Friday, January 02, 2015

A TWO-Point Classic: Capitals 3 - Blackhawks 2

The Washington Capitals are Kings of the Classic.  With their last-minute 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on New Year’s Day, the Caps became the first team in the seven-game series to date to win two games.  We penned a summary of the day’s events that you can read here.  However, we did have a few more thoughts on the game.

If there has been a common thread in the Capitals’ arc over the last six or seven years, it is that they do not handle adversity well in big games.  This has been a common theme in their playoff disappointments, and it has crept into rivalry games as well (see the recent long losing streak to the Pittsburgh Penguins, for example).  Yesterday was a big game on a big stage against a big time opponent.  And when the Caps got out to a two-goal lead, they encountered the demon – a two-headed sort of the formidable Chicago Blackhawks and their own propensity recently to wear a path to the penalty box.

Fans might have been forgiven if they were thinking, “oh, here we go again,” when the Blackhawks tied the game on a power play and a giveaway behind their own net with barely three minutes gone in the second period.  This is the point where, in almost any big game you can think of over the past half-dozen years, the Caps would have wilted.

They did not.  They stopped the bleeding, in part due to the sturdy goaltending of Braden Holtby (for whom this might have been a coming out party into the light of elite goalie status) and in part to a steely resolve on the part of the skaters, who bent, but would not break as the Blackhawks mounted rush after rush. 

Head Coach Barry Trotz speaks of the Caps playing a “heavy” game, of being a hard team to play against.  That is all well and good, but a team has to have the fortitude to impose its will upon an opponent to play that sort of game.  That was the fault line upon which this game was played.  The Caps wanted to wear down the Blackhawks along the walls and in the corners, and wreak havoc in front of goaltender Corey Crawford.  Chicago wanted to play the game between the dots over the 200-foot ice surface, using speed and skill to get pucks behind defenders and open up the middle of the ice to allow their talent to thrive. 

It was a back and forth game as far as those competing styles were concerned.  The Caps won the early battles and capitalized on getting numbers in front of the net when Alex Ovechkin batted home a rebound of a Mike Green shot.  The Blackhawks controlled the middle portion of the game in backing the Caps into their own end and using their skill and experience on a big stage to threaten the Caps’ net repeatedly.

The difference was that the Caps matched the Blackhawks in minimizing the damage despite the occasional advantages the other squad might have had in establishing its style of play.  What made the effort more impressive for the Caps was having to do it despite having to kill off three power plays in the second period, including a 5-on-3 power play that lasted 1:31.  On that power play the Blackhawks failed to record a shot on goal.

It might have been the turning point in the game.  At that point it was clear that the Caps could match the Blackhawks, thrust for thrust, challenge for challenge.  No less a commentator than Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville said later that it was the biggest factor in the loss, an inability to score in a 5-on-3 situation.  In a larger sense it might be the turning point for the season.  The Caps had the look of a team that has finally grown up.

Some other thoughts…
  • If there is to be a regular rotation of sites for this contest, Washington should be in it.  For all the commentary about a lack of buzz about this game (of which we need to plead guilty as well), the game production was, from television at least, excellent.  The things that neither the league nor the Caps could control (that is, the weather) had something to do with this. It was a picture-perfect day.  But the things that they, and their television partners, could control came off very well, from the set piece of the teams skating down the “Reflecting Pool” to the rink to the production elements.  The only thing with which we might quibble was NBC being a little too free and easy with “cameras in motion.”  It was a bit dizzying at times.
  • Referee-Cam… nice touch.  When the state of technology allows for an embedded camera in the goaltender’s mask, that might be a winner, too.
  • This game is often a game for the grinders, if only because so much attention is paid to the stars.  Eric Fehr made good on that, but on a “star” sort of play when he jumped on a bouncing puck that eluded defenseman Brent Seabrook, beat Seabrook down the ice, then deked Crawford to the ice before sliding the puck past his left pad to open the scoring.  Fehr became the all-time goal scorer in this series to date, perhaps fitting for a guy who had a large part of his early career lost to injuries and who remade himself from a scoring winger to a grinding center (he won the faceoff that started the scoring sequence).
  • Not that the stars were not heard from.  Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green each registered two points, and both did it in ways that were quite different from the way they might have done it earlier in their careers.  Ovechkin scored a goal that might have been characterized as “greasy,” pouncing on a rebound of a Mike Green shot that he swatted into the back of the net before Crawford could respond.  He assisted on the game winner when he carried the puck to the Blackhawk net, but had his stick slashed in two before he could get a shot off.  Troy Brouwer alertly pick up the puck, spun, and snapped a shot past Crawford.  Green assisted on the last two goals, although it might be hard to conjure a mental image of how he did it.  It was his shot that produced the rebound on Ovechkin’s goal, and it was he who collected the puck off a Brouwer face off win at center ice, then sent Ovechkin on his way with a cross-ice pass. In year’s past, it might have been “Game Over Green” being center stage on the game winner.
  • For both Ovechkin and Green, it was less a case of being rock stars, of being the “Young Guns” of their early days, and just being hockey players, making plays, and being strong in the face of adversity.  It was something that could be said of the whole roster, a testament to the influence of head coach Barry Trotz, perhaps, but also to the maturity that seems to have taken over this team that allowed it to dig down and stand firm against a team of Stanley Cup pedigree.
This is something upon which this team can build as the 2015 portion of the season unfolds.