Reflections from a reporter born in 1987

Once again, the Capitals woulda, coulda, shoulda, but don't

January 25, 2011 - 01:50 AM
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Despite a solid effort, Alex Ovechkin couldn't get past Rangers goalie Martin Biron Monday night. (Photo: Jay Westcott)

Yes, Braden Holtby allowed three goals in the four rounds of the shootout and took the 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers, an unimaginably cruel fate after saving 28 shots and losing his first NHL shootout late in the third period on a goal that its scorer knew little about.

"It hit my blocker and went up into [Marian Gaborik's] body," Holtby said after the game. "I assumed it stayed in his body, but it hit his stick and went up in the air. It was one of those lucky bounces."

But the signature moment of Monday night's game was one that perfectly epitomized the offensive struggles of the Washington Capitals this season.

With Brian Boyle in the penalty box for high-sticking Mathieu Perreault late in the 2nd period, Alex Ovechkin maneuvered the puck towards the slot toward the face-off circle to his right (and Ranger goaltender Martin Biron's left). Ovechkin, a right-handed shot, could have very easily tested Biron with a powerful wrist shot. But the captain had spotted Mike Green streaking to the Ranger net through the left face-off circle. So Ovechkin attempted to make the unselfish play, flipping a pass across the slot for a patented Green one-timer.

When this play works correctly, it is devastatingly effective and usually ends in a sprawling goalkeeper trying vainly to keep out a puck that is flying toward the open net. Here, though, the play did not work correctly. The puck hopped over Green's stick, skittered to the far boards, and the Rangers eventually cleared the zone.

Those are the plays, as Bruce Boudreau observed in his postgame press conference, that result in a team scoring, on average, one fewer goal per game that the previous season (to be exact, just under 3.8 goals per game in 2009-10, compared to exactly 2.8 goals per game after Monday night's loss).

"We've been passing up shots to make plays," Boudreau said. "I thought there were four or five times when the defenseman or forward had it, we'd fake a shot, we'd have a good direct line [to the goal] and we'd pass it up. You score your goals by shooting the puck and going to the net."

The effect of that missing goal is not hard to calculate. Consider this: after Monday night's game, the Capitals have played 15 overtime/shootout games. Only division rivals Atlanta (18) and Tampa Bay (16), as well as Detroit (also 15) have played as many or more. After winning their first five overtime/shootout games, the Caps have won just one of the following nine games that required more than the allotted 60 minutes (this 3-2 shootout win against Carolina on November 28 being the only victory). That's nine games lost, and consequently nine points dropped. Those extra nine points would give Washington 72 points after Monday's game, their 50th of the season, putting the Caps at the top of the Eastern Conference and on pace to finish the year with 118 points and home-ice advantage in the battle for the Prince of Wales Trophy and the Stanley Cup.

But let's be reasonable and give the Caps an extra five overtime/shootout wins instead. That would give Washington as many "bonus" points as current Southeast Division pace-setters Tampa Bay (overtime-shootout record as of Monday: 11-5). Under this new scenario, the Capitals would have 68 points; three more than Tampa Bay in the race for the Division lead, only one fewer than Philadelphia in the race for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, on pace to record 112 points at season's end, and (most importantly) a guarantee of home-ice advantage in at least the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"Ah!" I hear you say, "but home-ice advantage is nebulous in the playoffs." An understandable reaction from those who have watched this team the last three years, but consider this: No team in the NHL has taken more points from their home games than Washington (38 points from 27 home games after Monday night). And considering Washington's potential first two playoff opponents (Pittsburgh, then likely Philadelphia if the season ended today), wouldn't you rather roll the dice with a potential Game 7 in Chinatown, in spite of everything?

But I digress. The Capitals won't do any challenging in any playoff series unless this misfiring offense gets remedied. I wrote last week that this particular problem was likely to be an ongoing one considering the struggles of Ovechkin and injuries to Semin, et. al. Since then, Ovechkin, at least, has showed signs of being his old self. He scored a hat trick last Saturday night against Toronto and was one of Washington's best forwards on the ice Monday. He looked lively on the left wing, darting time and time again into the New York zone and even drawing two of New York's three penalties, though the second one was canceled out when Ovechkin decided to make sure the official noticed his plight by doing an impression of Wile E. Coyote falling off a cliff, thus earning himself a diving penalty.

But it'll take more than back-to-back good performances and three goals in two games from one player, however great he is, to show that the Caps have overcome their mental block in front of the net. If Washington fans want a picture of what their future might be if that does not happen, they could do worse than consider the Rangers themselves. New York and Washington both average 2.8 goals per game after Monday night (The Rangers have actually scored five more goals and played one more game than Washington). Their star player, Gaborik, scored 42 goals and recorded 86 points in 2009-10 (Ovechkin: 50 and 59). This year, Gaborik has scored 16 goals and recorded 30 points (Ovechkin: 19 and 51 points).

No, the individual comparison isn't quite ideal, but the team comparison certainly is. After Monday night, with the Capitals having a game in hand, New York sits a mere two points behind Washington in the race for ... 5th place in the East.

My Three Stars

1. Braden Holtby- Stopped 28 shots and on another, more righteous evening, would have had his first NHL shutout. Noted after the game that he was not used to facing one-on-situations on a fresh sheet of ice, as is necessary in NHL shootouts. Might be time for a little change in the practice routine.

2. Martin Biron- Didn't have as much to do as Holtby (only stopped 22 shots in regulation), but did turn away a couple of blistering chances from our No. 3 star and kept his head brilliantly to deny John Carlson's redirected chance in overtime that would have won the game.

3. Alex Ovechkin-See above.

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