Caps Now 17-1-1 at Home
Alexander Ovechkin scored his first shorthanded goal of the season to lead the Caps to a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers at the Verizon Center to run Washington’s season home record to a staggering 17-1-1. The Great #8, who was not voted in by the fans as a starter for the NHL All-Star game in Montreal on January 25th (thanks to ballot box stuffers in Pittsburgh and Montreal – is ACORN involved in this??!!), has now scored a goal in eight straight home games and he is tied with Philadelphia’s Jeff Carter for the overall NHL goal scoring lead with 27 tallies. Washington now has a six game winning streak and have a 26-11-3 overall record which yields 55 points. This is the best record the Caps have ever had in the franchise’s 36 year history after 40 games, just edging out the 1985-86 team that started the season 25-11-4.
That 1985-86 team was one that had Stanley Cup Finals aspirations but they were upset in the second round of the playoffs by goalie John Vanbiesbrouck and forwards Mike Ridley and Kelly Miller (who both would become Caps midway through the following season in the Bobby Carpenter trade). The big blow that season came in March when New York Islanders defensemen Denis Potvin broke Bengt Gustafsson’s leg on a borderline cheap shot. Had Gustafsson been able to go in the playoffs that year the Caps could have been in the finals instead of the Montreal Canadiens, who ended up winning the Cup behind rookie goalie Patrick Roy.
Jose Theodore, who stopped 21 of 22 shots, won his fifth straight game in net for the Caps Saturday night and the only goal he allowed was a defensive breakdown between defensemen Karl Alzner and Milan Jurcina, which left Petr Prucha all alone in front of the net to score on #60 midway through the second period. But Washington responded just 79 seconds later on the power play with Alexander Semin, who returned for the first time since being injured in the St. Louis game on December 18th via a David Backes cheap shot, feeding a beautiful back door pass to Mike Green, who one timed it into the vacant net for his 10th goal of the season in just 27 games. That set the stage for Ovechkin’s shorthanded game winner with 32 seconds left in the second period when the Great #8 used overpaid Rangers defensemen Wade Redden as a screen to beat New York goalie Steve Valiquette from the right wing side. The goal was vintage Ovechkin who had another outstanding game with nine shots on net and three hits in 27:23 of ice time.
Semin looked good tonight but unfortunately he was ejected from the game in the third period because his equipment was not tied down when he ended up in a fight with Rangers defensemen Marc Staal. Obviously Semin is one of the last guys one would expect to get into a fight and after Staal ripped #28’s equipment over his head Semin started karate chopping Staal on the head as they fell to the ice. When asked about the ejection after the game Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau said, “I don’t think that fighting is going to happen that often so if he doesn’t tie [his equipment] down I’ll take that gamble.”
Next up for the Caps are the hated Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night at the Verizon Center (WNST Puck Bus tickets are still available!). The Flyers beat the Caps, 7-1, up at the Wachovia Center on December 20th thanks to great goaltending in the first period from Anterro Niittymaki and this will be the first time these two teams have met at the Verizon Center since referees Don Koharski and Paul Devorski helped hand the Flyers Game 7 last April by allowing the Flyers to advance past the Caps in the playoffs in overtime on the power play. I expect a rowdy crowd at the Verizon Center on Tuesday and you can bet Boudreau and the Caps are thinking pay back. The Flyers are now tied with the Rangers for first place in the Atlantic Division with 49 points but they have two games in hand on New York.
Notes and Analysis: Forwards Chris Bourque and Alexandre Giroux were sent back down to Hershey with Donald Brashear and Semin back in the lineup. Forward Eric Fehr had a good game tonight generating scoring chances and drawing penalties but it would be really nice if he could finish them off with some goals. If ever takes that step then look out because he is big and strong and can be a force in front of the net. Green had 24:21 of ice team to lead Caps defensemen. Valiquette got the start tonight when the Rangers number one goalie Henrik Lundqvist came up sick before the game with what I am going to describe as the “Ovechkin flu.” Boudreau called the fact that #8 was not voted as a starter on the all star team as “dumb.” The Caps are 3-0 against the Rangers this year and only play them one more time on February 11th at Madison Square Garden. Last week I mentioned to Rob Yunich, who has a daily Caps blog called Storming the Crease (www.stormingthecrease.com), that I thought the Rangers would fade as the season progressed. I do still see New York making the playoffs but they could easily finish 4th in their division behind the Flyers, New Jersey, and Pittsburgh
Other Hockey News
Speaking of Pittsburgh, is Head Coach Michel Therien’s job in trouble? It might be considering that his team was absolutely blasted by the Florida Panthers, 6-1, today for their fourth straight loss. Florida, who had lost four straight games coming into this contest in Mellon Arena, handed Sydney Crosby and the Pens their eleventh defeat of the year at home and since December 1st they have only won five of 16 games overall. Frustration is clearly up in Pittsburgh and Crosby amassed 21 penalty minutes in the contest including 19 when he jumped Florida defensemen Brett McLean after an offensive zone face-off. Pittsburgh is still missing defensemen Sergei Gonchar from their lineup but injuries can not be used as an excuse, especially when teams like the Caps have been hit much harder by them.
The NHL Winter Classic on NBC on New Year’s Day between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings was once again a huge success for hockey and the whole scene leading up to the start of the game was incredible. The event earned a 2.9 overnight rating and a 6.0 television share, the best overnight NHL regular-season rating in nearly 13 years. Last year’s Winter Classic at the Buffalo Bills’ Ralph Wilson Stadium drew a 2.6 overnight rating and a 5.0 share on NBC when Pittsburgh beat Buffalo, 2-1, in a shootout. Detroit, despite trailing 3-1 after the first period, came back to win Thursday’s game and run their record against Chicago to 4-0 this season. Cristobal Huet did not have one of his better games against the Red Wings and I thought the fifth Red Wings goal that he allowed was very soft. Detroit has an eight point lead on second place Chicago in the Central Division but the Blackhawks have two games in hand.
Last season the Northwest Division of the Western Conference was a dogfight between the Minnesota Wild, the Calgary Flames, the Colorado Avalanche, and the Vancouver Canucks until the Wild pulled away late down the stretch. This year Calgary and Vancouver have separated themselves from the Wild, Avs, and the Edmonton Oilers with Calgary leading the Canucks by four points but they also have two games in hand on Vancouver. I picked the Flames to win the division before the season and GM Darryl Sutter’s off-season acquisitions, focused on improving his second, third, and fourth lines, seem to be paying off. The Wild have been killed by the loss of free agent forward Brian Rolston, who is back with the New Jersey Devils, and an injury to forward Marian Gaborik, who will be out 10 more weeks due to hip surgery. Gaborik is an unrestricted free agent this summer but he rarely has been able to stay healthy for a complete season so he isn’t worth big money. He will likely regret turning down an earlier Minnesota contract offer that reportedly would have paid him $8M a season.
The Buffalo Sabres ended the Boston Bruins 10 game winning streak on Saturday night with a 4-2 victory in Beantown. This was Boston’s first home loss since October. The Bruins lead the Eastern Conference by seven points over the Caps but do have a game in hand. Given good health, I still think the Caps could catch them because the Southeast Division is not as strong as the Northeast Division and the schedule is weighted such that teams play more division games down the stretch.