It was the worst of times. It was the best of times. Okay, I am exaggerating quite a bit here but that is what tonight’s Capitals game against the Islanders had to feel like to Washington fans. Following up on Friday night’s pile of garbage effort in which they were buried 6-0 by the Rangers, the Caps came out and looked disorganized and uninterested for the first 22 minutes of the game falling behind New York, 2-0. At that point, it seemed like this team was unraveling, but the typical sacrificial Matt Hendricks fight, a Bruce Boudreau timeout in which he likely out dB’d the local air traffic coming in to LaGuardia airport, and then most importantly, a change in the top two line combinations jump started this Capitals club and they scored the last three goals to win, 3-2. The victory improves Washington to 33-20-10 (76 points) and they pull within three points of Southeast Division leading Tampa, who will face the Rangers on Sunday at 1pm at Madison Square Garden.
Here are the highlights and analysis of a game Washington needed to have if they want to stay in the division race:
- Sometimes in hockey players perform poorly because they aren’t playing with the right guys. This leads to that disorganized look I mentioned above, then frustration sets in, and finally the effort goes out the window because the players tend to give up. To me, that is what was happening for the first period or so for this Washington team, especially the top two Capitals lines. Alexander Ovechkin, who was all over the ice on Friday night, was shifted away from his regular centerman, Nicklas Backstrom, and put with rookie Marcus Johansson for the first period plus of Saturday’s game. It was a DISASTER! The Great #8 had 0 shots on net with MJ90 as his pivot (h/t former Capital Alan May). I like the young rookie, who will eventually be a really good player in this league but will never be a #1 center, but to align him with Ovechkin is asking too much of a 20 year old who is a very good skater but doesn’t know where the Great #8 wants and needs the puck. Simply put, asking Johansson to center Ovie is putting way TOO MUCH pressure on the kid. Thankfully, the coaches figured it out and shuffled the top two forward lines a few shifts after the Boudreau bench rant at 5:35 of period two. Whoever was involved in the decision to get 8 and 19 back together and put MJ90 with Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble is the star of the game, in my opinion. The whole team was way better and more confident after that configuration change.
- The player of the game, and deservedly so, was Laich. #21 made two strong plays with the puck that led to tallies, one for himself when he beat Islanders goalie Al Montoya (19 saves) on an in close bad angled goal to seemingly wake up the entire Capitals team, and the second of which was another strong move with puck in front of the New York cage that allowed Knuble to bang home the biscuit and knot this affair at 2-2 just 2:24 into period three. Laich found chemistry with Johansson (1 assist), who was fantastic after the line juggling, and #22 providing Boudreau with one of those rare contests when he had two lines generating offensive chances.
- The winning goal came from Alexander Semin, whose picture was only seen on a milk carton for the first 30 plus minutes of this tilt, but once #28 was put with his young gun mates #8 and #19 he was a totally different player. Semin started competing on the boards and his laser in the slot at 5:41 of the final stanza was the difference. When you see Semin play like that it really has to make the entire Washington organization think that if they could get him a real center he would play at an elite level more often. Kind of like he did when Sergei Fedorov came over in 2008.
- Michal Neuvirth (29 saves) is the other big reason the Capitals had even an iota of a chance of pulling out a victory on Saturday night. The Isles threw 14 shots on the young Caps goalie when the “Bad and Disorganized” Washington team took the ice in the first period. #30 only gave up Kyle Okposo’s quality shot in the slot when John Carlson got caught pinching too deep in the offensive zone and then Karl Alzner did a poor job of closing the gap on #21 in the defensive zone. The only other marker allowed by Neuvy came after a #74 giveaway on Travis “Diver” Hamonic’s deflected slap shot just 33 seconds into the middle frame. Neuvirth, who had to be ready to sue for non support at that point, has become a rock for the Capitals and he was forced to play again when Semyon Varlamov came up with yet another injury during the morning skate (and Todd Ford, he of the ECHL to start the season, was recalled from Hershey to be the back up goalie with Braden Holtby and Dany Sabourin on the shelf in Hershey). I am not sure where the Caps are this season without Neuvirth.
- Alzner and Carlson had their struggles early, likely because bad line combos don’t help d-men out either, but as the game went on that duo got stronger and stronger. Carlson even made the play in the neutral zone that sprung Laich for his first goal. #’s 27 and 74 logged 23:03 and 20:31, respectively and came back to -1 after being on for the first two goals against. The defensive player of the night, however, was Scott Hannan (+2). #23 was super solid on the back end and if you want to see just how great he is defensively, go back and watch the last 2:08 of the game. Hannan was on the ice the entire time and made numeous strong plays to preserve the Capitals victory.
- In closing, this game was headed for disaster yet the Washington players and coaches found a way to battle through it and gut out a victory. The effort, which had been gone for over four periods came back, and the Caps got a much needed two points. There are still issues with this team, primarily the hole at second line center and a power play that continues to be pitiful, but there is still hope given that the NHL trade deadline could still yield some assistance in the talent department. We will all know that story come 3:00pm this Monday afternoon after Capitals GM George McPhee attempts to work his magic.
Notes: I sure hope Hendricks (signed to a 2 year contract extension by the Caps this week) recieved or was considered for the hard hat for his fight tonight. He got hammered by Zenon Konopka but the message received on the Washington bench was what mattered. #26 is all heart…Michal Grabner missed the ocean from the beach when it appeared he had an empty net that would have given the Islanders a 3-0 lead in period two. Hannan helped to thwart that chance as well…Backstrom only took two faceoffs. The Caps won that battle again, 30-27…The Caps claimed forward Marco Sturm off of waivers from the Los Angeles Kings today. Sturm played for Boston last season but blew out his knee in the playoffs. He has struggled to regain his health and the Kings, who are hoping to make some trade deadline acquisitions, valued the vacant roster spot more than Sturm’s services so McPhee gets a second line winger at a discount price…forward/tough guy/typical scratch DJ King was waived today and Mathieu Perreault was sent to Hershey, however #85 apparently is not going to play for the Bears this weekend…Jay Beagle was recalled from Hershey and he played physical and well in 10:27 of ice time…Mike Green did not play and traveled to Calgary to attend his grandmother’s funeral…Hershey won 4-3 getting four assists from Keith Aucoin on Saturday night. 2009 Caps 2nd round draft pick, d-man Dmitri Orlov (1 assist) made his AHL debut for the Bears. Congrats to Jared DeMichiel (27 saves) for his first AHL victory at home! Orlov’s assist came on one of the two Hershey power play tallies.