Playing their best game in at least a couple of weeks, the Washington Capitals knocked off the Nashville Predators on Tuesday night in the land of country music, 2-1, in overtime on Sergei Fedorov’s eighth goal of the season. Viktor Kozlov set up Fedorov in the slot after another one of the many hustling and outstanding plays by Alexander Semin on Tuesday night and the 39 year old veteran faked Predator goalie Dan Ellis (42 saves) to the ice and backhanded the puck into the empty net to end Washington’s four game losing streak. With the win and Florida’s shootout loss in Pittsburgh on Tuesday the Caps now lead the Southeast Division by 11 points over both the Panthers and Carolina, although Florida has a game in hand. The Caps have 14 games remaining in the regular season.
After Sunday’s shootout loss to the Penguins, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau said if you were plotting the recent performance of the team on a graph that the Toronto game was a minor step in the right direction, after two duds against Carolina and Florida, and then the Pittsburgh game resulted in another increase in performance desite the loss. Tonight in Opryland the Caps went significantly higher playing a dominating game (after a horrible opening 50 seconds that led to Nashville’s only goal) by controlling the puck and outshooting the Predators 44-28, including 17-8 in the third period. If not for Ellis this could have easily been a 6-1 Washington blowout.
There were lots of good performances from guys in white sweaters but I’ll start with Semin (1 assist) who, even though he had his six game goal scoring streak stopped, was all over the ice on both ends of the rink and had numerous chances for himself and created opportunities for others. Semin seems to really be maturing and he is augmenting his unbelievable skills with a smart and solid effort each night. I can’t count how many times he back checked hard and disrupted a Nashville rush with his poke checks and pick pockets of Predator puck handlers. If Semin continues to play like this then the Caps are going to be a tough out in the playoffs.
I also thought that defenseman Mike Green had a great game tonight and #52 was more physical on the puck to go along with his usual skating, puck handling, passing, and shooting prowess. Green’s clean hit on Vernon Fiddler in the third period was a text book hit on the wing that ended up taking Fiddler out of the game. In addition, Nicklas Backstrom had an excellent game scoring the Caps first goal on a nice feed from Alexander Ovechkin and he also almost had another goal if not for an acrobatic stick save by Ellis in the third period. Backstrom is such a good two way center and he really allows Ovechkin to use his creativity. Fedorov also had his best game in a couple of weeks and he appeared to be recovered from the bad cold he had on Sunday. #91 was also an impressive 16-7 on face-offs.
In net Jose Theodore (27 saves) wasn’t tested alot, and that is tough for a goalie, but #60 should expect that and be used to it by now playing with this puck possession team that is highly skilled. When called upon tonight Theodore was there and the only goal he let up was the result of Washington running around in their own end and not clearing the front of the net (Tom Poti and Jeff Schultz were the defenseman with the Backstrom, Kozlov, Ovechkin line on that disaster of a shift that opened up the game).
Here are some other thoughts on Tuesday’s contest:
Five for Fighting: Donald Brashear was leveled by Wade Belak in a first period fight, and he may be out for awhile with a concussion as he was TKO’d (UPDATE: Brashear injured his knee and apparently was walking with a limp after the game according to Corey Masisak of the Washington Times) then Matt Bradley was bloodied by Jordin Tootoo in a fight just three seconds later. Finally Belak went after John Erskine in the second period and #4 did a decent job against one of the tougher guys in the league. Although the Caps didn’t win a single fight the Predators tactics failed to take the momentum Washington continued to build throughout the game.
How to play a 2 on 1: On Sunday against the Penguins we saw Schultz struggle on a two on one against Bill Guerin and Sydney Crosby and fail to cut off a pass that led to an easy Crosby goal (although I have to give alot of credit to the guys on offense on that play). Tonight to start the third period Green got caught in the neutral zone allowing the Predators to break in two on one with Jason Arnott and J.P. Dumont but Shaone Morrisonn played it beautifully allowing Theodore to focus on the puck carrier, Arnott, and when the Predator tried to pass it to Dumont, #26 was in perfect position to break up the play and send the Caps the other way up the ice.
Puck possession/cycling: The Caps seemed to have the puck all night and they did not make alot of turnovers at the opponents blue line either firing shots, making good passes, or simply dumping the puck deep all evening. We’ve heard Boudreau say that if the Caps play their system they are a tough team to beat and tonight they played it very well (Bruce would probably say “to a T.”)
Great #8: Ovechkin had a great pass to set up Backstrom’s goal but for the second straight game his timing seemed to be off on his shot. The Great #8 had some problems with this as well on Sunday and I initially attributed it to bad ice at the Verizon Center (there were two hoops games on Saturday) but seeing Ovechkin continually fan or have pucks bounce off his sticks this evening I am starting to wonder if this batch of lumber he is using isn’t right. Anyways, whatever it is you can bet Alex will figure it out quickly and get that quick shot going and terrorizing goalies again very soon.
Flash: Tomas Fleischmann, who had a goal disallowed tonight (ruled a kick in), is skating well and getting lots of chances but he hasn’t been able to bury the puck much lately. #14 has only two goals in the 20 games since the all star break but he is+10 in those games. One would have to think that with all of the scoring opportunities he is getting and generating that the puck will start going in for him soon. He is no longer a defensive liability.
As I mentioned to Rob Yunich over at Storming the Crease (www.stormingthecrease.com) after Sunday’s game, the effort against the Penguins was a turnaround one for Washington and it was going to be nice to be able to blog about alot of positives despite that loss. Tonight, the positives weren’t hard to find for the Caps and the end result was a win that only didn’t come until overtime because of Ellis. On my way out of the Verizon Center on Sunday afternoon I heard Caps assistant coach Jay Leach talking with WTOP’s Jonathan Werner on the post game show and Leach made a good point about emotion and confidence being such key factors in hockey. The Caps clearly got that going in the right direction on Sunday and tonight they took it to a much higher level and having that confidence will be big going into a tough game in Philadelphia on Thursday night. The Caps are 1-2 against the Flyers this year with the only win coming in a shootout so I know the team is itching to get some pay back for this season’s defeats as well as last year’s playoffs. Game time is 7pm.
Other Notes: The Caps failed to score on three power plays while Nashville went zero for two with the man advantage. Semin had a game high eight shots and four takeaways. Backstrom was only 9-15 on face-offs. If Brashear is out with the knee and with Michael Nylander out as well with an upper body injury the Caps will need to recall a forward for Thursday’s game against the Flyers (since the Flyers are a big and physical team I would expect either Jay Beagle or Alexandre Giroux to get the call up from Hershey).