Last night at "the Phone Booth" aka Verizon Center the Washington Capitals hosted the Buffalo Sabres for the second meeting between these two NHL Eastern Conference foes of the four times they'll meet this regular season. In very brief summary for Caps fans it was a two point night, and Alex Ovechkin scored another one of those goals that make it clear why he's the most exciting AND most valuable player in the NHL today. If all you're looking for is bottom line stuff you need read no further, the above is the bottom line on last night's game. For those wanting just a touch of color, here it is, my son and I watched from our perches in Section 103, the atmosphere was electric, it was a sellout crowd, only a few misguided Sabre fans in blue jerseys, most folks were clearly into it and Rocked the Red. This was perhaps the best non-playoff game of hockey we've ever been too; certainly the most fun game to we've attended prior to the All Star Break. [ed note: Summary over, there's already been a lot about this game posted around the blogsphere, so I'll just be posting some general observations and musings about it. But it was an awesome game for the Caps and Caps fans.]
Last night was a great game for the Capitals, for a lot of reasons, not just the obvious ones: 1) The Caps won the game in regulation. 2) So far this morning, it appears the Caps got through the game with both 2 points and no more injuries, though Tyler Sloan's low TOI makes it clear he's probably still on the mend. 3) Because of the injuries, this was another "character game" for the Caps; and they never lost composure, despite clearly outplaying the Sabres during the first period and having Patrick Lalime keep his team tied with them despite being out shot 15 - 8 in the first stanza. Those being the obvious reasons it was a great game for the Caps here's some observations and musings on more subtle or specific reasons it was great.
The Caps did what they needed to do in every set of match ups and category of comparisons.
A) In goal Jose Theodore had a very, very solid night. The Caps never trailed in the game. Theodore had a save percentage of 0.917 (22 of 24), without any help from the referee, and the two goals that did get in were not in any way "softies." In fact Thee-O , was pretty much without fault on the two he let in. The first one he was screened by multiple guys and the second he had two Sabres, one on each side of the doorstep unencumbered. Throughout the game he made all the sames he should have and at least a couple that were pretty amazing and kept the Caps either tied at 0-0 or in the lead. Patrick Lalime, at the other end, also played an excellent game and as cited by Theodore after the game, pretty much kept his team in it for the duration. Lalime's save percentage of record for the game was 0.915 (31 of 34). But there were numerous entire shifts where Lalime didn't get the help he should have gotten from the team in front of him.
B) On defense, there was no chronic or systemic evidence during this game that the Caps blueline corps on the ice was significantly less experienced than their Buffalo counterparts. That's pretty much the bottom line but the reasons are much more subtle. The only Cap with a minus plus/minus rating for the game was Sean Collins who was on the ice with Karl Alzner for the Sabres second goal. That goal was scored by Maxim Afinogenov from the doorstep and was the only time both Caps defenseman were out of position at the same time all night. The reason that happened? Simple immediately prior to Lydman shooting the puck towards the net, Afinogenov got away with a weak cross-check of Boyd Gordon to get the room he needed to make the play. Gordon was properly lined up so Collins cheated out towards the shooter, hoping to maybe block a shot that he didn't block. A solid hockey play and why good things happen when you crash the net and mix it up. This isn't whining about the Sabres' second goal, the officiating, though with the usual level questionable calls we've come to expect this NHL season, was even handed. The point here is the Sabres didn't lose the game nor did they take it easy on Washington's relatively inexperienced blueline corps. Overall for the game the Caps Blueliners were +4, to the Sabres Blueliners -6. There is no doubt that the return of either Mike Green or Tom Poti and preferably both would greatly strengthen the Caps right now. However, the play of Karl Alzner, Sean Collins, and Tyler Sloan was solid last night. Bryan Helmer, on the other hand, had a career night and deserved to be one of the three stars of the evening, it might have been a little cheesy in light of Ovechkin's "The Goal - Redeux," but nobody is probably going to argue with Helmer's status as number 1 star of the game. The continued solid play of these four call-up defenseman will be required for the Caps to continue to win for the rest of this month. The opportunity to directly contrast Karl Alzner and Luke Schenn on Sunday, should be interesting.
C) Forwards - The Capitals first line of Ovechkin - Backstrom - Kozlov was excellent throughout the entire game; their numbers also reflect that, even with Ovechkin's power play tally negated a goaltender interference call, on Brooks Laich in the last two minutes of the second period. Ovechkin's game winner is a highlight real centerpiece and has already been well chronicled elsewhere here on the net and in the mainstream media; in addition he finished the night +2, had 8 shots, 8 attempts blocked, 3 missed attempts, 3 hits, 1 giveaway, and 3 takeaways. Just your typical Ovechkin night at the game, the guy is well paid but he tries to make sure he earns his money every game, last night there was no doubt about that. Nicklas Backstrom finished the game with a primary assist (his 28th of the season) and +2 on the night with 21:11 TOI during 20 shifts. Last night was another great night for Viktor Kozlov, he scored the Caps first goal of the evening, breaking Lalime's "shutout" at the 17:46 mark of the first period on a very well played give and go that Backstrom was in the middle of; that goal was Kozlov's 9th of the season and the third goal he's scored in the last four games. Kozlov's play over the past three weeks has been as good as he's ever played since joining the Caps. It sure looks like he's having fun out there, and perhaps most importantly, he's playing hard, all out hockey, the enitre time his skates are on the ice and the results are speaking for themselves. The Caps second line of Giroux-Nylander-Fehr seemed the most challenged of the Caps forward lines last night but they hustled and perhaps with a little more time together might start to "click." Nylander is clearly working hard to adapt to a more North-South style of play and shoot more, though his shot selection of a slapshot over a wrist shot from the center slot last night was clearly wrong headed as it gave Lalime more time to square up on him. Giroux, was clearly working harder on playing both ways and back-checking more than his prior outings, he also used his size more against the Sabres and was credited with 4 hits. Fehr still seems to be playing his way back into shape and favoring his shoulder, he only had 1 hit, but he did have 4 shots on goal and 6 takeaways as well as zero giveaways. Nylander's wheeling and counter-motion, which sometimes makes it look like the puck is glued to his stick, also makes it harder for wingers newly paired with him to get their timing right. If Fleischmann is out for a few more games, it seems like Giroux might be the guy to pair with Nylander on the left wing. Overall the line was played sparingly and while at first the Sabres seemed to take advantage of their communication challenges, by the end of the game they seemed to be moving the puck well out of the Capitals zone and keeping it in the Sabres end of the ice. The Caps third line and energy line played a great game and clearly over matched the Sabres' third line, though the Sabres energy line also played well when they found themselves on the ice against the Caps first or third lines, they were generally outplayed by a significant margin. The Caps third line of Laich - Steckel - Bradley played a great game and when they were on the ice you could just about hear the theme song from "True Grit" in your ears. That the Caps energy line of Brashear - Gordon - Clark scored the Capitals second goal speaks for itself. Overall on the night the Caps forwards were a combined plus/minus +6 while the Sabres forwards were -4; the Caps forwards had 18 takeaways and only 10 giveaways while their Sabres counterparts had only 3 takeaways and 6 giveaways; Caps forwards had 23 hits, while the Sabres forwards had just 7 hits. Clearly despite saying otherwise in the main stream media, after looking at the game tapes and reviewing the statistics from last night's game, the Sabres will understand, they stayed in the game because of solid play by Patrick Lalime. It sure seems the Sabres forwards need to "kick it up" a couple of notches, if they are to reverse their current trend and regain and hold on to a playoff spot through April. Right now both the Florida Panthers and the Carolina Hurricanes are playing better hockey then the Sabres did last night. As a Caps fan, I'm sure glad that under the current Capitals coaching staff and management, it's okay to admit both your mistakes when you have a bad game and also to show that you hate loosing.
In some other interesting, sort of sports related, news, according to a Wall Street Journal Report yesterday, the New York Times Company is looking to sell it's 17% minority stake in New England Sports Ventures one of the minority owners of the Boston Red Sox and Fenway Park, and indirect ownership/control (80%) owner of the New England Sports Network, the other 20% of which is owned by the Boston Bruins. Reportedly NYT is looking to get $166Million for this asset sale, not a bad haul in what is generally a down market, eh? [ed note: I just thought it interesting that the New York Times even owned both the Boston Globe and 17% of the Red Sox. It also seemed very small world, 6 degrees of separation-esque that that then gave them ~13.6% of the network that broadcasts the Boston Bruins too, if you're looking for a "hockey tie-in" here. No doubt as the current economic turmoil sorts itself out we'll all continue to learn about more and more details about the "interconnectivity" in our economy.]
Last night's game gave the Caps a total of 47 standings points so far this season, and kept them 8 points ahead of the second place Carolina Hurricanes, who also notched a two point victory in regulation last night, in the Southeast Division. The win also takes the Capitals home ice record this season to 14-1-1, best in the Eastern Conference; and takes the Caps up to second place in the Conference 7 points behind the Boston Bruins, who have 2 games in hand on the Caps, and tied for points with the New York Rangers but with a game in hand on the Blueshirts. Next up the Toronto Maple Leafs at Verizon Center on Sunday Evening. Per Tarik El-Brashir, Bryan Helmer, after earning the number 1 star last evening, was returned to Hershey so it would appear that either Mike Green or Jeff Schultz will be in the lineup against the Maple Leafs. That should help, but the 11th place (in the Eastern Conference) Leafs at times this season have been "giant killers;" just last Saturday evening (December 20th) they beat the Penguins 7-3 in Pittsburgh. The last time the Caps and Leafs met, December 6th in Toronto, the Caps won the game 2-1. The Leafs are 5-5-0 in their last ten and lost their last game against the Islanders 4-1 at Nassau County Veterans Memorial Coliseum last night. It should be a good, fun game, the Caps will retire Mike Gartner's number before the game and will be playing in their White Sweaters, if the Caps win they will remain at 8-2-0 in their last 10, as they are currently but will once again be making quite a statement as their home record would go to 15-1-1. Coach Bruce Boudreau has said, a goal for the season is to make other teams not look forward to playing the Capitals at the "Phone Booth" - that's one goal for this season the Caps seem well on their way to accomplishing.
LETS GO CAPS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!