(photo: Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)
January 5: Montreal (21-20-3) at Washington (24-11-6)
The Result: Capitals 4 - Canadiens 2
The Background: For the first time in the history of the Washington Capitals franchise, the team would take the ice with a European captain. Alex Ovechkin assumed the duties on this night, becoming the 14th captain in Capitals history, succeeding Chris Clark, who was traded to Columbus with defenseman Milan Jurcina for forward Jason Chimera.
The change came at one of the few difficult junctures for the Caps in the regular season. They went into the Montreal game having lost three in a row – an embarrassing 6-3 loss to the struggling Carolina Hurricanes, followed by a long-distance waste of a road trip that resulted in losses to the Sharks in San Jose (5-2) and the Kings in Los Angeles (2-1). It was to date – and would be for the season – their longest string of losses in regulation.
Why It Mattered: Lost in the transition at captain were two facts. First, the Caps were in the throes of a goaltending problem. Semyon Varlamov, who started the year going 12-1-2, 2.21, .924, with two shutouts, went on the shelf with an injury in early December. Jose Theodore missed two games for personal reasons in late November, and after coming back played in only seven of the next 17 games. Coming into the Montreal game, Michal Neuvirth had temporarily become the number one goaltender. He was making the most of the opportunity, too. Neuvirth played in five of six games leading up to the Montreal game, posting a 3-2-0 record, 2.41 GAA, and .917 save percentage. And that included a rough time of it in San Jose, where he allowed all five goals in the 5-2 loss. In the other four games he did not allow more than two goals.
In this one, the Caps made things a bit easier for Neuvirth, allowing the Canadiens only three shots on goal in the first period. Then early in the second they staked the rookie goaltender to a 1-0 lead on a power play goal by Tomas Fleischmann. Neuvirth stopped the first seven shots he faced in the second period, but yielded the tying goal on the eighth shot he saw, off a slap shot by Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges.
The momentum didn’t last long on Montreal’s side of the ice, though. Eric Fehr put the Caps in the lead to stay less than two minutes after the Montreal goal, and Alexander Semin added a goal 36 seconds later. Benoit Pouliot got one back in the third period, but Neuvirth slammed the coffin lid shut on the Canadiens’ chances after that, stopping the last five shots he saw in the final 8:50. Semin drove the last nail into that coffin with a goal with just over two minutes left to provide the final 4-2 margin of victory.
Oh, you think we forgot about that second fact lost in Ovechkin’s assuming the captaincy. Well, maybe it was because it was a more subtle change. Brendan Morrison was in the midst of a four-game streak without a point and was 1-2-3, plus-1 in 12 games since going 1-2-3, plus-1 in a game (as in one game) against Florida on December 3rd. In this contest, the Caps decided to take Tomas Fleischmann on a test drive at center, inserting him into the pivot on the second line. He scored an unassisted power play goal and assisted on both of Alexander Semin’s goals, and he won six of nine faceoffs. For tonight, at least, things seemed to work.
The Takeaway: If you were writing the story, you might have written it where Alex Ovechkin gets the “C” on his sweater, gets a hat trick, and is named first star of the game (we'll leave the tire changing to Brooks Laich). Well, he got the “C.” But otherwise, Ovechkin had a quiet night – no points, even, three shots on goal. In fact, he was on the ice for only one goal for either club, the unassisted power play goal by Fleischmann in the second period. But his record as captain would hardly be quiet after this game. The Caps finished the season 30-4-7 with Ovechkin as captain. This win would, in fact, start Ovechkin and the Caps off on a 17-1-0 record over the next month.
And Neuvirth? He stopped 24 of 26 shots in this one and would be an important cog in the 17-1-0 run. In what would be his last action of the season, he suffered some from inconsistency, but in ten appearances in this stretch he was 6-0-0, with a 2.51 GAA and a .927 save percentage, establishing himself as a prospect to be reckoned with as the Capitals goaltending competition among Semyon Varlamov, Braden Hotlby, and Neuvirth moves forward.