Reflections from a reporter born in 1987

Capitals win a perplexing game, face streaking Bruins Friday

November 4, 2010 - 05:00 AM
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The mercurial Semin scores the shootout winner past Gustavsson (Photo: Associated Press)

Conn Smythe, the late head coach and owner of the same Toronto Maple Leafs who opposed the Washington Capitals last night and the man whose name graces the trophy given to the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs, gave his autobiography this subtitle: If You Can't Beat 'Em in the Alley. This phrase formed the first part of his most famous, most square-jawed saying, "If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice." It's a clarion call for playing tough, clean, fearless, physical hockey. 

If the great man was watching last night's game, a 5-4 shootout win for Washington, he no doubt would have been perplexed, as the Capitals and Maple Leafs combined for eight goals in a regulation game that, with the notable exception of a first-period rumble between D.J. King and Colton Orr, didn't seem to have much of a physical edge to it.

"No, it wasn't a particularly physical game," agreed Jason Chimera, who gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead by slamming a centering past Jonas Gustavsson at 10:35 of the second period. "It was more of a 'get the puck through the zone and go get it' type of game."

Whether the Capitals will want to hear it or not, this was the type of game that will make NHL observers view them with suspicion yet again as they approach the playoffs: a game won by offensive talent and individual skill alone. It was not won by work rate (the Capitals were outplayed in the first and third period). It was not won by sold defensive play (neither Mike Green nor Jeff Schultz will want to see too many replays of Kris Versteeg's third-period breakaway goal that tied the game, 3-3). It was not won, in short, with any of the characteristics needed to succeed in the Stanley Cup playoffs, where they give out the trophy with Conn Smythe's name on it.

The thunderous look on Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau's face as he took questions from the media last night seemed to indicate that he knew all this.

"The game of hockey is a game of emotion," he said when asked to explain the three minutes and three seconds of  third-period madness that saw goals from Mike Brown, Versteeg, and Tyler Bozak turn a 3-1 Washington cushion into a 4-3 Toronto lead. "You have a team that's down 3-1, and they get a goal, they get pumped up. Sometimes, the adrenaline just runs out of you. Fortunately, we got a lucky break with a power play."

The Capitals tied the game at 4-4 38 seconds into that third-period power play, and enjoyed the balance of the momentum for the rest of the evening.

But the troublesome nature of the shootout win -- which temporarily put Washington at the top of the Eastern Conference standings with 16 points from 12 games before Tampa Bay's overtime loss to Anaheim hours later knocked the Caps off that pedestal -- only serves to cast an even brighter spotlight on Friday night's home encounter with Boston.

When the two teams matched up in a home-and-home series last month, the Bruins beat the Capitals on the scoreboard (by a combined score of 7-2), on the ice (outhitting Washington 34-23 in one game and 33-23 in the other), and likely would have beaten them in the alley had one been handy.

In addition, the Bruins have amassed a goal differential of +16 in just nine games (compared to the Capitals' +10 goal differential in 12 games). They've won three games in a row, are now 5-0 on the road after last night's 5-2 throttling of Buffalo, and are, to this point in the season, the only true  Eastern Conference contender the Capitals have played.

Perhaps the home team should consult the book of Conn this time.

Three Stars:

Alexander Semin-This choice is made reluctantly, as Semin finished the night with a -1 despite having a goal and an assist, and took two carleess penalties. But in the same way the Caps won this game on offensive talent, so Semin gets my number one star for his game-tying goal and shootout winner.

John Carlson- Recorded a +2 and deserved a goal with his second-period blast from the point that was tipped in by Tomas Fleischmann (Carlson got the primary assist on the play instead). Also blocked three shots.

Brooks Laich-Did his best impression of a jackrabbit in the open ice, and supplemented that with his best impression of a rock in front of Jonas Gustavsson's net. Earned two assists and a +1 for his effort.

Turning point:

The Capitals appeared to be headed for a remarkably frustrating loss when Brett Lebda was sent to the penalty box for cross-checking at 13:44 of the third. Apparently revitalized, Semin potted the equalizer 38 seconds later, and the Leafs never had so firm a grasp on the game again.

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