On Sunday night, the Caps managed to stay with a hard-working team almost until the end, when a poorly-timed penalty cost them the point and eventually the game. So the hope was that tonight would be different, that the Caps could find their discipline and win the special teams battle - to say nothing of the play at even-strength - in order to get back on track.
Alas, it was not to be, as the Caps again took a series of ill-timed, undisciplined penalties (this time while holding a lead), looked sloppy even when five-a-side and let another two points slip through their fingers.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Throughout the game the Caps were simply too loose in their own zone, allowing the Devils to run the show at even-strength and giving way too much time and space to guys like Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias. That they actually held a lead after two periods, let alone finished within one goal, is thanks once again to Braden Holtby.
- The Caps' power play looked strong again tonight, with both of their goals coming with the extra man. Special teams would both be the story and not even begin to tell the story of this one, but there is some solace to be had in the power play continuing to cook. Mostly. We'll get to that.
- Speaking of Holtby, his save percentage tonight was an impressive .919. The Caps' special teams goal differential was even (2 PPGs for, 1 PPG/1 SHG against). So they should have won... right? Oops.
- As if a harbinger of things to come, Mathieu Perreault put the cherry on a pretty awful first period for the Caps by taking yet another offensive zone penalty, easily a mile away from his own zone - and on the power play, no less. And people say the Caps miss Alexander Semin...
- Not sure if it was an homage, a parody or just pure desperation but Holtby did an excellent Martin Brodeur impression while killing off Perreault's penalty, coming out of the crease to play the puck and firing it out of the zone by himself. The way this team clears (or "clears") the puck sometimes, perhaps it’s not such a bad idea to do that more often...
- Alex Ovechkin was a penalty-drawing machine, using his size and his ability to drive the net and force New Jersey to haul him down illegally. The Caps would cash in on second one, with Troy Brouwer showing some skillz in tight to get the initial shot off (and then pissing off Brodeur by taking an extra whack), after which Perreault was able to snap up the rebound and put it past Brodeur for the 1-0 lead.
- Power play giveth, power play taketh away, power play giveth right the hell back. About a minute after Perreault's goal, the Caps were back on the power play and became completely unhinged in their own zone, which allowed Patrik Elias to score the first shorthanded goal on the Caps this year... and then a minute later Mike Ribeiro willed a dribbler of a shot through Marty’s legs to take the lead right back. Caps 2, Devils 1, Fans dizzy.
- We talked about his penalty-drawing prowess, but Ovechkin overall looked like a very dangerous player tonight. The sequence in the second period in which he went from the right side of the ice to the middle and made the defenseman look silly in the process (a move which would be unavailable to him as a left-winger, by the way) was vintage Ovechkin with a twist. Problem was the guy in net was vintage Marty, who got the blocker on Ovechkin's shot at the last minute. The whole play was a microcosm of hockey greatness, which is always fun to see. Not so fun, of course, was the offensive-zone penalty he took later in the game. Bad Ovi.
- As has been the case in so many games this year, the Caps wore a path to the penalty box at the most inopportune time - the third period, with a lead, against a good team - and it cost them, as one would expect. The tying goal came after the Caps took four (FOUR) straight minors, a fascinating montage that they then followed up with taking yet another penalty. That last one would prove to be too much, as the penalty kill couldn't sustain the pressure any longer and Ilya Kovalchuk's bomb of a shot would not be denied. Undisciplined play will jump up and bite you in the rear almost every time, and by the end of that little run the Caps’ collective buttocks had plenty of bite marks.
- About that third goal... there actually was a fun little battle going on between Ilya Kovalchuk and Braden Holtby throughout tonight's game, with Holtby robbing Kovalchuk on a number of excellent chances from all distances. Of course it stopped being fun when Kovalchuk fired one past Braden on roughly the eleventy billionth power play the Devils enjoyed in the third, but that’s another issue...
Game one of the mini-series is in the books, and it's a disappointing one. The score, albeit not as close as it looks, offers a slight ray of hope that perhaps the Caps can at least stick with the top teams for stretches of a game... but not if they balance out some atrocious even-strength play with undisciplined, grueling penalties that sap the life out of their penalty-killers and the momentum out of the game. Of all the things they've improved upon, and they have made strides, their inability to stay disciplined when they most need to be is a troubling trend that hasn't seemed to budge all that much.
They'll get another shot at it in two days, as these two teams wash this one away in the shower and sleep it off with an eye towards Saturday's rematch. If the Caps can learn from this one and stay out of the box, they might be able to split the difference. If not? They're in for another rude awakening and another loss.