To state that this was a big game for the Washington Capitals would be an understatement. The Caps entered the day two points behind the first-place Florida Panthers in the Southeast, sat in 9th place in the conference and were slated to face the conference-leading New York Rangers. There would be little chance the Rangers would lay an egg in front of a national audience at home, so for the Caps to pull out a win at MSG, they would need to play a hard-hitting, focused and complete game.
Whatever they tried didn't work. The Caps fought hard to keep up with the Rangers, but in the end were done in by defensive zone miscues and the inability to finish. Twice, the Caps missed wide-open nets and failed to make plays when they were there for the taking. It was the difference tonight, as the Rangers skated away with a 3-2 victory.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Overmatched is still the theme with these Capitals. When your best forward is Jason Chimera, when your defensemen still struggle with simple breakouts, when you routinely cannot make tape-to-tape passes, it is hard to win consistently win games in the NHL regardless of the level of effort. Today's game once again highlighted those core deficiencies.
- Rarely will you see Henrik Lundqvist let in a goal from beyond the circles. Today, he gave up two. Lest some believe his otherwise 24-save/0.923 SV% effort was exemplary, he was bailed out by several goalposts, quick whistles and the Caps inability to finish on wide open tap-ins. King Henrik wasn't especially sharp tonight, and the Caps didn't capitalize.
- Luck hasn't been kind to the Caps this regular season evidenced by the would-be goal Mathieu Perreault had taken away from him due to an early whistle during a first-period scrum in front of the net. If advanced stats geeks think the Caps were a 'lucky' team the past few regular seasons, this regular season has been a brutally quick regression back to the mean.
- On paper, it didn't look like Michal Neuvirth's effort was particularly good, making 25 of 28 stops for an 0.892 SV%, right about what you'd expect of him, but well below average NHL goalie production. It didn't help that the second goal was a borderline bad goal. However, in his defense he was a surprise starter (due to Tomas Vokoun's illness) and made some key stops to keep the game within reach. While not the type of masterful game this coin-flipping Caps team needs to win on a nightly basis, it's hard to peg Neuvy for this loss.
- Very rarely will you ever see Alex Semin as the "one" on a 2-on-1. But he actually played the situation very well, didn't overcommit to the shooter or other forward, and prevented the Rangers from scoring in the second.
- Surprisingly, it happened again in the third period, this time with Alex Ovechkin as the "one". This time there was no happy ending, and the Rangers abused the Captain to take a two-goal lead. Ovechkin appeared sluggish today, lacking physicality (1 hit) and playing a heavily perimeter game as he accumulated 5 SOG. Credit to Dan Girardi for playing a fine game against him. Ovi needs to step up.
- Left wing Jason Chimera really plays well against the Rangers. Tonight he was all over the ice creating chances (6 SOG), including setting up Alex Semin's goal with a beautiful streak up the right wing side, using his speed to pull the Rangers defenseman off of Alex Semin enough for Sasha to get a full wind-up on his laser past Lundqusit. Well done!
- On to defense...the Caps are still lost in their zone much too frequently. The Rangers first goal was scored on an easy tap-in off the stick of Ryan Callhaan. The NBC crew properly pointed out that both Roman Hamrlik and Dmitry Orlov shared blame. What they failed to mention was the culpability of Joel Ward, who ceded the boards to an on-rushing Carl Hagelin, who stole the break-out pass and started the sequence which led to the goal.
- Still, Ward's error doesn't take away from the fact that the Caps defensive pairing of Orlov-Hamrlik is a flat-out liability that must be upgraded. Both Rangers even-strength goals occurred with these two on the ice. If that wasn't enough, their CORSI was a collective -14. For comparison purposes, John Erskine and Dennis Wideman were +14 and Carlzner were +10.
- The Westminster Dog Show starts tomorrow at MSG, but Keith Aucoin kicked it off one day early when he missed a wide open net on a 2-on-1 early in the game. Finishing it would have changed the complexion of the game. (Troy Brouwer is a close second for his 1-foot tap-in miss.)
With the trade deadline two weeks away it's clear that this injury-riddled version of the Caps do not have the horses to make a splash in the playoffs. Unless Nick Backstrom and Mike Green return to full health - and Alex Ovechkin reverts to his old form - this team has no chance of channeling the 2010 Philadelphia Flyers and making a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Finals. So a decision looms for the franchise: seeing that they may not know the long-term fates of Backstrom or Green by February 27, should the Caps buy, sell or stand-pat at the trade deadline? It's a tough question, one that, undoubtedly, George McPhee never expected to have to deal with before the season started.