Saturday, January 11, 2014

Washington Capitals: A TWO point night -- Game 44: Capitals 3 - Maple Leafs 2

When the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs took the ice last night at Verizon Center, the theme might have been “Fire Away Friday.”  The Caps and Leafs ranked 29th and 30th, respectively, in shots allowed per game.  Washington, despite some fine play by goalie Philipp Grubauer, had allowed three or more goals in four consecutive games before last night, while goals were being poured into the Leafs’ net – 18 in their previous three games – as if no one was playing in goal.

It might have been a surprise, then, that only five goals would be scored in this game, the Caps getting three of them in a 3-2 win to vault them into a tie with the Philadelphia Flyers for second place in standings points in the Metropolitan Division.

It was the first appearance for Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth in seven weeks, since dropping a 3-2 decision to the Montreal Canadiens on November 22nd.  It also happened to be the first time Neuvirth started a game against Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier since the two squared off in Game 6 of the Calder Cup semifinals in 2010.  Neuvirth won that one, 3-2 in overtime, to send the Hershey Bears past the Manchester Monarchs to the Cup final.

In this one, Neuvirth the Nervous and Bernier the Bombshelled (having faced an average of 37 shots in his previous six appearances) stopped all of the shots they faced in the first period, 25 in all (13 by Neuvirth, 12 by Bernier).

At 6:39 of the second period, though, the seal was broken on this fine bottle of wine of a game.  It started with Mike Green being a pest along the right wing boards.  Having pinched down the boards, Green occupied three Leafs, first James van Riemsdyk to poke the puck down the wall, then Tim Gleason and Tyler Bozak as Green kept digging and poking at the puck to keep it alive.  Green freed the puck off the wall to where Mikhail Grabovski could secure it.  Grabovski curled toward the middle and found Alex Ovechkin open on the weak side where no Leaf could be found (thanks, Mike Green).  Ovechkin wasted no time burying the puck past Bernier for his 32nd goal, matching his total of last year.

The Capitals being who they are, though, the lead would not last.  Van Riemsdyk tied the game less than three minutes after the Ovechkin goal when he redirected a Phil Kessel shot from the right wing wall over Neuvirth’s left arm and inside the near post.  The Leafs took the lead in the first minute of the third period when van Riemsdyk and Kessel traded places on the score sheet.  Kessel dug out a loose puck at the Leafs goal line and fed it up to van Riemsdyk on the left wing.  Van Riemsdyk skated the puck into the neutral zone and returned the puck to Kessel as he was approaching the Caps’ blue line (yes, Caps fans, Kessel was onside).  As Kessel flipped the puck at the net, defenseman Karl Alzner got the blade of his stick on the shot.  He didn’t get enough of it.  The puck changed its line just enough to dart past Neuvirth’s left shoulder and inside the left post to give Toronto a 2-1 lead.

Less than four minutes later it was Nicklas Backstrom to the rescue with an assist from… Jay McClement?  That’s right.  The whole thing started when Troy Brouwer broke his stick on a shot attempt.  Brouwer and defenseman Tim Gleason followed the puck to the corner where Brouwer kicked it down the wall.  McClement, with Brooks Laich bearing down on him, backhanded the puck along the back wall to Cody Franson behind the net. The puck was too long for Franson, though, and it was gobbled up by Backstrom.  From behind the net Backstrom circled out, spun, and threw the puck at the net. It looked to be headed wide on the long side, but then the Leafs went all weird.  Gleason, who was guarding the front of the net, had the presence of mind to lift his right skate to let the puck go through.  However, McClement, who was stepping out from behind the net, was neither so prescient nor so fortunate.  As he appeared from behind the cage, the puck struck his left skate and deflected into the net.

The Caps got their game-winner on the power play that wasn’t.  David Clarkson was sent off on a tripping penalty at the 9:44 mark.  The Leafs managed to burn off the two minutes, but could not clear the puck out of their zone.  The Caps spread the formation.  Green kept an attempted Carl Gunnarsson clear at the right point.  Green sent it across to Alex Ovechkin at the left point.  Ovechkin threaded the needle in the middle, sending a pass to Marcus Johansson at the far edge of the right wing circle.  Johansson slid the puck into the middle to Joel Ward.  Ward one-timed the puck past Bernier just seven seconds after the penalty to Clarkson expired.  Game, 3-2.

Other stuff...

-- For Ovechkin the game had several noteworthy accomplishments.  With his goal, Ovechkin has 62 goals in his last 82 games. His two-point game was his first in nine games.  However, it was his fourth straight game with at least one point.  He was also a plus-1.  Whatever one attaches to the plus-minus statistic, it has not been kind to Ovechkin this season (he is a minus-15 on the year).  It was his second straight “plus” game, the first time he has done that since ending on the plus side of the ledger against Detroit and St. Louis on November 15-17.

-- For Neuvirth it marked his highest save total (32) in a win this season.  OK, so it was only his third win.  Here is an odd Neuvirth stat.  He has a save percentage of better than .900 in five straight appearances.  At the moment that is the longest active streak for a Caps goalie.

-- More Neuvirth… in eight appearances this season, only once has he allowed more than three goals.

-- Here is an odd power play statistic for the Caps.  They drew a blank on four power play opportunities in this game.  It is the first time that the Caps had four or more man advantages without a goal since going 0-for-4 against Montreal on November 29th.  They had been 7-for-7 in getting at least one goal when getting four or more opportunities.

-- Another odd stat, this one involving John Erskine.  Six of the 16 shifts Erskine skated last night ended not with a shift change, but with a penalty.  Twice, those penalties were his.  His fight against Colton Orr was his first bout of the season.  He certainly didn’t pick a cream puff, but he reduced Orr to one.  Orr got the first punch off, but after that it was pretty much all Erskine until he flattened Orr with a straight right to his left eye.  It was the third time those two squared off in their respective NHL careers, the first time either did so for their respective current teams.

-- Meanwhile, Tom Wilson… five minutes of ice time, five minutes in penalty time, one shot, one hit, one fight (he is tied for third in the league in fighting majors).  It is a hard apprenticeship the young man is being asked to serve.  One hopes it hardens him, not breaks him.

-- All in all it was an oddly disciplined game for the Caps.  Of the 18 penalty minutes with which they were charged, nine of them were charged to Erskine (who also received a double minor, cancelled in part by a coincidental roughing minor to Dion Phaneuf), five to Wilson, two to Aaron Volpatti.  That’s 16 of the 18 minutes to fourth liners who don’t kill penalties and a defenseman who might have given the Caps a lift with his bout and who himself does not kill penalties.  Ah, but the odd penalty in that mix, the one to Mikhail Grabovski for tripping?  That’s the one the Leafs converted.

-- More “Backstrom to the Rescue.”  Nicklas Backstrom was 8-for-14 in offensive zone faceoffs.  The rest of the team was 2-for-10.

-- Joel Ward, who had his 13th goal of the season in this game, has now tied his second highest goal total for a season (13 in 71 games in 2009-2010 with Nashville) and is within sight of his career best (17 in 2008-1009 with the Predators).

In the end, it was a game that started slowly, took on a rock ‘em-sock ‘em theme in the second period, then was a closely fought game in the third.  Michal Neuvirth, if he did nothing else, improved his trade value.  He might have done more, though.  He was solid after a seven-week hiatus.  Both goals he allowed were redirects, one off the stick of a teammate.  He was otherwise sound and sturdy.  This was his night.

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