Playing on back to back nights and traveling home from a late tilt in Canada the night before, the Washington Capitals were ripe for the taking in the first period of Wednesday night’s contest with the Florida Panthers. The Cats tried to take advantage of a tired Caps team and threw everything they could at Washington, but goalie Semyon Varlamov stopped all 18 shots he faced in the opening frame, many of which were of the quality variety. Varly blanked the Panthers while Mike Knuble and Jason Chimera both tallied on a recently resurgent Capitals power play to give Washington a 2-0 first period lead and from there the Caps closed the deal with a 5-2 victory. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau’s squad is now 48-22-11 (107 pts) and if Washington gets either one point in Florida in Saturday’s season finale or the Philadelphia Flyers don’t win both of their remaining two contests then the Capitals clinch the first seed in the Eastern Conference for the second straight year.
Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from the Caps 101st straight sellout at the Verizon Center:
– If Varlamov doesn’t play superbly in period one then Florida likely jumps to an early lead and wins this game. #1 was outstanding with his positioning and as a result he didn’t give up many juicy rebounds after doing that on the first shot he faced. The young net minder, who has performed well in the large majority of his outings this season, has not received much in the way of offensive support from his teammates. Varly is now 11-9-5 on the season, is fourth in the NHL in GAA (2.23), and is tied for fourth in save percentage (.924). That win-loss record is much better if the Caps could score some goals for him and on this night they took advantage of two power plays in the opening frame to finally give him a lead to work with. Overall, the Capitals goaltenders are playing well and afterwards Boudreau talked about the great play from his Russian net minder.
“Yeah, we weren’t very good [in period one]…He kept us in it in period one. If it wasn’t for Varly it probably would have been 3-1 for them. We would have had to expend an awful lot of energy just to come back. It is difficult to do sometimes,” said Boudreau on Varlamov’s play and what his team would have needed had #1 not been so good.
“I feel we can put one of three guys in and I know we are going to get a good game. Again, it is no knock on anybody else but it is just the way I feel. It may not happen, but that is just the way I feel,” added the Caps head coach on the faith he has in all of his goalies for this upcoming post season, which will start next Wednesday or Thursday.
– The power play is rounding into form at the right time and the Caps have five tallies in man advantage situations in the last three games. Brooks Laich (two assists) is doing an excellent job on the right point of the power play by keeping it simple. #21 is moving the puck quickly and firing the biscuit at the cage often. Boudreau also likes having #21 out there because of his ability to play defense.
“[John] Carlson was getting too much ice time and he was getting tired. We seemed to have a defensemen injured in almost every game in recent weeks and I’ve always wanted a left-right combination [at the point] rather than two rights. And Brooks is such a responsible person, I thought he could get back there and do it, and he has, he’s done quite a fine job,” said Boudreau on his thought process for employing #21 on the point on the power play.
– Alexander Ovechkin had excellent passes to help set up goals one and three and he added goal five into an empty net on Nicklas Backstrom’s (two assists) shifty move and feed. The Great #8’s drop pass to Sean Collins (1 goal in 18:36 of ice time) at 11:42 of period two pretty much ended any thought of a Florida comeback. Alexander the Great now has 32 goals and 53 assists (85 points) in 78 games this season. He played 18:39 in the game against Florida and appears to be the healthiest he’s been heading into the postseason in his career.
“A couple of things happened, you either get very frustrated if you are their team or be very angry [when the other goalie is playing well]. I thought it was very important to get that third goal. Because you saw what finally did happen when they scored a goal. They came on and they played the last five minutes and I started to think of the Toronto game in November was reoccuring all over again because they were outworking us,” added Boudreau on the big tally by Collins and what he was thinking when Florida put a late push on in the final six minutes after Washington was up 4-0.
– In that opening frame, which was pretty much all Florida, the Cats had a full two and a half minutes of zone time on Washington starting after Laich was called for holding the stick. Backstrom, Carlson, Boyd Gordon, and Karl Alzner were pinned in their end and could not clear the puck. They finally iced the biscuit and with the Caps up 1-0 at the 13:05 mark Boudreau called his only timeout. It was a shrewd move by a very experienced head coach because his skaters were clearly gassed and were not allowed to change due to the icing infraction.
“I hate calling it out in the first period if you don’t have to because you don’t know how the game is going to go. But they were on the ice for two minutes and the other guys were putting on a fresh line so I thought this was as important a time as we were going to get, especially when we had the lead. If we were behind and I thought, geez, I might need it later, then I might have changed the goalie to give us a break or something but it’s what we did,” said Boudreau on his wise and successful decision to take the timeout early in the contest.
– Jason Arnott, Alexander Semin, and Scott Hannan all received the night off to rest nagging injuries and with those top players out along with Mike Green, Dennis Wideman, and Tom Poti, the Capitals had a depleted lineup for game #81 of the 2010-11 season. Green is expected to see action on Saturday in Florida while Poti will not suit up for that contest. General Manager George McPhee, in an interview with the Sports Reporters on 980 am, stated that Wideman’s leg is still open [to relieve pressure from his hematoma], and that the muscles around it are okay. GMGM said his hope was that #6 could come back in the second round of the playoffs, if the Caps make it that far.
– In summary, the Caps were far from perfect on this night but they have some excuses given injuries and a grueling schedule. But somehow this team keeps winning and it is 19-4-1 in the last 24 contests. Washington is now 3-1-1 versus the Cats, who give the Caps problems because they are a fast team that puts out a solid effort.
“Give them credit, they worked hard, and I think we were a little tired at the end. We’ve played a lot of hockey and that is a long flight from Toronto when you have to go through customs you get home late and stuff. I know it is a bit of an excuse but that’s the one I’m using tonight,” finished Boudreau on why the team struggled, at times, in this victory.
Notes: Washington closes out the regular season home schedule with the best winning percentage on home ice (25-8-8) and the least number of home losses (8) in the NHL…Knuble now has 13 points (nine goals, four assists) in his last 13 games. The old man seems to have found the fountain of youth again. Former Cap and CSN broadcaster Alan May told me after the second period that #22 said his success was due to his body getting in better shape as the season wore on…because of the one long PK shift, Alzner played 10 minutes in period one but only ended up logging 23:50 for the game. Boudreau was able to better monitor ice time when the Caps performed better in the final two frames. They only gave up 15 shots in the final 40 minutes after allowing 18 in period one…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 24:24…The Capitals won the face-off battle, 29-28. Laich was 9-3 while Gordon won 10 of 16 draws…final shots on goal were 33-25 in favor of Florida…Washington was 2-4 on the power play while Florida was 1-4, scoring on David Booth’s laser with just seven minutes remaining.