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.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Caps at Devils, March 18th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Caps finish the first half of their six-game road trip with a visit with the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center -- The Rock – where the Caps will do their best to get back on the winning track…

“Their best…Losers always whine about their best. Winners go home and f**k the prom queen.”

Uh, ok…and you are?

“Captain John Patrick Mason, General, sir... of Her Majesty's S.A.S. Retired, of course.”

I’m not a general, and you’re a long way from home, Captain.

“Yes, well, I was a long way from home with that Alcatraz thing, too, and all things considered, I would rather be there than in Newark.”

Did they bother to tell you who I am and why I’m doing this or are they using you like they do everybody else?

“All I know is you are big in hockey blogging; I found the link over at Japers’ Rink.”

Then you probably have no idea what it means to write some of the best copy on God's earth about hockey and then watch the post get messed up their own f**king idiot cousins.

“I don't quite see how you cherish the memory of your kin by killing another million pixels. And, this is not combat, it's blogging, General Sir. Personally, I think you're a f**king idiot.

You might have a point about that idiot part, but I’m not a General! Anything else, Captain Mason?

“Yeah…welcome to ‘The Rock!’”

We do not suppose the Devils will be in anything approaching a welcoming mood after losing 3-1 to the last place Ottawa Senators last night in Ottawa. It cannot have been a pleasant trip home for the Devils, who find themselves six points out of a playoff spot with 12 games to play and four teams they have to climb over to reach the top-eight. As they host the Caps tonight, their overall numbers look like this:

On January 8th the Devils lost their sixth game in a row and 15th in 17 contests – a 2-1 decision to the Philadelphia Flyers. It left them with a first half season record of 10-29-2 through 41 games. The next night they found themselves down 2-1 to Tampa Bay heading into the third period as they embarked on their second 41. And something strange and wonderful – if you are a Devils fan – happened. David Clarkson scored at the 4:14 mark of the third period. Then Jason Arnott at 7:52 to put the Devils in front. Then Dainius Zubrus at 14:06. Patrik Elias added an empty net goal at 18:45, and after Dominic Moore got one back for the Lightning 23 seconds later, Nick Palmieri (who HAS to play for New Jersey) closed things out with another empty netter to give the Devils a 6-3 win. Starting with that win, the Devils are 23-4-2 in their last 29 games. That is a 65-11-6/136 point pace covering more than a third of the season.

But the Devils might be seeing this glorious run coming to an end. They are 3-2-0 in their last seven, but two of the wins came in extra time, and none of the three wins came against a playoff-level opponent (Atlanta twice and the Islanders). Both losses came against last-place Ottawa, which might haunt the Devils right down to the equipment manager through the summer if they finish four or fewer points out of a playoff spot.

One player who really came alive in the 29-game run is Ilya Kovalchuk. The Devils finally got to see just what Kovalchuk is capable of doing as part of this run, Kovalchuk going 16-14-30, plus-11 in the streak. The 16 goals Kovalchuk has registered in these past 29 games is almost the same number as he recorded in his previous 57 games with the team (20) since being traded from Atlanta. But it is the goal he did not get that might be critical here -- he had a breakaway opportunity in the third period that would have tied the game with Ottawa had he converted.  He did not, and the Devils did not gain any ground on the teams ahead of them.  Kovalchuk is 24-28-52 in 47 career games against the Caps and recorded the first of his 11 career hat tricks against Washington on December 6, 2002, in a 7-6 loss to the Caps.

Brian Rolston was given up for the hockey equivalent of dead in December, placed on waivers by the Devils in the midst of a 2-2-4, minus-6 season through his first 15 games. But he was not claimed, and in the 23-4-2 run for the Devils, Rolston is 11-13-24, plus-9.  He also has four game-winning goals in that stretch. After losing to the Ottawa Senators on March 8th, Rolston said, “It could be a costly loss but we have to come back in the next one. I don't believe we're out of it yet." Having lost twice in nine days to the Senators, the realization that they are almost out of it might be settling in for Rolston and the Devils. He is 13-19-32 in 46 career games against Washington.

If there is one player who reflects the Jersey style and fortune this season, it might be defenseman Andy Greene. If you look at Greene’s overall numbers – 3-17-20, minus-18 – a couple of things jump out. First, he is the Devils’ leading scorer from the blue line. He was last season, too (6-31-37). That is not unusual. But what is unusual is that minus-18 number after going plus-9 last season and plus-3 (in 49 games) in the previous season. It is a reflection of the overall poor record for the Devils. But if you split Greene’s season into two pieces – before and after the start of the 29-game run – it is two very different seasons. In his first 41 games Greene was 3-10-3, minus-23. In the 29-game run he has not scored a goal, but he has seven assists and is a plus-5 while drawing the toughest defensive matchups and (with Henrik Tallinder) skating more than 22 minutes a night. On a defensive-oriented team such as the Devils, you do not have to look much farther than Greene’s numbers to see the difference before and after January 8th.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New Jersey: Martin Brodeur

Once the iron man of the NHL among goalies (12 4,000-plus minute seasons in his last 14 years), Brodeur’s body seems to be breaking down at age 38. He has played in “only” 47 games this season and would have to start (and finish) in seven of the Devils’ last 12 games to break the 3,000 minute level. That seems likely, health willing. In fact, it is not unthinkable that he get the call in each of the last 12 games for the Devils, or until they are eliminated. In the 29-game run since January 8th, Brodeur is 15-3-1, 1.70, .929, with two shutouts. More important has been his consistency. In this run he allowed as many as three goals (never more) only three times and has not done so in any appearance since January 26th (a streak of 12 appearances). If Brodeur is coming to the end, he’s doing it in Brodeurian style.

Washington: Matt Hendricks

For Matt Hendricks, the line against the Devils reads: two games, two fights, a win, and a loss (the win and the loss being the game decisions). Against a team like the Devils, it’s the little things that make a difference, the sort of things Matt Hendricks can provide. And he can provide a touch of scoring. He is 1-3-4 in his last eight games (the goal being the game-winner against Carolina on March 11th), which isn’t bad for a fourth liner. And in his last four games, he alternated five and four-shots on goal games with getting no shots on goal. If that continues tonight, Brodeur will be seeing some rubber off the stick of Hendricks. And given his record in the two games in which he played against New Jersey this season (a fight in each), a Devil is going to see some leather in the form of Hendricks’ gloves.


1. Hot Shots. No team in the NHL allows fewer shots on goal than do the Devils (26.3/game). They seem to like games when there are few shots; they don’t do well when outshooting opponents (14-21-3). When outshot by teams, they are 16-10-1. Watch the shot counter. The over/under on this might be 50. If there are fewer than 50 shots for both teams, even if the Devils are on the short side of the split, it seems likely to be a good night for New Jersey. More than that, could be a Caps night.

2. The Late Show. Fifteen of Ilya Kovalchuk’s 26 goals have come in the third period and overtime. A team can’t lose sight of him as the minutes go by in a game. He’ll appear when you least expect – and want – it.

3. Home Sweet Home. The Devils are 12-1-1 in the 14 games played during this big run, the regulation loss coming at the hands of their recent nemesis, Ottawa. And, in typical Devils style, they have not allowed more than two goals on home ice in any of their last nine games. This ain’t gonna be easy.

In the end, the Devils are the kind of team that, given the way they have played over the last two months, would frustrate the Caps of last season into mistake after mistake. They sure did so in a 5-0 win over the Caps last November, in what was a nightmarish outing for rookie goalie Braden Holtby, his last appearance in his first stint with the Caps before being returned to Hershey. But now, the Caps can play that grind-it-out, 2-1 sort of game, too. And frankly, that’s precisely what we think it’s going to be.

Caps 2 – Devils 1