Sunday, June 08, 2014

Washington Capitals: The 2013-2014 Season -- Ten Games that Mattered: Flames at Capitals, October 3rd

The first game in our look at games that mattered in the Washington Capitals’ 2013-2014 season is the first game at Verizon Center, the home opener.  It would be a first in a number of ways, one historic, one encouraging, one disturbing, one unsettling, and one that would be a foreshadowing of what would come as the season wore on. 

October 3, 2013: Calgary (0-0-0) at Washington (0-1-0)

Result: Capitals 5 – Flames 4 (OT/SO)

The Background: For the first time in club history the Capitals’ opponent for the home opener would be the Calgary Flames.  The Caps were coming off a disappointing 6-4 loss in their season opener against the Chicago Blackhawks, a game in which they held a 4-3 lead on the defending Stanley Cup champions in the third period at United Center.  For the Flames it was their season opener.

Washington had an especially successful record in recent home openers, winning 10 of their previous 11 debuts on home ice.  On the other hand, Calgary’s history in season openers was not particularly successful – 12-18, with ten ties and no losses in extra time.  They were 3-12-1 in their previous 16 season openers.

Why it Mattered:  For the Capitals, getting off to a good start was a paramount ambition in Year Two of Adam Oates’ tenure behind the Caps’ bench.  In Year One the Caps started poorly, going 2-8-1 in their first 11 games.  The “glass half full” version of that is that the Caps finished up the abbreviated 2012-2013 season with a 25-10-2 record.  That kind of finish might have been the harbinger of a fast start to the 2013-2014 season.

A fast start is precisely what the Caps did not have on this night.  The Caps held Calgary without a shot on goal for almost five minutes to open the game, but the Flames scored on their second shot when David Jones picked up a loose puck at the Capitals’ blue line, went wide on defenseman Jack Hillen, and roofed a shot over goalie Braden Holtby’s glove and under the crossbar to put the Flames in front 5:18 into the game. 

Calgary added goals by Lee Stempniak and Jiri Hudler before the game was 17 minutes old to end Holtby’s night with three goals allowed on 11 shots.  It would be up to Michal Neuvirth to mop up the mess as the Caps looked to be getting off on the wrong foot on their 2013-2014 home season. 

Sandwiched between those two goals was an incident that would reveal one of the weaknesses in the Washington lineup.  Just 11:50 into the game, Hillen was hit along the boards by Flames forward Lance Bouma.  Taking the hit in an awkward fashion, Hillen suffered a tibial plateau fracture – a broken leg – that would cost him five months of the season and that would expose a lack of depth on the blue line.

The second period started slowly enough, playing into the visitors’ hands.  It looked better for the Flames when rookie defenseman Connor Carrick took a hooking penalty 5:21 into the period.  Calgary managed two shots on goal, but Neuvirth turned both away.  The penalty kill bore instant dividends when Marcus Johansson spied Carrick up ice having just left the penalty box.  Johansson laid the puck out for Carrick at the Flames’ blue line, and the rookie did the rest, skating in, getting goalie Karri Ramo to bite on a deke, then sliding the puck past Ramo’s left skate to put the Caps on the board 7:30 into the second period.  It was the rookie’s first NHL goal and first NHL point in what was his second NHL game.

Calgary restored their three-goal lead just 1:35 after Carrick’s goal, though, the second time in two games that the Caps allowed a goal within two minutes of scoring one of their own.  That, however, would do it for Calgary’s scoring.  The Caps scored two goals four minutes apart to close within a goal at 4-3 going into the second intermission.

The teams split 26 shots on goal in the third period, but only the Caps would have one find the back of the net, that coming on a power play 14:10 into the period when the Caps dug out a loose puck that squirted to the left of Ramo where Nicklas Backstrom was waiting.  Backstrom flipped it past Ramo, and the teams went to extra time. 

The teams split the shots again in overtime, each recording three on goal, but none were successful.  That sent the game to the Gimmick.  Mikhail Grabovski, playing in his first game at Verizon Center after signing a free agent deal with the Caps, led off for the Caps.  Skating in and deking Ramo to the ice, Grabovski lifted a backhand over the sprawled goalie for the goal.  After Michal Neuvirth stopped Sven Baertschi’s attempt, Alex Ovechkin produced a mirror image of Grabovski’s goal, deking Ramo to the ice and backhanding the puck in from the other side.  That left it up to Jiri Hudler to keep the Flames in the contest.  Neuvirth was up to the challenge, though, gloving Hudler’s attempt aside to give the Caps a 5-4, come-from-behind win in their home opener.

The Takeaway:  The top line played like a top line, at least after a slow start.  Alex Ovechkin had two goals and an assist, Nicklas Backstrom had a goal and an assist, and Marcus Johansson had three assists.  It was part of a hot start to the season for Ovechkin, who was 1-1-2 in the opener against Chicago, and for Backstrom, who had a pair of assists in that contest.  But at the other end, Braden Holtby’s early exit meant that he allowed eight goals on the first 45 shots he faced for the season..  For Holtby it would make for an odd relationship among numbers.  After that poor two-game start in which he had a .822 save percentage, Holtby had a .920 save percentage over the rest of the season.  This would be the first of two poor games against the Flames for Holtby, getting pulled in both over which he allowed six goals on 25 shots, a .760 save percentage.  He would finish with a .920 save percentage against the rest of the league.

In the end…

At the top we noted that this game “would be a first in a number of ways, one historic, one encouraging, one disturbing, one unsettling, and one that would be a foreshadowing of what would come as the season wore on.”  Well, let’s recap…
  • Historic: It was the first time the Caps played Calgary in a home opener.
  • Encouraging: Connor Carrick recorded his first NHL goal and first NHL point in his second NHL game. 
  • Disturbing: The Caps allowed a goal less than two minutes after scoring one of their own for the second straight game.  They would experience that occurrence 29 times in 27 games of the 2013-2014 season.
  • Unsettling:  Jack Hillen’s broken leg and absence for the next five months revealed a lack of depth on defense that would mean a revolving door on the third pair that would be exploited often by opponents.
  • Foreshadowing: It was the first chance for the Caps to display their trick shot skills in the Gimmick.  By no means would it be their last.  The Caps would set a league record with 21 decisions in the freestyle competition (10-11).

In this game there was an unevenness to the Capitals’ play, allowing themselves to fall into a deep hole because of iffy play in their own end and shaky goaltending, then storming back largely through the production of their top players.  It would be prelude to a season in which the Caps found themselves digging themselves a hole through the first half of the season and scrambling to try to reach a playoff spot over the latter half.  So much of what the Caps would experience in the 2013-2014 season would be on display in this game, good and bad.  And that is why this game mattered.

Photos: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

No comments: