil shots were going to die. Brian Rolston in particular was sending rockets at the Capitals’ net, only to be stymied by Neuvirth over and over. Rolston was by no means alone in his frustration. Ilya Kovalchuk matched Rolston’s team high five shots, one of them being a breakaway that Neuvirth stoned – with a glove save – late in the third. On this night, “Be Like Mike,” didn’t refer to a basketball player by the name of “Jordan,” but to a forward and a goalie named “Knuble” and “Neuvirth.”

Other stuff…

-- Alex Ovechkin was held to one shot attempt (a miss). It was the first time he was held without a shot in a regular season game since January 19, 2010, in a 3-2 win over Detroit. The one attempt is a career low.

-- But within Ovechkin’s blank score sheet on shots is evidence of his maturity as a player. Midway through the third period, Ovechkin had the puck at the top of the offensive zone on the left wing. He had an opportunity to – and in fact showed as if he would – curl to the middle for a wrist shot. When he started in, it froze the Devils defense, especially goalie Martin Brodeur. It was enough to allow Ovechkin to thread a pass across the ice onto the tape of Mike Knuble, who roofed the puck over Brodeur’s left shoulder before he could get across his crease. Until this year, Ovechkin probably does not make that play.

-- With two assists, Ovechkin is now 9-13-22, plus-7 in his last 18 games and has not been held without a point in consecutive games in that stretch.  He has climbed to fifth in the league in overall scoring with 77 points.

-- Don’t look now – and don’t say it loud enough for Kanoobie to hear – but with two goals tonight Mike Knuble has four goals in his last four games and is 5-5-10, plus-6 in his last 13 games. That is the kind of scoring pace the Caps need from the big guy.

-- It was Knuble’s first multi-point game since December 11th (a 3-2 loss to Colorado) and his first three-point game since January 29, 2010 (4-1 win over Florida).

-- John Carlson did not face the Devils in his late-season stint with the Caps last year, but he is making up for it now. In the four-game series against New Jersey, the former Garden State resident finished 2-3-5, plus-7.

-- OK, so Nicklas Backstrom didn’t spray ink all over the score sheet as far as scoring goes in his return from an injury. But winning 13 of 17 draws might be an indicator that his hand is pretty healthy.

-- Jeff Schultz…a goal, two hits, and a plus-2 in 20-plus minutes. Oddly enough, the first time in almost a month Schultz got more than 20 minutes of ice time (breaking a nine-game streak with fewer than 20).

-- And sometimes, it’s just good being there…Marcus Johansson was on the ice for all three Caps goals for his plus-3.

-- Rolston had all those chances on which he did not convert for the Devils, and he paid. He was on the ice for all three Caps goals.

-- We thought that this game might feature fewer than 50 shots on goal between the teams, and it did (45).  We just didn’t see it as a 33-12 advantage for New Jersey. Rolston and Kovalchuk has almost as many shots between them (splitting 10 total shots) as the Caps had as a team.

-- In that respect the Devils got shots from the guys they want taking them, but the Devils also had nine inconsequential shots from defensemen, meaning that the other 10 forwards combined for a total of 14 shots (and half of those came from Dainius Zubrus and David Clarkson). Sometimes, shots can be misleading. The Devils got no push from the other forward lines.

-- For the second time this season the Caps did not benefit from a single power play (the other time – vs. Philadelphia on January 18th).

-- The Devils out attempted the Caps 50-21. Had every attempt been a shot on goal, it still would have been the fewest shots on goal for the Caps this season. Were the 12 shots on goal the fewest the Caps have ever recorded? Nope…not close. The Caps finished with seven shots on goal in a 4-1 loss at Philadelphia on February 12, 1978.

In the end, it is the end for the Devils. With 11 games left to play they would have to run the table to get to 92 points, and eight of those last 11 games come against teams currently in the top-eight in the East (Boston twice, Pittsburgh twice, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Montreal, and the Rangers). It was a wonderful run, but it’s over.

On the other hand, things are just beginning for the Caps. That the Caps held this opponent to fewer than two goals isn’t the achievement it might be if the opponent was more proficient in the offensive arts. But what was telling in this game was the Caps’ patience. They did allow a few more chances than might be preferred, and Michal Neuvirth was there to gobble them up. But the Caps showed remarkable patience in dealing with a team as disciplined on defense as are the Devils. The Caps did not have many opportunites, evidenced by so few shots and shot attempts. But they took advantage of those opportunities the Devils gave them, and the Caps did not try to force things too much against a team and a system that thrives on teams doing just that. It was another “playoff” type performance of the type that the Caps have been authoring more and more lately.

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