On a wild NHL trade deadline day that saw Caps GM George McPhee make four separate deals, the Washington Capitals opened up their post Olympics break in Buffalo, a place the franchise has struggled in like no other. Making matters seemingly worse was that Washington was going to have to face the 2010 Olympic MVP, Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, in his first post-Olympics start in his own building. Miller (37 saves) was very good, as expected, but the Capitals were the better team on the night and broke a 1-1 tie on Mike Green’s goal off of a super Tomas Fleischmann feed just past the 10 minute mark of the third period. Then fourth line grinder and penalty killing specialist Boyd Gordon banked one off of the boards the length of the rink and into an empty net with 41 seconds remaining to seal a Capitals 3-1 victory.
The win pushes the Caps to 42-13-8 overall and restores their 13 point lead over the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference with 19 games remaining. Washington now owns a three point lead on the San Jose Sharks in the race for the President’s Trophy. Let’s start with the highlights, quotes, and analysis of this victory and then I’ll provide some quotes and analysis on the trades the Caps made today.
Washington started slowly in this one taking two minor penalties and getting outshot 7-3 in the opening 10 minutes. After that, the Capitals dominated territorially holding a 37-17 shots advantage over the last 50 minutes. Even though the score was 1-1 in the second period you could see that the Caps were winning almost every battle.
“I think the rustiness was we were shorthanded for four minutes and guys just needed to get their legs going. I told them that was our best game in 10 games..by far our best game defensively where we didn’t leave the goalie out to dry too many times,” said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau summarizing the victory.
Defensively the Caps were much more sound and another factor in the victory, I thought, was Washington’s superior conditioning and one can’t help but point to Boudreau’s practice regimen that started last Wednesday, February 24. The Caps could have won this one in bigger fashion, though, if not for some overpassing and an inability to convert on odd man rushes.
“Six good practices I thought and [our team] got back to the basics and [Buffalo] turned the puck over so many times in the neutral zone from our pressure that if we could have scored on our 2 on 1’s we would have had an easier game,” added Boudreau attributing the solid play to time spent at Kettler Ice Plex while noting the bad execution by his team in finishing off their potential scoring opportunities.
The best line on the ice for Washington was the Fleischmann, Eric Fehr, and Jason Chimera unit. They were each plus two on the evening and set up the only two markers that beat Miller. Flash, despite not getting an assist, made the play behind the Sabres net to set up Jeff Schultz for a point blast that was first deflected by Fehr and then tipped again by Chimera to open the scoring. On the game winner #14 carried the puck into the offensive zone on a nice rush then hit a streaking Green in the slot and the 2009 Norris Trophy finalist whipped it past Team USA’s superstar goaltender.
The Gordon-Dave Steckel-Matt Bradley line was also very good on Wednesday so it was nice to see #15 rewarded with an empty net marker.
“That whole line was really good tonight, evidentally with 15 forwards they don’t want to sit out, so they were showing that they want to play and they’re highly energetic and very smart defensively,” commented Boudreau on his fourth line and the threat of them losing ice time due to the trades made on Wednesday.
As for Alexander Ovechkin and his linemates, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble, they had some chances but mostly did not convert due to overpassing. Ovechkin struggled all night to get shots off (he only had 4 on goal) as did fellow Team Russia comrade Alexander Semin (2 shots on goal). Boudreau had an explanation for the lack of production.
“[Ovechkin] looked a little tired, I don’t think it had anything to do with disappointment. I thought all of our Olympian guys looked tired and all our other guys gave us lots of energy,” added Boudreau, although Fleischmann could be considered the lone “Olympic” exception to that statement.
Finally, this game is not a win without another super effort by Jose Theodore in goal (23 saves). #60 made the big save when he had to and did not allow many rebounds. The only tally that went by him was the result of a defensive zone miscommunication between Brooks Laich and Green that caused the puck to pinball around and right onto Jochen Hecht’s stick in the slot.
The Caps will fly home on Wednesday night and take on the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Verizon Center on Thursday evening at 7pm. Three of the four players acquired on Wednesday (forwards Scott Walker and Eric Belanger plus defenseman Joe Corvo) should get in the line-up while defenseman Milan Jurcina is out with a sports hernia and likely won’t be ready for action until the playoffs.
In my blog on Tuesday night about the trade deadline and the Caps, I mentioned the holes the team seemed to have but also pointed out that Washington had great team chemistry that they did not want to disrupt. To address the weaknesses, it was noted that some of the team’s young players were likely off limits. Well, what GM George McPhee and his staff managed to do today was follow the plan that the GM had been preaching to the media all along: Improve the club if they can but don’t allow it to subtract from being good next year. Based on the moves McPhee made today combined with what some other contenders did or did not do, Washington’s chances to win their first Stanley Cup have improved.
The Philadlephia Flyers, who were touted as being a top team in the East after acquiring Chris Pronger last summer, did not add a goalie and they will go with Michael Leighton in net, a guy the Capitals have rarely had trouble solving. In addition, the Flyers were in the running for Corvo but Washington beat them to the punch. The Devils already made their big splash before the Olympic break adding Ilya Kovalchuk and the Penguins tried to improve their squad with d-man Jordan Leopold and forward Alexei Ponikarovsky on Tuesday. Getting the players the Caps acquired it appears that they gained ground on their pursuers but the Washington GM said what those teams did was not a factor in how he and his staff operated on Wednesday.
“You look at a Kovalchuk, we have those kind of players, and you look at a Ponikarovsky and we have have four left wingers and who does he replace? Basically, what it comes down to is we look at the positions we want to sure up. It is hard to go over someone so you look to fill the holes you have. We wanted to add a top 4 D and add another center who is good on face-offs and has speed and can play both ends of the rink. We got both of those guys [in Corvo and Belanger] and then to add Walker and Juice was nice,” added McPhee on the transactions Washington made on Wednesday.
Addressing team chemistry and an in game incident that occurred between Chimera and Belanger earlier in the season when #25 was a Blue Jacket and the man who will wear #18 was with Minnesota, the Washington GM was confident the deals he made would not cause any locker room friction.
“It’s not a concern. In our business guys play hard against each other and often when they become teammates they are the first two guys to go to dinner together. It is a contact sport but people end up on the same team and they become teammates so I am not worried about [past Belanger-Chimera incident] and we moved one player off of our team so we kept our team basically intact and we have alot of good guys and a lot of committed people that want to win a Cup,” said the former Hobey Baker Award winner that goes to the nation’s top collegiate player.
As for each individual move, it is hard to not see the logic the GM had for making each deal and here is what he had to say about them, in the order they occurred:
“Scott Walker is tough, tougher than me, and he is a guy that we can play up and down the line-up. We drafted him as a defenseman in Vancouver,” commented McPhee on the versatile Walker, who some hockey announcers compared to the Caps GM from a hard nosed while on the ice standpoint.
“We talked about [how loaded the Penguins are down the middle] a lot and we like his experience and ability to shut people down but he’s on pace for 18 goals this year and that’s fine. He can help us on our penalty killing and we just got another guy who is hard to play against,” added McPhee on a player Boudreau projects to be the team’s third line center.
“He had success here in our system. We know Juice, I know Walker, and Bruce knows Belanger and Corvo so we know the personalities that we are getting.”
“Brian Pothier was a good guy and I want to thank him for everything he did for us but we thought Corvo would be a little bit better for us.”
One area where the Caps did not make a move was in goal, something many pundits, who don’t watch this team on a day to day basis like many of us locally do, were calling for Washington to upgrade.
“We are happy with our goaltending. We’ve got two young kids in Varly (Semyon Varlamov) and (Michal) Neuvirth and an experienced one in Theodore and (Braden) Holtby is playing alot. People asked alot about (the three young goaltenders) but they are untouchables, we were not moving those goalies,” McPhee said on what looks to be the best young goaltending trio in any NHL system.
The Capitals GM was not surprised that there were “no huge deals” made and he said draft choices were the asking price in many transactions. Washington gave up two second round picks plus sixth and seventh round markers, as well. The key for Washington was not losing any of the three goalies nor their top two defensemen prospects in Karl Alzner and John Carlson.
“These days it is hard to make trades and going in I didn’t sense any big trades happening. 2nd round picks were the currency of the day. We had an untouchable list and we didn’t give away any of those players. I don’t think [giving up 4 picks] does hurt us, we’ve had a lot of picks recently and we have a lot of young talent in our system and I’m really pleased with the way we’ve been drafting. We’ve done well with the [Stefan] Della Rovere’s, the Cody Eakins, [Dmitri] Orlov, so we have a lot of kids coming,” commented McPhee on the importance of youth in the organization.
Today was definitely the day where moving the contracts for Michael Nylander and Chris Clark really paid off. After the trade deadline a team can carry as many players as they want as long as they stay under the salary cap. Washington now has 15 forwards, 8 defenseman plus Jurcina on IR and Alzner in Hershey, and three goalies (counting Neuvirth in Hershey as well). Prior to the lockout, when there was no salary cap, typically teams with a big budget could stockpile players for the post season. McPhee has now found a way to do this post lockout setting the Caps up to handle any injuries much better than they were able to react in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring.
“We’re real deep now, we have alot of players. Bruce and I talked about if we wanted to move people out, but we have the cap space to keep everybody..so let’s keep everybody and we did all of this with the playoffs in mind,” said McPhee on the logic in adding so much depth to the team, which will give Boudreau some minor headaches in trying to figure out which players to dress each night.
Overall this was a tremendous win for the Capitals on NHL deadline day. Not only did they get a top four defenseman and add depth to their lineup, they did not take on any players that have any more years on their contract. Each guy acquired is a free agent this summer, something McPhee said factored into the decision making process in trades.
“There was one guy [we looked at that was not a free agent this summer] but we just didn’t want to take on any term. We are a good team now and we will be in September so we didn’t want to take on any bad contracts and with respect to the cap we will be in good shape. That is why I am really happy today, we made our team better today and we are going to be really good again next September,” finished McPhee.