The Washington Capitals came to play in Buffalo on Sunday afternoon, but so did Sabres goalie Ryan Miller. In a town that the Caps have an awful record playing in, it took a third period power play goal from Marcus Johansson to finally get a victory in Buffalo over Miller, who made 37 saves, several of which were of the ten bell variety in the first period when Washington was storming the castle. The former Michigan State goalie is one of the best in the league and it was play like we saw today from him that allowed Team USA to nearly defeat a much better and stronger Team Canada in the Winter Olympics last February. But much like Team USA’s fate, the Sabres fell as well and the Capitals improved to 31-19-10 (72 points) overall and trail the Southeast Division leading Tampa Bay Lightning by just three points. The Caps are also 12 points ahead of the tied for ninth place in the Eastern Conference Sabres and Atlanta Thrashers.
Here are the highlights and analysis of the Caps eighth victory in nine Sunday games this season:
- The Caps scored a power play goal! Repeat, the Caps scored a power play goal!! And it was the game winner as well. Granted they had four power plays in the first period, including a 94 second two man advantage, that they did not score on so it is not like this struggling unit is anywhere near fixed. Washington’s game winner did not come via an in-zone set up, rather it came off of the rush as Alexander Ovechkin carried the puck in and fired it on Miller, who gave up a rebound. Mathieu Perreault (1 goal, 1 assist) alertly fired it quickly from the left wing boards and Marcus Johansson went to the net and tipped it in with 9:50 remaining. On the day this unit was 1 for 5 in 7:31 of power play time and that is just not going to get it done when the chips are on the line for Washington. Yes they miss Mike Green, but John Carlson is not a big drop off and my problem with this unit is the lack of traffic in front and the minimal movement from the five guys on the ice. If Ovechkin was switched down low on the half wall and replaced by a to be brought in strong left handed point shot, then I think this unit would improve quite a bit. Some options could be d-man Bryan McCabe of Florida or forward Alexei Kovalev of Ottawa. Both are expected to be moved by the trade deadline on February 28th.
- Washington dominated this game for the first two frames but there was the nine minute stretch to start period three where Buffalo really came on strong. However Matt Hendricks, like he has done so many times this season, made a play to turn this game around. #26, who has a great on ice work ethic, dumped the puck in on the right wing boards and former Cap Shaone Morrisonn took his second penalty of the game with a lazy play like he had done for the Caps too many times over the last several seasons before being let go via the free agency route. The Sabres had outworked Washington up to that point of the final stanza and the hard work of Hendricks turned the whole period around. Johansson’s power play goal ensued to set up the victory. Kudos to Hendricks, who brings the intangibles and energy to this club.
- Once Washington got the lead, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau wisely shortened his bench and the Sabres saw a steady dose of Dave Steckel, Matt Bradley, and Boyd Gordon down the stretch (5 or 6 shifts each in last nine minutes). The 39-10-15 unit stifled any Buffalo attacks and it was Steckel who won the last face-off with four seconds remaining to close the victory out for the Caps.
- Semyon Varlamov (28 saves) was very solid in net and his best save of the game was likely on Mike Grier on a reboud attempt in close when the outcome was very much in doubt. The one tally he allowed was a Buffalo power play goal in which Scott Hannan skated in his sight line and Jason Pominville snapped one by him on the high glove side. The goaltending for Washington continues to be very good and I will be very surprised if GM George McPhee makes any type of major goalie move at the deadline. He may get some depth for Hershey, but I don’t see him wasting salary cap space on goaltending when the team has other more pressing holes.
- Carlson led the Caps in ice time (24:29) and because so much of that came on the power play, the blue line duo that saw the most ice time was Hannan (20:38) and Jeff Schultz (22:07). Karl Alzner only played 15:43 because his partner needed to rest after each power play. However, at the end of the game, when it mattered the most, it was 27 and 74 out for the last 37 seconds of this contest.
- In summary, this was an important victory for the Caps as they move to 2-2 on their 10 day, five game road trip which wraps up in Pittsburgh on Monday night (730pm on VERSUS). They performed well against a Buffalo team that was desperate for a victory, yet the Capitals outplayed them for the majority of this contest. They still have issues, like up the middle of the ice where the smallish and young Perreault and Johansson just aren’t consistent enough for the post season plus the power play is in peril, but they still have Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin who are elite players in the NHL and when they want to play, they can carry this club.
Notes: Mike Green missed his fourth straight game on this road trip and fifth contest in the last six…Tom Poti is still out injured as well so the blue line continues to be filled with a few players who aren’t good puck carriers/movers…Washington lost the face-off battle, 29-24 (Backstrom went 7-12)…Ovechkin and Semin made some nice defensive plays in the final period but the Great #8 was also guilty of some floating in the neutral zone or in his own end, at times…Tyler Sloan did block three shots in just over 15 minutes of ice time, but Brooks Laich and Bradley had the most important ones of the game in the third period…Perreault took a bad hooking penalty in the third period and his defensive zone play is his biggest weakness. If only Johansson had Perreault’s offensive skills to go with MJ90′s fairly strong defensive prowess you would likely have your number two center, but that is not the case. Johansson will eventually be a strong third line center, he is only 20 years old. But the future is now for the Caps and since this is a wide open Eastern Conference, the need to upgrade at the trade deadline at the center position is vital for a long playoff run and shot at the Stanley Cup.