Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tuesday Night Is Hockey Night In Bristow

As a break to a hectic day in a hectic week, we simple Bristow, VA residents settled down to watch the Washington Capitals vs the Nashville Predators on Comcast, turning on the TV a little early, I was rewarded with the tail end of Gladiator on one of the Cinemax Channels and once again realized it's on so much because it's a great movie. It's an even better movie when you're getting ready to watch some NHL gladiators. The great movie line of the night before the game was: "He was a soldier of Rome - - - Honor him." At least for me it was the perfect mood setting line before watching a hockey game.

The first period was barely half over and the Caps were up 2-0. One of Craig Laughlin's better comments of the season or at least of late is noting how the Predators defenseman are all having a hard time just understanding how fast Alexander Ovechkin plays this game. The intensity of the Caps forced the play and the Predators were just either stymied or forced to commit penalties. Alexander Ovechkin had two assists already and his setup pass to Nicklas Backstrom for the second goal of the period was just pure mastery. When Ovechkin retires in about 15 or more years the highlight reel will be movie length and require an intermission the way this guy plays the game. Perhaps taking a cue from Overchkin - Brooks Laich also made a highlight reel setup pass to a wide open Matt Bradley who banged it home for a 3-0 lead at 14:40, and the Predators changed goalies. Chris Mason was put in for Dan Ellis who was victimized for 3 goals in 8 shots. At the other end through the first period Christobel Huet stopped all 7 of the Predators shot including two really awesome saves; Huet also could just have easily gotten a secondary assist on the Bradley goal. At the end of the first period, Sami Lepisto was in the box and The Great Eight was limping after getting hit in the right boot from a shot on his last shift of the period but the Caps were up 3-0. The first period was as they say "All Caps - All the Time"; Ovechkin had two assists one on Semin's power play goal at 6:49 and one on Nicklas Backstrom's 12th goal of the season at 9:59. Those assists were Ovechkin's 100th and 101st points of the season.

The second period started with Nashville on the power play. Caps fans had to be relieved when they saw Alexander Ovechkin out skating again, even though right after the Lepisto penalty was killed Tom Poti was called for cross-checking. The quick penalty on Poti meant the Caps were shorthanded for (time of goal less 37 seconds) of the period before the Predators' J.P. Dumont made it 3-1 with a power play goal, his 28th of the season at 4:09. Dumont's goal energized the Nashville team for the next six minutes or so, putting on their own forechecking exhibition and manufacturing several good scoring chances. However, Christobel Huet made a couple of excellent saves and the Caps regrouped and resumed the relentless forechecking that has become their style of play since Thanksgiving. Once the Caps had regrouped the pace of play became "blistering" with end to end hockey, and the Predators were every bit as intense as the Capitals had been in the first period. Unlike the first period where the Predators seemed like they couldn't keep up with any of the Capitals, the only line they seemed to be perplexed by in the second was the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Kozlov line and Chris Mason kept the Capital's sharpshooters "out of the net". During the second period Huet, like Ovechkin in the first, was a one man highlight reel stopping everything thrown at him, including a 1 on 0 breakaway by Dumont during 4 on 4 play while Eric Fehr and Scott Nichol were in the "sin bin". The Predators seemed to have made some clear adjustments between the first and second periods. The biggest three were a) how they played Mike Green - check him, check him and check him some more every time he got the puck; 2) how they played Ovechkin - as tight as mere mortals could possibly do so, even if that meant giving more room to Kozlov or Backstrom; and 3) forecheck as intensely and relentlessly as they saw the Caps do during the first period. Following the Dumont goal the Predators clearly outplayed the boys from DC however, Christobel Huet stole the period for the Caps. During the second period Nashville outshot the Washington 9-4 and had solid scoring chances, they also often bottled the Caps up in their own end for much of the period.

The third period was a back and forth match with some really fun hockey to watch for fans of both teams. The Capitals first line clearly caused lots of issues for the Predators, though the "Preds" were not without their own scoring chances; and an awesome center ice hit on Alexander Semin certainly got the Nashville crowd into the game for a while. After s lot of back and forth play the Predators scored during a 6-5 while the Caps had a delayed penalty call and Mason was on the bench. The Caps seemed to sit back, the Preds came down the ice and Jason Arnott scored on a wristshot through a partially screened Huet. Then right after that at 13:23 Matt Cooke was whistled off for tripping and the Predators swarmed. The attack was relentless and intense and at 14:19 they actually took Huet's mask off with a shot. After Huet's mask was taken off the rest of the Caps team seemed to realize they needed to play the final five minutes of the game. The Predators pulled Chris Mason at 18:25 and played like a team possessed. The Capitals responded playing unselfish defense and the crowd was on the edge of their seats or on their feet until at 19:56 Ovechkin with an unselfish clear off the boards netted the empty net insurance goal to "seal the deal" for Washington.

The Predators played a much more physical game in the second and third periods and that changed the whole "demeanor" of the game. During the first period the Predators repeatedly gave the Capitals shots on goal inside the slot. In the final two periods, the Predators got on the Caps forwards much earlier as they came in to the offensive zone. This single adjustment by the Predators changed the game and at times it seemd they were able to physically stifle the Caps. Six of the seven shots (including their three early goals) from the low slot were allowed by the predators in the first period. Overall though the game was pretty even - statistically. Through the 60 minutes of regulation the comparisons look like this: a) Shots on Goal: Caps 21, Predators 26; b) PIM: Capitals 12, Preds; 6; c) Hits: Caps 23, Preds 17; d) Giveaways: Caps 4, Preds 9; e) Takeaways: Caps 8, Preds 6; f) Faceoffs: Caps 28, Predators 36. The difference that tipped the scales in the Capitals favor were the shoulders of two players: Ovechkin who had 3 points (1G & 2A), 4 SOG, 2 Hits, and 3 Blocked Shots on 20 shifts and 20:54 of ice time and Christobel Huet with 24 saves and a save percentage of 92.308. Overall the Caps walked away with the first period; were severely outplayed in the second but kept in the lead by Huet; and in the third period it was basically a draw though in the end the Caps pulled the period out with Ovechkin's empty netter - his 58th goal of the season. The game was crucial for both teams but in many respects the Capitals needed it more and got it. Tonight's game was one of two games in hand the Caps have on the division leading Carolina Hurricanes and the win pulls them within three points of the rival 'Canes. Additionally, if you were scoreboard watching the Caps got no help tonight in the quest for 8th place in the Eastern Conference as the 8th place Philadelphia Flyers also won tonight.

In any case it was "a two point night". Next up - the Chicago Blackhawks tomorrow night at United Center. The Blackhawks are 4-5-1 in their last 10 games and 18-16-2 overall at home; additionally, the Hawks have a couple of injuries they are working though so there is another possible road win against a Western Conference opponent. However, it is Tony Esposito night and the sellout crowd will be looking to see why their rookie phenom, RW Patrick Kane (17 G, 45 A for 62 points) should be the Calder Cup winner over Caps rookie Center Nicklas Backstrom (12 G, 49A for 61 points) and rooting for their rebuilding 'Hawks to spoil the Caps drive for the playoffs. Players to watch? For the Caps: Backstrom, Ovechkin (wouldn't he like to get goals 59, 60, and 61 in "an original 6 city") and Kolzig (wouldn't he like to get win 302 on "Tony Esposito Night" and match or best Huet's 92.3% save percentage tonight). For the Blackhawks: Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews. The 19 year old Toews has played 55 games this season and has 20 goals - he is the "other Alex" to Kane's "Ovechkin".

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