Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau felt that his club was fortunate to get a victory against Carolina on Friday night. On Sunday afternoon they clearly deserved to win against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks but due to a soft goal allowed and a late power play tally with the net minder pulled, the Caps needed overtime to defeat the Hawks, 4-3. Mike Knuble scored on a nifty move in front of Chicago goalie Corey Crawford (38 saves) after some hard work and then a sweet pass from Marcus Johansson with 1:09 remaining in the extra session. Washington won its’ eighth straight overall, the fifth in a row since the NHL trade deadline on February 28th, and all three tilts at the Verizon Center on this most recent homestand. The Capitals are 40-20-10 (90 points) with 12 games remaining and they lead the Tampa Bay Lightning by five points in the Southeast Division race (Bolts have a game in hand). They also trail the Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia Flyers by a single point, but Philly has two games in hand.
Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from a game in which the Caps had the lead after 20 minutes for the first time in 14 contests (Caps 15-1-5 when ahead after the 1st period):
- With the playoffs coming up in about a month, we’ve heard Boudreau talk a lot about how important matchups are to his club’s success. The squads that typically give Washington trouble are fast teams, such as Montreal, and Chicago fit that mold today. The Hawks have some great skating players and for the Capitals to get a victory they were going to have to get the puck deep and use one of their biggest strengths, their size.
“I think we are a bigger and fairly strong team, but there are teams that are definitely overall quicker, so we have to play to our strengths to succeed and lately we have been doing that. I think we were overall carrying the play. We played better than them. I mean it might not happen the next time we play them, and they might not be tired from being on the road for eight or nine games, but I thought today that we were the better team,” said Boudreau, providing his analysis of the victory.
“We’ll take the point. We weren’t very good today. They [the Capitals] played well. They played hard. I thought we had a little delay in our game. We were very generous in all the goals that we gave them and could’ve done a better job defending in those situations,” added Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville agreeing with “Gabby” that the Caps were the dominant team on Sunday.
- Let’s get to those Capitals goals as all four came from hard work and the last two were the result of the Caps winning one on one battles below the goal line. Washington fell behind early on a Nick Leddy blast from the top of the slot but after Chicago received a power play the biscuit bounced over the stick of Brent Seabrook at the left point and Boyd Gordon took advantage getting a break down the right wing boards and he lasered one by Crawford for a Washington shorty. Goal number two came from Jason Arnott on the power play with Brooks Laich and Alex Ovechkin crashing the net down low. #44′s laser from the left point hit the inside of the left post to give the Caps a 2-1 lead. The most important goals though, were the Laich marker in the 3rd period that put Washington ahead and the game winner. Matt Hendricks and Eric Fehr completely outworked the Hawks defense down low and #16 found an all alone in the slot #21 and he buried it. Finally, in OT, Johahnsson did some of his finest work of the year below the circles and fought off a Chicago check then worked his way to the top of the left wing circle where he put a perfect pass on Knuble’s forehand with #22′s back to the cage. Knuble then spun around and potted the puck by Crawford for the win. Those last two tallies were the direct result of Washington using size, speed, and determination.
“Real heads up play by Marcus. It would have been very easy for him to bury his head there and try to jam it through, but I kind of laid my stick to the side and he put it on the tape. It was a very smart play by him,” said Knuble on MJ90, who has stepped up in a big way with Nicklas Backstrom missing his third straight contest (more on MJ90 later).
- With Ovechkin (0 points, 6 shots on goal) and Alex Semin (1 assist, 4 shots on net) unable to light the lamp for Washington this game became all about the Caps grinders and role players. Laich earned his 15th goal of the season and he is heating up at the right time while third line left wing Jason Chimera likely earned the unsung hero of the day award. #25 was very physical all game and his speed and desire to go the net rattled not only Crawford, who will likely win an Oscar next year for his fall and stick throw late in period two that would make Saturday Night Live’s Chevy Chase proud, but also the Hawks number two d-man in Brent Seabrook. #7 stupidly fought Chimera late in period two and with Brian Campbell not taking a shift just after the game’s midpoint, Quenneville was short two blue liners for a good stretch, which clearly worked to Washington’s advantage.
“I thought he was real big factor in the game tonight…He’s a physical guy. He’s the one who sort of instigated that little [dustup] there and he does a good job and takes one of their top defenders off the ice. I think he did a good job,” added Laich on the role Chimera played in the win in just 10:26 of ice time.
- Braden Holtby (27 saves) won his fourth game of the week and in his last seven games in “The Show” he’s turned aside 201 of 208 shots (.978 save percentage). That is amazing for a 21 year old! #70 would probably like to have the first two goals back, especially the second one that Tomas Kopecky scored from behind the goal line when Holtby failed to cover the near post correctly. On the initial tally, Leddy beat him in the slot but Michael Frolik likely screened him. On that play Chicago scored on a 3 on 5 rush, which should never happen. The d-men, Karl Alzner and John Carlson played it right but the forwards did not. Both Fehr and Hendricks got caught out of position and Leddy had time and room to shoot from a prime position. The Caps have been much improved in their own zone but that was not one of those occassions. The back pressure must be consistent otherwise skilled forwards will get the Washington d-men backing up and then cut to the middle to get in the quality scoring areas, like Jonathan Toews did in period one. Overall, Holtby did what he had to do, he made some huge stops, including one on Frolik late in the game after a Dennis Wideman giveaway. Still, I expect to see more of Michal Neuvirth on this upcoming six game Caps road trip.
- As for the 20 year old Swede, I am not sure if the Caps win all four games this week with Backstrom out if #90 is also not in the lineup. Johansson has amped up his game big time and he has four assists in his last five games and is +4. He is a great passer and today he fired seven shots on the cage as well. MJ90 could have had two or three goals and he likely will want the two shots he had alone in front on Crawford back after Ovechkin set him up on the doorstep in the third period. He took two minors but to me they were ticky-tacky calls, especially the one that allowed the Hawks to pull their goalie and get the equalizer. What Johansson did in the last two minutes happened over 20 times previously in the contest with no call but because MJ90 is a rookie and he put his hands up as if to say “I did nothing,” the zebras sent him off. Boudreau after the game labeled the call as “Chintzy” (h/t Sky Kerstein of 106.7 FM in DC). My only advice to Marcus is to keep playing and don’t put your hands up next time because when you are a rookie or a new guy in the league, the referees will try and make an example of you.
- In summary, the Hawks could have been labeled as tired from a long road trip but they hadn’t played since Wednesday so I am not buying it. Washington showed that they can match up with a very good club even without their #1 center (Backstrom), #1 blue liner (Mike Green), and top two goalies (Semyon Varlamov and Neuvirth). With the five point division lead the Capitals now embark on what is a grueling six game road trip. They start Tuesday in Montreal, then have to clear customs and travel to Detroit for a date with the Red Wings on Wednesday before going to red hot New Jersey on Friday for a game against the desperate Devils. Things then pick up again in Philadelphia on Tuesday the 22nd and on Friday the 25th they are in Ottawa followed by a tilt against the Habs on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday the 26th. Simply put, if the Caps come out of this trip with six points they have to be happy and anything at eight points or more could set them up for locking down the Southeast Division and give them a shot at first overall in the East. But that doesn’t appear to matter to a lot of people in the organization, who seem to be focused on getting their players back healthy and then putting things together on the ice for the post season. This team, when healthy, can compete with any club in the league if they buy in to what their coaches are selling.
Notes: The Caps once again captured the faceoff battle, 27-23 and Laich won seven of eight draws…Washington, who came into tonight’s contest ranked third in the league in the penalty kill (85.8%), killed off three of four Blackhawks power-play chances. Until Toews’ third-period goal, the Caps had 12-consecutive penalty kills over their three-game home stand against Edmonton, Carolina and Chicago…the Caps only had two power plays (go figure?) but connected on one in fine fashion. They are 22-3-4 when scoring a power play goal…Scott Hannan was +3 in 18:44 of ice time while John Erskine was +2 in 15:32…Wideman had two assists…the Hershey Bears lost in a shootout to the Norfolk Admirals on Sunday at the Giant Center, 3-2. The Chocolate and White just concluded a very tough 7 games in 9 day stretch at 3-2-2, which was pretty good considering their best goalie carried the load for the big club this week (Holtby).