Thursday, June 12, 2014

Washington Capitals: The 2013-2014 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Sabres at Capitals, January 12th

The fifth game in our look back at games that mattered in the Washington Capitals’ 2013-2014 season provides an illustration of one reason the Capitals struggled so much to build momentum over the course of the season, an inability to win low scoring games.

January 12, 2014: Buffalo (12-26-5) at Washington (22-16-6)

Result: Sabres 2 – Capitals 1 (OT/SO)

Background:  When the Buffalo Sabres came to town on January 12th, they were a team made to order for the Capitals.  The Capitals were in the midst of gaining momentum after enduring a four game losing streak that spilled over from the end of 2013 into the start of the new calendar year, winning consecutive games over the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Toronto Maple Leafs before the Sabres came to town. 

On the other hand, the Sabres came to Verizon Center not having won a road game in more than two months.  Since earning a 5-4 Gimmick win in San Jose on November 5th the Sabres were 0-9-2 away from First Niagara Center as they descended on D.C.

What could go wrong?

Why It Mattered:  The last time these clubs met, in the penultimate game of the 2013 portion of the season, the Capitals had a devil of a time trying to solve Sabres' goaltender Ryan Miller.  They did not do so until the third period when a Troy Brouwer goal tied the game.  It would be the only puck the Caps put behind Miller all night, including six rounds of a shootout in a 2-1 Buffalo win.

The Caps found home ice more to their liking in their rematch against Miller, at least early. Mid-way through the first period Washington scored on a bit of a fluke play.  It started when Joel Ward laid off the puck to Jason Chimera at the Buffalo blue line.  Chimera skated the puck down the wall to the far edge of the left wing circle and wristed a pass toward Marcus Johansson heading to the far post.  The puck never got to Johansson, though.  Brian Flynn was backchecking on the play for the Sabres and had inside position on Johansson.  He tried to interrupt the pass by extending his stick into the path of the puck, but the result was to redirect the biscuit over Miller’s right pad and in, giving the Caps a 1-0 lead.

Once more, however, it would be the only puck the Caps would be able to put behind Miller.  That meant that for the Caps to win, they would have to find a way to keep the Sabres off the scoreboard unless they wanted to put their faith in trick shots again.

They did not. 

In their December 29th meeting, Buffalo scored their lone goal with less than two minutes remaining in the second period.  On this night they would score their lone goal with less than two minutes remaining in the first period.  With the Sabres on a power play they gained the offensive zone with speed as the clock ticked under two minutes to play in the opening frame.  Cody Hodgson backed off the Capital defense and slid the puck to Matt Moulson on the left wing at the Capitals’ blue line.  Moulson sent the puck across to Christian Ehrhoff who, from along the right wing wall, fired the puck to the Washington net.  The shot was hung up in the skates of Hodgson, who charged the net.  The puck squirted out to the low slot where Tyler Ennis was all alone to put the puck past goalie Philipp Grubauer.

The irony of the sequence was that when it started in the Capitals zone with Hodgson carrying the puck out, Ennis and Joel Ward got tangled up with both tumbling to the ice behind the play.  Ennis popped up and beat Ward down the ice to put himself in a position to pounce on the loose puck.  The Caps just did not have enough men to cover as much space as there was for Ennis to find an opening.

That would be all the Sabres could manage against Grubauer, who held the Sabres to a single goal in the hockey portion of the December 29th contest as well.  So, in a replay of that December 29th game, the teams went to the freestyle competition.  Miller turned an attempt by Eric Fehr aside.  Grubauer blockered away a Matt Moulson attempt.  Alex Ovechkin deked Miller to the ice but could not lift the puck over Miller’s left pad.  Linus Omark tried to distract Grubauer with a kick step as he approached, but Grubauer smothered his shot.  When Nicklas Backstrom failed at the top of the third round, it was up to Cody Hodgson for Buffalo.  When Hodgson snapped the puck over Grubauer’s glove and in, the Sabres had their second straight 2-1 trick shot win over the Caps in two weeks.

The Takeaway:  With this loss the Caps had a record of 3-13-4 in games in which they scored two or fewer goals in the hockey portion of games.  All of their wins were officially recorded as 3-2 wins earned in the Gimmick.  They would finish the season 4-25-7 in 36 games in which they scored two or fewer goals in regulation or overtime, all four wins coming in the apr├Ęs-party phase of those contests.

The more immediate problem was that this loss was the first in what would be a seven-game losing streak (0-5-2), the Caps’ longest since the eight-game winless skid chronicled by HBO in the run-up to the 2011 Winter Classic.  Buffalo had a strange effect on the Caps in this season.  There was the streak following this loss, and the Gimmick loss to the Sabres on December 29th was the first in what would be a four-game winless streak (0-2-2).  Not even beating the Sabres seemed to work; the Caps beat them, 5-4 in overtime, on January 28th then lost their next two games.  If the Caps never had to play the Sabres, they might have avoided 13 losses (0-8-5 in games following those played against the Sabres).

All joking aside, the Caps’ inability to win low scoring games reflected the lack of having goalies steal games when scoring was at a premium.  Grubauer could hardly be faulted for this loss or the one on December 29th.  He stopped 46 of 48 shots in those two games, a .958 save percentage, and only allowed the two game-deciding trick shot tallies.  However, it remained that Capitals goalies were just not quite good enough to ever find themselves on the good side of those low-scoring affairs. 

In the end…

If it was these sorts of games that George McPhee had in mind when he claimed in early February that better goaltending would have meant ten more standings points, it would be a high bar for goalies anywhere to clear.  Still, going winless in 36 such low scoring games, save for the Bettman Miracle, played at least a part in the Caps’ failure to reach the post-season for a seventh consecutive year.

There is another issue here.  The Caps were 1-0-2 against the Sabres in 2013-2014.  Overall they were 19-10-8 against teams not qualifying for the playoffs.  While that might look, at first glance, like a good record (it is a 102-point pace over 82 games), it is hardly dominating over the also-rans of the league.  It is in no small part a reason why the Caps were also-rans themselves. 

There was, however, one far more important more reason why this game mattered.  It was an opportunity to grant a wish over a weekend to a tough guy in the best sense of the term… 

 Grubauer Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images