So some national hockey pundits think that Capitals General Manager George McPhee overpaid to get Jason Arnott from the New Jersey Devils, eh? Two games after that trade, let’s check the ledger. #44 had an assist to set up the game tying tally on Tuesday night against the New York Islanders and on Thursday night Arnott scored the game winning goal, off of a super feed from Alexander Semin, with 5:19 remaining to give the Caps a 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Blues. That’s two games, two big points, and two Capitals wins. Not to mention he has finally given Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau a second scoring line, something he hasn’t really had since Sergei Fedorov left town two seasons ago. The victory, combined with Tampa’s 2-1 loss in regulation to the Boston Bruins on Thursday, puts the Capitals (35-20-10) just one point behind the Southeast Division leading Bolts (the Lightning has a game in hand) and also a single point in back of the Eastern Conference’s fourth place team, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from a victory that gives Washington its’ first two game home winning streak since late November:
- I am going to start with a bad trend here tonight to make a point that Boudreau has been trying to make to his club for nearly two seasons: The Capitals have not held a lead after the first period in the past 10 games (h/t WTOPs Jonthan Warner) and the biggest reason why is this hockey team seems to think that they can come out on the ice and just out skill everyone and win. Well to quote the great Sundance Kid, “You figured wrong, Butch.” Washington continually tried to force things coming through the neutral zone and the result in the opening frame, time after time, was a turnover at the offensive blue line. When they do that the other team typically goes in transition the other way and gets an odd man rush and/or a quality scoring chance. It is a bad way to play hockey and in the playoffs, against a good team, it is a losing formula. In 2009, the Penguins sat back in their zone and waited for the Caps to try those cross ice passes just inside the offensive zone and then feasted on turnovers. Last season, the Canadiens took this idea a step further and put up a wall on their own blue line and dared the Capitals to dump the puck. When the Caps did what their coaches told them, they had success, but too many times they would not heed the guidance from their bench bosses and Montreal made Washington pay the steepest price, an early trip to the golf course.
“As a defenseman, I know it is not that much fun when you are turning and going to chase pucks all night and getting hit and having to chase forwards around. When you don’t turn it over at the blue line it makes it a lot easier game. You can look and make the plays back and you are not chasing the puck all night,” said defenseman Scott Hannan on why the style of play his team exhibited in the opening period on Thursday doesn’t work.
- Fortunately for Washington, they started getting the message in the middle frame and the pucks were going deep and leading to goals. Credit Matt Hendricks for starting the trend and it was his individual work that got the biscuit below the red line and that allowed Alexander Ovechkin (2 assists) to set up shop behind the Blues cage. From there, with Nicklas Backstrom covered in the near slot, the Great #8 sent a beauty of a feed to an all alone #23 in the slot and Hannan buried it like a 40 goal scorer would do, top shelf to tie the game at one. Washington’s second marker, which came after a bad play by John Erskine at the Caps blue line led to a BJ Crombeen tally, was another result of the puck getting into the zone without an offensive blue line turnover. John Carlson’s stretch pass hit Ovechkin’s skates on the left wing boards at the line and Mike Knuble gathered it in and tried to feed Backstrom. However, #22′s pass went up in the air and #19 baseballed it in the cage past Ty Conklin (27 saves) to tie the game up just 6:48 into the second stanza. Getting pucks deep wins games.
“Our whole goal was to get it deep and work them down low. I think when we did it, when we got the opportunities, we did a good job of it. When you’re winning battles, it all comes down in the end to one-on-one battles and I think both teams wanted the game. I thought we competed really hard,” added Boudreau on the key to the team’s success on Thursday.
“I thought we did a lot better job in the 2nd and 3rd [periods] of having a high guy. Getting the puck in deep and working from that we caused some turnovers which caused [Arnott's] goal. My goal is great work by the forwards down low and just hitting the open guy. That’s our strengths and when we play that way we are a tough team to beat,” added Hannan, who has quickly become a strong leadership voice in Washington’s locker room.
- The Capitals are a really big team now with the 6′ 5″ 220 pound Arnott in the second pivot position. Only Marcus Johansson and Marco Sturm could be considered undersized so as Hannan mentioned and Boudreau has been preaching, this Capitals club needs to play to their strengths and get the biscuit low, cycle it, which in turn wears down the opposition’s defensemen and forwards and leads to scoring opportunities. It sounds so simple but when you have the skill that some of the Washington players have, it is hard to learn to play that way.
“We talked about that before games and in practice, that’s the strength of our teams. We’ve got some big forwards and when you are getting the puck in deep and making those D turn all night, it might not pay off in the first period and the second but it is going to pay off in the third,” reinforced Hannon on how is club needs to play if they are going to go deep into the post season.
- Special teams weren’t the difference in this contest but Washington’s play there certainly helped the cause. The Caps killed off all three St. Louis power plays while the Capitals failed to score on their LONE man advantage. Once again, I am not sure what game the zebras (Marc Joanette and Kyle Rehman) were watching and their calls were inconsistent. Simply put, I hope the league says to the two of them, a la the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld: No playoffs for you…1 year…NEXT!
- Back to the Capitals power play because it was really good, for once. Boudreau and assistant coach Dean Evason put Jason Arnott on the point with Dennis Wideman and Ovechkin was moved to the half wall. Backstrom and Knuble were the other two forwards on the first unit on the lone man advantage and they had three golden opportunities, including a tap-in miss by #22 at the right post. That power play was very encouraging and I was hoping to see them get another attempt but the two blind dudes in stripes checked out.
- All Michal Neuvirth (25 saves) does is stop pucks. The 2006 second round pick is now 21-10-4 with a .913 save percentage and a 2.48 goals against average. The 21 wins is a record for a Washington rookie goalie. #30 had some rebound issues early on but he got stronger as the game wore on. The two pucks that got by him were not his fault, especially Alexander Steen’s early tap in after Jeff Schultz gave up too much room guarding against the speed of Blues power forward Chris Stewart. The line of Steen, Stewart, and Patrick Berglund is a very good one and their quickness gave Washington some problems. Steen hit the post early on during the Blues first power play. #55 and #4 on the Caps defense have been exposed recently by forwards with lots of speed so that is something Boudreau will need to address match up wise in the post season.
- In summary, the Caps third straight victory, their first three game winning streak since December 26 to January 1st, is encouraging and the new players have provided an added dimension and a spark. However, the wins have come against some of the bottom teams in the league. If the Capitals want to have success in the spring, the young guys need to learn to play to the strength of the team, their size, by getting the pucks in deep in the opposition’s zone. They will NOT win in April and beyond on straight talent and skill. Arnott and Hannan are two veterans who have been their before and combined with Knuble they need to continue to be leaders and pound the message home over these last 17 games on how the Caps need to play to reach their goal of a Stanley Cup. Playing that way is not easy and isn’t fun. It also is tougher on the body but if done right, the other team feels it worse. So my question to Hannan after Thursday’s tilt was how do you get some of these guys, who have been hearing the message from Boudreau for two years plus, to buy in?
“I don’t know. It’s just trying to drive that point home. That’s the big thing guys have got to learn to play that way, especially come playoff time, when you are playing against really solid teams if you start turning the puck over at the blue line, good teams are going to bury you with that,” finished Hannan.
Let’s hope that Ovechkin, Semin, and company finally buy in. We’ve heard the Great #8 mention it numerous times in his interviews, but saying it and doing it are two different things. If he does it, then hopefully others will follow.
Notes: Hendricks now has a career high 20 points (7 goals, 13 assists) with 17 games to go…Washington rallied to win the faceoff battle, they trailed 24-15 after two periods but won the draws on the night, 30-29 (Boyd Gordon went 12-9)…Wideman, Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Hannan all logged over 21 minutes of ice time while Schultz played 16:38 and Erskine received only 14:59 of playing time on the back line…Matt Bradley knocked Tyson Strachan to the ice in their first period fight in just three punches. TKO for #10…Semin was credited with two giveaways. He got banged up a bit late in period two, went to the locker room, but returned for period three…Backstrom took a slash to his bad thumb but never missed a shift. He is tough but he cut back on taking faceoffs after that with Arnott taking some of his draws then coming off once the puck switched zones…Washington’s next game is Sunday night in Florida followed by Monday’s big contest in Tampa…Braden Holtby was recalled from Hershey and backed up Neuvirth. Todd Ford was returned to the Bears.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: I will be on Japers Rink Radio on Saturday morning between 10am and 11am talking Caps hockey and providing an analysis of this week’s trades. You can listen on line by clicking here.