Alexander Ovechkin finally caught a break and he turned a fortuitous bounce into his 13th goal of the season and the eventual game winner as the Washington Capitals knocked off the Carolina Hurricanes, 3-2, in Raleigh on Sunday night. Semyon Varlamov, who was notified he was starting Sunday afternoon after Michal Neuvirth came up “sore” (h/t Mike Vogel, aka @VogsCaps on Twitter), was very good stopping 33 of 35 shots in goal to earn the victory. Washington swept the Canes in all three contests in Raleigh and are 4-0 against Carolina this season. In addition the Caps are 3-0-1 in their last four games with the only defeat coming in round 7 of the shootout this past Thursday against the Penguins. The Capitals are now 21-12-5 (47 points) and they remain tied with the Tampa Bay Lightning for first place in the Southeast Division. The Bolts knocked off the Atlanta Thrashers in OT on Sunday, another one of those dreaded three point division games. The Thrashers are in 3rd place trailing the leaders by three points.
Here are the highlights and analysis of a victory played before a less than capacity crowd that was held down by a rare snowstorm in the Carolinas:
- Ovechkin was the game’s number one star and in addition to his winning tally, he added an assist on Dave Steckel’s marker in the second period. On both occassions the goals were the direct result of the Great #8 going to the net. But to score goals in the NHL that is what you have to do and even though the bounce was a lucky one to set up Alexander the Great’s goal, he doesn’t light the lamp if he doesn’t go to the spots where goal scorers score. Ovechkin had 8 shots on goal, was credited with just one hit, and was +2.
- Varly, who Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau told reporters after the game “was chomping at the bit to play” (h/t Comcast SportsNet), gave up two goals that he didn’t have much of a chance on. The first was by Jussi Jokinen on a 2 on 1 break after Washington made a bad line change, leaving John Erskine back to defend, and the second came from Tuumu Ruutu on a deflection just 30 seconds into period three. #1 also received some help from the iron as the Canes hit at least two posts, by my count.
- Alexander Semin (1 assist, +1) turned in a strong performance for Washington and it was his super pass to Mathieu Perreault in front that led to the Caps first goal by #85 after Carolina carried much of the play in the opening frame. Brooks Laich, who outworked a Canes defender below the goal line to get #28 the puck on that goal, Semin, and Perreault, had some good early chemistry but that all ended when Tim Gleason came up high on #85 and broke his nose in period one. Gleason would get a major and a game misconduct but the Caps only received a three minute power play out of it because Matt Hendricks roughed up Gleason after the whistle. Perreault, who has five goals in just 12 games with the Caps this year, stayed down after the hit while and was bleeding profusely. He is out day to day with the injury.
- The Capitals killed off all four Carolina power plays and the penalty killing unit continues to be the team’s biggest improvement over last season. Eight different forwards logged at least a minute of shorthanded time and Jason Chimera had a 36 second shift on the PK as well. The decision by Boudreau and assistant coach Dean Evason to shorten the shifts and be more aggressive has worked wonders. In addition, the team is doing a good job of blocking shots and Mike Green (1 assist, +1 in 29:43 of ice time) laid out on the ice twice in the first period to thwart Carolina blasts from making it to the cage. Carolina only had 2 shots on goal during their eight minutes of power play time! Washington is up to an 84.3% penalty killing percentage, ninth best in the NHL.
- Now if the Caps could just convert on the power play, although, I have to admit it is getting better and would have connected if not for the strong play of Cam Ward (27 saves). Evason mixed things up again and had Ovechkin all over the place, sometimes on the point, another time on the half wall, and even had him in the slot. The Caps not only moved the puck quicker, but they had a lot of motion on both of their man advantage situations (five minutes total). They also fired nine shots on net in those five minutes and if they continue to do what they did in Carolina sooner or later the puck will start going in.
- Boudreau put forwards Jay Beagle, Steckel, and Hendricks on the ice to start period three and at the time it seemed like a smart idea to get some solid two way players who bring energy out on the first shift with the Caps up 3-1. But the plan didn’t come together and somehow both Beagle and Hendricks ended up together on the right point and d-man Jay Harrison had all day to gather the puck on the opposite side, move in, and blast one that was deflected by Ruutu into the cage. After that quick goal, the Canes would come hard for the next 10 minutes and Washington was hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Simply put, the Caps were lucky to survive with a lead in the first half of the final frame. During that bad stretch the Caps were not sticking to their system and too often the wingers were not doing their job on the boards as time after time Carolina defenders pinched along the wall to keep up the pressure on Washington in their own end.
- Somewhere around eight minutes left in regulation the Capitals turned back into a good defensive team and Carolina really never had a decent chance to tie this one up from then on. The Caps followed orders and limited turnovers in the neutral zone by dumping the puck deep on the Canes defensemen, who had to be tired with Gleason gone plus from all of the pinching in at the points, and making them work hard to get it back up the ice. It seemed each time the Hurricanes would get the puck to center ice a Washington player would be there in perfect position and they’d throw it back into the Carolina zone. In addition, Chimera and Laich did a great job off of a defensive zone faceoff with four minutes to go and the Canes Jamie McBain hauled #25 down to give Washington their second power play of the game. The Caps didn’t score but they kept the biscuit in the Canes end the whole time and for at least 15 more seconds after the penalty expired giving Carolina only 90 seconds to try and tie the game up.
- Overall, this wasn’t a pretty victory but the Caps are doing more of the little things correctly and they finally got some good bounces. There were still times in this contest when Carolina carried the play (much of the first period and first 10 minutes of the third period) but the effort was there and it resulted in a much needed two points.
Notes: Washington lost the faceoff battle, 23-22 but Steckel went 11-5 and continues to lead the NHL in face-offs (63.8%)…Tom Poti was out due to his head injury and Tyler Sloan took his spot on defense. #89 was -1 (on the bad change) in 10:02 of ice time…Eric Fehr and DJ King were the healthy forward scratches…forward Matt Bradley and d-man Jeff Schultz continue to be out with fractured hands…the Hershey Bears knocked off the Norfolk Admirals, 3-1, on Sunday at the Giant Center with Keith Aucoin getting the game winning tally and Braden Holtby earning the victory in goal…next up for the Caps are the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center at 7pm. It will be the last game they play before Saturday’s Winter Classic at Heinz Field (1pm on NBC) and this will be a chance for Washington to get some revenge on the Habs, who defeated them in the playoffs last spring.