The Washington Capitals shut the critics up tonight. It is as simple as that. For several weeks all this Capitals team has heard was they are underachievers and were no match for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who started this whole build up to the Winter Classic with a twelve game winning streak while the Caps were mired in an eight game skid that was brought on due to injuries, illnesses, and a system change. But when the HBO cameras close down Saturday night and the 24/7 show airs its final episode on Wednesday at 10pm the Capitals will have finished on a 5-0-1 tear and only two points behind the Penguins for first place in the Eastern Conference. How is that for irony?
This 3-1 victory, in the rain in a city that was apparently overrun with tens of thousands of Caps fans, was as big as they come in the regular season and Washington is now 23-12-5 overall (51 points) while the Penguins, despite all of the hype and accolades, are only 25-12-3 (53 points).
Here is my analysis on the huge win, the Caps 6th straight regular season victory in Pittsburgh:
– Semyon Varlamov was outstanding in net and has now won three games in a row. Varly stopped 32 of 33 shots and as I’ve blogged many times, when healthy he is the Caps #1 goalie. But Michal Neuvirth is a very good goalie too and as I’ve also written numerous times, goaltending is not a problem at all for this club. Varly proved that he could play in the clutch in that 2009 playoff run that ended in a game seven loss to the Pens in round two and tonight he showed how good he is once again. His only issue continues to be durability.
– After the Caps victory over Montreal on Tuesday night, I caught up with Eric Fehr as I left the locker room and he told me he felt as healthy as he’s felt in a long time. Last year when he told me that in early November he went on a goal scoring tear. Tonight he was outstanding and notched two goals playing with Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera. Could this be a turning point for #16? That line, when put together by Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, seems to gel because of the speed of #90 and #25, and tonight they were the Capitals best unit.
– I can’t say enough about the Capitals young defensive pair of John Carlson and Karl Alzner. The two played 26:28 and 24:45, respectively, leading the team in time on ice. You think their head coach has confidence in them? As #74 said afterwards on NBC, he and King Karl weren’t happy with allowing Sidney Crosby two points in last Thursday’s shootout loss at the Verizon Center. Tonight the duo shut down the NHL’s leading scorer and #87 didn’t have too many scoring chances unlike Alexander Ovechkin, who had numerous quality attempts and also had a goal wiped out due to what the zebras deemed incidental contact with Marc-Andre Fleury. Washington’s defense was better on day one with both Carlson and Alzner up to start the season and the addition of Scott Hannan gives GM George McPhee and Boudreau the most solid blue line they have had in years.
– Boudreau commented afterwards that he had spoken with McPhee earlier in the day and they decided that the best strategy was to play a simple, grind it out game given the ice conditions. The players got the message and they routinely sent the pucks deep and made the Penguins have to turn their backs to play the biscuit. Clearly it worked with the game’s turning play being Fleury’s misplay of the puck behind the cage that Johansson then centered to Fehr for the eventual game winner. But for those who have watched the Caps lately, a recent similar pattern occurred once Washington took a lead into the third period: they backed off on the aggressive forechecking and set up a neutral zone wall that continues to frustrate the opposition. In fact, the Capitals actually started doing this in the last couple of minutes in period two. The strategy is working, although the Pens came out really strong early in period three. The Caps are still working on implementing this system change, but the early returns are very good and to quote Boudreau, “gives them another tool in the toolbox” to use.
– The Caps scored a power play goal! The Caps scored a power play goal! Mike Knuble’s rebound conversion from the doorstep was exactly what Washington needed when trailing by a goal (Evgeni Malkin opened the scoring for Pittsburgh). On the night the Caps went 1 for 2 with the man advantage while they killed off all four Penguins power plays so special teams made a big difference once again for the Capitals.
– In summary, this was a great win and those that have stood by their Capitals club through the adversity should feel proud of how this Winter Classic sequence has turned out. The Caps are a much better hockey team then they were a month ago. The critics will continue to point to the past playoff failures but if Washington keeps working and builds on the system change and more defensive posture, the organization might finally have a post season reward that will silence the detractors once and for all.
Notes: The faceoff battle was even at 33 all. Nicklas Backstrom was 10-6 to lead Washington…Olie Kolzig commented afterwards that the key for Varly is to keep his groin healthy, which is tougher given the way he plays with the butterfly. Kolzig, to me, was the shining star of the NHL Network coverage over the weekend…Washington has no time to celebrate though as they have a huge tilt with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday at the Verizon Center. Steve Stamkos and company have been red hot and going back and forth with the Caps for the Southeast Division lead. They also made a big attempt to improve their weak goaltending today by trading for former Islanders net minder Dwayne Roloson.