Sunday, January 12, 2014

Washington Capitals: A ONE point night -- Game 45: Sabres 2 - Capitals 1 (OT/Gimmick)

There are good one-point games, and there are bad one-point games.  The Washington Capitals experienced the latter in losing a 2-1 decision to the Buffalo Sabres in the freestyle competition for the second time in two weeks.

The Capitals could not even take solace in the fact that the goal that they scored was even a goal that they scored.  Washington opened the scoring, as it were, 11 minutes into the first period on a play that started when Jason Chimera took a pass from Joel Ward at the Buffalo blue line.  Chimera skated down the left wing boards with Sabre defenseman Mark Pysyk keeping himself between Chimera and the Sabre net.  What Pysyk could not do, however, was close a passing lane that Chimera exploited to get the puck to the front of the Buffalo net where Marcus Johansson was headed.  The pass never reached Johansson, though.  Center Brian Flynn, trying to do the right thing by backchecking Johansson, managed only to get his stick on the pass, redirecting it past goalie Ryan Miller and into his own net.

That goal might have stood up for the rest of the period – the rest of the game, in fact.  However, Tom Wilson was whistled for a charging penalty at the 17:28 mark.  With Wilson in the box, Buffalo converted the power play opportunity with just 1:51 left in the period when Tyler Ennis pulled the puck loose from a group of bodies in front of goalie Philipp Grubauer, then lifted it over a sprawling Grubauer to tie the game.

That was it.  For the second time this season the Caps and the Sabres played 65 minutes to a 1-1 draw.  And, for the second time this season the Sabres would ride Ryan Miller’s perfect slate in the Gimmick, stopping all three attempts he faced, until they could get a goal of their own, this time courtesy of Cody Hodgson, who ended matters in the third round when he snapped the puck over Grubauer’s left pad and into the back of the net.

Other stuff…

-- Buffalo has defeated just two teams on two occasions this season, the Toronto Maple Leafs and now the Capitals.

-- Hey, how’s that second line experiment working?  Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich, and Troy Brouwer combined for four shots (Laich had a shorthanded shot on goal), three penalties, and no points. In three games that makes 13 shots at even strength among them, four penalties, and one point, that one recorded on an unassisted goal by Nicklas Backstrom off a turnover against Toronto.

-- Ryan Miller has played 130 minutes against the Caps this season and has stopped 77 of 79 shots.  That is a 0.92 goals against average and a .975 save percentage.  Oh, and he stopped all nine trick shot attempts in the two games for good measure.

-- Philipp Grubauer has not been quite as conspicuous as Miller in these games, but he has been almost as effective.  In his two games facing Miller he stopped 46 of 48 shots in 130 minutes, a 0.92 goals against average and a .958 save percentage.

-- You could say the Caps skated in bad luck.  With the clock ticking down to two minutes left in regulation Miller made a stupendous stick save of a point blank attempt by Mikhail Grabovski, getting the bottom edge of his blade on the puck as it was about to cross the goal line, deflecting it out of the air and past the post.  Then, with 53 seconds left in the game it appeared that the Caps finally solved Miller, courtesy of Karl Alzner, of all people.  However, just before Alzner found the back of the net, the referee signaled a penalty against Nicklas Backstrom for tripping (nudging, bumping, jostling) Cody Hodgson.  Finally, in the Gimmick, Alex Ovechkin had a chance, maneuvering Miller down to the ice, but he could not lift a forehand over Miller’s left pad, and the lanky goaltender padded the puck away.  But hey, c’mon… they needed luck?  Against Buffalo??

-- The Caps did not get much in the way of power play opportunities, two of them in fact.  Not that they did anything with what they had.  One shot on goal, that one coming from John Carlson.  The Caps finished with more shorthanded shots on goal (two).

-- Connor Carrick recorded his first NHL career assist on the Chimera goal.  More impressive, perhaps, was that he finished the game with three more minutes of ice time at even strength (16:44) than either Carlson (13:45) or Alzner (13:44).

-- Carlson and Alzner, it should be noted, was the pair with the least amount of even strength ice time in this game.  Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov each had more than 20 minutes of even strength ice time alone.

-- Aaron Volpatti had a high-energy evening, six hits credited in just 7:37 of ice time.  What is more surprising is that Nicklas Backstrom was credited with the next highest number of hits for the Caps (five).

-- Failing to get an extra standings point in regulation or overtime, the Caps are once more tied with the New York Islanders for last in the Metropolitan Division in regulation and overtime wins (14).

One can imagine at the end of this season regretting the two standings points the Caps left on the table with the pair of trick shot losses to the worst team in the league.  Yes, Ryan Miller is certainly a world class goalie, but the Caps had their chances, too, especially in this game, and did not bury them.  The way things stand on this Sunday evening is that there are now five points separating the second-place Capitals and the seventh-place Columbus Blue Jackets in the Metro Division.

That tight bunching of teams puts pressure on the Caps to lift their game to a level not displayed against the Sabres.  San Jose and Pittsburgh are next up on the schedule, back-to-back games at that.  Then the Caps get a couple of road tests in the division, at Columbus and at the New York Rangers.  How daunting is this part of the schedule?  The Caps are 1-15-1 in their last 17 meetings against San Jose.  Pittsburgh is 18-3-1 since they lost consecutive games before Thanksgiving.  Columbus has won three in a row and four of their last five contests, including two shutouts.  The Rangers have the same recent record – three straight wins and four in their last five games, and they still have Henrik Lundqvist, as if Ryan Miller was not enough.

This is a week coming up that, when the ice chips settle, could be very ugly or a turning point of the season for the Caps.  It might have been made more important for those two standings points the Caps left on the table to the Buffalo Sabres in the last two weeks.

Washington Capitals: That Was The Week That Was -- Week 15

When wounded, stop the bleeding.  The Washington Capitals did just that in Week 15.  It was not the prettiest, nor was it the most dominating of weeks, but wins are wins.  All of them are worth two points.  And the Caps took all the points available to them in Week 15.

Record: 2-0-0

The Caps were wounded in Week 14 with an 0-2-2 record that dropped them to third in the Metropolitan Division.  By the time they took the ice for the first time in Week 15 they were in fourth place in the Division and out of the playoff-eligible mix.  A 4-3 win on Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning elevated them into third place in the Metro, and a 3-2 win the following night against the Toronto Maple Leafs pushed the Caps back into striking distance for second place in The Metro.  When the Philadelphia Flyers lost to the Lightning on Saturday to overtake the Capitals in games played, Washington was back in second place in the division to end the week.

Offense:  3.50/game (season: 2.89 / rank: T-7th)

The shooting this week was a tight grouping. Seven goals were shared by six different players, but only ten skaters shared the points overall.  Eric Fehr was the only Capital with two goals, both of them against Tampa Bay, the second one a last-minute game winner.  It was part of an interesting week, not only for Fehr, but for his new linemates.  Head Coach Adam Oates juggled the lines, splitting up Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, putting Ovechkin on a line with Fehr and Mikhail Grabovski.  That line accounted for three goals for the week (Ovechkin getting the other), and Graboovski and Ovechkin were on ice together for a power play goal.

The flip side of that move – matching Nicklas Backstrom with Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer on the wings – did not go as swimmingly.  Backstrom had two points for the week, an assist on a power play goal and an unassisted goal of his own.  Neither Brouwer nor Laich recorded a point.

A note about Mike Green’s week.  Green recorded three assists in the two games to extend his points streak to three games.  His two assists against Tampa Bay on Thursday was his second two-helper game of the year and first since Opening Night in Chicago.

Defense: 2.50/game (season: 2.93 / rank: 21st)

It was an interesting week at the other end of the rink.  Two games, twice the Caps took leads, twice they gave them up before closing Tampa Bay and Toronto out.  For the four even strength goals scored against the Caps for the week, it was the top two forward lines being on ice for all of them.  The Backstrom-Laich-Brouwer line was on for two goals against, the Grabovski-Fehr-Ovechkin was on for one. The other was a mix, Backstrom-Fehr-Ovechkin on for that goal.

The Caps continue to let shots accumulate, 70 in the two games this week and it was against two teams whose combined shots on goal averages add up to 57 shots.  The Tampa Bay game had the most disturbing elements in this regard for the week.  After the Caps took a 3-1 lead to the locker room after one period, they were outshot 6-1 by the Lightning before the Bolts scored to make the score 3-2.  Then, the Lightning outshot the Caps by a 13-7 margin over the next 27:45 before tying the game at the 14:30 mark of the third period.

It was, though, a good possession week for the Caps, lightening the load on the defense.  In two games the Caps were just two Corsi events below 50 percent in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 (49.5 percent) and six events under 50 percent for Fenwick –for percentage (47.9 percent).  In 5-on-5 close score situations, the percentages were much better for the Caps – 53.3 percent Corsi-for and 51.0 percent Fenwick-for. 

Goaltending: 2.50 GAA / .929 save percentage (season: 2.81 / .916 / 1 shutout)

Three goalies, two games.  Someone had to sit.  Given the way Philipp Grubauer has played lately, it was reasonable to think he would get one of the back-to-back games.  He did, getting the call in Tampa against the Lightning on Thursday.  He was solid, allowing his first goal on a breakaway and his last one on a tip-in.  The one in the middle, a shot on the rush by B.J. Crombeen, was one he might have wanted back, but facing 36 shots for the game, he had a decent night.

That left the back-half of the back-to-back.  Braden Holtby, right?  Nope.  Michal Neuvirth got the call, seven weeks to the day since he last appeared in a game (a 3-2 Gimmick loss to Montreal).  He had not recorded a win more than two months.  He was, by his own admission, nervous.    He more than held his own, allowing a goal on a redirect and another when a shot clicked off the stick of a defenseman to change its path. 

Meanwhile, the missing man – Braden Holtby – has had one appearance since December 21st, a span of eight games in all.  There is another back-to-back coming up this week.  The question is whether that means Holtby gets another crack at the net.

Power Play: 2-7 / 28.6 percent (season: 25.5 percent / rank: 1st)

It was an uneven week for what is now the league’s best power play.  And, it was against form, to boot.  The Caps knocked down two of three chances against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a very much improved defensive team.  A tip-in by Mikhail Grabovski and a wrap-around stuff by Marcus Johansson were the successes among five shots taken in 4:46 of power play time.  Against Toronto, however, a team that gives up shots like a bartender at happy hour, the Caps managed only seven shots in eight full minutes of four unsuccessful power plays.  It was the first time that the Caps drew a blank on four or more power plays in a game since going 0-for-4 against Montreal on November 29th.

Penalty Killing: 3-4 / 75.0 percent (season: 80.4 percent /rank: 19th)

On a percentage basis, it was not the best of weeks.  But there is only that one power play goal against on the Caps’ ledger.  That one was one of those things.  Phil Kessel had the puck along the boards for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and as he inched down the wall, James van Riemsdyk was jostling with John Carlson in front of Michal Neuvirth.  Carlson took a peek to get a bead on where van Riemsdyk was, but then he wandered ever so slightly away, perhaps thinking Kessel was going to try a cross ice pass through the slot.  Kessel shot the puck instead, and with Carlson unable provide resistance, van Riemsdyk deflected the Kessel shot past Neuvirth’s left arm and inside the left post.

The key was opportunities.  Four shorthanded situations faced for the week is a season low for the Caps for a week’s worth of action.  Even though there will be those times when there is a “good penalty” to take, to prevent what looks like a sure score, the most effective penalty kill is the one you don’t have to face.  You will always be 100 percent on those situations.

Even Strength Goals For/Against: 5-4 (season 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio: 0.93 / rank: T-17th)

It was a good week at even strength for the Caps, on balance.  Of the five goals scored at even strength in Week 15, two of them tied games, three others gave the Caps a lead, including both game-winning goals.  On the other hand, three of the four even strength goals allowed by the Caps gave opponents a lead.  It was a close week.

It might have been a better week in this regard had the Caps recorded more shots on goal and allowed fewer.  Washington was 5-for-42 shooting at even strength for the week (11.9 percent shooting percentage), while opponents were 4-for-58 (6.9 percent).  That’s almost three shots per period more for opponents at even strength.  That puts goaltending under considerable pressure to perform.

Faceoffs: 62-127 / 48.8 percent (season: 49.7 percent / rank: 16th)

It was more or less an even week in the circle for the Caps.  There was one noteworthy aspect to it, that being Nicklas Backstrom’s performance against Tampa Bay on Thursday.  He was 1-for-9 in the defensive zone and was particularly taken advantage of by Valteri Filppula, who won all five draws against Backstrom in the Caps’ end (must be a Sweden/Finland thing).

Apart from Backstrom’s frustrations against Tampa Bay it was a pretty good week for the Caps in the defensive end of the ice, where they went 28-for-53 (52.8 percent), 27-for-44 apart from Backstrom’s bobble (61.4 percent).  That was thanks, in large part, to Mikhail Grabovski, who was 10-for-12 in the defensive end for the week.

Goals For/Against by Period:

Three goals in the first period against Tampa Bay put the Lightning in a hole out of which they could not quite climb all the way.  It was a rare week in which the Caps outscored teams in the first period, all of the goals in the opening frame coming against the Lightning.  Other than that, the fact that the Caps allowed two goals in the third period might not be considered too bad, but for one thing.  One goal was of the game-tying variety against Tampa Bay, the other gave Toronto a lead against the Caps.  No “score effect” there.

In the end…

The Caps stopped the bleeding.  They did not do it in an especially dominating sort of way; they had to score last in both of the week’s games to scratch out a pair of one-goal wins.  Scratching them out might be an apt description.  They went into the Tampa Times Forum and beat a team that had a 14-4-2 home record before the Caps arrived in town.  The, against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Caps took a punch in the nose, punched back and punched back some more with abandon, and used the energy to squeeze out another win.  All in all, it was not a pretty week, but it was a winning week, and that is the whole object of the exercise.