Thursday, December 29, 2011

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 8: "The Streak III"

Next up in our look at the top ten stories of 2011 for the Washington Capitals is another streak. Imagine that…

On March 9, 2008, the Washington Capitals hosted the Pittsburgh Penguins in a Sunday afternoon game that would complete the 2007-2008 season series for the two teams. Pittsburgh won two of the first three matches, all three of the games decided by one goal and two of them in extra time (each team winning one).

This one looked as if it would be another one-goal, overtime affair as the clock ticked down to the one minute mark in regulation time. Then something odd happened. With a crowd of players jabbing at the puck in front of Capitals goalie Cristobal Huet, the puck squirted to Nicklas Backstrom at Huet’s left. In an effort to relieve the pressure, Backstrom looked as if he was trying to nudge the puck past the post and behind the net. However, his aim was not true. He backhanded the puck into his own net to give the Penguins a 3-2 lead with 28 seconds left. Jordan Staal added an empty net goal moments later, and the Penguins won the game, 4-2, and the season series three games to one. It was a game marked by some interesting milestones…

-- The loss was the second in regulation in a row suffered by the Caps, the first time it had occurred in 48 games under head coach Bruce Boudreau, who took over the club in November 2007.

-- It was the tenth time in eleven tries that Sidney Crosby’s Penguins beat Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals when both players dressed.

-- It was the eighth game in a row that the Capitals did not allow a first period goal.

And one other thing… it was the last time the Caps would lose to the Penguins in regulation time in a regular season game for more than three years.

The next time the teams would meet in the regular season, no sane person would have looked on and thought the Caps were about to embark on a three year run of success against the Pens. In the first meeting of the 2009-2010 season, Pittsburgh ran out to a 3-0 lead less than 22 minutes into the game. But the Caps got them all back, and they added one for good measure from the unlikeliest of sources – Boyd Gordon doing the deed with 4:17 to play – to hand the Penguins a home-ice loss.

Starting with that game, the Caps would earn points in 13 consecutive games and post a record of 11-0-2 against Pittsburgh from the beginning of the 2008-2009 season through the first game of the 2011-2012 season. Some things to note about the streak…

-- The Capitals would outscore the Penguins by a 51-31 margin in those 13 games.

-- In the 11 wins the Caps would have 10 game-winning goals (one win came via a Gimmick). Nine different players had those game-winners. Sergei Fedorov, Boyd Gordon, Matt Bradley, Mike Knuble (he had the Gimmick winner, too), Alex Ovechkin, Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, and Dennis Wideman each contributed a game-winning goal. The only player with two was Tomas Fleischmann.

-- The leading goal scorer was, as you might expect, Alex Ovechkin with 13 in the 13 games. He was also the leading overall point-getter with 18 points (13-5-18). Nicklas Backstrom was 1-16-17 over the streak. Alexander Semin was 6-7-13, and Mike Green was 1-8-9 for a total Young Guns contribution of 21-36-57.

-- What the fan who watches the Caps closely would not be surprised by is the fact that Mike Knuble, despite playing in only nine of the 13 games, was second in goals scored for the Caps against the Penguins in the streak. He had eight goals in those nine games.  He has been a Penguin killer his whole career.

-- The Caps were 31.7 percent on the power play, 83.9 percent on penalty kills.

-- Only twice in 13 games did the Caps receive more power play opportunities than the Penguins. Pittsburgh had the advantage in opportunities eight times. Three times the Caps had but one opportunity in a game; in two of them they scored.

-- 17 different players would record goals in the streak; 28 different players would record points.

As far as the goalies are concerned, here is how they fared:

-- Jose Theodore: 6-0-1, 2.92, .907
-- Semyon Varlamov: 2-0-0, 2.00, .935
-- Michal Neuvirth: 2-0-1, 0.65, .977, two shutouts
-- Tomas Vokoun: 1-0-0, 1.92, .951

Ah, but all good things do come to an end. And while “13” would be a lucky number, it would not become “14.” The Caps won the first game on the 2011-2012 season series against the Penguins on an overtime power-play goal from Dennis Wideman. But the Penguins ended the streak when they visited the Caps on December 1st.

It was a hard fought game, but frankly one that the Caps probably should have won. They did a fine job of holding back the Penguin stars. Sidney Crosby did not record a point, had two giveaways, and was only 6-for-22 on faceoffs. Evgeni Malkin had seven shots on goal, but did not record a point, either. The Caps were beaten by a pair of grunts – Chris Kunitz and Craig Adams getting the goals – and a grinding defense that limited the Caps to 17 shots on goal, only three of them coming from the trio of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin.

Still, the Caps loss at home to the Penguins did nothing to change another streak that still lives against the Penguins. The Caps have not lost a game in regulation to the Penguins in Pittsburgh since February 18, 2007, a 3-2 loss. Only five Capitals who played in that game are on the current roster – Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, John Erskine, and Jeff Schultz. Brent Johnson, who currently toils as the Penguins backup netminder, was the losing goaltender for the Capitals in that game.

But that is a streak for another day’s discussion. That the Caps extended their points-streak against the Penguins by four games in 2011 – starting with the Winter Classic, adding two shutouts, and ending it with an overtime winner in the Penguins’ shiny new palace – places this streak among the top ten stories of 2011 for the Capitals.

A TWO-point night -- Game 35: Capitals 4 - Rangers 1

Tease or turnaround?

The Washington Capitals sleepwalked their way to a 17-15-2 record through 34 games, and then they play a game like the one last night that resulted in a 4-1 win over the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers.

The Caps scored first, last, and in-between, getting a pair of goals from Alexander Semin (his first multi-goal game since recording a hat trick against Anaheim on February 16th of last season – 54 games in all). They got a pair of assists from Alex Ovechkin (his first multi-point game since November 4th – 24 games in all). They got two goals from the line of Troy Brouwer, Marcus Johansson and Jeff Halpern (as a group, they had a total of five goals over the previous month). They got 31 saves from Tomas Vokoun (the first time he allowed fewer than two goals on more than 30 shots since November 11th).

It was as efficient a win the Caps put together since the last game of their season-opening seven-game winning streak when they defeated Detroit, 7-1.

Other stuff…

-- Before too much back-slapping gets underway, it was not Henrik Lundqvist that the Caps beat for four goals on 23 shots. It was Martin Biron. But before too much pooh-poohing of that result gets started, Biron did come into this game with a 7-1-0 record with a 1.84 GAA and .933 save percentage with one shutout.

-- The Ranger defense left much to be desired. Michael Del Zotto was his own training tape on how not to play the position on the Caps’ first goal. He was slow to pursue a loose puck sliding into his end, and in trying to move the puck forward once he corralled it he managed only to put it on the stick of Marcus Johansson. After Johansson dropped the puck for Jeff Halpern cruising into the offensive zone, Del Zotto lost Johansson as he headed to the net. When Halpern’s drive was stopped by Biron, Del Zotto was nowhere to be found as Johansson settled the rebound and stuffed it in.

-- It was Ryan McDonagh’s turn on the Caps' second goal. He was quite literally standing around watching things from in front of Biron’s crease as the Caps worked the puck out and around to John Carlson at the left point. While Carlson was doing a fine job to keep the puck in and set up for the shot, Troy Brouwer circled out in front of the net. McDonagh was standing right next to Brouwer, getting a good look at Brouwer setting a screen in front of Biron as Carlson let fly with a shot. McDonagh did not so much as nudge Brouwer as the Cap deflected the Carlson drive through Biron’s pads for the second goal.

-- On the third goal, Jeff Woywitka was not the one who coughed up the puck at the Caps’ blue line (that was Brad Richards), but he was caught in the middle of the ice as Nicklas Backstrom picked up the loose puck and sent it up to Alexander Semin heading up the right side. Caught in the middle of the ice and behind Semin, Woywitka could not turn fast enough to defend Semin and was left chasing Semin to the Ranger net. Semin had a clear path to curl in, move the puck to his backhand, and sweep it up and over Biron for the Caps’ third goal.

-- Then it was Del Zotto again (although he was not alone). One can only wonder what he was thinking when he saw Alex Ovechkin carrying the puck into the Ranger zone with Brad Richards (Brad Richards?) fronting him. Del Zotto thought it would be a good idea to drift to Ovechkin’s side of the ice, leaving a yawning gap on the right side that Alexander Semin filled. Of course, the forward support that would have been expected to cut off Ovechkin’s cut to the middle was late (Carl Hagelin, that’s you, although in fairness he had to cover ground from the far corner of the rink to get into position), so what the Rangers were left with was a forward playing defense (Richards), a forward late getting to his spot (Hagelin), and a defenseman, well, we’re not sure what he was doing:

(click pic for larger image)

All Semin had to do was shoot the puck before Del Zotto could scamper back to his side of the ice. He did, it went in, and the Caps had their fourth goal.

-- Richards had one of those frustrating nights for the Rangers. Eight shot attempts, four shots on goal, no points, and he was on the ice for three goals. At least his horror was spread over almost 20 minutes of ice time. Carl Hagelin was on the ice for three goals in 12 minutes. His minus-3 was only the second minus game he had recorded in 17 games this season.

-- It was especially frustrating for Richards – and for Marian Gaborik, too – in that the Rangers had eight shots on goal on five power plays (three by Richards, two by Gaborik). Tomas Vokoun was solid in goal and, as they saying goes, the power play’s best defender when he had to be.

-- Eight different Caps shared in the scoring, each member of the top two lines recording at least one point, and defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner getting an assist apiece.

-- There is that whole “short bench” thing going with the Caps these days. The fourth line even-strength ice time – Matt Hendricks: 6:44, Jay Beagle: 5:55, and Mike Knuble: 6:55 – was barely as much (19:34) as Dennis Wideman had in even-strength ice time by himself (18:41). The fourth line had one even-strength shift in the third period. But that said, only Nicklas Backstrom among the forwards recorded more than 20 minutes of ice time, and that was a product of his getting 4:22 in shorthanded ice time.

-- Only nine of 51 faceoffs were taken in the Caps’ offensive zone (the Caps won five of them). Twenty-five of the 51 draws were taken in the neutral zone.

-- It was a game that might have ended a lot differently but for the Rangers’ defensive breakdowns. The Caps managed only 49 shot attempts in 60 minutes (only 13 in the third period) and only 23 shots on goal. But the Caps were spot-on in taking advantage of those breakdowns when they occurred.

-- Jeff Halpern wins the ticket to the all-you-can-eat score sheet buffet. He had an assist, three shots on goal, six shot attempts, three hits, two blocked shots, won seven of 11 draws, and finished plus-2.

-- John Tortorella does not take losing gracefully. Some might find that charming. In fact, it is somewhat refreshing to hear someone who is genuinely angry when they lose, rather than searching for the right tone. But his commentary about the Caps after the game might get remembered the same way Dan Bylsma’s comment about Michal Neuvirth’s skill as a goaltender last season might have been remembered (you will recall Neuvirth shut out the Penguins twice after Bylsma was heard during the HBO 24/7 series saying of Neuvirth that "this goalie isn't that good, all right? He will give us rebounds, he has, and he will give us cheesy ones on the net."). After last night’s game, Tortorella said of the Caps, “"They're an opportunistic team. They don't want to defend. They want nothing to do with it. So what do we do? We don't allow them to defend on those plays and they go score goals and then they get rolling.”

In the end, we will repeat what we said at the beginning. The Caps were efficient. They were, as John Tortorella put it, opportunistic. They were not dominating. But on a night like this, when they were not dominating, they have to have their skill players come through when the opportunities are available. Alexander Semin is Exhibit “A” for that idea. He had perhaps his best game of the season – two goals, a blocked shot, no penalties taken. And he had help from Alex Ovechkin, who set Semin up for one goal and provided an assist on Semin’s second goal.

It was a solid win against an opponent that plays well on the road and was riding a five-game winning streak. It would be hard to ask for more…

…except to do it more often than once a week.