Friday, January 25, 2008

Soaring Into the Break

It's been awhile since the Caps have had to play a real grind-it-out type of game - in recent weeks it's been more like the last person to touch the puck wins, with several high-scoring affairs under their belts.

The Leafs inspired a different type of game, though, the type of game the Caps used to play in a pre-Boudreau era of trapping and defense-first mentality. It wasn't always pretty and it certainly wasn't always successful. The difference? Now you get the feeling that this team can snatch two points out of any situation, including but not limited to these types of games - when it used to feel like the opposite.

If Wednesday's game was a chess match between the coaches, last night's was a good old-fashioned goaltender's duel. The winner of this round was Brent Johnson, who came up huge for the Caps and gave them every opportunity to steal a game against a team that played much better in Verizon than back at home. Stopping thirty of thirty-one shots, Johnson was the deciding factor and the hero for the Caps, making sure that mistakes were nipped in the bud and frustrating the Leafs' attackers at every turn.

It was certainly Johnson's night, but don't underestimate the role of the other nineteen guys on the ice. There was some sloppy play and some defensive miscues to be sure, and we'll address that in a minute. But they also backed each other up remarkably well and came through with a gritty, hard-hitting win for their efforts.

The shot-blocking efforts of Quintin Laing continued to impress. Erskine kept up his run of solid defensive (and very physical) play. Kozlov's perfectly timed goal quashed any momentum the Leafs might have had after tying up the game and continued his recent hot streak. Ovechkin was everywhere as always, picking up two assists. And a tip-in goal by Brooks Laich not only broke the stalemate but matched his career high for goals with 30+ games remaining.

So bad stuff - well, discipline was a bit of an issue in this one and the power play, despite the last second marker by Laich, looked mostly unimpressive. They looked tired. Turnovers were rampant. Oh, and they might have broken a few of the Leafs.

They get two points, though, and now they get a serendipitous four day break to rest the weary bones and come back blazing in their last Canadian home and home against the ever feisty Habs.

As we bid Ovechkin and Backstrom good luck in Atlanta and wave goodbye to the rest of the team for a well-deserved break, it's as good a time as any to look at where we stand right now:

- With Atlanta, Florida and Tampa all dropping their games last night, the Caps slide into sole ownership of second place in the division. To put that into perspective, the gap between the Caps and first-place Carolina was fourteen points before Thanksgiving; it's now one.

(Yeah, no one else can believe it either...)

- By picking up the second half of the home and home after dropping round one in Toronto, the Caps extend their streak of not losing back to back games in regulation to an astounding 29 games. We're talking almost a decade since that happened the last time, folks.

- Last night's win also gave the Caps their fifth win in six games, their eighth in the last eleven, and a record of 15-6-3 since December 1. That's 33 of a possible 45 points during that span, a remarkable pace for a team that everyone was counting out not too long ago.

- After scoring just three goals in his first 40 games and only one since November 8, Viktor Kozlov suddenly has five goals in his last four games and has eight points in the last seven games.

- Brent Johnson has won three straight games and five of his last six, with the one loss coming in relief of Kolzig in the 6-4 loss to the Flyers. His six wins already match his total for all of last season and he's looking poised to surpass his previous high as a Capital of nine wins.

- We got Kris Beech back. Again. Yay.

- Both Backstrom and Ovechkin have been plus or even in every game since December 20th - a span of fifteen games.

- Quintin Laing has been a minus player only twice in the 23 games he's played since being called up (and also has 31 blocked shots...only two fewer than the number of shots he's taken). What a guy - he's got my vote, too...

- Backstrom has two goals and fifteen assists in his last fifteen games and has moved into second place in rookie scoring. His 32 assists are 18th in the league and he is in the top 60 scorers overall.

- After missing a good chunk of the season, Alexander Semin has suddenly found his groove again and has ten goals in his last fourteen games. He's also been a plus or even player in each of his last six games.

- Alex Ovechkin has a seven game point scoring streak going, which ties the longest streak of his career. During that stretch he's amassed thirteen points (7 G, 6 A), has vaulted into the league lead in goals with 39 and is tied for third in the league in points. He's also a team-leading +11.

Some small, tiny, miniscule areas of concern:

- Olie Kolzig. Period. There's no way around this one, he's been inconsistent from game to game and even within games, and he needs to find another level to his play - and fast.

- Matt Pettinger has struggled all year long and has just one point, an assist, since December 15th. He's also a -12 on the year - second highest on the team behind only Michael Nylander. While it's not for lack of trying, the frustration is starting to show in his game and when Clark comes back Pettinger may find himself on the outside looking in.

- The injuries to Chris Clark and Brian Pothier continue to test the depth of this Caps team. The club has soldiered on and continued to pick up points, but down the stretch their absence is going to be felt. They need to get healthy ASAP.

- It's just a little dip, but Mike Green is pointless in his last three games and recently he's had some bad turnovers that have led to goals or scoring chances for the other team. It could just be fatigue; his ice time has been up around the 26-27 minute mark over the last fourteen games and the team just completed a pretty rugged stretch. Hopefully after a nice long weekend Greenie will be back to his old self.

Overall? Things look good in CapsLand. Bring on the All-Star festivities!


Victor said...

RE: Olie--While he's a fraction of a second slower than he used to be, and his side-to-side mobility isn't what it used to by...and, yeah, *he's* not quite what he used to be...let's recognize our defense is still waaaaay young, and is probably the defensive corps that's most giving Olie fits.

Maal said...

Plus you know, Em's playing again, so that's uh... ok totally not a factor, but yay?

DMG said...

Olie's problem's go well beyond a lessening of lateral movement - he's significantly slower but he's also slower to recover when he goes down, leaves his 5-hole open far too much and hasn't had very good rebound control. I'm less inclined that other Caps fans to blame the defense and less inclined than Olie to blame Boudreau, and as Tarik noted today:

Since Coach Bruce Boudreau stepped behind the bench on Nov. 22, Johnson has been one of the team's best players. He is 5-1 with a 2.05 goals against average and .926 save percentage since Boudreau arrived, and his coach believes he has earned the right to play more down the stretch.

Brendan said...

Am I the only person who realizes that while time on the Leaf's side of the ice was very high both the first and (sloppy) second period, but both teams had the same amount of shots. Overall, the Caps tried to stick-handle the puck way too much at this game. Instead of Pass, Pass, Pass... the Caps need to start hoping plays will come and start making plays and most of all taking shots.