The Washington Capitals, who this season have had a tendency to play down to the level of weaker opponents at times, scored two goals within 40 seconds late in the second period to break open a 1-1 tie and go onto to beat the St. Louis Blues, 4-2, before 18,277 at the Verizon Center on Thursday night. This was the Caps fifth straight win and ran their home record to 13-1-1, best in the Eastern Conference, and also puts them at 20-10-3 overall and maintained their eight point lead in the Southeast Division over 2nd place Carolina, who knocked off the Florida Panthers, 2-1, in overtime on Thursday. The Hurricanes do have a game in hand on the Caps.
Forward Viktor Kozlov was the game’s number one star as he had two goals and an assist and rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov turned in another very strong performance stopping 29 of 31 shots en route to his second NHL win in two tries. Varlamov was the game’s number two star.
“I thought he played really well. He kept us in it and the big one on (Keith) Tkachuk’s breakaway, I think it was 4-2 at the time, sort of took the wind out of their sails a little bit. So he is pretty good and I think he has a bright future in front of him,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau on his young goaltender.
Alexander Ovechkin notched his 20th goal of the season scoring the Caps fourth goal on the power play 13 seconds into the third period but the big news on the night was a cheap shot hit on Alexander Semin by Blues forward David Backes, who first tripped Semin and then cross checked him in the back as #28 was falling to the ice. The Great #8 jumped in and grabbed Backes but surprisingly referees Mike Leggo and Kelly Sutherland did not call a single penalty on the play. Semin was down on the ice for a few minutes and was helped to the dressing room leaving the game at the 10:20 mark. From my seat in the press box I had a good angle as Semin walked down the runway to the locker room and he struggled at one point either putting his arms on the door because of the pain or because he was trying to stretch out his back. He was then helped into the locker room. Also, Caps defensemen Mike Green left the bench right after Semin and did not return for the remainder of the game.
“He is day to day. You saw the replay, he got cross-checked in the back just above the protection part of the pad so we’ll see and probably have to re-evaluate tomorrow morning in practice,” started Boudreau on Semin, “I thought it got a little out of hand and once they stopped calling a lot of things that is when things happen and I think they missed a trip and then a couple of others and I think at that time they thought that maybe Semin was diving,” added Boudreau on the sequence leading up to the injury. Shortly after no call was made the Caps bench was called for unsportsmanlike conduct and Boudreau said he was responsible for that penalty.
“That was me yelling at the ref. I said (Semin) just missed (15) games with a back injury and he said it was a dive and I said well that is why he is in the dressing room and he said then you got two and I said okay I’ll shut up from now on. And it was that polite, I didn’t use one curse word in the whole thing,” said Boudreau on his exchange with the officials.
In my opinion, the fact that Boudreau received this penalty was ridiculous and the officials were horrible most of the night, primarily because they were very inconsistent. Backes deserves at least a two game suspension for the hit and the referees should be suspended a game each for looking like fools trying to call a game that got very chippy and led to a cheap shot on Semin. However, the NHL does not suspend referees but I am willing to bet that the league is critical of Leggo and Sutherland after this pathetic display of officiating on Thursday.
As for Ovechkin sticking up for Semin when he was cross checked and jumping Backes, Boudreau was happy to see it and wasn’t really worried about the Great #8 getting hurt.
“He is a leader in every sense of the word and he doesn’t fight but he doesn’t have to fight but he sees a wrongdoing of one of his teammates and he’s going to do something about it,” said Boudreau on Ovechkin going after Backes.
This was a very weird game and at times looked like the Caps-Islanders game on Tuesday night where Washington seemed to lack intensity. In the second period the Caps struggled on offense and had three two minute power plays that didn’t produce many Caps shots and drew some boos from numerous fans who were there to Rock the Red.
“Our power play wasn’t very good tonight, but give St. Louis credit, they are a tough team to play against and they have as many injuries as us, Andy Murray does a great job with that team. I haven’t come away (from a game) and said ‘Wow, we were pretty good’ and we have holes in our game but (tonight) we were good enough to win,” said Boudreau on the game and the season so far.
I asked defensemen Tom Poti about the power play and its struggles against St. Louis.
“We got away from the things that have been successful for us, shooting the puck, and we got a little bit too cute and changed that and said ‘start shooting’ and we shot and got a goal,” said Poti, who led the Caps in ice time with 23:25 including 2:18 on the power play.
Tomas Fleischmann scored his 11th goal of the season and his linemate, center Dave Steckel, had a very strong game as well.
“I thought his line was really good, Steckel-Fleischmann-Fehr played really good. I probably should have played them more. I thought the working guys really worked…and the first two lines were in the doldrums until Alex (Ovechkin) scored. Our next game we better get all four lines going or we’ll be in trouble,” said Boudreau.
Boudreau started the game with Kozlov on a line with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom but later moved Semin into Kozlov’s slot late in the second period and the switch worked as Kozlov put the Caps ahead after forward Boyd Gordon made a great play with the puck by driving to the net and creating a rebound that led to the second goal.
“When things aren’t going well it’s my job to say, okay, I got to move some things around or there might be more chemistry the next night or some guy for whatever reason isn’t going as well as he could. I was just trying to jump start the first two lines a little bit,” said Boudreau on the line shuffling.
I caught up with Steckel after the contest and he had the following to say about the game and his overall play and ice time.
“You know it doesn’t matter to me, I got more ice time tonight than I usually get. I’m just happy with the way our line played tonight. We wanted to get it deep, we wanted control, and we ended up coming out with a goal so I think we played strong. I feel pretty good and coming into this year I was prepared to have a great year and I wanted to make a mark on this team and show that I’m a regular and at this point I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it. I’m improving and as long as the team keeps winning that is all I care about,” said Steckel who had an assist in his 14:22 of ice time but was not happy about his 4-9 face-off record on the evening.
Next up for the Caps are the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday at the Wachovia Center at 1pm. This will be the first time that the Caps and Flyers have met since referees Paul Devorski and Don Koharski helped to give the Flyers Game 7 in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. Boudreau did not hold back with his comments and confirmed that there is definitely a rivalry between the two teams.
“We’ll start working on Philly tomorrow (Friday). I just don’t think that Philly and Washington like each other. There shouldn’t have to be a lot said, they pretty much have the same team they had last year, we have the same team we had last year minus the injuries and I thought over the course of the last year there was a lot of dislike for each other,” finished Boudreau on the upcoming Caps-Flyers game.
You can bet that the Flyers will crash the net hard so Washington must do all they can to prevent traffic in front of their goalies so that rebounds are minimized. In the same vain, the Caps need to shoot the puck and go hard to the net on Philadelphia.
Notes: The Blues won the face-off battle 32-26. Rookie defensemen Karl Alzner was +2 on the evening and is now +8 in 12 games. Fehr returned after missing five games due to a shoulder injury. Tyler Sloan and Sergei Fedorov missed the game due to injury and word is #91 might be out awhile again because he is not even skating with the team right now. Varlamov was called for delay of game late in the third period for illegally touching the puck below the goal line along the boards (outside the trapezoid). I spoke with Hershey Bears PR man John Walton at the game tonight and he told me that the young goalie was called for this in the AHL this season once as well. Varlamov, who played in Russia last year, probably is still learning the North American rules and after he was whistled for the penalty Ovechkin skated over to his crease and chatted with #40 and probably reminded him of the rule and infraction that took the team off of a late game power play. The Caps and Flyers play their first game in Washington since Game 7 of last year on Tuesday, January 6th. This will be a WNST Puck Bus event so sign up and come down to the Verizon Center for a great match-up.