The Washington Capitals early season struggles have been well chronicled, but on Friday night at the Verizon Center the Caps gave their fans an evening to forget about the string of six losses in seven games by defeating the despised Philadelphia Flyers, 3-2.
For two teams that are usually near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, this was an unusual affair as the loser would likely reside in the basement of the conference at the end of the night. That “cellar dwellar” title goes to the Flyers after Braden Holtby played an excellent game in net making 29 saves and center Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist) had his best effort of this lockout shortened season.
Believe it or not, we are at the 1/6th point of a 48 tilt campaign. The Caps are still 2-5-1 and have a lot of work ahead of them, but I thought they did some good things in the victory over the Flyers.
To steal a line from the movie “What About Bob?”, Washington managed to do some “baby stepping” on Friday.
There was progress in the penalty department as the Caps only allowed three power plays despite taking another delay of game penalty. Washington killed off all three of those Philadelphia Flyers power plays. In their two wins they have only had to survive two shorthanded situations (vs Buffalo) and the three on Friday. Stay out of the box and not allow a power play goal and your chances of winning go up dramatically, much like not turning the ball over in football generally leads to victories.
In addition, there seemed to be more cohesion with the lines as Coach Adam Oates put Alexander Ovechkin with Mike Ribeiro and Wojtek Wolksi together with Backstrom centering Troy Brouwer and Marcus Johansson on the second line. That left a good checking unit in Jason Chimera, Jay Beagle, and Joel Ward. Ovechkin had seven shots on goal, his highest total of the season, and he had more jump than usual. However, he and his linemates will be called on the carpet for the total lack of defensive assistance they provided to Mike Green and Karl Alzner on the first Flyers tally. Defensive zone is still an issue for this team, one that I am sure Oates will continue to address and tweak going forward. You can’t win if you are bad in your own zone and Washington has plenty of room for improvement there.
One of the areas I was most confident in this team coming into the season was goaltending. Holtby was outstanding in this one after Michael Neuvirth had given the Caps a chance to win the previous four games. Both Holtby and Neuvy are the type of goalies you want to have in this short compact season: young and ultra competitive. Also, they both have a short memory, which is very important at the NHL level.
Washington’s power play still continues to sputter (o for 5 vs. Flyers), mostly due to their inability to get the puck in the zone to set up. Oates attributed that to “bad reads” on Friday night. I’d still like to see more bodies and pucks to the net with the man advantage. For me, Brooks Laich can’t get back soon enough to join the second line and bump Johansson down to the fourth unit or even out of the lineup. Plus #21 is a super net presence in man advantage situations and his penalty killing is outstanding. With Laich skating on Friday morning, it appears we are getting closer to getting a key piece back into Washington’s forward lineup.
Another problem with the power play is faceoffs. Right now the Caps are losing those opening man advantage draws and that wastes a good 15 seconds right off of the bat. It also allows the defense to set up. Philadelphia was 40-29 from the dot against Washington on Friday, with Ribeiro going a terrible 5-12. The Caps centers have to be better at draws going forward.
On the backend, John Erskine has played very well and is getting the fourth highest D-man minutes. However, his elbow to the head of Wayne Simmonds will likely draw some Brendan Shanahan reaction in the form of a fine and possibly a suspension. It would be nice if Dmitry Orlov was ready to go but that won’t happen yet, although it appears he practiced late this week in Hershey and is inching closer to a return. Getting Orlov back and playing at the NHL level would help the Caps defense and also strengthen the second power play unit (a left handed point shot is definitely needed).
Summing up this one, the Capitals did some good things and got a victory on Friday night. They needed one of those very badly. What makes it even sweeter is it came against the Flyers, who along with the Penguins, are the most disliked teams the Caps compete against.
Washington has a lot of work to do to get better and climb back into the top eight slots in the East. If they keep working hard, playing smart, and sticking together, they have a chance to win consistently. But they don’t have much room for error.
Still, any way you slice it, a win over the Flyers is always good, no matter what the records are coming into the affair.
Next up, the Pittsburgh Penguins on Super Bowl Sunday.
Notes: John Carlson made a great poke check to spring Backstrom for the Caps first goal that tied the game at one. #19 beat Ilya Bryzgalov on the back hand on a breakaway as Philly got caught in a line change…Matt Hendricks and Flyers goon Zac Rinaldo were both ejected for the dropping the mits on a faceoff before the puck was officially in play. That is an automatic game misconduct…Wolski and Brouwer had the Caps other goals.