Semyon Varlamov took advantage of a Friday night start after his strong relief outing against the Islanders on Wednesday and he stopped 29 of 30 Minnesota shots as the Caps knocked off the Wild, 3-1, at sold out Verizon Center. Defenseman Brian Pothier scored the game winner for Washington two minutes into the third period notching his second goal in four games. The Caps, who played once again without Alexander Ovechkin, have won four straight games and move to an Eastern Conference best 12-3-4 record. The Great #8 is very close to returning and there is a chance he could go Saturday night in New Jersey.
The opening 10 minutes of this one were very sloppy for Washington with numerous bad passes plus too much finese and as a result the Wild had 7 of the first 8 shots on net. Then at 14:21 into the contest, Alexander Semin made a nice move in the corner on the Wild’s Nick Schultz and he took #28 down putting the Caps on the games first power play. Washington put a ton of pressure on Wild goalie Josh Harding but he covered the lower area of the net nicely and made some good saves in close. Mike Knuble was shoved into the net on one sequence and he went to the bench, then headed to the locker room, and never returned the rest of the evening. After the contest Caps Media Relations Director Nate Ewell announced that Knuble broke a finger and it will require surgery, keeping #22 out 3-4 weeks.
With 2:06 left in the opening period Nicklas Backstrom took an elbowing penalty and the Wild went on their first man advantage of the night. Washington was doing a great job of killing off the penalty but then Chris Clark jumped on the ice too quickly to play the puck and Washington was immediately whistled for too many men on the ice. Minnesota would have a two man advantage for 29 seconds but Dave Steckel won the key defensive zone face-off and then Varlamov stopped Martin Havlat on the only good chance with the 5 on 3. The period would end with no score.
After the rest of Clark’s penaly expired, Cal Clutterbuck, who killed the Caps with two goals last season in the only meeting between the two teams, scored a softy on Varly from the right wing boards to give the Wild the first goal of the contest just 1:31 into the second period. The Caps then nearly tied it as Tom Poti fed Brendan Morrison in the slot but Harding (38 saves) made a sparkling glove save. With 15:18 left in the middle stanza the Caps went back on the power play as Poti drew a high stick and the Caps tied it on a Mike Green slot shot off of a nice feed from Tomas Fleischmann. #14, who has been red hot, now has six goals and three assists in his last 7 games (and he has only played 8 contests this season).
John Erskine then did some house cleaning in Washington’s own zone and that sprung Matt Bradley and Pothier on a two on one rush but Harding stopped #10′s blast. At the 8:53 mark Brooks Laich took a delay of game penalty when he threw a backhander over the glass, something the Caps have done better at limiting this season. Washington’s penalty killing was strong though and did not give up a shot on net. Mathieu Perreault then brought another one of his high energy shifts and he drew a penalty in the offensive zone on Schultz. The Caps had incredible puck possession time and pressure but they couldn’t get the puck by Harding. Washington continued to be all over the Wild, who played the previous night in Tampa Bay, as Semin and Green had some good chances but the Caps couldn’t connect and period two ended tied at one. The Caps dominated the play and the shot total, leading 30-16, but in a between period interview on Comcast, #52 pointed out that Washington’s shots included too many from the perimeter. Clearly the team was not going to the net as strong and the loss of Knuble to the finger injury was a factor in the lack of trafffic on Harding.
Perreault, the spark plug, then set up Pothier in the slot and with Eric Fehr going hard to the net and screening Harding, #2 blasted it top right and the Caps jumped to a 2-1 lead just two minutes into period three.
The Wild started to pressure and at the 15:26 mark Steckel turned it over behind his net and Varly made a big stick save on Brent Burns. Pothier was then set up nicely by Semin and Morrison in the slot but he didn’t get full wood on it and Harding kept the contest a one goal game.
Washington pressured the Wild and Bradley took advantage of Knuble’s absence by getting more ice time but #10 was thwarted in close a couple of times after some nice set ups from Backstrom. A crazy sequence in the Caps end then ensued as both Erskine and Varly lost their sticks and the Wild nearly scored. Washington then got a lucky break when play was stopped because the puck got wedged underneath the doors where the Zamboni comes onto the ice. Talk about home ice advantage, that was a big stoppage there for the Caps.
Washington followed that up with another terrible shift as Tyler Sloan made a giveaway and Quintin Laing almost knocked it into his own net but Varly alertly covered it. Semin then set up Laich in tight and he made a nice backhand move. Harding stopped him and left the rebound laying in the slot, but #28 did not go hard to the net to collect it and the Wild moved it out of harm’s way.
Minnesota then started setting up some shots in transition by swinging the puck to the back side of the Washington defense down the right wing but Varlamov made a couple of good stops. The Wild pulled their goalie late but the Caps did really good work in the neutral zone thwarting their rush and when the officials wiped out a possible icing call on the Caps, Minnesota’s Schultz turned over the puck to Laich and he put it into the empty net to close it out for the Caps.
Here is my post game analysis plus some quotes from Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau:
When Washington took the lead early in the 3rd period I wondered aloud if the Caps could finally hold onto a lead by playing smart and not taking bad penalties? The Caps played fairly intelligently after that point, although the Wild did get 14 shots on net in the final period, but they did not take the dumb infraction that has plagued them near the end of several contests this season.
“It was really nice to not take any penalties, to limit their opportunities, but every time we go down the ice on a 3 on 1 or 3 on 2′s and have great chances to score and don’t, I think uh-oh, they are going to come back, so it doesn’t alleviate any stress on the coaches we have. I was glad to see it and usually what happens in sports is you need that one hump game to finally get the confidence that you can do it without taking penalties and without doing this. Hopefully that will lead into more things,” said the 2008 Jack Adams Award winner about finally closing out a one goal game.
Good goaltending helps too and Varly was very solid positionally challenging shooters and not giving up rebounds. #40 is starting to make a push back for the #1 ne t minding job. Despite the fact that Boudreau has a history of riding the hot goalie, with this season being so long and the Caps hoping for a Stanley Cup run, the idea of rotating goalies night in and night out might be a good plan for the next 20 games or so.
“He shut the door [after the soft goal] and that’s great, even just allowing one goal was really strong,” added Boudreau on Varly.
Pothier and Green plus even Poti were good activating themselves from the backline and that was the key to the win. #2 is really playing his best hockey since returning from injury last season and he has two goals, three assists and is +7 during Washington’s four game winning streak. Pothier has now played over 19 minutes in each of those games and Boudreau has to be gaining more confidence in him. As Comcast commentator and former Capital Alan May said on Caps Post Game Live, the defense was very good overall and Erskine, who is one of the slower guys on the team, really played well positionally and had a very solid performance. Tarik El-Bashir of The Washington Post asked Green if the defense was jumping up into the attack more with the Great #8 out of the line-up but #52 said that they are playing the same way and only doing that when the opportunity presents itself.
What more can you say about Perreault? #85 just continues to go and go like the Energizer bunny and he will make it hard for GM George McPhee to send him back to Hershey when the team gets healthy. Keith Aucion played well when he was up as well so the Bears continue to contribute to Washington’s success. Clearly this organization has alot of depth, especially at forward, and Tim Leone, who covers Hershey for the Harrisburg Patriot-News, told me on Wednesday night that Francois Bouchard has been one of the pleasant surprises this season and is finally starting to show some promise too down on the farm.
Clutterbuck was the Wild’s best player but he is also very chippy almost getting Green in his own zone with a big hit but #52 alertly got his head up in time to avoid the check. The pesky forward also shoved Backstrom into Varlamov in the third period and I would have liked to have seen someone clean his clock there but given it was a one goal contest cooler heads prevailing looked like the right decision.
I am glad that the Wild are in the Western Conference because they play a very deliberate and boring style but given their weak offensive roster coach Todd Richards has no choice. New GM Chuck Fletcher has his work cut out for him with this team. Minnesota does have very good goaltending in #1 guy Nicklas Backstrom and Harding did well in relief too despite falling to 0-3 on the season.
Face-offs were a key factor again, especially on the penalty kill, and Steckel had a great night going 15-3 while taking most of the key draws, especially in the Caps end. The rest of the team was only 19-25 against the Wild. #39 also had some scoring chances and it is just a matter of time until he breaks through for his 1st tally of the season.
With Knuble getting hurt tonight and Ovechkin improving I have a hunch we will finally see Alexander the Great back on the ice against the Devils. It is time too, the Caps have done their part getting four wins against some weaker teams but to defeat a team like New Jersey and some of the better squads they will start facing soon they need the best player on the planet back. “I don’t know yet, I have to talk to the powers that be,” was Boudreau’s answer when asked if #8 was playing against New Jersey on Saturday.