GAME 50 REVIEW: Just Another Game, But What a Game It Was

Posted by Dave Nichols | Friday, January 22, 2010 | , , | 0 comments »

The Washington Capitals continued their regular season mastery of rival Pitsburgh Penguins last night, turning a back-and-forth contest into a solid win with three third period goals, and leaving town as 6-3 victors.

The win marks the fourth regular season win over Pittsburgh in their last five meetings.

It also stretches the Caps' current winning streak to five games, and eight of their last nine.  With 70 points, Washington holds a three-point lead in the Eastern Conference standings over New Jersey.

The particulars of the game are easy:  Alex Ovechkin had two goals and an assist.  Mike Knuble, Eric Fehr, Tomas Fleischmann and Nicklas Backstrom all tallied as well.  Jose Theodore recovered from two early gaffes to turn away 32 out of the 35 shots he faced.

The Penguins' stars got theirs, too.  Sidney Crosby got the game's first goal, a tap-in that Theodore lost sight of.  Evgeni Malkin and Ruslan Fedotenko both had three assists.  But in the third period, the Pens got steamrolled, despite outshooting the Caps 13-10 in the final stanza.

But this game was more than the accumulation of statistics. 

It was about two heavyweight contenders taking shots at each other all night long until one could no longer answer the bell.

It was about two teams fighting for every possible point in the battle for supremacy in the Eastern Conference.

It was about the best players in the world facing off on the same sheet, and watching one elevate his game on a stage large enough that hockey highlights led off the evening national sportscast.

Both teams were missing key parts, so it would be hard to describe this game as a possible playoff matchup.

But after last season's seven game masterpiece, and the pomp and circumstance surrounding last night's tilt, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone at NHL headquarters that would not want to see these two teams face each other in the Conference Finals in a couple months.

Before that, though, there are still 30-some games to play, and three more matches between these two foes.

Just another game on the schedule?  Yeah, right.  February 7 can't come soon enough.

GAME 50 PREVIEW: Rivalry Renewed

Posted by Dave Nichols | Thursday, January 21, 2010 | , , | 0 comments »

Washington Capitals (31-12-6-68, 1st in Southeast)
Pittsburgh Penguins (31-19-1-63, 2nd in Atlantic)

Mellon Arena, 7:30 pm EST

The Capitals travel to western PA to face the Pittsburgh Penguins for the first of four regular season contests this season, all coming past the midway point of the season.

This is also the first encounter between the two teams since Game 7 of last year's second round matchup, when the Pens unceremoniously dumped the Caps at Verizon Center, 6-2.

For all the import placed on these regular season clashes, last year's record didn't mean much come playoff time.  "We were 3-0-1 against them last year and it didn't mean a hill of beans," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said.

And while the disappointment of Game 7 blowout lingered (it was Washington's seventh loss out of eight playoff series with Pittsburgh) for players and fans alike throughout the off-season, the reality is that at this point, it doesn't mean a hill of beans either.

There are new challenges ahead, and while the Penguins will always be a barometer to which the Caps will be upheld, both of these teams are looking ahead to the coming playoffs, not looking behind them.

Both teams come into this one on a bit of a roll.  The Caps have won four straight and seven of their last eight, while Pittsburgh are winners of three out of four, including a 6-4 victory Tuesday night.  Sidney Crosby had a hand in all six Penguins' goals, and Evgeni Malkin scored a hat trick.

But Pittsburgh may be without starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who is nursing a broken finger.  If he can't go, former Cap Brent Johnson will be between the pipes.

Washington recalled D John Carlson this morning, and it was unclear as of this post who's spot he would take on the roster.  John Erskine and Brian Pothier are still both out, keeping Tyler Sloan in the lineup, but Mike Green missed practice yesterday, termed a "maintenance day" by Boudreau.

Jose Theodore, coming of a sparkling 44 save effort in a 3-2 win over Detroit Tuesday, should get the nod for D.C.

Can Theodore Continue His Recent Play Down the Stretch?

Posted by Dave Nichols | Wednesday, January 20, 2010 | , , , , | 1 comments »

For most of the season, the Washington Capitals No. 1 goalie position has been a revolving door.  Really, since Semyon Varlamov took over for Jose Theodore in the first round of the playoffs last season against the New York Rangers, the position has been open.

Coming into training camp, Theodore stated it was his. 

Then, out of the gate, Varlamov wrested the mantel away, going 12-1-3 (2.21, .924) before injuring his groin, then injuring his knee while on a rehab assignment.  That was a month ago, and the young Russian has taken the last two days off from skating in his most recent rehab.

"Of course I am [frustrated]. I haven't played [in the NHL] for more than a month. How is this possible for a 21-year-old to get a nagging injury that won't heal? It's not the time in my career when I am supposed to get injury-prone."
is particularly disheartening.  His chance at Olympic glory now is in doubt.

The "other" kid goalie, Michael Neuvirth, took his turn at No. 1 for a couple of weeks, adding to Theodore's frustration.  But the team had no where else to turn at that point.

Theodore needed a day off earlier in the season for personal reasons, and it's really quite remarkable he hasn't needed more this season.  No one would wish the heartache of losing a child on anyone, as Theodore and his wife did over the summer, and it's pure speculation that the mental health day was centered around that.

Upon returning from the absence, Theo did not play well, prompting the move to Neuvirth.  And the 21-year old turned in several good performances, pushing Theodore further down the organization's depth chart and into an afterthought for many fans.

The nadir perhaps was after a Dec. 27 practice, when Theodore snapped a stick in frustration as he left the ice surface at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, and volunteered to reporters that he "just works here."

He was introspective the next day, as he told the Washington Post.

"We have three good goalies and if you want to play, the guy who is not playing up to the way he can, he's not going to play," said Theodore, who had not played in a span of four games at that point. "If I want play more games, I have to play really well. It's the same for all three goalies."

Neuvirth would be coach Bruce Boudreau's go-to man for a couple more weeks.  But back-to-back starts against Tampa Bay and Florida, where he surrendered four goals in the first 15 shots in both contests, left Boudreau looking for answers.

And he found them in the veteran he's had all along:  Jose Theodore.

Since taking over for Neuvirth in the second period of the Florida game, Theo has led the Caps to four straight victories, including shutting out Florida on 15 shots to allow his teammates to climb all the way back and win a contest they trailed 4-1 in.

Since, he's beaten Toronto, Philadelphia and, last night, Detroit.

Theodore was nothing short of superb against the Red Wings.  He stopped 44 of the 46 shots against him, many in spectacular fashion.

In his last four games, he has saved 117 of the 123 shots he's seen, a .951 save percentage.

After the game last night, Theodore said he's maintained his confidence throughout the whole ordeal.  "[My confidence] is pretty good, but I never try to get too high or too low on myself," he said after the game. "When I wasn't playing, my confidence was still pretty good because I was working hard, practicing hard."

So the veteran has played big, just when the team needed him the most.  One of the team's 21-year old prodigies can't get healthy and the other was lambasted in his last two starts.

And with Varlamov unavailable to his team for at least a couple more weeks, it's quite possible Theo will have to be the man up until the Olympic break, which then very quickly brings us up to the March 3 trade deadline.

Can the former Vezina and Hart trophy winner continue his recent hot stretch and be the goalie this team needs him to be?  Or will a regression--sometimes as simple as one bad goal--destroy the confidence Theodore's built, triggering new cries to GM George McPhee to find a capable veteran goalie.

It's an interesting conundrum, and the next couple of weeks will go a long way into giving us, and McPhee, the answer.

Game 49 Review: Theodore Saves the Day for Capitals

Posted by Dave Nichols | Tuesday, January 19, 2010 | , | 0 comments »

Washington, DC--The Washington Capitals, save for one player, were completely outplayed by the Detroit Red Wings at the Verizon Center tonight.  That they escaped with a 3-2 win is simply remarkable.

The one player that kept his mates in the game, goalie Jose Theodore, was the most important player on the ice.

"That's probably the best I've seen him," coach Bruce Boudreau said after the game.  "I'm watching him, going 'this must've been how he was when he won the Vezina and the Hart in Montreal that year,' because without him it could very well have been 6-0 at the end of the first period."

The embattled goalie made 44 saves -- some spectacular in nature -- to keep his team in the game until the rest decided to match his intenisty.

Theodore, for his part, said hs confidence hasn't wavered, despite at times being relegated to the bench by goalies much his junior this season.

"[My confidence] is pretty good, but I never try to get too high or too low on myself," he said after the game.  "When I wasn't playing, my confidence was still pretty good because I was working hard, practicing hard."

Through 53 minutes the Wings held a 2-1 lead.  But by all accounts, including Boudreau, it should have been five or six to one.  Theodore, making his third consecutive start, played quite simply his best game as a Washington Capital, time and again turning away Detroit's skilled players.

The Caps were sloppy, slow, and committing the biggest hockey sin, often were found watching the play.  On several occasions, Messers. Ovechkin, Green, Semin, et al. simply stopped skating while the play was still in action--notably in the offensive zone. 

Repeatedly the Caps would get a puck to the slot, or behind the crease, and they would wait for it to come to them, or for someone else to go chase down the puck.

It's a plague that occasionally affects individual members of the squad.  But tonight it took it's toll on most of the team.

Center Nicklas Backstrom admitted that the Caps had the play taken to them for most of the game.  "They outworked us, I guess."

Boudreau was particularly disappointed by the play in the first period.  "Well, today it was like men versus boys," he said.  "[Detroit] came out with a vengeance and I'm sitting here thinking this is what Stanley Cup champions that are desparate do.  And it's a bar we have to get to."

"It was just fortunate that our goalie was great in the first period."

But something happened here in the middle of the third period.  Detroit's Todd Bertuzzi took a tripping penalty at 12:40, and perhaps getting the man-advantage was enough to wake the sleeping giants.

For 35 seconds later, Nicklas Backstrom took a pass from his captain, Alex Ovechkin, made a hard move around a Detroit defender, and beat goalie Chris Osgood to even the score at two all.

From that point on, the Capitals joined the fight against a team that reached the Stanley Cup finals last season, but are fighting for their playoff lives, ninth place in the Western Conference.

Less than a minute later, defenseman Karl Alzner won a puck at mid-ice and started into the offensive zone.  He dropped a pass for winger Alexander Semin, who fired a laser toward the crease.  Center David Steckel got just enough of the puck to redirect it past Osgood, and just like that, the Caps held a 3-2 lead.

Not known for his scoring, Steckel said, "I honestly thought it went wide at first until I looked back."

It was the only lead of the game, and they made it stand up, killing the final of five minor penalties assessed against as time wound down.

Steckel, who logged major minutes on the penalty kill tonight, summed up the effort playing a man down tonight, killing all five opposing power plays.  "It was huge.  Coach just challenged us because we haven't been that great lately."

"Theo was our best penalty killer."

Could one of this season's worst performances as a whole end up as one of the biggest wins of the year?

Matt Bradley, who scored the first goal for the Capitals, might think so.  "We were lucky to get the win tonight.  But it was still a win."

Notes:  The Caps have won four games in a row and seven of their last eight.

Washington sits atop the Eastern Conference with a record of 31-12-6 and 68 points.

Detroit Red Wings (24-16-8-56, 3rd in Central)
Washington Capitals (30-12-6-66, 1st in Southeast)

Verizon Center, 7:00 pm

  • Washington hosts Detroit for the only time this season, winners of seven of their last eight games. 
  • The Caps have scored four or more goals in each of their last seven contests.
  • D John Carlson (+4 in two recent games) was sent back to Hershey after practice Sunday so he could participate in the AHL All-Star game
  • D Karl Alzner was recalled from Hershey to take Carlson's place.  Very soon they will be wearing the red together, and will for a very long time.
  • LW Alex Ovechkin has four goals and 10 assists in his last six games, and was named the NHL's No. 1 Star for last week.
  • Jose Theodore will start in goal for DC.  In five January games, Theo is 4-1 with a 2.12 GAA and .929 save pct.
  • Detroit has lost three of four games.
  • Chris Osgood will get the start in net for the Wings.
  • Detroit took this season's prior meeting, a 3-2 decision in Detroit, on Oct. 10.

Laich Breaks Slump, Caps Bury Flyers 5-3

Posted by Dave Nichols | Sunday, January 17, 2010 | , , , , | 0 comments »

The Washington Capitals turned a tight, tense game with their arch-rival Philadelphia Flyers into a resounding victory, scoring three times in the final two periods to secure a 5-3 victory before a raucous, sellout crowd at the Verizon Center.

Brooks Laich scored twice, breaking a considerable drought, and captain Alex Ovechkin netted a penalty shot, his first successful such play, after starting his career 0-for-5.

It was Ovechkin's 30th goal of the season, the Caps' fifth and last goal of the game, and triggered the promotion for giveaway wings from a local establishment.

"We just want to give fans free chicken wings and give them free food, you know?" Ovechkin said wryly in the locker room after the game.

Free food aside, it was a spirited contest.  And though no fights erupted like the last couple of matches, there was plenty of good checking from both sides.

The win was the Capitals third in a row and sixth in seven games.  The offense has been on a tear during that stretch, scoring four or more goals in seven straight contests.  For the season, the Caps average 3.71 goals per game, far outpacing second-place Chicago. 

Tonight's output was no less stellar.

"Eventually it's going to stop," coach Bruce Boudreau said of the recent string of high scoring. "We're not going to score five goals a game. But it's nice while it's going on."

The one player that had not been so involved in the offense of late was Laich.

The coach pulled Laich aside after their morning skate-around, and the two had a serious film session, going over each of the gritty winger's shifts the past few games.

Boudreau stressed to Laich that he needed to play with more "sandpaper", insinuating himself into the play more.

"It kinda looked uninspired to me, the way I was playing," Laich said from his locker stall.  "[Boudreau] said, 'get back to being determined, skating, using your assets,going to the net and good things will happen.'"

Both of Laich's goals came from point-blank range tonight, his first on a rebound of a Tomas Fleischmann shot in the crease, and the second a breakaway backhander on a lazy breakout pass during a Flyers' power play.

“He is a very intense young man,” says Boudreau of Laich. “Sometimes he likes to do too much. We just looked over his video – his shifts, his goals – we saw if there was anything we could find that he was doing different. We had a good talk and I was so happy when he scored. You are never going to find a guy that cares more than Brooks Laich.”

Mike Knuble had the Caps' first goal of the evening, tying the score midway through the first period, against his former teammates.  Alexander Semin added his 20th goal of the season -- a power play marker -- and an assist.

Washington killed three of the five power plays Philadelphia was awarded.

The Caps had just 22 shots on goals against Ray Emery, making his first start since Dec. 5, when the Caps torched him for five goals on just 17 shots in an 8-2 win.

The win signals the end of the regular season series with Philly, with the Caps owning their former Patrick division rivals, 3-0-1 for the season.  Washington us now 30-12-6, and with 66 points have retaken the lead in the Eastern Conference.

Washington hosts the Detroit Red Wings Tuesday night at 7:05 pm.

1. B. Laich - WAS (Goals: 2, Assists: 1)
2. A. Semin - WAS (Goals: 1, Assists: 1)
3. A. Ovechkin - WAS (Goals: 1, Assists: 1)