Postseason Notebook -- October
Caps climb out to a 5-3-1 start in season's opening month
The preseason opener against the Hurricanes in Carolina on Sept. 24 contained a pair of portends of things to come. Goaltender Simeon Varlamov played the first period for the Caps, facing a whopping 20 shots. He stopped all 20, including a barrage at the end of the frame when Washington was unable to get the puck and get it out of its zone. Also, Tomas Fleischmann scored twice in the game.
Varlamov went on to earn the win in all seven of the Caps 2009 postseason victories, and Fleischmann set a career high with 19 goals in 2008-09. He added three more in the playoffs.
The Caps traveled to Boston for a preseason game against the Bruins on Sept. 27, and Washington won it in storybook fashion.
Two nights after earning the game’s first star designation with a goal and an assist against the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center, rookie forward Chris Bourque had another goal and another assist in a 4-3 win over the Bruins.
This one was a little more special.
Bourque’s goal was the game-winner, and it came on the power play with just 2:15 to play. It also came in his hometown against the team for which his father, Hockey Hall of Famer Ray Bourque, played most of his NHL career.
“It’s exciting,” remarked Bourque after the game. “Especially with my family and friends here in town. It’s always good to get a goal, and a big goal like that is exciting. But most importantly we won.”
In an Oct. 3 game against the Flyers at Verizon Center, Caps fans got a look at what would be an occasional occurrence in the season ahead, center Sergei Fedorov playing defense.
After taking the opening face-off against Philly, Fedorov slid back to the blueline. He skated 17:30 on the night, picked up two assists and was a plus-3 for the evening.
“He looks like he’s in control,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau afterwards. “You can tell he’s a pretty good player. He made some great outlet passes, never panicked, made a couple mistakes, but overall, he passed for a guy who hasn’t played there in a long time. We might try him again [in the preseason finale]. I don’t think he’s going to forget how to play center come Friday.”
“It [playing defense] worked out good today,” says Fedorov. “I was still nervous. It was good to play in a real game, with some real intensity out there.”
Season Opener, Oct. 10 at Atlanta
As was the case with the preseason, the Caps’ opening night contest presaged a few trends that would be familiar to Caps fans throughout the season.
False Start – Washington jumped out to a quick start in Friday’s opener. The Caps were all over the Thrashers in the opening minutes, playing almost exclusively in the offensive zone, creating chances and getting shots on goal. Those might have been the best six or seven minutes the Caps played all night, but they had nothing to show for it on the scoreboard and they were unable to sustain it the rest of the way.
The Caps drew an early power play when Thrashers’ rookie Zach Bogosian went off for holding at 1:52, but could not convert. Brooks Laich tipped a Mike Green point shot past Atlanta netminder Kari Lehtonen with just nine seconds remaining in Bogosian’s sentence, but the Caps forward was ruled to have played the puck with his stick above the crossbar and the goal was nullified.
Just 14 seconds after Tom Poti went off for tripping at 8:06 of the first to give the Thrashers their first power play of the night, Ron Hainsey scored on a rebound. The goal was his first as a Thrasher and it gave Atlanta a 1-0 lead.
Hainsey’s goal was the first of three unanswered Atlanta goals in a span of 5:28.
Two for 52 in :52 – With the Caps trailing by a pair midway through the game, Poti took a high stick from Atlanta’s Marty Reasoner. The infraction resulted in a double-minor for high-sticking, and the Caps cashed in.
Mike Green scored a pair of power play goals exactly 52 seconds apart to even the score.
Home Opener, Oct. 11 vs. Chicago
The Caps raised the 2007-08 Southeast Division championship banner to the rafters prior to their home opener against the Chicago Blackhawks, then went out and picked up their first win of the season. After the game, Caps captain Chris Clark started a new tradition in the locker room.
Lunch Bucket Laich – Shortly after authoring the game-winning goal in his typical hard-working fashion, Caps forward Brooks Laich sat in front of his locker stall sporting a construction hard hat on his head. Caps captain Chris Clark pulled the hat out of his stall and gave it to Laich after the game. Laich is the first of what the Caps hope will be many recipients of the bucket; it will be given out after each Washington victory to the player whose work ethic that night is most exemplary.
They gave it to the right guy on this night.
Game-winning goal aside (three of his last four regular season goals have been game-winners), Laich was a force all night, going to the net, mucking in the corners and logging 4:11 in shorthanded ice time on a night in which the Caps were a perfect 5-for-5 on the penalty kill. He also paced the Caps with three hits.
After the next Washington win, it will be Laich’s decision as to who wears the hat next, and you’re not allowed to give it to yourself.
This isn’t the first time Laich has worn a hard hat after a win. Back in the spring of 2006, the Hershey Bears went on a playoff run that culminated in them winning the Calder Cup championship. Laich and several other current Caps were members of that team.
Bears forward Doug Doull came up with the concept of giving the hard hat to the guy who worked the hardest after each win, and the hat was passed around 16 times until the Bears won the Cup. After every Bears win that spring, reporters would walk into the room and see the hard hat wearer while O.A.R.’s “That Was A Crazy Game of Poker” blared in the background.
There’s one difference. The Bears helmet had 16 “star” stickers on it; each represented one of the 16 wins needed to claim the Cup. Each recipient peeled off a sticker before placing the hat on his head; the hat was barren of stickers when the Bears won the Cup in Milwaukee that June.
The Caps’ hard hat will bear stickers of the uniform number of each player, meaning it will be slathered with digits by April. Ideally, anyway.
Finally, the connection. Clark and Doull were teammates on the 2001 AHL Calder Cup champion Saint John Flames.
Ditch Diggers – None of the Caps were wearing hard hats when they went out and dug themselves a multiple-goal hole for the second consecutive night. But they went out and put on their workboots, pulled up their socks and came back to win it.
The Hawks had eight shots on goal in the game’s first 11:41, and they led 2-0 at that point. But Washington rebounded to outshoot the Hawks 31-13 and outscore them 4-0 over the remaining 48:19 of the night.
The grind line of Donald Brashear, David Steckel and Matt Bradley was solid all night, and they manufactured the first goal, a Bradley tap-in on a feed from Steckel.
After the game, that line came in for some praise from Caps coach Bruce Boudreau.
“I think our game is forecheck, and that’s where we get the adrenaline from the crowd,” said Boudreau. “The Steckel-Bradley-Brashear line was by far the best at it. They were physical, they got it deep and did their jobs. And they created energy for the other lines to come out. When they do that, when we’re turning the puck over in transition, we can be a pretty good team.”
Oct. 13 vs. Vancouver
The Caps thumped the Canucks 5-1, holding the Canucks to a mere 10 shots on goal for the game.
Century City – Goaltender Brent Johnson’s win on Monday night was the 100th career, and it came at the expense of the team (Vancouver) that waived him to Washington three years ago this month. This was Johnson’s fourth crack at the century mark as a starter. He is now 100-89-13-10 lifetime in the NHL.
Shot Down – Vancouver managed only 10 shots on goal for the evening, the fewest ever permitted by the Capitals in the team’s 34-season history. The previous mark was 11 shots on goal in a loss to Florida on Nov. 3, 1995.
Until the Canucks’ Kyle Wellwood launched a 41-footer at Johnson at the 8:02 mark of the third, the Caps had more goals than Vancouver had shots on goal.
Johnson faced as many shots on the night (10) as did Vancouver’s Curtis Sanford in his 20-minute relief outing. In addition to the 10 shots on goal, Vancouver missed the mark with 20 other attempts and had another dozen bids blocked by Caps defenders.
Including the last 48 minutes of Saturday’s win over the Blackhawks, Washington has allowed just 23 shots on goal in its last 108 minutes of hockey. During the same span, the Caps have fired 66 shots of their own.
Oct. 16 at Pittsburgh
Gord’s Goal – The Caps spotted the Pens a 3-0 lead and rebounded to take a 4-3 decision at the Igloo. Boyd Gordon netted the game-winner late in the third, scoring on a tally that was originally waved off as “no goal” by the officials on the ice. A video review at a subsequent stoppage of play showed Gordon’s goal was good.
"I had a feeling -- it sounded dead coming off the back bar," Gordon said. "I had a pretty good hunch they were going to count it."
Oct. 21 at Calgary
Caps defenseman Tyler Sloan – a native of Calgary – made his NHL debut against the hometown Flames, and made it a memorable one. He laid a clean open ice hit on Calgary’s Daymond Langkow in the first period, a check that led to retaliatory strike that in turn led to a rare nine-minute Washington power play.
Whistle While You Work – Fall is time for festivals, festivals of all kinds. On Tuesday night at the Saddledome in Calgary, the 19,289 fans in attendance were treated to a fall festival of infractions.
They witnessed what would have been an ultra-rare nine-minute power play for the Caps that was (predictably) cut to just over seven minutes because of a minor to Washington’s Michael Nylander in the midst of the mega-man advantage. They witnessed one man (Calgary’s Rene Bourque) collecting 19 minutes on one sequence, which led to the nine-minute power play. Bourque earned 42 penalty minutes in 62 games with Chicago last season.
Bourque took a fighting major, an unsportsmanlike conduct minor, an instigator minor, and a 10-minute misconduct at the same time when he took exception to Tyler Sloan’s clean hit on Calgary’s Daymond Langkow.
The Calgary crowd saw Washington incur eight consecutive minor penalties in between the Bourque meltdown and Calgary’s Curtis Glencross’ hooking minor late in the third. Included among those eight Washington minors was some overlap that led to four separate two-man advantages for the Flames. Those four two-man advantages totaled 2:33 and produced one Calgary goal.
The Tuesday night Saddledome throng watched as Washington’s eight unanswered minors came on eight different infractions whistled against eight different skaters. Included among those misdeeds were minors for throwing the stick, holding the stick and six other violations.
The fans watched as the two teams logged a combined 25:36 in power play time, but combined for just one power play goal in 14 combined opportunities. In more than 25 minutes of power play activity, the Caps and Flames combined for a mere dozen shots on goal.
Killers – The Caps spent the better part of an entire period (14:31) of the game skating shorthanded, and were down two men on four separate occasions. Given that they did not go shorthanded until very late in the first period and were not down a man for most of the final period, the Caps were actually shorthanded for 14:31 during a game span of exactly 29 minutes.
In other words, they spent more than half of half of the game shorthanded, and were down two men for a decent amount of that time. Given that much adversity, they did well to allow just one goal (Jarome Iginla’s 5-on-3 tally) during that span. And just before Iginla’s goal, the Caps had a chance to clear the puck the length of the ice and get a change but failed to do so.
Oct. 23 at Phoenix
It may not seem like much, but during the 2008-09 season the Caps lost three games in regulation in which they led after 40 minutes of play. Only two NHL teams – the Islanders and the Kings – lost more games when leading after 40, and both of those clubs missed the playoffs.
Washington was 26-1-2 when leading after 40 minutes in 2007-08 and it was 21-1-5 in such situations in 2006-07.
So, the Caps dropped more games in regulation when leading after 40 minutes in 2008-09 than they had in the previous two seasons combined. That figure does not include Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series with Pittsburgh, when the Caps lost after carrying a 2-1 lead into the third period.
Trouble in the Last Twenty – Washington was 26-1-2 when it led after two periods last season, but it has now failed to win in consecutive contests in which it has led after the first 40 minutes.
Last Saturday, the Caps took a 2-1 lead into the third period on home ice against New Jersey. They ended up on the short end of a 4-3 shootout decision. On Thursday night in Phoenix, the Capitals nursed a 1-0 lead into the game’s final frame. But the Coyotes netted a pair of goals in a span of 4:03 early in the third period to send the Caps to a second straight 2-1 setback.
Oct. 25 at Dallas
A Win Is A Win – It wasn’t pretty, but there is no column for style points in the NHL standings. Closing out a three-game trip in which they played three games in three different time zones in five days, the Caps salvaged two points out of the journey with a 6-5 overtime win over the Stars in Dallas on Saturday night.
After starting the trip with 2-1 losses in Calgary on Tuesday and Phoenix on Thursday, Washington prevailed in a thrilling – if sloppily played – contest in Dallas. Defensive zone coverage and clean defensive zone exits were not Washington’s strong suit on this night, but the Caps broke out of a scoring slump and goaltender Jose Theodore made a few big saves at the right moments to help the Caps get out of town with two points.
“Holy smoly,” exclaimed Caps coach Bruce Boudreau after the game, “both teams were loose in front of the net. We had some slam dunks that we missed. They had a couple there that they missed. It was a question of who was going to get the last shot. They scored all [five] of their goals I think from within 10 feet of the net. Our defense has got to do a better job.”
Sergei Fedorov and Tomas Fleischmann each scored twice, Tyler Sloan gave the Caps a lead in the third and Alexander Semin supplied the game-winner in the extra session.
The Caps have now gone out on 11 road trips of at least two games in duration since Boudreau took over behind the bench last November, They have yet to come back empty-handed on any of those journeys.
Atop The Heap – Fedorov’s first goal of the night was the Caps’ first goal of the night. It was also the 474th of Fedorov’s career, pushing him one ahead of Alexander Mogilny for the all-time lead among Russian-born players in the NHL. Alex Ovechkin collected the souvenir puck for his teammate and countryman.
Later in the game, Fedorov netted his 475th career goal and his third of the season. Fedorov already has more goals (he had two with the Caps last year) and as many penalty minutes (eight) in eight games with the Caps this season as he had in 18 late-season games with Washington in 2007-08.
Fedorov was asked about the record after the game.
“It was nice on a personal level but most important obviously, we finally won a game.”
“I’d rather talk about Alex more than the record,” he continued.
Fedorov was then asked to talk about Mogilny, his Red Army teammate of some 20 years ago.
“On a personal note,” began Fedorov, “I know his career was shortened by injury. I don’t think I’d ever get it if he was still playing, because we’re the same age. He had a tremendous shot and amazing hands. I know that; we played together. Realistically if he could have played a little bit more I wouldn’t have been able to reach his stats. He was a powerful player as far as scoring. He was a scoring machine.”
Oct. 28 vs. Nashville
This game marked just the second game ever that Caps left wing Alex Ovechkin missed. Ovechkin was unavailable for the game against the Predators because he had gone back to Russia to spend time with his ailing grandfather.
Two Points – Tuesday marked the third straight game (and the fourth in the last five) in which Washington surrendered a third period lead. The Caps are 2-1 in the last three – with each of the wins coming in either overtime or the shootout – and 2-1-1 in the four games in which they’ve given up a lead in the final frame.
Alexander Semin’s third period goal gave the Caps a 3-2 lead at 1:58 of the third period. The shot on which Semin scored was Washington’s 28th of the night; the Predators had a dozen shots of their own at that point.
Over the next 11:26 of play, Nashville fired 13 shots on Jose Theodore while the Caps were stymied in that department. Jason Arnott’s goal came on the 13th of those shots, at the 13:24 mark of the third.
The Capitals had only three third period shots on goal, as many as they had in the five-minute overtime.
“We dominated them I thought for the first thirty minutes and they don’t want to be pushed around and they’re going to come back,” said Caps forward Brooks Laich after the game. “They played well the second half of the game. We took some penalties and let them back in it. But at the end, Jose [Theodore] came up big and our offensive guys came through in the shootout. We’re happy with the win and moving on.”
Red October – The Caps closed out the October portion of their schedule with a 5-3-1 mark. Considering that they played five of those nine games on the road, six of the nine against Western Conference foes and had to deal with the absence of some of their better players from most games, it was a solid first month’s showing.
The Caps managed to pick up a point in six of nine games, and two of their losses came by the margin of a single goal. Washington also will finish out the month in first place in the Southeast Division standings.
The Caps October record in 2008-09 (.611 winning pct.) is their best since they went 7-4-2 in the first month of the 1997-98 season en route to the only Stanley Cup finals appearance in franchise history.