So much of sports can be described as a “Game of Inches.”
On Friday night at the Verizon Center, that was definitely the case as the Washington Capitals received a late goal from Eric Fehr to defeat the New York Rangers, 3-2. Fehr’s tally, his 6th of the season, was on a snap shot down the right side after a nice feed from Nicklas Backstrom (1G, 1A). Immediately before that goal, which came in a four on four situation, Dan Girardi hit the far post behind Philipp Grubauer (38 saves) after a Washington giveaway. If that puck is an inch to the right, it’s a 3-2 Rangers lead. But that’s the way it goes, and remember on Monday, if Alex Ovechkin’s shot from the slot is an inch lower than the Caps tie the Ducks late in regulation. As they say, “That’s Hockey.”
This victory improves the Caps to 20-14-4 (44 points) and puts them six points ahead of the Rangers, who they will only face one more time again this season, at Madison Square Garden.
The biggest difference in this game tonight was between the pipes. Grubauer was excellent for the Caps while Cam Talbot gave up some questionable goals. I know Talbot has been hot, but Henrik Lundqvist owns the Caps, and for some reason Alain Vigneault chose to go more with recent form than historical stats in his net minding decision. I can tell you I was certainly thrilled to not see King Henrik manning the cage for New York, so one would think the Capitals players were happy too?
The shot attempts in this contest ended up 71-55 for New York, but it was a fairly even game when it comes to quality chances. The Rangers shot attempts in the opening frame were primarily from the perimeter and it was really only the second period where they dominated play, and most of that was when the Caps had either their 4th line on the ice or their 3rd defensive pair on the blue line.
In the final period, after the Rangers got a quick tying tally on Carl Hagelin’s shorthanded goal, the Capitals carried more of the play. Coach Adam Oates did a nice job of shifting the ice time to his top two defensive pairs and limited the 3rd pair to just three and a half minutes. The difference was clearly noticeable and with the Rangers short a defensemen due to Anton Stralman’s in game injury, the Capitals seemed to wear the Rangers out more in that final frame.
Another positive was that the Caps did a better job on the back check on Friday after misreading two situations on Monday and allowing the tying and winning goal to the Ducks. Oates said that his team was better, but he also said the Rangers are a different type of team than Anaheim, which indicated it was an easier chore for his club against New York. However, Karl Alzner told me that Oates showed some video clips on back checking and King Karl said that the breakdowns on Monday were more of an individual thing. Whatever the case, Washington did a much better job in defensive zone coverage when the Rangers came up the ice on the rush.
Alzner said the team has been working more on their “end zone.” #27 said that the key to a solid back check and defensive zone is that when the puck is in the offensive zone there is always a third guy high. Some coaches require their center to always be that third guy (this is how Bryan Murray ran things for the Caps in the mid 1980′s) but many just let each shift play itself out and have the third guy be a read by the forwards themselves. From what I can gather, Oates’ system looks to be a “read and react accordingly” on the back check. So any of the three forwards could be the first player back. One thing the team is working on, according to Alzner, is more than just the third guy coming back strong because he said the coaches have pointed out it usually has been the third or even the fourth guy on the opposition that have been getting the quality chances against Washington this year.
It’s encouraging to see the focus of the team on these things and there is no doubt that practice time helps the reads and the communication, which is vital, on the ice.
As for Backstrom, he continues to dominate and any smart hockey person will tell you just how good #19 is compared to others in the league. The media may not be all over him from a publicity standpoint, but those in the game know just how good the center is and he is arguably as important to the Caps as any other player. On Friday night, Backstrom, along with Grubauer, were the primary reasons the Capitals stopped their two game losing streak.
Notes: John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 26:38. Mike Green (1G) played 19:10…the Rangers wore their top three d out with Girardi logging 27:35, Ryan McDonagh getting a game leading 29:53 and Michael Del Zotto playing 24:37…next up for the Caps are the Buffalo Sabres on the road on Sunday at 5pm.