Vintage Varly – If someone had told the Capitals that goaltender Semyon Varlamov would not record his first win until Nov. 24 in the team’s 23rd game of the 2010-11 season, it’s likely that they wouldn’t have expected that win to keep the team tied for the top spot in the entire NHL standings.
That’s exactly how it has played out in the wake of Varlamov’s 30-save effort in the Washington nets on Wednesday. The Capitals’ 3-2 victory over the Hurricanes halts a three-game mini-slump for Washington and gives Varlamov his first win of the season and the 20th of his NHL career.
Washington’s 15-6-2 mark is identical to that of Philadelphia, and tied for the best in the NHL.
“I thought he was quick as a cat,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau of his 22-year-old netminder. “I think [he is] still a little bit rusty in when pucks were hitting him, they weren’t being smothered early. But his reflexes were tremendous and he made some very big saves.”
Known for his quickness, his athleticism and the wonky groin that limited him to one start and two appearances in the team’s first 22 games this season, Varlamov used those first two attributes to weather a dogged Hurricanes attack that peppered him with 19 shots in the middle frame and several strong chances from in tight over the game’s final 40 minutes.
“There was about a two-minute spurt in the first period where he was back and forth,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich, who supplied the game-winning tally on a third-period power play. “He looked like the old Varly. I think he’s over the injuries to the groin. He was sliding post to post and when he’s playing well he is acrobatic and he’s making those reflex saves.
“We’re excited to have him back, happy to have him back. I’m glad that he’s playing well. It was nice to see Varly get the win tonight.”
Tonight’s Washington win was its first in a game in which it scored three or fewer goals since a 3-2 overtime win over the Flyers on Nov. 7.
A pair of Nicklas Backstrom goals gave the Caps a 2-0 lead before the Canes tied it with a pair of third period tallies. Alex Ovechkin set up Laich for the game-winner five seconds after Carolina rookie Jeff Skinner took a seat in the box for slashing the Caps’ Karl Alzner at 12:02 of the third.
“We wanted to have a good first to start it,” says Laich, “come out tied or better and we did that. And then through 40 minutes I thought we played really well. They had a couple of spurts where they could have scored but Varly made some good saves. And then in the third period, we bent a little but we didn’t break.
“It’s a good sign that when they tied it up, we still came back and pushed back and were able to score. And then once we did, we didn’t give them any chances to tie it up. [It was] a good win, get the winning attitude back, get over this little slide we had and go home feeling good.”
Right Side Of A Good Thing – When the Caps earned their previous victory over Buffalo a week ago, they did so largely on the strength of a newly cobbled forward line of Jason Chimera, David Steckel and Matt Bradley. Boudreau’s hunch of putting that trio together paid dividends as the unit accounted for a pair of goals, including Steckel’s game-winner.
On Wednesday in Carolina, Boudreau’s brainstorm resulted in a line of Laich on the left side, Backstrom in the middle and left wing Ovechkin over on the right side. It was the first time any of us up in the press box could recall a game in which Ovechkin opened up the contest skating on the right side.
“My thoughts were that he always cuts into the middle, and I just wanted him to start driving his legs a little bit more because when he is driving into the middle, they put so much back-pressure on him now. The defense were standing up, and the back-pressure was there and he wasn’t able to get his shot away.
“He’ll be back [on the left] in no time, when Mike [Knuble] gets back I assume.”
Boudreau’s light bulb moment for moving Ovechkin to the right came in the third period of Monday’s 5-0 loss to the Devils in New Jersey. With the game out of reach, Ovechkin churned down the right side and put a shot on goal that was kicked aside by Devils netminder Johan Hedberg. The puck came right back to Ovechkin, who quickly fired again, only the hit the near pipe.
“I thought being on the right side and watching him go down in Jersey and take the shot and follow up and hit the post,” says Boudreau, “I thought if we could keep driving him deep like that, his legs would get more into the game.”
The right-handed shooting winger had been kept at bay for most of November. Ovechkin had three goals in the first 11 games of the month, and he had seen more of his shots miss the mark or get blocked en route to their destination than he had put on goal.
The fresh perspective did Ovechkin, Backstrom and the Capitals a lot of good.
“I thought they were exceptional tonight, both of them,” says Boudreau of his top two forwards. “It was one of those games where they very easily could have had five points each. That’s what I expect out of them. When you’re two of the best players on the planet, and you’ve seen it for three years, and [then] you don’t see it, you wonder ‘what’s up?’ Because this is the way they play most of the time.”
By the end of two periods, Ovechkin already had eight shots on goal, matching his single-game best for the season. He finished with 10 shots on goal, and he had just three tries blocked and three that missed the mark. Tonight’s game marked the first time Ovechkin reached the double-digit level in shots on goal since a March 8 game against Dallas at Verizon Center.
Ovechkin had to remind himself where he was supposed to be early in the game.
“I think in the first five minutes,” says Ovechkin. “I always wanted to go to my usual side, but when I’d make one step I’d say, ‘Okay, I have to go back and play right wing.”
The newly minted unit accounted for all three goals, and all three skaters logged 20 or more minutes of ice time on the night.
Dry As The Desert No More – Backstrom’s first period goal ended Washington’s drought without a road goal at 150 minutes and nine seconds. The Caps had not scored a goal on the road since Backstrom’s third-period strike against the Sabres in Buffalo on Nov. 13.
Laich’s game-winner in the third period was Washington’s first road goal by someone other than Backstrom in a span of 228 minutes and four seconds on the road, since Alzner’s first-period goal in that same Nov. 13 game at Buffalo.
Schooled In The Circle – Caps centers Boyd Gordon (13 of 17, 76%) and David Steckel (11 of 15, 73%) combined to win three-quarters (24 of 32) of the draws they took between them on the night.
The Full 82 – Caps forward Matt Hendricks played in the 82nd game of his NHL career tonight against the Canes, giving him the equivalent of a full NHL season in the league. In those 82 games that are spread out over three seasons, Hendricks has 12 goals, 11 assists, 122 penalty minutes, 16 fighting majors and is a plus-1.
Last season, only six players in the entire league recorded double-digit totals in both fights and goals. In 2008-09, only four players did so.
Milestone Men – A pair of first-rounders from the 2003 NHL Entry Draft reached milestones in their respective NHL careers on Wednesday night in Carolina.
Hurricanes captain Eric Staal, the second player chosen overall in the 2003 draft, played in his 500th career game. Caps right wing Eric Fehr, who was chosen with the 18th overall pick in 2003, played in his 200th NHL game for Washington.
It’s The Little Things – Carolina can take some small solace in keeping Alexander Semin off the scoresheet tonight. The Canes have played the Caps twice this season, and they’ve kept Semin quiet both times, a rarity for the Carolina club.
A noted Canes killer, Semin had not gone consecutive games without registering a point against Carolina in more than four years. The last time he had goose eggs in consecutive contests against Carolina was on Nov. 9 and 17, 2006. The Caps lost both of those games and scored a combined total of one goal in the two tilts.
No Place Like Home? – Sergei Samsonov’s third-period goal for Carolina ended a lengthy Washington shutout spell over the Canes in Carolina.
Caps goaltender Michal Neuvirth shutout the Hurricanes on the Caps’ most recent visit to Carolina this season back on Oct. 27. In Washington’s final RBC Center visit of 2009-10 on March 25, Varlamov kept the Canes at bay for the final 50-plus minutes.
Altogether Washington kept the Canes silent in their own barn for a total of 159 minutes and 55 seconds between Bryan Rodney’s goal on March 25 and Samsonov’s third-period tally tonight.
Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears were in action on Wednesday, hosting the Worcester Sharks at Giant Center.
The Bears came up on the short end of a 3-2 score. Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle scored for Hershey, which returns to action on Friday against the Crunch in Syracuse.
Dany Sabourin stopped 18 of the 21 shots he faced in Wednesday’s loss to the Sharks.
The loss leaves Hershey (10-8-0-1) tied for fourth place in the AHL’s East Division.
By The Numbers – Playing for just the second time in the Caps’ last 16 games, defenseman Tom Poti logged 24:30 in ice time … With Caps ice time leader Mike Green on the sidelines, rookie Washington defenseman John Carlson led the team with 26:39 of ice time … Ovechkin and Bradley tied for the team lead with five hits each. Bradley racked up his five body blows in just 8:23 of work … Ex-Caps defenseman Joe Corvo led all skaters on both sides with 27:26 in ice time. He was also the only player on either side to finish the night with a minus-2 next to his name on the official scoresheet.
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