There is a reason the Hershey Bears won back to back AHL Calder Cup titles the last two seasons and a national audience on VERSUS on Tuesday night witnessed it first hand as several Chocolatetown graduates played big roles in the Washington Capitals 5-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils at the Verizon Center. Andrew Gordon, who has 16 goals in 26 games for the Bears this year, notched his first ever NHL goal and also had an assist on Jason Chimera’s breakaway marker that made it 3-1. Defenseman John Carlson also scored on a laser and added an assist while goaltender Michal Neuvirth stopped 35 of 36 shots to earn his 14th win of this season. It was the Caps second straight victory following their eight game losing streak and coupled with the St. Louis Blues 4-2 victory over Atlanta, Washington is back in first place in the Southeast Division with 44 points (20-12-4). The Thrashers are a point back with the same number of games played as the Caps while the Tampa Bay Lightning are at 42 points with three games in hand.
Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis from a game that was close in the first 30 minutes and ended with the Verizon Center chanting “We Want Pittsburgh!”:
- In addition to Gordon, Carlson, and Neuvirth several other Bears from the back to back Calder Cup Championships contributed to the win including defenseman Karl Alzner (+3), Jay Beagle (goal, +1), and Mathieu Perreault (+1). Gordon, Beagle, and Perreault each where involved in a Washington goal simply by going to the net. Gordon’s goal from the doorstep was set up by a super play by Marcus Johansson, Beagle’s tally from just above the crease was the result of a great pass from Dave Steckel, and the smaller Perreault crashed the cage on Martin Broduer (23 saves) allowing Mike Knuble to deflect Tom Poti’s shot by the future Hall of Fame goalie. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau praised the Chocolatetown contingent right out of the gate in his post game presser.
“I thought they all played great, Beagle, Gordo, Carlson, they had lots of energy and they followed direction and they played with passion and enthusiasm. When you do that, usually, no matter what league you’re in you’re going to have success,” said the coach about his players who have simply dominated in the AHL and now are getting a chance to display their merit in “The Show.”
- #30 was super solid in net and he made several quality saves early in the second period when the Devils had their highest points in this tilt. The only shot that beat him was on a Devils power play by Patrick Elias with Dainius Zubrus setting a vicious screen at the top of the crease. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau certainly is feeling confident in Neuvirth right now and you can bet the house he will start against the Penguins on Thursday.
“He was pretty solid. He’s always been a guy that’s gotten stronger as the game goes on and does alot by confidence. The game in Ottawa got him confidence,” said Boudreau on the key to Neuvirth’s recent success.
- The Capitals best d-pair these days continues to be #74 and #27 and they followed up their super game in Ottawa with a tremendous outing on Tuesday. Alzner and Carlson, who were sensational playing together in Hershey, are a perfect pairing that continues to get better. They are positionally sound and the thing they really excel at is getting the puck out of Washington’s zone and in transition with quick and smart passes. Carlson had 23:42 of ice time, including 7:24 on the power play, and despite the fact that the Caps power play stunk in this one (0 for 5), #74 was likely the best player on it because he was shooting the biscuit at the cage instead of trying crazy cross ice seam passes that Alexander Semin kept attempting to execute.
“We’ve been playing good since day one. We’ve been feeling pretty comfortable. We were apart for a while and then got back together a couple of games ago. It’s just a matter of consistency in this game, it seems. Anytime you can play good and contribute, it’s really good,” added #74, who scored the game winning goal for Team USA in the Gold Medal game against Canada in the World Juniors Championships last winter.
- Steckel, who is also a Hershey alum but wasn’t on the two recent Calder Cup winning teams but was on the 2006 AHL Championship club coached by Boudreau, is really playing well lately after a subpar 2009-10. #39 was 7-2 on draws and is now #1 in the NHL in faceoff percentage (63.1%) for those taking at least 20 draws this season. His pass to Beagle for the game winning goal was outstanding and it came after some hard work along the boards and in the corner.
- I would also be remiss if I didn’t praise the play of the rookie, Johansson. #90, who looked healthy and as a result showed off his ultra fast skating tonight, was paired with the speedy Chimera and the grinding Gordon and they were the line of the game for Washington. The young Swede looked like he was shot out of a cannon on the first goal as he flew down the left wing boards and fed an all alone #63 in front for the first tally. Johansson also set up Gordon for a one timer that Brodeur made his best save of the night on in period two when the game was still close. Former Capital Brian Engblom on VERSUS, after the 2nd period, called #90 the best player on the ice for either team, quite a compliment for the 2009 1st round draft choice.
- On the down side, the Capitals power play was simply awful in 8:42 of time, including a lengthy (78 seconds) two man advantage. I put the blame on this on Semin and Mike Green because those guys are not shooting the puck and trying to make too many fancy passes. Boudreau did give Carlson more point time and he moved Alexander Ovechkin down low in an attempt to get him out of his goal scoring slump (2 tallies in the last 18 games).
“Well, we were 0-for-5 on the power play, so it didn’t work very well. But we haven’t had any success with him on the point lately either. I am just trying to move things and change things around. I thought if we got shots at the net and he’s right there, maybe he could get a rebound or something, get an ugly goal that would jump start him. That was the thought process,” said Boudreau, who is attempting to win his 4th straight Southeast Division title as the Caps bench boss in as many seasons.
Notes: Forward Matt Bradley, a major fan favorite, broke his finger and will miss 2-4 weeks (h/t Mike Vogel, aka @VogsCaps)…Eric Fehr, who played four really good periods in a row with Ovechkin and Backstrom on the top line in the two previous games, missed the contest due to a death in the family…the Caps won the face-off battle, 28-26…Washinton’s PK unit was 1 for 4 and it would have been perfect had defenseman Scott Hannan made a simple clearing play instead of waiting for an extra second in the corner. As a result he was stripped from behind of the biscuit and the Caps failed to clear the zone prior to the goal. #23 continues to struggle in his transition from Colorado to Washington…on Wednesday night at 10pm on HBO, Episode 2 of 24/7, which covers the Caps and Penguins as they head into the Winter Classic on January 1st, airs. It should be a much more enjoyable hour of viewing for Caps fans after last week’s tough one in the middle of the eight game losing streak. Not to mention the Penguins lost two straight games last week…Former Capital and VERSUS studio analyst Keith Jones blasted Semin after the game for his effort. Boudreau characterized #28′s performance with the following quote, “Rusty, but he’ll get better though.” Given that Semin was hurt (lower body injury) and just recovered from the flu we’ll give him a pass for his bad game…Thursday night’s Capitals-Penguins tilt at the Verizon Center should be a great one and it will be time for the Capitals star players like Ovechkin (1 assist, +1, 4 hits), Nicklas Backstrom, Green, and Semin to get it going because the Caps will need them to defeat Sidney Crosby and company. Don’t miss it!