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A Closer Look at An Improbable Goal

December 3, 2013

In real time, Washington’s 3-2 overtime win over the New York Islanders in New York on Saturday night was remarkable. With the benefit of a couple of days of hindsight and some research, it’s even more so.


When Islanders’ forward Thomas Vanek scored with just 1:51 remaining in regulation in Saturday’s game against the Caps, it gave his team a 2-1 lead. The tally incensed the Capitals, who believed that goaltender Braden Holtby had covered the puck a second or so before Vanek’s goal, and that officials should have blown the play dead for a face-off at the Washington end of the ice.


The Caps didn’t have time to dwell on Vanek’s goal. With just 111 ticks remaining on the clock, their focus had to be on finding a way to draw even.


Caps coach Adam Oates took the obvious first step, pulling Holtby in favor of an extra skater. But only 19 seconds after Holtby went to the bench, the Caps appeared to be done for. John Carlson’s intended pass to Mike Green at the New York line was read and broken up; New York’s Michael Grabner – one of the fastest skaters in the league – poked the puck into neutral ice with one hand and tore off after it. Green interceded, impeding with Grabner’s route to the disc.


The egregious interference penalty enabled Green to get to the puck just ahead of Grabner, and he took his own one-handed swipe at the puck just inside the Washington line. The referee’s arm went up, but the whistle didn’t blow. The puck was still loose. Green drifted down to the front of the Capitals’ net, as Islanders forward Colin McDonald wound up for a slapper from the high slot. He fired on net, and Green stopped the puck. The whistle blew with 1:10 left on the clock, and Green took his seat in the penalty box.


“Obviously it was a foot race,” said Green, “and it was either take a penalty or they score. I had no choice but to take the penalty.


“It was just a play where I was desperate to get back and take [Grabner] out of the play and then my first thought was to get back to the front of the net in case they received the puck. And luckily [McDonald] didn’t shoot it high, he shot it on the ice. I was just able to make a skate save. I was kicking it old school out there.”


As it turned out, Green’s penalty was crucial for Washington. In a good way.


Although he twice prevented the Isles from going up 3-1 and securing an almost certain regulation win, the downside of Green’s grab of Grabner was that he had put Washington a man down and saddled the Caps with a defensive zone draw.


Oates deployed Nicklas Backstrom and Jason Chimera as his penalty-killing forwards, and he had Karl Alzner and John Carlson on defense. Backstrom had won only one of the 10 face-offs he had taken to that point of the game, but he won this one, kicking it back to Alzner who fired it off the glass and all the way down and into the right wing corner to the New York zone.


Chimera, one of only a few guys in the league who can give Grabner a run for his money in a footrace, flew off in pursuit, as did Islanders defenders Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald. The two defensemen reached the center red line almost simultaneously, and Chimera was still a few strides back at that point.


Somehow, Chimera blazed past both Islanders and got the puck first. He chipped it around the back of the New York net, and Backstrom also got to that loose puck before the Isles did. The Caps center shoveled it along the wall, reversing it in Chimera’s direction. New York’s Kyle Okposo intervened, and he tried to roll the puck up the wall and out of the zone. Chimera got his stick onto Okposo’s, muzzling the attempt. The puck died as it reached the half wall, and at this point Alzner realized it was going to die, and he quickly and alertly pinched up the left wing wall to play it.


As he squeezed past New York’s John Taveres along the wall near the top of the circle, Alzner put his stick on the puck and it popped into the air ahead of him. He kept moving into the corner, and the puck came down in front of him as Hamonic and Okposo hovered nearby. Alzner pushed the puck forward to Chimera, who was stationed almost directly behind the New York cage.


Meanwhile, the cerebral Backstrom was reading all of this, and he can be seen moving down toward the left dot before the puck even reached Chimera, getting himself into position for a possible pass, even though MacDonald was planted between Chimera and Backstrom.


Chimera glanced over his left shoulder, spotted Backstrom and floated a backhand pass to the front. MacDonald swiped at it and missed, and it went right to Backstrom’s tape. Backstrom one-timed a wrist shot through the five-hole of Islanders goaltender Anders Nilsson.


Improbably, the game was tied at 2-2 with 48.9 seconds left.


The shorthanded goal was just the second of Backstrom’s 440-game NHL career. His first shorthanded tally came more than three years earlier, and it was an empty-netter that sealed a 3-0 Washington win in Raleigh.


For Chimera, the assist was the first shorthanded helper of his 737-game NHL career. Right up to the second that Backstrom’s shot went into the net, Chimera had skated 827 minutes and 10 seconds of his career while his team was down a man.


For Alzner, the assist was also the first shorthanded helper of his 290-game NHL career. Right up to the second that Backstrom’s shot went into the net, Alzner had skated 750 minutes and 20 seconds of his career while his team was down a man.


“I always go into the penalty kill and think, ‘All right. Just kill it off and run the clock out,’ explaineds Alzner. “And this one was clearly a different situation. Normally I’m not a guy to go out there for anything offensive, but I was thinking, ‘I need to go out here and get a kill and try to do something.’


“So as luck would have it, the puck ended up in the offensive zone. I saw it there and for a second I was just going to hold my ground and back up and just let the play come back at me. And then it kind of clicked in my head: ‘Oh, crap. This is my chance. I’ve got to go and do something. If I don’t, we might not get another opportunity in the offensive zone.’


“I got it and I was a little jittery. I almost flipped the puck out of the rink there, and luckily it just came in. I saw Chimmer waiting there because we were obviously on the same page with wanting to get a goal there. I just got lucky. I just threw it back down low and Chimmer made a great pass and Nicky a great finish. It almost didn’t happen, but I’m lucky it did.”


A rare – for this night anyway – face-off win for Backstrom. A rare shorthanded assist for both Chimera and Alzner. A rare shorthanded goal for Backstrom. Everything aligned, and all the reads and all the execution were in sync. The result was a hard-earned point for the Caps.


Alex Ovechkin authored his 14th career overtime game-winner and his fifth against the Islanders shortly thereafter, enabling the Caps to pull a second point from a game that looked lost with 70 seconds remaining.


Alzner called it “lucky,” but as Branch Rickey was fond of saying, “luck is the residue of design.”