After beating the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins for the third time in three tries this season, one would expect the Washington Capitals to have a let down the very next night in Raleigh against the Hurricanes. Well, after a poor first 20 minutes that saw Carolina score their only two goals, the Caps dominated most of the final 45 minutes before falling in the shootout, 3-2, to the Canes. Manny Legace was outstanding for Carolina stopping 41 shots while Semyon Varlamov (29 saves) had his best Caps outing since early December. Washington, despite the shootout loss, sets a club record for points in a season with 109 (49-14-11) and they are now two points away from clinching the Eastern Conference #1 seed (h/t @TedStarkey). In the race for the President’s Trophy they lead Chicago by 10 points (they have a game in hand) and are up by 11 on the Sharks, who will play the Stars late on Thursday night.
Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from the last Caps-Canes contest this season:
Perhaps the best news of the night was what appeared to be the return to form from Varlamov. #40 stopped several breakaways, including a golden chance by superstar Eric Staal in overtime. He was only beaten on a screened point blast plus a deflected quality scoring chance in the slot. He was aggressive and controlled in his cage displaying the confidence and swagger that the Capitals saw from him last spring and in November/December of this season. Jose Theodore is still the undisputed number one goalie right now but it would be very comforting for Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and the organization to know that they have Varly in position to step in should anything weird happen down the stretch or in the playoffs. Varlamov, though, is winless in his last four starts (0-1-3, including two defeats in shootouts).
“He played great. I don’t know what it does for his confidence because I’m not him. If I were him I would feel pretty good about myself. It is unfortunate the one snuck in [Ray Whitney's shootout goal], that’s the difference in the game,” said Boudreau on the goalie he rode for 13 straight games in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
As mentioned above, and expected, the Caps were slow out of the gate and appeared to be skating in cement in period one. Boudreau was so incensed that he used his timeout early to chew his troops out and they eventually got the message. Starting in period two they outshot the Canes 30-13 the rest of the way and tied the game up but couldn’t get the winner.
“That happens when you’ve played an emotional game the night before but I thought the last two periods we picked it up pretty good but at the same time you have to be ready. You can’t come from behind from every night,” commented Boudreau on his team’s fate on Thursday in Raleigh.
Carolina killer Alexander Semin notched his 35th tally of the season just 1:43 into period two and he fired five shots on goal plus five attempts blocked to go along with two that missed the cage. Washington’s second goal was a thing of beauty as Jason Chimera took a John Erskine breakout pass and flew down the left wing. With right wing Eric Fehr driving to the net and taking the Canes defenseman with him, #25 slid a nice pass into the slot and Team USA World Junior Championships hero, John Carlson, notched his first NHL goal. #74 is only 20 years old and there will be many more to come in what looks to be a very promising career. Carlson had a rough initial opening stanza paired with a very rusty Erskine (who really played well the last two periods). But after that he was all over the ice, doled out several big hits (credited with four by the stats crew), and he was superb with his breakout passes.
“That happens alot to individuals, they play great and nothing happens. They have a rough first period like John did and he ends up scoring the goal. He has come close to scoring on numerous occassions so he was due to have the goal here,” added Boudreau on his rookie defenseman.
Alexander Ovechkin, since his hat trick against the Penguins on February 7th, now has just scored in two (three goals total) of his last 13 games (h/t @JapersRink). The Great #8 had six shots on goal, five that missed the net, and seven others attempts that were blocked or deflected. He was thwarted by Legace in the shootout when a tally would have won the game. The stats guys said he had 0 hits but I do remember at least one (in the 3rd period) but he was not his usual physical self in 22:53 of ice time. The Great #8 also was whistled for goalie interference and the officiating, which was extremely inconsistent on Wednesday night versus Pittsburgh, was a topic of discussion for Boudreau after this one as well.
“That was the call [on Ovechkin]. Even though he is three feet out, Alex bumped into him, which is why I thought there should have been a call on Varly at the other end on the power play. The only thing I don’t know about is what is too many men on the ice anymore? I know what is in the rule book but I want to know exactly how it is being called,” finished Boudreau.
The Caps were 0 for 3 on the power play while Carolina went 1 for 5. Seriously, my biggest concern for Washington heading into the playoffs are four guys: the two referees and the two linesman. I just have 0 confidence in the zebras right now and I think Larry Brooks of the New York Post hit the nail on the head last week on Hockey Night in Canada Radio with Jeff Marek when he said the officiating is the area that needs the most improvement in the NHL. Caps Senior Media Relations Director, Nate Ewell, wrote on Twitter today that in the last 14 Caps-Pens games Washington has yet to play a contest in which they have more power plays than Sidney Crosby and company (in four of the games the opportunities evened out). I have one thing to say to the NHL on this, in the immortal words of John McEnroe: ”YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS??!!”
Notes: Next up for the Caps are the fading Calgary Flames at the Verizon Center on Sunday at 3pm…Washington easily won the face-off battle, 38-29, and Brendan Morrison went 11-4…Matt Bradley, who has eight goals this season, has not tallied in 23 games…Carolina won this one in the fifth round of the shootout. Ovechkin, Semin, and Tomas Fleischmann all had chances to win the game for Washington in the gimmick (Nicklas Backstrom was the only one to tally for the Caps).