Recently fired by the Washington Capitals, and hired 67 hours later by the Anaheim Ducks, Bruce Boudreau became the fastest head coach in NHL history to win 200 games while behind the bench in D.C.
Last night, Boudreau’s replacement, and longtime Capitals legend Dale Hunter, earned his first as head coach. As a player in D.C, Hunter was apart of 412 regular season victories for Washington, and after his team failed in their first two attempts to get Hunter his first NHL win, defeated the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in overtime in the battle of the two North American capital cities.
In earning Hunters first win, the Capitals snapped a four game losing streak, and won for just the sixth timer during their past 18 games. "It feels good," Hunter said. "It's something you want to get over with right away, hopefully the first game but it ends up being the third. It's one of those things you want to get under your belt and move on."
Washington dropped two identical 2-1 decisions this past week, and looked like a hockey team enduring a drastic change in coaching philosophy, at least on offense. Defensively, Washington hung tough, and played physical, as they adapted to a more man-on-man style of play.
The numbers during their losing streak were at best disturbing to look at, and even worse to watch. During the loss to the Penguins, the Caps were held to one goal for the sixth time in a 16-day span. To further illustrate Washington’s offensive trouble, St. Louis and Pittsburgh combined for 130 shot attempts at the net (including shots on goal, shots blocked and shots that missed) while Washington managed only a combined 72 in the two games.
They registered just 36 shots on net, and, even worse, just 19 scoring chances. The Caps had just five scoring chances in Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to the Blues, and 14 in Thursday’s 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh. Washington managed only a combined 72 in the two games, including just one from Alex Ovechkin against the Penguins.
For the second time this week, Nicklas Backstrom scored the game’s opening goal. Backstrom beat Blues starter Jaroslav Halak 11 minutes into the game on Tuesday to score the Caps one and only goal. Last night, Backstrom scored less than two minutes into the contest, as his ninth of the season was the first goal of the game for the 11th time this year for Washington.
The Caps are a league worst 5-5-1 when scoring first this season in the NHL.
Backstrom took the puck from Caps defenseman John Carlson just inside the defensive zone, and skated the puck into the offensive zone. With Alex Ovechkin drawing defensive coverage away from Backstrom on the left wing, No.19 found the soft spot in Ottawa’s defense, and snapped a quick shot past Sens starter Craig Anderson.
Anderson made 32 quality saves on Washington shooters last night, and kept Ottawa in the game with several in close saves. Backstrom’s goal held for the rest of the first period. The lead did not last long into the second period, as the Capitals continued a disturbing trend of allowing goals within the first or last three minutes of a period.
There were two Carlson’s/Karlsson's on the ice last night, and both played defense. John Carlson for Washington, assisted on Washington first goal, and Erik Karlsson for Ottawa, scored the Sens first goal, which occurred just 58 seconds into the middle frame. Karlsson, who leads all NHL defenders with 23 points, fired a soft wrister from the blue line, and through as much traffic as there is at rush hour, to tie the game.
Washington’s other goalie, and yes there really is one not name Tomas Vokoun this season, simply never saw the puck. Despite allowing the soft wrister by him, second year back stopper Michael Neuvirth, who has played this season as if he's suffering the dreaded sophomore jinx, played his best game of the year vs. Ottawa on Saturday night.
After going winless in five straight appearances, Neuvy was 2-5-1 headed into Saturday's contest. During the game, Neuvy made 32 saves to earn his third win of the season, and his first since Nov. 5.
Making his first start in eight days the Usti nad Labem, Czechoslovakian native, who bare's a disturbing resemblance to the Icelandic pop-singer Bjork, looked shaky to start the game. However, Neuvirth stopped all 16 shots he faced in the in the first period, and seven of the eight he faced during the middle frame.
Neuvirth now owns a still paltry 3.60 goals against, with an .878 save percentage, but looked more like the Neuvy from last season than the one from the first eight games he's played in this season.
The game remained tied headed into the third period, as Washington never trailed in the contest. That marked just the second time in the last 10 games the Capitals never trailed.
The one-goal lead was the largest amount of time the Caps held a lead lately. During the life of Washington’s four-game losing streak, the Capitals held a lead for just five minutes and 33 seconds of hockey of the 240 minutes that were played. Simply put, the Capitals needed to score more than one goal. A win wouldn’t hurt either, but a little bit of scoring had to be accomplished first.
With just one goal in his previous eight games, Troy Brouwer, like most first and second line skaters on his team, entered the game mired in a scoring slump. His slump ended a little over five minutes into the final stanza, as he converted a beautiful cross ice pass from the Great 8, and beat Anderson high to break the tie.
Aside from the victory, the best sign of the night was the play of Alex Ovechkin. Along with overtime hero Brooks Laich, Ovechkin was also playing in his 500th game. Looking comfortable in Hunters new defensive system, Ovie was extremely focused vs. Ottawa. He stayed true to his back checking responsibilities, and did not play the “drift” game he settled into so often with Boudreau behind the bench.
In 25 shifts, Ovechkin’s ice time topped the 20-minute mark for the first time since Nov-12 versus the New Jersey Devils. He had four shots, delivered two hits, but looked quick on his first step, and looked to make a play when a shot wasn’t available instead of wasting a shot.
Brouwer's goal was a result of Ovie not forcing the play to the middle as he did on so many chances during the past 100 games. Instead of the premature curl and drag, forcing the “silly” shot that barely misses the net, Ovechkin stayed on the wing, and delivered a perfect pass to the open forward.
Ovechkin’s reputation as a shooter continues to force teams to try to double team him in the offensive zone. Both of the Caps first two goals were a result of Ottawa's defense committing to Ovechkin, leaving the eventual goal scorer (Backstrom & Brouwer) in free space.
According to Mike Vogel of the Capitals web site, Until Troy Brouwer’s third-period tally gave the Caps a 2-1 lead, all of Washington’s offense over a span of 239 minutes and three seconds -- a stretch of nearly four full games -- had come from just two different players.
Chimera scored the Caps’ lone goal last Saturday in Buffalo. Nicklas Backstrom supplied the Capitals’ only strike on Tuesday against St. Louis, and Chimera had the team’s only goal in Thursday’s game against Pittsburgh. Backstrom got the Caps started tonight with his ninth goal of the season at 1:58 of the first.
Learning Hunters system in full will take time. Watching the Caps learn how to play the system will also be frustrating to watch. Not knowing what their late game responsibility was, the Caps looked confused as all five players were within 15 feet of the eventual goal scorer.
Tied for the NHL lead in goals today with 16, Milan Michalek poked home a loose puck to the left of the crease. Michael Neuvirth was sprawled out on his stomach and failed to poke the puck away before Michalek converted. The goal came with 3:15 left in the contest, eventually sending the game into overtime.
The Capitals did not get frustrated, which could have easily occurred after this past week. Speaking to reporters following the game Hunter was asked about his team’s frustration and if the overtime outcome mattered after a hard fought game. “We got some great opportunities tonight,” Hunter said. “We should have scored more, but good goalie on the other side and we missed the net a few times. As long as you get your chances, that’s what I worry about.”
Mike Knubble said when asked about getting frustrated, “You can’t. You know it’s going to come,” Knuble said. “If you keep doing the right things, you’re going to score and you’re going to generate chances. We’d probably like to limit the shots a little bit. I don’t know of how many shots we gave up , how many were great chances. But there’s always a chance they’ll go in. I think we ought to be happy that we generated 35 ourselves and we were able to capitalize like that.”
And capitalize Washington did immediately following the drop of the puck in overtime.
Brooks Laich, who was also playing in his 500th NHL game, won the overtime faceoff, and then brought the puck through the neutral zone. As he passed the puck to Jason Chimera, Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson tripped and fell to the ice, giving the Capitals a 2-on-1 break. Karlsson’s slip would not have mattered, as Chimera continues to exploit defenses with his blazing one step bursts of speed.
Chimera brought the puck down the left side and dumped it to Laich, who was slightly behind the play and to the right Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson. Chimera passed the puck back to Laich, who ended the evening with his fifth goal of the season. "I moved it to Jason because I knew we had speed on the outside and I think we got lucky when their D-man caught an edge and fell," Laich said. "Jason made a good play."
The irony of the evening is how Laich became a member of the Washington Capitals. On February 18-2004, he was traded to Washington by Ottawa with Ottawa's 2nd round choice, which they later traded to Colorado, who selected Chris Durand) in 2005 Entry Draft. The principal player dealt by Washington was longtime fan favorite, and still Washington’s all-time leading scorer with 825 points, Peter Bondra.
THE WEEK AHEAD
As far as drama, and intrigue, last week will be hard to match at the Kettler Ice Complex in Virginia. Hopefully, things will get back to normal this week. Last week began with the firing of head coach Bruce Boudreau, and the hiring of Dale Hunter. The Capitals then went out and scored just two goals recording just 36 shots in losing by identical 2-1 scores, to the St. Louis Blues, and Pittsburgh penguins.
On Monday, Washington travels to the sunshine state to take on the first place Florida Panthers (14-8-4), yes that's right, I said the Florida Panthers. Currently, the Capitals trail the Miami based team by five points in the Southeast division.
The Panthers have not been in first place this late in the season since 1999-2000, when they made their last playoff appearance. The Capitals have won three of the last four meetings Vs. the cats, and it is likely that each team will face a back stopper that is a former member of each squad.
Tomas Vokoun has already faced his former team earlier this season, and beat them 3-0. He stopped 20 shots, and recorded his only whitewash of the season in the process. Former Capital Jose Theodore, 4-1-1 with a 1.83 goals-against average in his last six starts, should be back between the pipes Monday for the Panthers.
Theodore won 64 games for Washington from 2008-10, and is 2-1-0 with a 1.43 GAA in his last three starts against his former team. Kris Versteeg leads Florida in scoring with 28 points, but another former Capitals player is a close second with 27 points. In fact, Tomas Fleischmann is tied with Versteeg for the team lead in goals on the Panthers with 12.
Fleischmann and Theodore head a list of four former Caps currently contributing for Florida this season. Matt Bradley and Marco Sturm are the other two.
On Wednesday evening, the Capitals continue their every other day schedule this week by visiting the Canadian capital to play the Ottawa Senators for the third time this season. On Friday Washington returns to the big phone booth in Washington to take on the Toronto Maple Leafs.