|Logan Couture celebrates his game winning goal Tuesday.|
The Capitals got off to a poor start in this game, and allowed the Sharks to seize momentum coming out of the gate with a good rush up ice that saw Michal Neuvirth make a great first save of the game. The Shark's top line of Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Thornton pinned the Caps in their zone for an extended shift as well. But at the 4 minute mark, the Capitals mustered some counterattack with good chances from Brooks Laich and Alex Ovechkin, but Sharks goalie Antti Niemi was there to turn them aside. The Sharks seized the momentum back at the 7 minute mark as they re-established their zone presence and began to throw pucks and Neuvirth from all angles; however the Czech was up to the task. The Sharks top unit had another dominant shift about halfway through the period, and Michal Neuvirth had to be great to keep the score tied at 0. Despite their poor defensive zone presence and bad turnovers, however, the Capitals managed to get a break with 4 and half minutes left when they were awarded a power play. Despite an early chance on the man advantage, the power play was mostly a waste, with little pressure and poor zone entries. After the power play was over, though, the Capitals took a penalty of their own and sent the Sharks a man to the good. The Sharks got good pressure over the last minute at 21 seconds of the period on their power play, could not convert and the period ended tied at 0.
In the second, the Sharks came out hard again with a good offensive forecheck and aggressive transition play that had the Caps on their heels, and Neuvirth again had to be exceptional to keep the Sharks off the board, including a miraculous leg save on Dany Heatley in close. The Caps came back with a quick strike off the stick of Nicklas Backstrom, but Niemi was equal to the task again to deny the Swede. The Sharks then mounted the offensive pressure again and got some good chances on the Capitals defense, but once again the Capitals were able to turn them aside. The game then began to settle in to a back-and-forth style, with both team getting good rushes up ice, but it was mainly the Sharks who got good shots off, as Neuvirth had to continually be great to keep his team level. Late in the frame, the Capitals got some momentum back with great chances for Alex Semin and Alex Ovechkin within 30 seconds of each other; however the Sharks defense turned them both aside. Just inside 2 minutes, David Steckel got a gift when an errant clearing pass found his stick inside the blue line, but Stecks mishandled the puck on the ensuing breakaway, failing to get a shot off. With 30 seconds left in the period, the Sharks got one last rush up ice and got a great shot off during a nifty passing play, but Neuvirth was again there with a spectacular glove save coming across his crease, and the period ended still deadlocked at 0.
The third period got off to a slow start for both teams, as most of the play was stuck in the neutral zone for about the first 3 or 4 minutes. Both teams then tried to get some momentum in the critical final frame, but it was the Sharks who seized the momentum again as they began to attack the Capitals' cage from all angles again. But once again, Michal Neuvirth was the story as he continued to deny the Sharks and keep the game tied. But the Sharks were relentless, keeping all play in the neutral zone and their offensive zone. The Capitals were unable to gain any offensive momentum or even get shots through to the net when they did get a small rush as the Sharks began to take complete control of the game. With about 11 and a half minutes left in the period, the Sharks intercepted a pass off a Capitals odd-man rush and broke back, with Logan Couture cashing in off a headman pass through Neuvirth's five hole at the 11:55 mark to give the Sharks a 1-0 lead. The Capitals tried desperately to mount any sort of offense after Couture's goal, but the Sharks' big, bruising defensemen shut them down and sent their teammates in on breaks of their own. Just over two minutes after the first goal, another bruising forecheck by the Sharks' top line resulted in a Dan Boyle goal over Neuvirth to essentially put the game away for the Sharks. The Capitals were awarded a power play just inside three minutes remaining, but did nothing with it, although Niemi did make several great saves on the Caps to keep the two goal advantage intact. Inside the last minute of the game, the Capitals pushed forward in a desperate last gasp, but again were shut down, and the game ended with a 2-0 Caps loss.
One step forward, two steps back. With two great wins over two great teams over the weekend, you might have thought that the Capitals had their mojo back. You would be wrong. This was a game against a team that is worse than the Capitals, and game that the Capitals should have won on all accounts. But they got cute with their puck plays and did not stick to what worked over the weekend: getting pucks deep and establishing a good forecheck, and they paid for it. The Capitals cannot play like this and expect to do anything worth writing home about in the regular season or playoffs, because the Lightning are NOT going to go away. A very disappointing game from the boys in red.
Alexander Semin had about as uneventful return as is humanly possible. He was coasting around in the defensive and offensive zones, waiting for the play to come to him. His stride had little burst and he missed a couple wide-open chances late as well. This is the exact opposite of the Sasha that just got himself another 6.7 million dollars in his bank account: the one that is dynamic, active in all zones, and a lethal offensive catalyst. Having him back is not enough; the Capitals are not good enough to win without their best players at their best. Sigh.
Michal Neuvirth played like the superstar he can be for 51 minutes and 55 seconds tonight. After that? Not so much. He kept the Caps in the game for the first two periods, but in order to be truly great in this league, as Neuvirth has shown he can be, you have to be the one to put the team on your back when the game is tight and on the line. Both goals he allowed cannot go into the back of the net in this important of a game this late in the season. I expect to see Varlamov on Saturday.
The Capitals may take tomorrow off before returning to practice as they prepare to host the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday afternoon. That game is a matinee and is scheduled for a 12:30 P.M. start.