CAPS GAME NIGHT, GAME 21: Battle for the Eastern Conference

Posted by Dave Nichols | Saturday, November 20, 2010 | , , | 0 comments »

Philadelphia Flyers (12-6-2-26, 1st ATL) v. Washington Capitals (14-5-1-29, 1st SE)
7:00 pm, Verizon Center, Washington DC
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The two top teams in the Eastern Conference battle this evening at the Verizon Center, as the Washington Capitals host their old Patrick Division rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Caps come off a rough road loss; they were shut out and embarrassed by the Atlanta Thrashers 5-0 last night and got back to D.C. after 1:00 am early this morning.  Coach Bruce Boudreau was cranky during his abbreviated pre-game press conference at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.

Asked how his team would respond to the shellacking they took last night, Boudreau replaid, "I'll be curious, myself."  And what does the coach expect to see from his charges?  "Better effort."

Boudreau also made some interesting comments about forward Tomas Fleischmann, who skated exclusively on wing last night for the first time this season.  "He's a natural wing.  I think that's where he belongs."

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At the center of negative attention last night was backup goalie Braden Holtby, who gave up three goals on five shots, the last of which he simply lost track of.  Boudreau was not critical of his young netminder.

"I just patted him on the back and said 'we all have games like that.'  He'll be ready again."

For his part, Holtby owned the performance and was resolute that he'd rebound the next time his number is called.

"I'm not going to pretend it's the first time this has happened to me before.  It was tough, probably the worst feeling there is for a goalie.  The biggest thing is not to have two bad games in a row and come back strong from this."

The Flyers come in following a tough loss as well, dropping an 8-7 decision to Tampa Bay Thursday night, surrendering three seperate two-goal leads along the way. 

Boudreau left no doubt about the importance of tonight's matchup.

"Philly will be ready.  They lost 8-7, I'm sure they weren't too happy up there either.  It should be quite a battle.  Let's just see how we react.  It'll be interesting."

LEADERS

PHI:  RW Claude Giroux (10-11-21, +6), C Mike Richards (8-13-21, +3), G Sergei Bobrovsky (11-3-1, 2.29, .925)
WAS:  LW Alex Ovechkin (10-15-25, +5), Alexander Semin (14-11-25, +7), G Michal Neuvirth (12-3-0, 2.55, .914)

INJURIES

PHI:  RW Andreas Nodl (Toe-DTD)
WAS:  D Tom Poti (LBI-OUT)

STATS

PHI:  GF/G: 3.50 (3rd);  GA/G: 2.45 (6th);  PP: 19.3% (11th);  PK:  84.2% (T-10th);  FO:  49.8% (16th)
WAS:  GF/G: 3.45 (4th);  GA/G: 2.70 (11th);  PP: 21.7% (8th);  PK: 84.2% (T-10th);  FO: 50/7% (T-12)

THE RESULT:  The Washington Capitals got down early behind a shaky rookie backup goalie and never recovered, cruising throughout the game and falling to the homestanding Atlanta Thrashers 5-0, before an annouced 11,115 at Phillips Arena.  There were perhaps half that in attendance.

It was the first time the Capitals (14-5-1) had been shut out since Dec. 9, 2009, to Ryan Miller and the Buffalo Sabres.

Braden Holtby, making his second start of the season, lasted just 9:27, allowing three pretty bad goals in succession.  The youngster faced just five shots before being yanked by Coach Bruce Boudreau.

Holtby was screened on the first goal, a wrist shot from Ben Eager from the right wing circle that went across the crease and beat him stick-side. On the second goal, he misplayed a loose puck above the crease from his stomach and Nik Antorpov pushed a backhander into the empty goal.

Just 15 seconds later, Evander Kane flung a puck toward the Caps goal from just above the goal line that Holtby never saw and it went right between his legs for the Thrashers third goal.  That's all that Boudreau needed to see.

Things didn't really get much better after Michal Neuvirth (29 saves on 31 shots) entered.  He was solid in net, but the damage had already been done.  The Caps were outshot 36-29 and, for the most part, looked fairly uninterested after the score became 3-0.

Things were much better on the other end of the ice, as Ondrej Pavelec stopeed all 29 shots he faced.  Pavelec was also the beneficiary of three Capitals shots ringing off goal posts.

And there was injury to go along with the insult.  Mike Green took a hard shot into the boards and missed several shifts, and Mike Knuble took an Eric Fehr shot to his face, drawing much blood.  He never returned to the game and Boudreau said Knuble would be "out a while" with the injury.

There just isn't much more to say about this one.  The Caps were outplayed and out-hustled, and I'm sure it will be a quiet flight home tonight after Boudreau gets the screaming out of his system in the lockerroom.

It's a quick turnaround for a team that laid an egg this evening, with the Philadelphia Flyers already in D.C. awaiting the team with the best record in the league to return home for Saturday night's main event.  Hopefully, the Caps got all their suck out of the way tonight and find some of the Fury for their worthy opponent.

Cause they sure didn't have any tonight.

THE GOOD:  Hmm.  Michal Neuvirth made 29 saves in the relief effort.  Mike Green had four shots on goal.  I guess that's it.

THE BAD:  Braden Holtby.  He looked shaky and nervous.  It's just one game, but even from the look on his face for the pre-game skate he just didn't "look" right.

THE UGLY:  Tyler Sloan.  He was on the ice for all of Atlanta's first four goals.  This team can't get Tom Poti back quickly enough.

THE STATS:  No goals.

NEXT GAME:  Saturday at 7:00 pm at Verizon Center against the Philadelphia Flyers.

CAPS NEWS NETWORK THREE STARS

3.  John Carlson and Karl Alzner.  Both players were even on a night the Caps gave up five goals.
2.  Nicklas Backstrom.  Only had one shot on goal, but was one of few players that had spring in his step.
1.  Michael Neuvirth.  He continued his strong season, but this was certainly a night Boudreau would have liked to rest him with the big match-up tomorrow.

Washington Capitals (14-4-1-29, 1st SE) v. Atlanta Thrashers (7-9-3-17, 4th SE)
Phillips Arena, 7:30 pm, Atlanta, GA
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The Washington Capitals travel deep into Dixie to face the Atlanta Thrashers for their fourth meeting (out of six) already this season. 

Since falling to the Thrashers on Opening Night 4-2, the Caps have taken two straight, both at Verizon Center, by 4-3 and 6-4 scores, the latest coming last Sunday as John Erskine banged home the game winner from just inside the blue line at 13:11 of the third.

Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and David Steckel had a goal and an assist each for the Capitals in that win. Alexander Semin and Matt Hendricks also scored for Washington, which couldn't protect a three-goal lead in the middle period, which has become all too customary in the recent weeks.

Wednesday night versus Buffalo, the Capitals got out to a 3-0 lead midway through the second, but then surrendered two goals in less than a minute to set up a tense third period, but the Caps played lock-down defense in the final frame to hold onto the 3-2 win.

The line of Matt Bradley, Jason Chimera and David Steckel combined for five points Wednesday vs. Buffalo.  They had entered the game with 14 points combined. Bradley and Chimera each posted their first multiple-point games of the season while Steckel scored for a second straight game, the first time he has scored in consecutive regular-season games.

Washington is 8-1-1 in their last 10 games overall, but just 4-3-1 away from Verizon Center this season.

Alexander Semin has points in nine straight games, the longest point streak by a Capital this season and just one game shy of the longest of his career (10 games from 1/15/10 to 2/2/10, 6g-11a).  Semin leads the NHL in goals (12) and points (18) at home.

He is one of a trio of Caps -- with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom -- to reside in the league's top 20 scorers, the only team in the league to boast that.  Semin and Ovechkin both have 25 points, while Backstrom has 21.

As of this post, coach Bruce Boudreau had not set his goalie for the match, though he promised earlier this week that Braden Holtby would start one of the two back-to-back games this weekend.  It would make sense Holtby would get the road game and have Michal Neuvirth handle the Saturday night start against Philadelphia.

Atlanta, on the other hand, is struggling.  They've gone 3-5-2 over their last ten, including consecutive losses to Pittsburgh, the Caps, and Wednesday to Florida, dropping a 2-1 decision.  The Thrashers are 1-5-1 in their last seven games and have been outscored 26-18 in those contests.

Andrew Ladd, the team leader with 18 points, was named the Thrashers new captain Thursday. He has three goals and one assist against the Capitals this season.

Ondrej Pavelec, the Thrashers goalie who collapsed to the ice unconscious and was rushed to the hospital for observation in the season opener against Washington, has returned to play and will start tonight's affair.  He is 1-4-2 with a 2.33 GAA and .928 SV% in nine games this season.
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LEADERS:

WAS:  LW Alexander Semin (14-11-25, +10), LW Alex Ovechkin (10-15-25, +7), G Michal Neuvirth (12-3-0, 2.56, .912)
ATL:  LW Andrew Ladd (7-11-18, -1), D Dustin Byfuglien (5-11-16, -2), G Chris Mason (6-5-1, 3.90, .897)

INJURIES

WAS:  F Boyd Gordon (LBI-DTD); D Tom Poti (LBI-OUT)
ATL:  D Dustin Byfuglien (LBI-DTD); F Fredrik Modin (UBI-DTD); F Eric Boulton (Hand-DTD)

STATS

WAS:  GF/G: 3.63 (1st)  GA/G: 2.58 (9th)  PP: 22.7% (6th)  PK: 83.8% (11th)  FO:  50.7% (T-12th)
ATL:  GF/G: 3.00 (10th)  GA/G: 3.53 (29th)  PP: 24.0% (5th)  PK: 76.1% (27th)  FO: 49.2% (20th)

"One game like that does not a season make." David Steckel, on the team's encouraging defensive effort in the third period.

THE RESULT: Playing what Matt Bradley called "playoff-style hockey" in the third period, the Washington Capitals held on to a precious one-goal lead and defeated the Buffalo Sabres 4-2, before an announced sellout crowd at Verizon Center.

All the tickets might have been sold, but there were just enough empty seats -- and Buffalo fans -- to give the building an less-than-raucous aura for the mid-week affair.

The Capitals won their seventh straight game at home and improved to an NHL best 14-4-1 on the season.

As has been the case so often in this recent stretch of winning hockey, the Capitals jumped out to an early lead, controlling the play against a game, but undermanned, Sabres squad. Washington got a five-on-three power play goal and two tallies from the energy line, and looked comfortably strong for most of the first half of the game.

Then, at 12:07 of the second, cracks in the armor showed.

Derek Roy (wouldn't he look good in Red come trade deadline) flipped a shot past Michal Neuvirth with Mike Green in the box and just 48 seconds later, Jordan Leopold snapped an even-strength wrist shot past the screened goalie, cutting the lead to 3-2 and sending shivers down every Caps spine.

Neuvirth then faced a barrage of shots and, frankly, was lucky the score was not worse. He looked unsure on a couple of stops, and at least twice Buffalo shooters missed wide open nets.

But the Caps regrouped, killing an Alex Ovechkin delay-of-game penalty without a shot on goal, and seemed to gain momentum from the big kill.

In the third, the Capitals really buckled down and clogged the defensive zone. It was probably the best concentrated 20-minute defensive effort the team has put forth all season long. Buffalo got 10 shots on goal in the frame, but Neuvirth was up to the task.

Coach Bruce Boudreau spoke about his young netminder's strength in the final frame. "I think, for him, it's his experience having to go through two championship rounds in the playoffs [for AHL Hershey]. He knows when to really buckle down and he's protected the lead for us really good this year."

"He's growing up right before your eyes."

Boudreau said his team never panicked and he didn't give some big motivational speech between the second and third periods.

"I told them to stay the course because they were doing a really good job."

On a night Boudreau picked to play around with his forward combinations, the Capitals best line this evening was the one composed of grinders: Jason Chimera, David Steckel and Matt Bradley. Both Bradley and Steckel scored, with Chimera providing the primary assist to both. The plays were similar as well, with Chimera feeding a cutting teammate in the slot from behind the Buffalo net.

Bradley actually led the team in shots with five, ahead of Alexes Ovechkin and Semin by one each.

"When we try to be fancy and do things we shouldn't, that's when we get in trouble," Bradley said. "We're just playing a simple game. That's what we did tonight."

Steckel spoke of the chemistry on the newly-formed line. "Chimmer got in there and made some great plays and Brads and I just kind of mucked it up and we were in the right spots. If you do the right stuff and are working hard, it's easy to play together."

Boudreau offered praise for the trio. "They were really good I thought tonight. It's the first quarter of the season and you're trying to find things that are really gonna click that you'll leave them there. So we're doing a little bit of experimenting with the lines."

Steckel -- who was awarded tonight's hard hat -- echoed his coaches words on the Caps' effort, and perhaps made the best observation of the season: "With the exception of the two minutes in the second period, we played really well. We talked about it before the game and we came out and executed it. We need to build off it. One game like that does not a season make."

Indeed.  But it's a good place to start.

THE GOOD: Not enough can be said about how well the 25-39-10 line played. They were far and away the best line on the ice for either team, and really controlled the puck in the offensive zone, cycling and looking for opportune scoring chances.

Michal Neuvirth was strong again, except for those few moments in the second period. He turned away 31 shots - including all 10 in the third period – to improve to 12-3-0 on the season.

THE BAD: Eric Fehr was invisible. He had the least amount of ice time (14 shifts for 10:55) and was minus-one, managing just two shots on goal. No hits. No takeaways.

THE UGLY: Not really all that ugly, but I was not a big fan of the reconfigured lines tonight. Marcus Johansson is just not ready to center Ovechkin and Mike Knuble. He looked tenative with the puck on several occasions, once opting to pass backward from inside the faceoff circle with an open lane to the net.

THE STATS:  Backstrom (6) from Semin (11) and Laich (8) PP at 12:31 of 1st.  Bradley (2) from Chimera (4) and Alzner (2) at 17:04 of 1st.  Steckel (3) from Chimera (5) and Bradley (4) at 2:45 of 2nd. Semin (14) unassisted EN at 19:56 of 3rd.

NEXT GAME: At Atlanta Thrashers Friday at 7:30 pm.

CAPS NEWS NETWORK THREE STARS

3.  Michal Neuvirth.  Despite a shaky two minutes in the second, he was a stone wall in the third when the Caps needed him to be.
2.  Jason Chimera.  Both passes were things of beauty.
1.  Matt Bradley.  Goal and assist.  Led the team in shots and was very strong on the forecheck all night.

CAPS NOTES: Alexander Semin scored an empty netter with four seconds left in regulation and added an assist on Nicklas Backstrom’s first period power-play goal to extended his point streak to nine games (nine goals, eight assists) and surpassing Alex Ovechkin for the longest streak by a Capital this season (eight games). Washington improved to 11-1-1 when Semin registers at least a point and 10-0-0 when he scores a goal.

Backstrom scored his sixth goal of the year on a two-man advantage with 7:29 remaining in the first period. Backstrom, who is riding a four-game point streak (two goals, five assists), has collected 21 points (six goals, 15 assists) in 19 games this season.

Washington upped their record to 10-0-0 when scoring a power play goal.  For the season, the Caps rank seventh in the NHL at 21.9 percent.


Buffalo Sabres (7-9-3-17, 4th NE) v. Washington Capitals (13-4-1-27, 1st SE)
7:00 pm, Verizon Center, Washington DC
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The Washington Capitals, winners of eight of their last ten games, look to avenge one of those losses, a 3-2 OT loss to the Buffalo Sabres Saturday night in Buffalo.  The defeat snapped a season-high six-game win streak for the Caps.

The Caps got right back to their winning ways, knocking off Atlanta at home on Sunday, extending a six-game home winning streak, and the Caps hope that streak doesn't suffer the same fate as the last one did.

The Sabres have won four of their last five games, all of which required extra time. 

Buffalo is led, as always, by their goaltender Ryan Miller.  The U.S. Olympic goalie returned two games ago from a hip injury which caused him to miss six games.  He picked up right where he left off, making 23 saves against the Caps and 36 saves in a 4-3 OT win against Vancouver Monday night.

Derek Roy paces the Sabres offense, with eight goals and 13 assists (+6), placing him tied for seventh in the league in scoring.

Coach Bruce Boudreau has toyed with his lines the last several games, and if this morning's skate is any indication, he plans to again tonight.  Rookie center Marcus Johansson was between Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble on the top line, with Nicklas Backstrom centering Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich.

Semin has an eight-game point streak entering tonight, the third-longest active streak in the league (Nicklas Lidstrom, Justin Williams) and tied with Alex Ovechkin for the longest by a Capital this season.

Tom Poti did not skate this morning as he continues to rehab a nagging lower body injury, and Tomas Fleischmann and D. J. King stayed out for extra skating, indicating they would be healthy scrathes.  Of Fleischmann sitting, Boudreau told reporters after practice, "It's his turn."

The Caps have averaged more than four goals per game over their last 11 contests, but have surrendered three or more in six of seven games since.
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LEADERS

BUF:  C Derek Roy (8-13-21, +6), LW Thomas Vanek (6-7-13, -3), G Ryan Miller (5-5-2, 2.64, .906)
WAS:  LW Alex Ovechkin (10-15-25, +6), LW Alexander Semin (13-10-23, +9), G Michal Neuvirth (11-3-0, 2.60, .910)

INJURIES

BUF:  D Craig Rivet (Flu-QUE), RW Patrick Kaleta (UBI-QUE)
WAS:  D Tom Poti (LBI-OUT)

STATS

BUF:  GF/G:  2.58 (22);  GA/G: 3.16 (24th)  PP: 10.8% (28th)  PK: 78.1% (23)  FO: 47.9% (27th)
WAS: GF/G 3.61 (1st);  GA/G: 2.61 (12th)  PP: 21.9% (7th)  PK: 84.2% (12th)  FO: 50.7% (12th)

The Washington Capitals' 6-4 win over the division rival Atlanta Thrashers Sunday, fueled by John Erskine's mustache, gave the Caps a nine-point lead in the division and three-point leads over Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference and Los Angeles for the President's Trophy.

Washington Capitals celebrate one of their 13 wins. (C.Nichols)
Washington owns a 13-4-1 record after 18 games.  No team in hockey has more wins.  Only Detroit, St. Louis and L.A. have fewer regulation losses.  The Caps are 9-1-0 at home and are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games.

The Caps far and away lead the lead in goals scored with 66 (and goals per game at 3.61).  The next closest is Philly at 58.  Yet, only ten teams in the league have allowed fewer goals.  Their power play, penalty kill and faceoff percentages all rank in the top third in the NHL.

So why is everyone is so concerned about this team?

Are the expectations for the Washington Capitals so high this season that they simply can't be the best team in the league? 

Apparently so.  The frustration felt after last season's early departure from the playoffs has seated so deeply that the Caps must dominate every game, every period, every shift, or in the minds of some they will be destined to come up as disappointing and empty as they did at the end of last season.

This team is young, talented and motivated.  They are coached by smart, dedicated, and passionate coaches.  They are managed by a shrewd businessman that is conservative by nature but willing to address needs -- within a calculated game plan.  And they are owned by one of the most transparent, active and fan-oriented owners in all of sports.

What's not to like?

Are there flaws in the roster?  Probably.  Are there occasional lapses in attention?  Perhaps.

But it looks more and more every day that one of this season's biggest mysteries, the starting goalie position, isn't really one of the problems.  Yes, Michal Neuvirth may look a little tired lately, but other than that he's been spectacular.  While not as gifted athletically as Semyon Varlamov, he is technically and positionally superior to the oft-injured Russian keeper.

Nagging injuries to Tom Poti and Boyd Gordon have kept the Capitals from icing their best squad for most of the season, yet they succeed.  Every team has injury problems, but the Caps farm system is so deep they've been able to weather -- and even flourish on occasion -- even when veterans miss ice time.

And the Caps have gotten out to the best start in hockey this season standings-wise while their two best players, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, are still really trying to get into a groove.  Yes, they both are in the Top 8 in the league in scoring (along with Alexander Semin), a nod to their unbelievable skill level.  But watching them play, I think everyone gets a sense that they just aren't quite clicking at full speed yet.

Woe to the rest of the league when that happens.

Not the least in factors, but the Caps have done all that they have so far this season while breaking rookies in at goalie, second-line center and the second defensive pairing.

Should this organization he held to loftier standards?  Of course.  It's especially glaring when the Caps don't play their best, as was the case in the the second periods at Buffalo and again Sunday against Atlanta.  But every game is the opponent's Super Bowl when they play the Caps, and there are going to be occasions where the Caps get outplayed.  The other team is still trying too.

So when you read accounts of the Caps failing to dominate, being accused of taking games, periods, or shifts off, and of players struggling, keep in mind that the level of play they are achieving so far is good enough to qualify them as the best team in the NHL at the moment, and that the weight of high expectations seems to be affecting the media, bloggers and fans more than it is the team.

Remember, it took Wayne Gretzky and Glen Sather until the end of thier sixth season in the league to win a Stanley Cup.  Their Edmonton Oilers teams then won four of the next five.