Posted by Dave Nichols | Saturday, January 22, 2011 | , , , , | 2 comments »

THE RESULT:  The Washington Capitals rose to the occasion of "Hockey Night in Canada", with their superstar recording his first hat trick of the season en route to a 4-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Center.

The Caps third baby goalie, Braden Holtby, was spectacular, making several "how did he do that" saves and kept his team in the game until they were able to break out in the third period.

Alex Ovechkin really wanted this one.  Not only did he score three times, but he also had three blocks, including one late in the third period where he laid out on the ice to knock down a shot from the high slot.

Ovi's first goal was a redirect of a shot from Jeff Schultz from the point.  Later, he victimized J.S. Giguere from in close after getting clobbered by defenseman Luke Schenn.  To cap his trick, he beat Tomas Kaberle down the boards and dumped the puck into an open net to seal the win.

In between, Matt Hendricks turned hard work into a pretty goal.  On a defensive zone face off, he was able to tip the puck between Toronto's defensemen and race up the ice in on Giguere, where he made an exaggerated pump-fake to get Giguere down on the ice, then Hendricks slipped the puck on the backhand past the fallen goalie.

Earlier in the night he'd gotten his nose rearranged in a tussle with Leafs Mike Brown, but that didn't keep Hendricks from missing a shift -- he played with a plug in his nostril to keep it from bleeding.

Holtby was the big story most of the night.  He made 35 saves, allowing just a bang-bang goal to Tim Brent.  But he made two huge kick saves early in the game, and robbed Mikhail Grabovski with the glove late in the third.

Taking the win on "Hockey Night in Canada" must be extra-special for Holtby.  The youngster gave up five goals twice in November and was disappointed with his play.  He went back to Hershey and was stellar, recovering his confidence.  He has now won back-to-back games with Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov nursing injuries.

This team has as good of a stable of good, young, athletic goaltenders as anyone in the league.  It's a luxury to be able to recall a player of Holtby's talent when an injury pops up.

So the Caps come home taking five of six points available on the three-game roadie.  The games with the Islanders and Leafs were must games, and the Capitals were up to the task.  They needed those points in the standings, and what's more, they needed to prove to themselves they still knew how to win.

THE GOOD: Ovi is scoring. Enough said.

THE BAD:  Well, this game started pretty slow.  Don't judge me, I'm in a good mood.

THE UGLY: I'm going to pass on handing out an ugly.  Just a solid win as the third straight game on the road.

THE STATS: Alex Ovechkin (17) from Jeff Schultz (6) and Nick Backstrom (33) at 14:27 of 1st.  Alex Ovechkin (18) from Mike Green (14) and Jason Chimera (10) at 1:12 of 3rd.  Matt Hendricks (6) unassisted at 8:14 of 3rd.  Alex Ovechkin (19) from Nick Backstrom (34) and John Carlson (16) at 19:36 of 3rd (EN).

NEXT GAME: Monday v. New York Rangers at Verizon Center at 7:00 pm.


3. Matt Hendricks.  Broken nose in a fight?  No big deal.  He'll just score a pump-fake breakaway goal.
2. Braden Holtby.  Was simply magnificent.  He kept the Caps in the game with several ridiculous saves.
1. Alex Ovechkin.  His hat trick is huge.  He's using his outside speed and physicality inside.

"I almost forgot how it was to score a goal." Nicklas Backstrom, obviously relieved his 21-game goal-less streak is over.

THE RESULT:  The last time Nicklas Backstrom scored an NHL goal was Dec. 1 in a 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues.  It was the Washington Capitals fourth straight win and their record was 18-6-2, good for first in the Eastern Conference.

The HBO cameras had not yet arrived.  The Winter Classic was just a gleam in everyone's eye.  And they had not yet started the eight-game losing streak that killed the early-season moment, though it would commence the next night in Dallas.

But last night on Long Island, Backstrom got his mojo back with a goal (12) and an assist, leading the Caps to victory over the cellar-dwelling New York Islanders, 2-1, before an announced 9,119 at the dreary Nassau Coliseum.

Jason Chimera had the Caps other goal, while captain Alex Ovechkin had the primary assist on both markers.

Rookie goalie Braden Holtby, recalled in the morning for the ailing Michal Neuvirth, started and saved 24-of-25 shots on goal.

Ovechkin was the instigator on both goals.  He fed Chimera, camping in the crease, for a redirect to take a 1-0 lead early in the first period.  Then in the second, he made a strong move going to the net and had his attempt stopped by Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro (22 saves), but Backstrom followed it up and merely tapped the puck into the net to seal the deal.

New York got their goal less than two minutes later, as Michael Grabner corralled a long pass and skated around John Carlson, roofing a shot on Holtby as he cut through the crease.

Despite some anxious moments killing off power plays, Washington kept the young Islanders, and their leading scorer John Tavares, bottled up the rest of the evening.  Taveras got five shots on goal, but none were quality scoring chances.

So the Caps have now taken three out of four available points to them so far on this three-game road trip, with Saturday night's matchup in Toronto looming.  Hockey Night in Canada is never a fun game to play in, especially at the end of a week-long roadie. 

But last night's win should buoy the spirit of this team, still trying to find itself though we're past the half-way point of the season.  For the past month and a half, the Caps have been playing under a bad moon, heads hung low and dragging their feet, wondering what bad luck would befall them next.

Last night, for the first time in a long time, they looked like a weight had been lifted off their shoulders.  None moreso than Backstrom, who was in the deepest slump of his young career.  Both goals came as a result of forwards driving to the net.  The grinders (notably Boyd Gordon and Matt Hendricks) dug in the corner for pucks.  Defensemen shut down passing lanes and clogged the neutral zone.

It wasn't a dominating game by any stretch of the imagination and the opponent wasn't the fiercest.  But it was a hard-fought two points, and the Caps needed the effort -- and the result.

THE GOOD:  The penalty kill team killed all six minor penalties against.  The defense in general, against a pretty weak Islanders attack, looked good all night, holding them to just 25 shots.

The Caps had the best in the dot as well, winning 62 percent of the draws.

THE BAD:  Mathieu Perreault's tripping penalty at 9:34 of the 3rd was infuriating.  The Islander d-man was clearing the puck from behind his own net and Perreault came barrelling for him, lost his edge, reached out his stick, and tripped up the defenseman unnecessarily, causing much angst for the two minute disadvantage.

THE UGLY:  Not that there was anything ugly about his performance, but D.J. King only got six shifts and 3:25 of TOI, and that's with the Islanders carrying two of the top fighters in the league.  It's pretty apparent where he fits into Bruce Boudreau's system.

THE STATS: Jason Chimera (7) from Alex Ovechkin (31) and Nicklas Backstrom (32) at 3:41 of 1st. Nicklas Backstrom (12) from Alex Ovechkin (32) and John Carlson (15) at 3:38 of 2nd.

NEXT GAME:  Hockey Night in Canada: Saturday at Toronto Maple Leafs at 7:00 pm.


3. Jason Chimera/Braden Holtby.  Can't make up my mind.  Couldn't have been easy for Holtby to rush to Long Island and make 24-of-25 saves.  Chimmy had six shots on goal and a couple of big hits.  Respect the speed.
2. Alex Ovechkin.  He only managed one SOG and two others blocked, but had the primary assist on both goals, and looks more like himself every game.  It's coming.
1. Nicklas Backstrom.  Goal, assist, plus-2, 10-for-14 in the dot.  His best game in weeks.  Even snuck in an expletive directed at an Islanders player after the final horn.  Stay Angry, Nicky.

It's only mid-January, but the Washington Capitals are already facing a pivotal juncture in their season.  Their next two games, against two of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference are, for all intents and purposes, Must Win Games.

Tonight, the Caps skate into the Nassau Coliseum to take on the New York Islanders, one of the most down-trodden, talent-poor, financially strapped teams in all of hockey.  Their struggles are well documented, and their play on the ice this season has been as poor as their mis-management.

Ranked 14th in the conference (29th in the league), the Islanders have a goal differential of minus-40, fourth worst in the NHL.  The Isles have been semi-respectable in their last ten games, going 5-4-1, but the fact of the matter is they are one of the worst teams in the league on offense (2.42 GF/G, 28th) AND defense (3.27 GA/G, 29th).  Only mediocre special teams play (18th in PP, 19th in PK) have kept them from being even worse.

They don't have a player in the Top 60 in scoring, and they just traded away their best goalie (noted Caps-killer Dwayne Roloson).

They don't have a single player that's dressed for even one game with a positive +/- rating.

Saturday, the Caps go to Toronto, the butt of league jokes for years now.  Once one of the storied franchises in the game, the Leafs (of Laffs, of Loafs, depending on which blogs you read) are now perhaps the league's biggest disappointment. 

Playing in Canada's biggest market, with all that tradition and high expectations, they continue to flounder despite who they bring in run things or play the game.

The Leafs are currently 12th in the conference (and 27th overall) and have a minus-25 goal differential, so it's not by accident.  They are one spot ahead of the Islanders in GF/G (2.43, 28th), and merely bad on defense, ranked 22nd in GA/G (3.02).

Toronto's leading scorer, Clarke MacArthur, is enjoying his career year having already surpassed his previous season-high points total.  Even then, he almost has as many PIMs as points.

The Capitals sit fifth in the conference heading into tonight's game with the Islanders, where about 3,000 fans will watch. They are only seven points out of first, but only eight points out of ninth place. 

These four points are crucial to the Capitals, both in the standings and to their pysche.  They know where the Islanders and Maple Leafs are in the standings.  They know where they themselves are in the standings.  These are games that good teams simply must win, regardless that they come during a three-game road trip.

Now is the time to these Caps to galvanize.  Forget about the injuries and who's not with them currently.  Forget about the media, the hype, the attention.  Forget about previous missed opportunities.  Forget about everything else.

Work hard.  Skate hard.  Go to the net.  Stand up for your teammates.  Stand up for yourselves. Forecheck.  Backcheck.  Do the little things.  Do the dirty work in the corners.  Win.

The Captain said it following Tuesday's overtime loss to conference-leading Philly:  "We have to go to the net, find our rebound, crash the nets, make some hits -- you know, be angry."

Be angry, indeed.
We'll see what this team is really made of in the next three days.  If the Caps don't take two points will they be mathematically eliminated from the playoffs?  Far from it.  But losses could very well be emotional cripplers that send the team further and quicker down the negative sprial that is following this team lately.
It's easy to get up for a New Year's Day game on national television against the Penguins.

Holtby Recalled from Hershey

Posted by Cheryl Nichols | Thursday, January 20, 2011 | , , , , | 0 comments »

The Washington Capitals have recalled Braden Holtby from Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League (AHL).  Mike Vogel reported that Michal Neuvirth was returned to DC for further evaluation.

Photo 2010 © Cheryl Nichols Photography/
Capitals News Network. All Rights Reserved.

"It's not like a secret." Bruce Boudreau, on getting goals around the net.

THE RESULT: In an all too familiar refrain, the Washington Capitals found themselves trailing after two periods of play, on the road against the Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia Flyers.

In 40 seconds worth of hard work in the third, the Caps tied the game up and looked to be carrying all the momentum into overtime.

But another blown defensive assignment led to an uncontested shot, and the Flyers took the two points they probably felt was theirs all along.  Salvaging one point on the road against the top team in the East was little solice to the Capitals last night after clawing their way back in it, only to have their guts ripped out again.

It's Washington's sixth straight loss in overtime games.

The Caps played in the third period like they are capable, flying around the ice, getting quality shots on net, and finishing when the opportunity presented itself.  Both goals, by Mike Knuble and Alex Ovechkin, were from within five feet of the goal.

Unfortunately, that effort was missing from the first 45 minutes or so of this game.

The Caps once again came out flat, surrendering a goal just 1:31 in, as Jeff Carter got behind the defense, wrapped around the goal and snuck one in past Michal Neuvirth. Neuvy looked out of sorts through much of the first period, and left the game at intermission.  Coach Bruce Boudreau called him "day-today" with a lower body injury.

Philly scored again in the second, as Claude Giroux was allowed to waltz though the crease uncontested, take a pass from the corner, shoot, collect his rebound, and shoot again after Semyon Varlamov was already down.

But the Caps rallied in the third, with Knuble tipping in a shot from Marcus Johansson that hit the right post and died, and Ovechkin got just enough of a puck he played with his hand to slip it by Sergei Bobrovsky.  Ovi's goal, his 16th of the season, stood after video replay.

But in OT, Johansson got caught too low in his own zone during four-on-four hockey, and Andrej Meszaros blasted a shot that eluded Varlamov for the game winner just 1:07 into extra time.

The team's captain was as introspective as he's been all season long in the locker room following the bitter loss.  "All the guys in this room understand. If we work hard and we use our skill nobody can stop us."

"Right now you can see in our first two periods, the second period we probably only put four shots on net, six shots on net.  It's not our game.  We have to go to the net, find our rebound, crash the nets, make some hits -- you know, be angry."

Ovechkin was then asked why the team couldn't do that in the first two periods. He drew a deep breath, and said,  "That's the question.  Next game is gonna be a big game for us, I think. We have to be ready right away and I hope we're gonna be ready.  I know we're gonna be ready."

You can see it for yourself below, courtesy of's Caps 365.

This team needs to figure out why they can't get out of the gate.  Last season, the Caps led the league in first period goals.  This season: dead last so far.

The Caps lead the league in come-from-behind wins this season, but getting behind every night is more than a nuisance.  It is taking a lot out of them, and forcing their best players into more minutes.  It's certainly not the way a coach wants to script things.

The Caps have a day off, then face the Islanders on Thursday and Toronto on Saturday.  As of right now, they stand 14th and 12th in the conference.  The Islanders are minus-40 in goal differential, Toronto minus-18. 

These are both games the Caps HAVE TO HAVE.  Period.  Anything less is unacceptable.

THE GOOD: Two goals from five feet out.  One of them was by Ovechkin.  Hope everyone learned a lesson.

THE BAD: Despite the one brilliant move that set up Knuble's goal, Marcus Johansson did not have a very good night.  He was on the ice for all three Philly goals, and was caught too deep in OT to guard his man, who scored the game-winner. Also, the rookie was just 3-for-9 on faceoffs.

I think most people fail to remember the Caps, through conscious decision and now injury, are playing every night with six rookies in the lineup.

THE UGLY: D.J. King took just seven shifts and played just 4:24, getting his fight with Jody Shelly out of the way early.  He spent more time in the box than on the ice.  He's only doing the job his coach put him out there for, but if that's all his coach wants him for, it seems like he really is not the right fit for this team.

Again, I have all the respect in the world for King.  He busts his ass every day at practice, and hasn't said word one about not getting a sweater.  None of this is his fault.  But he just doesn't figure into Boudreau's game plan, and is eating a roster space -- and cap room.

Also, something else to watch: David Steckel took just 11 shifts and played just 7:00 minutes. He also lost five of his seven draws and took a hooking penalty, the only minor given out to either team on the evening.

THE STATS: Mike Knuble (11) from Marcus Johansson (5) at 7:58 of 3rd.  Alex Ovechkin (16) from Nicklas Backstrom (31) and Jason Chimera (9) at 8:38 of 3rd.  Michal Neuvirth (7-for-8 saves).  Semyon Varlamov (L, 20-of-22 saves).

NEXT GAME: Thursday at New York Islanders at 7:00 pm.


3. Matt Hendricks.  Three shots, five hits and a blocked shot.  Sandpaper.
2. Semyon Varlamov.  Made several excellent saves, none more important than on his own player, as a shot ricocheted off Mike Green, sending Varly sprawling to keep the game tied late in the third.
1. Alex Ovechkin. Played perhaps his best period of hockey in two months in the third period. Find that energy in the first Thursday night and the Islanders will crumble.

"I just said, quite frankly, I hope they realized how important this period is to our season." Coach Bruce Boudreau, on what he told his team at the second intermission.

Nick Backstrom and Marcus Johansson help John Carlson celebrate his power play goal. (C.Nichols/Caps News Network)
THE RESULTS: The Washington Capitals, struggling for six weeks now scoring goals, found themselves trailing 1-0 to the travelling Ottawa Senators after two slow, plodding -- dare we say boring --periods of hockey. 

But last night, before another capacity crowd at the Verizon Center, the Caps finally found enough energy in the third period, scoring three goals in 6:16 span to secure their 25th win of the season and once again pull into a tie for first in the Southeast Division with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The goal that started things was not a flash of brilliance, rather the effort of hard work. 

Mike Green dumped the puck around the boards, and Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson went to retrieve.  A hustling Alex Ovechkin slammed Karlsson into the boards as the Swedish defender tried to play the puck back behind his own net.  His partner, Chris Phillips, was rushed by forechecking Marcus Johansson and made a bad pass, trying to spring Senators' captain Daniel Alfredsson up the middle.

But Phillips didn't have time to settle the puck and it bounced on Alfredsson, right to Brooks Laich who was streaking into the slot.  Laich, alone, calmly flipped the puck over Brian Elliott's right shoulder, and tied the game at one.

Laich described the play from his locker stall after the game.  "Ovi was the first hit then Marcus went into the other corner -- my job is just to track through the middle. A lucky break, I guess.  A puck bounces over their stick right on to mine and I was able to make a good shot. You say "It's a lucky break' but it comes from hard work, it comes from your linemates doing the right job and just being in the right position.  Sometimes good things happen."

"Forechecking.  That's what it was," Boudreau said in his press conference. "We just looked at [the replay] again and Ovi goes in and takes the guy and then all of the sudden Phillips is trying to hit Alfredsson in the middle of the ice and he rushes the puck a little bit, bounces over his stick and Brooks is in perfect position and that's why he got the goal."

Just 45 seconds later, following a cross-checking call against Milan Michalek for slamming Karl Alzner awkwardly into the boards, Nick Backstrom won an offensive zone draw straight back to John Carlson at the point, who buried the one-timer past Elliott, and the roof came off the Verizon Center.

Then a few minutes later, Jason Chimera banked a shot off Elliott's back from behind the goal line that sent the Senators back to Ottawa with their hats in their hands.

Jason Chimera used a move on Brian Elliott that he said he practiced on Stretch Leonhardt during Caps practices. (C.Nichols/Caps News Network)
It was the first time in a long time the Caps looked like The Caps.  Ovechkin skated past defenseman to the outside to put pressure on Elliott.  The forecheck came to life and really started to smell the blood in the water.  The defense, shaky on the Sens lone goal, tightened up and gave Michal Neuvirth (25 saves) plenty of room to see the puck and the rookie goalie was calm and focused.

It was a big win, as the Caps set off on a three-game roadie, starting Tuesday night in Philadelphia, with stops on Long Island and in Toronto.  Taking a four-game winless streak into Philly was not what anyone with the organization wanted to see. 

The players took matters into their own hands in the third, shaking off a dreary start to show that they still have it in them.  Now, they need to bottle it up and take it with them on the road.

THE GOOD:  The Caps were 69 percent in the faceoff dot last night as a team.  Boyd Gordon won all eight of his draws, Backstrom won 13-of-19, Steckel 6-of-9 and Mathieu Perreault 7-of-11.  Only Johansson (4-of-9) was under 50 percent.

THE BAD:  I hate to beat a dead horse, but Jeff Schultz is now minus-8 in his last six games.  He was caught under his own goal line, badly behind the play, on the Senators only goal of the night, just 1:15 into the game.  He was minus-1 for the night.

THE STATS: Brooks Laich (9) unassisted at 7:15 of 3rd.  John Carlson (5) from Nicklas Backstrom (30) at 8:00 of 3rd (PP).  Jason Chimera (6) from David Steckel (5) and Karl Alzner (5) at 13:31 of 3rd.

NEXT GAME: Tuesday at 7:00 pm at Philadelphia Flyers.


3. Michal Neuvirth.  After being hung out to dry by his defense 1:12 into the game, Neuvy was perfect.
2. Alex Ovechkin.  Didn't score, but his big hit on the forecheck started sequence that led to the first goal.  He insinuated himself into the play tonight, especially in the second half of the game.
1. John Carlson.  Real.  American.  Hero.