The Washington Capitals are starting to parlay a months worth of learning new coach Dale Hunter’s philosophy into winning hockey games.
On Friday night at the Verizon Center the Caps used the formula that worked well against the New York Rangers in Wednesday’s victory once again versus the Sabres. Washington won 3-1 over Buffalo via a fast start that led to an early goal, solid goaltending, and scoring from their top line in transition. At times the team struggled to get the puck out of its’ own zone against a feisty Sabres crew, but the team persevered by playing decent defensive hockey and Tomas Vokoun (25 saves) made timely saves. More importantly, the Washington number one line of Alexander Ovechkin (two goals), Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 1 assist), and Alexander Semin (two assists) is heating up and when the stars start scoring goals, it makes winning much more achieveable.
Hunter spent much of his first 30 days on the job trying to find the right line combinations and he seems to have settled on a strategy that former Caps coach Terry Murray often used back in the early 9o’s by putting his best offensive players together on one line and then loading up another line with solid checkers to match against opponents top unit.
“They’re very good players and they’ve played together before and we put back a checking line together and we put a scoring line together. So it’s just that combination, I guess,” added Hunter on his current line combo strategy.
Former coach Bruce Boudreau would occassionally put 8-19-28 together but it became a crap shoot, because the trio had a habit of not carrying their weight defensively. Hunter seems to have those guys buying into using solid defense to set up their deadly skill that can really shine in transition. All three Washington tallies came on the rush against Buffalo and Sabres goalie Ryan Miller (18 saves) had no chance on any of the goals. The passes that Semin and Backstrom made tonight were of the “Wow!” variety and with the Gr8 potting two goals, you can finally see confidence coming back and the pressure to produce releasing from those guys. Simply put, by playing well in their own end they are setting themselves up to be creative on the rush and the goals are starting to come. When that happens the game is a lot of fun and usually leads to a hot streak.
“We just have to play it simple. We made pretty plays by our simple plays. We just have to continue what we do right now. It’s nice when you make some pretty plays and when you score the goals. Especially when the team needs it. It’s pretty good,” said Ovechkin on why his line is starting to score multiple times a night.
When I watched the line closely the last two games, Backstrom is the first key to the defensive success. #19 is doing a good job of winning the one on one battles with the opponents center. The next critical thing is for the wingers to be in the right spots and make the correct play coming out of the zone. I was very impressed with Semin’s ability to do this on Friday night. He has the skill, but more importantly the patience and smarts on where to put the puck coming out of the zone to generate opportunities. Sometimes he chips it off of the boards allowing Ovechkin to slide over and get the puck and other times the defense becomes so aware of his skill that he simply waits for the opposing d-men to back off and then he either skates it out or finds a seam for a breakout pass. He was the best Capitals winger at getting the biscuit out of the Washington end in this one. As for Ovechkin, his defense is getting better but he is best suited to be the first guy out of the zone for the pass that gets the defense on its’ heels.
This was still no easy victory. The Sabres carried the play from the midpoint of the game until about seven minutes remained in regulation. Buffalo did what a lot of teams want to do to the Capitals, which is get the pucks deep and make the Washington defensemen and forwards chase. Much was made of Rangers coach John Tortorella’s “they don’t want to defend” remark the other night but what Torts was saying was the Caps have great skill up front and are very comfortable with the puck so you have to make them work to get it. Heck what top line in the entire NHL wants to play defense? Buffalo was pretty good getting the puck below the goal line but Washington countered by keeping the Sabres to the outside and the most important aspect of winning hockey, good goaltending, helped get the Caps the results they needed in their zone.
So the Caps have now come out strong in three straight home games but in the two road games last weekend, they fell behind 3-0 and 4-0, respectively. On Saturday night in Columbus they have a chance to show that they can use this formula on the road and be successful. It is one thing to dominate at home and get early energy from the friendly fans, but going on the road and getting a lead is a much harder feat. If the Capitals want to climb up the standings and reclaim their “elite” status, they need to start doing that on Saturday against the Blue Jackets.
Notes: Ovechkin’s first goal, on the power play, was the result of a fortuitous bounce. The Gr8 was passing to a streaking Brooks Laich on the rush but the disc hit a Sabres defender and went by Miller. Good things happen when players put pucks and bodies to the cage…The coaches made a smart personnel change right before the game clinching third goal with 5:50 left in regulation. The Sabres were really on Washington for the better part of the final frame but right after one of his checking lines had a good shift to stem the tide, Dale had the top line on the ice for a neutral zone faceoff, originally with Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik. But then he pulled 44 off and trotted out Dmitry Orlov and #81 would use his great skating ability to get the puck out of Washington’s zone to Semin, who then made a behind the back through the legs pass to Backstrom, who hit a streaking Ovechkin for the nail in the coffin…the Laich, Jason Chimera, and Joel Ward line with the Karl Alzner/John Carlson d-pairing did a lot of the matching up against Buffalo’s top unit of Tomas Vanek, Jochen Hecht, and Jason Pominville in the second half of the game. It was a tough assignment and the Sabres had the puck for most of the time on ice, but they only managed one tally (Hecht from Vanek and Pominville in the second period)…Cody Eakin was in the building and officially recalled from Hershey after the tilt. It appears that one of the forwards is hurt and may go on injured reserve. My guess is it is Mathieu Perreault, who took a stick in the abdomen in Buffalo on Monday…It will be interesting to see who is in net for Washington in Columbus. Vokoun is hot but you don’t want to wear a guy out on back to back nights. In addition, Michal Neuvirth was really playing well before his bad first period on Monday that came after two days of no practice and a horror show travel day. My gut tells me that Neuvy gets the call on Saturday in Ohio…the Caps won the faceoff battle 33-27.