BUFFALO, NY - DECEMBER 26: Michal Neuvirth #30 of the Washington Capitals can't stop a shot for a goal by Christian Ehrhoff #10 (not shown) of the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center on December 26, 2011 in Buffalo, New York. It was Buffalo's third goal in the first period and Neuvirth was replaced by Tomas Vokoun #29 . (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
There is something to be said for the concept of having patience with a new coaching regime and waiting until new systems sink in before judging the way a team performs. But when the problems appear to go beyond the systems, when the same behavioral issues exist that have existed in the past with very little change, it's a troubling thing to watch.
Unfortunately that's what we've seen so far with this Caps team under Dale Hunter, a team that has all the talent and, when they want to, the ability to outwork the other team - but for whatever reason they're not able to put those two things together for longer than twenty minutes here, thirty minutes there. And while there's still a lot of hockey to go and time for this team to be whipped into shape, their ability to play a complete game will determine just how far they go in the playoffs (or if they make it there at all).
Ten more notes on the game:
- The ugly started early in this one, with the Caps taking a penalty just nine seconds into the game - and giving up the first tally just forty-two seconds later. The last thing you want to do against a struggling team is give them confidence, and that goal insured that the Sabres had some swagger right from the get-go. By the end of the first they'd tacked on three more goals, chased Michal Neuvirth and put the Caps in a significant hole that would prove to be too deep. A disturbing trend, no doubt.
- Neuvirth might have ended up on the bench just barely half a period into the game but it's hard to pin too much of that early deficit on him. The first goal was a bad line change that led to a 2-on-1 and a goal by (who else?) Jason Pominville, the second a shot off the faceoff. He never really got a chance to settle into the game, and his team didn't give him much chance to see the few shots he faced. Not one he'll be proud of, to be sure, but nothing to make him hang his head, either.
- Congratulations to Matt Hendricks for picking up his first goal of the season, the last of the forwards on the regular roster to get one. It was the product of some good, hard work all around by the fourth line (...and one of those last-minute killers that usually have more of an impact when you're not trailing by four at the time).
- After not seeing any action for over a week, Tomas Vokoun came in with two and a half periods remaining and a four-goal hole for his team. Whether it was the desire to prove himself or the fact that the pressure was somewhat off, he was admirable in relief and turned aside sixteen of the seventeen shots he faced the rest of the way. It may not have resulted in a comeback win, but there's something to be said for stopping the bleeding - especially for a guy who could use a little confidence.
- On paper this looked like an even game, with the Caps keeping up with the Sabres when it came to shots on goal. The difference? Every Buffalo shot seemed to be either right on top of the crease or sent through a screen of perfectly placed Sabre jerseys; every Caps shot, a routine one from miles away with no bodies blocking Ryan Miller's view. Even a bad goalie is going to stop those every time... and Miller is not a bad goalie.
- Fascinating that on a night in which he actually could have been whistled for at least two legitimate penalty calls (albeit sort of silly ones), Alexander Semin manages to stay out of the box. If that's not the mark of a strange officiating night - including Brooks Laich's phantom "trip" - I don't know what is.
- The Caps' penalty kill has been like the little girl with the little curl in the middle of her forehead. When it's good, it's very, very good; when it's bad, it's tonight's game. Or something. It got better as the game went on (as did almost everything about their performance) but giving up two power play goals in one game - one period, even - is not the recipe for success.
- The importance of faceoffs can sometimes be overstated, but when no one on the team who took more than three draws finished the night above 50% in the circle, that's a big problem - especially when at least one Buffalo goal came about because of a lost draw.
- Alex Ovechkin was actually one of the few who showed up tonight, that extra bit of physicality in his game that always seems to be there when he plays certain teams and a boatload of shots on or toward the net. And while it may sound petty, there just aren't many sounds sweeter than that of an angry Buffalo crowd raining boos down on #8 when he scores.
- Late in the third period Mathieu Perreault attempted to hit a Buffalo player, had his stick jam on the boards and snap, and ran the broken blade into his midsection; he played a few more shifts but has reportedly been taken to a Buffalo hospital for precautionary reasons. Not sure you could find a finer metaphor for this game than a guy impaling himself on his own sword...get better soon, Matty P.
When the Caps came out flat early on and dug themselves a hole in the first period, it was hard not to have flashbacks to the last game Bruce Boudreau would coach behind the Washington bench - exactly one month ago tonight. But there were differences that go beyond the score, a few positives amid the negative.
Like last time they fell behind early and lost by a large margin. Unlike last time, however, while the deficit was bigger early the Caps improved as the game went on, shut down the Sabres' offense, improved the penalty kill, scored a few goals to claw back in and showed a significant level of "give a crap" in the final twenty minutes.
That it was once again too little, too late... well, that's something this team needs to work on from here on out.