There are several key things that can make a big difference in a hockey game. One is solid goaltending and another is superior special teams play.
On Friday night the Capitals did each of those things as they went 4 for 6 on the power play, killed off both Toronto man advantage situations, and Tomas Vokoun had a steady outing in goal stopping 26 of 28 shots as Washington won their second straight game with a 4-2 triumph over the Maple Leafs.
Dennis Wideman had never scored two goals in an NHL game, but on this night he notched a hat trick and added an assist as he ran the point on the Washington power play superbly (assuming that final goal doesn’t get changed to Brooks Laich).
Many Caps fans are probably wondering where the Capitals power play went this year. Early on it was outstanding as the team started out operating at a 25% success rate. But then Mike Green went down with an injury and the wheels came off of the bus. But those who’ve watched closely knew that you couldn’t put this all on the absence of Green. Assistant Coach Dean Evason had the power play simplified at the start of the season with the focus being getting the puck to the middle of the point for blue line blasts with traffic in front. That recipe was working early on but somehow the entire team got away from it. The tactic has been slowly returning and against Toronto they operated in a plain and simple fashion with the result being four goals.
Another reason the power play wasn’t working was due to lack of attempts. It is hard to get into a rhythm when you are only getting one or two tries with the man advantage each game. Whether you think the guys in stripes are doing a good job or not, a big part of the problem was a lack of hard work to draw penalties. When you move your feet to get in the proper position, it puts pressure on your opponent and that is what the Caps did to the Leafs. Once Washington scored on that first power play they had renewed confidence and the power play was the difference maker in the contest.
“We’re practicing it, we practiced today. Guys are moving the puck around and trying to figure out where each one is and what’s the opening. It’s just reading the defense they’re giving you and when they give you an opening you got to take it and got to read it right away. It’s only a split-second decision and they made the right decisions,” said the Caps Coach Dale Hunter afterwards on the power play success.
There were lots of positive trends that continued in this game, one being the increased number of scoring chances Alexander Ovechkin (1 assist) is getting. The Gr8 had at least four quality chances and he had eight shots on net. He still has his occassional turnover in his own zone but when he did it in this tilt, he came back and blocked two shots. The captain has clearly bought into Hunter’s system and it is just a matter of time before he starts scoring in bunches the way he is flying on the ice. That’s 15 shots on net in the last two games and close to 10 quality chances.
“I thought the [Ovechkin] line played very well again. [They had] great scoring chances, but one of those Reimer played well and made some good saves. Like I said before as long as you get your opportunities like that line did tonight, it will eventually come, if you work hard at it,” stated Hunter on a potential Ovechkin scoring breakout.
Vokoun, despite giving up a weak first goal, made several excellent stops in this contest. With Washington improving in their own zone as a result of better execution of Hunter’s new system, #29 was in good position to make the big save. He also received super support from his defensemen in clearing any rebounds. There is still work to be done for the Capitals in their own zone but in the last two games the trend is certainly up.
Washington is getting more chances in transition as a result of Hunter’s tactics but another thing they are doing well at is using their defensemen off of the cycle in the offensive zone. The Caps blue liners are getting more opportunities for point shots because the Capitals forwards are doing a better job of drawing the defenders down low and then feeding the d-men. This is a change over years past and with guys like Wideman, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Karl Alzner firing away the number of rebound goals should incresase. It should get even better when Green returns to the lineup in the near future.
So after six games, the Caps are just 3-3 under Hunter, but you can see this team improving each game. They are much better with their back pressure and defensive positioning. The offense is coming back, they’ve now scored 13 goals in the last three games, and they are limiting the number of odd man rushes their opponents are getting. The players are buying in and they appear to be having fun again.
Now it’s time to bring on the Flyers to see how far they’ve actually come in two weeks under Hunter.
Notes: The Caps are now 15-12-1…Philadelphia is 17-7-3, tied for first in the Eastern Conference, as of Friday night…Nicklas Backstrom continues to be the team’s MVP scoring a goal and adding two helpers. That’s 32 points in 28 games for the young Swede…Roman Hamrlik returned to the lineup and played 15:05. Jeff Schultz was the defensive scratch…Both Wideman and Carlson played over 25 minutes but Alzner led the team in even strength ice time with 20:03 (played 22:31 overall)…Ryan Potulny and Keith Aucoin each posted three points to help the Hershey Bears skate past the Connecticut Whale by a 5-3 score on Friday night at XL Center Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The win pushes the Bears back to the top of the East Division with a record of 13-6-3-2.