Sunday, April 03, 2011

A TWO-point night -- Game 79: Caps 5 - Sabres 4 (OT)

Two points...and that’s all that counts.

It was not a pretty 60-plus minutes that vaulted the Washington Capitals into the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but it was a win nevertheless that put them there, a 5-4 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres last night.

The ticket might have had “Fan Appreciation Night” stamped on it, but it seemed more like”Hallowe’en” with all the gremlins out in force on the Verizon Center ice. Pucks hitting sticks and going in, pucks hitting skates and going in, another Caps defensemen injured (making three in three games), and a hideous dance at center ice that might have been as much exorcism of demons as it was celebration of a game-winning goal.

The Caps looked as if they would end the competitive portion of the evening early when they turned Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth (starting in place of injured Ryan Miller) into a rebound machine. Mike Knuble got the Caps off on the right foot (unfortunately, not a rabbit’s foot) in the first minute when he swatted in a rebound of a John Carlson drive. Alexander Semin doubled the lead four minutes later when Enroth could not squeeze a Nicklas Backstrom shot, and Semin tapped it in from inches outside the goal line.

The Caps had a 2-0 lead on the scoreboard, and 8-1 lead in shots, and Enroth looked as if he was moments away from taking a seat on the bench. And then…

Lindy called timeout.

Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff didn’t panic with his team down a pair of goals, he merely called a time out, brought his team in, gave them a stern lecture about getting their tax returns in before the deadline, and sent them back out. Whatever he did say, it was the tonic. The Sabres outshot the Caps 10-6 over the rest of the period and tied the game when Michal Neuvirth was the victim of a bit of bad luck and a bit of bad play on his part. Jason Pominville threw the puck as the net from high along the left wing boards as he was going to his knees. Thomas Vanek got enough of the puck with his stick to deflect it past Neuvirth to halve the lead 6:30 into the period.

Then Drew Stafford flipped the puck at the net from almost the same spot from which Pominville shot it three minutes later. The shot came out of a maze of four players crossing among one another just in front of Pominville, and it seemed to freeze Neuvirth. He was too slow to react to the puck darting past his left pad, and the game was back to even.

After a silent second period, Buffalo took the lead when Paul Gaustad broke between a slow-reacting Capitals defense, took a Nathan Gerbe feed, and while all alone on Neuvirth, deked him to the ice and slipped a forehand under his sprawled form.

It was the Caps’ turn to tie things up when Mike Knuble got his second of the night on a power play, deflecting a Brooks Laich drive wih less than five minutes left. But that lasted barely two minutes, as Drew Stafford got his own second goal of the night on a power play for the Sabres, It, too, was on a deflection, but in this instance it was a deflection off the skate of Caps defenseman John Carlson, who was trying to defend Marc-Andre Gragani driving the net.

That might have been it, except for the Caps getting one more power play. With Gaustad in the box for high-sticking, Jason Arnott was johnny-on-the-spot to pick up a rebound to Enroth’s right. He pulled it clear of the pile and backhanded the puck past Enroth, who was tangled with his own defenseman in the crease.

It seemed inevitable, given the twists and turns of the game, that the contest would go to overtime, and it was there that Alex Ovechkin took advantage of one more practical joke played by the gremlins in attendance. After collecting a puck that Brooks Laich sent around the boards, Ovechkin stepped out from the left wing corner, walked around defenseman Chris Butler, showed Brad Boyes the puck, then pulled it back, and then from the middle of all four Sabres’ defenders, wristed a puck that was destined to go wide. Except it hit the skate Andrej Sekera and snuck just inside the far post to send Ovechkin into a dance at center ice and the fans home…appreciative.

Other stuff…

-- It was Bill McCreary’s last game as a referee in the NHL, and from the looks of things the officiating theme was to be “no penalties.” There were none called in the first 47:59 of the game (the Caps have never played in a game in which no penalties were called). But the refs had to call one when the Caps had too many men on the ice – a penalty they barely avoided on the previous shift when Eric Fehr was about to go off, then didn’t to rush back on defense. Four penalties were called in the last 8:01 of the game – two on each team – and three power play goals resulted, two for the Caps.

-- Jason Arnott’s goal was his 400th, Ovechkin’s his 299th, and for Mike Knuble his two goals were numbers seven and eight in his last ten games.

-- For Ovechkin, the three-point night made him 10-16-26 over his last 21 games. He has points in 17 of those 21 games.

-- Two power play goals broke a 1-for-17 skid on the man advantage over the previous seven games.

-- The four goals allowed was only the second time the Caps allowed more than three in their last 17 games. The Caps have won both instances, both by 5-4 scores, and both in extra time (one in a Gimmick against the Flyers and last night in overtime against Buffalo).

-- If the goaltending situation was murky before last night, it became a swamp with the results of this game. Looking at the four Buffalo goals, Vanek’s deflection for the first one is not an uncommon circumstance (although perhaps John Carlson might have done a better job of tying him up). The Pominville goal looked ugly and perhaps should have been stopped. But looking at it a few times on replay one could see where the puck might have gotten lost in that maze of bodies crossing in front of Pominville as he was shooting. Gaustad’s goal was as much a breakdown in defense (a slow-to-react backcheck as Gaustad was breaking down the middle) as anything Neuvirth did. And Stafford’s goal was off a skate as Carlson was trying to defend. Other than that, Neuvirth did have a number of excellent stops that resulted in an overall effort that looked better upon the second seeing of it than it did when seeing it in real time. Still, this thing might not be settled.

-- After the Caps scored two goals from a combined distance of about six feet, they seemed to give up on crashing the net. Perhaps it was a case of settling into a defensive posture of less risk-taking and more clogging the neutral zone, but with Jhonas Enroth looking like a deer in a goalie mask, giving up rebounds on the most harmless of shots, the Caps might have missed an opportunity to bury the Sabres early.

-- Matt Bradley is probably an unsung hero of this game. When the Caps were fighting off sluggishness after the Sabres tied the game, he was looking to inject some life back into the team by hitting anything in a white sweater. He finished with seven hits in less than 11 minutes of ice time, plus two takeaways and a blocked shot.

-- How odd was this game? Nathan Gerbe, who is about three feet tall, had five hits…more than any Cap not named Bradley. He was a real nuisance out there and used his speed to take advantage of Scott Hannan chasing a loose puck that drew a penalty and led to Buffalo’s last goal.

-- What is it, do folks graduate from Buffalo high schools and immediately come to Washington to go to school or find work? Or did the whole city schedule a field trip to see the cherry blossoms and look up ticket prices on Stub Hub? Last night was the loudest sustained cheering for a visiting team we’ve heard at Verizon all season.

-- With three assists last night, that’s seven helpers in the last six games for Nicklas Backstrom. It was the most assists he had in a game since Veterans’ Day, when he had four in a 6-3 win over Tampa Bay.

-- Tyler Sloan was injured, making it three defensemen hurt in three games (Dennis Wideman against Carolina, John Erskine against Columbus). We made the point early and often that the Caps’ defenseman depth would be tested and that with it likely that they would have to dress eight-or-more defensemen this season they might not have that depth. Well, the Caps have now dressed 11 defensemen with the appearance of Sean Collins last night. In addition to the seven roster defensemen, two of the 11 came via trade (Hannan, Wideman), two others from Hershey (Brian Fahey, and Collins). Watching Sloan and Collins last night, they certainly worked hard, but it wasn’t a pairing we’d like to see often.

In the end, it was entertaining, but it was not a game we suspect the coaching staff wants to see often. We think they rather liked the 3-2 sort of game more than the pinball wizard stuff going on last night. But pinball it was, what with pucks going off skates left and right. And after 60-plus minutes of that,the Caps still found themselves on top of the Eastern Conference with the Flyers chasing them for a change. All in all, a good night all around. Oh, except for young Mr. Enroth…


Diane said...

Peerless, I've been wondering about it myself -- on the number of Buffalo fans at the game last night (and the most sustained cheering for an opponent). There certainly were a lot of Buffalo fans, it seemed. I think even more than I recall even from Flyers and Rangers games.

I heard several stories on Japers of people who gave their tickets for last night's game to Buffalo fan friends.

The Peerless said...

It's making me think that the whole "sellout" number is just that -- a number. A lot of unoccupied seats lately and the occasional game when there is a lot more cheering for the visitors than I might otherwise expect.

Ross said...

I don't often comment, but I love your writing... keep up the great work!