After a lackluster effort in Buffalo on Saturday night that led to a 3-2 overtime loss and the end of their six game winning streak, the Washington Capitals rebounded with a 6-4 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers on Sunday evening in front of another sellout at the Verizon Center. John Erskine scored the game winner on a point blast after the Dave Steckel, Matt Bradley, and Matt Hendricks line forced a Thrashers neutral zone turnover. It wasn’t a pretty victory by any stretch of the imagination, but the Capitals grinded it out and as a result they are now 13-4-1 overall and lead the Southeast Division by nine points over second place Tampa, who lost to the Wild at home on Sunday.
This was a wild and sloppy affair primarily because both clubs played on Saturday night and then traveled to DC afterwards. As one would expect in the third game in four nights, there were things to like and not to like in Washington’s victory. Below are the highlights, quotes, and analysis:
- The difference in this tilt was the Steckel line as he, Bradley, and Hendricks were on the ice for the fourth and fifth Capitals goals while not being on for a single tally against. Hendricks was also on for Steckel’s empty net goal. The trio, who were a combined +8 in the game, carried the play on their shifts and with the Washington top line looking out of gas the last 30 minutes, it was essential that the Caps get a victory via one of their other units. Steckel was also a monstrous 19-4 on face-offs and all three players logged at least 14 minutes of ice time as Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau continued to send them out in the third period. I thought this was Steckel’s best game in over a year and reminded me more of the player who was excellent during the 2008-09 regular season and in the playoffs.
- Erskine not only tallied the game winner, but he was engaged in one of the best NHL fights I’ve seen all year with Eric Boulton. Both players exchanged big blows and the Caps received a power play as a result of the altercation being started by Boulton. #4 was officially named the game’s first star and his defensive partner Tyler Sloan had two assists. Both Erskine and #89 were plus two on the day.
- The Caps third tally, that gave them their first two goal lead of the contest, was a thing of beauty. Alexander Oveckhin (1 goal, 1 assist) took the puck down the left wing boards and he made an absolutely perfect saucer pass in the slot to a streaking Alexander Semin. #28 then faked Atlanta starter Chris Mason to the ice and deposited the puck behind him on the backhand. The Caps top line had a super first period to give Washington a 3-1 lead but after that the unit struggled, especially on the power play (more on that in a moment). That first period was, by far, Washington’s best of the season and it was the first time all year they notched more than one goal in the opening stanza (h/t Capitals Media Relations Department).
- Washington continues to score goals as a result of players going to the net. Eric Fehr set up a superb screen on Mike Green’s blast (1 goal, 1 assist), Hendricks goal came on the rebound of another Green shot, and Erskine’s game winner had both Bradley and Hendricks going to the cage distracting goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who came on in relief of Mason. It is essential that the Capitals continue to score this way as that is what is needed to win in the playoffs.
- Special teams, especially the Caps power play, were not good on Sunday. Green’s first period marker was with the man advantage but after that the Capitals failed to score on two additional power play situations. They gave up Bryan Little’s shorthanded tally, his second goal of the game, that tied this one at four after Erskine’s fight. They also yielded another shorthanded breakaway on that same power play but Atlanta shot the puck wide. The big problem on the last two Washington power plays were the work of the point men, who showed terrible on ice awareness. Ovechkin was absolutely careless on the fourth goal and he tried to skate into two Thrashers. Green and John Carlson also struggled and did not do a good job of covering for the other point man. The Thrashers were one for two with the power play scoring on a five on three advantage.
- Michal Neuvirth stopped only 23 of 27 shots and he was the victim of a couple weird bounces and poor play by his defensemen. The second Atlanta goal came after Andrew Ladd blew by Carlson and when his partner, Karl Alzner came over to challenge, Andrew Ladd fired the puck on net from a bad angle short side. It was not clear if the puck hit Alzner’s stick but the bottom line on that play was #30 gave up his post too soon. One goal that was not his fault was the first Little tally that made it 4-3. Marcus Johansson, who skated well in the 3rd period, was outworked below the goal line by Anthony Stewart allowing Atlanta to center the puck. Jeff Schultz and Green then failed to cover the slot which provided Little the space he needed to bang the puck by #30. Overall there was a lot of sloppy d-zone coverage by Washington, but in the third period the Caps dominated and they out shot Atlanta, 13-7, with Neuvirth not allowing anything to get by him.
- In summary, the game was not pretty and a very busy November schedule is likely contributing to the sloppiness. The second period was downright awful for DC and Boudreau was clearly not happy with it.
“It wasn’t very good. We made mental mistakes. It was ugly, but the good thing is they righted the ship. We talked about not wanting to beat teams 6-4. We want to shut teams down,” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winning coach on the second period and his team’s mentality.
“I think for the rest of the month and maybe even into early December, the schedule is pretty tough. There’s a lot of traveling, we play at home one night and then hit the road or we are the road and coming back home. In that time you don’t get a lot of practice and that can start to show a bit with us; we can get a bit loose out there. We just need to get a good practice in, tighten things up and get back to the way we were doing things earlier,” said Sloan on part of the cause for the uneven play.
Notes: The Hershey Bears knocked off the Binghamton Senators, 8-3, at the Giant Center and Mathieu Perreault had six assists in the victory (first AHL player to do so since 2005 – h/t John Walton). Goalie Semyon Varlamov, down on a rehab assignment, made his first start this year in the AHL and stopped 21 shots. Varly is expected to stay down in Chocolatetown for more work this week because he claims he is not 100% healthy yet (h/t @timleone)…Boudreau cancelled Monday’s practice so the Caps won’t be back on the ice until Tuesday…the face-off battle was a tie with each team winning 37 draws…Washington out shot Atlanta 33-27…Next up for the Capitals are the Sabres at the Verizon Center on Wednesday at 7pm.