Sunday, July 10, 2011

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Capitals at Canadiens, March 15th

Game 8 in the ten games that mattered – two hot teams, two hot goalies…

March 15, 2011: Washington (40-20-10) at Montreal (38-24-7)

Result: Capitals 4 – Canadiens 2

The Background: The Caps and the Canadiens each found March to their liking. The Canadiens were on a 6-1-0 run dating back to February 26th, allowing them to put some distance between themselves and the New York Rangers for sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Caps were on an eight-game winning streak dating back to February 26th that allowed them to close within one point of the Philadelphia Flyers for the top spot in the East. This would be the first visit to Bell Centre for the Caps since they lost Game 6 in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Why It Mattered: Carey Price had not compiled an especially sterling record against the Caps coming into the 2010-2011 season – a 2-1-3 win/loss record with a goals against average of 3.53. It didn’t improve much this season, his splitting two decisions in Washington – a 3-0 loss on December 28th and a 3-2 Gimmick win on February 1st at Verizon Center. But he was on a roll coming into this game. He earned the decisions in each of the Canadiens last six decisions, going 5-1-0, 1.17, .965, with two shutouts.

Price wasn’t the only goaltender on a roll. At the other end, Braden Holtby took over for Michal Neuvirth in a March 7th game against Tampa Bay when Neuvirth took a puck in the mask, snapping a metal support on the cage of his mask and injuring his eye. Holtby stopped all 21 shots he faced in that game to get the decision in a 2-1 Gimmick win, which he followed up with three more wins that gave him a 4-0-0, 1.05, .965 record with a shutout for good measure.

You wouldn’t know the goalies were on top of their game from the start of things. Both allowed a goal in the first 90 seconds as a result of some wandering. Price circled behind his net to play a dump in by Dennis Wideman, but the puck hit a seam in the allegedly seamless glass, bouncing out to Marcus Johansson for an easy power play goal into the vacated net (one of the assists going to Holtby) at 1:06. The Canadiens got it back at Holtby’s expense 20 seconds later when Holtby circled behind his net to play the puck around and up the boards. But he did not send the puck far enough, nor did he get back into his crease fast enough to prevent Travis Moen from firing the puck into the twine from the left wing boards.

Brooks Laich put the Caps back in front in the 14th minute by finishing a clean crisp play. John Carlson held the puck behind the Caps’ net waiting for Laich to circle behind the cage and start up ice. When Laich cleared out, Carlson sent the puck to the other side, to Karl Alzner at the far edge of the faceoff circle. Alzner sent a long cross-ice pass to a streaking Laich, who had opened up some space on Jeff Halpern. Laich took the puck, and with defenseman Hal Gill trying to cut off Laich’s angle to the net, Laich dipped his shoulder, beat Gill to the crease, and stuffed the puck under Price.

After Andrei Kostitsyn tied things up again in the second period, it was all even again heading into the third period. Neither goalie saw a lot of work – only a combined 14 shots on goal. But it was Price who cracked. Marcus Johansson got his second when the Canadiens, including Price, got caught paying a bit too much attention to Alex Ovechkin, who with a couple Canadiens covering him slipped the puck to Johansson coming down the slot for a backhand past Price.

Mike Knuble closed out the scoring by finishing a 2-on-1 with Marco Sturm on a Caps power play. Meanwhile, Holtby was slamming the door shut at the other end, stopping all eight shots he faced in the third period to seal the 4-2 win. Although Holtby would say later that he “kind of got off to a rough start,” and passed off credit to his defensemen, he stopped 24 of the last 25 shots he faced after allowing a goal on the Canadiens’ first shot.

The Takeaway: The win would be Holtby’s fifth in a row, but here his games played streak would end as Michal Neuvirth returned the following night to face Detroit for the second half of a back-to-back set of games. In this five-game run Holtby won all five decisions with a 1.25 goals against average and a .957 save percentage. Since allowing five goals on 23 shots to New Jersey in a 5-0 loss on November 22nd in his first stint with the Caps, he was 7-0-1, 1.14, .961 with one shutout. He would get one more start, also in Bell Centre against the Canadiens, in which he stopped all 18 shots in a 2-0 win on March 26th.

However, this win cemented Holtby’s status as a bone fide contender to become, if not this year, then perhaps sooner than anyone could have imagined in October, the Caps’ number one netminder. In the story of the 2010-2011 season, Holtby’s performance qualified as “pleasant surprise” more than it did as a factor that would influence the Caps’ ultimate success or failure in this season. But it did complicate a decision that was coming, again sooner than anyone might have anticipated at the start of the season. And that is why Holtby’s performance – staring down a tough opponent in front of a hostile crowd of more than 21,000 – made this a game that mattered in the 2010-2011 season.

(Photo: Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images North America)

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Capitals at Penguins, February 21st

And with the seventh in the series of games that mattered in the 2010-2011 season, the goaltending sweepstakes return to front and center…

February 21, 2011: Washington (31-19-10) at Pittsburgh (36-19-5)

Result: Capitals 1 – Penguins 0

The Background: In an odd quirk in the schedule, this would be the first time the Caps would play in the Penguins’ new palace, Consol Energy Center. Two games in Washington and the Winter Classic at Heinz Field made this, the fourth and last game in the series, the Caps’ inaugural visit to Consol. And these were very different teams than those who faced one another in the first three contests. The Caps had taken on a stingy personality, quite at odds with having the elite offensive talent that led the NHL in scoring. In 20 games since the Winter Classic on January 1st, the Caps allowed 2.25 goals per game, including a 3-0 shutout of the Penguins on February 6th. On the other side, the Penguins were still adjusting to life without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the former out with concussion symptoms and the latter shelved for the season with a knee injury.

Both goalies for the Caps fighting for the number one spot had shaky recent outings, though. Semyon Varlamov was 1-4-2 in his previous eight appearances with a GAA of 2.83 and a save percentage of .908. Michal Neuvirth was 1-3-0 in his previous four appearances, 3.01, .883. The last quality appearance Neuvirth had was the 3-0 shutout of the Penguins on February 6th. This game would give him a chance to repeat his success against the Penguins and perhaps get a leg up in the goalie sweepstakes.

Why It Mattered: These were two teams stuck in neutral in February. The Penguins were 5-4-1 and losers in five of their previous seven games. The Caps were 4-4-1 and losers of four of the previous six contests. Both had a particularly ugly effort along the way, the Caps giving up six goals on 21 shots in a 7-6 win in Anaheim, the Penguins getting pasted by the Islanders, 9-3, ten days before this game.

The Penguins came out as if they were going to take out their accumulated frustrations on the Caps in the first 20 minutes. After recording five hits on the Caps and the only two shots on goal in the first 4:29, the Penguins spent the rest of the first period treating Neuvirth like an arcade game. Sixteen shots on goal, six shots blocked, two misses in the last 15:31. The Caps might have been run out of the building had Neuvirth experienced the same recent trouble he had, but he kept the Caps in it until they could change momentum.

The teams changed ends for the second period, but the ice was tilted in the same direction, this time favoring the Caps. They had eight shots on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the first 8:29, but he was as equal to the task at that end of the ice as Neuvirth was in the first period.

It was Neuvirth, however, who would have the most consequential save of the period and the game, however. As the clock was winding down toward four minutes to go in the period and the Caps on a power play, Matt Cooke pitchforked the puck out of the defensive zone and into open ice, where Jordan Staal collected it behind the Caps’ defense. Staal skated in and tried to maneuver himself for a forehand try from in close. But Neuvirth turned the shot aside with his right pad, and the game remained scoreless.

Not for long. Forty-eight seconds later, Marcus Johansson teed one up for Alex Ovechkin, laying out a pass just above and between the faceoff circles. Ovechkin got all of it, pounding a one-time slap shot past Fleury to give the Caps the 1-0 lead late in the second period.

The third period had that tilted ice problem again – nine Penguin shot attempts in the first 4:11 (four on goal) to none for the Caps. The rest of the period looked much the same – the Penguins outshot the Caps 14-3 – but this Caps team was more comfortable in one-goal games than they had been in the past, and they could play defense when it mattered. Neuvirth stopped all the pucks he faced, and the Caps made their power play goal stand up to take the season series with a 3-0-1 record.

The Takeaway: Michal Neuvirth started three games against nine different opponents in the 2010-2011 season. Three of those opponents would be playoff teams in 2011. Against two of them – Boston and Philadelphia – Neuvirth had a distinctly mediocre record (0-2-0, 3.91, .810 against the Bruins; 1-0-1, 3.60, .882 against the Flyers). But against the Penguins, Neuvirth was George Hainsworth*. This would be his third start against Pittsburgh this season (sitting out the Winter Classic in favor of Semyon Varlamov), and he finished 2-0-1, 0.65, .977, with two shutouts.

From here, the final cards would be played in the goalie sweepstakes. Semyon Varlamov would miss 11 games to a knee injury and play in only three more games in the regular season. Neuvirth would get most of the work down the stretch, appearing in 13 of the Caps’ last 21 games. At the time, one could not know with certainty how the race between Neuvirth and Varlamov would be decided. But in retrospect, this game set up the home stretch of the season for what would be a one-horse race. Varlamov would be nursing an injury, and Neuvirth would be getting into a playing rhythm that would ultimately result in his being declared the playoff starter. Neuvirth would have a few bumps along the way as the season wound down, but this game served as the starting point for his own sprint down the home stretch in the goalie race. And that is why a 1-0 game in February mattered in the 2010-2011 season.

* George Hainsworth holds the record for shutouts in an NHL season – 22 with the Montreal Canadiens in the 1928-1929 season.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images North America)

The 2010-2011 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Capitals at Ducks, February 16th

Starting the second half of our look at ten games that mattered, it’s a game that looked more like the shoot-‘em-up goal fests of the 1980’s than a game in the NHL of 2011…

February 16, 2011: Washington (29-18-10) at Anaheim (32-21-4)

Result: Capitals 7 – Ducks 6

The Background: In the 23 games played after they endured their eight-game losing streak in December the Capitals, who had reformed themselves into a team that emphasized responsibility in their own end of the ice, scored more than three goals in a game only three times. By the same token, they allowed more than three goals only three times. But their offense found itself in a bit of a deeper slump coming into this game – three goals combined over their previous three games, all losses, all to Pacific Division teams.  It looked as if hockey's dog days of the season -- those games in January and February -- had settled in for the Caps.

Why It Mattered: In Anaheim, the Caps would face their fourth straight Pacific Division opponent, and the Ducks were on a four game winning streak, two of the wins coming by shutout. The Caps were already 0-4-1 against the Pacific for the year. Not a recipe for coming out of a slump. It probably looked worse 4:10 into the game when Ryan Getzlaf put the Ducks ahead with a power play goal. It was only the third shot of the game, all of them recorded by the Ducks.

Alex Ovechkin got that one back with a highlight reel-quality goal, taking a long pass from Nicklas Backstrom up the middle as he was hitting the red line, knifing between defensemen Andreas Lilja and Cam Fowler, and as Lilja was trying to hook him off, he snapped the puck through goalie Curtis McElhinney’s legs.

From there it became a game of “anything you can do, I can do better.” The Caps looked as if they would take a lead into the first intermission on an unassisted goal by Brooks Laich when he was handed the puck by the Ducks’ Teemu Selanne in front of the Anaheim net at 16:07. But the Ducks scored two late goals in the first period to regain the lead and chase Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov, who yielded three goals on nine shots. Anaheim went up two to start the second period, potting a goal against Michal Neuvirth in relief of Varlamov.  But then the Caps scored two within three minutes of the Anaheim goal to tie it. Anaheim regained the lead in time for the second intermission, finishing the first 40 minutes with five goals on only 16 shots.

Mike Knuble got the Caps even in the first minute of the third period, but the Ducks took their fourth lead of the game five minutes later. It would be the last lead the Ducks would enjoy, as the last dozen minutes turned into “The Alexander Semin Show.” Semin, who scored the Caps’ fourth goal in the second period, showed fans why he is a gifted talent. Scott Hannan took a feed from Matt Hendricks and circled behind the Anaheim net. Hannan threw the puck in front, but on its way out from behind the net was tipped into the air by Ducks’ defenseman Luca Sbisa. Semin, skating down the middle to the net, took the puck on the bounce and short hopped it off his backhand, roofing it over McElhinney to tie the game.

Semin would score the game winner with 1:47 left. Karl Alzner sent the puck hard around the boards, where it skipped over Semin’s stick to where Brooks Laich and Cam Fowler could fight over it. Laich pushed it ahead to Semin in the corner at the goal line. Semin circled, walked the goal line, stepped out, then backhanded the puck through McElninney’s pads to complete the hat trick (his fourth of the season) and give the Caps a most improbable 7-6 win.

It was a game in which both goaltenders struggled mightily. Consider, the Ducks scored six goals on 42 shot attempts, itself a .857 “unsuccessful” percentage. The “save” percentage of .714 (15 saves on 21 shots on goal) was absolutely ghastly. But the Caps showed a certain resiliency in coming back from four separate Anaheim leads. And it was a team effort – eleven different skaters had points, five different skaters had goals. One of the quirkier numbers in the games belonged to John Carlson – nine. He was on ice for nine of the 13 goals scored, six for the Caps, three for the Ducks. On the other side, Bobby Ryan had that number stapled to him as well, on ice for nine goals -- four for Anaheim, five for the Caps.

The Takeaway: Let Mike Knuble say it

"It could be a game that gets us out of the kind of spell we were in. We gave up six goals, so it was really good to score seven and actually win a game the old way, like we were used to winning."

The Caps didn’t so much break out of a spell as they did get it out of their system. It was like the old days – if the 2009-2010 could be thought of in that fashion – but the Caps soon returned to their “be responsible” mode. They would go 11-2-0 over their next 13 games and would allow more than three goals only three more times in their last 24 games.

It was in one sense a trip down memory lane and at the same time a warning, that failure to pay attention to the defensive side of things could have unpleasant results. Based on how the Caps finished the season – a record of 18-5-1 in their last 24 games and just those three games allowing more than three goals – it was an indulgence not repeated and a lesson learned. And that’s why this oddly entertaining game mattered in the 2010-2011 season.

(photo: AP)