Caps Beat Lightning Head to Carolina
After knocking off the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-2, last night at the Verizon Center the Caps, who are now 6-0-1 at home this season, head to Raleigh to play for sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division on Wednesday evening. The Caps sit at 8-4-2 overall while Carolina is 8-5-2. You can bet the Hurricanes are chomping at the bit waiting for Washington after the Caps pulled a fast one scoring two goals in the last three minutes last Thursday to turn a likely 2-1 loss into a 3-2 Caps win.
As for Monday’s game, well there was excitement in the air as long time Capitals goalie, Olaf “Olie the Goalie” Kolzig, who was the face of the franchise for 10 years, was in net for the Lightning and was hoping to stymie his old mates. Kolzig should have brought his lawyer to town on Monday and sued for non-support because his team was absolutely atrocious in front of him in the first period as the Caps raced to a 3-0 lead (former Capitals defensemen Steve Eminger was on the ice for each of those three goals). The lead could have been more had Alexander Semin and Alexander Ovechkin not over passed on several high quality scoring chances, something that is driving up Washington Coach Bruce Boudreau’s blood pressure. Ovechkin and Semin did hook up on a nice goal late in the game to make it 4-1 and Ovechkin did have an assist with a beautiful pass to Mike Green on the second tally for Washington.
After a great first period the tide turned and Tampa Bay stuck it to the Caps outshooting them 18-6 in the second period and if it wasn’t for super hot goalie Brent Johnson the Caps would not have gotten out of the that period ahead 3-1. Johnson would save 34 of 36 shots on the night beating his old goalie partner and good friend, Kolzig. Johnson is on a roll and is challenging the shooters and he credits his defenders with making sure they clear any rebounds. The only goals Johnson gave up on Monday were by Gary Roberts who camps out in front of the net on all power plays and takes a beating, but he was rewarded with two tallies, although the last one came with under 30 seconds left in the game. I often wonder how many Advil tablets Roberts has to take each night to get to sleep with all of the hits he takes.
“He is one heck of a player, he is gritty and he takes shots. He got both their goals tonight and he goes hard to the net. It is always hard to pay attention with him in front,” said Johnson on Roberts.
Johnson is now 3-0-1 in his last four starts stopping over 95% of the shots he has faced forcing Washington to keep $4.5M a year goalie, Jose Theodore, on the bench, although you will likely see #60 in one of the back to back games with New Jersey this weekend.
Anyone who has ever met Johnson, known as “Johnny” to his teammates, will probably say that he is one of the most likeable players you will ever meet and you can’t help but root for the guy to succeed. This is a goalie who pretty much had to sit and watch when Cristobal Huet was acquired at the trade deadline last season yet Johnson never pouted and continued to work on his game. That work is paying off and last night in the post game interview he credited Boudreau for his turnaround saying “Once Bruce came in here last season I definitely felt better with the game I was playing…the past few seasons here it has been tough to get into a rhythm and if you play once every five games it is difficult. Bruce has given me a little bit of a chance and getting wins is the most important part of it. I don’t care if we win 6-5. ”
Other big performances came from defensemen Tom Poti who scored the Caps first goal, off a great pass by Donald Brashear, and was stellar on defense logging 21:04 of ice time. Poti seems to be fully healed from the groin injury he suffered earlier in the season.
Of even more promise for Washington is the play of forward Eric Fehr who was all over the ice last night with linemates Brooks Laich and Dave Steckel. Fehr notched his first goal of the season, a rocket over Kolzig that eventually became the game winner, in the first period. Fehr is finally healthy and starting to show his first round draft pick potential.
“I’ve been ready to go. I’ve been working hard trying to get back in the lineup and when you see it from the top (press box) it just looks so easy out there. I just want to go on the ice and work as hard as I can. I feel great right now, probably the best I’ve felt in my pro career. I feel strong and I’ve had the opportunity to put on some muscle and I just feel great when I’m on the ice,” said Fehr on his recent play.
Boudreau will have a hard time breaking this line up and he used that combo along with the Brashear-Gordon-Bradley line to help seal the game late in the third period after a lengthy delay due to a broken pane of glass. After the delay Boudreau put the Fehr line and Brashear line out in succession and wore out the top Tampa line of Vincent LeCavalier, Martin St. Louis, and Vincent Prospal and on the third shift following the delay Semin and Ovechkin hooked up to seal the game. Boudreau called the results of the plan he has employed on several occasions as the “formation of kinetic energy.” Whatever you want to call it is working. I asked Fehr about Boudreau’s strategy and he clearly likes it too.
“We got three big bodies out there who like to throw their weight around and create holes. That just tires out their defense and it opens up the offense. We just want to make sure the puck is out of our end, do whatever we can to get it out of our end and just tire them down and that is what we did. We had it down there for a little bit and we worked their D and then our scoring line came out and did the job for us,” said Fehr on his the play of his line overall, including the shift before Ovechkin scored to break is nine game goal scoring drought.
The way he is playing now it is going to be tough to keep Fehr out of the lineup and his play last night earned him the team “hard hat” for the game. If I am Boudreau I don’t scratch this guy and play him over Viktor Kozlov or Chris Clark based on recent form.
Notes: The first 15,000 fans to attend Friday’s game against New Jersey at the Verizon Center will get Bruce Boudreau bobbleheads. I asked the Coach about the bobblehead and how accurate it was and he laughed saying “it was a little thin up top.” Lightning forward Ryan Malone, who signed a ridiculous seven year, $30 plus million dollar contract with Tampa in the off-season only played two shifts and left with an undisclosed injury. Malone only has three goals and zero assists in 14 games this season. Tampa outshot the Caps 36-30 for the game after Washington held a 12-6 first period advantage. Defensemen Jeff Schultz led the Caps in ice time with 23:43.
Hershey Bears Update from John Walton
Caps goaltender of the future Simeon Varlamov picked up a milestone in his young career in North America Friday night. Varlamov posted his first professional shutout as Hershey defeated the Albany River Rats 3-0 at Times Union Center in Albany. After Friday, it was a rough road weekend for the Bears, dropping a 4-3 decision in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Saturday and a 4-1 game in Bridgeport on Sunday. It’s a rough morning in Hershey, as Monday marked the first day all season that the club has not occupied first place in the American Hockey League’s East Division. The loss to Bridgeport Sunday vaulted the Sound Tigers (AHL affiliate of the New York Islanders) into the top spot.
Defenseman Tyler Sloan was recalled from Hershey Saturday morning, playing for the Capitals this past Saturday and Monday nights at Verizon Center. The recall marks the second time this season that Sloan has been called up to D.C.
The Bears head to Philadelphia this Friday for a date with the Phantoms at 7:05 p.m. The game concludes a five-game road trip for Hershey, with home games finally on the horizon this weekend. Hershey will host Philadelphia at Giant Center Saturday night at 7:00 p.m. and the Binghamton Senators Sunday at 5:00 p.m.
For more on the Bears, check out John’s blog at www.JohnWaltonHockey.com