Friday night at the Verizon Center certainly lived up to its billing as the Caps began the night by accepting the Presidents’ Trophy from NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and then they proceeded to go out and rack up some individual milestones en route to a 5-2 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers. We’ll get to all of the neat 2009-10 player statistics in a minute, but for the Caps franchise this was an historic evening because for the first time in club history their overall record is above .500! Yes, it is true, Alexander Ovechkin and company along with some great squads from the 1980’s have finally teamed up to erase a pitiful first eight years of existence of Capitals hockey (the club was 212 games under .500 during that span) to push Washington’s overall record to 1,215-1,214-303-71. Believe me, there were times when I never thought this organization, who have their best shot ever at their first Stanley Cup this spring, would make up for some seasons where on many nights the goal of the team seemed to be to just get the puck out of their own end.
Things are clearly different in Caps land now, as evidenced by victory after victory and sell out after sell out at the Phone Booth (this was the 47th straight regular season sellout and 55th in succession including playoffs). Washington hit 120 points on the evening (54-15-12) and swept the Thrashers (6-0) in the season series. The Caps also improved to 30-5-5 at home and tied the team record for home wins, set in 1985-86. In addition, only 7 other teams have posted 120 point seasons (Montreal -4, Detroit -2, and Boston -1) so the Caps are the first non-original 6 team to achieve that (h/t @capsmedia).
Now let’s get to the highlights, quotes, stats, and analysis from a game that was meaningless in the standings:
We’ll start with the Great #8, who notched goals 49 and 50 and added an assist to take over the NHL points lead (109 to 108 over Henrik Sedin) as well as the NHL goals race (leads by one over Sidney Crosby and two over Steven Stamkos). Crosby and Stamkos each have two games left while Sedin has one (at Calgary on Saturday). According to Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, Ovechkin has asked for Sunday off against Boston, so who knows if he will win either award? Clearly though, Washington’s team captain is focused on the greater goal, the Stanley Cup.
“The great ones do. Whether it’s Sidney [Crosby] or Alex [Ovechkin] or whoever, they seem to come up at the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded needing a homerun and they do it. That’s one of the reason it makes them better than other people,” said Boudreau on Ovechkin’s ability to rise to the occassion, when needed.
Next up is one Nicklas Backstrom who notched two tallies himself (up to 33 on the year) as well as an assist while going plus +4 on the evening. #19 now has 101 points (68 assists). Ovechkin and Backstrom, by both reaching 100 points, became the first Washington teammates to record 100 point seasons! It seems like just yesterday that former GM David Poile traded for Joe Juneau in the hopes of acquiring a player who could score 100 points, doesn’t it??!!
“I’m just really proud of him. He’s such a great young man. You like to see great people succeed. I’m sitting there thinking ‘Nicky just got his hundredth and Alex just got his 50th, who’s picking up the puck?’ It shows that he’s one of the elite players in the league and he does it every night. I think that’s his third game in a row with three points. He’s a good player,” added Boudreau on the center he seems to take great pride in coaching.
Alexander Semin turned in another stellar performance notching three assists and was also +4, but Sasha, despite an amazing 11 shots on net could not get his 40th goal of the season. Perhaps #28 will get that against Boston on Sunday, a team he has scored some big goals against the last two seasons? I’ve really been impressed with Semin’s play since Ovechkin took over as team captain and this is just one of many things that bodes well for Washington as they head into the post-season.
Jose Theodore won his 30th game this season and extended his streak of 23 straight starts without a regulation loss (20-0-3). #60 stopped 29 of 31 shots with one getting by him when Brendan Morrison deflected it into his own cage and the other tally came on a shorthanded breakaway goal by Clarke Macarthur. This is the third consecutive super outing for the man who appears to have locked up the job to start game one of the Stanley Cup playoffs, likely next Thursday.
“I felt pretty good. I kept my focus for 60 minutes. In the third I made a couple of big saves and then the guys picked it up and scored some big goals,” commented Theodore on his performance.
The NHL’s plus minus leader coming into Friday night’s affair, Jeff Schultz, managed to extend his lead on second place Ovechkin to two since #55 went +4 to Ovie’s +3 (his giveaway led to the shorthanded goal). Sarge, who has taken his game to another level this season, was injured in the opening contest of last year’s post season so not only does it appear the Caps have a healthy Mike Green (1 assist, +2) this year, they also would have a much improved “double nickel” on the blue line.
Finally, trade deadline acquisition Joe Corvo had an assist and went +2 in 18:52 of ice time. This was significant because it was the first time in #77’s 17 games with Washington that he was a plus player. It has taken the former Carolina Hurricane time to adjust to his new team but his play on Friday was encouraging after a stretch where he has had some struggles.
Now on to some things I didn’t like in this contest and I’ll start with Washington’s power play. I don’t know if it was because they were trying to reach the individual plateau’s or if they were reverting to some bad habits but the Caps were 0 for 5 and gave up a shorthanded goal with Thrashers in the sin bin? Included in those situations was a 44 second 5 on 3. I’ll give some credit to Atlanta goalie Ondrej Pavelec (shelled with 47 shots but made 42 saves) who did his best to keep his seemingly disinterested squad in it until the floodgates opened in the third period, but most of the blame lies on overpassing and a lack of net presence from the Caps. The unit is number one in the league but they have now given up two shorthanded goals in a week. They have allowed eight this season and only five other NHL clubs have given up more. Simply put, Washington has got to clean up their play on the points and limit those turnovers that have been resulting in odd man rushes against.
Brendan Morrison returned to the lineup and looked out of sync, especially in the first 35 minutes. He took a tripping call in the first period and the first Atlanta goal banked in past Theodore from the slot off of the leg of #9. Sure that was a big fluke but had Morrison not made a turnover in the neutral zone just before the goal that whole sequence likely does not happen. #9 had the opportunity to spring Tomas Fleischmann in on a two on one break but instead of banking a pass off of the right wing side boards he tried to thread the needle up the middle and the Thrashers intercepted the biscuit and headed the other way. Morrison did improve over the last 25 minutes, drawing a penalty and nearly connecting on a good chance.
There were a couple of chippy instances by Atlanta in the last period that gave me some concern. First, rookie Evander Kane took some liberties with Green while he was down on the ice and after #52 got up Scott Walker came over and said some things to the Thrashers rookie that weren’t exactly of the “Happy Easter” variety. It would have been nice to hear exactly what #24 said and Washington cannot afford to have #52 injured or banged up for the post season. In addition, on the Capitals last power play second year d-man Zach Bogosian threw a vicious elbow into the chops of Semin knocking #28 to the ground and breaking part of his twig. After a few moments Sasha got up and seemed to be okay on his next shift, but again, the Caps don’t need to expose their star players to cheap shots of that variety. Anyone who thinks that Semin was diving there needs to go back and watch the hit again, it was blatant, dirty, and could warrant a league review.
A couple of other things that were not pleasing was that defenseman Tyler Sloan only took one shift for 19 seconds in period three (only played 9:53 overall) so something happened to him. In addition, Boudreau ended up playing Ovechkin 23:11 (after getting only 5:54 in the first period) on the night but clearly Ovie wanted to get his numbers and the five power plays resulted in 7:45 of ice time for the Great #8. The final stat I did not like was that Eric Fehr was -2. Boudreau mentioned afterwards that he wants to get all 20 guys going for the playoffs and he said “he had about 16 of the 20” doing that on Friday.
I had a chance to talk with Caps forward Quintin Laing after the game to get his take on some things and here is the transcript:
WNST: What’s been the difference on the penalty killing, it seems like it has definitely improved the last several games?
Laing: I think in zone, we are a little more aggressive and we are making the other team make quality passes instead of sitting back and letting them make mediocore passes and getting away with it so if we are going to get beat they are going to have to make two or three good passes in a row. If they do, then you have to tip your hat to them, all you can do is make it difficult. I think just being a little more aggressive in our zone is helping.
WNST: How has the PK changed over the years? It used to be that teams just played a strict box, it seems that you guys play sort of a diamond where you keep one guy high to take away the shot from the top?
Laing: It seems like every team has that one big shooter that they set up in the middle of the ice and they try to feed them. So you got to take that away up top and that is where the diamond comes in. In front it used to be the d-man could just do anything, you could cross check, slash, do anything to get the guy out of the goalies way but now, the rules have changes so you got to play a little more passively there and block more shots. So it has changed a little bit but taking away their big shooter is what the diamond is all about.
WNST: So the change is a function of the forwards can camp out in front so you have to take that shot away because there is going to be traffic?
Laing: Yeah, because the d-man won’t be able to do anything in front so you either have to block the shots or gets sticks in. As the forward up top you are just trying to not let that puck come through at a good angle. You want it to come from a bad angle where the goalie can see it.
WNST: You had a couple of good chances in the first period tonight?
Laing: Bruce talked about it before the game, just throw the pucks at the net and go to the net. That is what our line did, we just kind of threw pucks and I went to the net a couple of times and almost scored. I was kind of ticked at myself because you don’t get too many chances like that but I am happy with the way things went. Getting chances is fun but scoring on them is more fun.
WNST: Did the puck catch you on the wrong part of the stick or one time I think you were in pretty tight?
Laing: Yeah, on one I was in close and tried to chip it over him and it him and on the other one the puck was kind of rolling and I tried to hit but didn’t get the top half of the net, but it is good to get those chances.
WNST: What did you think of the intensity out there? It seemed like maybe there was a bit of a gentleman’s agreement where the big hits weren’t going to come tonight. There was some contact, it just seemed like there was a little different flow than games with playoff implications.
Laing: Yeah, there wasn’t 40 hits a team tonight, it was kind of a little more passive. I think we got the two, three goal lead and it kind of deflated them a bit but yeah, it wasn’t a big hitting type of atmosphere that the playoffs are sure to bring.
Final Notes: The Capitals have scored first in each of their last five games (5-0-0) and are now 38-7-6 on the season when they score the first goal of the game. Washington’s AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, knocked off the Norfolk Admirals, 6-1, at Norfolk Scope, and became the first team in AHL history to win 60 games in a single season. Jason Chimera scored his 15th goal of the season on a nice feed from Eric Belanger (made it 4-2 Capitals). The Caps won the face-off battle, 34-29. The Capitals last contest of the regular season is Sunday at noon at the Verizon Center on NBC. The battle for the 8th and final Eastern Conference playoff spot, and the Caps first round playoff opponent, is now clear as mud. Washington could still face any of Boston, Philadelphia, the Rangers, or Montreal.