Remember that Washington Capitals eight game losing streak, a stretch in which they went 0-6-2? Well that is now a distant memory and after Saturday night’s Caps 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers the team is 6-0-2 in their last eight contests to put their overall record at 12 games over .500 for the second time this season (24-12-6). Alexander Ovechkin scored one of his patented highlight reel variety goals with 3:55 remaining to put the Caps up 3-1 and after giving up a goal with 97 seconds to go, they hung on for the win. Mike Green and Eric Fehr each added a goal and an assist after the Panthers drew first blood and the Caps now lead the NHL in wins (12) when surrendering the first goal of the game. Semyon Varlamov was excellent in the cage stopping 25 of 27 shots to get his 8th victory of the 2010-11 season.
Let’s get to the quotes and analysis from a victory that allows the Caps to remain just a point behind the Tampa Bay Lightning (55 to 54) in the Southeast Division standings (the Bolts defeated Ottawa, 2-1, on Saturday night):
– The first period of this game was some of the ugliest hockey I have watched all year. There was little to no flow in the opening frame and the Caps struggled to make good passes and get out of their own zone. The shots were 6-5, Florida, as the Panthers took a one goal lead on a defensive breakdown just 3:49 into the contest. Prior to the game, Boudreau shuffled up his lines in an attempt to get Nicklas Backstrom (1 assist, +1) and Alex Semin (left game injured in 2nd period) going. It didn’t work and #19 and #28 now have 16 and 14 game goal scoring droughts, respectively. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau wasn’t very happy with that opening period and afterwards he was asked what he told his troops heading into the middle stanza.
“I didn’t curse,” joked Boudreau as he started his answer, “I just said quite frankly that we are not forechecking at all. We’re getting it in and we are worried about positioning and systems but if we don’t go and put pressure on them nothing’s gonna happen. That’s why I think we had only five shots in the first period,” said Boudreau on his speech after 20 minutes. The head coach switched his lines back to their normal configuration in the middle frame reuniting Backstrom, Ovechkin, and Mike Knuble.
– Boudreau frequently says that in order to win your best players have to be your best players each night. Tonight Green was the top player on the ice and Ovechkin was solid as well adding an assist on #52’s tally to go with his game winning marker. In addition, Varlamov was excellent in net and he made some big saves when the Caps were running around in their own end on numerous occassions in this game (mostly in period one). Washington has now given up only 11 goals in this eight game stretch and just 16 in their past 10 tilts. The team defense has been strong and the Green-Scott Hannan pair was praised by the Caps bench boss afterwards.
“They’ve been excellent, but all of the defensemen have been excellent. You just look at our goals against in the last eight games and it’s been as good as any team. It’s better than we’ve ever had it here before in my tenure. But you can see Mike is starting to get his legs and his confidence and he’s doing a great job,” said Boudreau about his blue line’s solid play and #52.
“It’s been great. Scotty is so experienced and the one thing that he helps me out with is I like to hang on to the puck and carry the puck and he’s directing me before I even get it, so it makes my job a lot easier and any time there is that communication it’s easier out there,” added Green on why he and Hannan are playing so well together.
– In my mid-season grades and analysis blog I pointed out the Caps penalty killing has been the most improved area over the 2009-10 campaign. Washington killed off all four Florida power plays and in fact, it was forward Jay Beagle who drew the tripping call, while shorthanded, that led to Green’s power play goal in the third period to give the Caps their first lead of the night. The Capitals have killed off 27 consecutive shorthanded situations and 33 of 34 (97.1%) in their last nine games. Washington, who came into tonight’s contest ranked fourth in the NHL in penalty kill percentage (85.4%), hasn’t allowed more than one power-play goal in a game in 29 games, the team’s longest stretch since 1997-98 (36 games). Once again the key to the shorthanded success is the 30 second short shifts and winning defensive zone draws (Dave Steckel had another monster night from the dot going 13-4). Last season when Washington took a penalty tied or down a goal it was usually trouble for the team, but not this year, as the PK is actually turning games around.
“What we’ve been trying to do on the bench is stay up when we get penalties and gain momentum from killing penalties. That is a huge momentum boost for the team when you kill a penalty off. Tonight we got lucky they hauled me down and we got a power play out of it,” added Beagle on the mindset of his club when they go shorthanded.
– This year’s black sheep of the special teams package, the power play, actually came through tonight with a goal in three attempts.
“Any power play goal at this time, just to get the lead in the third period, it was like a breath of fresh air. It seems when you come off of a shutout, it seems you are never going to score. Every goal you get is such a difficult goal and then you go watch the highlights [of other games] and you are wondering if you are ever going to score again,” said Boudreau on the feeling of relief that occurred when they seized the lead on Green’s power play tally, set up by Backstrom and Ovechkin (who was on the half wall in this instance with the man advantage and not on the point).
– Beagle is playing extremely well and making it tough for GM George McPhee and Boudreau to send him back to Hershey when Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon return from injuries. #83 drew the game’s key penalty and he, Steckel, and Matt Hendricks dominated in the 10 minutes the trio were on the ice together (each played just over 12 minutes total). Beagle has good speed, size (6′ 3″, 201 lbs), can kill penalties, and he can take faceoffs. Each game he seems to get better.
“We worked hard down low and we had some chances early and even late. As long as we are getting chances and doing things right, good things are going to happen. I feel better every game. I’m just more confident and there’s more confidence shown in me by the coaches. I just build off that, try to play my game, and contribute to the team,” said the 25 year old undrafted forward, who won back to back AHL Calder Cup titles with the Hershey Bears in 2009 and 2010.
– The Florida Panthers are a much improved team but once again they aren’t going to make the post season (now 18-20-2). They have good speed and they compete, which is why the Caps are only 1-1 against them this year (they lost 3-0 to them on 12/9 at the Verizon Center). Washington was 6-0 against the Cats last year so a case could be made that the Capitals have overlooked them. Whatever the reason, it was a victory and Boudreau felt that as the game went on his club, who hadn’t played since Tuesday’s 1-0 OT defeat to the Lightning, steadily improved.
“We have to better. I think we are too good to be this mediocore, that is what I said in the first period and I thought we picked it up in the second period and I thought we played better in the third period as well,” concluded Boudreau on how the game unfolded for his club.
“They played hard. They’re one of the fastest skating teams we play all season. They played really well and they didn’t want to give us a whole lot and we had to earn the win,” added Fehr, whose 8th goal of the season came from the top of the crease after Green centered the puck on a wrap around attempt.
“[Washington’s] a team that if you make a mistake, they make you pay. They have those types of players. You see the guys that scored the [last two] goals in the third, Green and Ovechkin. That’s the story. Those are game-changing players and they delivered in the third when they needed to,” concluded Florida head coach Peter DeBoer on why his team lost.
Notes: There was no information provided afterwards on Semin’s condition, who took a knee from Steve Bernier on a 2nd period play in which #28 passed up a shot and tried to make an extra deke. That delay not only took away his scoring chance, but eventually ended his evening…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 26-24 thanks to Steckel…Tom Poti played 7:01 in the first period but only 10:58 more over the last two frames. He does not look 100% to me as his skating is a step slow…Green talked about the importance of on ice communication. On two occassions in this game Marcus Johansson was wide open in the offensive zone and neither Ovechkin nor Laich attempted to pass to #90 in prime scoring position. I wonder if the rookie is verbally letting his teammates know he is open?…John Erskine and Tyler Sloan were scratched on defense…the Caps next game is on Tuesday in Florida against the Panthers. They follow that tilt up with a game in Tampa on Wednesday before coming back to face the Vancouver Canucks at home on Friday, January 14th.