Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A TWO-point night -- Game 74: Caps 5 - Flyers 4 (OT/Gimmick)

Well, someone had to win it.

The Washington Capitals took advantage of shaky goaltending early and late, and survived some unlucky goaltending of their own, to escape Wells Fargo Center with a 5-4 Gimmick win over the Philadelphia Flyers last night.

The Caps made short work of rookie goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, ending the youngster’s night after only 21:22 and nine shots faced. And Bobrovsky looked lost for much of his short stay. All three goals could be fairly said to be on him. The first, a harmless looking wrister from the stick of Nicklas Backstrom just inside the Flyer blue line in the eighth minute of the game, squeaked between Bobrovsky’s left elbow and hip as he was descending into his butterfly to try to stop the shot. The third one was a mirror image of it, coming off the stick of Dennis Wideman on a power play and sneaking between Bobrovsky’s right elbow and right hip to end his night. In between, he lost track of the play and was caught looking elsewhere as Jason Chimera fed the puck from behind the net to Mike Knuble, who chipped the puck over Bobrovsky’s left shoulder as he was being hauled down at the goalie’s feet.

After the Flyers sustained a chorus of boos for ineffective play in the middle portion of the second period they picked things up and found a little good fortune along the way. They got one back when Kris Versteeg took a shot from the right wing that glanced off the skate of off Dennis Wideman as he was taking the body of Andreas Nodl in front of net. The puck changed direction just enough to squirt behind goalie Michal Neuvirth.

Then the Flyers grabbed momentum heading into the second intermission when Claude Giroux kept a loose puck in the offensive zone with Alexander Semin draped on him, found space on the weak side as the puck moved to the other side of the ice, then took a slap pass from Nodl and fired the puck into the empty cage with Neuvirth defending the shot from Nodl that never came.

In the third, Neuvirth – and the Caps – lived out a six-minute nightmare starting midway through the period. With the game settling into what passed for a quiet pace, things started for the Flyers when Andrej Meszaros planted Jason Chimera on his keister at the Flyer bench at the nine minute mark of the period. It seemed to re-energize the Flyers, and the home team took advantage almost a minute later when Jeff Schultz had a brain cramp and tried to pass the puck up through the middle from deep in the corner in the defensive zone. Giroux got a stick on it and nudged it to Nodl, who was all alone in front of Neuvirth. Nodl flipped the puck over Neuvirth’s right shoulder to knot the game at three.

Just over four minutes later, Neuvirth and the Caps were victims of equal parts bad luck and good play. Kimmo Timonen took a half-shot/half-pass to the right of Neuvirth. Dennis Wideman was defending near the right post, and as the puck came whistling through actually nicked it with the blade of his stick. But it was not enough to keep it from going by, and Danny Briere had the blade of his stick angled perfectly to deflect the puck behind both Wideman and Neuvirth into the net to tie the score.

So…get out to a big lead, have the other guys come roaring back to take the lead, the crowd now setting off security alarms in cars in the parking lot with the racket it’s making. A team might have packed it up and called it a night. The Caps might have done just that last season on those rare occasions they found themselves in this position. They might have done it back in November or December. But a team that had played 40 one-goal games in this season before last night and that had the third best winning percentage when trailing after two periods knew how to deal with adversity, even if it did not expect to have to after taking that 3-0 lead.

Marcus Johansson got the last goal back when he found a dead spot near the top of the left wing circle, took a feed from Mike Knuble, and fired a shot past relief goalie Brian Boucher – a shot that Boucher probably should have stopped. That goal, coming with only 3:19 remaining in regulation, guaranteed that this game would complete the set – the fourth time in four games this season that these two teams went to extra time. And after a fun-filled, if ultimately unsettling overtime, it was left to Bettman’s Miracle to decide the outcome. And as if a microcosm of the game, if featured feckless goaltending. Neither Michal Neuvirth nor Brian Boucher managed to actually stop a puck in any of the three attempts for either team. If not for Claude Giroux getting his wires crossed trying to pull the puck from his backhand to his forehand and losing it off the blade of his stick, the teams might still be firing pucks into nets at Name of Large Interstate Banking Firm Center this morning. As it was, Alexander Semin finally brought this entertaining, if somewhat bizarre, game to an end when he foiled Boucher’s futile attempt at a poke check and backhanded the puck high over the sprawled goalie for the final 5-4 margin.

-- This is what the NHL has been reduced to…the equivalent of “everybody gets an award.” In the season series, both the Caps and Flyers finished 2-0-2. Go figure.

-- Hey, Claude…what do you have to say NOW?! Giroux spent a fair portion of the game chirping at his opposite number (28), Alexander Semin. Giroux had a goal and an assist in regulation, but Semin got the game winning trick shot.

-- Today’s question for Flyer fans… Is Brian Boucher this year’s Michael Leighton? He’d better be, or it might be a quick and quiet exit for the Flyers in the playoffs. Bobrovsky played scared, which is to say so overcome by the moment that he played himself into “slow.” Slow to get into his butterfly to prevent the first and third goals, slow to react to what was going on behind him on the second goal. And his body English after the third goal all but screamed, “get me out of here.”

-- Alex who? The folks at Japers’ Rink chronicled the record the Caps have in Alex Ovechkin’s absence and noted that the Caps have averaged 4.0 goals a game in posting an 8-5-1 record in such games. Last night, four goals on the dot, and it was a case of guys who have to step up stepping up. Nicklas Backstrom had a very determined game at both ends (although he drifted away from Giroux to leave him open, getting a little too close to Scott Hannan as Nodl was winding up for his slap pass). Mike Knuble had his second straight three-point game and is 5-4-9, plus-7 in his last six games. Marcus Johansson had that late game-tying goal and added an assist. The Caps got assists from Scott Hannan (his second in three games) and Jason Chimera (also his second in three games). Dennis Wideman recorded his first goal as a Cap (although it made him even on that score for the night, having deflected a puck into his own net) and is now 1-6-7 in his last eight games.

-- Mike who? Wideman’s goal was also his first power play goal as a Cap. It was the first power play goal scored by a Caps defenseman since John Carlson did it on January 16th in a 3-1 win over Ottawa (27 games).

-- Tom who? Karl Alzner and John Carlson skated 26:15 and 27:19, respectively to lead the Caps in ice time. They were the ones defending the chance for a second standings point by taking the last shift in overtime.

-- Jeff who? The saying goes, if you notice Jeff Schultz out there, it’s probably not a good thing. Yup, he made that ghastly pass that Claude Giroux picked off and turned into a goal by Andreas Nodl. But otherwise you didn’t notice him, and that was otherwise a good thing. Sure, there is the “but how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” aspect of that comment, but players make mistakes. It’s important to see what a player does after that.

-- The record will show that Michal Neuvirth stopped only 29 of 33 shots (the most goals he has allowed in almost a month). But how many of the four goals could be laid at his feet? Versteeg’s? Off a teammate’s skate. Giroux’? One might argue that Neuvirth overcommitted, but it might have been at least as much Backstrom having left Giroux alone to receive that slap pass from Nodl. Nodl’s? Please. Briere’s? Give credit to Briere for having his stick down and in position to make a play, but Wideman actually got his stick on the puck, just not enough of it to keep it from getting to Briere’s blade. We’re not going to begin to defend Neuvirth’s performance in the trick shot phase. We’re just thankful they don’t have those things in the playoffs.

In the end, you get a sense of the momentum of these teams by looking at the post-game quotes. You would wonder who won the game…

“In the last few months, I think it was, by far, our best game” – Claude Giroux

“We let them back in the game and just kind of sat back and figured they would just play it out. Then the momentum starts, you’re playing on the road and that’s when you’ve got to work harder at that point, when you’re up 3-0. You’ve got to really play even better, even harder, even more deliberate and take care of the puck even better, and that’s something that we kind of took a step back.” -- Mike Knuble

“From a team standpoint, I think it was a good point.” – Brian Boucher

“I think they came out harder in the second period and they worked us down low and I think from there it was tough for us.” – Nicklas Backstrom

The Flyers, who faced a depleted roster on home ice and had a lead with less than four minutes left in the game seem satisfied with the outcome. The Caps, who took a 3-0 lead on a shaky goaltender, gagged on it, came back, then stole the extra point in the fun show portion of the evening, seem annoyed with the outcome, the undercurrent being that it wasn’t a “good” win, rather one obtained despite a less-than-acceptable 60-minute effort. It is something of a reversal of personality of these teams since last season, at least as they were displayed on this night. And that's not a bad thing for the Caps.