The 3G Network – Much attention has been paid this season – and rightfully so – to the Caps’ fine young tandem of 22-year-old netminders. Both Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth hail from the Entry Draft class of 2006, and both have played extremely well for Washington this season, when they’ve been healthy.
Because both Varlamov and Neuvirth have been nicked up now and then this season, 21-year-old Braden Holtby has also gotten a look between the pipes for the Capitals this season. Holtby got a second straight start for the first time this season, facing the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night at the Air Canada Centre.
For the native of Lloydminster, Sask., it was his first appearance on the national Hockey Night in Canada stage. Holtby seized the opportunity, turning in the best performance of his brief NHL career in a 4-1 Washington win over the Leafs.
On a night in which Alex Ovechkin notched a hat trick and played arguably his best all-around game of the season, it was Holtby who earned first star honors and the Hockey Night in Canada towel by virtue of his 35-save performance. Holtby made 18 of those stops in the third period.
“I think any kid growing up in Canada is thrilled when they get their first opportunity to play in front of national fans,” says Holtby. “To do it with a win is even better. It’s a pretty good road trip for us, it closes it out fairly good and that was our main goal coming in without worrying about the spectacle and I think we did a good job of that.”
Washington employed a similar formula as it used when Holtby defeated the Islanders on Thursday. The Caps scored first, blocked a lot of shots, played a responsible and smart game in all three zones and scored the game’s first goal.
“That’s what we’ve been doing and it’s been fairly successful,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “It might not be the most exciting brand of hockey in the world, but everybody seems to like winning hockey these days, so that’s what we have to do.”
Ovechkin staked the Caps to a 1-0 lead at 14:27 of the first when he deflected a Jeff Schultz point shot behind Toronto goaltender J-S Giguere.
The game remained a taut 1-0 tilt through two as Holtby made some brilliant stops along the way to keep the Leafs at bay.
“Our guys do a great job of blocking shots,” says Ovechkin, “but still they have way too many chances to score. [Holtby] kept us in the game, especially at the end of the game when he made some unbelievable saves.”
Ovechkin’s second of the night came on a rebound of a Mike Green point shot at 1:12 of the third. Holtby lost his shutout 100 seconds later when Toronto’s Tim Brent pushed one past the Caps’ rookie goalie, but Washington’s Matt Hendricks got that one back on a breakaway at 8:14.
First, Hendricks made a great play at the Washington line to force the breakaway. Using his wheels to achieve separation, he started juking and shaking after he entered the Toronto end. He finished with a nifty backhander that beat a helpless Giguere.
Hendricks used a similar series of moves to help Colorado to a shootout win over Buffalo last season.
“Yeah, 11th round,” remembers Hendricks. “Same result. It’s one of those moves that you use. It seems to work, and it did tonight. I’m happy with the team, though. What a great win.”
Ovechkin added a late empty-netter to give the Capitals more than three goals in a game for the first time since a 5-1 win over New Jersey on Dec. 21. Washington had gone a dozen straight games scoring three or fewer goals, its longest such run since it failed to score more than three goals for the first 13 games of the 2005-06 season. Those were also the first 13 games of Ovechkin’s career.
Washington is growing more accustomed to grinding out tight games and coming away with a point or two.
“It’s the only way we’re going to win,” says Boudreau. “Grinding games out is what we’ve been doing lately. We’ll probably continue to do it. And getting ahead is so important because then you can get other teams out of your game plan, and our skilled guys can take advantage of their mistakes. That’s the key.”
Great Eight – For Ovechkin, it was his third multiple-goal game of the season and his first since Oct. 30 at Calgary. That Calgary contest was also a Hockey Night in Canada affair. The hat trick was his first since Feb. 7, 2009 and the 10th of his NHL career.
The Caps captain paced his team with eight shots on goal, was a plus-3, laid two hits and blocked three shots. He was also very dialed in at both ends of the ice and played a passionate game.
“You knew eventually he was going to break out,” says Boudreau. “He’s gotten two first-period goals this year [actually, one], and he got the third one today [actually, the second]. I thought, ‘Okay, he gets that goal early, he’s going to be going.’ I thought he was as good as he’s been all year.”
Ovechkin now has six career goals in six games against Giguere.
Taking 27 For The Team – After blocking 20 shots in Thursday night’s 2-1 victory over the Islanders, Washington skaters successfully got in front of 27 Toronto shots in Saturday’s win. John Erskine and Mike Green led the way with four each; Ovechkin, Karl Alzner and Jeff Schultz had three each. A dozen different Caps players registered at least one blocked shot on the night.
“The guys are doing a tremendous job,” says Holtby of his defense. “I think Karl [Alzner] had about four or five in the first period alone. When you see guys doing that, it makes you want to battle that much more for them.”
Get Me Re-Write – The Caps took a 3-1 lead into the third period of their Nov. 3 game with the Leafs at Verizon Center, but they needed overtime and eventually the shootout to squeak by with a 5-4 win. On Dec. 6 in D.C., the Caps took a 4-1 lead into the third, but squandered it late and watched the Leafs leave town with a 5-4 shootout win.
Tonight, they had better success nursing a slimmer 1-0 advantage into the final frame.
Fire In First – Ovechkin’s first-period goal in Saturday’s game against the Leafs was just his second in the game’s first 20 minutes this season. His previous first-period goal came on Nov. 14 against the Atlanta Thrashers at Verizon Center.
Killers – Washington has successfully killed 20 of its last 21 (95.2%) manpower disadvantage situations.
Road Warriors – The Caps have quietly put together a strong run of run hockey over the last month.
Beginning with their 3-2 win over the Senators in Ottawa on Dec. 19 to put a halt to their eight-game winless streak, the Capitals have posted a 5-1-2 record in their last eight road games to raise their overall road mark on the season to 11-9-3. The Caps went 2-0-1 on their just finished three-game journey.
“Five out of six points is very good,” says Hendricks in assessing the trip. “Obviously, we lost that one point in Philly there. But we battled. We played hard. We stuck to the systems for the most part and we were successful. Braden Holtby was great for us; he made some huge saves for us tonight. It feels good to be on a little roll.”
Washington has outscored its foes only by a 20-16 margin in those last eight road contests.
High Water – Tonight’s win pushes Washington’s record to 27-14-8 on the season, 13 games above what passes for .500 in the modern NHL. That’s the Capitals’ high-water mark for the season. They were a dozen games to the good before their eight-game winless streak started with a 2-1 loss at Dallas on Dec. 2.
The Capitals have gained points in 14 of their last 17 games (9-3-5) since a 7-0 loss to the Rangers in New York on Dec. 12. Washington has allowed just 33 goals in those 17 games, and has allowed just half a dozen power play goals in that span.
The Rangers come to town on Monday for their first Verizon visit of 2010-11.
Powering Down – The Caps had just two power play chances in Saturday’s game, and one of those came on a bench minor for too many men on the ice. Washington has now gone six straight games without more than three power play chances. The Caps are 1-for-16 (6.3%) with the extra man in their last seven games.
Washington has now gone 25 straight games without multiple power-play goals in the same game. The Caps are 9-for-83 (10.8%) with the extra man during that stretch. Washington had 21 power play goals in its first 24 games this season.
Down On The Farm – A night after a convincing 8-3 win over the Albany River Rats at Giant Center, the AHL Hershey Bears continued a busy weekend of home activity with a Saturday night tilt against the Rochester Americans.
Hershey drew first blood on Patrick McNeill’s first goal of the season, a power play strike at 9:33 of the first. Less than five minutes later, Keith Aucoin’s 12th of the campaign made it 2-0.
The Amerks got one back on a power play early in the second, but Andrew Gordon – who assisted on the first two Hershey tallies of the night – netted his 19th of the season at 4:05 of the third to push the Bears’ advantage to 3-1. Brian Willsie notched his 16th of the campaign on a 4-on-3 power play at 7:52 of the third to make it 4-1. Still later in the final frame, Ashton Rome notched his seventh of the season to account for the last of the scoring in a 5-1 Hershey win.
Aucoin and Gordon both finished with a goal and two helpers and McNeill added an assist as well to aid the Bears in gaining their 25th win of the season. Hershey goaltender Dany Sabourin made 25 stops to record his 12th win of the season.
With the victory, the Bears move into a tie for third place in the AHL’s East Division with the Charlotte Checkers. The Bears are four points behind second-place Norfolk. Hershey is 6-2-1-1 in its last 10 games.
The Bears conclude their weekend at 5 pm on Sunday when they host the Adirondack Phantoms at Giant Center.
Down a level, the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays took to the North Charleston Coliseum ice sheet on Saturday night to play the back end of a home-and-home weekend set with the Greenville Road Warriors.
After taking the opener of that set by a 5-3 count in Greenville on Friday night, the Stingrays made it 2-for-2 with a 5-1 victory over the Warriors on Saturday. Jared DeMichiel made 32 saves to earn the win. Nikita Kashirsky scored twice, Josh Godfrey, Pierre-Luc O’Brien and Rob Ricci added single markers to account for the offense.
With the wins this weekend, South Carolina has pulled to within two points of Greenville and Florida for the top spot in the ECHL’s South Division. The Stingrays have won three straight and are 8-2 in their last 10 games.
By The Numbers – Green, Schultz, Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were all plus-3 on the night. Jason Chimera and Boyd Gordon were both plus-2 … Alzner, Jay Beagle and Brooks Laich led the caps with four hits each … Green’s 24:29 workload paced the Capitals … Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf led all skaters on both sides with 27:01 in ice time. Phaneuf also tied for the Toronto team lead (with Phil Kessel) in shots on goal with seven. The Leafs’ blueliner also had seven shots blocked and missed twice … Phaneuf and Mike Brown led the way for the Maple Leafs with four hits each … The Leafs’ Jay Rosehill notched his first assist of the season and second if his career on Brent’s goal.
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