Thursday, October 30, 2014

I'd Have Rather ... But, Alas ... ; Game 9 Recap and Thoughts

I'd have rather been writing about a Caps 2-1 regulation win when recapping tonight's Caps - Red Wings game, but alas it was not to be.  Instead I am forced to write a less fun but much more accurate recap about a 4 - 2 regulation loss.  Yes, it was a no point night - the Caps despite starting the third period leading the Red Wings 2 -1 gave up three (3) unanswered goals to drop the game at the end of the third period 4 -2 to the Detroit Red Wings. Simply put it was a total bummer.  Another "Goose Egg" night,  last two games, two regulation losses, last four games, 3 losses out of four opportunities.  So instead of ending October on a high note, we Caps fans are less than subdued, but not in a good way.  The Capitals finish the first month of the 2014 - 15 NHL regular season with a 4-3-2 record while the Red Wings finish it with a 5 - 2 - 2 record.  Both Detroit and Washington came into last night's contest with identical records, they finished it in markedly different style and moods.  Washington now has more questions than answers as to the path forward, and those outstanding questions need at least some of the necessary answers, fast.  Detroit, exits October with confidence and poise, at least until teams like our Washington Capitals mature and get more patient and confident in their system, as well I suspect, better conditioned.

The headline over at on this game reads " Red Wings Score Three In Third; Rally To Defeat Caps."  The headline after you "click through" says: "Red Wings Top Caps; Ovechkin Drought Hits 5."  Only in reference to Alex Ovechkin, and only on a "slow" sports news night is a guy with five (5) goals in the first 9 games of the season (on track for 40+ goals in the regular season" in a drought.  But the article captures the essence of the game in a very (seemingly) post game quote from Caps coach, Barry Trotz:
"Every turnover that we did have, it seemed to end up in the back of the net; those are the things that are killers, big-time killers."

Unlike other early season losses, the Caps did not have a bad or slow start to the game.  At least they played the first period with the same energy and intensity level, actually more so, than the Red Wings.  While the first period ended in a 0 - 0 tie, the Caps outshot the Wings 8 - 3, and generally outplayed the them in every facet of the game, and at both ends of the ice during the first period.  The only thing really lacking in the first period was much grit, and nobody really got in Rad Wings goalie Jimmy Howard's "grill" to push any of the 8 shots on goal the Caps had past Howard.  Additionally,
Washington held Detroit to three shots on goal in the first period.  Red Wings coach Mike Babcock apparently agrees with my assessment of the first period as seen in his post game quote:
"I didn't think we were very good early, they skated way better than us. We weren't good enough. We had no tempo to us."

That said even though the Caps outshot and outplayed the Wings, last evening's first period was one of the less interesting 20:00 of Hockey I've seen/watched in a while.

On the other hand, last night's second period was perhaps the most entertaining and well played 20:00 of hockey I've watched so far this season.  It was fast, exciting and a really fun game to see.  Lots and lots of speed, and back and forth, and best of all the Capitals, despite a few miscues, managed to stay within the structure of their new system and kept up with the Wings, in fact the period ended with the Capitals ahead of the Red Wings 2 -1. were it not for the third period, but alas I get ahead of myself.  In the second period the Wings came out skating fast and the Capitals responded.  Red Wings youngster, Gustav Nyquist got the Wings on the board first with an even strength tally, assisted by Justin Abdelkader at 8:53 of the period, for the Capitals the "first" "Frankenline" of 90-19-43 along with the Mike Green and Nate Schmidt, both of whom otherwise had a very good night, were on victimized.  The Caps did not breakdown or abandon their system after that goal though, and at 11:26, Nicklas Kronwall was sent to the sin bin for interference which afforded Caps youngster Evgeny Kuznetsov the opportunity to get his first goal of the season on the ensuing powerplay, victimizing Detroit's league leading penalty killing unit.  Game tied  1 - 1.  Then Justin Abdelkader was whistled off to the box for high-sticking at 17:01 of the second stanza, and just as the penalty ended, Troy Brouwer put a wickedly placed wrister past Jimmy Howard at the 19:02 mark of the period.  The Caps went into the final intermission with a 2 - 1 lead and the games momentum in hand. 

The Caps should have come out in the third period and played it with the same stifling efficiency they had played the first period.  Unfortunately, the Red Wings were determined to not allow that to happen.  Their veteran first line of Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Abdelkader just kept coming ... and coming and coming.  Like Barry Trotz's quote above indicates, it's not that the Capitals gave the Wings a lot, it's that they gave them anything at all and what the Caps did not give, if the Red Wings needed it, they took it anyway.  the game's overall statistics show the Caps with 10 giveaways and the Wings with 6 takeaways.  Unfortunately for the Caps to have won this game the Caps needed to have 5 less giveaways and have played harder on the puck so the Wings would have ended with no more than 2 takeaways.  The Red Wings started their "comeback" by Justin Abdelkader scoring what is shown on the scoresheet as an "unassisted" goal at the 4:04 mark of the final period.  Not shown on the scoresheet is the giveaway Brooks Orpik made that landed on Paval Datsyuk's stick, literally right next to the right side post that Braden Hotlby kept out of the net at about the 3:50 mark or the Henrik Zetterberg  "almost takeaway" from Andre Burakovsky at ~4:02 breaking the puck loose in the lowere lefthand slot that Abdelkader pounced on and put past Holtby two seconds later. Well my mother always used to tell me bad things happen in threes - guess she was right.  Had the Capitals managed to rebound from that goal, things would have likely been different.  That was probably on at least several Caps minds then, since that's about the time they started to not play their system dogmatically and trying to make more herculean individual efforts. Victimized at the time was the "Frakenline" of 8 (Ovi) - 65 (Burakovsky) - 42 (Ward) and defensive pair 44 (Orpik) - 74 (Carlson).

 Looking back now - I imagine at about the 5:00 mark realizing this Datsyuk and Zetterberg must have gotten wry grins they worked to disguise and suppress. In any case the Red Wings second goal of the evening seems to have convinced the Caps coaching staff to reunite 8 and 19 on the first line, which in itself is/was, at least in my opinion, a smart move/good thing.  Unfortunately, it didn't really do the trick as the veteran Red Wing team now had life and relentlessly pressed the issues, whenever they were given the slightest bit of "daylight."  Had the Caps stayed disciplined, exceptionally disciplined, and committed  no further errors from the 4:04 mark of the third period, I'll speculate they could have turned the tide and gotten one if not two points and maybe even a needed "ROW" - Regulation/Overtime Win.  Alas that was not to be, at the 10:34 mark of the period with the first line of each team, or at least for the Caps 8 (Ovi) - 19 (Backy) and 42 (Ward) on the ice, playing "mano a' mano" once again Abdelkader, Zetterberg, and "the magician" Datsyuk combined to put the Red Wings ahead to stay 3 -2.  Was it a goal Braden Holtby would like back, yes - he likely wants every goal ever scored on him back, I think that's just the way he is.  Was the goal Holtby's "fault" no.  Was the score one of those times this season when we saw/will see the quarter step that Brooks Orpik no longer has and why the Penguins let him go this past summer, yes.  Was it the reason the Caps lost last night - no, that reason is/was they moved, all be it, slightly off of their system and that allowed the Red Wings to "play their game." From this point on, even though Datsyuk scored a final goal for the Red Wings, little matters worth discussing.  Yes the tripping call on Joel Ward was absurd, as was the blatant too many men (7) the Red Wings had that wasn't called; as was the high sticking call on Backstrom.  Also missed were several cross checks Orpik laid on Abdelkader and at least one corss check Abdelkader laid on Orpik; as were ... oh forget it, my point is yes the zebras were really bad, but they weren't biased, just bad.  In any case let's look for the good things, ..., ..., ..., okay other than yeah they played better last night than they played in Vancouver, I got nothin'.

Other notes I think are worth musing upon and mentioning:

Alexander Ovechkin - last evening,  Ovi had seven shots on goal, matching his total of the past four games, but did not have a point for a fifth straight game. Yes, it's the longest drought, in terms of points, of his NHL career to date, and yes he was "-2" on the night, as for that matter so was Backstrom.  Am I worried about Ovi's "production" - simply put, no, not at all.  What Ovi needs to get going again, is in my view simple, I'd put/keep 8 - 19 together, but if Trotz doesn't want to do that then at least pair him with a natural, fast skating, center - that would either Kuznetsov or Johannson.  I'm not sure what Trotz sees/fears that makes it so he's not paired Kuznetsov as a center with Ovechkin on any of the "Frakenlines" to date but pairing him with Burakovsky did not work last evening and I think that was for two reasons - a) Burakovsky, like Ovechkin is a natural wing, at least right now he is; and b) the third forward on the line needs to be faster than Ward if they are going to play the system the way it's meant to be played - all three guys coming into the zone pretty much "abreast" and sustaining a five man forecheck. My vote is a little more patience - across the board by Trotz and staff  (see: "Frankenlines" below) keeping 8 (Ovechkin) - 19 (Backstrom) as the core of the first line, and using either 16 (Fehr), 20 (Brouwer), or 43 (see: "Tom Wilson" below) at Right Wing on that line.

"Frankenlines":  I think I get why Trotz is so quick to shake up the forward lines - it's about developing a more complete confidence in the system so every one of the forwards on the team can and does really rely on and plays the system - every second of the entire game.  However, chemistry and even more-so timing are also important.  It seems to me, the system was meant to be played at as fast a tempo as the personnel on the ice at any given time can play it.  For that reason putting a noticeably slower cog onto a wheel with two other faster line-mates, does nothing from what I see than force all three of the forwards to slow their game.  Last night, particularly in the first 10:00 of the third period, that meant that instead of the Red Wings having to match speed with speed on the top two lines, they had more time to push and force the Caps play.  It was only about ~5:00 of the first 10:34 of the period that the Red Wings did that successfully but they were a disastrous 5 minutes of hockey for the Capitals.  I am ALL for accountability and I'm not suggesting we stick to line combinations through thick and thin, not at all.  I am suggesting there is a limit to the everybody in the lineup of forwards can play on any line and well with any other forward on the team; and that limit has been reached and exceeded.  The coaching staff needs to step back and look at footspeed in addition to a few other things and adjust their thinking about the line combinations.  The only "uneven" footspeed combinations that should even be considered the rest of this first half of the season, IMO, is 25 (Chimera) and 42 (Ward).

Tom Wilson - hopefully, last evening, Tom Wilson realized he got a chance to look across the ice and see the player Barry Trotz aspires for him to be.  That player wears number 8 for the Red Wings - Justin Abdelkader, who was the first star of the game when the final horn sounded.  Simply put, the Caps video team needs to take last night's game, especially the third period, and compile as much isolation video of Abdelkader's 17:44 TOI and just have Wilson watch it over, and over, ... and over - maybe even while he sleeps.  It's important for young players to have guys with similar skill levels/sets to look at and aspire to reach or exceed their accomplishments.  I think for Wilson, Abdelkader would be that role model.

Joel Ward - Ward has raised his game, a lot these past two outings and should be re"ward"ed - some PP time, yes; some more 5 on 5 minutes, yes; playing this system 5 on 5 with Ovi as his opposite wing, no.  Playing with Ovi at 5 on 5, Ward has the same issues as Brooks Laich (when healthy and confident), he just doesn't have the high gear footspeed to match Ovi when "the Gr8" puts it into overdrive.  On the powerplay this is not a factor as once the Caps are setup in the offensive zone, Ward hockey IQ, and grit mean he's anchored in/around the net and the Caps are already in the zone together.  In this system at five on five it means Ovi and the Caps faster centers need to slow their pace back to Ward's and that gives the opposing team the time they need to set up across the width of the blue line.  It just did not work last night nor will I think it work much against any other fairly good team.

Nate Schmidt: played very well last evening from what I could see despite finishing the night at - 1; he's had a pretty good season so far , though last night he played a little cautiously - no hits, no blocked shots.

Mike Green:  the games third star deservedly so had another monster evening.  Not on the scoresheet is the awesome backcheck he made to break up what would have been a 1 on 0 breakaway in the third period....

Braden Holtby: sure the assist on the Kuznetsov power play goal was cool, but for my druthers he had happy feet last night, a 0.818 SV% isn't going to win many games in this league, and which of the two - offensive points or SV% is he being paid for?  Bottom line he didn't make the saves he needed to make in the third period and that's as much a reason as any the Caps lost last evening, however it wasn't the only reason and it wasn't as bad a night for him as the just looking at the SV% numbers might lead you to believe.

Burakovsky & Kuznetsov:  Well Burakovsky did cough up the puck leading to Abdelkader's game tying goal but overall he continues to develop and look better and better every game.  If it wasn't Zetterberg, and it wasn't the third period with the Wings down by one goal, he might have gotten away with slightly over-handling the puck where he was.  For all that he had 13:35 of even strength TOI and was 83% in the faceoff circle and "even" on the night with an assist on Troy Brouwer's goal. Kuznetsov had 13:52 of even strength TOI; was 50% in the faceoff circle and scored his first goal of the season, he had an exceptionally solid night - the only time he was on the ice that the Captials were "victimized" was the final Datsyuk powerplay goal at 19:06 of the third period while he was on the PK unit.  Overall both players continue to develop exceptionally well and despite my earlier statements about Burakovsky not being the right venter to pair with Ovechin, that thought should ent with the word "yet" - he's not the right center to pair with Ovi "yet" because he needs more time paired with Wings who stay in their "lanes" more until he gets more comfortable in the Center position. 

O' Brien & Latta: Latta was 0 for 4 in the faceoff circle, uncharacteristic and something he needs to work on.  Other than that a solid evening for both these youngsters.  Clearly they wanted to make sure Coach Trotz's belief in keeping them here while sending Chris Brown to Hershey was the right  move, which I too agree with.  While they each had less than 8:00 TOI, they made their presence known and felt when they were put out onto the ice.

Brooks Orpik & Matt Niskanen:  Last evening was neither of these two off season pickups "best outing."  As I described in my recap, the Red Wings victimized Orpik just a little too easily.  Orpik and Abdelkader had a war on ice going all night and for the entire first two periods it was a stalemate and like watching two heavyweights go toe to toe.  In the third period, Abdelkader with the help of Zetterberg and Datsyuk used their speed to clearly win the bout in the late rounds.  You just know that Orpik is going to go watch the film of last night's third period and make whatever adjustments he can to try and make sure that never happens again.  I only hope he's only lost a quarter step over his career to date and can do so.  Niskanen's performance, like his entire game, was more sublime than Orpik's.  It's still unclear to me how they did it, but somehow the Red Wings managed to make it so, even though Niskanen had his usual 20:00 TOI he was ineffective.  Good teams do that and you can't have a monster game every night but last night Niskanen di not look like he was a force to be reckoned with, as he had in big games for Pittsburgh last season. 

Well next up Steven Stamkos and the Lightning in Tampa on Saturday.


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