With just eight days until the start of the regular season, Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau dressed a lineup on Friday against Buffalo that will be very close to the one he ices on opening night on October 8th against Carolina. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff played a crew that will very much resemble his regular season roster and the result was an excellent pre-season game that had intensity to it. The Caps rallied with a third period goal with some inspired play and ended up winning the contest in a shootout, 4-3. Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Matt Hendricks notched goals for Washington while Tomas Vanek and Jason Pominville had two tallies and one, respectively, for the visitors. Backstrom won the game in the shootout in the 6th round after Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin scored earlier in the gimmick.
Here are the quotes and analysis from a contest that provided a good benchmark of where the Caps are at with the NHL regular season just around the corner:
- The Capitals were extremely sloppy in their own end for the first 40 minutes and struggled with some turnovers and even worse, poor coverage. Low percentage clear outs were attempted and Buffalo players were given too much time and space on numerous occassions. It was clear that new goalie Tomas Vokoun is still trying to learn how the guys in front of him are going to play in the defensive end. For a goalie, knowing where the shots are going to come from is so critical and #29 is still figuring that out. The good news is that in the third period Washington really was solid in their defensive zone and Buffalo actually didn’t register a shot on net until past the period’s middpoint. Boudreau had a theory as to why things changed in the last portion of regulation.
“On the two goals that were scored against us there is still the newness of communication between Tomas [Vokoun] and the defense and I think on both of those goals, and we talked about it between periods, there was a miscommunication. Whether it was handling the puck, letting it go, defense in front ‘should I block?’, ‘should I not?’ Once we got that straightened around I thought they played a really good third period.”
Ovechkin also talked about the importance of playing well in their own end this year.
“The defensive zone is the most important thing for us. …Every time you have to play careful in your zone. We just give more attention to details in the preseason,” said the two time NHL MVP.
- Offensively the Capitals did a good job of putting the heat on the Buffalo defense. The Caps, despite being outshot for two periods, did have quite a few quality chances only to be denied by all world goalie Ryan Miller on a few occassions. Troy Brouwer played on a line with Ovechkin and the two of them did a nice job of forechecking and taking the body, which helped wear down a very good Sabres blue line crew.
“I thought the energy and the forechecking in the first two periods was pretty good as well. We got the results in the third period but I think a lot of it was because we worked hard in the first two periods, but it was consistent for 60 minutes, which we hadn’t done,” added Boudreau.
- The Capitals went 1 for 5 on the power play but there were noticeable differences to the way the unit plays from a year ago. The focus is clearly to get the puck to the top center portion of the point and fire away with traffic in front of the opposing goaltender. The past reliance on slick cross ice passes for one timers with the man advantage appears to be gone. There are still outstanding passes made by highly skilled guys, as evidenced by Green’s superb off the boards back pass to Ovechkin on the Caps second tally, but getting in position for rebounds is clearly now the recipe for success.
“I knew Alex was behind and I dragged the guy to me. I just had to make sure I bounced it hard enough so that he could get it because he is a right handed shot or else it would have been in his skates. He made a great shot and it was laying there and I decided to poke it in,” said Green describing his goal, that was set up by difficult bank pass.
“We are not going to give away any of our secrets. We have our game plan and [crashing the net] is a piece of it but we even have to be better. The fortunate thing is we have a lot of guys who can play. It’s not just one line anymore, it’s two, even three units that can play,” finished the Calgary native on the Caps power play.
“It’s hard to score in this league and when you are playing against Ryan Miller, it’s even harder. So you better go to the net if you want to score,” commented Boudreau on the net crashing strategy.
- Here are some quick thoughts on the performances of individual players in this tilt:
- Ovechkin was into this contest, especially in the third period when he was throwing his body around. The Gr8 had two assists, although it looked to me like he scored the second goal that was credited to #52 (Boudreau said the same thing after the contest).
- Marcus Johansson looked very good in this game as he starts his sophomore campaign. He continues to be a dominant skater and he is even stronger on the puck this year.
- We always hear about how hard Joel Ward works but he is also a very smart hockey player with superb hockey sense. In the third period one of his best plays came in the neutral zone on a cross ice pass. #42 had two cross ice options on the play, one which was very high risk, high reward but needed to be threaded perfectly so it would not be intercepted, or another more orthogonal pass that would be very effective, but safer. Ward chose the later and it resulted in a scoring chance for Washington. The former Predators forward is clearly a guy that can play pretty much with anyone and is going to make his line a positive factor in the game.
- Backstrom had the first goal after a good feed from Ovechkin and after an even better breakout pass by Brouwer. #19 buried that chance but I still am not seeing the burst of speed and superior skating ability that I saw from him in 2009-10. As for Brouwer, he was excellent in this contest. He went to the net to create traffic and added two helpers. He did have the occassional defensive zone lapse but that was corrected by period three.
- For the Sabres, Vanek continues to show that he is a top notch player but the man who stood out for them was offseason free agent acquisition Christian Ehroff. #10 was superb running the Buffalo attack and he was +2 with a goal and an assist. If he stays healthy the Sabres should be a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference.
- The Caps tying goal was a thing of beauty. Jeff Halpern won the faceoff to Jay Beagle, who slid it back to Green at the point. #52 fired the biscuit at Miller while the Washington players crashed the net. The American goaltending star then gave up an uncharacteristic big rebound in the slot that Hendricks slid by the Michigan State alum. It was a hard working tally right off of a faceoff, something coaches love to have.
- Given what I saw tonight and from preseason observations, I think that the 12 forwards who dressed tonight, minus Cody Eakin, will make the final roster, which is due on Tuesday at 3pm. Eakin needs a full year in the AHL to mature physically and play lots of minutes. Mike Knuble, who was rested on Friday, would be one of the top 12. Mathieu Perreault did not play on Friday but I see him making the club as an additional forward. #85 has had a strong preseason plus he would have to go through waivers if he was attempted to be sent down to Hershey (Eakin can go to the Bears without GM George McPhee worrying about a waiver claim). The six defensemen who dressed tonight, Green, John Carlson, Dennis Wideman, Jeff Schultz, Roman Hamrlik, and Karl Alzner, will be the opening night blue liners unless there is an injury.
Notes: Chris Bourque, Sean Collins, and Patrick McNeill were waived and sent to Hershey…Collins could be recalled for the opener as the seventh d-man if John Erskine is still not ready to play…Washington outshot the Sabres 32-24, largely due to a 15-3 advantage in the third period…the Capitals lost the faceoff battle 33-32 with MJ90 going 4-9…the Caps killed off all four Sabres power plays. Washington’s next and final preseason game is on Sunday at 5 pm from the Verizon Center against the Chicago Blackhawks.