Reprinted with permission from hockeybuzz.com
I found it rather interesting that Fox Sports Live tapped into the Washington Capitals/Buffalo Sabres game with a lead-in of Alexander Ovechkin vs. Jack Eichel. "The present and the future" is how they presented it.
I'm sure Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Edmonton's Connor McDavid would have something to say about it. That is if Crosby and his Penguins were playing at the extremely high level the Capitals are right now and McDavid was off of the injured list and on the ice with Oilers teammates.
Washington rolled into First Niagara Center last night on a 14-1-1 streak with head coach Barry Trotz having his club dialed in. You remember Trotz, a fine coach who was tabbed as the Nashville Predators first head coach and proceeded to spend the next 15 seasons there. His teams in Nashville were noted for lock-down defense and mediocre offense which lead to seven playoff appearances but no advances past the second round.
After a mutual agreement to part ways in 2014, Trotz and his highly structured systems came to a Washington Capitals team that was floundering. Trotz was the third coach hired by the Caps since Bruce Boudreau was fired in November of 2011 and nobody knew how to get a team to play up to it's skill-level. Washington boasted the most prolific goal-scorer of the 2000's lockout-era and had loads of talented skaters, not to mention an up-and-coming stud in net in Braden Holtby, yet couldn't put it all together.
After one-and-a-half seasons under Trotz, they seemed to have gotten it together nicely.
The Caps are a good measuring stick for this very young Buffalo Sabres club, as were the Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars, the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks, teams that the Sabres are a combined 1-7-2 against so far this season.
The Sabres have some fine young talent in Eichel, Rasmus Ristolainen and Sam Reinhart and they also have some pretty talented young vets like Ryan O'Reilly and Evander Kane. Buffalo has also gotten some fine goaltending from Chad Johnson as well as solid play from last night's goalie, Linus Ullmark. They also have a top-notch head coach in Dan Bylsma, one who took lead a highly skilled Pittsburgh Penguins team, captained by Crosby, to the Stanley Cup in 2009. But to hang with the Caps they had to keep it tight and play almost a perfect game.
Just like giving the Joe Torre-era NY Yankees an extra out or dropping a rare Tom Brady miscue with the game still close, giving a great team or player wiggle-room will lead to dire consequences.
Case in point.
Ovechkin is the most prolific scorer of his generation. He has 493 goals since he came into the league in 2005-06 and thanks to quanthockey.com, we come to find out that his 0.621 goals per game ranks him fourth on a list of players who've played in 700 or more games. He's the type of player you don't give any room to, much less the entire slot area in front of a rookie goalie.
With three Buffalo players converging on a puck in the corner that was corralled by one of the best set-up men in the game, Niklas Backstrom, the Sabres inexplicably forgot about Ovechkin. You could sense a collective "Oh S**t" emanating from First Niagara Center as the play unfolded with Ullmark being the victim of a his skaters' cardinal sin.
Washington's second goal wasn't much better for Buffalo. Although Jay Beagle is no Ovechkin, you don't leave him open in the slot either. But, after Tyler Ennis sent a cross-ice pass to no one, Beagle found himself all alone in the slot and proceeded to bury a rebound that came sharply of the back-wall. No Sabre, including Ennis who was loafing on the play, was within five feet of Beagle as he sent it home.
"We gave them those opportunities," said Bylsma to the gathered media post-game. We didn't give them a lot, but what they got, we gave them."
In no way, shape or form should the Sabres hang their heads after this game. They played it tight for the entire game and things could have been different had it not been for three stellar stops by Holtby.
Early in the game the line of Eichel, Kane and Ennis produced a glorious opportunity. Eichel sent the puck far-side from in tight but Holtby quickly shot out his pad and kicked it away. Late in the third with Ullmark pulled for the extra attacker, Holtby kicked out his right pad on a shot from in tight by Reinhart with 1:24 left. But he saved the best for last.
Shortly after the Reinhart save, Kane found himself all alone on the weakside with a gaping net in front of him but somehow Holtby came across the crease and reached his glove out to absolutely rob Kane.
It was a play worthy of Fox Sports Live's #1 highlight by the game's first star.
Buffalo put up a good fight and against most teams in the league it may have been enough to even get a win, or at worse, an OT/SO loss. But last night they played the hottest team in the league with the greatest goal-scorer of his generation and a goalie who's 23 wins and 1.85 goals against average are tops in the league.
Ovechkin vs. Eichel? Meh, I wouldn't go that far yet. But it was a good lead-in and it's good for the sport, even if the game's highlights were nearly last on the broadcast.
Buffalo's powerplay was lousy last night. There's no other way to put it. They went 0/3 and are now 0 for the last 17. Some personal notes while watching blatant ineptitude from both units included: Blah. Blah. Pathetic. Better. Meh.
The Sabres put forth a strong effort after the Ovechkin goal and had two pp opportunities in the second period surrounding the Beagle goal but got nothing done. They came into the third period rather sluggish but were afforded yet another pp opportunity seven minutes into the third. Although it was better than the first two, but came up empty and after squandering their third powerplay of the game you could sense frustration setting in as they began firing prayers from all over the ice at Holtby.
Bylsma referred to the ineptitude of their powerplays twice in his post-game presser. "It was a big part of the game. We had the three powerplays and easily could have used them to get back into the game. The execution and the ability to score a goal wasn't there. I think there was some frustration in our team that we couldn't come through."
Quick note: Washinton's 85.1% kill-rate is fourth best in the league.
Kane had the sex offense allegations hanging over him last night. Whether or not that contributed to a fairly mediocre performance through the first half of the game we'll never know. What we do know is that Bylsma changed up his second and third lines in the third period last night. Kane and Eichel found themselves centered by Johan Larsson while Eichel had Zemgus Girgensons and Brian Gionta on his wings.
For Eichel it was "OK boys, I've got the puck, just get to the net." And it almost worked. For Kane and Ennis there was no chemistry no matter who their center was.
There was a significant up-tick in Kane's game after he took a puck to the face courtesy of an Eichel backhand. As he headed to the bench with his glove over his face he slammed his stick to the ice in frustration.
He appeared post-game with a mark on his chin and was asked about the game. WGR's Paul Hamilton respectively asked how he felt, all things considered, and Kane replied, "I enjoy playing hockey. I enjoy being around the rink, around the guys and playing in this league. I don't take that lightly."
Things got heated last night between the two teams and Fox might be on to something, albeit on a larger scale than just Ovechkin and Eichel.
Buffalo's Nic Deslauriers manhandled Washington's Justin Williams in the neutral zone and caught him with his stick as Williams was falling to the ice, much to the dismay of the Capitals. Washington's Michael Latta came to Williams' defense a short time later and Deslauriers took care of him. Latta, who was lauded by his team for sticking up for Williams, suffered an arm injury in the altercation.
With Deslauriers in the box, Caps big man Tom Wilson was seen glaring at Deslauriers in the box and sent some words his way.
"We thought the hit (by Deslauriers) was a bit unnecessary," Trotz told the media post-game. "That's what's great about our team, they stick together really well. They've got each other's back. Guys were all for [Latta]. He got hurt in the fight, but I'm really, really happy with everything."
In the third period, Ovechkin sent Buffalo's Josh Gorges into the boards on a dangerous play that should have been a boarding penalty. Sabres' rookie Jake McCabe rocked Ovechkin with a strong body-check in retaliation and Ovechkin went right back at McCabe and the two collided body-to-body.
It was a punk-ass move by Ovechkin, something he'll do from time to time. Much to his credit, McCabe stood his ground and went after Ovie, sticking up for his teammate as well.
We'll see how much of this carries over to the next game which is Wednesday night in DC.