Sunday, January 22, 2012

Caps @ Pens Recap: 1/22/12

At the end of the final game in the Capitals and Penguins season series, the Capitals were the OT losers, 4-3, rounding out a 2-1-1 record. Both teams were missing top players due to injury and/or illness, but it still managed to live up to a lot of the hype, with the remaining big stars chipping in to make NBC happy. Some thoughts:
  • For those that actually do follow me on Twitter, or that follow Michael Hoffman (@CapsExaminer) and/or Angie Lewis (@LadyHatTrick), or have even read previous posts, you may have picked up on the fact that I am a big fan of Mathieu Perreault, and that I think he is being under-utilized by the Capitals. Well tonight he got possibly the biggest shot of the season thanks to team misfortunes. Backstrom is still out with a head injury, and Marcus Johansson fell ill this weekend, forcing him to miss the game. First-line center duties surprisingly fell to MP85 on a line with Ovechkin and (*gasp*) Mike Knuble against a fierce rivalry on a nationally televised game. How did he do? Skated a season-high 16:22, posted two assists and a +2, and generally looked solid defensively and offensively. His first point came on a beautiful play with Ovechkin and Semin with the team rushing up the ice. A great pass from Ovi led to a quick, hard shot by Perreault, leading to a juicy rebound and a goal for Semin. Possibly just as important, if not noticeable, was a play in the Caps' end where Neuvirth gave up a juicy rebound, only to have Perreault poke it away from the corner of the net and lead a play out of the zone. Here's hoping for more of this kind of performance and ice time for the diminutive forward.
  • Much has been said about the Capitals' offensive issues this season. Not as much has been said about minor victories masking massive underlying issues. Tonight the team got goals from Laich, Ovechkin, and Semin, their three most expensive (healthy) players, and that was fantastic news. What is terrible news is that they only managed 20 shots on goal, their 7th lowest total of the season, and the fourth time this month they have only scraped together 20 or fewer shots on net. Meanwhile, the team has only allowed fewer than 20 shots against one time this month: Jan 3, when the Calgary Flames got 19 on net. While I am absolutely not ready to put much trust in Neuvirth, I am ready to trust Vokoun. I am also ready to trust the defense to limit quality shots on net, even if they are not limiting the quantity of shots. Hopefully a game like this, moreso than the two shutouts last week, will motivate the guys to shoot the puck more. It's one thing to be shut out, or to win a close game. But after an OT loss in a game where both goalies are playing sub-par, you hope the players are saying to themselves: "What if I had taken one more shot?"
  • One of the big differences between Boudreau and Hunter is line-matching. I think Hunter took it a step further today with the lineup today with team-matching. Putting Knuble back on the top line, even if it was only for a short time, and starting Neuvirth were likely both moves made because they have been thorns in the Penguins' sides. Hendricks, Laich, and Brouwer were put together to match Malkin's line with (theoretically) solid defensive play and physicality. It didn't quite work out, but I have some faith that there was a thought process behind the lineups that just about everyone was questioning this morning. 
  • You have to give props where they are due, even if you hate to do it: Malkin and Neal were fantastic tonight. The game-tying goal was the work of a supremely gifted, powerful forward in Malkin. Geno pushed through, quite literally, all five Caps players on the ice, never lost the puck, out-powered Hamrlik up against the boards, and managed to pass it to James Neal for his 26th goal of the season. There's a reason that Malkin was taken one pick after Ovechkin, and he is reminding the league and hockey fans of that this season. Neal is reminding people why everyone in Pittsburgh thought Pens GM Ray Shero had incriminating photographs of Dallas' GM when he was brought to the Penguins. Why do I also find this hopeful? Malkin was plagued by injuries the past couple seasons, only to come back healthy and dominant. Neal was in a massive slump during his time in Pittsburgh last season, only to come back and remain tied with Malkin for 3rd in the league for goals. So, too, can our Young(ish) Guns come back from injuries and slumps to return to form. Here's hoping they do.
  • More on that game-tying goal, specifically Neal's shot placement. There was a lot of traffic in between Neal and Neuvirth, and a lot of action going on in that short distance. He placed it top-shelf, over Neuvirth's left shoulder. Here's the thing about that shot: most Penguins players are going to make that one go in. Bylsma is a great coach, and Neuvirth is not that great of a goalie. He is very predictable, and while I do not have the capabilities to bring up such statistics (@ngreenberg, anyone?), I would venture a guess that about half or more of the goals against Neuvy over his last 30 games have gone in over his glove-side shoulder, and with increasing frequency the later into his career you go. The reason is that, nearly without fail, Neuvirth will always crouch, sticking his right leg out to the middle of the net, whenever a play is coming out from behind the net on his left side. This leaves an opening above his left shoulder, as he positions his glove near his chest when in this position. I am not a coach, nor am I a scout, and I know this. It is not hard to imagine, especially after watching the 24/7 special from last year, that Bylsma is not only aware of this tendency, but specifically coaches his players to make plays and take shots from that area of the ice. This is also the reason why Neuvirth seems to have so many hard-angle and junk shots go in on him. They are not flukes, those are part of a strategy to defeat a young goaltender with mediocre puck tracking skills and bad habits. In fact, it appears that all four goals went in over his left shoulder, although from different spots on the ice and in different situations. Neal's game-tying goal, while a great shot, needs to be recognized more for the implications for Neuvirth's career, and a probable explanation for his horrendous stats this season: good coaches, and therefore good teams, know precisely how to beat him, and this makes him a liability going forward unless he makes immediate changes. The future of the team he is not.
The Capitals picked up a loser point tonight, leaving them one point behind Florida in the Southleast Southeast division, and two points ahead of Toronto to remain in the top eight teams in the conference. The next five games feature the Boston Bruins bookending two important matches against Tampa Bay and Florida, and a still-valuable two points against the Canadiens. Here's hoping for more of the team we saw in the second and third periods, and none of the team we saw in the first. Otherwise, it is going to be an ugly week for those who rock the red.

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