Matt Bradley and Matt Hendricks will both tell you they aren't the most gifted players in the Washington Capitals dressing room.  That's not to say they aren't capable of chipping with a goal now and then, but the two have combined for 71 goals over 13 NHL seasons, so it's not their offense that's keeping them in the league.

Rather, it's their intensity, their emotion, their willingness to stick their nose into a scrap to bring what hockey's lexicon calls "energy."  Basically, it boils down to a simple idea that when the team needs someone to mix it up, be an agitator or get physically involved in order to inspire their teammates, one -- or both -- will step up, as they did Friday night, setting the tone for a 5-2 win over the division leading Tampa Bay Lightning.

Neither are what you would call an NHL "Heavyweight", someone who dresses with the sole intent on fighting another team's top fighter.  That role on this team is filled by D.J. King, who has dressed for just 12 games and gotten in four fights.  Realistically, with today's rules that position is slowly getting phased out.

But the need still exists on occasion for someone to drop 'em, and it's a role that Bradley has filled for several seasons.  Hendricks, in just his second full season at the age of 29, has adjusted his game a bit and realized that he needed to add more of that element to his game in order to make sure he sticks around with the big club.

In the first period of Friday's game, maybe the pivotal play of the entire evening was Hendricks crashing the crease of Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson and perhaps, throwing the veteran off his game a bit.  It wasn't a deliberate "running", where a skater tries to take out the goalie, but Hendricks made enough contact that Roloson took exception, and punched Hendricks several times with his blocker pad, earning both men penalties.

So Matt, did you make contact with Roloson on purpose to get things started?

"Part of my game is obviously going to the net hard," Hendricks said Saturday after a spirited Caps practice.  "But we've got good coaches around here and good scouting reports and they've watched [Roloson] in his last few games and he does retaliate. If you get in his crease, if you make contact with him he's not a happy camper. So I knew if I got to the net -- I wasn't trying to end up on top of him -- just trying to make him a little upset. It is what it is. I think I got in his head a bit and I think it helped our team."

But you had to know if you mess with another team's goalie you'd have to answer the bell, right?

"It's all part of the game. It's the code, right? Isn't that what they call it?" Hendricks replied.  Sure enough, on Hendricks' next shift Tampa's resident agitator Steve Downie took up the cause to stand up for his goalie.

But to Hendricks, it was definitely worth the effort. 

"I thought we needed a little boost of energy and a little bit to get the guys going and get in [Roloson's] head a little bit. He'd shut us out the last two times. Just tried to get him to lose a little bit of focus and I think going to him hard all night -- everybody -- really, really helped, especially on Ovi's power play goal with Knuble up front working hard, him and [Tampa D Victor] Hedman kinda scrapping a little bit in the crease. Just getting him off his game."

Bradley, recently returning from a broken finger, fought with Tampa's tough guy Adam Hall later in the period.  Was he concerned about re-injuring the finger in a fight so soon upon return?  "You have to test it sometime.  Better sooner than later.  It feels great."

Coach Bruce Boudreau spoke a bit about the energy Hendricks and Bradley brought to the team.  "I thought it was important that they did what they did.  I think it showed Tampa that we weren't there just to go through the motions like we did the previous game that we lost 3-0.  So it got everybody up on the bench."

"You know, there's a time and a place for a good scrap and I thought those two were right on."

There are guys on the team that while they might be willing, just aren't equipped to play that sort of game -- center Mathieu Perreault being one of them.  He spoke about the necessity of having players to mix it up on the team.  

"That's what we need from these guys.  We want them to bring energy and and stand up for their teammates and this is what they've done.  Even Mike Knuble on the Ovechkin goal on the power play he's right in there in Roloson's kitchen all power play and then [Roloson] got rattled and then Ovi scored so this is what we've got to keep doing more." 

Neither Hendricks or Bradley picked up a point in the 5-2 win, but their efforts went a long way in providing spark and opening up ice space for the skilled players to do what they do.

It's a tough job, night in and night out willing to get punched in the face for the sake of "energy."  But it's a vital role being a player that can contribute both with their hockey sticks and with their fists when need be.

THE RESULTS: The Tampa Bay Lightning put a Matt Bradley quote about this being the Washington Capitals' biggest game of the year up on their white board in their dressing room in motivation for last night's big Southeast Division showdown.

It didn't help much.

The Caps roared out to a 3-1 lead mid-way through the second period, and added two more goals in the third to inch a little closer to the division lead with a 5-2 win before over 20,000 at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Better yet, the Caps top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom and Jason Chimera combined for four of the five goals, and Brooks Laich knocked in the other, just his second goal in his last 20 games.

Ovechkin's goal came on the power play, the first time he's gotten a marker with the extra man since he got two against Calgary Oct. 30, a span of 40 games.  Unreal.

The win is welcome relief from the struggles of the offense so far in 2011.  The Caps had scored just three goals in their last three contests, and five goals are the highest total so far in the new year.

Bradley's remark might have been good bulletin board material, but make no mistake, this was a very big win for the Caps.  It pulls them within three of division-leading Tampa Bay, who is also second in the Eastern Conference.

Lest no one convince you otherwise, the Capitals still see the Southeast as their turf, and winning the division is still a big deal to them, especially now that all five of the teams have a legitimate shot of making the second season.

The Caps even tried sending messages, wtih Matt Bradley and Matt Hendricks both fighting in the first period, trying to set the tone.

It's also a big deal considering Washington's next opponent: the Pittsburgh Penguins on Super Bowl Sunday.  It will be much easier to prepare for a marquee matchup without being pestered for 48 hours about falling to a division opponent on the road.

The Caps have spent all season mixing multiple rookies in and out of the lineup in all phases of the game.  They've also dealt with long-term injuries to several veterans.  They've been scratching their heads trying to figure out "What's Wrong with the Washington Capitals."

They've needed their best players to play like it, and that's been missing for the most part since the first of Decemeber.

Last night was the first time in a long time that this team looked like itself:  pressuring on the forecheck, getting quality shots on goal, following up those shots with rebound attempts, and their best players playing like it.

Dedicated.  Involved.  Having fun.

How far they'll go the rest of the way depends on their willingness to following that formula.

THE GOOD: Other than the obvious goodness of Ovi, Nicky and Brooks all lighting the lamp, the Caps also had a very strong night in the dot, winning 60 percent of the faceoffs.  Of particular note: Marcus Johansson (7-of-8), Jay Beagle (7-of-8) and David Steckel (6-of-7).

THE BAD: No shots on goal from the second or third line centers, Johansson and Mathieu Perreault.

THE UGLY: Steve Downie.  That's all.

THE STATS: Nicklas Backstrom (13) from Alex Ovechkin (33) and Mike Green (16) at 9:09 of 1st.  Brooks Laich (10) from Mathieu Perreault (5) and Jay Beagle (1) at 6:38 of 2nd.  Alex Ovechkin (20) from Nicklas Backstrom (35) and John Carlson (17) at 8:25 of 2nd (PP).  Nicklas Backstrom (14) from Alex Ovechkin (34) and Jason Chimera (11) at 12:22 of 3rd.  Jason Chimera (8) from Alex Ovechkin (35) and Nicklas Backstrom (36) at 19:22 of 3rd (EN).

NEXT GAME: Super Sunday at 2:00 pm v. Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center


3. Semyon Varlamov. Only called on to face 25 shots, but made several key saves in the third before the insurance goals that sealed it.
2. Alex Ovechkin.  Goal.  Three assists.  Ten shots on goal, four hits.  Looks like the All-Star Game loosened him up a little.  Happy Ovi = Good Ovi.
1. Nick Backstrom.  Two goals, two assists, five shots, 52% on draws.  Where has this guy been?

THE RESULT: In the first game back from the All-Star break, the Washington Capitals came out guns blazing, scoring twice in the first period and looking like the team that won the President's Trophy last season as the top team in the league.

The rest of the game however, they fell back into the same uninspired, lackadaisical play that has plagued them since Dec. 1, allowing Brian Gionta and the Montreal Canadiens to tied the game in regulation, and eventually win the shootout to take the extra point in an important Eastern Conference matchup.

The 3-2 final score was gracious, compared to the Caps level of play in the final two frames.

It was a disappointing performance after such a scintillating start.

It would be easy to blame the coaching staff on this one.  The Caps jumped out quickly and took their foot off the gas, allowing a beaten team to come back and take the extra point in their barn.

But that's not the case.  What happened was two defenseman made undisciplined plays at inopportune times trying to go for the throat instead of making fundamentally sound plays. 

On two occasions Gionta, the diminutive Montreal captain, broke free of the defense and beat Semyon Varlamov, left alone to his own defense.  On the first, defenseman John Erskine was caught trying to pinch in on the play and Gionta was sprung for a breakaway.  The Habs second goal came after John Carlson attempted a drop pass, which was stolen and turned around the other way, and once again Gionta took advantage of the mental mistake.

These Capitals have yet to learn how to put away a team on the ropes.  Let's not mince words here, the Montreal Canadiens are not an exceptional team.  Gionta, their 35-year old forward, is still their best offensive player.  Their backend is a mix of older veterans (Hall Gill, Roman Hamrlik) and youth (uneven but talented P.K. Subban) and goalie Carey Price is average at best.

Bottom line:  you have this team down two after one, you have to bury them.  The Caps did not.

The Caps, wearing white throwback jerseys honoring Hall of Famer Dino Ciccarelli, stopped doing the things that made them successful in the first.  They sat back and allowed Montreal to carry the play, defensemen made mistakes in the offensive zone and there were no forwards covering on the plays.

Erskine was out of position, trying to play a game he's not equipped for.  Carlson is a rookie that needs to learn that if he has speed entering the zone he needs to commit, not gain the zone and try a back pass that can only result in no offensive opportunity that puts him -- and his teammates -- out of position.

Coach Bruce Boudreau was more resigned than agitated after the game.  "It wasn’t a letdown as much as it was mistakes. We made two bad mistakes and it’s in our net. We’re playing desperate. We killed off penalties. They took it to us. We battled and we lost in the shootout. I wish we could’ve scored a little bit more.”

Yes, the Capitals were outshot 38-29.  Yes, after the two-goal lead they retreated into a shell.  But on this occasion, the loss can be pinned on two defensemen trying to do too much.

“It’s tough, but the answers are in this room and they aren’t going to come from anywhere else," said forward Matt Hendricks.  "We know that we have the opportunity to change things and we’re working hard at it.”

The Capitals better hurry up.  They only have 30 games left to figure it out.

THE GOOD: Mathieu Perreault, upon his recall from AHL Hershey, had a goal and assist in the Caps two-goal first period.  Stop me if you've heard this one before.

THE BAD: Brooks Laich.  On his first shift, he and his linemates did a great job cycling and keeping the puck deep.  After that...well, lets just say Brooks did not distinguish himself.  Three minor penalties, including one that wiped out a Caps power play.  He has just nine goals through 52 games, and his struggles are symptomatic of the Capitals troubles this season.

Adding injury to insult, Laich limped off the ice late in the game late after being struck in the leg by an Alex Ovechkin line drive.

THE UGLY: Six two minute minors taken, including three of the four calls after the first period.  They killed all the power plays, but that kind of undisciplined hockey just can't be sustained.  Some of these players need to be held accountable for their poor play.

Also:  Tampa beat Philly 4-0, so the lead in the Eastern Conference is now five points.  Oh, the ignominy.

THE STATS: Mathieu Perreault (6) unassisted at 2:29 of 1st.  Mike Knuble (12) from Mike Green (15) and Mathieu Perreault (4) at 7:49 of 2nd (PP).

NEXT GAME: Friday at 7:00 pm at Tampa Bay.


3. Mike Knuble.  Goal, six shots, two hits.  Nice game from the old man.
2. Semyon Varlamov.  36 saves on 38 shots.  Was huge in the second and third periods.
1. Mathieu Perreault.  Goal, assist.  Maddening that he can't play with this effort every game instead of just when he gets recalled.

Caps Getting Their Legs Back After All-Star Break

Posted by Dave Nichols | Tuesday, February 01, 2011 | | 1 comments »

Yesterday at practice, I caught up with a few of the Caps that missed some significant time due to injury that have returned recently, only to then sit again during the four-day All-Star game break.

Jeff Schultz:  "It felt good to be out there but the legs and wind aren't quite where they were, but it was a good four days that guys use to rest, the heal some bumps and bruises.  We'll have a good morning skate  and we'll be ready for the game.

"I played enough games before the break that I kinda got back feeling good and where I like playing at, so I still used the four days to get away from the game and refocus, and now we're back at it and time to go for the home stretch."

Matt Bradley:  "I think I've been very well rested over the last six weeks so I have no excuses as far as being out of shape or anything like that.  During the break I did some stuff, you know, rode the bike and working out -- trying to stay on top of a couple things.  But it felt good out there [at Monday's practice] and we're ready to go for [Montreal]."

Boyd Gordon:  "I played a lot of games there before the break and I probably didn't need it [the break] but I'm sure it didn't hurt either way.  I should be fine.  You get it back relatively quickly."

"It's never fun sitting out watching games with injury.  But things happen, and hopefully I'll stay healthy the rest of the season and contribute when I get in there."


Yesterday, the team recalled C Mathieu Perreault and D Tyler Sloan from AHL Hershey.  This morning, they brought back F Jay Beagle as well.

Alexander Semin took part in practice yesterday, spending a considerable alount of time working with the first line power play unit, but with Beagle's recall -- and Coach Boudreau's insistence that Semin "will let us know when he's okay to play" -- it's still cloudy whether the enigmatic winger will return to the line-up tonight.

Michael Neuvirth practiced too, but during a skating drill it appeared that he was still laboring with his "lower body injury."  "I made it through [practice] so that's a big step for me," Neuvirth said, "Still hoping it's gonna get better.  I was a little rusty but I had a good practice."

Tom Poti and Eric Fehr skated ahead of practice, and neither are expected to return anytime soon.  Boudreau "guessed" after practice that Poti might be able to play next week, and Fehr the week after that, but he had no hard timetable.