Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A ONE-point night -- Game 77: Hurricanes 3 - Caps 2 (OT/Gimmick)

It was hard to figure out what to make of last night’s 3-2 Gimmick loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, because the Washington Capitals played well in spots, awful in others, almost successfully completed a shakedown cruise with two key players returning to the lineup, saw another one leave to injury, then tried to rely on Bettman’s Miracle in an effort to keep pace with first-place Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference race.

The result was a less-than-satisfying one-point result and a series of “on one hand, on the other hand” moments…

-- On one hand, the Caps had an excellent chance in the first minute of play when the first line of Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Mike Knuble combined to provide Knuble a tap in from the edge of the crease, but then Knuble pushed the puck wide as he was getting tangled up with a Carolina defender.

-- On the one hand, the Caps fired 16 shots at goalie Cam Ward in the first period; on the other hand, the shots came from an average of almost 40 feet. Ward was getting good looks at just about all of those shots.

-- On the one hand, Alex Ovechkin had his chances in his return. Several of the 13 shot attempts he had on goal were right in his wheel house – wrist shots from the high slot – but on the other hand they lacked the crispness of the usual Ovechkin offerings…understandable with having been out for a few games.

-- On the one hand, the Caps finished with 40 shots on goal, but eight of them (!) came from the stick of John Carlson. That speaks as much to an inability of Carolina defense and forwards getting into shooting lanes than anything the Caps did.

-- On the one hand, Alexander Semin scored a pretty roof top goal over Cam Ward’s shoulder and assisted on Marcus Johansson’s goal. On the other hand, he took a ghastly hooking penalty with 3:19 left that forced the Caps to defend a standings point instead of push for a second one in regulation.

-- On the one hand, Bruce Boudreau might have sacrificed a short term standings point to make a point by sitting Semin for the remainder of the game, including overtime (Semin does have an overtime game-winner this season). On the other hand, that might be the point by which the Caps finish second…or third, since Boston is three points behind the Caps with a game in hand.

-- On the one hand, Jason Arnott’s return seemed to spark Semin, but on the other he skated 14 minutes and change, failed to score on three shots on goal, took a roughing penalty, and was a minus-1 (although that last number he had nothing to do with…more on that in a bit).

-- On the one hand, Marcus Johansson scored his fourth goal in seven games. On the other, it was his only shot on goal. It was his only shot attempt.

-- On the one hand, Semyon Varlamov foiled Chad LaRose on a penalty shot, poke checking the puck off LaRose’s stick to keep the Caps within one (Semin scored his goal two minutes later). On the other, he bungled an innocent looking floater from Jeff Skinner from a severe angle that became the tying goal in regulation early in the third period (and giving Jason Arnott his minus-1). And he hardly looked sharp in the trick shot competition.

-- On the one hand, the Caps were 27-0-2 when leading after two periods. On the other, they are now 27-0-3. It was only Carolina’s fourth win in 33 tries when trailing after two periods.

-- On the one hand, Alex Ovechkin and Jason Arnott returned to the lineup and played fairly well. On the other hand, Dennis Wideman took a nasty hit from Tuomo Ruutu and left the game. At the moment, with Mike Green still out of the lineup, Wideman is a player that the Caps cannot long do without.

-- On the one hand, Marco Sturm finished the game a plus-1, but on the other, he did not have a shot attempt, and his only mark on the score sheet in almost 14 minutes was a hit.

-- On the one hand, of the 40 shots on goal the Caps had, 22 of them came from the top line and John Carlson. The other 14 skaters has 18 shots on goal (and, as it turned out, both goals).

In the end, the Caps got a point, but frankly should have had the other. Between a puffed up shot total (masking a so-so effort in the offensive zone against a shaky defensive team) and a couple of critical lapses (Varlamov’s failure to stop Skinner’s shot, Semin’s late penalty), it was enough to take the game to extra time. Those ills are certainly correctable, but you would hate to see bad habits creeping in at this time of year. For the moment, we prefer to think of it this way. A team that plays a more structured system – and the Caps do play that now – might be better equipped to weather a player leaving the lineup for the first game or two than they do trying to reintegrate that player immediately upon his return. Ovechkin and Arnott returned and looked pretty good, but not quite sharp. Ovechkin in particular probably buries one of the three or four good looks he had from the high slot when he’s game-sharp. And the Caps, when everyone is hitting on all cylinders, probably make this a 40-minute game that renders Skinner’s goal irrelevant.

Yeah…that’s how we are going to think about it. For now.