Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A NO-point night -- Game 77: Sabres 5 - Capitals 1

What it came down to was that the Buffalo Sabres had Ryan Miller, and the Washington Capitals did not.

That is not an indictment of Caps goaltender Braden Holtby, just a simple acknowledgment of the fact that when a former Vezina Trophy winning, Olympic silver medalist, Hobey Baker Award winning goaltender who came into this game with a record of 13-1-3, 1.78, .941, and three shutouts over his last 17 decisions, is at the top of his game, the team he faces will have to be at the top of its game to win. The Caps were not at the top of their game. That is not to say that Holtby played well. He did not, but he was not as bad as his three goals on 18 shots suggests, either.

No, the Caps came up pretty small in a pretty big game, one for which the competitive portion was over before the first period horn sounded. Oh, you can say that the Caps have come from two goals down to win before, even this season. Even a three-goal deficit, which they faced in the second period. And when Alexander Semin scored less than three minutes after Buffalo posted that 3-0 lead, you might have convinced yourselves that the Caps had a chance.

Yeah, right. This was not the Caps falling behind the New York Islanders by a 3-0 score before coming back to win, as they did two weeks ago, and Evgeni Nabokov is not, at least at this point in his career, Ryan Miller. This one was over when Thomas Vanek potted a rebound five minutes into the second period to put the Sabres up, 3-0. After all, Miller had allowed more than three goals in a game exactly once in his previous 18 appearances and only twice in his previous 28 appearances. It might have been a Caps home game, but last night really was “Miller Time.”

Other stuff…

-- Sure, the Caps are still only two points behind the Sabres with five games to play, but here is the daunting climb the Caps face. If Buffalo splits their last five games and gets five standings points, the Caps need to earn seven points in their last five games to reach the playoffs. How often have they earned seven points in five games? In 51 instances of five-game blocks since Dale Hunter has taken over as coach, the Caps have done it eight times. And that assumes Buffalo earns only half the standings points available. Given that the Sabres have now won five in a row and have earned standings points in 10 of their last 11 games (8-1-2), their splitting their remaining available standings points seems more hope than plan.

-- “B” stands not just for “Buffalo,” but for “balance.” This has been a hallmark of Lindy Ruff-coached teams in Buffalo. How balanced? Seventeen of 18 skaters were on the plus side of the ledger last night. Only Ville Leino was as bad as “even.”

-- On the other hand, having big players come up big in big games has not been a hallmark of the Caps since, oh, pretty much forever. Alexander Semin had a pretty goal after things had more or less been decided, but he was also on the ice for the first four Sabre goals. Amazing…he’s on the ice for only 19 shifts and five goals are scored -- one his, four theirs.

-- Alex Ovechkin did not record a shot on goal until the 6:54 mark of the second period, by which time the score was 3-1. He has to be given the benefit of the doubt, what with his being pretty much the offense for the Caps over the last two week, but this was the wrong time to come up dry.

-- Seventeen giveaways. The Caps have been pretty good managing the puck lately, but they were generous with it last night. Twelve players had at least one, including both goaltenders.

-- It is not as if the Caps lacked for zone starts. There were 28 draws taken in the Caps’ offensive zone (they won 17), and only 11 in the Sabres’ offensive zone (the Caps won eight of those).

-- Twelve power play shots from seven different players. The Caps had their chances there, too. But they came up empty on four power plays, the first time this month they have had more than two power play chances and failed to get a goal.

-- Jason Pominville’s shorthanded goal was the tenth allowed by the Caps this season. Only Tampa Bay and New Jersey have allowed more.

-- Here is something to hang your hat on…the Caps allowed five goals last night. They are 9-6-0 in games following such contests this season.

In the end, this looks like the end. This whole “they’re only two points back” has a certain whistling-past-the-graveyard feel to it. Buffalo is at the top of their game and has been playing fine hockey for more than a month. The Caps almost certainly cannot catch Florida (five points ahead) or Ottawa (four). It is now down to Buffalo and themselves, and unless Buffalo’s wheels start falling off quickly (a loss to the Penguins on Friday sure would help), then the Caps have only a few games of hockey in April to look forward to.

Perhaps it is a long-delayed penance the Caps are paying for having eliminated Buffalo and going to the Stanley Cup finals back in ’98. It was a dreadful loss to the Sabres that doomed coach Bruce Boudreau back in November, and it is this loss that could signal the last gasp of this season for the Caps. It has been coming since the Caps started their downward spiral after their seven game winning streak to open the season. Unless they can find a winning streak at the end of it, this disappointing season will be over shortly.