Varlamov, Defense Lead Caps Over Habs

December 29, 2010 | Ed Frankovic

Defense Wins Championships, isn’t that how the saying goes? Well the Washington Capitals have recently been working towards becoming a better defensive club and on Tuesday night they played super defensively and received excellent goaltending from Semyon Varlamov (25 saves) in a 3-0 blanking of the Montreal Canadiens at a sold out Verizon Center. Jay Beagle, Mike Green, and Alexander Ovechkin each scored a goal in the victory that gives the Capitals a 4-0-1 record in their last five games following an 0-6-2 stretch when an injured and ill team seemed to get every bad break going. Washington improves to 22-12-5 (49 points) overall and they lead the Tampa Bay Lightning by two points after the Bolts lost with just 19.7 seconds remaining in regulation to the Boston Bruins on Tuesday. Tampa does have two games in hand on the Caps.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis of a contest in which the Capitals style of play continues to shift to one that is more likely to bring success in the post season, at least that is what they hope will happen:

- Remember when the Canadiens raced out to early first period leads in games five, six, and seven of last season’s playoff series and then frustrated the Caps the rest of the way? Well, that is what Washington did to Montreal on Tuesday night. Beagle and Green scored late in the opening frame and then the Caps stymied the Montreal attack with smart hockey during the final stanza. The Capitals, when ahead in the third period, are no longer trying to score on lower probability chances and instead are more likely to dump the puck in deep on their opponents and then make them skate through a maze of Washington defenders in the neutral zone. This transformation, which began during the Capitals recent eight game slide, is starting to really take hold and as a result the Caps have only allowed 12 goals in their last seven contests.

“It’s a little bit more different, we sit back a little bit more in the neutral zone and try and clog up the middle. Try and make it hard on them to get it into our zone. It was a little bit more aggressive, our system earlier, and the guys are really buying into the [newer] system and it is working really well,” said Beagle when I asked him how the style they are playing now is different than the aggressive forechecking system they used to employ throughout a contest.

“I thought everybody played hard and they were committed to what they were doing. It is a new way for us to play but I think we are liking it,” added Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau on the more defensive approach that his club is using, especially late in games when they have a lead.

- For those of you that regularly read my blog and post game analysis, you know that I will almost always provide the faceoff results for that night’s tilt, usually in the notes portion of the summary. Faceoffs are just a small part of the game but they often indicate a number of things such as effort and a team’s ability to control the puck, and likely the game. On Tuesday night the Capitals destroyed the Montreal Canadiens from the dot, 36-16, and that played a big role in the victory. Nicklas Backstrom (1 assist, +2) was 10-2, Dave Steckel won 15 of 22 draws, and Beagle went 7-4 in a dominant all around performance from the dot.

“I think it is important because road teams can’t get their matchups if you win the faceoffs…Nicky was 9-1 after two and Stecks took a lot of the big draws in the third period and I think he won almost every one of them. Those things, they are little points to the game that are so important. When you usually succeed you do all of the little points right. And I thought we did and that is why you end up with zero goals against,” commented Boudreau on his teams supreme advantage from the faceoff dot against the Canadiens.

“Wow, that’s something we’ve been working on a lot. So to hear that stat is really rewarding. We’ve been doing a lot of work on faceoffs,” added Beagle, who was given the red hard hat by his teammates for his outstanding game. It was #83′s first ever hard hat in 17 games at the NHL level with Washington over the past three seasons.

- Washington went shorthanded five times on Tuesday and once again the penalty killing unit was super strong in 8:27 of time. Winning the faceoffs is the first key to stopping the opponents man advantage and the Caps excelled at those key defensive zone draws while down a man in this one. Another big factor to killing penalties is the play of your goaltender and Varlamov was outstanding, especially in the opening seven minutes when the Habs were given two early power plays and had some of their best chances of the evening. The Capitals aggressive penalty killing scheme would not have been totally successful without players sacrificing their body and laying out to block shots. One of those key ones came from Mike Knuble in the third period with Montreal pressing to cut into the Caps lead. Washington’s PK unit has now killed off 16 consecutive shorthanded situations and is 22 of 23 (95.7%) in the last six games. The Caps are up to sixth in the NHL in penalty killing percentage at 84.8% after being under 80% and in the bottom third of the league in 2009-10.

- On the other side of the special teams equation, the Caps went 0 for 8 on the power play, however five of the eight opportunities did provide numerous good chances but Montreal goalie Carey Price (27 saves) was excellent or received some luck. #31 stopped Ovechkin in tight all alone in the first period, denied Eric Fehr on several other shots, and Knuble also missed a tap in in the final period when the Great #8 made a super move and pass to #22 on the door step, but the Michigan alum shot it wide. On the good power play chances, the Caps had a lot of movement and the passes were quick and accurate. But on the two or three disappointing man advantage situations either the Capitals had a hard time getting the puck in the zone and setting up or they resorted to holding onto the puck too long in an attempt to make the perfect passing play. Green and Backstrom were the main culprits when the power play sputtered but overall those two guys did a good job when it was working well, too.

“We had seven or eight really good chances so I can take some solace from that but I think the boys would like to have some results from that, as well,” said Boudreau on his power play unit that has been blanked in 19:27 of time over the last two games.

- With Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson out with injuries, the Caps called up Keith Aucoin to play second line center and #20 saw 11:47 of action. The 2009-10 AHL MVP had an up and down game but one of the keys to the Washington victory was the play of the other Hershey callups, such as Beagle, who adds speed and size to Washington’s forward crew. On Tuesday the bigger Capitals front units gave the Canadiens fits in their zone all evening. #83 has been very impressive and he will be tough to take out of the lineup after another strong performance (goal and +1 in 9:52 of ice time). His backhanded tally, after coming off of the rear boards, was a thing of beauty.

“I didn’t actually, I had forehand and it just happened when I took a look that two guys kind of came to my forehand and I heard [Jason Chimera] yelling on my left and [Eric Fehr] was going to the net so I knew if I threw it on the net good things would happen and it went in,” finished Beagle, when I asked him if he was thinking backhand when he received the puck deep in the Montreal zone.

Notes: Washington is 4-0-1 when a Hershey recalled player scores a goal…the Caps are 12-1-4 when scoring the first goal of the game…Fehr recorded an assist, six shots on goal and a +2 rating in 13:50 of ice time. He played well and could have had more points if not for Price…Green extended his point streak to three games (2 goals, 1 assist) and registered a season-high six shots on goal. #52 registered a game-high 28:19 of ice time and has now led the Caps in ice time in 28 of his 33 games, surpassing 30 minutes six times this season…d-man Jeff Schultz returned after missing the last nine games due to a fractured thumb. #55 was solid, logging 13:16 of ice time…the Capitals are off until Saturday at 1pm, when they take on the Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field on NBC in the annual NHL Winter Classic on January 1st.

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