Sunday at the Verizon Center was Fan Appreciation Day and for 40 minutes the Washington Capitals lolligagged their way through their contest with the Atlanta Thrashers showing little to nothing to their fans who came out to Rock the Red before the real Caps team showed up in the final period and gave them something worth watching. After being yelled out by their head coach Bruce Boudreau in the second intermission, Washington came out hard and outscored Atlanta, 4-1, in the third period en route to a 6-4 victory. In that period they finally got back to playing their pressure fore check and cycling game which allowed them to take over the contest and rally from a 3-2 deficit.
“Our guys were sleepwalking through the first two periods. It seemed like they wanted it more. It happens a lot when you depend on your power play to win you games and then the power play wasn’t going very well, so it was time the five-on-five stepped up a little bit,” started Boudreau, “I hope that wasn’t what it took (to win the game). I hope it opened their eyes. I hope it doesn’t take me coming in and screaming and yelling to get going because we have (too many) good players for that. They gotta learn to do it on their own. I don’t want to (scream at the players) often. I prefer everything to be parenting. If you yell at your kids too much, eventually they just tune you out. When I raise my voice, I’d like it to mean something,” finished Boudreau.
As Boudreau mentioned the Caps power play, which was ranked number one in the league coming into today, was just awful on its first five attempts going scoreless and also giving up a shorthanded goal to Jim Slater that put the Thrashers up 2-1 early in the second period. Finally on the sixth one the head coach had seen enough and shook things up by putting forward Keith Aucoin on the man advantage and just 15 seconds into the power play he finished off a nice pass from Alexander Ovechkin to tie the game at two in the second period. It was Aucoin’s second goal of the season in nine NHL contests with the Caps. Washington had one other power play after that in the third period and although they did not score, they had the puck in the Thrashers end nearly the whole two minutes. Overall the power play was 1 for 7 for the game, not something the team will be happy about. Aucoin, after having a tough Friday night against Buffalo played very well today with a goal and an assist in just over 10 minutes of ice time. He also hit the post on another scoring chance in the third period.
“Keith Aucoin has been great. Every time he is in the line-up he has been a spark plug for us. He’s a great passer, he’s got a lot of energy, and he hits well for a smaller guy,” said Caps forward Eric Fehr, who scored a great goal as he was falling to the ice to give the Caps the lead, 4-3, early in the third period.
“He’s definitely played very well for us. We’ll probably have to make a decision here sooner or later. He’s done really well,” said Boudreau on Aucoin, who has scored a point in four of his last five games with Washington.
The Caps gave up six power play chances to Atlanta but killed each one of them and while Boudreau won’t be happy about the number of penalties taken (and Dan Marouelli was one of the referees so I knew the whistle would be blowing alot today), he has to be pleased with the penalty killing which was very solid to include goalie Jose Theodore (20 saves on 24 shots). Theodore was good when he was in the net and really can’t be faulted on any of the first three goals, but the fourth goal with 44 seconds left was all on #60. Theo, with the Thrashers net vacant at the other end, took the puck next to the Caps net and tried to shoot it the length of the ice but fanned on it putting it right on Slava Kozlov’s stick and the Thrasher buried the early Christmas present to make it 5-4. The ONLY good thing about this play is that Theodore likely got this out of his system and won’t try a boneheaded move like that again, especially in the playoffs.
Speaking of fanning on shots, the Great #8 had one of those days where he could have had several goals, although he did get two assists to close within two points of league leader Evgeni Malkin, who was shut out today in a 4-2 loss to the Florida Panthers (Malkin is up 108 to 106). He was -2 on the day though and dropped to +8 on the season (he was +28 last season so the drop off is somewhat concerning).
“Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t. I thought in the third period, we could’ve had three more. Ovi (Caps forward Alex Ovechkin) should’ve had three or four by himself, but they weren’t going in tonight (for him). I think when you go to the net and you work hard, you get rewarded. In the third period, I thought we worked hard,” said Boudreau on Ovechkin (11 shots on goal) and the rest of the team.
As for the other positives, one of the biggest was Tomas Fleischmann who broke a 15 game goal scoring drought in the first period. He also was one of the few guys who worked hard in the opening two periods.
“I just kept going and try and work hard. I knew it was going to come and the break came today, straight to my glove and I was out there alone by myself, lucky I put it in,” said #14 on breaking his drought just 2:13 into the game.
“I hope it does wonders for his confidence. I’ve been in his situation and (I saw) the relief (in) his eyes when he finally scored. He was like, ‘Oh man, I can play the game.’ You start to doubt yourself after awhile, no matter who you are, when you have trouble scoring. He’s got the spark. He plays a lot. He tries hard, but I hope that adds a little confidence to his game,” added Boudreau on Fleischmann.
Other positives came from Michael Nylander who was +2 and had a goal and an assist and defensemen Jeff Schultz and Milan Jurcina each were +2 on the afternoon. Fehr was also a +2. Brooks Laich was his usual solid self scoring his career high 20th goal and adding two assists in a +1 performance. I don’t know where this team would be without the play and leadership of #21.
“It’s good to have that secondary scoring and get it working. It was really nice to see Fleischmann and Fehr score, two guys that hadn’t scored in awhile. And Michael Nylander. It’s what we need though. We can’t depend on four guys to score all of our goals every game,” finished Boudreau.
Another negative, besides the poor effort in the first 40 minutes, was the terrible play defenseman Tom Poti made on the Thrashers first goal by Colby Armstrong. Poti was caught flat footed, badly misplaying Armstrong by giving him too much space, and that allowed the forward to cut across the slot on his forehand and fire a bullet by Theodore. Poti played that one like a rookie and he knows he needs to be more on the opponent and force him to his back hand where Theodore can cut off the angle much easier. Poti did play well on the penalty kill today and he logged 7:31 of shorthanded ice time.
I also thought Mike Green (pointless) did not have a good game missing the net on his power play shots, over handling the puck several times on rushes and in the offensive zone, and lacking energy and grit in his own end a few times in the first two periods.
With the win the Caps are now 48-23-8 for 104 points and they lead the New Jersey Devils by two points for second place in the Eastern Conference with three games to go in the regular season. The Capitals finished their home schedule for the season with the second-most wins in franchise history (29-9-3, trailing only the 30-8-2 mark of the 1985-86 season) and recorded their 29th sellout of the season, and 25 of the last 27 games have been sold out. The Caps finished the regular season with a new record in total attendance, 741,992. Washington is now 20-0-1 when recording five or more goals (only loss was to the Devils in November in a shootout). They have scored four or more goals in four straight games.
Next up on Tuesday is the Thrashers again in Atlanta. Washington is winless in two trips there this season and their magic number to clinch second place in the East is 5 points (any combination of Caps points gained or NJ points lost).
Other Notes: Brian Pothier was the healthy scratch on defense on Sunday. Donald Brashear missed his 10th straight game with a bad knee. Washington outshot Atlanta, 33-24, and won the face off battle, 39-22. Fehr’s excellent production came in only 8:08 of ice time. Alexander Semin scored his 31st goal and added an assist in a +1 showing (Semin is now +25 on the season).