Ovechkin, Backstrom lead Caps over Devils, 4-1

December 26, 2009 | Ed Frankovic

The Washington Capitals were 0-2-1 against the New Jersey Devils this season coming into Saturday night’s fourth and final 2009-10 regular season meeting and after a shaky early start, the Caps took over thanks to Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to soundly defeat Martin Brodeur and company, 4-1. Michal Neuvirth (29 saves) was very good in his third straight winning start in net and he is showing that he likely belongs in the NHL after dominating at the AHL level last season (Calder Cup Championship) and this year. This win puts the Caps back in first overall in the Eastern Conference at 24-8-6, just one point ahead of the Devils, who have two games in hand. Washington also leads the defending Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins by a point with both teams having played 38 contests. As for the Southeast Divison lead, the Capitals are in front by 14 points and there really is no reason to bring up that race any more, it is pretty much over.

Let’s get right to the highlights, quotes, and analysis:

MVP, MVP, MVP: Ovechkin (1 goal, 2 assists) was just flying all night at both ends of the ice and his centerman, the super Backstrom (1 goal, 2 assists), was outstanding as well. The early face-off win by #19 led to the opening Great #8 tally and set the stage for this victory. Then it was an excellent passing play between Ovie, Alexander Semin, and Backstrom that led to #19’s backhander that gave the Caps a 3-1 lead in the second period. That was important because they had not put up more than three goals on Brodeur all season. The Great #8 nearly had another tally if not for a super glove save by the Hall of Fame goalie on an Ovechkin breakaway. Since Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau challenged the trio going into the third period of the Edmonton game last Saturday night the Great #8 has nine points in seven periods of hockey. If Ovechkin can stay healthy the rest of the season I believe he will win both the points race (Art Ross trophy) and the goal scoring title (Rocket Richard trophy).

Semin Staying:  It was also a good night for Semin (1 assist) as he has signed a one year, $6M contract extension that keeps him with Washington through 2010-11. I have been on record as saying the Caps should try and keep him long term, if the money is right (less than $6M per season). I believe that #28 likes playing with his good friend Ovechkin and going elsewhere in the NHL is not something he wants to do. If Semin didn’t want to stay in DC I think he would choose to go back to the Russian KHL. Therefore, the risk of #28 hitting the open NHL market is a little different than say a top Canadian player, even though his agent, Mark Gandler, would never admit that. Kudos to McPhee and the Caps for getting this potential distraction taken off the docket.

“It’s great. I hope he stays as long as possible. He’s a great guy and a great teammate. It’s good for the organization to keep the top players on the team. It’s good,” said a clearly happy Ovechkin on word of #28’s contract extension.

“I am extremely happy to sign here. I like this team; I really like everything here. It’s native to me here now and I’m happy to stay,” added the immensely talented Semin.

“We discussed a number of options, but this is the way he wanted to go for now. It was fine for us because it gives us a lot of possibilities going forward.”I think he’s really comfortable here in Washington. This is a player we drafted and developed. He’s become a very, very good player and continues to improve. Hopefully this [the contract] makes him even better and doesn’t serve as a distraction anymore. He can just commit to our club and be really good moving forward,” said GM George McPhee on the one year deal with Semin.

Super goaltending: Does Boudreau know which goalie to play each night or what??!! The 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner decided to stick with Neuvirth in between the pipes and even though it irked veteran goalie Jose Theodore this morning, it clearly was the right move. Theo has a 6-14-2 career record against the Devils with a .907 save percentage so the coach sat him and #60 will get his next chance on Monday night against Carolina, a team he dominates. Theodore better start playing more consistently soon otherwise he may find himself out of the mix the way both Semyon Varlamov and Neuvirth are going. The only blemish against Neuvirth tonight was Rod Pelley’s shot in the slot that #30 should have had but Chris Clark couldn’t handle a hard Karl Alzner pass up the boards and John Erskine provided a bit of a screen. But Neuvy made several super saves and there were not many rebounds, something we’ve seen too much of from Theodore in his one and a half years in DC.

“He looked pretty solid, he’d like to have the goal back that beat him but he was giving nothing up, there were no rebounds out there, and George [McPhee] said he looked like velcro out there,” said Boudreau on his young goalie.

Face-off Superiority: One simple way to beat the Devils is to control the puck without making turnovers. Winning face-offs is step #1 to achieving that and the first goal came off of a draw. Washington overall won that battle, 32-26, on the evening. Dave Steckel was a superb 15-6 to lead the team.

Penalty Killing: The Caps held the Devils to no goals in four power play attempts. Winning defensive zone face-offs was a big key to doing that. New Jersey only had 5 shots on net in their four attempts so the Washington penalty killers did an outstanding job. The primary Caps penalty killing forwards: Steckel, Mike Knuble, Brendan Morrison, Brooks Laich, and Tomas Fleischmann all were superb in limiting opportunities for the Devils.

NJ Travel Fatigue?: The Devils traveled today due to the two day NHL break and could have played a role in their subpar performance but you still can’t take much away from Washington’s inspired effort on Saturday. New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire would have none of the travel excuse.

“Well, you look at how the game went and I feel that our puck control was not as it is usually. Special teams, we had so many power plays, I think they got more chances (on the Capitals power plays) than we did. To me, it determined the whole game. We get a goal on the power play at the start and it’s a different game. We start to believe we’re fine. We practiced at home before we left; it’s only a 45-minute flight. We got here, we got our rest. I don’t think it’s that (fatigue from travel),” said Lemaire on the Devils loss.

“You sure realize, after the teams we’ve played, taking nothing away from them, how elite this team [the Devils] was. In the first six minutes, I was going, ‘Whoa, you can’t  make a mistake at all against them.’ They are so fast, they move the puck and they work hard. I think we played a complete game. I thought early in the third period we started to sit back a little bit too much, but then we went back at them and took it to them in the last half of the third. I thought it was a great effort on our part,” finished Boudreau on the Caps victory.

Other Notes and Info: Matt Bradley had Washington’s second goal on a fluky bounce off of Mike Mottau’s stick and then Brodeur’s glove. #10 now has 7 tallies this season. Jeff Schultz took a Neuvirth stick to the face with 3:22 remaining and did not return. Defenseman Tom Poti was scratched due to a minor injury. The Caps will practice at 11am on Sunday at Kettler IcePlex. In the World Junior Championship opening games today Canada beat Latvia 16-0 (yes, you read that correctly) with Caps prospect Stefan Della Rovere adding two assists, Team USA defeated Slovakia 7-3 with 2008 Caps 1st round draft pick John Carlson adding a goal and an assist, and Sweden crushed the Czech Republic, 10-1, with 2009 Caps first round pick Marcus Johansson adding an assist. In Hershey tonight, Braden Holtby had another strong outing stopping 33 shots and Mathieu Perreault notched two goals and an assist in a 4-1 Bears victory over Syracuse.