Sunday, February 24, 2008

Caps Fall to 'Canes, 6-3

Capitals 3, Hurricanes 6

In a game players, coaches, fans and media agreed was the most important of the season to this point, the Capitals came out looking sharp and aggressive and controlled play for the first ten minutes of the game...but ultimately succumbed to bad luck and bad individual efforts. And no, the Caps didn't lose because of any bad sports clich├ęs that are sure to be thrown around in the wake of this game, phrases like "they don't know how to win", "they're too inexperienced" or "they didn't have the effort".

The bad luck part is pretty self-explanatory: each of the Hurricanes first two goals came on the powerplay, with a Capitals player (David Steckel and then Milan Jurcina) without a stick. Without those bad breaks (no pun intended) and several very nice saves by Cam Ward, the Capitals could have easily been ahead three or four to nothing halfway through the third, instead of trailing 3-2.

There are two players whose efforts were poor enough to be significant contributions to the loss. One was Olaf "this is the biggest game of the season" Kolzig, who may be the victim of comparisons more than anything else. The two most obvious players Kolzig could be compared with are Alexander Ovechkin and Cam Ward and in neither case does he come out looking very good. Comparing Kolzig (the face of the franchise for more than ten years) with Ovechkin (the face of the franchise for the next thirteen at least) comes somewhat naturally in general. But the comparison was even more obvious this week. Leading into this game both Ovechkin and Kolzig addressed the game's importance and recently each has addressed their own personal underperformance (the difference of course being that Ovechkin's lasted about a week while Kolzig's has gone on for several months), yet the responses of the players could not have been more different. Ovechkin was a dominant force, picking up assists on each of the Capitals' goals and registering eight shots of his own, while also racking up five hits. Kolzig stopped 85.7% of the shots that came his way and had terrible rebound control all game. Kolzig's average performance was also highlighted by the play of Cam Ward in the Hurricanes net. Unlike Kolzig, Ward made a number of difficult, crucial saves to keep his team in the game. If the team's had switched goaltenders last night, not only would the Hurricanes have not won the game - it wouldn't even have been close. All that said, though, Kolzig wasn't very good, but he also wasn't as bad as his numbers.

The more pressing concern in my mind was the continued poor play of John Erskine, who was directly responsible for two of the Capitals' goals against, one when he failed to clear the puck in front of the net and one when he let Andrew Ladd get enough space and time that he was able to knock the puck past a prone Kolzig. That kind of play isn't acceptable out of any defenseman; it's especially not acceptable out of a 6'4'', 218 pound defenseman who's a poor skater and has no offensive upside. What's worse is that this can't be chalked up to a bad game - opponents have consistently been getting time and space in front of the net and creating scoring chances when Erskine is on the ice. Honestly, I don't know how he's still getting a sweater.

The bad news is the Capitals are now six points out of the division lead. The good news is that (1) they still hold three games in hand on Carolina and (2) the team is one solid defensive defenseman and possibly a goaltending upgrade from being one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference, so even if the playoffs aren't in the cards in 2008, they should be in 2009.

All photos AP/Getty by way of Yahoo!

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