Caps Beat Sabres 4-2
Buffalo, which was the site of the Washington Capitals worst game of the season when they were buried, 5-0, back on November 1st, has historically not been a friendly place for the Caps franchise but tonight they “exercised some demons” to steal a quote from Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau as they knocked off the Sabres, 4-2, to run their winning streak to four games. The Caps played a very strong road game by shooting the puck and going to the net for rebounds and goalie Jose Theodore stopped 31 shots for his fourth straight win and he has been rock solid the last 11 periods since giving up three goals in the first period in New York on December 23rd.
Nicklas Backstrom was the game’s number one star, and deservedly so, with a goal and an assist and he continues to excel as Washington’s top center and one of the best in the entire NHL. Backstrom now has 42 points on the season and remains such a key player on this talented team.
The Caps scored the first goal of the game on a super passing play that had the puck moving rapidly at all times. It started with it going from point to point between Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin after which the Great #8 one timed a pass to Viktor Kozlov in the slot, who then one time passed it quickly to the right circle where Backstrom fired it off the pads of Sabres goalie Ryan Miller where Brooks Laich was standing right in front of the goalie and he backhanded it home for his 11th tally of the season. The power play goal was a thing of beauty and Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, as well as any hockey coach, could use that video clip as the proper way to execute on a power play.
Washington’s second goal was Chris Bourque’s first of the season and first in his NHL career (this was only his 9th NHL game) and it came off of a big rebound from a Dave Steckel blast that Miller let go up the slot and #56 was in perfect position to bang it home. Bourque, who played on a line with Steckel and Eric Fehr, really needed a goal to help his confidence and also to back up the words of his coach who commented “he can play in this league” earlier in the season. The line of Steckel, Bourque, and Fehr was put together by Boudreau primarily because of the success the three of them had together in Hershey in seasons past and they had a very good game and generated a lot of energy.
As for Theodore, he got a third straight “A” grade from me, and in the first period he made a huge pad save on Jason Pominville, who sent a hard backhand shot on net as he sped in shorthanded on the goalie with Backstrom trying to catch him. Theo also later made a good save on Paul Gausted, who was all alone at the side of the net, and Jose stuck out his pad to shut him down.
In the second period Buffalo came out flying early and Tomas Vanek split defensemen Jeff Shultz and Green drawing a hook from Schultz that led to a Sabre power play. Clarke McArthur then beat Theodore but the puck rang off of the post and the Caps were able to kill the rest of the Sabres man advantage. Midway through the period the Caps power play then clicked again as Ovechkin came flying into the offensive zone, then hit the breaks and dished the puck back to Green, who blasted it on net and Miller once again gave up a big rebound that went to Kozlov in the left wing circle, and #25 then passed it to Backstrom who buried it into the goal for a 3-0 Washington lead with just under eight minutes left in the second period.
Ovechkin, who had four shots on goal tonight, would go pointless on the evening but he had the third assist on the first and third Caps goals (but they don’t give you credit for third assists). His best goal scoring chance of the game came after a Chris Clark elbow put the Caps down a man in the second period. On that penalty kill the Great #8 had a shorthanded breakaway when Laich hit the ice to block another shot and spring Alexander the Great but Miller came up big on Ovechkin denying him in an attempt for his first shorthanded goal of the season.
Theodore then was at his best early in the third period on Ales Kotalik who was all alone in front for a lay up but #60 flashed his pad to deny the Sabre a goal. He then made a good save on a Toni Lydman point drive and just 22 seconds later came up huge on Nathan Gerbe in close, who like Bourque was also seeking his first NHL goal.
A Washington shutout went out the window at the 12:19 mark when they suffered a major defensive breakdown. Green stepped up in the neutral zone to mistakenly try and make a play and then Schultz compounded Green’s error by vacating the center of the ice to chase Gausted, which allowed Adam Mair to gather in Gausted’s pass and skate in all alone and beat Theodore to the top shelf on the backhand.
Any chance of a Sabres comeback was pretty much over after that as Washington did a great job of finishing their checks and making the smart plays for the next 10 plus minutes. Shaone Morrisonn did take a late penalty at 18:53 but shortly thereafter Boyd Gordon picked up the puck behind his own net and while skating out of the zone on the right wing boards he shot it almost the length of the ice into the empty net to finish the win for the Caps. Buffalo would add a power play goal with 10 seconds left but all it did was pad the stats.
This win gave the Caps an 11-3 record in December despite several key injuries and overall they are now 24-11-3 for 51 points. The only other time the Capitals had over 50 points before New Years Day was in 1991-92 when they hit that mark on December 29th. As I mentioned in my Eastern Conference preview this Caps team has the highest expectations on it since that club and so far the 2008-09 squad has more than delivered. The Caps now have a 12 point lead on the second place Carolina Hurricanes in the Southeast Divison and are second in the Eastern Conference standings, nine points behind the Boston Bruins (who have won nine straight games after being beat by the Caps) and two points ahead of the New York Rangers, who they face at the Verizon Center on Saturday night.
Washington now has a four game home stand and will play the Lightning on New Year’s Night, the Rangers on Saturday, then the hated Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday, January 6th (WNST Puck Bus TICKETS STILL AVAILABLE!), and finally close it out with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday, January 9th. The Caps are 15-1-1 at the Verizon Center this season.
Notes: Defensemen Karl Alzner missed the game due to a right hand injury and Tyler Sloan played in his place. Washington did not do well on face-offs tonight losing 31 of 55 draws. Buffalo had 16 shots in the third period and out shot the Caps 33-31 for the game. Ovechkin’s grandfather, a man who played a very big role in Alex’s life, reportedly passed away this past weekend so our condolences go out to the entire Ovechkin family.
Before turning your televison over for New Years Eve celebrations hockey fans can tune to the NHL Network at 730pm to watch the USA play Canada in the World Junior Hockey Championship in Ottawa and view some of the NHL’s future stars. Canada is favored to win its fifth straight title but USA has an experienced and big team that is hoping to upset the apple cart in this tournament.
Last year the NHL held the Winter Classic in Buffalo on New Years Day and the Penguins-Sabres game delivered great ratings on NBC as Sydney Crosby scored in a shootout to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 win in the snow. This year the game is in Wrigley Field pitting the Chicago Blackhawks against the Detroit Red Wings. Both teams are very good and the ratings should be even higher this year because the state of Michigan will be watching the contest this time whereas last year many tubes in that state were tuned in to the Florida-Michigan bowl game. Detroit beat the Blackhawks, 4-0, Tuesday night in Detroit at Joe Louis Arena to set up Thursday’s rematch, which is at 1pm on NBC.