After two thrilling and draining victories on the road in Florida where the Caps seized first place in the Southeast Division for the first time since December, Washington came home to Verizon Center to face one of the worst teams in the NHL in the Edmonton Oilers. The question of the night for Capitals fans was which version of their team would show up? After 25 minutes the answer wasn’t really clear in a scoreless game but shortly thereafter the Caps took over in dominating fashion with Alexander Ovechkin potting two goals and adding an assist and Eric Fehr, who returned to the lineup after missing the last 22 games due to a bad shoulder, tallied twice as well. Alexander Semin (1 goal, 1 assist) capped the scoring on a pretty give and go with newcomer Marco Sturm and Braden Holtby earned his first NHL shutout stopping 22 shots.
The victory was Washington’s sixth straight and they improve to 38-20-10 (86 points) to remain two points up on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast Division (The Bolts beat Chicago, 4-3, in a shootout, aka the “Carnival Game” as coined by Greg Wyshynski over at Puck Daddy). The Lightning have a game in hand on the Caps. Washington is also now in second place in the Eastern Conference, just two points behind Philadelphia (who have two games in hand).
Here are the highlights and analysis of the Capitals first victory by more than a goal in their last eight wins:
– On paper, this doesn’t look like it was a tough shutout for Holtby but I beg to differ. The 21 year old from Saskatchewan received no goal support for the first 25 minutes and with the game scoreless he had to face Andrew Cogliano on a shorthanded breakaway after an Ovechkin turnover. #70 made a nice pad save and then the Great #8 paid Holtby back with a power play goal on the ensuing rush. Jason Arnott made a super pass to set Ovie up for an easy marker. Holtby faced 10 of his 22 shots in the first period and once the Caps seized the lead, his night did become a lot easier. Still, with Holtby, Michal Neuvirth, and Semyon Varlamov the Capitals continue to be loaded with young goalies. General Manager George McPhee and his scouts have drafted well and the two goalie coaches since the trio was selected, first Dave Prior and now Arturs Irbe, deserve a great deal of credit for their development. In addition, the kids themselves get kudos for listening, competing, and getting better. All three of them are fierce competitors. Heck, who can forget Holtby tomahawk chopping Evgeny Kuznetsov in development camp last July after the young Russian did too much showboating after a goal in a scrimmage? And don’t forget that Neuvirth had to listen to Jonathan Bernier hype last May when the Hershey Bears were set to face the Manchester Monarchs in the AHL Eastern Conference Finals. In that series Neuvy totally outplayed the Kings first round draft pick, who was the first goalie chosen in the 2006 draft (same one in which the Caps took both Varlamov and Neuvirth). All three aforementioned Capitals goalies has at least one shutout this season (h/t Caps Media Relations department).
– After a franchise record of 43 games without doing so, Washington finally scored two power play goals in a contest (h/t Mike Vogel), and as hard as it is to believe, it was Ovechkin’s first home PPG of the 2010-11 season. The Great #8 scored his down low after a great cross ice feed from Arnott from the right point. The second power play goal is what this team needs more of – a John Carlson point blast with Brooks Laich and Fehr in front (Fehr banged home a lose puck). The additions of #44 and Dennis Wideman now gives Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau much more flexibility with his power play units and he can take the Great #8 off of the point for at least half of the two minutes, especially when Mike Green returns to the lineup later in the month (more on that in the Notes below). The Caps were 2 for 5 with the man advantage and 4 for 4 on the PK against the worst special teams club in the NHL. Edmonton is ranked dead last in the league on the power play and is 29th out of 30 teams in penalty killing. Despite the weak competition, the Capitals needed to have a night of success on the PP in order to get their confidence with it going up again.
– The Saturday before the trade deadline I had an email discussion about the Capitals with NHL On The Fly’s Craig Button and he was quick to point out that a return of Fehr to the lineup would help a struggling power play unit. He was clearly right and #16 was playing his best hockey of the season right before he was injured in a collision with Dave Steckel in January. Fehr can play on any of the top three lines and I really like it when assistant coach Dean Evason puts the big bodied forward in front of the opposing goalie with either Mike Knuble or Laich on the power play. There is no substitute for big players who are tough to move from in front of the cage (see former Flyers tap in machine Tim Kerr back in the 80’s).
– There were several Capitals players who had good outings on Wednesday night but rookie Marcus Johansson continues to take his game to a higher level. With Nicklas Backstrom missing his first NHL game ever (stopping a streak of 341 straight contests), MJ90 got the tough task of centering Ovechkin, something he had not had much success with this year, granted it has only been a handful of games. Tonight, the two seemed to finally show some comfort together and the third tally of the night, which broke the game open in the third period, was of the highlight reel variety. The Great #8 hustled in the offensive zone and stole the puck from Kurtis Foster allowing he and the young Swede to go in alone on Nikolai Khabibulin (31 saves). The two made four quick passes to get the 2004 Stanley Cup winning goalie moving back and forth like a tennis ball and Ovechkin finished the deal with a top shelf wrister inside the right post. Johansson has definitely improved since the all star break and instead of hitting the rookie wall, like one would expect, he has taken his game to an even higher level in the last three Capitals victories (2 assists, +2 in those 3 games plus played over 17 minutes in last two tilts).
– Overall this was a solid win but Washington still has gone 12 straight games without leading after the first 20 minutes. The six game winning streak is nice but this team still has lots of room for improvement. But they have been winning through injuries to Green, Fehr, Backstrom, Varlamov, and Tom Poti so once Boudreau gets his full complement of players back and in game shape this team could be a daunting force heading into the post season. The key is for the whole squad to continue to buy in to the defensive mindset and improve their commitment to limiting their turnovers which will force the opposition to chase pucks in their own end.
Notes: Green was placed retroactively on LTIR back to 2/25 to make salary cap room for Fehr to return to the roster. #52 is eligible to return on 3/22 when the Caps face the Flyers in Philadelphia…Backstrom’s fractured thumb was banged up in Tampa on Monday and he might miss Friday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes at the Verzion Center (7 pm) as well…Varlamov skated briefly prior to the pre game skate today (h/t Katie Carrera of The Washington Post)…the Caps are 17-0 when Semin scores a goal this season and 31-0-3 when they tally 3 or more times…the Caps won the face-off battle, 33-22, and Laich won 15 of 21 draws.