It was old man night at the Verizon Center on Thursday evening as newly acquired 36 year old Scott Walker and 37 year old Mike Knuble each scored twice to lead the Capitals to a 5-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Walker, who was playing his first game with the Caps after coming over from Carolina for a 7th round pick, notched two third period tallies sandwiched around two markers by a fighting for their lives Bolts squad. The victory improves the Caps record to 43-13-8 (94 points) and bumps their Eastern Conference standings lead to 14 points over the second place Pittsburgh Penguins. Washington now has a five point lead over the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks in the race for the President’s Trophy (both of them have a game in hand).
Here are the highlights, quotes, & analysis from this one:
Washington owned Tampa coming into this season having defeated them all six times last year and when they easily beat the Bolts, 3-0, back in November they pushed their win streak against the Lightning to 12 straight games. That run ended in Tampa in January in a 7-4 loss and the last two meetings here at the Verizon Center have resulted in one goal victories for the Caps. The secret for the Lightning in keeping things tight with the Caps has been a potent power play and the Bolts were 2 for 5 in this one. A win is a win but Knuble felt the Caps were sloppy after taking a 4-2 lead with 9:49 left and he also says that Washington will see the opponents best games down the stretch, especially from teams like Tampa on the playoff bubble.
“We were a little bit sloppy and I think we just need to bear down a bit more. We got timely goals, Scott [Walker] got a couple goals and I thought the new guys came in and played well. I’ll call [what we need] bearing down a little more, maybe we need to feel threatened and we didn’t seem to be taking their attack seriously. There was a bounce or two there where they were inches away from tying the game. So we got a couple of breaks, a couple of lucky bounces again and ended it. It’s a little sloppy but it’s a win too,” started the man who has scored 15 goals in his last 18 games and 18 in the last 22, “We need to get the idea that these last 20 games are going to be a lot harder than the first 60…Tampa’s season is on the line, they’ve got to get points and make the playoffs. We’re going to get everyone’s best effort…We can’t just slough off and hope that someone makes a play to score a goal or keep it out, we’ve got to bear down.” finished the man who leads all players 33 or older in goals.
Lightning Coach Rick Tocchet, whose team is now three points out of playoff position, was not happy with his club as a whole.
“It’s always frustrating when you lose. There are certain guys, Martin St. Louis, obviously Steven Stamkos, I thought Vinny [Lecavalier] the last couple games came to play. Some other guys, I don’t know. I really don’t know. You got to block a shot or dive to get the puck out of your own end. Bite the puck to get it out of your own end. We need those types of players. There’s five or six of those guys that are costing us right now. Bottom line. The positives are that there are enough guys here that want to win and are playing hard. I’m really proud of those guys.”
Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau thrust all three new acquisitions, Walker, defenseman Joe Corvo, and center Eric Belanger into the line-up forcing out Matt Bradley, Dave Steckel, and John Erskine from Wednesday’s victorious roster in Buffalo. Clearly Walker was the most noticeable in just 7:33 of ice time. Boudreau wanted to play him more but because of all of the penalties in the second period he “had to sit.” Boudreau felt that Corvo (20:19) had a good game and the coach tried him on the point on the power play with Mike Green in the first period, forcing Alexander Ovechkin down low. The 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner was critical of that decision saying “the coaching sloppiness resulted in the team becoming sloppy.” Washington was 0 for 3 with the man advantage on Thursday. Belanger logged 14:50, went +1, and won 5 of 12 face-offs.
The Capitals raced to a 3-1 advantage 28:21 into the contest but they then took four minor penalties in the next six minutes, three of which were within 56 seconds. Lecavalier (two goals) scored to make it 3-2 and after Green, Laich, and Poti all took minor infractions the Lightning had nearly three minutes to tie it up and then take the lead. Then Nicklas Backstrom, on a 4 on 3 penalty kill, broke his stick but managed to throw himself in front of successive Kurtis Foster blasts and lead his team in a momentum changing sequence. The work from #19 drew a lengthy ovation from the Verizon Center faithful and Boudreau felt that moment was a major key to the victory.
“I don’t know how many other superstars would be doing that, which is what makes him special, it was definitely a turning point. They had made it 3-2 and if they score when Nick is out there they still have a 5 on 4 again and they could have gotten the lead. It’s a lot different story playing with the lead than playing from behind,” said Boudreau on the importance of Backstrom sacrificing himself for the good of the team.
The difference in this game was the goaltending. Tampa’s Mike Smith gave up five tallies on 34 shots, some of which were of the soft variety, while Semyon Varlamov (25 saves) didn’t allow any questionable goals. Three of Tampa’s goals came in the slot as a result of poor Caps coverage and the other marker was from Lecavalier on a breakaway. Varly spoke with Russian newspaper reporter Slava Malamud afterwards and Slava told me that #40 felt he should not have gone for #4′s fake that got the young goalie out of position. Malamud mentioned that goaltending coach Arturs Irbe said that is something the 21 year old goalie will learn with experience. It is good to see Varly upset about giving up that goal but to be fair to him, Lecavalier has a Stanley Cup ring, was the first overall pick in the 1998 NHL draft, and is still one of the top players in the game when he wants to be. Malamud also added that Varlamov is totally healthy and learned alot about positioning from Vladislav Tretiak during his time with the legendary Russian goalie during the Olympics.
After Wednesday’s victory in Buffalo, Boudreau said he thought that the Olympic guys were tired and on Thursday it looked like Alexander Oveckhin (1 assist) and Alexander Semin (-1 in 19:00 of ice time) were still a little sluggish. The Great #8, who has not scored a goal for the Caps since his hat trick against Pittsburgh on February 7th (five game drought), had a breakaway in the second period but the puck rolled of his stick as he was making a move on Smith. He had some other decent chances but the biscuit is not bouncing Ovechkin’s way right now, but the good news is the Caps continue to win.
Next up for Washington are the New York Rangers on Saturday night at the Verizon Center. That game is the second on a five game home stand that sees the Capitals take the ice every other night.
Notes: Washington won the face-off battle, 33-28. Rookie defenseman John Carlson (20 years old), after two early giveaways, set up Tomas Fleischmann for a breakaway and broke up several passes in the second period. #74 had an overall strong game and was +1 in 14:46 of ice time. For Tampa, St. Louis had three assists in 21:35 of ice time and simply brings it on every shift. I spoke with him after the game and he was very disappointed with the loss while praising the Caps. “They are a good team, they are a division rivalry, we seem to give them good games but not good enough, you have to get a win with the playoff race right now.”