Ah, now that’s better.
The beer tastes better, the air smells fresher, and the night lights seem brighter walking out of the Verizon Center after a game like that which the Capitals played tonight. The home side stapled the San Jose Sharks to the sides of the rink in posting a 4-1 win that really wasn’t as close as the score indicated. It didn’t some without a price, though, as Jose Theodore left the contest at the first intermission after gutting out the latter part of the first period while suffering back spasms. How long he will be out is not known.
That merely presented an opportunity for Semyon Varlamov, last seen looking like a screen door on the back porch swinging open against Philadelphia. Not tonight. Varlamov was calm and steady in net, and the boys in front of him played with a determination bred of seeing a series of third period leads blown during the four-game losing streak that they brought into this game. Varlamov stopped all 15 shots he faced in earning the win.
In fact, it was probably an early save in the second period – a glove save, one should note – off a shot by Patrick Marleau off a nice feed from Joe Thornton that set the Caps off and running. Barely a minute later, Alex Ovechkin scored the first of two goals he would have in 28 seconds to give the Caps the lead they would not relinquish.
Ovechkin completed the book on “NHL Teams I Have Scored Goals Against” by notching two against the team he had yet to solve. If he was a slot machine, he’d be paying jackpot – sevens across… seven games played, seven goals, seven assists. Ovechkin has opened up an early three-point lead on the field in the scoring race with his 14 points. It is no surprise that he also leads the league in goals scored, but it is a surprise that he is tied for third in assists.
Nicklas Backstrom, who recorded an assist, leads the league in that category and is tied for second in scoring behind Ovechkin. He did have a rather brutal night in the circle, though, winning only five of 17 draws. He lost all five draws he took in the offensive zone, which might explain a little bit why he and his new linemates – Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich -- could not get much traction in the offensive zone.
Semin did, however, score a nice goal on a 5-on-3 power play, taking one of those “wait…wait…wait for it” feeds from through the crease by Nicklas Backstrom, snapping the puck past goalie Evgeni Nabokov while falling down. But watching that play unfold, one notices the rather determined Brooks Laich fighting for position with Rob Blake at the top of Nabokov’s crease. A distraction that helped in the result? Very possibly.
While Backstrom was breaking in a new line, so was Brendan Morrison, who skated with Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble. Knuble is one of those guys you really have to watch for a awhile to appreciate his role as a solid support player. He earned the primary assist on both Ovechkin goals, and both assists were the product of simple, smart plays. On the first, Ovechkin lost the puck at the San Jose line to defenseman Kent Huskins, who tried to swat the puck back out of the zone. He flubbed the attempt, and the puck ended up on the stick of Knuble. As Ovechkin continued driving to the net, Knuble went wide down the left side, drawing the defense to him. He threaded a pass through to Ovechkin, who redirected it through Nabokov, and it was 2-1.
On the next shift, it was Knuble taking a pass from Brendan Morrison at the Sharks’ line and skating down the right side. He fired a shot at Nabokov, but it looked like a shot with a purpose, that being one where if Nabokov would make the save, any rebound would be left to Ovechkin’s side of the ice going down the far wing. That is just what happened as the puck rebounded onto Ovechkin’s stick, and all that needed to be done was to stuff the puck in what was now an empty net.
Matt Bradley closed the scoring in the third period by sending one in from the “Bradley Corner” off a rebound from a long shot by Milan Jurcina. After that, the Caps played suffocating defense, holding the Sharks to four shots on goal (only one inside of 24 feet) in the last 14:49 on the game.
- Speaking of defense, the top line of Dany Heatley-Joe Thornton-Devin Setoguchi was held to five shots on goal, none by Thornton, and none of the five after the first period. Moreover, they only had a total of nine shot attempts. Alexander Semin (10) and Alex Ovechkin (17) each had more attempts.
- Ovechkin’s 13 shots on goal is not a personal best. He had 15 against Carolina on October 7, 2006.
- The score sheet will record that the Caps were successful on one of five power plays (all of the opportunities coming in the first period). It wasn’t for lack of effort. Frankly, it was the best the power play looked all year. There was good puck movement, guys were moving their feet, and it seemed that the Caps were just this close to potting a couple more. Eight power play shots doesn’t tell the story of a lot of pucks that were pinballing around, making Nabokov move like a man not knowing which of a dozen itches to scratch first.
- Seven goals (oops...six; the other one was a Gimmick) against in the last three games, all of them against division winners from last year (New Jersey, Detroit, San Jose). Nothing wrong with that.
- David Steckel won 12 of 16 draws. That’s not unusual. But it looked to us like he was trying to get more involved offensively.
- For a guy coming back from surgery on both shoulders, and who was supposed to be rehabbing in Hershey, Eric Fehr snapped off one laser of a wrist shot that Nabokov barely saw in time to get a pad on. And it seems even when Fehr isn’t scoring, he is very diligent in forechecking. He was making it very difficult on Shark skaters with his reach along the boards.
- Mike Green looks a lot more comfortable in the offensive end now that he has his first goal. He was looking for his shot tonight.
- Yes, the Caps have some of the top scorers in the league – Ovechkin is first, Backstrom is tied for second, Semin is tied for fourth. But Semin is first, Backstrom is tied for fifth, and Knuble, Morrison, and Steckel are tied for ninth… in takeaways.
- The Caps had 56 seconds of 5-on-3 play tonight and had only one shot on goal – it went in. There’s a moral in there somewhere.
This was as solid an suffocating a win as Caps fans could have hoped for. San Jose was never really in this game, their only goal coming after Theodore had apparently contracted back spasms. They mounted almost no offense in the third period, and the Caps did a fine job all night of denying the Sharks the opportunity to string passes together into scoring opportunities. They scored, they got a lead, and then they played smart. The played solid defense, they didn’t play “defensively.” It was like watching the New York Giants use ball control and time of possession to grind out a win that might only look like 24-3, but it was one in which the outcome was never in doubt. It was just a solid meat-and-potatoes kind of win.
We’d be just as happy with, oh, 45 or so more of them. The kinds of wins that would make an Ugly Goal Rally Mutt proud. Right, Kanoobie?