Alexander Ovechkin had two goals and Nicklas Backstrom (3 assists), Sergei Fedorov (3 assists), and Mike Green (1 goal, 2 assists) each had three points to pace the Washington Capitals to a 5-1 win over the Ottawa Senators on Friday night before l7,973 at the Verizon Center. Fedorov and Green returned tonight from injury after #91 had missed 16 of the last 17 games with an ankle injury and #52 had missed the last 11 contests due to a shoulder issue. Once again Caps goalie Brent Johnson had a great game in net stopping 32 of 33 shots and just narrowly missing a shutout (Ottawa’s Jesse Winchester scored with 2:23 left in the game).
Johnny, as he is called by his teammates, was good all night but was especially great in the first period stopping several quality chances, including an Antoine Vermette shorthanded breakaway when it was 1-0. Johnson, who has been bothered by a bad hip, started after playing well against Boston on Wednesday and also because Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau had no other choice when Jose Theodore went down with a hip injury in the morning skate (he is out day-to-day). The Theodore injury led to a bizarre set of circumstances that saw them recall goalie Simeon Varlamov from Hershey. However, because Varlamov was in Texas with the Bears, they had to have WashingtonCaps.com website producer, Brett Leonhardt, sign an amateur contract, take the pre-game skate, and sit on the bench in the first period until Varlamov arrived.
“Sometimes when you see the adversity of the goaltending situation, like it did today, the players dig deeper, for Johnny, and I thought we played a really good game. Even though we gave up 33 shots I thought we still played solid,” said Boudreau on the goaltending and the game against Ottawa.
With Alexander Semin (who scored the first goal of the night after an unbelievable move), Fedorov, Green, and Tom Poti now back in the line-up the Caps are really possessing the puck well and creating a lot of space on the ice. The Semin-Backstrom-Ovechkin line was all over the rink generating numerous scoring chances. Semin really helps open up the ice for the Great #8 and it prevents teams from focusing solely on last season’s MVP. Backstrom had another outstanding game and his ability to hold onto to the puck and see the whole ice is uncanny. It was #19’s great play along the offensive boards and his patience that allowed Semin to come streaking off the bench for a departing Mike Green (who had just come out of the penalty box), receive Backstrom’s pass in stride, streak to the net making a super move around the Senators defense, and then backhand the puck past Senators goalie Alex Auld to give Washington a 1-0 lead.
As for Fedorov, well he looked like he didn’t miss a game and Boudreau was especially high of his praise for #91’s play but also his leadership and desire.
“That is what makes him a future hall of famer. He was talking on the bench and sometimes when you get up there in hockey age and you are out for awhile, you realize how much you miss the game and I know that was certainly true when I got older. You just miss the game. So when you get a chance to get back you are so excited and I think he was very excited to play and get back today and he was really loud on the bench and encouraging everybody tonight,” said Boudreau.
The Caps power play continues to click producing three tallies and it has now connected in 10 straight games. An already hot unit is even more potent now that the big guns are back in the line-up.
“You can certainly see the firepower. I mean, we score 10 seconds into a power play and that is pretty impressive. All of these guys can pass, they can shoot, and they can skate. They have tremendous skill and it is nice for me to watch to see how poised and patient they are and I can learn from them,” said Caps rookie defensemen Karl Alzner, who played his ninth NHL game on Friday night.
Alzner only logged 15:45 of ice time against the Senators but he was +2 and continues to improve. I caught up with him after the game and asked him how things are going.
“I’m coming up on double digits (in games) and I’m pretty happy about that right now. What more can I ask for, we are playing well, we have a great group of guys here, I’m having fun and I’m confident out there and like I said after my first game ‘It is still a dream come true,” said Alzner.
I then asked Karl what has he learned so far and where has he improved over the course of his short NHL career that certainly promises to be a very long one given good health.
“My confidence has tremendously skyrocketed since the first few games and I think my puck moving skills are a lot better. I take a little more time now and I still throw it up the boards sometimes but I only do that when there is no other play so I’ve been doing a lot better at that,” added Alzner.
As for going up against Ottawa’s top line of Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, and Jason Spezza, he had the following to say about that experience.
“To be completely honest I was really nervous at the beginning of the game and the first couple of shifts I was a little jittery because when I watch and think of the top lines in the league that is one of the first lines that comes to mind,” finished Alzner.
As for Leonhardt and his once in a lifetime experience, the young guy was very humble and appreciative of what he went through and he gained some unique insight into how “The Show” is run. He also had some interesting things to say when he was surrounded by media personnel in the press box after the second period and I asked Brett how the other guys on the team treated him. I found his response particularly telling of how good a guy Brett is (and I already knew this from my interactions with him since rookie camp in July) and just how special this Washington Capitals team is and how much they like working together.
“I was worried about how the guys would be, like ‘Is this really happening?’ but they were awesome. They were high fiving me and Fedorov said this is why I love this organization and why it is so great and Mike Green just started laughing his head off and put his arm around me and said ‘Let’s go”. Even Johnny, a guy who doesn’t talk much before the game came over and went through the warm up with me and said ‘Hey, have fun out there’, it couldn’t have been more perfect,” said Leonhardt on his evening with the big club.
The Caps are now 17-10-3 on the year and on Saturday night they travel to Montreal to take on the Canadiens in their 100 year anniversary season. It is very possible that Varlamov could get the call in net and he said through an interpreter “that it would be very special to get my first NHL start in a place like Montreal.” Boudreau also said he’d have no problems starting him and that could be the case because Johnson seemed to be hurting after the game with that bad hip.
Notes: Poti led the team in ice time playing 25:27. The Caps won the faceoff battle 32-27.
Defensemen Sean Collins and forward Oskar Osala were re-assigned to Hershey. Leonhardt, who is 6’7”and is nicknamed “Stretch”, is 26 years old, graduated in 2007 and joined the Capitals in December 2007. He has practiced with the team before (maybe three or four times total) and played four years of Division III college hockey – two years at Oswego State (in Upstate NY) and two years at Neumann College (outside of Philly). Had he been forced to play he would have matched the tallest goaltender in NHL history (St. Louis Blues goalie Ben Bishop). The Caps currently have 49 signed players in their organization and the NHL imposed limit is 50. Leonhardt, because he was signed to an amateur contract, did not count against that total.