Saturday, October 13, 2012

A TWO-point Opening Night -- Game 1: Capitals 4 - Devils 1

It was like old times.  At the five minute mark in the pre-game Slapshot took the ice, Capitals flag carried high above his feathered head.  A minute later, the pre-game video came to life, scenes of the Capitals in action interspersed with images of iconic sites in Washington, ending with the image of the Stanley Cup shining up from the newly refurbished Reflecting Pool with Alex Ovechkin – the captain – voicing over, “it’s why we play the game.”  Wes Johnson then rendered the player introductions as only he can, calling each of the 2012-2013 Capitals to the ice and leaving the starting lineup for last…

“…and now, the starting lineup for your Wash-ing-ton CAPITA-A-A-A-A-ALS…. In goal, number 30, Michal-l-l-l-l NEU-virrrrrrrth….on defense, number 74, John CARRRRRRRRL-son….on defense, number 27, Karl ALLLLLLLLLLLLLLZ-ner…. At right wing, number 20, Troy BROUWWWWWWW-errrrr… at center, number 19, Nick-la-a-a-a-s BACK-strommmmmm… and at left wing, your captain, number 8, Alex OHHHHH-VECH-kin.”

Caleb Green set the mood with his always stirring rendition of the National Anthem, and the chant began… LET’S GO CAPS…LET’S GO CAPS… LET’S GO CAPS.  Nicklas Backstrom circled to the center dot to take the season’s opening faceoff against Adam Henrique of the New Jersey Devils.  And that is how the 38th season of Washington Capitals hockey began.

It started slowly for the home team, which was unable to mount much of an attack, a product of opening night jitters, a new system, and the suffocating defense of the visiting Devils.  Neuvirth kept the Caps in the game early, though, turning away two excellent scoring chances by Ilya Kovalchuk, one off a one-time feed from Henrique, the other when he slipped inside defenseman Roman Hamrlik and fired a wrist shot from the high slot that Neuvirth fought off with his glove. 

The waning moments of the first period were highlighted by the season’s first scrap, Troy Brouwer taking on David Clarkson.  Brouwer leveled defenseman Mark Fayne behind the Devils’ net, and Clarkson immediately confronted Brouwer.  The two exchanged a flurry right hands with the bout looking like a draw.  The fight seemed to put some jump in the Capitals, as both Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera had excellent chances that were turned aside by Devils’ goalie Martin Brodeur.  The period ended scoreless with the Devils holding an 11-7 edge in shots on goal.

The game did not remain scoreless for long after the drop of the puck to start the second period.  Marcus Johansson, starting the game at right wing, worked a nifty give and go with newcomer Mike Ribeiro in the first minute, Johansson taking the return pass behind defenseman Andy Greene and tucking the puck under Brodeur’s right pad to give the Caps the lead.

Barely a minute later the Caps struck again.  Cycling the puck along the left wing boards, Nicklas Backstrom took the puck and sent the puck to the opposite side to the waiting stick of John Carlson.  The defenseman let fly with a slap shot that Brodeur seemed to freeze on, the puck sailing past his blocker and into the net to give the Caps a two-goal lead.

The sudden change in momentum put the Devils on their heels; they would not register a shot on goal over the first eleven minutes of the period.  Meanwhile, Brodeur was keeping the Devils in it with a pair of point-blank saves on shots by Brouwer and Matt Hendricks.  Brodeur’s acrobatics paid dividends for the Devils at the 14:48 mark of the period on an odd sequence.  Kovalchuk wristed a puck toward the Capitals’ net that deflected off a body in front.  The puck changed direction and hit the post to Neuvirth’s right.  It then caromed behind Neuvirth to the other side of the crease where it struck Dainius Zubrus in the leg and deflected in.

The Caps regained their two-goal lead late in the second when Mike Green found Alex Ovechkin on a stretch pass he threaded between defensemen Anton Volchenkov and Mark Fayne.  Ovechkin collected the puck at the red line and steamed in on Brodeur.  He showed forehand and pulled the puck onto his backhand as Brodeur went to the ice to double-stack his pads.  Ovechkin snapped the puck over Brodeur’s pads and popped the water bottle off the top of the net to give the Caps a 3-1 lead at the second intermission.

Dmitry Orlov took the first penalty of the season for the Caps 2:33 into the third period, whistled for delay of game for shooting the puck off the rink in the defensive zone.  Neuvrith calmly turned away three shots on the Devils’ man-advantage, including another one-timer from Kovalchuk ticketed for the top-corner on Neuvirth’s blocker side. 

The lost opportunity turned into one for the Caps when Travis Zajac took a hooking penalty half a minute after the Orlov penalty expired.  It took the Caps just four seconds to convert the opportunity, Nicklas Backstrom won the draw cleanly to Alex Ovechkin, who wristed the puck far side and over Brodeur’s glove to give the Caps a 4-1 lead.

From there it was a case of the Caps playing mistake-free hockey over the remaining minutes.  For the most part they did (a Matt Hendricks penalty providing some suspense), and Neuvirth did the rest, turning away the six shots he saw after the Caps’ fourth goal.  The horn sounded, Slapshot took the ice once more to plant the flag at center ice, and the fans walked into the night happy that the Adam Oates era started with a solid, 4-1 win over the defending Eastern Conference champions.

Caps 4 – Devils 1