Down 3-0 to arguably the best goalie in the history of hockey and a team that prides itself on defense the Capitals rallied for three goals to tie the game up in regulation and through overtime.
Yes, they ended up losing to Martin Brodeur in the shootout (4-3), something I sure wish the NHL would “New Coke” as the great Mike Vogel likes to say, but this team is back to battling and not giving up, which is different than what they were doing earlier in the year in lopsided defeats in Winnipeg, Toronto, and Buffalo.
This official loss was what you would call a good one, because the Capitals gained a point and really didn’t lose the “real” game after trailing by three pucks heading into the final period. Washington is now 17-14-2 (5-5-1 under Hunter) and they are seven points behind the Florida Panthers, who have played three more contests. The Cats were blown out 8-0 by the Boston Bruins on Friday night and appear to be nothing more than a shooting star. My prediction is the Capitals will be the Southeast Division leaders on February 1st, at the latest.
Here are some thoughts on this game as the NHL heads for a weekend off for the holiday break:
- The Caps were not very good for the first 30 minutes or so as they repeatedly were outworked and lost one on one battles, but somehow Michal Neuvirth (25 saves) managed to keep the game scoreless in the first period before yielding three tallies in the first 10:08 of the middle frame. #30 was superb early on and the only goal you may want to partly put on him was Ilya Kovalchuk’s power play rocket to open the scoring, although it looked like Neuvy didn’t see the puck until very late. Neuvirth is playing well and if not for him the Capitals have zero chance of rallying. The young Czech goalie looks confident on the ice and deserves to keep the net despite taking the loss in the gimmick.
- If you read my last blog post, you will know that Coach Dale Hunter’s system is predicated on winning one on one battles. Washington didn’t do that well at all in the first half of the game and they were on their heels against the Devils. But towards the end of the middle period the Capitals started to take over in that department and if not for the goalposts they might have gotten on the board sooner.
- The Devils are the best team in the NHL at killing penalties but the Capitals power play has to be better. I was encouraged by it at the start of the first one as Alexander Ovechkin (1 assist) had a great chance in the slot but then it detoriated. The Caps had three power plays on the night but just one shot on goal. Totally unacceptable and Hunter and assistant Coach Dean Evason need to do something to shake this unit out of its’ doldrums.
- Hunter’s decision to put Alexander Semin (2 assists) with Jason Chimera (2 goals) and Brooks Laich (1 goal and 1 assist) worked wonders in the third period. All three were outstanding as the Caps stormed back to tie the contest. Out at Caps practice on Thusday I closely watched the interaction between #28 and his teammates as well as with Hunter and I came away encouraged. Semin and Chimera had a lot of dialogue about positioning in the offensive zone and that talk certainly seemed to aid the chemistry they had on Friday night. In addition, #28 seems to have taken the coaching switch as a chance at a clean slate. Semin and Hunter spent a few minutes talking strategy at one point on the ice at practice and it was clear that both were listening to each other. Semin has had two decent games in a row and if he gets going the Capitals are a different team.
- For those who stayed with the Comcast Caps post game show, you saw some great X’s and O’s talk from former Cap Alan May. #16 expertly pointed out the gaps on the ice that Washington took advantage of in their comeback as well as applauding the “crash the net” approach the Capitals took to score their goals. May showed a pair of Ovechkin third period up the ice rushes and focused on the decisions the Gr8 made to set up two quality chances for Laich, one of which led to the first goal for Washington. What stood out to me was how Ovechkin slowed his pace down to force the Devils defense to commit first, and that opened the entire zone up for the Gr8. Wayne Gretzky used to make a living doing that and if the Gr8 continues to mix in that tactic instead of just going with the “bull in a China shop” approach to his dashes up the ice, scoring chances are going to go up for him and the Washington offense.
- I had a chat with a former NHL assistant coach on Roman Hamrlik on Thursday night and he had high praise for #44′s hockey smarts. He stated that Hamrlik is a player who really knows hockey and is someone that he thinks would really help Mike Green, when he comes back. I pointed out that some of Hamrlik’s best hockey was with #52 earlier in the year before he injured his groin and saw his production decline. In New Jersey #44 logged over 22 minutes and was +1 without being on the ice for a goal against. It is starting to look as if the groin problem was what was causing so much trouble for Hamrlik when he struggled after the fast start. He is not the best skater in the world but he is a defender that I see Hunter relying more on as the season progresses.
- At the end of the night, the Caps didn’t get a victory, but the way they fought back is another encouraging sign that this team is getting closer to a real winning streak. They are still making mistakes on the ice and part of the reason they lost so many battles early on may have been because they were thinking instead of just playing. Once they just went out and relied on instinct things started to click. For that reason, the glass is looking half full for Washington, in my eyes, after Friday’s tilt in New Jersey.