One week after nearly blowing a three goal lead in Atlanta and escaping with a 5-4 victory the Caps headed to the final period once again with a three goal lead at Philips Arena. Instead of putting this one away in easy fashion, Washington allowed a well rested (5 days off) Thrashers team to fire 20 third period shots on Semyon Varlamov (38 saves) and force the Caps to hang on for a 4-3 victory.
The Great #8, Alexander Ovechkin, came out with guns ablazing as the Caps dominated the first 25 minutes to take a 3-0 lead and set up what initially looked to be a walk in the park for Washington. Ovechkin had two goals and an assist while Brooks Laich added three assists. The Capitals have now won six straight games and are 8-2-2 overall. They have a 7 point lead in the Southeast Division over the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have two games in hand.
“It is ridiculous how we just let up and let the other team back in the game. It is just frustrating. We got up and thought it would be easy and we stopped skating….Our game is not like a faucet where we can turn it on and off and we struggled to find it again,” said a clearly disappointed Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau.
“We had opportunities and it is just like la-di-da and instead of making it 4-0 or 5-0 and letting them go home with the tails between their legs we’ve got a battle on our hands and especially with the amount of games we have this week it would have been nice to rest some guys in the third period,” finished Boudreau, whose team will quickly fly back from Atlanta late tonight and take on the Islanders at the Verizon Center on Friday night.
Ovechkin started off the scoring with a one timer on the power play off of a Mike Green feed at 10:03 of the first period. Brendan Morrison won the offensive zone face-off and Brooks Laich received the second assist by sliding the puck back to #52.
Atlanta then had a chance to rebound after the Great #8’s goal as they received a penalty shot on a Laich trip that warranted a call, but not a free attempt to score. Forward Jim Slater was not totally in the clear, as the rule states you should be to garner a penalty shot, but the referees gave him the chance to even things up anyways. However, Varlamov stood tall and stopped him and for the second straight contest a Caps goalie was the victor in the most exciting play in hockey.
Just over a minute later Maxim Afinogenov, who is typically a Caps killer, did one of his patented curl moves and fired the puck towards Washington’s net but Nicklas Backstrom was parked in the shooting lane and trapped the puck soccer style with his skate and then launched a beautiful saucer pass up the middle of the ice that sent Alexander the Great in all alone on goalie Ondrej Pavelec. Then before the young net minder could even move, Ovechkin roofed the puck quickly behind him to make it 2-0.
Washington then made it 3-0, on the power play again, after rookie Evander Kane took a hooking penalty. Ovechkin grabbed the puck below the goal, skated into the bottom of the left circle, and then feathered a pass across the seam of the Thrashers penalty killing box and Morrison fired it off of Pavelec’s glove to make it 3-0 just 4:10 into the second period and a rout appeared to be on.
However, once again the Caps took a lazy penalty late in a period, this one by Tyler Sloan who was playing left wing again tonight with all of the injuries, and it cost the Caps in the final stanza. Atlanta’s Zach Bogosian, who is an amazing talent and will likely be a thorn in Washington’s side for years to come, led off the third period by blasting one from the point by Varlamov, who was screened by Shaone Morrisonn. #26 seems to be making a habit of doing that recently.
Varlamov then made a number of big saves to keep it 3-1, including a gem on Viktor Kozlov in the slot after a Jeff Schultz giveaway (and Brian Pothier failed to properly cover the slot). Then right after Varly stopped Nik Antropov on a point blank shot in prime scoring position the Caps went on transition and had a 3 on 1 break with Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Backstrom but they could not connect. Next Mike Knuble drew a penalty going to the net but the Caps nearly gave up another shorthanded goal. Atlanta defenseman Tobias Enstrom split both Green and Ovechkin to go in alone on Varlamov but Semyon made another huge pad save to preserve the two goal lead.
The Caps appeared to have the game locked up once again after a three or four minute good stretch where they shut the Thrashers rush down, but with 2:23 to go the Washington first line was out trying to score. After a Semin shot went wide and bounced high into the slot, Kozlov hit a streaking Todd White in stride as he blew by an out of position Green and he beat Varly top shelf. The Thrashers then stormed the Caps net by pulling their goalie but Tom Poti and Laich made good plays to clear the zone allowing Knuble to hit the empty net with just under 53 seconds left to make it 4-2 Washington. Bogosian then tipped one in at the buzzer to make it 4-3.
Here are some thoughts and analysis on a game that saw the Jeckyl and Hyde of the Caps:
Why are the Caps still winning despite not putting in anything close to a full 60 minutes of effort? Goaltending! Jose Theodore and Varlamov (now 5-0) have been superb and tonight and Tuesday were the best performance by each this season. Boudreau may not be happy about the play of his skaters but if he can keep getting solid goaltending, like #60 and #40 are providing, Washington will shatter the club record for wins. The competition in goal is clearly making both Theodore and Varlamov take their respective games to an elite level.
The Great #8 was incredible the first 25 minutes flying all over the ice. Ovechkin now as 13 goals and 9 assists (in 12 games) to lead the NHL in goals and points. By the way, last year’s league leader in points, Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh, is out two to three weeks with a shoulder strain.
Washington was outshot 41-32, lost the face-off battle, 31-29, and was 2 for 5 on the power play. They were called for three infractions, the Laich trip that led to the Slater penalty shot, the Sloan lazy hook, and a Poti hold. Atlanta went 1 for 2 with the man advantage.
The Caps defense made a lot of mistakes tonight and Varlamov bailed them out, much like Theodore did on Tuesday against the Flyers. Laich credited the Thrasher onslaught to the fact that Atlanta was off for 5 days but Boudreau won’t buy that one. If this defense does not shape up soon, they have given up over 80 shots in the last two games, you can bet that Boudreau and GM George McPhee will make some changes once they clear some salary cap room (Michael Nylander is playing well in his conditioning/showcasing stint in Grand Rapids hopefully convincing someone to want him). Washington Caps website outstanding writer, Mike Vogel, attended Hershey’s last game on Sunday and he told me that defenseman Karl Alzner played extremely well, something I also heard from Bears play-by-play man John Walton a few weeks ago. As those of you who read this blog know, I would like to see #27 up with the big club as soon as possible.
Please check out WNST.Net during the Caps game on Friday night as I will be posting thoughts as the Caps-Islanders contest unfolds via WNST’s twitter account, as I did tonight (you can view those on the front left of the home page on the WNST website). As always, I will have a blog with analysis on the game sometime after it ends.