Bradley, Varlamov Help Caps Beat Thrashers, 2-1

April 01, 2010 | Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals faced another desperate team on Thursday night, in the Eastern Conference ninth place Atlanta Thrashers who were just two points out of a playoff spot coming into this contest, and they managed to get some super timely goaltending from Semyon Varlamov (19 saves) along with a big third period goal from Matt Bradley to win, 2-1. This victory halted a three game losing streak for Washington, although one defeat came in a shootout while another was in overtime, and gave them win #50 on the season. This is the first time in franchise history that the Capitals have had back to back 50 win seasons. Washington’s overall record is 50-15-12 (112 points) and they need just three points, gained via themselves or missed ones by the Sharks, to capture the franchise’s first ever President’s Trophy. 

The Caps are now 32-1-1 when they hold an opponent to two goals or less (the regulation loss was in LA, 2-1, in January) and are 34-7-6 on the season when they score the first goal of the game.

Let’s get right to the highlights, quotes, and analysis of a game that was atypical of past Caps-Thrashers tilts:

I’m gonna start with Mike Green because he deserves the most praise tonight. Watching this contest I only felt comfortable when #52 was on the ice when it came to the Caps blueliners. Green, who has been overly criticized for his defensive zone play over the years, has taken his game to another level since the Olympic break and he has been ultra consistent on a game to game basis. The Calgary native continues to rack up the points to lead the NHL by d-men (18 goals, 55 assists) and his rocket of a shot on a nice Alexander Ovechkin feed was tipped home by Nicklas Backstrom to give Washington a lead late in period one.  Here are the stats on #52 tonight: 24:20 of ice time, 1 assist, four hits (led the team), and was +1 (now +35 on the year). Afterwards Green spoke to Comcast’s Lisa Hillary.

“When you pay attention to detail and you do the simple things, which is what is asked of us most nights, you come out successful like that. Tonight, I thought the last seven minutes of the game we really played tight defense as as team. We were protecting the lines, we were getting the pucks deep, guys were coming off hard, that is what it is going to take to win in the playoffs,” said Green, who just seems so focused on the ice right now.

As for Bradley, it had been 25 games (last goal vs. Wings on 1/19) since he tallied, and you could kind of see it coming the way he was working hard and being one of the FEW guys on the team who was going to the net. The Professor notched his ninth marker of the season to go with 13 assists and he has matched his career high with five games remaining. The fan favorite is a guy that Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau likes having on his team as well.

“He’s got nine goals, which is the most he’s ever had since I’ve been here and it’s been awhile since he scored. He does his job all of the time and he comes out and he tries. I don’t know how you can get mad at him or think that he is one who is not doing his job, because he knows what his job is, to prevent other guys from scoring, not scoring goals but he got one tonight and everyone gets rewarded now and again…He knocked [Thrashers 48 year old defenseman, Chris Chelios] off of the puck. I don’t think Chelli saw him coming and he did what he was supposed to do, he took it to the net, and I don’t know how it went in but he snuck it underneath him some how,” said Boudreau on the Professor, who beat Atlanta goalie, Ondrej Pavelec (22 saves), via the five hole.

As I alluded to above, this was not the usual wide open, end-to-end hockey contest between the Caps and the Thrashers. Atlanta brought a simple game plan and intensity to this one but they still can’t knock off the Capitals. They are 0-5 against them this season.

“They play normally a very aggressive style like us but they’re battling for their playoff lives. I think they thought if we were going to go chance for chance than we have more scoring power than them so they can’t afford to do that. They were smart, John [Anderson, Thrashers head coach] comes prepared,” said Boudreau on Atlanta’s style of play in game five of their six game regular season series.

With only 42 shots on goal total and numerous whistles, Boudreau said there were 44 of those in the first two periods alone, this one had a post season feel to it.

“I thought it was a playoff game, it was tense and there wasn’t a lot of shots but those are the hardest games to play…we beared down and proved we could play defensive when we want and had to and tonight was one of those nights,” added a pretty satisfied coach on his club’s effort on Thursday night.

Varlamov seems to be gaining ground fast in the goaltending competition and he was very solid tonight stopping Maxim Afinogenov on a breakaway in period one and making a few other key saves on quality chances by Atlanta, including one from Tobias Enstrom from the slot. I can’t remember a single rebound that was put in harm’s way in this game by #40 and he just looked very confident between the pipes, despite some iffy plays, at times, by defensemen not named Green.

“Great confidence boost for him. He hadn’t won in awhile. Held them to one goal. It was a tough one that beat him. I didn’t they think had a great many chances but the ones they had were good ones and he was up to the task,” remarked the coach who rode Varlamov in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“I know it’s probably tough for goalies to go in and out of the lineup like that. We see how hard he works in practice and he’s ready to play. Tonight, when he needed to make a big save he did and that motivates us to play harder,” added Mike Knuble on the play of Varly.

 

Now about those other defensemen. Tom Poti and Shaone Morrisonn gave a textbook demonstration on how NOT to play a 2 on 2 break and the decision to jump in the air for the puck in the first period by #3 allowed Afinogenov to get his breakaway. Sometimes I wonder what Poti is thinking out there? Joe Corvo was abused badly by Enstrom and it led to a great scoring chance in the slot. Also, I felt that Jeff Schultz continues to struggle a bit with his decision making and lack of speed. How do we get back the pre-March version of #55? Only the combined mental mistakes by #3 and #26 cost Washington a goal though.

 

“We just got pulled over to the boards a little bit. It was a give and go and I didn’t think it was necessary for Tom [Poti] to come that far across and the guy jumped behind him and got a play,” commented Boudreau on a terrible defensive play by both Poti and Morrisonn.

 

Washington only had 20 shots and a big reason for that is the forwards seem to be stuck in “Drop Pass City” right now. There are too many cross-ice and back pass attempts when a simple shot and then a drive to the net for a rebound would be more appropriate and effective. The perfect case in point was the sequence in the second period where Backstrom made a nice play in the offensive zone, peeled off looking to pass, and dropped it for Ovechkin (1 assist), who was opened up for a one-timer. The problem was that play had to be timed perfectly to work and when the Great #8 fumbled the puck in his skates, he tripped Afingenov, who did sell it pretty well too. What Alexander the Great should have been doing was driving to the net and the super Swede could have then fired one on goal and hopefully off of Pavelec’s pads for a rebound.

 

One of the reasons Ovechkin is stuck in the mid-40′s in goals is because he is not going to the net to get the tap-ins that he has tallied on in the past (see OT winner vs. Montreal on 1/31/2008). In addition, Ovie is becoming very predictable with his moves. He is getting the puck in the neutral zone and then cutting laterally across the blue line and time after time he is being met by a wall of defenders that would make the Redcoats in the Revolutionary War proud. This same move continues to lead to turnovers or poke checks that send the Caps back into the neutral zone or forced to defend an odd man rush. Simply put, the ultra strong and powerful Ovechkin needs to do what he has done in the past and used a couple of times on Thursday: either drive hard to the outside and around the defender or make a head fake, take one stride max, and fire the biscuit on net using his opponent as a screen. I would prefer more of the former because he hasn’t used that technique too often lately and it would prevent the opposition blue liners from cheating positionally. Overall, the top line and whatever line Alexander Semin seems to be on has to get away from turnovers at the opponents blue line before the playoffs start. The Penguins feasted off of Washington turnovers in the final five games of last season’s second round playoff series.

 

I thought the hit by Colby Armstrong on Mathieu Perreault was downright dirty and #20 has a reputation for doing these things. It was far worse than what got Green suspended for three games back in January. The play, however, did not lead to a Washington power play as Morrisonn was called for roughing.

 

“It was a pretty clear, solid elbow to the face…It was flagrant, it was an elbow to the head,” said Boudreau on the dirty play by Armstrong.

 

Overall, despite some of the things I wasn’t too happy about, this was a major step in the right direction towards post season hockey for Boudreau’s crew tonight. Backstrom felt like things were good but he said there are still improvements that can be made.

 

“We were a little bit sloppy the last couple of games. I think we were better than the {few} games before. We still have some things to work on and get ready and work a little bit harder. We need to play better like {we played} earlier this season,” added #19, who notched his 30th goal of the season, which seemed to bring out a larger than normal celebration from one of the best centers in the league. Could Nicky have a bonus clause in his contract for hitting the 30 mark?

 

Notes: The Caps will practice at 11am on Friday at Kettler Ice Plex and then head to Columbus for a date with the Blue Jackets on Saturday night…Dave Steckel was 11-3 on face-offs, including a clean win with 12 seconds left that allowed Green to easily wheel the puck around the boards and run out the clock…the Caps were 32-28 overall from the dot (Backstrom was 6-11)…Washington only received one power play and failed to score while the Thrashers went 0 for 3…Rookie defenseman John Carlson missed the game with an injury.

 

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