With a 14 game winning streak in tow the Washington Capitals headed to Montreal to take on the Canadiens in one of the toughest buildings to play in the NHL. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau had been warning everyone that the team has been sloppy lately and he was prophetic on Wednesday night as Washington made several mistakes in their own zone and took several bad penalties. As a result they fell into a 5-2 hole after two periods, put on a furious rally in the third period to tie the game at 5 with 18 seconds left, and then lost with eight seconds to go in overtime on another defensive zone breakdown. The loss snaps the third longest streak in NHL history in addition to one of the most exciting winning runs I have ever witnessed in all of sports.
“It’s over, it was a great run, when only two teams have gotten better than you in that situation in all of hockey it is a great run. That is why the guys are so deflated, they were really trying in the third period and when they scored with  seconds to go you could see the excitement on the bench. I’m more disappointed because I knew they really wanted it but just didn’t play well enough to win,” said Boudreau after the tough loss.
A tough loss it was and as Coach Boudreau said, the players are deflated. Let’s get to the highlights, injury info, and analysis:
Despite losing the Caps pick up a point in the standings and are now 41-12-7 and maintain their 14 point lead in the Eastern Conference race. With San Jose losing in Columbus on Wednesday they also have a two point lead in the battle for the President’s Trophy (best record in NHL) . The Caps play in Ottawa on Thursday night and then St. Louis on Saturday before the NHL will shut down for two plus weeks for the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Coming into this contest Washington was +61 in 5 on 5 play while the Canadiens were -20. Also, the Capitals had not given up a goal in the first minute of any period this season. Unfortunately both of those stats did not back up what happened to Washington on the opening shift as the Caps made several mistakes, including a really bad giveaway by Tom Poti, and Scott Gomez beat Michal Neuvirth short side to make 1-0 just 36 seconds into the contest. Surely this was not a good sign for Washington. The Caps would also give up a tally just 41 seconds into the second period.
The Caps and the Canadiens had the #1 and #2 power plays in the NHL, respectively, so staying out of the box was likely going to be important for both teams. Whether it was the referees, and we will get to their problems in a minute, or sloppy/lazy play the Caps had 7 power plays while Montreal received 5. Both teams scored once on the evening with the man advantage.
Officiating was definitely an issue on Wednesday night and referees Eric Furlatt and Kyle Rehman made some poor decisions, especially when they disallowed what appeared to be a goal by Alexander Ovechkin in the second period that would have cut Montreal’s lead to 4-3. After Habs goalie Carey Price (33 saves) robbed Mike Knuble on a shot down the left wing, the puck bounced into the slot at the feet of Hal Gill. The Great #8 came flying in and hit Gill, with the puck present, and Oveckhkin, Gill, Price, and the puck all went into each other with the biscuit sliding into the cage. The official behind the net immediately ruled it a goal but then after a zebra convention at mid ice they decided to waive the tally off. Bad decision and Scott Morrison and Jeff Marek, both of Hockey Night in Canada, stated via their Twitter accounts that it was a terrible ruling. After the game, Morrison (on Twitter) and Boudreau (in his press conference) stated they were told the goal was wiped out because Price did not have the opportunity to play the puck. Huh? Seems to me his own defenseman went into him as Price was lunging forward out of his crease so I am not sure how they could wave it off? But they did and shortly thereafter the Habs made it 5-2. The linesman did not have a good night either and when watching replays of the fourth Montreal tally it sure looks like Maxim Lapierre is offsides when the puck is brought into Washington’s zone so I am sure that one will be looked at as well by the men in charge of the officials. The words “home cooking” could definitely be used to describe this contest considering those two plays.
On the positive side of things, this was one heck of a come back and Brooks Laich notched his first hat trick (20 goals on season) and just the second one by a Capital all year (Ovechkin’s on Sunday vs. the Penguins was the first). The Caps, who had outscored teams 30-6 in the 3rd period during the streak, won that period 3-0 on Wednesday on a power play goal from Mike Green and the last two Laich tallies.
Neuvirth started this one but left after making 12 saves on 14 shots in just over 25 minutes and according to Boudreau he aggravated a previous injury. Jose Theodore (21 saves) came on in relief and despite getting heckled by his old fans and giving up four goals he made several great stops, including a glove save on Andrei Markov when it was 5-3 that was a thing of beauty. It would have been nice to see #60 keep his 10 game winning streak going and also shut up all of the Montreal fans but he was “left out to dry” by his team, as Boudreau put it after the contest.
Montreal was definitely amped up to try and halt Washington’s streak and Gomez, Brian Gionta, and Cap killer Tomas Plekenac (two goals) all had good games. Plekenac, in fact, scored the game winner when Alexander Semin missed the net at the far end to allow the Habs to come back 2 on 2 and when Brian Pothier and Jeff Schultz appeared to miscommunicate #14 went to the net eluding Sarge and he tapped in Sergei Kostitsyin’s pass. Schultz, who is second to Oveckin in NHL +/-, had one of the worst games he’s had all season in defeat. However, he was not the only one who struggled as Poti (-2, left game in the 3rd period due to injury and is day-to-day according to Boudreau), Erskine (-2), and Shaone Morrisonn had some issues defensively. Boudreau didn’t blame it all on the defensemen saying that the “Forwards were lazy in our zone too.” Brendan Morrison took two penalties and was -1 in just over 12 minutes of ice time. #9 is struggling big time right now and he clearly missed left wing Jason Chimera (day to day with a groin pull).
Semin, who was a guy who had been playing the best hockey of his career up until Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh, had another off night. #28 routinely turned the puck over, missed the net on numerous shots, and took a bad penalty. Perhaps his mind is on Vancouver and Team Russia’s chances in next week’s Olympics?
Skater-wise for Washington several guys stood out with good games in Laich (3 goals), Green (1 goal, 1 assist in 30:52 of ice time), Ovechkin (2 assists, +1 in 29:30 of time), Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist), and Knuble (1 assist). Is there a better top line in hockey right now than Ovie-Backstrom-Knuble? I don’t think so.
With Neuvirth injured, Semyon Varlamov on the road trip, and the winning streak now over, I would bet that Varly gets a start, probably in St. Louis. To me that is very important for this team and the young goalie as they get ready for the all important post season that starts in April. Keep in mind that Varly was 12-1-2 and the clear #1 Caps goalie before he injured his groin on December 7th (and he subsequently injured his knee in Hershey on a rehabilitation assignment). Now he will likely battle Theodore for the right to start game 1 of the playoffs. Theo has been great over the last month plus but if Varlamov gets healthy, based on his performance in last year’s playoffs, he would be my choice to start things off. But there are still two more months of hockey before that decision needs to be made by Boudreau and GM George McPhee.
This Caps team sure is exciting and if you think it was nerve racking in the third period and overtime with the streak on the line, just wait until the postseason starts! Washington is a very good and entertaining club and they should be proud of an incredible winning streak that has taken interest in an already exceptional hockey team to a new level in the entire DC-Maryland-Virginia area. I look forward to seeing the ratings from Wednesday’s loss because they likely broke more Comcast Caps viewing records. Finally, look no further than this Twitter post from Marek (Hockey Night in Canada Radio host on Sirius 127 M-F from 4-7 pm) to me after the game to sum up what even people outside of this region are saying about the Caps:
“Great run, great streak. The most fun team in the NHL to watch right now, hands down.”