During the Capitals-Penguins game back on December 23rd at the Verizon Center, Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma was captured on camera by HBO in their superb 24/7 series as saying that Michal Neuvirth was “shaky.” Well Bylsma’s crew may have won that contest, 3-2, in an extended shootout, but as they say, revenge is a dish best served cold. On Super Bowl Sunday at a sold out and rowdy Verizon Center, Neuvirth (22 saves) and his teammates ICED the Pittsburgh Penguins, 3-0, in the second straight strong team performance from the Caps. Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson (shorthanded), and Mike Knuble (empty net goal) scored for Washington, who improved to 29-15-10 (68 points) and remain three points behind the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast Division race. The Caps are a comfortable 10 points ahead of the ninth place Atlanta Thrashers in the Eastern Conference standings and they have a game in hand on Atlanta. The top eight teams in each conference qualify for the postseason.
Below are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from the Caps eighth straight victory on Super Bowl Sunday at the Verizon Center (Washington is 14-3-1 since 1988 on the NFL’s biggest day):
– It was important for Washington to follow up a 60 minute Friday night winning effort in Tampa with another strong showing. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau received all of that in this contest’s first 30 minutes as Washington raced out to a 2-0 lead and held a dominating 17-8 advantage on the shots board. For the next 14 plus minutes the Capitals would skate hard and deliver a strong effort, however, their hockey IQ was not good at all. Time after time during that stretch Washington had opportunities for quality chances yet they continued to over pass the puck and failed to get off any good shots on Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury (21 saves). In fact, from the 9:55 mark of the second period until 4:24 into period three the Caps did not register a single shot on goal. Nicklas Backstrom tried forcing a pass on a two on one rush and Boyd Gordon attempted to pass the biscuit across the slot when he was all alone on #29 were two specific examples of numerous instances during that stretch when a shot on net may have led to a three goal lead. Boudreau’s crew seemed to forget, like they did when up 2-0 on Montreal on Tuesday evening, that the simple hockey strategy of getting pucks deep and to the net were what gave them the lead in those games. Afterwards, Washington defenseman Karl Alzner talked about what the Caps did so well to get the two goal margin and then agreed that the club lost its focus for that shotless stretch before regrouping.
“I think it was just sticking to the system, we did everything the way we wanted to do it. We got pucks in, we didn’t have many turnovers at the offensive blue line, defensive blue line, and that’s what we need every single game. That’s two games back to back where we stuck to everything the coaches told us to do and we got good results,” said #27 on what is driving the team’s recent success.
“We started taking the foot off of the gas a little and they put on a bit of a push. When you have a lead sometimes the tendency is to make nice plays to try to get more points and more goals on the board and that is what was happening. We came back after the intermission and we’ve got a lot of guys who are thinking the right way now, just kind of focus back in together and turn it up again,” added Alzner when asked what happened during the last 10 minutes of the second period.
– Neuvirth, who found out on Saturday night that he possibly would be starting with Semyon Varlamov feeling sick, was poised in the cage and did a super job of not giving up juicy rebounds and he froze the puck when the Capitals occassionally started scrambling around in their own zone. He didn’t have to be spectacular because his teammates were willing to sacrifice their bodies to block shots but #30 was clearly determined to make Bylsma regret his in game comments from that pre-Christmas tilt.
“Of course. I watched every episode (of HBO’s 24/7), but this is hockey. It didn’t really bother me. But now I’m really happy that I shut them down. It’s even better for me right now. Before the game, I remembered when he said that and I kind of looked at him during the warm up and told myself that I got to shut these guys out tonight,” responsed the rookie goalie, who earned his second shutout of the season and NHL career, when asked about Bylsma’s 24/7 captured comments.
– The Caps did right the ship during those last 15 minutes of period three by getting back to dumping the puck deep and forcing a depleted Pittsburgh squad, that was without Sidney Crosby (concussion) and likely Evgeni Malkin for the season (torn ACL and MCL in his knee), to try and go through all five Capitals to score. Washington, who was also missing Alexander Semin, Eric Fehr, and Tom Poti, plus lost top defensemen Mike Green for the last two periods due to a shot that hit him near the ear and required stitches, played their defensive system superbly and when guys like superstar Alexander Ovechkin are laying out on the ice to block slappers from the point, you know the team is committed to winning at all costs.
“It’s all about commitment. It’s a commitment to winning. You block shots, one of your teammates goes down, another one picks it up,” commented Boudreau on the excellent defensive effort.
– Washington’s power play, which went 0 for 4, did have several good chances to score on Sunday as the Capitals did a decent job of getting the puck between the dots at the top of the point and blasting away. Ovechkin had a few slappers that made their way to the cage and the Caps just missed banging home rebounds from in front. The Capitals had registered man advantage markers in their two previous games and Boudreau felt that this unit was good once again on Sunday.
“I thought we could have had three or four. Sometimes you just don’t get it in and you are playing against the league’s best penalty killing team. But we had good chances and bottom line there is Fleury made some great saves there in the end to keep it at two,” said Boudreau on his power play unit.
“It’s really tough, guys they sacrifice their bodies all of the time now. They block absolutely everything. So it’s difficult. That is why we are trying to move the puck, spread it out as much as we can and get shots. Nobody likes when we don’t shoot the puck, we can hear that, but sometimes you just can’t do it. You have to shoot it off to the side of the net there or make plays. It doesn’t always work out but you do what you can,” added Alzner when asked about the difficulty in today’s NHL of getting off center point blasts with the man advantage.
– There were no penalties called in the first period and with the majority of the action in the Caps offensive zone it was clear that referee Dave Jackson was going to let the teams play in front of him. I was fine with that and I imagine the players and coaches did as well. As for the other zebra, Paul Devorski, one of the worst officials in the league still needs to buy a clue. Specifically, the man who allowed the Flyers to score their first goal in game seven of their 2008 playoff series against Washington because Philly ran Caps goalie Cristobal Huet, still has no idea on how to properly call goaltender interference. On Sunday, Matt Hendricks was shoved into Fleury while Knuble appeared to score the Capitals second goal and #10, instead of waving the goal off due to coincidental contact with the net minder and calling for a faceoff, said no goal and also assessed #26 with a two minute minor for goalie interference. It was a terrible interpretation of the rules, but fortunately for Washington they scored shorthanded on Johansson’s screened backhander with just five ticks left in the Penguins man advantage. Devorski also only assesed Pittsburgh cheap shot artist Matt Cooke a two minute minor when he delivered an ugly knee to knee hit on Ovechkin late in the contest. The Great #8 was luckily okay but one can’t help but wonder how Cooke, who has a history of dirty play, escaped a major and what should be a suspension? After all, Ovechkin received a five minute major, game misconduct, and then a two game suspension for a similar play in Carolina last season.
“I’m never going to say anything bad about an official. They are watching from their own eyes, they are seeing what they are seeing and they are making calls that they think are right. I am not always going to agree with them, on the same point, but I didn’t feel like I purposely went into the goaltender, I felt like I was pushed from behind. I don’t think I was in the blue. I think Fleury was out quite a bit out of his crease. That’s the game I play, the style I play, those things are going to happen. It’s tough when we score a goal too,” said Hendricks on the goalie interference infraction he was incorrectly assessed.
“It’s Matt Cooke, okay, need we say more. It’s not like it’s his first rodeo, he’s done it to everybody and then he goes to the ref and says ‘What did I do?’ He knows damn well what he did. There is no doubt in my mind that he’s good at it and he knows how to do it and he knows how to pick this stuff. We as a league still buy into this, that ‘Oh, it still was an accidental thing’,” said Boudreau on the dirty play by #24 against his former teammate, Ovechkin.
Notes: Despite the fact that everyone who knows anything about hockey and Dave Steckel realizes that the contact he had with Crosby on New Years Day was incidental, Penguins forward Tim Wallace tried to make a name for himself by challenging #39 to a 3rd period fight, which Steckel obliged…the Capitals dominated the Pens from the dot winning 32 of 49 draws. Backstrom was a sensational 14-3…Johansson and Mathieu Perreault, two young small centermen, have had back to back strong contests but Boudreau has often commented that he’s seen flashes of this before and wants consistency from the pair. He also mentioned today that MJ90 has had to deal with numerous differences in the NHL game and he pointed out that in the Swedish league that Marcus played in last season skaters aren’t even allowed to use their feet to win a faceoff…Green was dressed and doing interviews after the victory but I suspect the area where he took the puck will swell and it might be wise to sit him out until he is totally healthy. “He’s day-to-day. He’s got a little bit of a headache right now. You get hit in the head with a puck and you’re gonna have a headache. We’ll reevaluate him tomorrow,” added Boudreau….the Caps killed off both Penguins power plays and are still ranked 2nd in the NHL on the PK (86.3%)…Boudreau improved to 10-1-3 in his tenure against the Penguins and the Capitals are 9-0-2 in the last 11 regular season meetings versus Pittsburgh…Semin is expected to play in Washington’s next game against San Jose at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night. #28 hasn’t played since early January.