It started so well. The Washington Capitals celebrated their 40th anniversary playing hockey in the NHL by bringing back some of the greatest players in team history. But the start of the party was a lot happier than the end of it as the Montreal Canadiens spoiled the fun with a 2-1 Gimmick win at Verizon Center.
One of the surprises of training camp, Andre Burakovsky, continued to impress when he took a centering pass from Troy Brouwer and one-timed the puck past goalie Dustin Tokarski to give the Caps their first lead of the season in the game’s seventh minute.
The Caps continued pounding pucks at the Montreal net, at one point leading the Canadiens in shots on goal, 14-0. The Canadiens did not record their first shot on goal until there was just 2:24 left in the period and went to the locker room at the first intermission outshot by a 15-2 margin.
The trouble with that kind of domination is that if you don’t capitalize on it with more than a single goal, you often pay for it later. That was the case on this night. The teams played through a scoreless second period with the visitors controlling much of the play, and in the third period, they finally broke through. Tomas Plekanec started the play by picking up a loose puck in the right wing corner and moving it up the wall to Tom Gilbert at the point. As Gilbert sent the puck back down to Alex Galchenyuk, Plekanec continued circling around the faceoff circle, finding an opening to take a pass from Galchenyuk. Hockey being what it is, the Caps then lost a game of inches. Karl Alzner missed blocking Galchenyuk’s pass by inches. Alex Ovechkin missed lifting Plekanec’ stick by inches. And then, Plekanec’ snap shot threaded its way past Nicklas Backstrom and Matt Niskanen by the thinnest of margins, flying just under the bar past goalie Braden Holtby to tie the game with 9:29 left in regulation.
That would do it for the hockey portion of the evening, leaving the decision up to the trick shot competition. Backstrom and Eric Fehr converted for the Caps in the first three rounds, Galchenyuk and David Desharnais for the Canadiens. When Ovechkin and Plekanec came up empty in the fourth round, it was up to the rookie for the Caps, Burakovsky. His attempt was foiled, leaving it up to Brendan Gallagher for Montreal. Gallagher skated in with speed, and the slightest hesitation in firing the puck seemed to freeze Holtby for an instant. It was enough. Gallagher’s shot snuck past Holtby’s glove, and it was Montreal celebrating at game’s end.
-- One game, minus-1. The vigil on Alex Ovechkin’s plus-minus begins.
-- Andre Burakovsky was not the only rookie to make fans take notice on this evening. When Brandon Prust stood up Jack Hillen behind the Washington net in the second period, Liam O’Brien quickly stepped in and engaged Prust in some fisticuffs. It was a reasonably even duel, the rookie giving a good account of himself against a player with more than 100 regular season bouts.
-- Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Fights that is…change momentum. When O’Brien and Prust went at it, the Caps had an 18-3 edge in shots and a 1-0 lead on the scoreboard. After that, the Canadiens outshot the Caps, 27-6, tied the game, and won it in the freestyle competition.
-- Marcus Johansson had three shots on goal last night. Last season he had three shots on goal over his first seven games.
-- Last season the Caps’ power play started like someone set a match to gasoline, 3-for-6 in their opener against Chicago and 6-for-12 over their first three games. Last night it was 0-for-5 and managed only four shots on goal, none of them by Alex Ovechkin. Nineteen times last season the Caps had five or more power plays in a game; seven times they came up empty. It does not happen often, but it happens.
-- A shot attempt advantage of 65-46 bodes well for the Caps. Do that regularly, the wins will come.
-- Three of those shot attempts came off the stick of Karl Alzner. He has averaged only 0.87 shots per game in his career, but last year had a career high of 1.16 per game. If he can get shots to the net it opens other things up, even if he does not score.
-- Of the 65 shot attempts, 20 of them came from the top line of Ovechkin (10), Nicklas Backstrom (3), and Eric Fehr (7); eight of the 30 shots on goal came from that group.
-- Bet no one had Evgeny Kuznetsov getting only 6:36 in ice time in the season opener, more than a third of it (2:26) on the power play. He skated only two shifts in the third period, none in the last 12:40 (he did have a shift in overtime).
-- At the other end, Matt Niskanen’s first game as a Cap was busy. More than 20 minutes at even strength (22:30), more than two minutes both penalty killing (2:02) and on the power play (2:10) for a total of 26:42.
-- Nicklas Backstrom was 15-for-23 on draws (65.2 percent), the rest of the team was 19-for-50 (38.0 percent).
In the end…
The Caps are already ahead of where they were at this point last season. They have a standings point. But as happens so often when a team has a lot of energy at the start of a game, particularly in an emotionally charged atmosphere, if they don’t convert their early chances, that energy often dissipates, and the opponent can take advantage. Even though the Canadiens played the previous night, that is what appeared to happen to the Capitals, especially after the O’Brien-Prust dust-up.
There is nothing especially noteworthy to take away from this game, good or bad. It is one of 82, one that folks probably won’t much remember months from now. Well, some might remember this…