Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Washington Capitals: The 2013-2014 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Capitals at Sharks, March 22nd

Game eight on our journey through the games that mattered in the Washington Capitals’ 2013-2014 season takes us to the other side of the continent, to a place where momentum went to die – often – if you were a Washington Capital.

March 22, 2014: Washington (33-27-11) at San Jose (46-18-7)

Result: Capitals 3 – Sharks 2 (OT/SO)

The Background: If the Greek mythology figure Sisyphus had been a hockey fan, he would recognize the relationship between the Capitals and San Jose, California. Just like poor Sisyphus rolling that boulder up the hill, only to watch it roll back down every time, the Capitals flew to San Jose 12 times since winning there in October 1993, and 12 times they returned to D.C. without a win (0-11-1). All in all, it was 7,447 days that the Caps went without a win in San Jose. Getting one on the 7,448th day was not looking too promising, what with the Sharks having gone 12-3-1 since February 1st heading into their match with the Caps.

Why It Mattered: The teams spent the first three minutes feeling each other out, the Capitals recording the only shot on goal. The pace quickened shortly thereafter, though, with rapid bursts – four shots by the Caps in a 56 second span, three by San Jose in a 38 second span. And that was before the game was nine minutes old.

Both goalies held firm, but it would be Holtby’s sturdiness that was rewarded at the other end of the rink in the 12th minute of the period, thanks to some hard work and a nod from the hockey gods. Logan Couture tried to skate the puck out of harm’s way in the Sharks’ end but had the puck poked off his stick by Eric Fehr. Jason Chimera beat Couture to the loose puck and skated it below the San Jose goal line to the left of goalie Antti Niemi. Chimera fed the puck back out to the right wing circle for Fehr, and that’s when the hilarity started (well, it was funny to Caps fans).

Fehr leaned into a shot from the right wing faceoff dot that Niemi blocked with his right pad. However, the rebound was left in the low slot. Sharks defenseman Justin Braun got to the puck and tried to shoot it out of danger toward the left point and off the wall. What he did not count on was teammate Matt Nieto skating into the path Braun chose. Braun’s clearing attempt hit Nieto in the right leg and caromed toward the open net. If that wasn’t enough, it appeared that Braun nudged it further on its way as it was sailing through the air, essentially backhanding the puck into his own net. The gift was hardly compensation for all the grief the Caps took in this arena over the years, but it was accepted nonetheless.

This being a Caps game in San Jose, though, things could not go right forever. With just 15 seconds left in the period. Nieto and the Caps’ Jack Hillen were dueling over a puck bouncing toward the Caps’ blue line. Nieto spiked it into the corner to Holtby’s right where Mike Green recovered it. Green tried to spin and backhand the puck along the back wall to Hillen, but Nieto intercepted the weak pass. After circling from around the cage from Holtby’s left, Nieto took two whacks at the puck. Neither got past Holtby, but Holtby could not cover either attempt. The puck squirted out to Holtby’s right where Patrick Marleau banged it home with just 5.6 seconds left in the period.

After a scoreless middle frame it was San Jose’s turn to score first in a period. It started when Jason Chimera tried a shot from the right point. His attempt hit the shin pads of James Sheppard and rebounded out into the neutral zone. Sheppard jumped on the loose puck in the neutral zone and was off on a breakaway. Sheppard drew Holtby out to cover what looked to be a backhand attempt, but it was a fake. Sheppard slid the puck between Holtby’s pads along the ice, and the Sharks had a 2-1 lead five minutes into the period.

Any other time, that would have been it for the Caps in this building. But the Caps got a life from a most unexpected source. Tom Wilson started the play skating down the right wing and into the San Jose zone. Scott Hannan stood Wilson up just inside the blue line, but not before Wilson sent the puck in deep along the wall. Both men went for the puck behind the Sharks’ net, and Wilson annoyed Hannan enough for him to lose control of the puck to Dustin Penner. From behind the net to Niemi’s right, Penner sent the puck out to Chris Brown at the inside edge of the left wing circle. Brown’s shot pinballed off both Nieto and Dan Boyle before settling behind Niemi for the goal to tie the game 12:30 into the third period.

That would be all the scoring in the hockey portion of the game. After Logan Couture was denied in the first round of the Gimmick, Evgeny Kunzetsov got the Caps off to a good start in their half of the round with a laser of a snap shot over Niemi’s right pad. Holtby made that goal stand up with a save on Joe Pavelski in round two, but he was beaten by Marleau in the top of the third round. That left it up to Nicklas Backstrom in the bottom of round three. After an achingly slow walk up to the Sharks’ net, Backstrom deked Niemi to the ice and flicked a backhand past the goalie’s outstretched glove and the Caps had something they had not experienced in more than 20 years.

A win in San Jose.

The Takeaway: The win in San Jose was thrilling enough, but it capped what was the most successful California trip in team history. With a win over Anaheim and a trick shot loss to the Los Angeles Kings, the Caps went 2-0-1 on this trip. Never had the Caps won as many as five of six possible standings points on a three-game trip to California. It was an especially noteworthy achievement coming near the end of a brutal March schedule that had the Caps playing 11 games against what would be playoff teams out of 14 contests over a span of 28 days. Further, the Caps were doing it with defense and goaltending. On the three game California trip the Caps allowed only five goals, part of a stretch in which they allowed only 17 goals in eight games.

In the end…

The “Death March” of a schedule in March saw the Caps finish 6-5-4.  It was not a bad record given the quality of competition the team faced.  The California trip, which loomed so large and inspired much trepidation in Capitals Nation, turned out to be the highlight of the month.  But even with that there was a catch.  The San Jose win was followed by five straight losses (0-3-2) that effectively put an end to the Capitals’ playoff hopes.  But in this moment, slaying the monster that was a 20-year losing streak, beating the San Jose Sharks mattered.

Photo: Don Smith/NHLI via Getty Images

Washington Capitals: The 2013-2014 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Capitals at Penguins, March 11th

As long as Alex Ovechkin skates for the Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby skates for the Pittsburgh Penguins, games between these teams will matter. However, one game in the 2013-2014 series meant more than the others. It is to that game we turn in the seventh game that mattered this season.

March 11, 2014: Washington (30-26-10) at Pittsburgh (43-17-4)

Result: Penguins 2 – Capitals 0

The Background: When the Capitals beat the Phoenix Coyotes on March 8th in what was goaltender Jaroslav Halak’s debut with the club, the Caps found themselves within one point of Detroit for eighth place in the Eastern Conference and two behind the New York Rangers for seventh place. If they could complete a successful back-to-back home-and-home set with the Pittsburgh Penguins, it would mean a three-game winning streak that might give the club momentum for a late season push to the playoffs. When the Caps lost at home in the first half of the set, it set up an important rematch in Pittsburgh the following night, not only for the Caps to keep contact with the teams in front of them in the standings, but to get a win against an arch rival they had yet to defeat in three tries this season.

Why It Mattered: In the first 16 minutes and change of the game there were more hits recorded (18) than shots on goal (11). Worse for the Caps, the Pens had nine of those shots on goal. Then, instead of merely being dominated, the Caps went all stupid. It started at the 16:26 mark when Dmitry Orlov collected a loose puck in the corner to goalie Jaroslav Halak’s left and threw it up ice to no one in particular. Evgeni Malkin stopped it with his skate, circled around Orlov, and made a beeline for the cage. But for a quick thinking Nicklas Backstrom, who hustled back on defense, Malkin would have had an easy set up to Taylor Pyatt all alone in the slot. Backstrom got his stick on the pass, though, and the puck skidded off to the left wing wall.

The Caps could not get the puck out of their end though, Pyatt beating Backstrom to the loose puck along the wall and nudging it back to the point where Rob Scuderi kept it in. Scuderi tried to bang the puck back down the wall, but it was deflected to the middle and onto Orlov’s stick once more. Orlov tried to move the puck up to Marcus Johansson, but there was Malkin and his skate again to stop the puck before it reached its intended target. Malkin skated down the right wing wall, turned and fed the puck back to Matt Niskanen at the right point. Niskanen sent a shot to the net that was dulled just enough by the stick of Jussi Jokinen to upset Halak’s timing on his save attempt. The puck slid through Halak’s pads and in, giving the Pens a 1-0 lead on their tenth shot of the period.

That is the way it remained for the next 37 minutes. Then, with the clock ticking under six minutes to play, Orlov was victimized one more time. This time he gloved a puck down at the left point in the Penguins’ end, but could not collect it and send it back down the wall before Lee Stempniak stepped up on him. They collided, and as they were getting untangled from each other, Sidney Crosby jumped on the loose puck and took off on a 2-on-1 break with Chris Kunitz, only Connor Carrick back on defense for the Caps. Crosby held the puck as he skated down the right side, then called his own number an instant before Carrick could poke the puck off his stick, sending a wrist shot under Halak’s right arm and into the far side of the net for a 2-0 Pittsburgh lead.

The Caps would muster some pressure in the next 5:48, putting seven of their 20 shots of the period on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. None of them found the back of the net, though, and the Caps skated off with their second loss in two nights to the Penguins.

The Takeaway: It was the fourth loss in four games to the Penguins in the 2013-2014 season and the Caps eighth straight loss to Pittsburgh overall. For Adam Oates it would be the last game he coached against the Penguins for the Capitals, contributing a record of 0-7-0 to that eight-game losing streak. He became the first coach to complete his tenure without having beaten Pittsburgh since Roger Crozier failed to do it. We should mention that Crozier coached the Caps for only one game, a 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers on November 7, 1981.

For the Caps it was their fifth loss in six games (1-4-1) and the second time they were shut out in a span of four games. Only four teams – Nashville, New Jersey, Edmonton, and Buffalo – would be shut out more often than the Caps, who were blanked eight times in 2013-2014. In this one the big guns were all but silent. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green combined for three of the Caps’ 32 shots on goal. Meanwhile, Jason Chimera (6) and Jack Hillen (5) accounted for more than a third of the total shots. On the other hand, the Penguins got shots from the players from whom they wanted them. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, and Matt Niskanen (assuming a bigger power play role in the absence of Kris Letang, who was recuperating from a stroke) combined for 15 of the Penguins’ 34 shots on goal. It spoke to a fine effort by the Caps’ new goalie, Jaroslav Halak.

In the end…

The Capitals-Penguins regular season rivalry has always been punctuated by streakiness. The Caps owned the series in the 1980’s. The Penguins dominated in the 1990s and early 2000’s. The Caps had a run in the Bruce Boudreau era. Now, the Penguins are on top. But really, no wins in eight tries, just one standings point earned in an overtime loss, and getting outscored by 30-14 in the process? The current streak ties the series’ longest winless streak for the Caps dating back from November 28, 1992 through November 26, 1993 (0-6-2). The Caps still own the longest winning streak in the series with Pittsburgh, nine games from December 2, 1984 through November 20, 1985, but to give you an idea of how long ago that is, the end of the streak came in Adam Oates’ rookie season as a player in the NHL.

It was the end of a gruesome 24 hours for the Caps against arguably their most hated rival. All games against the Pittsburgh Penguins matter in Capitals Nation, but the manner in which this one slammed home the point that one team was superior, and it was not the Caps, made this one matter a little bit more.

Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America