Sunday, April 4, 2010

Game 79/Washington: My take

A sad yet momentous game for the Dark Blue Jacket.  As the Columbus Blue Jackets hung in there long enough to make a late game rally before losing 3-2 to the Washington Capitals, I celebrated the last game in my rockin' good seats in Nationwide Arena section 106 with family.  I'm out of my season ticket cooperative and will be getting a 6-game pack next year.  Not sure where yet; I gather that there's an open house over the summer for yahoos like me to look around and scope out the best combination of price and location.

Regardless, I've had those seats for a couple years and seen some GREAT games in them.  Specifically, I saw the CBJ-Penguins shootout last season (the Jackets won) and Game 4 of last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs opening round against the Red Wings. I still maintain that Game 4 was THE most exhilarating sporting event I have ever attended and refer back to it when the Jackets totally stink up the joint - like they did in another game I saw from those seats, the pounding we took this year at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs.  It's been great, Section 106.  I doubt I'll be back there next season, but who knows?

Moving onto the game...

I'll just say it, in part because R.J. Umberger said it better than I can: Based off of what I saw last night, the Caps are eminently beatable.  I'll take it a step farther, though.  Even with a team that's currently 14th in the Western Conference, that featured a fourth line of Mike Blunden, Tomas Kana and some #39 guy who wasn't even in the game program (I guess his name is Greg Moore - he had a couple nice shots), with a defense that featured the likes of Grant Clitsome and Nathan Paetsch, the Capitals were nowhere near dominant.  In fact, I'd suggest that the Jackets "lost" a game that they should have won.

The problem was the first period.  The Jackets came out flat, didn't adjust to the run-and-gun style of the Capitals like they should have, got frustrated, committed penalties and gave up the third and decisive goal on a 5-on-3.  By that point, they were down two goals and had to pound their way back into the game.  And they nearly did, dominating the final two periods of the game.

The Jackets' problems, in my opinion, lay in an anemic offensive strategy.  There were plenty of shots, granted, but few quality shots on breakouts and nearly no personnel available to grab rebounds for second shots.  It was a bunch of shoot-and-fall-back all night.  The "half-court game" was reasonable from a possession point of view, but the Jackets didn't score when setting up in such a manner (What does that tell you?). The defense wasn't great, but they were good enough to support Garon and Mason to the level needed for the offense to win the game.

Rick Nash had 2 awesome assists for Antoine Vermette.  He also had 6 shots of his own - never would have thought that he was so prolific last night.  His self-appointed role as set-up man is his current modus operandi.  The Captain had best watch his slamming into the boards, especially when the object of his hit is 5-6 feet away from his point of impact.  OUCH.

The Junior Woodchucks were solid again.  Derick Brassard was all over the ice, grabbing pucks, clawing, scratching, doing whatever he could to keep things moving.  Jake Voracek just BLASTS down the wing time and time again, but it's often without an offensive counterpart on the other side - leading to both d-men collapsing on him...and no meaningful shot.

And Steve Mason was solid in relief of the injured Mathieu Garon.  For those keeping track (I am), Mase still owns Alexander Ovechkin.  21 shots over 4 games and counting.  No goals.

As for the Caps, it was good to see Jason Chimera playing again.  That guy tries harder than most players in the NHL.  And he's a class act on the ice as well as off.  When he ran (was run?) into Garon, he at least made a cursory check on Garon before returning to his team.  Same with a nasty hit that Brassard took into the boards.  Jason Chimera is living proof that you can play hard and rough without being a total jackass.

The Caps also have some physically big players, especially on defense.  Their d-man Schultz was especially large.  The size factor on the Caps' defense probably allows them to slide into the sloppy, opportunistic game that Umberger mentioned without too many consequences.

Jose Theodore got the first star, which probably is appropriate considering that he held off 34 of 36 shots while the Caps only took 27 of their own.  At the same time, I didn't see too many great saves - I saw a lot of poor shot selection from the Jackets.  Note that when Nash and Vermette got down the ice together, with Vermette in the middle, Vermette scored two goals.  Theodore is competent, though, so let's not bang on him too hard.

But I'm saving the best for last.  Alexander Ovechkin, the person I specifically wanted to see in picking this game over others, played uninspired hockey from wire to wire.  I never expected such a performance from the presumptive league MVP.  First, I did not see him in the pre-faceoff warmup and actually thought that Caps coach (and former Fort Wayne Komets player-assistant coach) Bruce Boudreau scratched him to rest him up for the playoffs.  Next, I note that Ovi had a whopping 2 shots on goal and was the only player on both teams with a -2 rating.  Dude was dogging it - big time.  He only played defense when faced up against Rick Nash (and had a couple steals there, to his credit), but he largely lurked back at the blue line and never engaged in the game.

Ovi is an incredible counterpoint to Rick Nash and Sidney Crosby.  Ovechkin, to me, appears to embody the opportunistic game that Umberger criticized.  He sits back, waits for the puck and a clear lane, then fires a laser.  If there's a chance for a breakout, he'll crash the net.  But don't ask him to play within a defensive system - heck, be pleasantly surprised when he plays defense period!  Nash and Crosby, on the other hand, are in the mix down low, giving and taking hits.  I'm really wondering if it's a Russian star approach versus a Canadian star approach - and, if it is the case, what does that mean for the Jackets and Nikita Filatov?  Will Filly be the loafer that Ovi was last night, and do the Jackets want that mindset within their "team defense" approach?

All that said, about Ovechkin, I do not understand why the Nationwide crowd was booing him so intently every time he had the puck.  So he was a slob who was loafing...does that warrant a boo?  No, I'd save the boo for a thug like Todd Bertuzzi.

So farewell, Capitals.  Thanks to the many of your fans for joining us at Nationwide last night.  Congrats on getting your 51st win - the most you've ever won in a season.  And good luck in the playoffs...if what I saw last night was any indication, you're going to need a lot of luck if you're going to win the Stanley Cup.  And ask the San Jose Sharks how satisfying that President's Trophy is.

Ah well.  The Jackets sit in 24th place with 77 points, and Carolina and the Islanders have improved to 76 points each.  Florida and Tampa both have 74.  With closing games away against St. Louis, away against Detroit then home against the Red Wings, I could very easily see the Jackets dropping 2 of 'em if not all 3...which probably would put them into the 26-28 range, or into the draft lottery.  I know that's not what we want or perhaps even need considering the current youth of the team, but it's realistic.

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