Saturday, March 08, 2014

Washington Capitals: A TWO-point Night -- Game 65: Capitals 3 - Coyotes 2

That was nice.

It was nice to see the other team blow a two-goal lead.

It was nice to see the other team take an offensive zone penalty.

It was nice to see the other team wilt on a penalty kill late.

And it all happened in barely five minutes to the Phoenix Coyotes as the Washington Capitals came from down, 0-2, to catch and pass the Coyotes in the third period and win a game they seemed hell bent on losing, coming out on top by a 3-2 margin in the end.

For almost 50 minutes it looked as if the Caps would go meekly to their fourth straight loss.  Phoenix played a solid road game, keeping things simple and taking advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves. 

One of those opportunities came late in the first period when the Coyotes took advantage of a sluggish line change for the Caps.  As the Caps were swapping out old for new players, Keith Yandle fed the puck past Nicklas Backstrom and up to Brandon McMillan just outside the Caps’ blue line.  McMillan beat Mike Green into the zone, skated in, and snapped a shot from the edge of the left wing circle past goalie Jaroslav Halak at 18:58 to give the Coyotes a lead going into the first intermission.

Phoenix added to their lead in the fourth minute of the second period on a power play.  With Jack Hillen off for tripping, Yandle started the play again, laying the puck out at the top of the Caps’ zone for Michael Stone to take a whack at.  Stone fired, and Halak made the initial save.  He did not field it cleanly, though, and the puck trickled toward the goal line.  Radim Vrbata got to the loose puck before Dmitry Orlov could tie him up, and Vrbata bunted the biscuit into the back of the net.

At that point, and for the next 25 minutes, the Caps looked listless and on their way to another loss.  From the 3:20 mark of the second period to the 9:15 mark of the third period, Phoenix out-shot the Caps, 19-14.  Then, something strange and wonderful happened.

Karl Alzner scored.

It was innocent enough.  Jay Beagle and Keith Yandle were fighting for a loose puck in the left wing corner to goalie Mike Smith’s right.  As they were dueling, Eric Fehr swooped in and gathered up the puck, sliding it out to Alzner at the left point.  With Mike Ribeiro in the shooting lane, Alzner stepped to his left and down the wall to get an opening, then flipped a soft shot toward the goal (kids, take note...a right-handed defenseman on that side cannot make that play; sometimes the "handed" thing works).  As Alzner was snapping his shot at the net, Jay Beagle backed across Smith’s line of sight dragging Yandle with him on the coverage, and the commotion might have provided a distraction.  It was enough to allow the puck to sail untouched into the back of the net, and the Caps were within a goal.

Just 32 seconds later, the game was tied.  Brooks Laich got the goal, but it was Jason Chimera doing the work.  Chimera was behind the Coyote net when Laich chipped him the puck from the right wing corner.  Chimera walked the puck out from behind the net and out to the left wing corner, maintaining control.  Then, with Oliver Ekman-Larsson trying to pin him in the corner against the wall, Chimera flipped a fade-away pass to the goal mouth where Laich was camped all alone.  Laich redirected the puck behind Smith, and Caps fans were happy once more…

(image: CSN)

Phoenix took only two penalties in the game, but they picked a bad time for the second one.  David Moss hauled Dmitry Orlov down as Orlov was circling from around the Caps’ net, and the Caps had a power play. Nicklas Backstrom walked the puck from the right wing wall into the faceoff circle and wristed a shot toward the goal.  Smith got a pad on it and steered it to the weak side of the play. However, it happened to be just where Troy Brouwer was standing, and Brouwer wasted no time in stuffing the loose puck past Smith to give the Caps the lead and their final margin, 3-2.

Other stuff…

-- Say what you will about the two-goal lead being the most dangerous in hockey, but that was the first time the Caps came from behind to win a game in which they faced a two-goal deficit since Game 33, when they came back from a 4-1 third period deficit to beat the Philadelphia Flyers, 5-4, in a Gimmick on December 15th.  It broke a string of ten straight losses when the Caps faced a two-goal deficit.

-- It might have been for naught if the Caps went down 3-0.  That might have happened had a call gone differently in the first period.  Brandon McMillan, who would score a goal later, might have thought he had one mid-way through the frame when he pushed the puck through goalie Jaroslav Halak’s pads and watched it trickle over the goal line.  However, the referee ruled that McMillan pushed not only the puck, but Halak’s pad over the goal line.  Thus, the goal was disallowed on what was not a decision subject to video review.  Yeah, it was iffy, but after seeing so many video reviews of questionable high-stick deflections go against the Caps this season, there seems hardly any reason to apologize.

-- For Karl Alzner it was his second goal of the season, his first since netting the game-winner in a 5-2 win over Nashville on December 7th.  Alzner has seven career goals, and the Caps are 4-2-1 in those games, winners in the last three games in which Alzner scored.

-- Mike Green skated 20:35 in this game.  But what is noteworthy about his ice time is that he did not skate on the power play at all.  John Carlson took all 3:10 of power play ice time for the Caps in this contest.

-- Is there something to this whole shots-from-the-outside thing?  Of the Coyotes’ 33 shots on goal, 20 of them came from defensemen.  By way of comparison, only seven of the Caps’ 33 shots came from defensemen.

-- In former Caps news, the trio of former Caps for the Coyotes – Mike Ribeiro, Jeff Halpern, and Martin Erat – combined for a grand total of no shots on goal, none, nada.  Not only that, they finished with no shot attempts among them.

-- The Caps have had their troubles in the faceoff circle lately, and they found themselves on the short end tonight, especially in the offensive end where they won just eight of 22 draws.

-- The win put the Caps over the .500 mark against Western Conference teams as measured in standings points.  The Caps are now 9-8-2 against the West.

-- Troy Brouwer continued his hot run of late.  His goal, the game-winner, was his 18th of the season and his eighth in his last ten games on a total of 29 shots on goal (27.6 percent shooting).

-- Brooks Laich has goals in consecutive games and in three of his last five contests.  The last time he had goals in consecutive games came back on March 10/11, 2012, both of them game winners, one against Boston in a 4-3 win, the other against Toronto in a 2-0 win.

-- When the Caps allowed a power play goal to Phoenix in the second period, it made it five times in six games that the Caps allowed opponents at least one power play goal.  In the game they did not, against Boston, they did not face a shorthanded situation.  The Caps are 14-for-20 (70.0 percent) killing penalties over their last six games.

In the end…

It was nice to see the other team not quite play 60 minutes.  If Phoenix did not dominate the Caps, they played a solid road game… for about 55 minutes.  But there was that five-minute stretch in the third period when it all came apart, suddenly and emphatically.  And they got contributions from up and down the roster in making the comeback.  Getting goals from Karl Alzner and Brooks Laich was unexpected, but refreshing. Assists from Eric Fehr, Jay Beagle, and Jason Chimera was much the same. 

Add in a power play, and it made for a welcome win that brought the Caps back from, if not the abyss, then a dark place in the standings.  There they still lurk, one point behind Detroit and two behind the New York Rangers as the embark on a big week with a pair of games against Pittsburgh and a home contest against Vancouver.  It looks a lot better than it might have had the Caps lost this game.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 65: Coyotes at Capitals, March 8th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

When the Washington Capitals host the Phoenix Coyotes tonight at Verizon Center, the Caps will be looking to rekindle their playoff hopes and end a three-game losing streak.  For the Coyotes it will be the first of what will be a four-game road trip through the Eastern time zone, with stops in Tampa, Florida, and Boston yet to come. Phoenix has not been an especially productive road team. Going into Friday’s games they were 26th of 30 teams in points earned on the road.

This will be the third and final eastern swing for the Coyotes in the regular season. They completed their first trip, a four-game journey, in October, going 3-1-0 with wins over the Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers, and Carolina Hurricanes after opening the trip with a loss to the New York Islanders.

Phoenix’ second trip east was in mid-December and did not go nearly as well. After dropping a decision to the Montreal Canadiens, the Coyotes wrapped up their trip with three extra time decisions, losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres wrapped around a win in Ottawa against the Senators.

Of more recent vintage on their schedule, Phoenix stumbled out of the gate to start the post-Olympics portion of the season, losing three straight. Two of those losses came to powerhouses Colorado and St. Louis, though, and the Coyotes come into Verizon Center looking as they have righted themselves with wins in their last two games over Vancouver and Montreal.

Offense has been hard to come by for the Coyotes since the break, Phoenix recording only 12 goals over the five games coming into this weekend.  Shane Doan has three of those goals for the Coyotes and helpers on two others.  For him, the Olympic break appears to have been refreshing.  He said as much as the NHL was about to shut down for a couple of weeks.  He had a six game streak without a point heading into the pause in the NHL schedule.  Doan is 5-7-12 in 21 career games played against Washington.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson is not likely to be a player with whom a lot of Caps fans are familiar, but he has been among the most productive defensemen in the NHL this season.  “OEL” is 2-3-5 for the Coyotes in five games since the Olympic break, including the game-winning goal in Phoenix’ 5-2 win over Montreal on Thursday.  It is not just a short-run fling for Ekman-Larsson, who is among the top-ten in goal scoring for defensemen in the league (10) and top-20 in points (34).  He is 0-1-1 in two career games against the Capitals.

Mike Smith has had the lion’s share of the work in goal for the Coyotes this season, appearing in 53 of 63 games this season and four of five since the Olympic break.  In those four games he is 2-1-1, 1.97, .926, with a shutout over Vancouver last Tuesday.  It is part of a longer run of fine performances for Smith, a 1.62 goals-against average and a .944 save percentage with two shutouts over his last eight appearances.  He is 4-3-1 in those eight appearances.  He has had little success against the Caps, though.  In eight career appearances he is 1-6-0, 4.66, .852.

1.  There is a glass half full, glass half empty quality to the Coyote offense lately.  Over their past seven games Phoenix is 8-for-28 on the power play (28.6 percent), but they have only 15 goals overall.  Only once in those seven games have the Coyotes scored more than two goals, their 5-2 win over Montreal on Thursday.

2.  In five of those same seven games Phoenix allowed two or fewer goals five times, the only times they allowed more coming in losses to Colorado and St. Louis, four goals to each.

3.  Phoenix is a middle-of-the-road offensive team overall (2.71 G/Gm, 15th in scoring offense), but where they have struggled all year is at the start of games. Only six teams have fewer first period goals.

4.  Keeping games close is what Phoenix does, and they are reasonably successful doing it.  Of their 63 games to date, 28 of them have been decided by one-goal, and the Coyotes are 13-4-11 in those decisions.  In games decided by more than one goal the Coyotes are 16-19.

5.  The Coyotes are not an especially effective possession team.  They rank 17th in Corsi-for percentage in 5-on-5 close score situations (49.4 percent) and 18th in Fenwick-for percentage (49.6 percent).

1.  Until the Caps were shut out by Boston on Thursday, the Caps had scored four or more goals in four straight games and in five of six contests.  Offense has not been all that much of a problem for the team.  In their last 13 games, including the shutout at the hands of Boston, the Caps scored four or more goals eight times.  But when they don’t… they have been shut out twice in their last eight games.

2.  The power play has been an all or nothing affair lately.  In their last nine games the Caps have had multiple power play goal games four times and been shut out on the power play five times.

3.  For a while there, it looked as if the Caps penalty killers were improving.  In a three game stretch from February 4-8 they were a perfect 9-for-9 killing penalties.  Over their last five games, though, they are 12-for-17 (70.6 percent) and were perhaps saved from allowing one to Boston on Thursday by not having to endure any shorthanded situations.

4.  The Caps are a “skill” team, it is said.  They play a more wide-open style, many say.  However, of the 64 games played so far the Caps have 34 one-goal decisions.  They are 16-8-10 in those decisions.  When the games are less close?  The Caps are 13-17 when the games are settled by two or more goals.

5.  53.5, 45.8, 48.1, 33.3, 27.1.  That is the progression of Corsi-for percentages in 5-on-5 close score situations over the Caps’ last five games.  The Fenwick-for percentage isn’t any better.  Small wonder the Caps are 2-2-1 since the Olympic break and losers of their last three games.  They don’t have the puck.

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Phoenix: Keith Yandle

Four teams in the NHL have two defensemen with at least 34 points: Chicago, Montreal, St. Louis, and the Coyotes.  Oliver Ekman-Larsson we spoke of above.  The other is Keith Yandle.  The Massachusetts native is known primarily as an offensive defenseman. He has topped 30 points in each of the last six seasons, including this one (7-34-41).  He is one of only four defensemen over those six seasons with a combined total of at least 50 goals and at least 240 points (Yandle has 55 and 244).  The others are Shea Weber, Dan Boyle, and the Caps’ Mike Green.  Lately it has been a matter of helpers for Yandle.  He has just one goal over his last 24 games, but he has 13 assists over that same span, including five in his last seven contests.  He is 0-4-4 in five career games against Washington.

Washington: Mike Green

Speaking of helpers, Mike Green has six in his last eight games for the Caps.  He also has three multiple-point games in his last seven contests (3-5-8 overall).  He remains one of the top defensemen in the game on special teams (tied for 17th place in points), but one wonders if there is, if not a changing of the guard, then more a sharing of responsibilities from the blue line on the power play.  John Carlson leads the Caps in average ice time on the power play among defensemen (3:09 to 2:56 for Green) and has 13 power play points of his own.  Except for the 2:43 he averaged on the power play in 2011-2012 (perhaps due to equal parts Dennis Wideman and Dale Hunter), his 2:56 in average power play ice time this season is well over a minute less than the average ice time marks he had since 2007-2008.  Green is 0-1-1 in four career games against Phoenix.


1.  5-on-5. Only eight teams in the NHL have allowed fewer goals at 5-on-5 than the Coyotes.  However, the Coyotes are something of a crap-shoot in 5-on-5 close score situations.  They rank just 15th overall in goals allowed in such situations and their 66 goals scored and 68 goals allowed ranks them 16th in goals scored/allowed ratio.  The Caps need to keep Phoenix under that 50 percent mark here.

2.  Chin Up.  The Caps have lost three in a row and have looked progressively worse doing so. Worse, their body English suggests they are starting to look beaten.  Except for a flurry against the Flyers (after the Flyers took a 4-0 lead), the Caps have looked sluggish and indifferent.  The attitude has to change…quickly.

3.  Theft in Plain Sight.  When was the last time a Caps goalie stole a game?  The answer to that question – and the time you take to answer it – might be why Jaroslav Halak is a Capital today and will get the start against Phoenix tonight.  There will be games, especially in this rough stretch on the schedule, in which a goalie is going to have to steal a win or two (or three) in the face of a barrage of shots and relentless pressure.  Phoenix is not among the top offenses that the Caps will see this month, but they still could use a top-notch performance from a goalie if goaltending is the difference in the decision.

In the end…

There really is not a lot left to say about urgency or must-win games or the calendar.  There are games the Caps need to win, and there are games they have to win.  Given what looms on the schedule – a home-and-home, back-to-back set against Pittsburgh next week – this game is both for the Caps.  The Coyotes will be annoying in their style, a diligent, “system” team.  It is not one against which the Caps have a lot of recent success, alternating wins and losses over their five meetings.  The Caps having lost their only decision to Phoenix so far this season (a 4-3 Gimmick loss on November 9th), it is the Caps’ turn.

Capitals 3 – Coyotes 2