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Postseason Notebook -- March

Caps start slow but finish strong in season's final full month

Tuesday, 07.14.2009 / 2:07 PM / Features
By Mike Vogel  - WashingtonCaps.com Senior Writer
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Postseason Notebook -- March
The Capitals opened March with a four-game homestand, but managed to lose all four games (0-3-1). Washington rebounded by extending its road winning streak to five straight, the team’s longest road run in eight years. The Caps finished at 6-5-2 for the month, their least successful month of the 2008-09 season.

March 1 vs. Florida
Opposite Directions –
Two teams that played Saturday afternoon road games hooked up at Verizon Center on Sunday, but it wasn’t much of a contest. Florida put a 6-2 hurting on Washington here on Sunday, the Capitals’ worst loss on home ice since a 5-1 defeat at the hands of the Atlanta Thrashers on Nov. 21, 2007. That loss to Atlanta turned out to be the final game with Glen Hanlon at the helm for the Capitals.

Washington came into Sunday’s game off an uplifting 4-3 overtime win in Boston on Saturday afternoon. The Panthers, desperate to hold onto what they hope will be their first playoff berth in nine years, absorbed a thorough 7-2 beating at the hands of the Devils in New Jersey.

The Caps scored first on Sunday, but Florida reeled off half a dozen unanswered strikes on its way to an easy win over Washington.

“We stunk,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau afterwards. “I’m not sure how I even characterize it, but we got beat to every loose puck, seemed like they had the puck on the power-play for the whole two minutes in our zone every time.  I can’t sugar coat it and I can’t find excuses for it. We weren’t very good.”

His players echoed those thoughts.

“There are no excuses for what we did today,” said veteran Caps forward Matt Bradley. “Every guy was not prepared and we didn’t play a tight game at all. It’s disappointing when you have such a good game against Boston yesterday and come back with an effort like this. So we’re all individually going to have to look at ourselves and how we prepared and why we weren’t ready for the game.”

Florida still trails Washington by 13 points in the Southeast Division standings with 18 games to go. But the Panthers moved into sixth place on Sunday and solidified what has been a tenuous hold on one of the eight Eastern Conference playoff berths.

““It was an important two points,” said Panthers coach Pete DeBoer. “The New Jersey game, there was nothing good to say about it. We really tightened things up. We took away time and space (against the Capitals). It was a lot better defensive effort.”

The Panthers have not lost consecutive regulation games since it dropped three straight Dec. 27-31. Florida is now 8-0 in games immediately following losses since those three setbacks at the end of December.

March 3 vs. Carolina
Turn Back The Clock –
Verizon Center felt funny on Tuesday; it wasn’t full and the home team didn’t play well. The Caps went down to a second straight defeat by a margin of three or more goals, and didn’t seem to have much energy in a 5-2 loss to Carolina.

On Sunday, the Caps surrendered six unanswered goals in a 6-2 loss to the Florida Panthers. Tonight, they were nicked for five unanswered goals against the Hurricanes. Washington proved to be an equal-opportunity goal giver-upper tonight; it allowed a penalty shot goal, a pair of shorthanded goals, a power play goal and an even-strength strike.

It was a reminder of the days when the crowds were more sparse and less crimson, and the hockey was routinely not as crisp as that to which we have grown accustomed to seeing at Verizon Center over the past year. Excluding empty-netters and shootout goals that don’t count anyway, the last time the Caps surrendered five or more goals in consecutive home games was nearly three years ago: a 5-2 loss to Ottawa on March 12, 2006 and a 6-4 loss to Buffalo two days later.

It was also the second game in a row that Washington faced and lost to a Southeast Division team coming off a difficult road loss and fighting for postseason positioning.

“The other teams that we’re playing are still NHL teams that are fighting for their lives,” said Caps forward Brooks Laich.  “You look at Florida and you look at Carolina, they’re two teams that are on the bubble trying to get into the playoffs; and we were there last year.  We know how desperate you can be when you’re in that situation.

“There are no excuses in here; we have to look at each other.  I’m not blaming anyone else on the team; I took two bad penalties tonight. I didn’t do my job. I have to blame myself and then just make sure that tomorrow I’m better, and then be prepared for Thursday’s game.”

By the time Thursday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs rolls around, the NHL’s trade deadline will be in the rear-view. The deadline is at 3 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday.

“We’re going through this funk right now that I think every team … goes through,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “We’ve lost games before. It looked [like] there’s a complete lack of energy on the bench. I wish I could put my finger on it right now. I don’t know if it’s because of tomorrow and people are worried when they hear rumors.”

March 5 vs. Toronto
Failure to Finish –
The Caps learned before Thursday’s 2-1 loss to Toronto that they would be without the services of star left wing Alex Ovechkin. They later learned that they would also be without defenseman Tom Poti, who took one brief seven-second twirl before calling it a night.

Caps coach Bruce Boudreau was forced to re-jigger his forward lines and defensive pairs just prior to game time, and some of the combos were ones that we haven’t seen that much previously this season. Although Washington generated many scoring chances against Leafs goaltender Martin Gerber, they also looked a bit out of synch or unfamiliar with each other at times. On several occasions Caps players were seen bumping into one another or clustered in the same area of the ice.

“It probably was [like that],” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau because [right wing] Eric [Fehr] was playing the left side and [Matt Bradley] played the left side a couple of times. When you’re playing with 11 forwards all the lines – if you’re trying to get forwards on and use four lines – there are a lot of line combinations.”

The various combinations created plenty of chances. Alexander Semin, Tomas Fleischmann and Viktor Kozlov in particular seemed to create a good number of scoring opportunities. But until Semin finally solved Toronto netminder Martin Gerber in the game’s final minute, there was an acute lack of finish on Washington’s part.

“We didn’t finish and yet he [Martin Gerber] made some great saves,” said Boudreau. “We had enough chances to win two or three games, I think. We’re in that situation right now where guys are holding their sticks really tight and not doing things that are natural for them and consequently we’re not scoring.”

Nothing After 40 – Tonight’s game was the 66th played this season by the Capitals, and it was the first time all season that a Washington game was a scoreless tie through the first 40 minutes of the contest.

Matching the Mark – Nicklas Backstrom collected an assist on Alexander Semin’s third period goal. In the process, Backstrom registered his 69th point (17 goals, 52 assists). He has now matched the point total he put up as an NHL freshman in 2007-08.

Matching the Mark II –
Tonight’s game was Washington’s 23rd sellout of the season, matching the franchise record previously set two other times. Nineteen of the Caps’ last 21 home dates have resulted in sellouts.

March 8 vs. Pittsburgh
Failure to Take Hold –
Earlier this season, the Washington Capitals made winning on home ice a routine item. They’d get an early lead, add to it, and put a chokehold on the opposition. The Capitals started this season with an 18-1-1 mark in their first 20 home games. The Caps outscored opponents by a combined total of 26-9 in the first period of their first 20 home games this season. Only twice in those first 20 home games of 2008-09 did Washington trail going into the third period.

In their last 16 home contests, the Capitals are 7-8-1. The Caps have been outscored 18-15 in the first period of their last 16 home games. Washington has trailed going into the final frame seven times in those last 16 games, including three of the four games on the just completed four-game homestand. The Caps went 0-3-1 on the homestand, salvaging a point with an impressive comeback from a 3-1 third period deficit today against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the league’s hottest team.

The Capitals are now 3-5-1 in their last nine games overall with all six losses coming on Verizon Center ice.

After Sunday’s shootout loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center, the Caps are now saddled with a four-game home losing streak (0-3-1) for the first time since they dropped five straight (all in regulation) from Oct. 26-Nov. 21, 2007.

Washington just concluded a stretch in which it played nine of the last 10 games on home ice. The Caps posted a disappointing 4-5-1 mark during that 10-game stretch.

Beginning on Tuesday in Nashville, the Caps will take to the road for seven of their next eight games. Washington is 4-0-1 in its last five away games and is 8-2-2 in its last dozen on the road.

Nashville Night -- Sergei Fedorov’s overtime game-winner enabled the Capitals to get out of Nashville with a 2-1 win and a pair of much needed points on Tuesday night. Fedorov’s overtime game-winner was the 15th of his NHL career, tying him for the all-time league lead in that department. Patrik Elias, Jaromir Jagr and Mats Sundin also have 15 career overtime game-winners.

March 12 at Philadelphia
16 Days –
Sixteen days ago in the District, the Capitals carried a 2-1 lead into the third period of a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Midway through that final frame, the Flyers erupted for three goals in a span of just 3:19 and skated off with a 4-2 victory over the Caps.

Tonight in Philadelphia, the Caps found themselves in the exact same position after 40 minutes, leading the Flyers by a 2-1 count. This time, they did not squander the opportunity to get two points and to deny the Flyers as much as one. Washington held firm over the final 20 minutes and came away with a solid 2-1 victory.

“We talked about it,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, referring to the game in the District 16 days ago. “We thought that six minute span in Washington was … [we thought we had played a pretty good game up to that point. Here, we got the opportunity. Life doesn’t [often] give you an opportunity to repeat itself so closely, and I thought we stood the test.”

Playing without enforcer Donald Brashear (sprained knee) and center Sergei Fedorov (illness), the Caps rode great goaltending from Jose Theodore and a pair of timely goals to a second straight win on a perfect two-game road trip. The Caps opened the trip with a 2-1 win in Nashville on Tuesday.

“Home or on the road, it’s a big win,” said Boudreau. “That’s a team we hadn’t beaten in regulation all year. I thought for a regular season game, it was a real important game for us.”

Rolling On The Road –
Thursday’s win in Philly was the Capitals’ fifth straight win on the road. It’s the first time the Caps have won five straight on the road in more than eight years.

The last time Washington won as many as five consecutive games on the road was a five-game run from Feb. 14 to March 7, 2001. The Capitals have taken at least a point in eight straight road games (6-0-2) and are 9-2-2 in their last 13 away from home. Washington is 12-3-2 in its last 17 road tilts.

“I just know that when we play the way we’re capable of playing, we can compete with most teams,” said Boudreau. “It seems like on the road, maybe we’re not trying to impress anybody. We’re just trying to win. At home sometimes we get too cute and try to make the great play. Whatever the situation is, I’d like to be able to continue this formula on Saturday [at home against Carolina].”

March 14 vs. Carolina
Young Guns Blazing –
Bedrooms around the greater Washington are have been plastered with the Capitals’ “Young Guns” poster for a year or so now, an old Western themed piece that features Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom. Those four Caps came out with guns a-blazing on Saturday as the Capitals earned a 5-4 shootout decision over the visiting Carolina Hurricanes to snap a four-game (0-3-1) home winless skid.

This marks the third time that all four “Young Guns” have found the back of the net in the same game, and it’s the second time it has occurred against Carolina.

With a four-point (goal, three assists) night, Semin extended his scoring streak to a career high nine games (seven goals, nine assists). His previous best was an eight-game run (eight goals, four assists) from Oct. 5-25, 2006.

Ovechkin had a goal and an assist to push his own streak to double-digits at 10 games. This is Ovechkin’s third 10-game scoring streak of the season. Washington is 28-4-2 when No. 8 lights the lamp.

Razing Canes – Semin is a noted Cane killer.  He has 13 points (six goals, seven assists) in four games against Carolina this season, and has 34 points (19 goals, 15 assists) in 23 career games against the Hurricanes.

Semin has now scored a goal in each of his last eight games against Carolina and he has registered a point in each of his last 11 games against the Hurricanes.

Sixty – With a goal and an assist in the first period of Saturday’s game, Caps defenseman Mike Green extended his single-season career best in points to 60. He joins his three fellow “Young Guns” on Washington’s roll of 60-point players this season, giving the Capitals four players with 60 or more points this season.

That is the most 60-point players the Capitals have had in a single season since the 1992-93 Caps produced seven players with 60 or more points: Peter Bondra (85), Mike Ridley (82), Kevin Hatcher (79), Dale Hunter (79), Michal Pivonka (74), Dmitri Khristich (66) and Al Iafrate (66).

March 16 at Atlanta
Welcome Back –
Washington defenseman Brian Pothier suited up and played his first NHL game since suffering a concussion in a Jan. 3, 2008 game against the Bruins in Boston.

Prior to tonight’s game against the Thrashers, Pothier played in four games with the AHL Hershey Bears while on an injury rehab assignment. Tonight’s scoresheet shows that he logged 16:51 in ice time (fifth among the six Washington blueliners), put three shots on goal, blocked a shot and took a hooking penalty.

Pothier and Caps coach Bruce Boudreau both saw positives in the defenseman’s performance, but both see room for improvement as well.

“It really wasn’t the game I dreamed of coming back to, but personally I felt pretty good,” said Pothier. “I saw the ice decent but I made a couple mistakes. It led to some penalties but we got in trouble, so I was a little frustrated by that. But overall, I felt decent.

“I thought he was really tentative in the first period,” said Boudreau. “He was doing way more watching than he was skating. And then I thought he got a little better as the game went on, once he started getting some shots on the net. It’s his first game in 14 months, so I’m not going to hold him too accountable.”

Whether or not Pothier plays in Washington’s second of back-to-back games on Tuesday in Florida remains to be seen, but he says he is physically ready to go if needed. 

“I had lots of energy and the legs felt fine tonight,” said Pothier. “Conditioning isn’t an issue; I’ve been skating hard for two months now. If they need me, I’m ready to go.”

March 17 at Florida
You’ll Get Nothing And Like It –
The Florida Panthers entered Tuesday night’s home game with the Washington Capitals in ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings, one point behind the eighth place Carolina Hurricanes. Given the tightness of the playoff chase, the lateness of the hour relative to that chase and the fact that the Panthers came in winless (0-1-2) in three straight for the first time in calendar 2009, the Caps could have reasonably expected to have their hands full.

Florida had a handful of prime scoring chances in the first period, but Capitals goaltender Jose Theodore swallowed them up, staying square and not permitting rebounds. The Panthers had three power play chances in relatively short order in the second, but Washington’s penalty killers – beleaguered by the Atlanta Thrashers’ power play a night earlier – were up to the task of killing all three without incident. Not only that, Washington generated its first goal of the night while shorthanded.

The Capitals gave Theodore the third period off altogether. Washington held a one-goal lead heading into the final frame, but the desperate Panthers didn’t get as much as a sniff of the Capitals’ crease area. The Swamp Cats flipped five shots netward in the final frame, but none reached their intended mark. Four were blocked en route; another missed the cage.

Afterwards, most of the Caps didn’t even realize they had held the Panthers without a shot on goal for a full 20 minutes – actually, a full 26:07 going back to the latter stages of the second period.

Brooks Laich was asked how it felt to hold a team without a shot for an entire period.

“Which period was that?” he responded. Told it was the third period, Laich replied, “I didn’t know that.”

“Really?” asked defenseman John Erskine, when told about the third period goose egg. Given affirmation, Erskine replied, “It’s our system. The [defensemen] were standing up, the forwards were doing their job and everybody was doing well.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “I’ve never been involved in a game where that has happened. It’s a great testament to our players and the commitment that they made to winning. They can do it when they want to do it.”

There was one guy who knew. He was the guy standing at the end of the ice. Waiting. And watching the Florida shot counter get stuck at 19.

“Tonight, everybody did a great job,” said Theodore. “I was seeing the puck well, the [penalty kill] was great, especially in the third period. No shots, that’s a first for me. All the credit goes to the team.”

March 19 at Tampa Bay
50 –
Caps left wing Alex Ovechkin notched his 50th goal of the season in the first period of Thursday night’s game against the Lightning in Tampa. After taking a pass from Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin spun past three defenders at the Lightning blueline and fired a wrist shot that eluded Tampa Bay goaltender Mike McKenna.

Tonight marks the third time in four seasons in the league that Ovechkin has reached the 50-goal plateau.

Nicklas Backstrom assisted on the goal, setting a single-season career high with his 56th assist of the season. Backstrom is now four helpers shy of recording just the sixth 60-assist season in Washington’s franchise history.

45 – Tonight’s win was Washington’s 45th of the season, marking the first time a Capitals team has won as many as 45 games since 1991-92. The Capitals now have 96 points on the season, two more than they recorded last season and the most any Caps team has managed since the 2000-01 club totaled 96.

The last Capitals team to win more than 45 games in a season was the 1985-86 club, which set franchise records with 50 wins (50-23-7) and 107 points. The 2008-09 Capitals have 18 more points on the table and can attain a maximum of 114.

March 24 at Toronto
Cold Cujo –
It’s not often you see a goaltender come into a game cold from the bench in the final minute of regulation time in a regular season game and earn the game’s first star designation.

Maple Leafs netminder Curtis Joseph has been in the league a long time, 19 seasons to be exact. He has won 453 NHL games. But we’re willing to bet that none of them was anything like the 3-2 shootout win – NHL victory No. 453 – he authored over the Capitals in Toronto on Tuesday.

Trailing 2-1 as the final minute of regulation approached, the Capitals pulled goaltender Jose Theodore in favor of an extra attacker. As the clock began to count down the final minute of regulation, a goalmouth scramble ensued in front of Toronto goaltender Martin Gerber.

Caps center Brooks Laich – never one to shy away from the high-traffic areas – was parked in the blue paint, and he began to whack ferociously at the loose puck. In the process, he managed to pound the disc – and an incensed Gerber – into the net, tying the game 2-2 in the process.

Gerber went ballistic, initiating body contact with the officials, and earning himself a game misconduct. Enter Joseph, whose last action came in a start against Ottawa on

The Capitals opened fire on CuJo early and often. The veteran netminder faced nine shots in less than six minutes of work, most of them high-quality shots from the Caps’ top snipers. Joseph started by turning aside an Alex Ovechkin one-timer from the circle to the goaltender’s right. That save came with just 12 seconds remaining in regulation time.

Joseph’s eight overtime saves included three stops on Mike Green and one each on Ovechkin and Alexander Semin.

Joseph finished the night by thwarting Nicklas Backstrom, Semin and Ovechkin in the shootout. Despite playing just 5:57 of the game, he earned the win and was – deservedly so – named the game’s first star.

"I'm pretty impressed," Caps goalie Jose Theodore said. "I've got to tell you that you guys don't know how hard it is just to step in when you're not playing and then in the last minute, when it's a tie game like that.”

March 27 vs. Tampa Bay
Extra Man Bonanza –
For its previous dozen games – encompassing every contest in the month of March – Washington had drawn four or fewer power plays in every game. That streak was the longest by a Capitals team in more than six years; the 2002-03 Caps went 11 straight games with four or fewer power plays.

On Friday night against the Lightning, the Capitals came out hard and fast against a Tampa Bay team that played an overtime contest in Montreal last night. The early results were strong. In the game’s first 20 minutes, Washington drew more power plays (five) than they had drawn in any of their last dozen games.

Even better, they cashed in on three of them, scoring three power play goals in a period for the first time this season.

Getting their fair share of power plays is going to be a key for the Capitals going forward. The Caps have scored at least one power-play goal in 20 of their last 27 games and are 31-for-103 (30.1%) with the extra man during that time, including a lusty 19-for-42 (45.2%) on first period power plays during that span.

Big One For No. 2 – Caps defenseman Brian Pothier snapped a 3-3 tie with a third period goal, his first of the season and his first NHL tally since Dec. 27, 2007. Pothier, who missed about 15 months because of a concussion and some lingering symptoms from that injury, was playing in his fourth game of the season on Friday.

Pothier’s goal was the fifth game-winner of his career and his first since he scored the deciding goal in a 3-2 win over the Lightning on Dec. 15, 2007. That Washington win was the first in its current 10-game winning streak over the Bolts.

Pothier’s goal was also the first by a Caps defenseman other than Mike Green in a span of 16 games.

“It’s been a while and really feels good,” said Pothier. “I had to hold back the emotion a little bit, but like I said earlier, just to feel like I’m contributing … to put one in and an important goal was pretty special.”





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