Sunday, April 01, 2012
Week 25… Slow and steady wins the race.
The 3-1-0 record for Week 25 is the first time the Caps won three games in a week since Week 12. But it also marked the sixth straight week in which they were even or better in earning standings points from those available to be won. It was, though, a week of ups and downs. A 3-0 win over the Minnesota Wild followed by a 5-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres. Then, games against the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens in which the Caps went out to 2-0 leads, only to give them up and then win the games in the trick shot competition. Those two wins are only their third and fourth wins in The Gimmick this season. Three of those four wins for the season came among the Caps’ last five wins. The Caps had a good week, but more in the freestyle competition than in the hockey portion of the week.
Offense: 2.00/game (season: 2.63/rank: T-13th)
This was “The Week of the High Numbers.” Not on the scoreboard – the Caps had only eight goals scored in four games – but by jersey numbers. Mathieu Perreault (number 85 on your program) led the week with a pair of goals. Marcus Johansson (90) and Jay Beagle (83) had one apiece. The shooting percentages certainly left something to be desired. The Caps were 8-for-124 overall (6.5 percent). If you look at the top-five goal scorers, it wasn’t quite that good: Alex Ovechkin was 1-for-18 (5.6 percent), Alexander Semin was 1-for-14 (7.1), Jason Chimera was 1-for-7 (14.3 percent), Troy Brouwer was 0-for-6 (0.0 percent), and Brooks Laich was 0-for-9 (0.0 percent). As a group they were 3-for-54 (5.6 percent). At the other end there was Mathieu Perreault, who had two goals on three shots for the week. If he qualified among the shooting percentage leaders (oddly enough, he doesn’t have enough shots to qualify, despite having played in 61 games) he would lead the league with his 26.3 percent performance.
Defense: 2.25/game (season: 2.77/rank: 21st)
The Caps found themselves outshot in three of the four games this week. If not for the fact that the Caps had 19 shots of their own in the third period of a game long since decided (the 5-1 loss to Buffalo), the 128-124 advantage in shots for opponents would have been much wider. More disturbing was the inability to close out games with a lead. Three times this week the Caps had two goal leads, and twice they would give them back, having to win the games in the freestyle competition. And in those two instances the Caps displayed a lack of organization in their own end. There was Milan Lucic roaming free deep in the Caps’ zone to start a play that ended when the Caps could not tie up David Krejci’s stick for a tip in when the Caps had a 2-0 lead on Boston. There was the inability to clear the puck out of the zone that resulted in a goal by Andrew Ference to tie the Boston game at two apiece. There was Erik Cole left to swoop in and punch in a loose puck after Max Pacioretty walked around defenseman Dennis Wideman for the initial shot in a 2-0 game against Montreal. And Tomas Plekanec doing the same to Roman Hamrlik before roofing a shot over goalie Michal Neuvirth. Breakdowns… goals.
Goaltending: 1.92/.938, one shutout
From a strictly “tending goal” standpoint, it is hard to find much fault with Michal Neuvirth or Braden Holtby, for that matter. Holtby opened the week with a solid 28-save shutout on Sunday against the Minnesota Wild. That shutout streak ended, not because of a mistake by Holtby in defending a shot, but on trying to go all “Marty Brodeur” and handle the puck behind his net. He tried a no-look pass to Jeff Schultz midway through the first period of a scoreless game that was intercepted and converted to what amounted to an open-net tap-in that got the Sabres started in a 5-1 win for Buffalo. For Holtby it just sort of steamrolled from there until he was lifted for Michal Neuvirth after allowing three goals on 18 shots.
Then there was Neuvirth. He wasn’t exactly a brick wall in March coming into this week – 2-3-2, 3.07, .891 and one shutout in seven appearances. And after being the goalie of record in an ugly 4-3 overtime loss to Winnipeg in which the Caps gave up a 3-0 lead, he was given the baseball cap in favor of Holtby (Tomas Vokoun being out with a groin injury). When Holtby had his adventures against Buffalo, it was back to Neuvirth. And he warmed up to the occasion. He did allow two goals on 13 shots in mop-up duty in the Buffalo game. But he followed that up with 26 saves on 28 shots in Boston and 39 saves on 41 shots in the home win over Montreal. The question now is, can Neuvirth sustain that .927 save percentage for Week 25 in Week 26, the one that will determine whether the Caps play a Week 1 in the playoffs.
Power Play: 1-for-13/7.7 percent (season: 16.8 percent/rank: 15th)
Not a good week for the power play. Thirteen opportunities was not a bad total to get (they had nine in four games in Week 24, only four in three games in Week 23), but 7.7 percent is not a trend the Caps will want to pursue. It was not as if the Caps were not getting shots from the players they wanted. They just did not hit the back of the net: Alex Ovechkin was 0-for-5 in shots, Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich were each 0-for-4. Alexander Semin was blanked on two shots. Mathieu Perreault – he of the 26.3 percent shooting percentage for the season at week’s end – scored on his only power play shot, an insurance goal in the 3-0 win over Minnesota to start the week. All in all, the Caps had a worse shooting percentage for the week on the power play (4.8 percent) than they had at even strength (6.9 percent).
Penalty Killing: 8-for-8/100.0 percent (season: 81.4 percent/rank: 19th)
Going 8-for-8 was a good thing for the Caps, especially given their troubles on the power play. It was even better given that the Caps entered the week only 78.6 percent on the penalty kill for the month. And they were humming along nicely, first allowing only four power plays in three games to open the week, their shutting opponents down in each of them. But the Caps did allow 12 shots on those four power plays. The Caps were shorthanded four times against Montreal in the last game of the week and allowed 11 shots on goal in killing all of them off. Overall, the Caps’ penalty kill was 8-for-8, but it was the goalies going 23-for-23 in saves that made the week on the PK.
Paying the Price: 93 hits/68 blocked shots (season rank: T-9th/6th)
Matt Hendricks had an odd week. He led the team with 16 hits, but in the game in which the Caps had their highest hit total for the week – 26 in the 3-2 trick shot win over Boston – he had none. Almost half of the hits for the week were recorded by four players: Hendricks (16), Troy Brouwer (11), Alex Ovechkin (10) and John Carlson (nine). On the blocked shots side of the category, a little more than half (35) were recorded by the defensive quartet of Dennis Wideman (10), Roman Hamrlik (10), Mike Green (nine), and Karl Alzner (six).
Faceoffs: 121-for-237/51.1 percent (season: 50.0 percent/rank: 18th)
An up-and-down week in the circle. The Caps alternated winning in the circle and losing for the week with over-50 percent in the Buffalo and Montreal games and under-50 percent in the Minnesota and Boston games. Overall the Caps were marginally to the good, and that was a product of being good in the offensive zone (54.8 percent). It made up for being under 50 percent in the defensive zone (49.3 percent) and the neutral zone (48.7 percent).
It was an up-and-down week at the individual level, too. There was Brooks Laich going 14-for-23 in the offensive zone (60.9 percent) but 2-for-17 (11.8 percent) in the defensive zone. There was Mathieu Perreault going 7-for-17 in the offensive zone (41.2 percent) but 12-for-13 in the defensive zone (92.3 percent). Jay Beagle was 7-for-10 in the offensive zone (70.0 percent) but 6-for-15 in the defensive zone (40.0 percent). But there was a ringer at the end of the week – Nicklas Backstrom was 5-for-6 in the offensive zone and 5-for-7 in the defensive zone in his return to the ice in the last game of the week.
You might have thought it was Christmas. Of the 87 turnovers for the week the Caps had 59 giveaways. It helped leave them on the plus side only once in four games. Alex Ovechkin led, if that can be the right term, the way with eight giveaways. Brooks Laich had six, while Roman Hamrlik, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner had five apiece. On the other side, the Caps did have 30 takeaways, with the Alexes – Ovechkin (five) and Semin (seven) getting 12 of them.
“How” matters for the Beauty Contest System of ranking college football teams where a lot of data get thrown into a calculating engine and out spits a digital ranking. Here? Now? Results count. And a 3-1-0 record for the week is nothing to argue with. Sure, one can say that two of the wins coming in the Gimmick is not the most accurate reflection of the Caps’ play this week, that blowing two two-goal leads is playing with fire, that if it was Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or the Rangers they were playing instead of Minnesota, Boston, and Montreal, that the results would have been very different. That all might be true, but the Caps had these four games on their schedule this week and earned six points. At the moment, nothing else matters. If they can earn six points in Week 26, they can win the Southeast Division and get home ice advantage for an opening round of the playoffs, most likely against the New Jersey Devils.
In fact, in the first ten minutes the Caps looked as if they were going to skate the Canadiens out of Verizon Center and into the Potomac River. The Caps had eight shot attempts (six on goal) to none for the Canadiens in the first five minutes, including a goal by Mathieu Perreault on a nice centering feed from Alexander Semin at 4:16. The shot attempts would reach 11-2 for the Caps (8-1 in shots on goal) by the time the clock hit 10:00.
When Jay Beagle converted a pass from the corner by Matt Hendricks at the 18:10 mark, the attempts had reached 21-5 (shots were 12-4), and the Caps were humming. Then, things took a turn. The momentum the Caps worked hard to build in the first 19 minutes slammed to a halt in the last minute of the period. Max Pacioretty picked up the puck deep in his own end and skated out and up the left wing. Marcus Johansson took a bad angle on him in the neutral zone that prevented him from halting Pacioretty’s progress. Then, the Montreal forward curled past defenseman Dennis Wideman and to the net. Goalie Michal Neuvirth made the initial save, but Erik Cole put back the rebound, and Montreal was back in it at 2-1 at the first intermission.
The Montreal momentum carried over to the second period, in which a Canadien score seemed like an inevitability almost from the drop of the puck to start the period. They finally converted in the 15th minute of the period on another case of beating a Caps defenseman wide. This time it was Tomas Plekanec beating Roman Hamrlik wide and flipping a shot over Neuvirth’s left shoulder and under the crossbar to tie the game.
After that it was a case not the Caps playing for food specials for the fans, but fans wondering if the Caps were playing themselves out of the playoffs. If not for Michal Neuvirth, who stopped the last 20 shots he faced after the Plekanec goal, the game would have ended in disaster for the Caps. But stop them he did from the late second period through overtime, and it was left to the freestyle portion of the show. And there, old teammates renewed acquaintances – Matt Hendricks and Peter Budaj, who played together in Colorado for the Avalanche.
One might have thought Budaj had seen “The Paralyzer” move in practice when the two played together, and perhaps this was on Hendricks’ mind when he picked up the puck at center ice. Whatever was on his mind, he skated in, did the mule kick as if to signal his signature move, and that seemed to freeze Budaj for an instant. But rather than go to his backhand, Hendricks pulled the puck onto his forehand and slipped it past Budaj’s left pad. After Hendricks’ score, and a save and a miss at the other end, it was left to Alexander Semin to decide it, and that he did, deftly slipping the puck between Budaj’s pads and sending Caps fans home happy, if perhaps a bit hungry.
-- The Caps played in four trick-shot competitions in March. Matt Hendricks was 4-for-4 in them.
-- The Caps outshot the Canadiens, 8-1, in the first ten minutes. Over the last 55 minutes they were outshot by Montreal, 40-27.
-- The blue line really had a tough time in this one. Dennis Wideman had an especially rough game, consistently being beaten by faster Canadien forwards. Roman Hamrlik and John Carlson had their adventures, too.
-- Wideman was whistled for two penalties last night and spent what seemed to be entirely too much time yapping at referees about it and play in general. It did not help the cause.
-- Nicklas Backstrom skated 19:40 in his first game back after a 40-game absence to injury. Seven shot attempts (two on goal), one takeaway, and 12 wins in 18 faceoffs. Not as much rust as one might have expected after missing half a season.
-- What was it with the linesmen last night? Rarely will you find them getting in the way of so many passes and pucks as last night. There were at least half a dozen instances in which passes or pucks were otherwise deflected by officials’ skates.
-- The Caps had 33 shots on goal last night. Every Cap had at least one except Marcus Johansson. Of Montreal’s 41 shots on goal, every skater had at least one except for Petteri Nokelainen and Brad Staubitz, who had a combined total of 10:14 of ice time.
-- Although Montreal ended the game with a 41-33 shot advantage, but the teams ended the game even in shot attempts (68).
-- It is always nice to see a grinder get a star, and Jay Beagle has played his role well in March – three goals from a fourth liner, including a nice go-to-the-net goal last night. But we think Hendricks really deserved one. There was the Gimmick score, the pass out of the corner that set up Beagle’s score, and there was his flattening Brad Staubitz late in the second period that awakened the crowd. He won four of five draws for good measure.
-- Mathieu Perreault seems fearless. How many goals does he get inside of 20 feet? Last night he got one by sneaking down the middle while Alexander Semin was shooting, collecting a rebound, and reloading for a pass. But who was that who charged down the middle first, tying up Erik Cole and taking him out of the middle to create the opening for Perreault? Oh…Hendricks.
-- The Caps have played in three extra-time games in their last five. In all of them they surrendered multiple-goal leads and relied on the Gimmick to win two of them (they lost the other in overtime to Winnipeg).
In the end, style points count for squat. It’s the standings points, and whether earned pretty or earned ugly, two points is two points. The Caps got theirs, and Buffalo did not. The two points also kept Washington within arm’s reach of the Florida Panthers for the top spot in the Southeast Division, an important consideration given that the teams could be playing for the Division title on Thursday. This win coupled with the win in Boston on Thursday not only leave the Caps in control of their own destiny once more, but give them some breathing room, since they now have that two point advantage over Buffalo and hold the tiebreaker advantage over both the Sabres and Florida in the event of a tie after 82 games. A two-game “winning streak" – their first consecutive wins in more than two weeks – has come at the right time.