After playing seven of their eight previous games on the road, the Washington Capitals came home to sold out Verizon Center and despite a sloppy second period, they managed to put five pucks past one of the best goalies in the NHL (Ryan Miller) to defeat the Buffalo Sabres, 5-2. Alexander Ovechkin (1 goal, 2 assists) and Nicklas Backstrom (2 goals) once again were the guys leading the way and their dominating first period of action was reminscent of the great third period they played in Edmonton on Saturday night when the Great #8 took over that contest to rally Washington to a win. This victory pushes the Caps to 23-8-6 and puts them 12 points in front in the Southeast Division. This was a triumph over a Sabres hockey team that leads the Northeast Division (22-11-3) and has been very tough to score against.
Let’s get right to the highlights, quotes, and analysis:
The first line was really good tonight, especially Ovechkin and Backstrom, and they made the Sabres look like orange road cones in the first period. Ovechkin, who has missed 8 games this season, now has 24 goals and 20 assists in just 29 games. If he stays healthy the rest of the season, I see no reason why he doesn’t win both the Art Ross Trophy (most points in NHL) and the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy (most goals in NHL). Whatever small injury the Great #8 was nursing recently appears to be gone because he was back hitting people the last two contests after appearing to ease up a bit for a few games. It was a big first period with Washington outshoting Buffalo 15-4 and they scored just 1:18 into the contest.
“When a team shuts you out the previous time, it is pretty important for your confidence to go out there and score a goal early. I thought we played a perfect first period and you’d like to grab that one and keep it,” said Boudreau on the quick Washington start.
It is not very often that you point out coaching in the post game wrap up, but tonight you have to give Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau a lot of credit for several things. The first great move was going back with Michael Neuvirth in goal after his strong performance in Edmonton on Saturday, but more on #30 in a minute. The second super move was calling timeout when the Caps received a 5 on 3 in the third period and they scored twice to put a close game away, but more on the power play in a minute as well. The third great coaching tactic was the game plan, which was to shoot hard and go to the net for rebounds, and Brendan Morrison’s second chance goal on the backhand with the stick between his legs will make hockey highlight reels all over the place.
“I was really happy for him and he has had some really good chances in recent games and the way he was skating in the first period, I said he is having a great game to myself and it was a pretty nifty goal. You have to see it on replay if you haven’t seen it, the one between the legs, but it is the composure that alot of guys would have just flailed away at it and he had the composure to stop it, pull it back, put it between his legs, and put it in. That is a veteran skilled player’s move,” added the 2007-08 Jack Adams award winning coach on Morrison’s first goal in 9 games.
Neuvirth (32 saves) was really good when he had to be and I can’t fault him on either Buffalo goal. The first was on a two on one break when Mike Knuble mistakenly went to the bench coming out of the penalty box instead of joining the play with the Sabres controlling the biscuit and the second was a Tim Connolly deflection in front when Jeff Schultz and Mike Green were unable to win the battle with two Sabres. Neuvirth has adjusted to NHL shooters and Boudreau mentioned he even handled the bumpy Washington ice surface alertly as well (due to an afternoon Georgetown basketball game).
“I thought he played better. He is getting better each game. I thought he made a save at the end of the second period that really kept us in and believe it or not, the save he made in the first period on the bouncing puck that bounced at the last minute, and when you’ve only faced one shot in the whole period, that was a tremendous focused save and it was about the 15 minute mark and that is a really difficult save to make,” said Boudreau on his young goalie, who has won two straight and stopped 58 of 62 shots in those contests. Boudreau continues to pick the right guy to play in goal for Washington each night, something that is not easy to do.
As for the power play, well it was 0 for 8 in the last two games and Washington did not have a single chance until Tomas Fleischmann (1 assist) drew back to back penalties to put the Caps on a :51 second five on three advantage. Boudreau called timeout and Alexander Semin made a beauty of a pass to Backstrom at the right post to make it 4-2. Then the Great #8 grabbed a centering pass that hit Brooks Laich in the slot and rifled it by Miller (33 saves) to extend the lead to 5-2 and effectively end this contest.
“I think in the past, like against Edmonton, we ended up winning, but we didn’t get the job done there and we made it interesting. Tonight was one of those times where it’s about time we figured out the five-on-three and Semin made a great play and Alex [Ovechkin] was shooting the puck, so that’s all we can ask for,” said Green (1 goal, 1 assist) on the effectiveness of the power play.
The only thing that wasn’t very good on Wednesday night was the second period and the Caps were badly outskated by the Sabres in that stanza. The first line, particularly Semin, also got a little too cute at times during those 20 minutes. #28 had several chances to score in this game but Miller has his number with Semin only tallying once in his career against the Michigan State standout.
I really liked the way the Karl Alzner-John Erskine pairing played tonight. King Karl, unfortunately, was a -1 because he jumped on the ice when Knuble mistakenly went to the bench on the Sabres first goal. Two plays stood out for me for Alzner on Wednesday that won’t make any TV highlights but coaches will take notice. The first is a play he makes getting the puck out from behind the Caps net in the first period when he has two Sabres on him. The former Canadian World Junior Championship team captain used his strength to hold off the Buffalo forwards and kicked the puck free with his skate to spring Washington for an easy breakout. Then, late in the second period he made a great keep in on the left point that led to a Caps scoring chance on one of the few good shifts Washington had that period. Alzner makes the simple play time and again and I think it is no coincidence that his d-partner typically has a good game too.
I am going to leave you with one final stat, courtesy of the Caps outstanding Media Relations department: Washington has held a lead in the second period or later in 35 of its 37 games. It has led in all but one game (its lone shutout) at some point.
Bottom line: This team is better and much more consistent than they were last year. Definitely Stanley Cup contenders, if anyone argues otherwise, tell them to go have some more Egg Nog!
Happy Holidays everyone!