Good things usually happen in Chocolatetown and Sunday was no exception. First, the Hershey Bears knocked off the Charlotte Checkers, 6-3, in an early evening tilt and then following the Capitals organization victory at the AHL level, forward Mathieu Perreault, who is up with the Caps on recall from Hershey, tallied twice, including the game winner in period two. Washington would play solid defense the final 30 minutes and get stellar goaltending from Michal Neuvirth (24 saves) en route to a 3-2 win that ended their eight game losing streak, one that seemed to last an eternity. Having attended the game in Hershey and then viewing the Capitals losing streak ending tilt on DVR, tonight’s post will be a two blogs in one holiday special!
Let’s start with the highlights and analysis from a HUGE victory for the Capitals.
– As Drew Forrester of WNST tweeted (@wnst) after the win, December W’s aren’t usually huge, but this one just may have saved Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau’s job. For now, the only one who really knows if that was true or not is General Manager George McPhee. This victory was very significant because the Caps fell into an early hole, something they have been unable to recover from in this losing streak, and they protected a one goal lead over the entire final 30 minutes, a feat they have been accused of being unable to do because of their playing style. In addition, Boudreau made some super coaching decisions in this one. First, he came right back with Neuvirth in net after #30 gave up at least one softy in the loss to Boston on Saturday. Second, he stuck with a new line combination that worked in the third period of the Boston game – the unit of Eric Fehr, Alexander Ovechkin, and Nicklas Backstrom. Finally, he re-inserted center Perreault into the lineup after #85 missed Saturday’s contest with the flu and put him with Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich. That 21-85-22 line was the best one on the ice for the Capitals on Sunday night and it gave Boudreau another unit, along with the top line, to give the Senators fits. Washington has struggled to get two lines creating offensive opportunities lately and the injury to Alexander Semin, who missed his third straight game, wasn’t helping. As a result of these moves and the hard work of the Capitals, who were on the later half of back to back road games in consecutive nights, the long losing streak is history.
– This contest did not start well for Washington but despite being down 2-0 after the first 20 minutes, they were not nearly as bad as they were in period one in Boston on Saturday night. The Caps came out strong on their initial shifts and Fehr had a good early chance but he couldn’t convert. Then Ottawa took over and they tallied when a Neuvirth giveaway behind the cage came after a miscommunication with defensemen John Erskine just 7:21 into the contest. It was a fortunate turn of events for the Sens and they were lucky again on their second marker. Ottawa scored on the ensuing rush after forward Marcus Johansson was tripped with no call in the offensive zone. The fortuitous no call was compounded by both Mike Green and Scott Hannan getting outworked in front of their own net and Chris Kelly had a tap in to make it 2-0 just 14 minutes in. Fehr would then score just a second after the first period horn sounded and at that point, with the way things were continuing to bounce badly for the Caps, it looked like loss number nine for Washington was going to hit the books.
– However, the Perreault, Laich, and Knuble line, which nearly scored two or three times in period one, came out with incredible energy to start the middle frame. Skating out of the Caps zone on their first shift, Knuble raced across the ice to gather in a loose puck. #22 skated down the left wing boards, fed the biscuit to Laich in the slot, where it rolled right to #85 on the doorstep, and he slammed it home just 34 seconds into period two. Only 46 seconds later Backstrom forced Sens d-man Chris Phillips to retreat in his own corner and then Ovechkin jarred the puck free from #4. The Great #8 would quickly feed #16 at the right post and he tapped it home short side. That was two quick goals and suddenly the Washington bench had life it hadn’t seen in nearly two weeks.
– The momentum would continue as Karl Alzner drew a penalty and on that power play Washington nearly scored with Laich just deflecting Ovechkin’s blast wide. The Caps would fail to tally on that man advantage but then John Carlson drew another penalty with a super rush up the ice when Milan Michalek slashed #74. The start of the ensuing power play was a little scary as Laich took a vicious slapper from Green up high. But alls well that ends well and Perreault tallied in front again making it three goals as a result of strong net presence. Tom Poti fired the puck on net and with Hershey recall Andrew Gordon running traffic in front, Ottawa goalie Brian Elliott mistakenly paddled the puck right to Fehr in the slot. #16 backhanded it on net and it rolled to “Johnny on the Spot” #85 for the tap in at the 6:55 mark. Thus the eventual game winner was on the board before the game was even halfway over.
– The decision to come back with Neuvirth, when most people thought Semyon Varlamov would get the call was an interesting one, but #30 delivered for his head coach. “Neuvy” did not give up any bad goals although his poor stickhandling led to the first Senators tally and with the Caps up 3-2 in period two his misplay of the puck resulted in another good chance for the Sens. But overall the two time AHL Calder Cup winning goalie made all of the big saves he had to make when the Caps were shorthanded and down the stretch.
– The Caps best defensive pair was once again the Carlson-Alzner duo. It is hard to believe that these two are only 20 and 21 years old, respectively, because they played over 17 minutes together without really giving up more than one or two quality chances. Both were +1 on the night and were excellent at clearing their own zone and getting the puck going the other way.
– Ovechkin only had an assist but he was +1 and did a lot of little things that add up on the ledger to help produce a victory. The Great #8 set up the 2nd Caps tally and he drew two penalties in the third period, including a big one after a strong defensive play with 16.5 seconds to seal the victory. His passing continues to impress and he fed Matt Bradley in front at the end of one power play but Elliott would deny #10. Ovechkin had only two shots on goal but they both came in the final minutes. He had a semi breakaway around the four minute mark and his other shot on net was on the final power play in the waning seconds. One would have to think that some time soon he will break out of his goal scoring slump because he is still getting some prime chances. This week would be a good time to start.
– I mentioned the sloppy play early on by Washington and one thing the Caps needed to improve on was getting the puck to the player furthest up the ice on the rush so that they could enter the offensive zone with more speed. Too often the puck carrier was not leading the play and the forwards ahead of him were having to stop and wait at the blue line. That gives the defense a huge advantage. This was more noticeable on the power play where the Caps puck carriers should either feed it to the forward in front, who then should get it across the blue line and then give it back to the player coming with speed, or they should simply dump the puck in deep so the other forwards have the speed to beat the defense to it. After the first period Washington did a much better job on this important facet of hockey. As a result they carried the play and rallied for the victory.
Caps Notes: The Capitals outshot Ottawa 34-26 and won the face-off battle, 35-30. Backstrom was a dominating 18-9…the Caps won the special teams battle thwarting all five Senators power plays (including three in the final 20 minutes) while the Washington power play connected once in five tries…the PK unit was bolstered by many defensive zone face-off wins (Dave Steckel and Backstrom) and the outstanding play of Laich down the stretch (made some great plays to break up passes and clear the zone)…Johansson also contributed well in shorthanded situations and he had a strong game despite losing six of eight draws…the Caps are back in first place in the Southeast Division since the Atlanta Thrashers and Tampa Bay Lightning did not play on Sunday night…next up for the Caps are the New Jersey Devils at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night.
Now here is the recap of the Hershey Bears victory from Senior Manager of Communications, John Walton (also the Bears radio voice), followed by my analysis of the win:
The BEARS head into the holiday break after a 6-3 win over the Charlotte Checkers Sunday at the Giant Center. The win enabled the BEARS to close the game on the idle Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to 11.
HERSHEY opened the scoring with a pair of first period goals from Brian Willsie and Kyle Greentree, jumping out to a 2-0 lead after one. Willsie’s goal was a one-timer from the slot for his 12th of the season, which was quickly followed by Greentree’s 11th of the campaign. Brian Fahey earned assists on both lamp-lighters, and the Chocolate and White led by a pair after 20 minutes.
The BEARS would strike two more times in the second period, with Brian Fahey and Keith Aucoin scoring to give the home team a 4-1 lead after two. Aucoin’s goal, his first since October 31, was the 200th of his AHL career. Fahey scored his third at 8:39, a goal disputed by Charlotte goaltender Justin Pogge. Pogge was given a game misconduct for abuse of officials, putting backup goaltender Mike Murphy into the game. Aucoin would add his second of the game and seventh of the season at 9:50 of the third period, and Boyd Kane rounded out the scoring with his 10th of the season with just 51 seconds left in regulation. HERSHEY won for the 17th time this season, and moved within three points of the third place Checkers in the East Division standings. Fahey was named the game’s number one star of the game, scoring a goal and assisting on two others.
– Goalie Dany Sabourin stopped 36 shots, some of which were of the outstanding variety. Early on with no score in the tilt he faced a 2 on 1 break and made a super stop while sliding to his right. If he lets that one in Charlotte may have gained early momentum, something they couldn’t muster until the latter stages of this tilt. Then with the Checkers pressing early in the third period, he robbed captain Bryan Rodney with a sliding left pad save. My only criticism of #35 was on the first Charlotte tally. I thought that he was too tight on the right post and as a result Chris Terry, who skated down on a 3 on 2 rush, was able to beat him far post from a non-prime scoring angle.
– The line of Willsie, Greentree, and Francois Bouchard was dominant, especially early on. Willsie and Greentree each had two points and a quick whistle robbed Greentree of a second goal in the middle frame. Aucoin and Steve Pinizzotto had nice chemistry going as well and #13 helped set up #11’s tally from behind the cage, which he banked in off of Murphy. That goal made it 5-2 and pretty much sealed the deal.
– Fahey earned the number one star and he was the Bears best d-man. It was good to see defenseman Patrick McNeill (2 assists, +1), who recently returned to the lineup after off-season shoulder surgery, have a solid outing as well. Zach Miskovic and Lawrence Nycholat formed a good second d-pair and were both +1. Sean Collins and Patrick Wellar rounded out the defensive lineup and both finished -2.
– Two other things of notice: Trevor Bruess did a nice job of going to the net and it was his screen on Fahey’s tally that started Pogge’s meltdown that led to his ejection. Dmitri Kurgyshev showed some flashes of outstanding skill but then there were times he was very easily physically taken off of the puck. Simply put, #15 needs to get bigger and stronger.
Bears Notes: Special teams were key for Hershey as they went 2 for 5 on the power play while killing off all six extra man opportunities for Charlotte…the Bears are off until next Sunday when they host the Norfolk Admirals at the Giant Center at 5 pm.