The Washington Capitals ended a three game losing streak on Thanksgiving Eve defeating the Buffalo Sabres, 2-0, before a sold out Verizon Center crowd. Semyon Varlamov stopped all 25 shots he faced in goal for Washington while Ryan Miller (22 saves) for Buffalo was outstanding too while yielding two Caps tallies. Miller has the inside track to be the #1 goalie for Team USA in the Olympics in Vancouver in February. The victory, which pushes the Caps record to 14-5-6, was a big story as was Alexander Ovechkin’s third period ejection. Washington now has a nine point lead over second place Atlanta, but the Thrashers have four games in hand. Below is the period by period analysis followed by the post game wrap up and quotes.
End of 1st Period: Caps 1, Buffalo 0
The Caps have scored first in 18 of 24 games this season and have outscored their opponents 29-12 in the opening stanza, and as usual, Washington scored first in this one as Ovechkin went end to end in a patented Great #8 rush and lasered one by Miller just 6:24 in. The Caps dominated play but the Sabres goalie played well and the Caps just missed the mark on some other chances. Miller was best robbing Mike Green off of an Ovechkin feed with 30 seconds left in the period and on Tomas Fleischmann during a two on one break (Matt Bradley) earlier. Overall the Caps did a good job of getting their sticks in the Sabres passing lanes in their own zone and when they made a mistake Varlamov made the stop. The only real complaint about the Caps play was the occassional giveaway by a Washington winger in his own zone up the boards to the Sabres defensemen. That is just a bad play as a winger should know that there is noone there at the point if he has the puck. As for Karl Alzner’s first period of the year in the NHL this season, it was very good and #27 did a good job of communicating with D-partner Milan Jurcina and his breakout passes were on the mark. With Tom Poti out of the line-up Alzner needs to step into that role for Washington, like he did last season when #3 was injured.
End of 2nd Period: Caps 1, Buffalo 0
The goalies were the story in period two as Varlamov and Miller didn’t have to make a lot of saves but they had to stop some quality ones. The Caps had more chances than the Sabres but they missed the net and Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom had great opportunities but could not convert. Buffalo had more jump that period and gained some momentum. Green did some good things offensively but he also left his team vulnerable for odd man rushes on a couple of occassions. The biggest stat of the night: 0 penalties on either team so far. Zebras Paul Devorski and Kelly Sutherland have let a lot of things that are typically called go tonight. The lack of calls is reminiscent of a pre-lockout contest. So the stage is set for another 3rd period in which Washington has the lead. We will see if they can convert. The Verizon Center crowd has been loud only a few times tonight but they need to step it up and help their squad stop this three game slide.
End of 3rd Period: Caps 1, Buffalo 0
The period started with both teams getting some quality chances with the Caps having more but Miller made some huge stops on Fleischmann and Green. Then just 3:38 into the period Ovechkin hit Patrick Kaleta as he was turning on the right wing boards and when number 36 stayed down after hitting the glass the referees doled out a five minute boarding major and game misconduct to the Great #8. That brought Verizon Center to life and they serenaded the referees with a very non-holiday like song. The penalty call and crowd noise then lit a fire under Washington and they went full boar drawing a Sabres penalty (Craig Rivet tripped Brendan Morrison) less than a minute into the Ovechkin major and when that was up the sea of red went wild helping the Caps wipe out the remaining two plus minutes of the Great #8 infraction. Varlamov then made some big saves to preserve the lead, including two sparkling ones on Derrick Roy in the slot. Washington finally struck for an insurance goal off of a face-off win as Green alertly shot the puck wide of the traffic in front of Miller, Morrison then picked it up behind the net and fed Eric Fehr alone in the slot, who put the biscuit in the basket to make it 2-0 with 6:22 remaining.
Here is my post game analysis including quotes from Alzner and Head Coach Bruce Boudreau:
This was a very entertaining game and the best combined goaltending between two teams I have seen this year in contests involving the Capitals. Varlamov was very solid plus great when he had to be and Miller was phenomenal. Washington could have easily had at least several more goals if not for the play of #30 for Buffalo.
“Yeah, Miller might not have had the flurries, but he made some unbelievable saves when we had some great chances where I thought it could have been two or three nothing at one point, before we scored the second goal, but Varly was solid, it was like he was saying “I’m not letting this happen to me again in the third period.” And you add that into the fact that they’ve had trouble scoring so I think they were squeezing their sticks a little tight and they had some chances that pucks went by them that seemed to be open. Even with the 1-0 lead tonight, I felt as comfortable as I’ve felt in that situation in a while,” commented Boudreau on the two goaltenders.
“He is unbelievable, he is one of the hardest workers, always battling. He is awesome and his record is reflecting that right now,” added Alzner on Varlamov, who is now 9-1-2 with a .922 save percentage on the season (#1 goalie).
Ovechkin (1 goal) was really good tonight and it was his best performance since returning from injury. He would have had a multiple point night if not for Miller.
“He did have a good game. He had four legitimate chances to score goals and maybe on another goalie he would have put that in. He was playing really good and responsibly and he was moving his legs, it was unfortunate [the game misconduct] happened but I think it spurred our team on too, you know, ”for once let’s come to his defense” and I thought our penalty killing in the third period was outstanding,” said Boudreau on Ovechkin’s overall game against the Sabres and the team’s penalty kill.
As for his major penalty, I thought it was a bad call and warranted a minor, at best. But Kaleta, who is known for taking dives and selling plays fell into the boards, got cut a bit, and stayed down to goad referee Sutherland into tossing the Great #8.
“I’ve watched it a half of a dozen times and he hits him in the shoulder, in the side, and Kaleta saw him coming. So it might have warranted a two minute minor and I don’t think it warranted anything more than that,” started Boudreau on the hit.
“When you cry wolf, [Kaleta] does that a lot. And he did hit his head into the glass but he was looking at him and he saw him out of his eye and Alex [hit the left shoulder], he didn’t hit the letters, he didn’t hit the numbers so I don’t anticipate anything happening. I can see where the refs get concerned because there is so much media talk about this lately,” added Boudreau when it was pointed out that Kaleta has a history of embellishing hits.
“Alex just finished his check and hit him in the shoulder, sometimes when either team has no penalties in the third period [the referees] are looking for something, I don’t know, but I didn’t think it was deserved for a five [minute major],” finished Boudreau on the Ovechkin infraction.
Backstrom, despite not scoring a point, was super tonight not only setting up scoring opportunities but also in his own zone and helping to kill the five minute major. Boudreau had no problem singling the Swede out tonight.
“He was moving his legs a lot better than he has in maybe the last six or seven games and you know he didn’t get rewarded on the score board, but what usually happens is that they get rewarded in a game or two. You could see him coming out of his little funk that he has been in. He was a leader tonight,” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winning coach on #19, who logged 21:57 of ice time, which was much more than any other Capitals forward.
The defense played outstanding Wednesday giving up only 25 shots and doing a good job of keeping the front of the net clear and clogging the passing lanes. Because all six were so good Boudreau was able to just roll his defensive pairs and clearly the return of Jurcina from injury and the Alzner call up from Hershey helped. This becomes very evident when you look at the range of ice times for the defensemen: Green (23:27), Schultz (21:41), Alzner (20:15), Jurcina (19:18), Erskine (18:41), and Pothier (17:02).
“I thought all six defensemen did a real good job and we are team that doesn’t get alot of shutouts so they had to be good,” said Boudreau on his blueliners.
Alzner, who routinely gets praise in this forum because the 5th overall pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft has a very bright present and future, drew praise from Boudreau in #27′s first NHL game of 2009-10.
“He was fabulous. He really looked in control, he didn’t look nervous, he didn’t look like a first year player, and he’s not, but when you [are playing] just your 31st NHL game, he had a tremendous amount of poise and I felt very comfortable with him out there,” said Boudreau on Alzner, who clearly stabilized the back line in a good pairing with Jurcina on Wednesday night.
Alzner was his usual accomodating and humble self after the contest.
“It was wild, I like that [intensity], it really helped and I think everyone stepped up and had to answer the bell after a couple of overtime losses and you don’t want to see that and guys worked hard so it was just fortunate for me to come up for this game,” started #27 on the third period, “Everyone knew in their heads, ”let’s do this,” we need to count on everybody to pick up a little bit of slack and a lot of us didn’t even see the hit, and [the ejection] was unfortunate but you saw alot of guys step up and play a great third period. We are pretty happy and it just goes to show that the team can do good and be successful [without Ovechkin],even though Ovie did score the game winner,” said Alzner on the third period and on playing without the Great #8.
“I was pretty happy. I stayed true to how I play my game. I made sure that if I had the opportunity to join the rush not to jump up but to just make a play and get the puck in deep. I felt confident out there and it is nice to refresh your mind to know that you can play,” started Alzner on his first game back at the NHL level, “Oh yeah, there is always a speed difference [at the NHL level] and you don’t have as much time to pull the puck back and identify all of your options and pick which one is the best, you see the first option, and hopefully it is the easy play, and you just make it. We just rolled all six D the entire game so we got a little bit of a mix [of Sabres forwards].” finished Alzner on his game and the matchups he faced.
As for the officiating, it was weird seeing no penalties for two periods and then a borderline hit get someone called for an ejection. I am sure the anti-Ovechkin fans will have a field day with this one and who knows what Don Cherry will say on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday night? Perhaps he should be critical of Kaleta for turning and not properly preparing himself for a shoulder to shoulder hit? Alzner said he noticed the change in intensity from the fans after the call and commented on the way the game was called before the Oveckhin hit.
“The fans were a little irate about [the ejection] and like you said the crowd was into it, you know a great game before Thanksgiving. I think it was nice to get a win for everybody. I was thinking about [0 penalties] towards the end there where I’ve never seen that in my life and it was pretty strange. It was unfortunate that we got the five minute because I was saying to Jose [Theodore], it is awfully strange they don’t call one when there could have been a few but the refs are doing their job, as long as they call it even. They let two fast, smooth skating teams play which is great for fans and good for tv, at least, I think. I like to watch that so it was a really good game,” finished #27 on fans and the officiating.
The Caps next game is Saturday night in Montreal. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!