Caps Fall to Sabres in Home Pre-Season Opener

September 22, 2009 | Ed Frankovic

Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, and Jose Theodore made their pre-season debuts tonight at the Verizon Center in Washington’s third of six games (previously they beat Buffalo and Chicago) that will be used to prepare the Caps for the regular season, which starts on Thursday, October 1st in Boston. As could be expected, the team was a little bit rusty and out of sync at times and as a result Washington went 0 for 5 on the power play, including not scoring on one five minute advantage, and also gave up two goals in 11 seconds to lose, 2-1, to the Sabres.

“It’s sort of expected.  I mean you have seen all three games.  It’s their first game, and that’s the way they played it as. I thought, you know, their timing was off… that’s the reason you have preseason games; that’s why they’ll be playing most of the games here on in,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau after the game about the top players who debuted on Monday night.

As for the power play, Boudreau pointed out that the lack of practice was a factor but basically said the there was no scoring because of the players execution, not due to a lack of effort.

“The first time they practiced it was this morning.  When you have a lot of players [Washington still has over 40 players in training camp], you don’t have that opportunity. But now… we had a couple chances in Chicago and we got no results, so we’ll start practicing that a lot more. I don’t know that they were holding back, they were trying to be too cute.  We talked about that in the beginning of the season, what works in power plays is shots. It’s a formula that works and that’s where we got to get back to,” added Boudreau on his team’s inability to score in 13 minutes of power play time.

Buffalo had 5:44 of power play time themselves putting special teams play at almost 1/3 of the entire game and that led to a contest that lacked flow throughout much of the night.

“Individually and as a team it was a bit of a frustrating game. When you have that many power plays it’s tough. The guys who are out there on the power play are trying so hard and they have a lot of skill and they want their abilities to click right away and sometimes it doesn’t happen this early in the season. So it is frustrating for the guys who are playing a lot of minutes and for the others it is tough to generate a lot of energy when you are a bit colder. So it is frustrating a bit for everyone but it is sort of a growing pain this early in the season and those guys with the high skill level who are playing the big minutes are going to come through, everybody knows it. So it is just one of those games you have to put behind you,” said Calder Cup winning forward Andrew Gordon, who played in the Caps thrilling 5-4 OT win in New York last December.

With that, here are some other quotes, comments, analysis, and tidbits from Monday’s game:

– Forward Mike Knuble was around the puck all night but didn’t score and he is still working on his chemistry with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. After one power play shift where #22 lost the puck on the boards that allowed the Sabres penalty killers to get off the ice, he was clearly frustrated and kicked at the side boards as he went to the bench. The Michigan alum has a lot of passion for the game, something Boudreau and the team will leverage this season.

“He is what he is.  He grinds, he works, he gives you 100 percent every night; he’s what coaches love to have.  In the regular season, Mike [Knuble]’s not going to miss three – he had three fabulous chances in the second period – and he’s going to convert one of those three, normally.  He gets them all from going to the net and getting his nose dirty and that’s what a coach loves to see,” said Boudreau on the Caps forward who should add a new dimension to the Washington offense.

– Soon to be 21-year old defenseman Karl Alzner (September 24th) played alongside Green for the first time and the two were on the ice when the two Sabres goals were scored.

“Yeah [it was the] first time and I usually like to play with offensive types of guys so it wasn’t that much of a change for me. I enjoyed it. You have to learn from each other’s styles.”

Alzner, who will likely have a tough time making the team because the Caps have 7 veteran defensemen under contract [Green, Tom Poti, Brian Pothier, Shaone Morrisonn, Milan Jurcina, John Erskine, and Jeff Schultz] while #27 (along with 2008 1st round draft pick John Carlson) still can be sent to Hershey without being subjected to waivers, definitely had to go through an adjustment playing with the 2009 Norris Trophy finalist as noted by Boudreau.

“I thought, well, he [Karl Alzner] was playing with Mike [Green] so he did a lot of backing up; because Mike likes to go.  He’s the same one, he’s got to get his timing down and he was a little off – pucks bouncing off his stick and everything else – so he was a little off.  I mean those two hadn’t played together at all during the preseason.  I think starting Wednesday we will start getting pairings [set]… so they can start getting more used to each other,” said Boudreau.

The 2007-08 Canadian World Junior Hockey team captain was critical of himself on the second Buffalo goal and the overall play of the Caps but he praised the fans who showed up to Rock the Red at a game that does not count in the standings.

“I probably overplayed it, definitely overplayed it. They say if you’re going to make mistakes make aggressive ones, and I guess that was an aggressive one. I think we were a little bit flat today and I don’t know the reason. The crowd was loud for an exhibition game so it’s a good thing. Our next game is at home so hopefully we can learn from that and turn it around,” finished Alzner, who is one of the nicest athletes I’ve ever met (and a guy you just can’t help rooting for).

– Erskine absolutely flattened 33-year old Jeff Cowan with a clean, neutral zone hit in the first period and the Sabres Paul Gaustad responding by jumping #4. Gaustad would get two minutes for instigating, five for fighting and a 10 minute misconduct. This pattern of players responding to clean hits is something that is disturbing to me and has been discussed on many NHL forums, including Hockey Night in Canada Radio. After the contest I asked Boudreau about his thoughts on the play and the retaliation.

“I think that is what happens now, it was a clean hit but it is like you are not allowed to hit hard and you see it everywhere. I can understand if it was a dirty hit, if it was from behind into the boards, let’s protect our teammates, but it was just a clean hit and the referee did a great job on the call because that is exactly what it warranted. But I wish you could see more clean hits like that without retribution,” said Boudreau.

– Boudreau singled out Jay Beagle and Chris Bourque as a couple of the bubble forwards that caught his eye. He also said defenseman Sean Collins (+1) was a lot better than he was in his first pre-season game.

– Semin played on a line with Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux and Aucoin notched the only Caps tally thanks to a Semin screen in front of Sabres goalie Patrick Lalime (19 saves). #28 had a pretty good game and showed some of the outstanding skill he possesses while also hitting the post with just over 11 minutes remaining in the third period. With Semin, it is all about being healthy and mentally focused to play, when he does that he can be as good as any player in the league.

– Alzner was paired with Carlson in his first pre-season game last Thursday in Buffalo.

– Theodore (19 saves) was okay in net with Boudreau speculating that perhaps the second goal might have been stoppable despite the defensive breakdown.

– Beagle was 7-3 on face-offs (70%) while Backstrom was 9-6 (60%). Dave Steckel was 9-7 (56%) while Aucoin was 3-5 (37.5%). Overall it was 28-22 Caps (56%) from the dot.

– Because of the extensive power play time Green played 27:53 (led all players) and the Great #8 had 26:42 of ice time.

– The attendance was announced as a near capacity 18,075 but there were noticeable areas of empty seats. However, the pre-season crowd was impressive given where hockey was just two Septembers ago in this area. The Caps next game is Wednesday at the Verizon Center against Chicago.