The Washington Capitals raced out to a 3-0 second period lead on Wednesday night and then hung on for dear life against the Buffalo Sabres in the final minute. Michal Neuvirth was superb once this contest went to 3-2 in the middle stanza and perhaps the best of his 31 stops on the night came with seven seconds left on Derek Roy on the door step. Following the final face-off after that spectacular toe save by #30, Alexander Semin fired the puck nearly the entire length of the ice for an empty net goal that gave the Capitals a 4-2 victory. The win pushes the Caps to a 14-4-1 record and an astonishing nine point lead in the Southeast Division (Tampa has a game in hand) before we’ve even hit the season’s quarter pole. Washington also leads the Eastern Conference by three points over the Flyers, who have also played 19 times this season.
Let’s get right to the highlights, quotes, and analysis of another win for Coach Bruce Boudreau’s squad:
– The Caps quest for a complete 60 minute game continues but they are getting closer. The first 30 minutes of this tilt were all Washington but the Sabres received a power play on a Mike Green hold at 11:32 of period two and Buffalo tallied twice in 48 seconds to cut a 3-0 deficit to a one goal affair. Things were sloppy in the final 10 minutes of the middle stanza for the Capitals but in period three they started strong and stayed the course until Buffalo pressured late. Brooks Laich totally sacrificed his body to block a power play blast from the slot and Neuvirth made a couple of other key saves on a shorthanded Caps situation in the final ten minutes of the contest. After that Washington was solid and limited the Sabres from any real scoring chances until the final minute push with Ryan Miller (25 saves) pulled for the extra attacker.
“I was really happy..the third period, I thought except for their power play, I thought we were really good defensively,” said Boudreau on how he thought his team did after the Sabres cut their three goal bulge to just one.
– I was quite unhappy once again with the officiating crew for at least the third time in the last five games. Zebras Rob Martell and Kelly Sutherland seemed to have a random number generator deciding when they were going to call a penalty because there was no consistency to the way the calls were being made. The Caps only received two power plays while the Sabres received four yet Washington totally dominated the first 30 minutes. Boudreau stated the lack of consistency as a major reason in why Buffalo was able to climb back into the contest.
“If they they had called the penalties when they were supposed to call the penalties then we wouldn’t have had the power play to go one against. It was a 3-0 game and it was a pure trip behind the net but the refs started reffing the score, then we end up getting a penalty and things turn,” said the 2007-08 Jack Adams award winning coach on the pair of referees who likely left town with a game check they didn’t truly earn.
– After a very strong game on Sunday versus Atlanta, Dave Steckel (1 goal) and Matt Bradley (1 goal, 1 assist) were outstanding again. Against the Thrashers their third man was Matt Hendricks but on Wednesday evening they were paired up with the speedy Jason Chimera (two assists) and the combo clicked. Washington’s first tally, a beautiful feed from Semin to Nicklas Backstrom, was on a 5 on 3 power play. Bradley created the first penalty on Chris Butler to set up that two man advantage on the forecheck behind the Sabres cage and then Semin drew a hook from Tyler Myers. On the Caps second goal Chimera took advantage of a wise and effective pinch on the right wing boards by Karl Alzner and #25 hit a streaking Bradley in the slot. #10 didn’t get much on the biscuit but it slid through Miller to make it 2-0 DC. Then they increased the lead in the 2nd period after some super offensive pressure by both Bradley and Chimera down low resulted in a pass to Steckel in the slot that he banked in off of the right post and the right skate of Miller.
‘”Steckel played a really good game and so did Bradley and Chimera, I thought they were our best line,” added Boudreau on that trio.
– Alzner (1 assist, +2) quietly had an outstanding game. His pinch on the second goal set the whole scoring sequence up and he routinely was in the right position to thwart Sabres attacks all evening. King Karl logged 21:59 of ice time and his former AHL d-partner and now NHL blue line accomplice, John Carlson, played 22:52. 27 and 74, if they stay healthy, look like they could be a blue line pair for Washington for the next 10 years or so.
– Neuvirth is now 12-3 on the season and leads the entire NHL in wins. The first goal that got by him was on the power play by Roy from right in front and if the puck hadn’t nicked Carlson’s stick, I think #30 would have had it with his glove. The second tally by Jordan Leopold came from the slot as well with Washington scrambling around. For a short time after it was 3-2 he gave up some rebounds but then he settled down to preserve the win.
“I think for him it is from having to go through two championship rounds in the playoffs. He knows when to really buckle down and he’s protected the lead well for us this year,” commented Boudreau on his rookie goaltender, who won two Calder Cups in Hershey the last two seasons.
– Boudreau mentioned that he is tinkering with his lines and tonight he went with 20 year old rookie Marcus Johansson centering Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Knuble. The other non-Steckel lines featured Backstrom with Laich and Semin and Boyd Gordon (Caps are now 11-0 with him in the lineup) with Eric Fehr and Hendricks. Johansson, who is learning and is still a couple of years from physically maturing, was good on face-offs (10-5) and worked hard. However, I didn’t see much chemistry between him, Ovie, and Knuble. On one shift when it was 3-2, Johansson got taken off the puck fairly easily behind the Sabres net and when Ovechkin went for the big hit it allowed the Sabres to have a 3 on 2 break, but fortunately for Washington Jason Pominville shot the puck off of the rink from a wide open position in the slot.
“It is the first quarter of the season and you are trying to find things that are really going to click so that you leave them there. So we are doing a bit of experimenting with the lines. I’ve done the same thing every year then eventually we get to where we are pretty confident with what we have and then we just go with that the last half of the year,” finished Boudreau on his plan for line combinations in 2010-11.
Notes: Next up for the Caps are the Atlanta Thrashers on Friday night for the fourth time in 20 games…the game is in Hotlanta and Coach Craig Ramsey’s crew may be without Dustin Byfuglien, who left Wednesday night’s tilt against Florida with a lower body injury…Washington won the face-off battle, 34-33…the d-pair of Tyler Sloan and John Erskine only logged 13:25 and 12:06 of ice time, respectively…Tomas Fleischmann was a healthy scratch.