Sunday, March 24, 2013

A TWO-point night -- Game 32: Capitals 3 - Rangers 2 (OT/Gimmick)

Six days, more than 2,500 land miles, three cities, two time zones, four games…six points.

The Washington Capitals clawed themselves back into the playoff race with a 3-2 trick shot win over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden this evening.  The win – the Caps’ third on their four-game “Save the Season Tour” – came in one of the strangest games of this season or of recent memory.  The way things got started, no one might have had it in their heads that this game would need more than 65 minutes to determine an outcome. 

Washington scored first on a power play.  No surprise there, the Caps are the top power play unit in the NHL.  How they did it, though, was hardly pretty.  It started with a lost faceoff in the Ranger end.  However, while Derek Stepan beat Nicklas Backstrom on the draw, his teammates could not clear the puck, John Carlson keeping a hard around in the Rangers' zone at the right point.  Carlson fed the puck down to Mike Ribeiro along the right wing wall.  Ribeiro returned the favor, and Carlson then sent the puck to the left side for a one-timer from Alex Ovechkin.  The shot pinballed off bodies, eventually hitting Backstrom in the chest and dropping behind goalie Henrik Lundqvist for the 1-0 lead.

Less than two minutes later it was Ovechkin getting one of his own in unusual fashion.  Nicklas Backstrom started the play skating the puck up the left wing.  As he crossed the Ranger blue line he peeled into the middle and left the puck for defenseman Steve Oleksy.  Wasting no time, Oleksy fired the puck just as Ovechkin was skating against the grain in front of Lundqvist.  As the puck came through, Ovechkin reached out and got the blade of his stick on the puck just enough to change its direction past Lundqvist for a 2-0 lead, upon which the boo birds came out in the Garden.

The boos changed to cheers for the home team, though.  In the space of less than four minutes late in the first period, Arron Asham and Derek Stepan scored, the latter coming on a 5-on-3 power play, the first power play goal scored by the Rangers on home ice in four games dating back to March 5th.

Folks might have been forgiven if they were thinking that this would be an unusual up-and-down, firewagon sort of game between these teams.  Only once in the last eight games on Madison Square Garden ice did the winning team score as many as four goals.  This one looked early on as if both teams might get four goals by the mid-way point of the game.

However, that would be all she wrote as far as the hockey portion of the contest was concerned.  The Rangers clamped down, allowing only ten shots on goal by the Caps over the last 45 minutes (actually, 47:16 going back to the end of the first period).  Meanwhile goalie Braden Holtby shook off those two late Ranger goals in the first period (one coming when he misplayed a puck into his own net) and stopped the last 26 shots he faced over the last 46:47 of regulation and overtime.

That left things to the Gimmick, the Caps finally getting their first opportunity in the trick shot competition in Game 32 of the season.  Caps fans have been waiting for this, curious to see what a skills competition lineup of Matt “The Paralyzer” Hendricks, Mike Ribeiro, and Wojtek Wolski – all accomplished performers in the freestyle portion of the competition – could do.  Well, Wolski did not get a sweater, Hendricks did not paralyze, and Ribeiro could not work magic on Lundqvist.  It was left to two old hands – Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom sandwiching goals around a tally by Derek Stepan – to give the Caps a sorely needed 3-2 win and an extra standings point that fans hope the Caps can put to good use down the road.

Other stuff…

-- The power play goal by Backstrom made it five straight games with a power play goal for the Caps and six games out of seven.  In the five-game streak the Caps are 5-for-19 (26.3 percent).

-- Speaking of Backstrom, this makes three times in his last five games he recorded a multi-point effort.  He is 2-5-7 over his last five games.

-- Ovechkin also had a multi-point game, his third in a row and fourth in eight games.  Over those eight games he is 7-4-11.

-- The adrenaline might have worn off for Steve Oleksy, who had four points in his first four games before going six straight without one.  But with his assist on the Ovechkin goal he has points in his last two contests and is 1-5-6 in 12 games since being called up from Hershey.

-- The Caps had 24 shots on goal, 23 shot attempts blocked.  The Rangers are really good at that whole shot-blocking thing.

-- Ovechkin had four shots on goal in the first 9:45, the last being his goal. He did not have another shot on goal for the next 52:03, and that shot – at 1:48 of overtime – was his last one.  Until his trick shot goal, that is.

-- The Rangers were credited with 47 hits.  Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan were credited with six apiece, and we think we saw that Mathias Kiwanuka and Jason Pierre-Paul had two apiece, too. #friendlyscoring

-- Perhaps the oddest number of the night: 00:01.  That is the amount of power play ice time Mike Green got for the Caps.  That’s right, one second.

-- Maybe the second oddest number… 1:26.  That was the penalty killing time for Steve Oleksy, tops for the Caps.

-- Third?... “0.”  The number of shot attempts for Jason Chimera.  Chimera skated only two shifts in the third period, none in the last 12:41.

In the end, there was a point late in the second period when one might have thought, “this is not going to be the Caps’ night.”  In a 16 second span the Caps had a shot by Mike Ribeiro hit Henrik Lundqvist in the mask, stunning him, followed by a shot by Karl Alzner off the post with Lundqvist still down on his side in the crease, then a shot by Brooks Laich than might have gotten through but for being blocked in front by defenseman Michael Del Zotto.  It was there for the taking – momentum going into the second intermission and the third period that they gave away when the Rangers came back from a 2-0 deficit late in the first period.

But the Caps showed resolve.  They bent, but they did not break.  If they didn’t play flawless defense in the last 25 minutes of regulation and overtime, they played well.  Braden Holtby covered up those flaws that did come to the surface.  This against a team that did most of its scoring damage this season in the third period.  Even with the Rangers snaring a point in the decision, this has to be considered a very good win and a significantly successful road trip for the Caps.  It could have been their last gasp, but instead it might be a signal of their second wind.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 31: Capitals at Rangers, March 24th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Start spreading the news
They’re playing today
They want to be a part of it
New York, New York

This old power play
It’s longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it
New York, New York

They’re gonna shake up that old city
That doesn't sleep
Tryin’ to be king of the hill
Top of the heap

Those ol’ Southeast blues
They are melting away
They’re gonna make a brand new start of it
At M.S.G.

If they can make it there
They’ll make it everywhere
It's time to beat
New York, New York

New York, New York
They’re gonna shake up that old city
That doesn't sleep
To find they’re king of the hill
Top of the list
Head of the heap
King of the hill

These ol’ Southeast blues
They have all melted away
They are ‘bout to make a brand new start of it
Right there in old New York
And you bet baby
If they can make it there
You know, they’re gonna make it just about everywhere
Come on, come through
In old New York, New York

And here they are in what Frank Sinatra called "The City that Doesn't Sleep."  The Washington Capitals have earned for themselves an opportunity.  They play the New York Rangers on Sunday evening with the chance, if other things fall into place by midnight, of finding themselves in ninth place, one point out of the top-eight in the Eastern Conference and only three points out of the Southeast Division lead.  That is what a 4-2-0 record over their last six games – three of those wins coming on the road – has done.

The team they face this evening is the mirror image of the Caps over their own last six games.  With a 2-4-0 record in those contests, the Rangers have been unable to get a toehold on a playoff spot.  They currently sit in ninth place, one place below Carolina by virtue of having fewer wins in regulation and overtime (the clubs have identical 15-13-2 records).

Defense has not been the problem for the Blueshirts.  While allowing what might seem a decent, if not extraordinary 15 goals in those six games (2.50 per game), two of those goals allowed were of the empty-net variety.  Take those out of the mix and the Rangers allowed a meager 2.17 goals per game.

On the other hand, offense has deserted the Rangers over those last six games.  They have scored only seven goals, and failed to add an eighth when Marian Gaborik failed on a penalty shot attempt in a 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets (a game that featured one of the empty net goals against) on March 14th.  They have been shutout once and were held to one goal (apart from the skills competition) in four other games.  The only time they managed more than one goal scored in this stretch, they did so against backup goaltender Johan Hedberg in a 3-2 win over the New Jersey Devils.

Derek Stepan might not have been the Ranger you would have guessed to do so, but yes, he is the only Ranger with multiple goals scored in the last six games.  Not Rick Nash…he has one goal in this six-game run (his only goal over his last seven contests).  Not Marian Gaborik, who has but one goal in the Rangers 2-4-0 run (his only goal over his last eight games).  Not Ryan Callahan – one goal over his last six games.  Callahan has, however, been doing what he can to contribute on offense.  He is the Rangers’ leading scorer over their last six games (1-3-4).

Here is how the two teams match up, numbers-wise...

1.  The Rangers are skating in rare company.  With only one player in double digits in goals scored (Nash: 10), they join only Tampa Bay (1) and Ottawa (0) having so few double-digit goal scorers.

2.  With as few goals as the Rangers score, it should not be surprising that only three teams have more one-goal wins.  What is surprising is that the Rangers have five wins by three or more goals, as many as Boston and more than Ottawa and New Jersey (four apiece).

3.  No team has scored fewer power play goals overall than the Rangers (13, tied with three other teams), and no team at all has scored as few at 5-on-4 (10).  If they are going to score one, though, home is where they will do it – nine of their 13 power play goals have come at Madison Square Garden

4.  For a team with as feisty a reputation as the Rangers have (fourth in the league in hits, for example), they are well-behaved in this respect – only two teams (Anaheim and Calgary) have had fewer minor penalties called on them this season.

5.  The Rangers have allowed the fourth fewest number of 5-on-5 goals this season.  Only Chicago, Ottawa, and Montreal have allowed fewer.

1.  The 4-2-0 record for the Caps over their last six games has, in fact, been a relatively difficult part of the schedule for the Caps.  It represents the first six games of an 11-game stretch in which the Caps have nine road games.

2.  With the sweep of the back-to-back games in Winnipeg, the Caps are on a two-game road winning streak.  Modest as that sounds, it is the first time this season that the Caps won consecutive road games in regulation time. 

3.  Only two teams – Tampa Bay (46) and Pittsburgh (43) – have scored more third period goals than the Caps (35) this season.

4.  With 69 shorthanded situations faced on the road, the Caps are topped only by Philadelphia (70), Pittsburgh (71), and Buffalo (79).

5.  Only one Capital has an even strength goal, a power play goal, a shorthanded goal, a game-winning goal, and an overtime goal (OK, some of that came on the same goal, but still)… Eric Fehr.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Henrik Lundqvist

Henrik Lundqvist has been something of hockey’s version of The Iron Horse in New York (look up “Lou Gehrig,” hockey fans), having recorded five straight years of more than 4,000 minutes of ice time before finishing with just under 3,800 minutes last season.  He is among the league leaders in minutes played this season (seventh with 1,539 minutes).  Here is the thing about big minute goalies, though.  Those top-seven goalies in ice time, including Lundqvist, have a combined record of 87-80-21.  Not necessarily what one might expect from goalies who are being leaned on heavily by their respective teams.  And with the Rangers’ playoff hopes hanging precariously, Lundqvist is going to be leaned on that much more down the stretch.  Lundqvist has a career record against the Caps of 14-7-2, 2.70, .904, with three shutouts.  That includes a 27-save effort in a 2-1 Rangers win in Washington on February 17th.

Washington: Marcus Johansson

Do you know who leads the Caps in points over the last five games?  Well, yeah… Alex Ovechkin.  But do you know who is tied with Ovechkin?  Marcus Johansson.  After going 1-1-2 over his first dozen games this season, Johansson is 3-4-7 over his last five contests.  It is the most prolific five-game stretch of games in Johansson’s brief career.  It could not have come at a better time.  After recording 46 points in his sophomore season last year, much was expected of Johansson this season.  A late start to this season and then a 12-game absence due to an “upper-body injury” put the kibosh on any hot start for Johansson.  But now, he is providing that second level of scoring the Caps are going to need going into the home stretch.  The trick will be to see if he can continue to provide it.  He is 1-4-5, minus-3, in eight career games against the Rangers.


1.  Fight fire with fire.  The Rangers no doubt will treat this as a statement game, evidence of taking seriously the desperate nature of their situation.  Feeding off the home crowd, they will no doubt be in a hitting mood.  The Caps cannot be timid and accepting of that attitude, or else the whole game will be played in their end of the ice, and that will not end well.  Hit back…just do it in the rules.

2.  Don’t make it easy.  If a team happens to be good in one area, you don’t want to make it easier for them be being sloppy where they aren’t so good.  The Rangers are rather challenged on the power play (23rd in home power play efficiency).  The Caps are 19-for-22 on the penalty kill over their last seven games.  Don’t make it easy for the Rangers by going soft on the penalty kill now.

3.  Finishing kick.  The Caps have that third-ranked third period scoring total.  Only three teams have allowed fewer third period goals than the Rangers.  Win the period, win the game. 

In the end, the Caps put themselves in position to contend for a playoff spot with their sweep in Winnipeg.  But a loss here could undo much of that work.  The Caps could find themselves a point out of eighth place by night’s end, or they could be five points out with 16 games to play and right where they have been finishing weeks for the last month.  By winning the two games in Winnipeg, the Caps do not have a “must win” label attached to this contest.  However, it could set the table for them for the last third of the season.  Win, and they are in it.  Lose, and well… what ground will they have made up this week?

Capitals 3 – Rangers 2