The Washington Capitals, who are the highest scoring team in the NHL and came in to today’s contest having potted at least 32 more goals than any other NHL team, surprisingly had gone all 58 games this season without a hat trick by one of their players. Well that streak ended today in dramatic fashion as the best hockey player in the world, Alexander Ovechkin, scored three goals to help the Caps rally from 2-0 and 4-1 deficits and also added an assist on Mike Knuble’s overtime game winner as Washington defeated their archrival Pittsburgh Penguins, 5-4, on national television (NBC) at the Verizon Center. This game, which if not for NBC would have likely been delayed or even moved to Monday because of #Snovechkin, was one for the ages and you can bet that some regular season non-Winter Classic hockey viewer ratings records may be shattered. The Caps have now won an amazing 14 straight contests, improved to a mind boggling 41-12-6 which is good for 88 points, and widened their lead in the Eastern Conference standings to 14 points. Anybody not think this team is for real?
Here are the highlights, quotes, analysis, and more statistics on a streak that is now tied for the 3rd longest in NHL history:
Well we have to start with the Great #8. What a performance today?! Memo to the Penguins: Cheap shotting (see Craig Adams hit from behind in the 1st period that went unpenalized) or trying rough up Ovechkin (see Brooks Orpik all game long) is only going to make him madder and cause you to pay more. Perhaps you should call the Montreal Canadiens about a certain game on January 31, 2008 to find out why you should leave Ovie alone?
Alexander the Great’s rival, Sidney Crosby, came out hot in this one scoring the game’s first two goals prompting NBC’s Mike Milbury to joke after the first period about Crosby still being Ovie’s daddy. By the end of the Ovechkin dominated 3rd and overtime periods, I still did not hear Mike crack any jokes back at Sid. Perhaps he will say something on HNIC Radio this week when he is on with super host Jeff Marek to save face? I doubt that though, because Milbury is buddies with Don Cherry, who has been overly critical of Ovechkin, so we likely won’t be getting a Crosby joke or a mistake admission by Milbury. The former Islander GM, who made some brutal trades as GM (see Roberto Luongo), just looks foolish and more biased every time he keeps taking shots at the two-time defending MVP.
The Great #8 credited the crowd for the third period comeback but after Eric Fehr made a superb individual play to make it 4-2 late in the second stanza, Ovechkin took this game over and showed everyone who really is Big Daddy. Alex, with his four point day, has 42 goals and 44 assists this season to lead Henrik Sedin of Vancouver in the scoring race by eight points despite missing eight contests. Crosby is third with 74 points. In the plus/minus category, the Great #8 sits at a league leading +41 while Crosby dropped to +7. The argument to all of this from Crosby and non-Ovechkin fans is that Sid leads in Stanley Cups (1-0) but something tells me the Caps day is coming. By the way, you might as well award Ovechkin with his third straight MVP trophy because the club is 17-1 since he became team captain. Afterwards, the Great #8 was his typical honest and classy self:
“It’s always nice to win, especially when you are a little bit frustrated in the first [period]. Game [didn’t] go well for us right away. It’s nice to come back and win in OT especially. It’s always nice to score goals, especially in this type of big game. They are going to play hard against us. They played great. We made a couple of mistakes and they have very good skill out there. So we just come here and know that we still have lots of time to come back and score lots of goals. We just go out there and play. [Due to the weather] The crowd wasn’t getting in during the first period. You can see the crowd pushing us in the third period and we just keep going, keep going and it’s pretty sick,” said Ovechkin on the victory, his scoring, the Pens play, and the help his squad received from the fans who fought through the snow for the opportunity to “Rock the Red.”
As for the NBC broadcast, they clearly love the Penguins but hey, so does the NHL because Crosby is Canada’s golden boy. But Ovechkin has numerous fans in the Great White North despite what you might believe based on some select TSN and CBC announcers. NBC pretty much talked the whole time about 87 or 8 and I thought over-discussed the bad travel night the Penguins had getting to DC. Pittsburgh played in Montreal on Saturday afternoon, flew to Newark, New Jersey and landed around 9pm, then endured a nearly five hour bus ride to DC before arriving at 2am Sunday morning. That stunk for them but you couldn’t tell they got little sleep by their fast start. In the 3rd period, however, the Caps took over and some of that could have been Pens travel fatigue. Both Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma and Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau addressed the issues with the weather and travel and its impact on arguably the most exciting NHL game this season.
“I don’t think [the travel] had anything to do with it. I thought our team had plenty of jump. Our guys felt good. I don’t think it was a factor at all … We had a travel day. Most of these guys have done that quite a bit in their career in the American [Hockey] League or growing up. I don’t think it was at all out of the ordinary for any of these guys. It wasn’t what we expected when they put the schedule together, but it happened and it wasn’t out of the ordinary,” said an admirable Bylsma, who seems to have the perfect demeanor to coach the defending Stanley Cup Champions.
“[The snow] hurt us worse, we are out shoveling all day, worrying about who is going to be coming to the game and your focus is not on the game. They skated yesterday and we didn’t have practice so that is why we struggled early,” added Boudreau.
Throughout this season, and especially during this history making winning streak, the Caps have dominated third periods outscoring opponents by an incredible 30-6! The question on the Caps, primarily because of the perception that Washington is weak defensively, has been “Can they play the 2-1 game come playoff time?” I think last year’s game seven win over the Rangers proved they can prevail in that type of contest but some will still argue against me. However, I pose this question, what team is best suited to come back from a two or three goal deficit? I say the Caps as they proved in their come from behind win over New York on Thurday and today’s rally against Pittsburgh. To come back you need offense, but you also have to be able to play defense and have good goaltending. The Caps were shoddy, at best, on defense at the beginning of this one but their goalie, Jose Theodore, continues to play his best hockey in a Washington uniform and he kept the team in it until Ovechkin and company could take over.
“We were playing pretty bad, the first 10 mintues was the worst our defense has played in so long. But I thought the last half of the game we were really good,” started Boudreau, “Theodore played great. Couldn’t do anything on the first two [goals] I didn’t think, you know [Sidney] Crosby’s goals, and then there were bang-bang goals in front of the net. A sign of a good goaltender to me is when it’s tied at the end or you’re up by a goal and somebody can preserve that one goal lead or preserve it so it gives you an opportunity to win it. And he did. He made some great saves at the end and even when it was 2-0 and 5-on-3 he made that great save and didn’t allow Crosby to make it 3-0. I thought that was very important,” finished the 2007-08 Jack Adams Trophy winner on his goalie, who won his 10th straight contest making 31 saves.
Pittsburgh, despite blowing a three goal lead, still received a point so the day was not a total loss for Bylsma’s squad. In fact, despite some of my complaints with the NBC broadcast, the crew that had the worst day was definitely the referees. Tim Peel and Frederick L’Ecuyer should not be allowed to officiate any playoff games after this one. They had very little pulse on the game and by not acting on some dirty hits allowed parts of this contest to turn into a chippy affair. They made some correct calls but they also missed several things and made some bad ones such as:
The Adams hit on Ovechkin in the first period that should have been a five minute major for checking from behind. Can you imagine the uproar if Ovechkin had done this? What made it worse was the zebras gave Knuble an instigator penalty, which carried a 10 minute misconduct with it, for going after Adams when a roughing call was more appropriate.
Right before Alexander Semin, who did not have one of his better games, was called for a high stick on Sergei Gonchar, a Penguin put a wrestling hold on Brooks Laich without being whistled
How do you call 10 minute misconduct penalties on both Nicklas Backstrom (1st liner, +2, two assists) and Tyler Kennedy (3rd liner, at best)? Each should have received no more than two minute minors. Sending them both off for 10 minutes gave a huge advantage to Pittsburgh. These officials clearly were not cognizant of what they were calling and the impact those penalties could have on the game.
Semin also took a vicious cross check to his jaw from Evgeni Malkin in the third period that went unpenalized.
Jeff Schultz (+3 and a sweet assist to set up an Ovechkin breakaway goal) was whistled by the back referee at center ice for slashing Matt Cooke when #24’s stick clearly broke on its own. What made this call worse, besides the wrong referee signaling the infraction when out of position for the call, was that it gave Pittsburgh a power play in a tie hockey game with just over four minutes remaining. That is bush league officiating there.
More Thoughts & Notes: The Caps, after smoking the Pens in Pittsburgh on January 21 on face-offs, lost the battle at the dot 39-34 on Sunday… Despite Crosby’s two goals, the Penguins top player today was Jordan Staal (two goals, +2, in just under 20 minutes of ice time)… Michael Rupp, who was acquired by Pittsburgh as a free agent from the Devils in the off-season, looked pretty good yet only played a surprising 6:28..Tom Poti and Semin were having poor games, for them, until the 3rd period and OT. Poti assisted on the second Ovechkin goal (what hands by the Great #8 there!) that made it 4-3 and #28 drew the high stick on Orpik that put Washington on the game winning power play (Orpik, according to Corey Masisak, called Semin “a baby” after the game and said “he has no respect for him”)..Eight times in their 14-game winning streak the Capitals have won despite allowing the first goal, improving to 15-6-2 when their opponent scores first (.652). No other team has won more than half its games in that scenario..when Crosby made it 2-0 in the first period, how many Caps fans flashed back to game 7 of last year’s Eastern Conference semi-finals, a contest that Pittsburgh would rout Washington in, 6-2, to advance to the Stanley Cup semi-finals?..Down on the farm in the AHL, the Hershey Bears rallied from a 3-0 hole thanks to a Mathieu Perrault hat trick and an assist en route to a 5-4 victory over the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins. D-man Bryan Helmer had the game winner and Semyon Varlamov stopped 26 of 30 shots in a re-hab assigment. The Bears have now won 17 straight home games and 10 in a row overall (22 of last 23 as well). Yes, that is 24 straight combined for the Caps organization at the NHL and AHL levels, WOW!
At the end of the day though, this one was about a rivalry that continues to intensify, was magnified in front of a national television audience, and likely stole some thunder from Sunday night’s Super Bowl, which is big for the NHL.
“I am pretty excited and I am really excited for hockey that that game was put on TV today. That’s what people pay to see; when superstars shine and there’s tension and excitement and there’s physical play, you can see the passion on both sides. That’s what hockey’s all about,” finished Boudreau.
The Caps go for 15 straight on Wednesday night in Montreal.