OVI-LESS CAPS RISE TO THE OCCASION:

If you told anyone that the Washington Capitals would have to play the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins without Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green, and win the game scoring five goals, you'd be called a fool. You would also be labeled a no-nothing, and banned from participating in any future conversation regarding the NHL.

However, that is exactly what happened on Tuesday night as the Capitals turned in their best effort of the season, handing the Bruins a 5-3 loss at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C.

Without their three best players in the line-up for the first time since they were drafted, Washington fought for every loose puck, battled in all four corners for 60 minutes, and essentially flipped the script on one of the NHL"s best teams, who just happens to be the defending Stanley Cup champions.

The gamed raised more than a few eyebrows, as they Caps executed head coach Dale Hunter’s system to near perfection. They forced a very solid Bruins team into mistakes, and capitalized on those mistakes in the process, getting goals from their new group of young guns.

The Capitals entered the contest only hours after learning that the NHL had suspended their superstar, Russian forward Alex Ovechkin for three games, for a hit to the head of Penguins’ defenseman Zbynek Michalek in Sunday’s game.

After making the obligatory "I don't agree with the suspension" quotes, Ovechkin promptly told the NHL to stick the All-Star game up their five hole, and informed the league that he would not participate in this weekend’s festivities in Ottawa. 

Once the dust settled, head coach Dale Hunter had some decisions to make, and decided it was time to get a real good look at the next batch of the Caps young guns. Hunter, who has been hot and cold with center Mathieu Perreault since his arrival behind the bench in Washington, is currently hot on the second year Quebec native, and after a strong performance eon the first line Sunday, allowed Perreault to return there again on Tuesday night versus Boston. 

Perreault, who had had just three goals, and four assists entering last week’s contest vs. his hometown Montreal Canadiens, had not scored since Oct-22 vs. Detroit, and was starting to become a healthy scratch every other game. After playing in 10 of the first 12 games for his new head coach, Perreault was a healthy scratch in seven of the past 11 games prior to the visit to Montreal.

Sometimes a little visit home can do a boy good, and that it seems is what happened to the Drummondville, Quebec native. Located about 90 minutes from Montreal, Perreault had 15 friends and family members in attendance, and didn't disappoint as he scored the game’s first goal which turned out to be the game winner as the Caps shutout the Habs 3-0 in Montreal last week.

Since that night Perreault has exploded, and against Boston had the game of his career. Perreault notched his first career hat trick and since the Montreal game has four goals and six points. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good, but then again, they say luck happens when hard work meets good preparation, and according to Perreault’s his hard work is starting to pay off.

“I’ve just got to keep doing my thing and work hard. And obviously when you get more minutes, it’s always easier,” Perreault said. “When I get hot, I get more minutes, obviously. I’m just trying to get off to good starts and I can keep getting more ice time in games.”

Perreault skated on the first line on Jan. 22 against Pittsburgh with both Nicklas Backstrom (concussion) and Marcus Johansson (food poisoning) out, and recorded two assists alongside Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.

His head coach is impressed with his play of late, but isn’t sold just yet. Said Hunter following last night’s game, ““He’s got to have a good game in Tampa the next game,” Coach Dale Hunter said. “He’s got to realize he can’t live on it. It’s the next game that counts.”

Perrault’s goals were a result of working hard and being where is supposed to be. The three goals, which resulted in Perreault recording his second career GWG in less than a week, were all scored in different ways.

The first was a shot that appeared to go in off his skate on a pass from Semin. The second was a pretty breakaway shot after Perreault corralled the puck from almost three Bruins players at their own blue line after they got sloppy with it. And the one that produced the scores of hats and a six minute delay was off a rebound that Bruins goalie Tuuka Rask (18 saves) could not get back through the crease in time to stop.

Perreault scored the game-winner just after coming out of the penalty box for high-sticking Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. "Yeah, a little bit," Perreault said when asked if he was angry about being in the box. "I barely touched him. He's seven-foot tall and I'm 5-8. I was kind of pissed, but I came back and I got that bounce right to me and I put it in the net."

GOAL AND GONE:

Mathieu Perreault wasn’t the only young gun to score a goal in Tuesday’s contest. Caps rookie Cody Eakin, who has not scored since Dec-5, also caught a break when his shot from the left faceoff circle settled on Rask’s blocker and when he moved his arm, the puck trickled down and across the goal line. Eakins goal tied the game at one just 2:14 into the second period and would also serve as a fond memory for his short trip back to Hershey Pennsylvania.

Washington sent Eakin back to their top minor league affiliate this morning in a move to get the 20-year-old forward more playing time during the All-Star break. Hershey has two games during the break, so Eakin will get to keep playing and can easily be recalled by the time Washington returns to practice on Monday at 2 p.m.

SHOTS STILL AN ISSUE:

The Caps have not registered more than 30 shots on goal since Dec. 13, but are lucky to be 11-8-2 during that span. Last night the Caps were once again outshot (32-23) for the 10th straight game. Washington has now been outshot in 30 of their 48 games this season.

WITHOUT THE GR8 EIGHT

According to the Caps web site, team captain Alex Ovechkin has played in 522 career NHL games, and Tuesday’s game was just the 18th game he has missed. The Capitals are now 10-6-2 in those games without Ovechkin, and they’ve outscored the opposition by a combined total of 62-52. Washington was 0-4-1 in the first five games Ovechkin missed in his NHL career, so they’re 10-2-1 in their last 13 without him. 

MORE GOOD STUFF FROM THE TEAM’S SITE:

Perreault’s hat trick was the first by a player drafted by the Capitals later than the first round since Peter Bondra recorded a hat trick vs. the Blue Jackets in Columbus during a 5-3 Washington win on Nov. 29, 2003. The hat trick was the last of 19 Bondra scored in a Washington uniform. Bondra was Washington’s ninth choice (156th overall) in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft. He remains Washington’s all-time leader in many offensive categories, including goals (473). 

In between Bondra’s hat trick in 2003 and Perreault’s on Tuesday, the Capitals recorded a total of 21 hat tricks. Washington has now scored two hat tricks in their last four home games. Troy Brouwer notched one in a 4-3 win vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning back on Jan-13.

VOKOUN TOUGH AT HOME:

Part of the reason the Capitals will enter the All-Star break with the best home record in the Eastern conference is the play of goalie Tomas Vokoun. The former Florida Panther has been nearly unbeatable between the pipes at the Verizon center this year. Vokoun, who earned his 20th win of the season on Tuesday, is 15-4-0 at home, with a .925 save percentage, and a GAA of just 2.13. In contrast the Czech is 5-8-0 away from the District this season with a GAA over three, and a less than stellar .906 save percentage. As a team the Capitals have the best home record in the east with an 18-6-1 mark, which is good for a .760 winning percentage.

FITTING END:

Since Alex Ovechkin has told the NHL he will not participate in the All-Star game, the NHL has replaced him with the Pittsburgh Penguins James Neal, and now that Ovie is not heading to the Canadien capital, that leaves Caps defenseman Dennis Wideman as the Lone Ranger from the Washington squad in Ottawa.

How fitting it was that in the Caps final game before the mid-winter break, Wideman scored the final goal of the evening for Washington. His 180 ft. empty net goal finished off the Bruins and sent the Washington faithful home with a smile.

Also fitting for Wideman is that, the goal came against one of his former teams. The Caps leading scorer on defense played 256 games for the B’s from 2006 -2010, and scored 33-goals with 86-points. Wideman leads all Caps blue liners this season in goals with nine, assists with 24, and points with 33.

SITTING PRETTY FOR SECOND HALF RUN:

The Capitals will go into the break in first place in the Southeast Division -- Washington is tied with the Florida Panthers at 55 points in 48 games, but the Capitals have six more non-shootout victories to claim the tiebreaker.

The Caps are also currently the No.3 seed in the Eastern conference as a result of leading the Southeast. Washington will return from the break and play three straight on the road. Two of those three will be in Florida as the Caps stop in Tampa next Tuesday, and then visit Sunrise Florida the next night in what is likely to be a first place showdown with the Florida Panthers.

Washington will be without Ovechkin for both contests, as Ovie will not return until the Caps third game of the post All-Star break road trip on Feb-4 in Montreal. Washington will then return home to host the same Boston Bruins, and will for the third consecutive season be the nationally televised Super Sunday game on NBC.

ZLOT’S REPORT CARD:

Be sure to check back on Friday as I bring you the Capitals first half report card.

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