Welcome back to the Morning After, your home for Washington Capitals game analysis during this shortened season.
GAME 24: RANGERS 4, CAPS 1 (10-13-1, 21 points, 3rd in Southeast, 12th in East, 8 points out of playoff spot)
Caps radio play-by-play man John Walton crystallized it with less than 10 minutes remaining in Sunday’s loss to the New York Rangers. Bringing up Mike Milbury (he actually said rhymes with Ike Pillsbury), Walton said Alex Ovechkin sometimes gets criticized too much. But, he said, a team needs its best players to be its best players and that wasn’t happening.
Sunday’s NBC broadcast featured Pierre McGuire shredding Ovechkin for missing a hit on Derek Stepan that led to the Rangers’ first goal. The captain skated through the neutral zone and appeared to have Stepan lined up. He didn’t hit him, and eight seconds later Stepan danced in and scored a soft goal on Braden Holtby.
“He let him off the hook in the neutral zone,” McGuire said. “I don’t know why he would do that. That’s obviously a bad goal by Holtby and a courageous play by Stepan, but you can’t let guys off the hook like that in the neutral zone.”
You know who else didn’t know why Ovechkin did that? His coach, Adam Oates. Asked if that was the correct play to avoid the hit, Oates said: “No. It’s not.”
“We have tracking rules,” the Caps’ coach said, “and I think he was gonna hit him and he let him go and because of that we got a little out of position.”
Ovechkin said he tried to hit Stepan but that the Rangers center ducked out of the way.
“I saw Ribs and Hendy go back, he kind of look [to see] where’s the puck,” Ovechkin said. “I try to make a hit on him but he saw me at the last second and he moved.”
The video replay shows Mike Ribeiro and Matt Hendricks trailing the play, still in the Caps’ offensive zone when Ovechkin tries to hit Stepan.
Now, let’s consider that Ovechkin has a bit of a reputation for late hits and lining up players from across the ice. Because of that, even if you want to give him a pass for not lighting up Stepan to avoid a penalty, it was what he does – or doesn’t do – next that’s the big issue.
As Ribeiro and Hendricks race back, Ovechkin glides back instead of making a hard turn. The Rangers have a three-on-two against Karl Alzner and Tomas Kundratek, and Stepan has plenty of free ice to generate a scoring chance.
It’s uncertain whether a backcheck would have prevented the goal, which Holtby should have stopped. But making that effort would have helped the rest of his teammates out on the play.
When your best players aren’t your best players, bad things can happen.
Here’s the video:
But that wasn’t the end of Ovechkin’s adventurous day. With the score tied 1-1, the Caps star tripped Rangers captain Ryan Callahan to set up a delayed penalty, then held Ryan McDonagh.
In the mean time, Brian Boyle scored to cancel out the tripping. But the holding set up Callahan’s power-play goal just 31 seconds later.
“They had the original call on Alex and the guy – the outside ref had the original call on Alex, which is the one I saw,” Oates said. “And they said that he held a guy 10 seconds later, which, obviously watching the tape he didn’t.”
Looking back at the video, Ovechkin got his free, left hand around McDonagh. Maybe that’s not a hold in Oates’ playing days, but since the 2004-05 lockout it is.
Asked if he had ever seen two calls on the same player on a delayed penalty, Oates said yes.
“But I’ve seen it where a guy has kind of gone crazy and done dumb things,” he said. “But I thought maybe they made a mistake there.”
Whether referees Dean Morton and Marc Joannette made mistakes on that play can be debated, based on the interpretation of penalty rules. But Ovechkin certainly made mistakes by tripping Callahan and not moving his feet and falling out of position when chasing McDonagh.
This was a first for New York coach John Tortorella. And he wasn’t satisfied, at the time, with just Boyle’s goal.
“I have never seen it. That’s the first time I’ve seen it. Not sure if you guys have,” Tortorella said. “I was asking about the faceoff. The question is, shouldn’t the faceoff be in the end zone instead of at center ice. We’ve got to put a new rule in the rulebook.”
When your best players aren’t your best players … it was a rough afternoon for the Caps. On the ice for Brad Richards‘ third-period goal, too, Ovechkin and Ribeiro each finished the day with a minus-3 rating.
Here’s the video of the two penalties within five seconds:
Now, to something other than Ovechkin. Oates made a couple of healthy lineup choices for Sunday’s game, scratching center Mathieu Perreault and left wing Wojtek Wolski in favor of Marcus Johansson and Aaron Volpatti.
Asked why Perreault and Wolski took a seat, Oates said: “Play. Play and the team we’re playing. Lot of factors go involved.”
Perreault scored a power-play goal in Saturday’s loss at the New York Islanders, but his pattern of taking ill-advised penalties in recent games doesn’t help his case. Wolski scored in back-to-back games last week against the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers, but he played just 7:05 Saturday; Oates has talked about wanting Wolski to play correct hockey and not worry about production as much.
Johansson, Oates said, was one of the best players on the ice in his return from a 12-game absence because of a concussion. That earned him a promotion to the top line, a place he could be for Tuesday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Volpatti played 6:23 against the Rangers, taking just one shift in the second period.
When Oates switched his lines up midway through the game, he went with Johansson, Ribeiro and Ovechkin up top, and Jason Chimera on the third line with Jay Beagle and Joel Ward. The second line of Eric Fehr, Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer remained the same, leaving Matt Hendricks with Joey Crabb and another forward who was double-shifted when Volpatti didn’t play.
Ending on a positive note, defenseman Steve Oleksy picked up his first career NHL goal Sunday, floating a point past over Rangers goaltender Martin Biron.
“I don’t score a lot of goals, so every one’s nice and to get that one out of the way helps a lot,” the 27-year-old said. “But at the end of the day, we were looking for two points and we were unable to get that.”
Oleksy piled up 151 penalty minutes in 55 games with the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League this season to go along with two goals and 12 assists. In four Caps games, he has four points.
Sometimes your best players are your newest players.