Antero Niittymaki stopped 28 shots on Friday night at the Verizon Center to lead the Tampa Bay Lightning to a 3-2 victory over the Caps, who finished this five game homestand at 3-1-1. For the most part, the Capitals did not work hard against a Bolts team that is fighting for their playoff lives, and therefore they came out on the short end of the stick in this contest. The loss drops the Caps to 45-14-9 (99 points) and it was the first time they’ve lost at home in regulation in 2010. The Capitals still have a 14 point lead in the Eastern Conference standings since the Pittsburgh Penguins were defeated for the fifth time in five tries this season against Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils. The Pens have scored just three goals in those five contests so clearly they will want to avoid a potential playoff matchup with New Jersey. Sidney Crosby did score his 45th goal of the season to take the lead, by one, over Alexander Ovechkin in the race for the Rocket Richard trophy. Ovechkin had assists on both Caps goals versus Tampa.
Coming into Friday evening’s game against the Caps, Tampa Bay goalie Antero Niittymaki was 4-0 in his last four outings vs. Washington and #30 did it once again to DC on this night. The net minder held the fort for the Bolts over the first 30 minutes while the Caps fired shot after shot on him, including 12 straight to start the second period. However, all Washington could garner to that point was a Tomas Fleischmann power play one-timer off of a super Ovechkin feed at 16:54 of the opening period. It was the sixth straight game that the Caps opened the scoring.
After Tampa tied it late in the first period (Brandon Bochenski snapper inside the far post), the Caps put on the heat to start the middle stanza but could not score. Then the tide turned after a lazy play by Alexander Semin that gave the Bolts an offensive zone face-off. #28, instead of taking one more stride to get to the red line, shot the puck into the Lightning zone before hitting the mid stripe forcing a tired Washington crew to take a d-zone draw. Nate Thompson won the face-off to Stephane Veilleux and he sent it back to defenseman Matt Walker. Walker’s point blast then deflected off of the skate of Brooks Laich and up past Semyon Varlamov (24 saves), who was down in the butterfly position. The tally gave Tampa life and they started to dominate play for the rest of the period. Less than 4 minutes later another Walker point shot hit off of the elbow of Vincent Lecavalier, who was working hard to get to the front of the net, and it went by Varlamov to make it 3-1. The officials initially waved the goal off, they thought it hit a high stick, but a video review correctly reversed the call on the ice. Washington would add a power play marker by Laich with 8:51 remaining in the contest but despite having the puck most of the way down the stretch they didn’t battle hard enough in front of the Tampa goalie to get a good chance at an equalizer.
“It was probably the best road game we played all year. Not just because we beat Washington. The overall game. They came pretty hard beginning of the second period, first ten minutes, but other than that we were in total control the whole time. Guys played hard. They got two nice power-play goals, but they’ve got all those guys out there, so it’s going to happen. We didn’t get rattled. We played a really good game,” said the Finnish net minder, who the Caps will likely see in Tampa next Saturday night.
Here are my thoughts, analysis, and some quotes from a game that was not very entertaining to watch:
Ovechkin had 1 shot on goal and only two hits. He did have two power play assists but at even strength his line could not get going prompting Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau to move Semin up to replace Mike Knuble in the latter half of this contest. Lightning coach Rick Tocchet credited defenseman Mike Lundin with shutting down the Great #8 but Ovie just didn’t seem his usual self on Friday either.
“He did a really nice job. [Alex] Ovechkin’s the best player in the world. You’ve got [to] play on your toes against him. You can’t play on your heels. Lunds [Lundin] was gapping up well with him. Give Lunds [Lundin] lots of credit. He did a nice job,” said Tocchet on the play of his 6-2, 197 lbs d-man.
The line-up shuffling continued on Friday in an attempt for Boudreau to get everyone game ready for the post season and this iteration resulted in two of the top six Washington defensemen sitting in the press box in Jeff Schultz and John Carlson. Seventh on the depth chart, in my opinion, is in Hershey (Karl Alzner) so John Erskine and Tyler Sloan got some action and neither was very good. Yes, they could use rust as an excuse but it is clear there is a drop off in ability with #4 and #89 compared to the rest of the blue line crew. In addition, Boyd Gordon and Eric Belanger were scratched up front, along with the other standard forward scratch, Quintin Laing. Boudreau said after the game that he has no idea when the shuffling will stop but given that the playoffs are still a month away it does not make sense to have the same five guys sit every game.
Varlamov took the loss in net but the only goal you could conceivably blame on him was the first, and even I won’t go there. The first tally was on a 2 on 1 break as Mike Green got caught at the red line before Varly was beaten on a nice shot by Bochenski. Some will argue he should have come out and challenged more but #40 had to wait to figure out what his lone defenseman, Shaone Morrisonn, was going to do on the play: cut off the pass or take the shooter. #26 was a little hesitant with his decision forcing Varly to hang back a hair too long. But let’s be real, the culprit on goal number one was Green. As mentioned above the second and third goals were both deflections from guys in front of the Caps goalie so putting the loss on #40 seems rather ridiculous to me and the head coach confirmed it afterwards.
“You want to blame that one on the goalie? Come on?!…We got outworked,” finished Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau.
Outworked is correct and that was the reason Washington lost, plain and simple. Next up for the Capitals are the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday at the United Center at 1230pm on NBC. This should be a good one, except for the commentary from Mike Milbury.
Notes: Forward Eric Fehr had his legs taken out from under him in the second period and he was helped down the tunnel to the dressing room but he later returned, although he didn’t have the same jump he had before that play occurred (and the referees missed a penalty there too). The Caps won the face-off battle, 32-18. Washington was 2 for 4 on the power play while the Bolts failed on their only attempt. Tampa is in 10th place in the East, four points behind 8th place Boston and one point in back of the 9th place Rangers. Tampa forward Steven Stamkos, who has 42 goals and is right on the heels of Crosby and Ovechkin, was held without a point for the first time in 18 contests.