There are times where when a hockey game ends 2-1, there's only so much to talk about beyond good goalie play and the tension involved. Low-scoring, low-event game can leave you with only so much to say.
Suffice to say, last night at TD Garden was not one of those times. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more eventful, more up-and-down 2-1 hockey game.
Matt Niskanen scored on a blast from above the slot above halfway into the 3-on-3, and Phillip Grubauer made 33 saves to preserve the two points for the victors as the ragged Washington Capitals still managed to escape TD Garden with their seventh straight victory over the Boston Bruins. The B's, for their part, earned their OT point in spades, skating with and, at several points, even dominating the Caps.
It would be impossible to talk about this game without the full context. The Capitals had won six in a row against the Bruins coming in, but with noted Bruins-killer Braden Holtby sitting out the second half of a back-to-back in favor of Grubauer, the Capitals playing their fourth game in five days, and the now-somewhat-familiar lack of No.1 DMan John Carlson, the scales appeared tipped in the Bruins favor. And that's indeed the way this one started.
At Kevan Miller made a nice play at the offensive blue line, gloving a clearing attempt with his left hand and whacking the puck back down low. Brad Marchand, who's been so hot lately that it's news that he did not score the Bruins goal in this game, collected it and sent a perfect pass across rainbow road to a net-crashing-and-competeley-wonderful Patrice Bergeron. Bergeron did not miss, and it was 1-0 Bruins. The Caps had gotten got in a long shift in their own zone, and it looked like if the Bruins could apply their normal amount offensive pressure, it might be a long-night for the weary, league-leading visitors.
And really, maybe that's the way it went in an alternate universe, because the Bruins were afforded so many chances while the game was still 1-0 to open up their lead. Tuukka Rask had another good night--Niskanen's game-winner was a bit of a puzzler, but you can't put a game where a goalie stops 28 of 30 on the goalie unless one of those goals involves him yelling "I object to this violent sport!" and skating out the zamboni door--and that included his need to clean up a couple of prime Washington Capitals scoring chances in the late first. Evgeny Kutnetsov, who was by far the most dangerous player on either team who somehow didn't register a point, was stopped on a semi-break after an awful Dennis Seidenberg turnover. This event was repeat itself late in the game when David Krejci blindly flipped the puck towards a forechecking Kutznetsov (Krejci actually did this again with a different Cap that I tragically didn't write down the name of -- it was a weirdly bad game for The Matrix in terms of puck security).
The second period is what everyone will, understandably, be talking about, however. First, the Bruins came out with a jump in their step that the Capitals were having trouble matching, and when Torey Krug made a sweet "NHL 2007" move towards the slot plus shot back into the short side netting to make the game 2-0, the world seemed to make sense.
Remember what was said earlier context? Here's some more context for you: last night, the reffing was crap. Don't mistake this for "the Bruins got robbed of two points" or "everyone is against is" or "Wes Welker should be on this team instead of Matt Beleskey," or any other homer-esque statements, but this generally just wasn't a very tightly called game. Multiple calls came from officials who were too far away to have a good view, the penalty threshold was set in the bizarre place where you know a lot of calls are going to be made but still can't tell what's actually considered an offense, and, frankly, despite other people who covered this game coming around on it, I never did see a convincing view of the play on the aforementioned Krug goal--which would've been the DMan's first Dec. 5th because apparently he swapped luck with Brett Connolly--that warranted calling it back for offsides.
Nonetheless, in one of the key points of this game, that's what happened. Somehow the refs took Barry Trotz's challenge--a solid gamble given that Trotz's team was trailing on the road and looking very uneven against Claude Julien's squad--and determined that Loui Eriksson had been offside on the zone entry. Even the Bruins post-game crew determined that this was the correct call, and they're not exactly impartial. Thing is, I'm not sure what they or the refs were looking at:
That's the puck clearly in the zone and Loui Eriksson, at the bottom right corner, pretty clearly keeping himself onsides with the right skate being on the blue line. It's hard to see from this angle, but his skate only comes up off the ice after this. Is this call the reason the Bruins lost? No, that'd be pretty weak to claim. Is it a bad call that pretty much typified a night of reffing that felt like things were decided via coin flip? You bet. Is it absolutely bizarre that this was called onside at the time somehow the review overturned this? Yeah, especially since--while I despise it--the reasoning is supposed to be that it's "conclusive evidence" in order to overturn. Perhaps the refs ended up with a better angle on this than what we're looking at, but I think you would be hard-pressed to convince me that this wasn't an error on the officials' part.
Not long after that would come what I'd term as the true turning point of this contest, in more ways than one. The Capitals star Alex Ovechkin, at 5:36 into the second, took a run at Kevan Miller. The latter was turning to play the puck along the boards, so he was fair game for physical contact. He was not, however, fair game to be charged, even if the Caps' captain did slow up (and, for whatever credit it gives him, seemed to instantly realize he'd screwed up) and driven into the boards from behind. There was a scrum, in which the Bruins forwards rushed in on Ovechkin, and we were left with two penalties called. In meantime, Miller lay crumpled on the ice, the unfortunate result of the hit being an injury to his surgically-repaired shoulder.
There was a lot of discussion on the subject, but this was perhaps the one instance where I thought the refs did alright. The hit was obviously illegal, and seemed like more than a minor penalty given that, even if Ovechkin slowed up on Miller a bit at the end, he still drove him into the boards. While it sure would've been nice for the Bruins, I also thought it was short of an ejection, given that Ovechkin was making a play on a guy trying to handle the puck and it wasn't exactly easy to predict that Miller would never turn on the play. In any case, the refs split the difference between an ejection and a minor, handing Ovechkin a major penalty without ejection. Miller headed for the dressing room, and the Bruins were obviously going to be down to five defenemen.
Brad Marchand also took a roughing penalty in the scrum, so it was 4-on-4 for two minutes, followed by a three-minute Bruins power play. That didn't seem completely right at the time, but after the 4-on-4 ended Tom Wilson was whistled on an interference call, and the Bruins had nearly two minutes of 5-on-3.
While they were up 1-0 still, one got the sense that the Bruins needed to score on that Power Play. Miller obviously wasn't returning and, whatever your feelings on Kevan are, it meant that the Bruins were stuck with Zdeno Chara, John-Michael Liles, Krug, Seidenberg, and Adam McQuaid to cover about 36 minutes of game time. Kevan's absence paved the road to the defensive corps wearing down, giving the Caps a rest advantage that had previously been 100% with Boston.
And the Bruins did indeed beat Philpp Grubauer twice on the Power Play, the problem being that both a shot from Ryan Spooner and a back-door attempt by Patrice Bergeron both rang the iron. In the aftermath of the first chance, the Caps goalie managed to cover the puck, and the second one saw the puck ring the post and go out the other side behind the German netminder.
Thanks to these instance of bad luck or inch-poor marksmanship, the Bruins didn't convert, didn't pad their lead, and ended up with nothing to show for the Caps best player being off the ice for five minutes. While they'd get other chances throughout the second, it was the Capitals who scored next. Ovechkin found passing-wizard Nicklas Backstrom open at the top of the right circle, and Backstrom lived up to his reputation but sliding a backhand feed so good that stay-at-home DMan Karl Alzner basically had no choice but to re-direct it by Rask. That happened at 13:08, and it cemented the idea that the B's had blown their chance to keep the Caps from not getting their teeth into this one.
The Bruins wouldn't relent, though, using another Power Play chance to end up registering 20 SOG for the duration of the second. At the end of two, they'd outshot the Capitals 27-16, and only the posts and Grubauer (and yes, the weird decision to take Krug's goal off the board) kept it at 1-1.
It was in the third that the predictable trouble started, with the Bruins gradually wearing down under having five DMen and the fact that Washington usually doesn't get slugged in the possession department and somehow seemed to find a new gear in the last twenty minutes. After killing an early Bruins Power Play, it was all Capitals until about there were about five minutes left, upon which some desperate end-to-end hockey was played. Finally, this entertaining game entered OT, which set the stage for Niskanen scoring off a high cycle from Andre Burakovsky and Marcus Johansson.
While the Bruins can't be satisfied with a single point in light of the Caps schedule coming in, grabbing the OT did take some of the sting off the loss. The Bruins are now only one point behind the Florida Panthers, who are Monday's opponent.
- Recent acquisition John-Michael Liles played 21:38 and generally acquitted himself well. The loss of Miller makes it hard to parse if the TOI total was planned to be in that neighborhood or out of necessity, but either way the B's correctly answered the pre-game question of "will Liles be utilized for the player he is?"
- Looking at the other add, Lee Stempniak had the secondary helper on Bergeron's goal (as he touched the puck in-between Kevan's good keep in and Marchand's pass) and poured 3 SOG. He's looked like a good fit on the 63-37 line.
- The final play of the game was weird in that it looked like Chara got stuck rotating out high to pick up Niskanen, which is probably not how you draw things up in that situation. It was also a shot Rask has stopped before, but it was pretty apparent that Chara's attempt shot-block obstructed the Boston goalie's vision of the release.
- Grubauer was indeed bailed out by the iron a couple times, but otherwise the Caps back-up netminder picked up the torch from Our Nemesis Braden Holtby very well, stopping 33 of 34 and, particularly during stretches of the first and second, keeping the visitors in the game.
- For whatever Ovi's Advocate stuff I mentioned in the main recap, I do think that hit was bad enough for at least a phone hearing. The NHL office hasn't exactly been strong on suspending stars for...uh...any reason at all, so I'm not holding my breath.
- The Kevan Miller injury--get well soon, Kevan, I never wish for a player to get hurt--opens the question of whether that means the return of Colin Miller and/or Zach Trotman to the line-up. I suppose we'll see about that Monday morning.
- For a team that put 33 SOG, the Bruins were still rather Power Play reliant, and beyond Marchand-Bergeron-Stempniak, there was some good play but nothing that couldn't be described as "choppy." Krejci's line had a hard time getting going, in particular.