Monday night at Verizon Center was a drama that took a horrific turn for the hosts in the game’s final 10 minutes, when a Capitals’ club combined a lethargic work ethic with too soft a shell in their own end, watching a 4-1 lead evaporate in the final frame before succumbing to Toronto 5-4 in a shootout. Toronto entered play Monday night tied with the Islanders for the fewest road wins in the league.
It wasn’t as if the Caps hadn’t had warning about the possibility of such a fate. On the Leafs’ last visit to town on November 3 the Caps took a 3-1 lead into the final 20 minutes only to watch the Leafs surge out to a 4-3 lead. The Caps prevailed 5-4 in a shootout that night. Two nights later the Caps lost a 3-0 third period lead at home against the Bruins. The Caps still have one of the best records in the league, and their record at home (12-2-2) is the envy of most; but losing commanding leads late this season is more than mildly unsettling.
It wasn’t a night to remember for Nicklas Backstrom. Despite recording two assists on the evening, the Caps’ top center skated a -2 and was on the ice for all three Leafs’ goals in the final 20 minutes. He was off his game Monday night.
The Caps did lose defenseman Jeff Schultz midway through the game with a fractured thumb. He’ll be out four to six weeks, Bruce Boudreau noted in his postgame address to the press, which was shorter than any recent TV promo for the Winter Classic. “We quit playing in our zone,” the subdued coach said.
The plot unfolded rather nicely through the opening 40 minutes. The Capitals, looking to rebound from Saturday night’s deflating 3-1 setback against Atlanta, rode an Energizer Bunny pivot from Quebec out to a 4-1 lead against the Leafs. And through two periods Monday night it looked as if HBO had another ‘Rudy’ storyline unfolding before its cameras, as Mathieu Perreault, recalled earlier from Hershey on Monday, scored two impressive even-strength goals to help stake the parent club to what looked to be a comfortable lead. Perreault earned the evening’s second star; to his coach, he was probably the first.
“If some of the other forwards had played with as much energy as [Matty], we wouldn’t have been in the situation we were in,” Gabby noted.
I’ve long wondered what Alexander Semin would look like if he were paired, durably, with an elite playmaking pivot who could keep up with him and who shared his elite hockey sense. Someone not named Nicklas Backstrom, so that the Caps could durably forge two elite scoring lines. On Monday night, Perreault auditioned magnificently for just that role. He was the best Capitals’ forward, probably their best player, and flanked by Brooks Laich on the left, the second line created offense and forechecked effectively. There is a wide open job available in the middle of the ice on the Capitals’ second line, and if Perreault can forge lasting chemistry with the Capitals’ big goal scoring gun this season, and play accountably away from the puck, the job is his.
“Every time I get called up it seems like the first game I’m flying. Now it’s just a matter of doing it every night,” MP85 reflected in postgame defeat.
Really it should have been an HBO hit feature wrapping up in the game’s final 20 minutes. Matty had already secured the first two-goal game of his young NHL career, and the entire arena elevated its collective attention throughout the third period every time he touched the puck; the rink wanted nothing so much as a hat trick from this endearing folk hero. It could have happened, too. With a little over 11 minutes remaining Perreault had Leafs’ defenders off balance and guessing as he quarterbacked the puck into the Leafs’ zone, Semin speeding up through center ice for a stealth feed. Perreault’s patience with the puck opened up a clear shooting lane on Leafs’ netminder Jonas Gustavsson, but instead of shooting Perreault directed a perfect pass that Semin blasted off the crossbar. On the other side of the ice the young center made some nice defensive plays, and he even threw a big hit along the boards. Perreault must live up to his end of the audition bargain, and if he does and if Bruce Boudreau sticks with this line combo there could be some special evenings ahead this winter.
Fair or not, moderate or undersized centers like Perreault commonly are held to higher performance standards. It’s the curse of the puck artist. Even in a brilliant career Denis Savard suffered from it to a degree. On nights when they fail to land on the scoresheet or otherwise deftly set up linemates, such players tend to get singled out as inconsistent, when in point of fact being a regular scorer in professional hockey is very much the exception to the performance rule. It’s the catcall of the size bigots.
Inconsistent very much describes to me Dave Steckel’s play of last season and this, but how much criticism has he garnered for it?
Monday night did offer a silver lining of excitement for the Red Army and its zealous infatuation with MP85.
Also on the plus side of things, the curse of the President’s Trophy resides this morning in Pittsburgh.