Shocked Caps Lose to Canes, 6-3

December 28, 2009 | Ed Frankovic

After reporting to the rink and hearing that their team captain, Chris Clark, and defenseman Milan Jurcina had been traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in return for left wing Jason Chimera, the Caps promptly came out and collectively laid an egg in the first period, falling behind 3-0 en route to a 6-3 loss at once again sold out Verizon Center to Carolina. This was the Capitals first loss to a Southeast Division opponent in 2009-10, they are now 8-1 within the division this year, and they fall overall to 24-9-6. Their division lead is still at an insurmountable 14 points though as a result of a Thrashers 3-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils tonight (NJ re-takes 1st place in the Eastern Conference).

Washington actually didn’t play a bad first couple of minutes but as soon as Nicklas Backstrom took a careless four minute high sticking penalty on Jussi Jokinen the last place Hurricanes would dominate the remainder of the period. Adding to the uncalled for high stick, Mike Green was caught out of position while shorthanded at the Caps blue line and he hooked Jokinen as he split the defense and that set up a 1:59 five on three advantage for Carolina. The Caps would almost kill it off but Tuumo Ruutu would score just before #52 was due to come out of the box. The goal deflated the Caps and the Canes would add two more goals in the period.

But the Caps did not quit and they came out and scored early in the second on a power play, Green’s 9th tally of the season, but then Jose Theodore gave up a bad rebound off of a face-off to allow the Canes an easy tap-in with John Erskine out of position to make it 4-1. Once again, Washington would not go away and they clawed back to 4-3 early in the third period after an Alexander Ovechkin power play tally just 1:22 in. But Theodore (20 saves), who struggled with his rebound control all night, gave up a bad second chance goal with Brendan Morrison just 7 seconds out of the box (in sin bin for a lazy slash) to make it 5-3 with 10 minutes left and take any life away from a Caps comeback. Eric Staal’s empty net goal late capped off his second career five point game (2 goals, 3 assists) and he was very good against the Capitals, once again.

Here is the post game analysis and quotes:

The Caps have been the best team in the league in the first period, but not tonight. They gave up three goals and were outshot 10-4. It all started with the bad penalties and from there the Canes got life. Did it have anything to do with the trade? Ovechkin and Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau talked about it afterwards.

“To me, if I say it was, then I am just looking at an excuse. I don’t know if it did or if it didn’t. Usually we’re a lot better in the first period, but I think Carolina played really well in the first period today. I think our lowest shot total of the year at home was in the first period, as well. So, I don’t want to use it as an excuse, even though I have been in that situation. I know it can bother some people, but I don’t know if it bothered our guys.” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner.

“It’s a hard situation for us because we lost our captain and a great guy.  They’re both good players but it’s a business and you can do nothing about it,” said the two time defending NHL MVP, who if I had my druthers, would be wearing the C going forward.

As for the goaltending situation, this was Theodore’s first start in 10 days and after his terse comments on Saturday about not starting (“I just work here”) one would have thought he would come out and stone the opposition to prove a point. But #60 didn’t get much help early on from his team and he didn’t make the big save either in the first period. Then he totally blew any hope of a comeback with his terrible rebound control and the fourth and fifth goals were the result of second chance opportunities after Theodore miscues on clear shots. The last Carolina tally was just pitiful as Theo gave up a rebound on a bad angled shot and then flopped to the ice like a fish as Sergei Samsonov put in the follow up from the bottom of the left circle. Bottom line, when the Caps woke up and made a game of it they needed their goalie to make some big stops and #60 couldn’t do it. One has to think that Boudreau and GM George McPhee might be running out of patience with the veteran goalie. He just is not consistent and from what I’ve seen this year from Semyon Varlamov and then Michael Neuvirth recently, I put Theodore as 3rd on the depth chart. Boudreau pointed out that he thought Theo “was fighting the puck and struggled with rebound control” on Monday night. I exchanged texts with a Western Conference scout after the game to get his take on the idea of Washington going with the young goalies and he responded with the following:

“[Theodore] always did [have problems with rebounds], since he was 15. The Caps should forget about goaltending and play run and gun!”

Clearly a run and gun game fits this team with Boudreau’s aggressive forecheck style but you need a goalie who can make the big save after the team gives up a few odd man rushes or falls behind, like Grant Fuhr used to do for the Edmonton Oilers. Clearly Varlamov is the netminder who best fits that mold due to his athleticism, if he can stay healthy. As for Theodore, it is time for him to go when Neuvirth comes up and shows he can handle big time shots in a more “Velcro-like” fashion than the 12 year NHL veteran. I’m not sure how many more chances #60 is going to get, at this point.

Now having said all of that you can’t hang this one totally on the goalie, he was not good at all but others struggled too, especially in the first 25 minutes of this one. Let’s start with the Erskine-Karl Alzner pairing. #4 probably had his worst game of the season and he was out of position on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th goals. Alzner struggled too but he was supposed to be a scratch, until the trade, and as a result he took extra work this morning and looked tired. On the 3rd goal, Erskine was caught up too high, Tomas Fleischmann couldn’t control the puck in his own zone, and Morrison and Mike Knuble were out past the blue line so when Flash turned it over #27 was helpless in front of his net against several Hurricanes. The defensemen did not get much help from the forwards all night in their own zone.

On special teams, the Caps gave up the one Canes power play tally in four attempts, although the Samsonov goal came just seven seconds after the slashing call expired on #9 (and I hang that goal totally on Theodore). The Washington power play (2 for 5) was Jeckyl and Hyde looking great on the first attempt, brutal on the second (no shots on net) and third before scoring on Ovechkin’s 26th tally of the season just after their five on three advantage expired. That Great #8 goal tied him with Marian Gaborik of the New York Rangers for the league lead.

So given the chaotic nature of the day, Washington should take some solace in their comeback, despite losing the contest. But at the end of the day, it is a 0 point night (as the Peerless Prognisticator might say).

Now back to the trade. I did exchange more texts with the NHL Western Conference scout referenced above as well as a former NHL front office executive on the deal and its implications. 

The former front office executive gave the edge to Columbus on the deal (“Good trade for Columbus”) based strictly on the personnel involved and he was not a fan of Chimera, at all. He was a big Clark supporter.

The Western Conference scout felt that it was a pretty “insignificant deal” except for the gained salary cap room for Washington. He called it “a salary cap deal” and pointed out that McPhee was “getting salary cap relief to make another deal to upgrade his defense.”

When I brought up the fact that Clark was good in the locker room he made the following good point:

“Like Scotty Bowman says, if they are good in the room, keep him in the room,” meaning results on the ice are really what matters and Clark did only have 4 goals in 38 games, nowhere near the 30 he scored in 2006-07 when he received the big contract from McPhee.

When I brought up the subject of who the next captain will be, the Western Conference scout had another good, but pertinent line:

“Ovie’s the captain, no matter who wears the C.”

The Caps head to the west coast now and will play the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday at 10pm and the Los Angeles Kings at 4pm on Saturday. Their next home game is Tuesday, January 5th against the Canadiens.