This is surely a test from the hockey gods because given the way the Washington Capitals played on Wednesday night, there is no way they should have lost to the Anaheim Ducks. But somehow the Caps did, falling 2-1 with 57 seconds remaining in overtime on a Ryan Getzlaf tally to extend their losing streak to seven games. Jonas Hiller (31 saves) and his good fortune were the keys to a Ducks victory and Washington’s record is now at 18-11-4, for a total of 40 points. With the Tampa Bay Lightning defeating the Atlanta Thrashers (2-1) in a shootout on Wednesday, the second and third place teams in the Southeast Division played a Caps worst case scenario “three point” tilt, and now both teams trail the Capitals by just two points in the standings. However, the Bolts have two games in hand while the Thrashers have just one.
Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from what should have been a Caps victory, if not for the lucky golden horseshoe that Hiller is holding onto right now:
– With Alexander Semin out of the lineup, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau took a different approach for this contest against the Ducks, who have arguably the best forward line in the NHL in Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, and Corey Perry, by matching units all evening. This strategy, which Boudreau has rarely used with his talented Caps club but has been employed by many hockey coaches for years, is one that takes on a playoff game mentality and if not for a hit crossbar and a lucky stick save, the game plan would have produced a victory for Washington. The 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner attempted to put out Brooks Laich, Dave Steckel, and Matt Bradley every time the Getzlaf-Ryan-Perry unit was on the ice at even strength. For the most part it worked, although it was one of the Ducks big guns who scored the game winner. Still the Caps bench boss, despite the OT loss, was pleased with the effort and the way his club stuck to his script.
“They did the game plan to a tee. They were very focused. I thought we played very good. Sometimes you play very good and you lose. We got a point for the psyche, which is very big,” said a hoarse Boudreau, who then went on to talk about how hitting the 40 point mark was really good for the team from a mental standpoint.
“I look back to the Pittsburgh series where they were our checking line. I knew that if I gave them a job they would come out and do it. They were plus one until the overtime,” added Boudreau on the play of the 21-39-10 line, who played solid defense and also scored the lone Washington tally.
– Another side effect, and an advantage, of playing the line matching strategy, is that the entire bench has to be completely focused on what is going on in every situation in the game because they may have to jump on the ice in a moments notice. It is like a chess match and that type of style, which is draining if done night in and night out, will force players to become stronger upstairs. Boudreau commented on that following the tough loss.
“You are always on your toes, you are looking at what is going on. It makes you get mentally stronger whether you like it or not. We played a strong 3rd period, that tells me we are getting mentally stronger,” added the three time Southeast Division winning coach on the strategy and the improvement he saw in his squad on Wednesday night, this coming after a week in which he criticized the mental toughness of his team and its’ seeming desire to want to “feel sorry” for themselves when things went bad.
– For the first 30 minutes, this game was all Washington. The Caps outshot the Ducks 17-7 in the opening stanza but Hiller made some big saves. In period two, the goalie who carried Switzerland into the final four of the 2010 Olympic games, received some help from the iron on an Alexander Ovechkin breakaway and made an amazing stick save on Nicklas Backstrom when it appeared he had an open net to conclude a three on one break with Mike Green and Mike Knuble. In both situations, luck was clearly on his side and someone is intent on making the Caps suffer a little longer with this losing streak.
“I thought we did everything we could. When Alex hits the cross bar and Nicky, their goalie making a big save, and the chances we had to get to 2-0 or 3-0, it’s tough,” commented Boudreau on the bad fortune his team had early on when they totally carried the play.
– Backstrom was the best Caps player on Wednesday night and it was apparent that he is finally close to fully recovering from the flu bug. #19 set up the first Caps goal with a strong rush down the left wing boards around Lubomir Visnovsky. The Swede hit a charging John Carlson in stride but #74’s shot was blocked right to Laich in the slot. #21 then backhanded it home off of the left post at 14:22 of the opening stanza. Backstrom, who was 9-2 on face-offs, was the one who set up Ovechkin for his breakaway and as mentioned above, Hiller flat out robbed #19 on a 3 on 1 break with a lucky stick save that even Ducks coach Randy Carlyle commented on.
“When you go on the road, your goaltender’s got to find ways to give you a chance and he did more than his share of that. He gave us a chance and made some big stops. Particularly the one on [Nicklas] Backstrom – he was able to bat it out with his stick,” said the 2007-08 Stanley Cup winning coach and former Capitals assistant.
– Semyon Varlamov (22 saves) got the call in net for Washington after his worst performance of the season in New York on Sunday. #1 was fairly strong in net. His best save of the night was likely on Visnovsky, who had an easy lane to the cage after d-man Karl Alzner mistakenly left his feet in his own zone. That gaffe by #27 combined with Green battling to Varly’s right with a Ducks forward, allowed #17 to come down the slot, but the young Russian net minder made a superb pad save. The two tallies he allowed were not totally his fault. The first was a rebound in front on an Anaheim power play. The puck was fired on net by Cam Fowler and it hit #52’s skate and bounced right on Joffrey Lupul’s stick. Before Alzner could do anything the former Flyers forward deposited the puck by Varly. So when the bounces are not going your way, things like that happen, and clearly the Capitals are getting NO breaks right now. On the game winner, Getzlaf outworked Carlson on the boards and then he passed #15 off to Scott Hannan, but #23 was once again a step too slow and the superstar Ducks forward beat Varlamov in close. I am not sure how much of the shot #1 saw because of Hannan’s slow reaction.
– For anyone who watched the first episode of the HBO 24/7 series following the Caps loss, it was obvious that part of the Capitals problems right now is the change in style they are undergoing. The organization, after dominating in the regular season and then failing in the first round of the playoffs last season, is attempting to play a tighter, more defensive brand of hockey in an effort to gain more balance. For the second time in three games (with Saturday’s game against Colorado being the first), the Caps body of work on the ice seemed to be trending up.
“I thought if we can play like that, what did they have 21 shots? If you play like that, you are going to win a lot of hockey games. We have to win the 3-1 games and the 2-1 games. It might not look pretty and we won’t have a 60 goal scorer but we’ll have a 50 goal scorer. And he played tonight and he’ll get 50,” said Boudreau on what he thought of how his team played, the transformation they are going through, and the impact it will have on Ovechkin’s season goal total.
In addition, Boudreau said that he won’t always go this route against an opponent and it will all depend on his lineup and the matchups.
“It gives us the ability to play both ways. We might want to play, say against Boston, the other way because we have had success that way,” finished the head coach who has come under fire from some in the local and national media/blogosphere (but not in this blog).
Notes: 24/7, which is covering both the Caps and the Pittsburgh Penguins in their build up to the Winter Classic on January 1st, revealed that Green missed the last two games due to a sprained MCL. #52 had a good game against Anaheim and logged over 29 minutes of ice time…the Caps won the face-off battle, 29-23, however Mathieu Perreault went 1-9…Alzner was paired with #52, logged 23:37, and was +1…the Caps went 0 for 2 on the power play. Next up for the Caps are the Boston Bruins in Beantown on Saturday at 7pm. Washington will practice for the next two days and Boudreau was happy to have that break after a tough loss saying “I think it is important for us to have 2 days before our next game.”