Bad defensive zone play, a red hot goaltender, not shooting the puck, not going to the net, and some poor officiating, in that order, did the Washington Capitals in on Saturday night as they lost to a streaking Carolina Hurricanes squad, 4-1, in Raleigh. This was the Hurricanes eighth straight home win and they needed this victory more than the Caps, who dominated the first period but could not solve goalie Cam Ward (31 saves on the evening) in that opening stanza.
Let’s start with the bad defensive zone play because all three Carolina goals came as a result of turnovers and defensive zone breakdowns; they were not the result of offensive and neutral zone turnovers that led to odd man rushes. On goal number one by Rod Brind’Amour, Mike Green (who definitely favored his injured left side all evening) gave the puck away behind the Caps net allowing Jussi Jokinen to gather the puck just above the goal line to the right of Jose Theodore (26 saves on 29 shots on Saturday). Green’s defensive partner (Erskine) then made the wrong play going to Jokinen, who was in NO position to score, and vacated the front of the net allowing Brind’Amour to streak into the slot wide open and one time it by #60 for a 1-0 Canes lead. Erskine needs to read the play better in that situation.
After Green tied the game late in the second period on one of the very few times Washington threw the puck on net and received a rebound from Ward (Backstrom’s low shot caromed off of the goalies pads and out to Green, who one timed it top left corner by Ward), more defensive zone missteps would cost Washington the game and allow Carolina to tie the overall season series with the Caps at three (although Carolina did get 7 points to the Caps 6 since game five was won by Washington in a shootout). Shortly after a Washington power play had expired Carolina got the puck in the offensive zone on a Washington turnover as Brian Pothier and John Erskine fumbled it behind the Caps net allowing the puck to go to Eric Staal in front, who blasted one off the pads of Theodore, and with none of the defensemen or forwards picking up Carolina defenseman Joni Pitkanen in front of the net, he patiently waited for Theo to go down and then roofed a backhander into the goal for the eventual game winner.
The final major defensive breakdown gave the Hurricanes their insurance tally at 13:43 on a four on four situation. Ray Whitney brought the puck in the zone with Shaone Morrisonn and Mike Green back for the Caps and it ended up on the left wing boards with Washington in initial good defensive posture. But then Viktor Kozlov, for some strange reason, decided to leave Canes defenseman Anton Babchuk at the front of the Caps net and Denis Seidenberg wisely fired the puck to him and once again, a Hurricane waited Theodore out and backhanded the puck by #60 to make it 3-1. I have no idea what Kozlov was doing there because he was in good man to man coverage and then took off from the player he was responsible for watching?
Clearly the number one star of the night though was Ward who made numerous good gloves saves, including a big stop on Tomas Fleischmann in the third period, who is pointless this month now in 11 games. The former Conn Smythe trophy winner is in a groove but the Caps made things easier for him tonight as they routinely passed up good shooting opportunities by opting for curl and drag moves and cross ice passes for bad angled one timers. Backstrom passed up several good chances, as did Semin, and although Michael Nylander’s curl and drag move worked the other night in Florida, he had two times that I can vividly remember that had he taken the puck hard to the net then Washington would have likely gotten a quality scoring chance. On Saturday night the Caps, for some reason, decided once again to not shoot the puck low at Ward and go hard to the crease for rebounds. The only time they really did this they got the goal from Green. You can bet that Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau will harp on the bad defensive and offensive decisions by his players in Saturday night’s loss.
As for the officiating, it wasn’t very good and I knew it wasn’t going to be as soon as Comcast’s Joe Beninati announced we had zebras Dan Marouelli and Bill McCreary, two dinosaurs who have never been very good referees in my book. The first call I really did not like came in the third period when Jokinen hooked Fleischmann on a good Washington chance but when #14 fell to the ice he was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for diving. On the replay Jokinen clearly hooked Fleischmann and it looked to me that Tomas hit a rut or Jokinen’s stick clipped his skate causing his fall because with Semin wide open in the slot I HIGHLY doubt he was looking to dive (as evidenced how quickly he fired the puck to Semin from his knees – if he was diving he would not have been looking to complete the play).
Next came the HORRIBLE call of the night with the Caps down 3-1 when Pitkanen took a two handed cross check to Green’s head as he was going around him, knocking #52 to the ice. When Green got up and started jawing at Pitkanen it was the Hurricane who initiated the contact that caused the scrum that eventually resulted in Green getting two minutes for roughing while all #25 of the home team walked away with was a two minute high sticking call. I’ve watched this sequence THREE times now and I still have no idea how this was an even up call!!! Pitkanen’s shot to Green’s head should have been a FIVE minute major, especially since blows to the head are supposed to be heavily enforced these days, and I counted two shots from Pitkanen on Green while #52 only got in one good glove punch. What was Marouelli and McCreary watching? They are terrible, but unfortunately those two clowns will probably officiate at least one Washington playoff game.
Beninati and Craig Laughlin in the Comcast broadcast booth, two great guys who I’ve known for years and who really know hockey, then gave Green a bit of the gears on the air for not keeping his head and costing Washington a power play but I think if those guys watched this thing again, like I was able to do, they’d agree more with me (that the zebras blew this one). Pitkanen should have gotten a major and then he initiated the contact and the scrum that ensued, not Green.
Shortly thereafter, Brind’Amour boarded Ovechkin from behind and the Great #8 slammed his head into the glass but luckily was not hurt. Even though #17 was not intending to hit him from behind he should have gotten a five minute major but the guys in stripes only went with two minutes. Joe Corvo’s empty net shorthanded goal sealed the deal for Carolina.
Here are some other thoughts on the Caps:
I’ve noticed over the last five games that Washington has played without Donald Brashear, and especially in the two Carolina games, that the opposition has been taking more liberties with the Washington skill players. It seems opponents are feeling braver without the fear of #87 coming out and pounding them to oblivion. Matt Bradley, who will drop the gloves but rarely wins the bout, can’t police things for this team on his own. I think Washington is missing Brashear’s toughness right now.
Overall, I thought Erskine had the worst night on defense for the Caps. Personally I wouldn’t mind seeing #27, Karl Alzner, coming up from Hershey and getting some work before the playoffs but right now the Caps seem set on the seven guys that are up with the big club in Green, Tom Poti, Jeff Schultz, Morrisonn, Pothier, Erskine, and Milan Jurcina (scratched on Saturday). Pothier wasn’t very good tonight as well.
Sergei Fedorov (-2) did not have a good game and he looked listless at times. I wonder if he isn’t fully recovered from that flu bug yet?
The Caps next game is Tuesday in Toronto against Martin Gerber, who beat the Canadiens, 5-2, tonight. Gerber stoned the Caps back on March 5th (2-1 Leafs win). The Florida Panthers were knocked off by Columbus, 3-1, tonight reducing the Caps magic number for clinching a playoff spot to just five points (any combination of Caps points or Florida missed point opportunities). The Caps lead in the Southeast Division is 11 points over Carolina with eight games to go so the magic number to clinch that title, and get at least the third seed, is six points.