Oh, the potential headlines seem so dramatic.
“Sharks take a bite out of the nation’s Capitals”
“San Jose proves to the NHL that Caps are not contenders”
“Silicon Valley switches the circuits of D.C.’s hockey team”
By now you should realize that the Caps lost to the Sharks, 2-0 at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night. Anti Niemi got the win for San Jose with 25 saves. Michal Neuvirth took the loss, making 34 stops.
Really, it was some classic February hockey. A hot team on a momentum gaining road trip coming to visit a smug team feeling good about itself because it just blew through its two primary rivals over the weekend and thinks that it can go toe-to-toe with anybody. The smug team comes out flat, can never gain traction on the ice and all efforts come in vain as things eventually start to unravel in the third period. The postgame interviews are short and redundant and everybody goes home to bed to wake up for practice the next morning.
“They are a big, strong team. They get the puck in deep and they cycle it and they seem to drag out plays a lot in that offensive zone and that is something that we have to do better,” Capitals defenseman John Hannan said.
In the next two minutes of interview time with a small pool of reporters, Hannan would say the words “they” “are” “big” “strong” and “cycle” in various permutations about half a dozen times. Really, after saying “hey, we sucked tonight, they beat us,” there is really not much else to it. At this point in the season players have gone through this drill so many times that it starts getting a little old, especially after lackluster losses. They don’t really want to talk to the media and if the media knew that another player was going to say something, anything, better they would go to him.
“Just throwing it from everywhere. Just cycling it and throwing it quick,” defenseman Karl Alzner said about the disparity in shots (36-25 but Caps had a late barrage to pad their total). “Their ‘D’ were throwing it well. It was just simple stuff, it is not like is was rocket science. Just doing their thing.”
More or less a derivation of what Hannan was saying. The thing with Hannan though is that he has been in the league much longer than Alzner and has gotten redundancy down to a science.
So, yes. Washington came out flat. It was out shot in the first period by the Sharks 15 to 9. Out shot in the second period 12 to 4. The third period was 11 to 12 in the Caps favor but many of those shots came with the last two minutes as the Capitals struggled to get a puck to approach Niemi’s crease.
Yet, for all this, the game as not a total wash. It is not like the Capitals lost 7-0 (like they did against the Rangers during the dark days of December). It was 2-0. Against one of the hotter teams in hockey that had just come off a shutout of Boston, who has one of the best goal differentials in the NHL. It was not a completely bad effort by Washington.
It was just spinning tires.
And that can happen to teams sometimes in February. It is a nether month. Not quite the stretch run, not quite past the All-Star game hangover.
“We weren’t working, we weren’t working hard enough. We weren’t getting pucks in at the blue line and helping us out at our blue line. It was an easy gate in the last two games to do and tonight it just didn’t do it,” Alzner said.
Gone from the weekend success was the ability to move the puck, get it cleanly through the neutral zone, dump-and-chase and make some noise around the crease. Part of that may have had something to do with the scratch of Mike Green after a puck to the ear/face/temple region on Sunday against the Penguins. Greenie is the catalyst for the Caps offensive game and it is noticeable when he is not on the ice. Coach Bruce Boudreau said as much after the game.
“When Mike is not in the lineup you lose a guy who can really move the puck,” Boudreau said. “I mean, I think our defense played fairly well but you don’t have that offensive guys who grabs the puck, moves it and jumps into the play. So, he is missed.”
Green helps keep guys focused because he has a tendency to be around plays. When he could hit you in the skate at any moment with a kick out a cross or a dump into traffic, you tend to stay awake.
Or, it could be the return of Sasha.
It would not be the first time this season that Alex Semin had a snooze of a game and the rest of the team followed. He was back for the first time in 12 games and registered a team-high four shots in 17:47 of ice time. Yet, he could have been more on his game than what Boudreau and the rest of Verizon Center witnessed.
“I didn’t he was sharp but I didn’t think he wasn’t,” Boudreau said. “In the third period he looked a little tired, his shifts were short. Probably his game conditioning isn’t where it should be. He had some chances I thought but he wasn’t sharp or he would have put them in.”
Maybe it was Neuvirth’s fault.
Because really, when it falls apart, even if just for one night, blame the young NHL goaltender. They are not fragile, tender egos. Not at all.
“In the end you played good for 51 minutes but in the end if you want to be a great goalie in this league when the game is on the line you have to make sure you are the one who stops those,” Boudreau said. “Both those goals were not of the variety that should have beat him but at the same time I thought he kept us in in the first two periods.”
To be fair, Neuvirth did play a decent game. As the Caps spun their wheels and the Sharks tried to find their gears in another city of their road game in a row, he kept the game scoreless for for 47:55 until he was broken down by Logan Couture at 11:55 of the third period. It was a rush shot down the left wing that clipped Neuvirth on into the goal. It was an inevitable goal. The defenseman in front of him had been unraveling, the forwards backcheck was not as aggressive and San Jose put the pressure on with good shifts. Neuvirth buckled. The whole team buckled.
Dan Boyle teamed with Dany Heatley a few minute later at 14:07 for second goal as Heatley worked a cycle in the trapezoid behind Neuvirth and fed the defenseman for a one-timer.
And it was done.
“A lot of big saves for him,” Alzner said of Neuvirth. “He did well playing the puck a lot of the time. He was good. It would have been better if we got some shots for him and helped him out.”
The Caps did almost have a goal in the first period when a hard-shot Semin wrister got through Niemi’s pads and laid an inch from the goal line as Mathieu Perreault tried to chase it down into the net. Yet, the referee blew the whistle and the play was dead even though the puck went in the net (either from Niemi kicking it or Perreault nicking it). It should have been a goal, Niemi never actually made the save as it went through him. But the play was done.
“It was deflating. Obviously it shouldn’t have been blown,” Boudreau said. “The referee came up and apologized. It doesn’t do us a lot of good. We are a team that plays a lot better with the lead these days than coming from behind. So, it probably would have helped us. But, you can’t blame that one chance.”
No you cannot. Not when you are being outshot 34-17 halfway through the third period. Sometimes weird goals happen, or don’t, in hockey. It is one of those things.
Now onto Game No. 56, where the lessons of Game No. 55 are incorporated into the lessons of Games Nos. 1 to 54. Sometimes it takes an emotional trick (Boudreau swearing, or not). Sometimes it takes time to kick off the rust (Semin). Sometimes you need your best puck mover to get the wagon train moving (Green).
Sometimes a team tries harder and plays better.
On Tuesday, that was the Sharks.