The Washington Times - January 30, 2013, 10:06AM

Welcome to the newest feature here on Capitals Watch: Morning After. It’s a shortened season, so there’s less time to pick over the details of each game, but as Brooks Laich said recently, it also means: “it’s not like the NFL, but in a way that every single game is gonna be scrutinized so much more.”

So, welcome. I’m essentially stealing my colleague Rich Campbell’s “Initial Thoughts” blog idea, renaming it and doing it with the Caps instead of the Redskins. The idea is to give you, the reader a full meal of details and analysis from the most recent game.

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This Morning After will be a bit shorter than usual because I wasn’t at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa. But you better believe I was watching. Back on the beat in Toronto now.

Still hope you enjoy your breakfast:

GAME 6: SENATORS 3, CAPS 2

This one was a gut-punch kind of loss. It’s bad enough to give up a two-goal lead, but to allow three goals in the final 22 minutes is brutal.

Especially given the way the Caps were playing for the first 38-plus minutes. They tilted the ice on the Senators, using Adam Oates‘ defense-turns-into-offense system on one goal and getting a perfect deflection from Matt Hendricks on the other.

They made Craig Anderson, superhuman before Tuesday night, look like the old, unreliable Anderson. His flashes of brilliance, though, kept it from being 3- or 4-0.

Meanwhile, the Caps let Ottawa back in it with just 1:32 left in the second period. The 2011-12 Caps knew all too well how demoralizing late-period goals could be, and this one did the same.

Goaltender Michal Neuvirth should have had Milan Michalek’s shot on the second goal off the faceoff, but Tomas Kundratek should have gotten the puck or at least impeded his progress to the net.

By the time Sergei Gonchar scored the game-winner on the power play, Washington wasn’t the same team.

***

But this one was especially tough because Joel Ward’s penalty for high-sticking that paved the way for Gonchar’s goal probably should have never been called. This was not like Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals when Ward’s double-minor for high-sticking was ill-timed but justified.

It’s a gray area. From pages 82 and 83 of the rulebook:

Rule 60 – High-sticking

60.1 High-sticking – A “high stick” is one which is carried above the height of the opponent’s shoulders. Players must be in control and responsible for their stick. However, a player is permitted accidental contact on an opponent if the act is committed as a normal windup or follow through of a shooting motion, or accidental contact on the opposing center who is bent over during the course of a face-off. A wild swing at a bouncing puck would not be considered a normal windup or follow through and any contact to an opponent above the height of the shoulders shall be penalized accordingly.

Ward clipped Ottawa defenseman Patrick Wiercioch with a follow through on a cycle of the puck in the offensive zone. It was not a shot, so by the letter of the law it should have been a penalty.

But Ward wasn’t taking a “wild swing” at a bouncing puck; he slid the puck along, and his follow through struck Wiercioch up high. Officials are not required to speak to reporters after games, something I was reminded of last season when a goal by Brooks Laich was disallowed and Eric Furlatt declined to talk.

NHL spokesman Gary Meagher, when asked to clarify the interpretation of the rule, said 60.1 was what applied: “The final sentence of the rule is applicable here and it is a judgement call that the referee makes when assessing (or not) a penalty.”

So it was referee Wes McCauley’s judgement.

The loss was not because of the questionable call, and I believe in the idea that over a full season these situations generally break even. Still, in a 48-game season that puts a premium on points, there’s no telling what the difference between one (or two) and zero on Tuesday night will be.

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I’d expect Braden Holtby to start Thursday night at the Toronto Maple Leafs, and not just because Neuvirth allowed one bad goal against the Senators. Neuvirth made 24 saves on 27 shots and didn’t do much to disprove the idea he should get the bulk of the games, but with another back-to-back approaching, splitting makes too much sense.

Oates said earlier in the week he sometimes looks at goalies’ stats against an opponent, usually while he’s on the plane. Perhaps it’s fortunate for the the Caps that they flew to Toronto late Tuesday night so the coach could see that in his one start against the Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre, Holtby stopped 35 of 36 shots for an impressive victory.

Neuvirth has a career .881 save percentage against Toronto.

***

The penalty problem reared up again for the Caps on Tuesday night. After a loosely called game against the Buffalo Sabres, McCauley and Don VanMassenhoven whistled Washington for six minor penalties.

Mathieu Perreault had two of them, though one penalty kill was erased by Kyle Turris‘ diving call. Nicklas Backstrom was tripped, but he wiped out a power play when he closed his hand on the puck.

Then, of course, there was Ward’s penalty with 3:36 left. Even though it was a questionable call, the Senators might not have scored if the penalty kill wasn’t taxed for six minutes earlier in the night.