Semin, Neuvirth Lead Caps Over Coyotes, 4-2

January 23, 2010 | Ed Frankovic

After pounding the Penguins on Thursday night and following victories over the Red Wings and Flyers earlier in the week, Saturday night’s tilt against the Phoenix Coyotes, who are in 4th place in the Western Conference, appeared to be a game that the Washington Capitals could possibly overlook. The Caps did not so the players and their coaches deserve credit for recognizing that they needed to play well against a good Coyotes team and Washington did just that en route to a 4-2 victory at the Verizon Center. Alexander Semin (1 goal, 3 assists) was the game’s number one star scoring a big goal that made it 3-1 late in the second period and he once again made some spectacular passes, including a nice one to Alexander Ovechkin to set up an empty net goal with six seconds remaining. Michal Neuvirth (28 saves) received his first start since being yanked on back to back nights in the Sunshine State and he turned in a superb effort. The Caps won their sixth straight game (3rd time this season), are now 9-1 since they named Ovechkin as team captain, improved to 18-3-3 at the Phone Booth in 2009-10, and they continue to lead the Eastern Conference Standings with a 33-12-6 record (72 points). WOW!

Let’s get right to the highlighs, quotes, and analysis:

Semin has just taken his game to another level since Ovechkin has been named team captain, in case anyone is keeping track. Coincidence? I say NOT! If their is one guy who can really get to #28 after Sergei Fedorov left for the KHL this past summer, it is definitely the Great #8. Another reason Sasha could be playing so well is his contract situation has been resolved for next year, but money aside, #28 just seems to have really responded to the leadership from his Russian Comrade (or he is afraid of letting Ovie down, LOL!). After the win, Comcast’s Lisa Hillary did a nice job of asking Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau about the play of Semin (16 points in last 10 games) and if there was a connection with the Oveckhin captaincy.

“I don’t know, maybe he is listending to Ovie now. I know he is playing well but I thought it was more the lines are sticking together, but if it is because Ovie’s the captain, great!” added Boudreau who earlier in January switched Semin to a line with Tomas Fleischmann at center and Brooks Laich at left wing that is really clicking (see winning goal in Pittsburgh on Thursday night). “He’s playing well right now. He’s so skilled. He’s one of the few people that I know of, Nicky {Capitals Center Nicklas Backstrom} may be the other one, that can pass it from one side of the ice to the other side and it lands flat all the time. It’s a real skill. He’s got it. He’s sort of on his game right now,” finished Boudreau on #28.”

Neuvirth, as mentioned above, came back strong after his disastrous Florida games and it has to make the organization extremely happy, given Semyon Varlamov’s injured knee. Neuvy can’t be faulted on either Coyotes tally and he was very good at not giving up rebounds and making the big save when needed. His stop on Vernon Fiddler’s first period shorthanded breakaway was big because the kid had struggled previously on those at the NHL level. He also made a super save on a 1 on 1 with Lauri Korpikoski (scored both Phoenix goals) in the third period when it was 3-2. Down the stretch, in a pressure packed contest, he routinely held on to the puck so that his coaching staff could get the match-ups they wanted.

“Neuvy played really good, he was a little nervous early in the game. But he really smothered pucks in the third period and allowed our centermen to win a lot of face-offs, so we could get line changes and weren’t caught out there too long. That was a real big factor. He is a pressures goaltender, he won the Calder Cup playing ever game. Sometimes he wants to play so badly that he lets things get to him and he gets rattled. He started to get rattled again in Florida and Arty (Caps goalie coach Arturs Irbe) practiced him hard…I had targeted this game for Neuvy all along,” said Boudreau when asked to assess his young goalie and why he went with #30 given the recent stellar play of Jose Theodore. Boudreau, as I have said many times before, really seems to have a knack for picking the right Caps goalie to start a contest. I guess nearly 3,000 games at the professional level will do that, eh?

“I wasn’t really feeling very good before the game and I didn’t really expect to play because Theo was playing really good now. I was shaky at first, but I settled down and just played my game. Just get my confidence back. I was really down after those two games. I felt like my career was over. So Archie [Irbe] helped me a lot and it’s a big win. Big thanks to him,” said Neuvirth about the game and his road back from the Florida debacle. I don’t know about anyone else, but based on the “felt like my career was over” quote someone needs to sit #30 down and remind him that he is only 21 years old and bad games are going to happen. On air today on WNST I mentioned that a lot of goaltending is between the ears and that quote is more proof (btw, to listen to my whole session with WNST Section 410 host, Eric Aaronson, click here and scroll down to my name).

The Capitals special teams contine to sizzle and they were a big difference in tonight’s win again. Washington went 2 of 7 on the power play while holding the Coyotes scoreless on their five attempts. A power play that was 2 for 2 at the Igloo on Thursday got one right out of the gate on Semin’s beauty of a pass to Laich, who nicely deflected it upstairs by Phoenix goalie Ilya Bryzgalov (30 saves). Eric Fehr also received a fortuitous power play bounce and roofed one by the Coyotes goalie to make it 2-1 in the 2nd period. Fehr, who notched his 14th goal in 40 games this season, has been really playing like a 1st round pick (picked by Caps in that round in 2003) and took advantage of a rare instance when Boudreau could put out multiple units numerous times in a contest.

“We haven’t had many power plays to speak of {lately}. We’ve got two power-play units. Nobody’s had {power play} minutes except Alex {Ovechkin} and Mike {Capitals Defenseman Mike Green}. Today we had {seven} power plays. The {two units} come at you from different sides and Eric’s on {one of the units} and he’s going to get that extra time,” said Boudreau on his power play configuration.

My only issue with the power play tonight was that Phoenix seemed to really try and take advantage of Ovie and Green on the points when they obtained the puck. There were a few instances when they blew by Ovie and had quality chances but fortunately for Washington Neuvirth came up big. Fiddler also had a breakaway after a #52 giveaway. This potential problem should be addressed by assistant coach Dean Evason and Boudreau in some film study sessions because I imagine other clubs, when watching tape of this one, will have their PK forwards try and do the same thing that the Coyotes had some success in doing.

Overall, this was a good effort in a game that there was a potential for Washington to be flat in. But as stated in the opening above, credit should go to the players and coaches for this one. Also, the fans deserve kudos too because they were loud based on what I could surmise on television and twitter was filled with comments about the decibel level at sold out Verizon Center.

“I was really worried about this game because Phoenix is a good team but also because of an emotional letdown after playing Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. I thought our guys answered the bell pretty well emotionally in this kind of game. We kept saying, ‘stay the course.’ Today was going to be a game about patience. They’re very good defensively. I thought we did a good job of just staying that course and doing what we had to do. One of our keys to the game, since they are a low scoring team, was special teams. We scored five-on-five and two power-play goals and that was the difference,” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams award winner on the victory.

“We ended up having to work too hard because we took too many penalties. When you give the top power play in the league that many opportunities it wears down people and it wears down your defense…in the end it comes down to a special teams contest and we lost that contest tonight,” said Coyotes Coach and former Capital Dave Tippett, summing up why he thought his team did not win.

Other notes, stats, and comments: Team Russia has to be pretty happy with Bryzgalov and Evgeny Nabokov (Sharks) as their top two goalies for the Olympics. I thought Ilya was very good tonight and kept his team in this one as the Caps came out real strong early. If Varlamov can get healthy for Vancouver, he can really learn some things from those two veteran Russian goalies…The ice time for Caps defenders, other than Green (26:45), was down tonight because of all of the PP’s. Karl Alzner only logged 13:21 but was +1, Jeff Schultz played just 16:50 going -2, John Erskine was even in 13:49 (he returned from injury and replaced Tyler Sloan), and Shaone Morrisonn only played 15:58 (1 assist, +1). Tom Poti (+1) did go 21:58, primarily due to 5:11 of PK time…Washington had another dominant night at the face-off dot, going 38-26..The Caps are off on Sunday and will next play on Long Island on Tuesday at 7pm against John Tavares and a finally healthy New York goalie, Rick DiPietro.