Caps Win Easily
Caps hockey is as much fun as ever and if you were at the Verizon Center today you know what I am talking about. Alexander Ovechkin and company trounced the defending Eastern Conference Champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday, 5-2, on national television (this was the NHL’s NBC game of the week) in front of the eighth consecutive home sellout (and 15th in the last 16 games). This contest was a message to the rest of the NHL that the Caps are a team to be reckoned with and the club is now 38-17-5, the best ever in franchise history after 60 games. Also, don’t look now, but with the suddenly skidding Boston Bruins losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning Sunday evening the Caps are now only seven points out of first place in the Eastern Conference (Washington is in Boston on Saturday afternoon for the final meeting of the regular season between those two teams).
Sunday’s game belonged to the Washington Russian trio of Ovechkin, Sergei Fedorov, and Alexander Semin, who each had a goal and an assist. Semin, who was widely criticized for remarks that he may or may not have said (I still think he was misquoted) about Sydney Crosby earlier in the year, clearly enjoys playing the Penguins and the guys in black seem to bring out the best in #28’s game. Semin was great at even strength, on the power play, and even more importantly killing penalties today as the men in the zebra striped shirts (Chris Rooney and Marc Joanette) decided to give the Penguins more than double the number of power plays than Washington despite the Caps carrying much of the play today. The Caps, however, would hold the Pens to scoring just once on their eight man advantage tries while the guys wearing red lit the lamp twice in three attempts. The good news is that when you play as well as Washington did today the clowns blowing the whistle don’t even matter. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau was happy with the effort although he gave the Penguins an excuse for not matching Washington’s play Sunday afternoon.
“You gotta understand, they (Pittsburgh) played [yesterday afternoon]. And it was a physical game this afternoon. We thought if we could keep attacking they would get tired. It’s natural. Teams tire in the second games of back-to-backs. The rivalry they have with Philadelphia and getting up for it and the rivalry they have with us, when you get a 4-2 or 5-2 lead you can see the shoulders start to sag a little bit. I thought we had a lot of chances in the third that we didn’t finish. Our key today, was that I believe all four lines can score and we didn’t do this against Colorado, but all four lines when we don’t have the puck have to be able to check. I thought we did a great job of limiting (their odd man rushes),” said Boudreau summing up a very good afternoon for his team.
This was a big win for the Caps because it was the first time they’ve beaten the Pens at the Verizon Center since December 11, 2006. In addition, the number of Penguins fans was significantly down from years past although I did see a few “Yinz from Downtown”, as Nestor Aparacio likes to call them, wearing Pittsburgh Steelers jerseys. But this series, which for years and years has been dominated by the Penguins, especially in the playoffs, is now turning in Washington’s favor as the Caps are 4-1-1 against Pittsburgh under Boudreau with the only loss coming when Nicklas Backstrom inadvertently put the puck in his own net last March. Boudreau, however, still wasn’t ready to say that the Caps are the dominant team.
“Everything has peaks and valleys. We’ve won three, but I don’t think it’s changing unless we win seven or eight in a row. As long as they have those two guys on their team (Penguins forwards Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby) it’s going to be tough to do,” said Boudreau on this rivalry.
I’ve been around this team since its inception and when I worked for the team Pittsburgh won four of the five playoff series the Caps and Pens were involved in (1991, 1992, 1994, 1995, and 1996). Therefore, I will say that the times are changing and it is primarily due to the Great #8. He is a guy that makes a huge difference and the crowd broke into “M-V-P” chants a few times today (and I don’t think that #87 wearing black liked it too much either). Crosby, who is the league’s poster boy primarily because he is Canadian, was clearly frustrated today and was jawing constantly at several Capitals and every now and then threw in an extra shove or cross check but was called for none of it. He did get into it with Ovechkin by the Caps bench very late in the second period and the Great #8 got the last dig in waving to Sydney as if to say “we kicked your butts today, quit whining, and get out of here.” Boudreau was asked about their altercation after the game and clearly there is no love lost between them or these two teams based on Bruce’s response.
“I think he (Crosby) got frustrated because he wasn’t getting the freedom he’s had in this building before. I just think he was frustrated. It adds spice. It’s entertainment. It gets your blood boiling a little bit. And every time Alex (Ovechkin) gets a little more excitable, it can be good for us because he gets his adrenaline going, he doesn’t tire and he just keeps going. When he gets in those modes, he’s tough to stop,” said Boudreau on Ovechkin and Crosby.
In addition to the great play of the Caps Russian trio, Backstrom (two assists) was once again one of the outstanding players for Boudreau. The Caps coach could not agree more and continues to praise his young center and point out that the best is still to come with #19.
“He’s gonna get better. A lot of people want to credit Alex (Ovechkin) but I credit Nicky with a lot of Alex’s success as well. He’s such a good passer. He’s more well-rounded and he’s killing penalties now. He’s gonna be great. He knows the league a little bit better too. Today, he had a couple of real good (physical) battles in the corner. And he won those battles. He’s got a little bit of a temper on him. When he gets real comfortable, when he’s 23, 24-years-old, he’s gonna be the whole package,” added Boudreau on Backstrom.
Jose Theodore stopped 31 of 33 shots today and outside of a bad rebound he gave up on the first Pittsburgh goal, scored by Maxine Talbot, he was very good. The only other shot that beat him was a Sergei Gonchar power play blast from the point that found the top right corner. Also, when you are shorthanded eight times you need your goalie to be your best penalty killer and Theo did that today. In fact his best stop of the night was on Ryan Whitney on the Pens first of three power plays early in third period. Whitney was set up beautifully on a back door pass but Theodore read the play and slid across the crease to stone the Penguins defeneseman. After that save Pittsburgh did not have much life and started slumping their shoulders as Boudreau alluded to after the game.
Notes: Defenseman Staffan Kronwall, who has not been very impressive in the two games he has played with Washington, was a healthy scratch. Forward Viktor Kozlov is still out with a groin injury and when he returns he will likely be back on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom. That will likely move Michael Nylander, who has not been playing well the last several games, to the bench as a healthy scratch. Pittsburgh’s Marc Andre-Fleury struggled in net, like he has done most of the season, and was pulled in favor of Mathieu Garon after the Caps fifth goal. The Pens are still in 10th place in the East and four points behind the Florida Panthers, New York Rangers, and Buffalo Sabres who each have at least a game in hand on Pittsburgh. I still think the Pens will find a way into the playoffs, although you wouldn’t see me upset at all if they ended up having to make tee times instead. Next up for Washington is the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday at the Verizon Center. Boudreau on that matchup: “We don’t like them and they don’t like us.” You gotta love the honesty and candor from this guy who is nothing but a straight shooter.
The NHL trade deadline is Wednesday March 4th and I had conversations with two prominent members of the media who cover this team on a regular basis and both agreed that GM George McPhee needs to get another goalie at the trade deadline, primarily due to the Brent Johnson injury situation, so that Washington has another option should Theodore get hurt. Names bantered around included Dwayne Roloson of Edmonton, Curtis Joseph of Toronto, and Manny Legace of St. Louis (who is playing for Peoria of the AHL). Given that the Oilers are very much in the playoff hunt and could be a destination for Florida defensemen Jay Bouwmeester, should the Panthers move him, I don’t see Roloson being traded (although he is an unrestricted free agent after this season and the Oilers have been grooming 24 year old Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers for the starting job). Roloson is the best of the trio mentioned above and a quick look at the list of free agent goalies after this season doesn’t yield a whole lot of other viable names. Talk of needing another defensemen was also a hot topic and it was also mentioned that rookie defenseman Karl Alzner, who is down in Hershey, will likely be back up with the big club after the trade deadline. Discussion of adding a power forward also ensued and as anyone who reads this blog knows I would love to bring forward Keith Tkachuk onto this team if a good deal can be had with St. Louis.