Digging Deep – One night after an ugly and embarrassing 6-0 home ice setback at the hands of the New York Rangers, the Capitals had a shot at redemption in a road game against the Islanders in New York.
For the first 28 minutes or so, things did not go at all well for Washington.
Just 33 seconds into the second period, Islanders rookie defenseman Travis Hamonic floated a shot through traffic that clicked off Caps defenseman John Carlson and went high into the cage behind Washington goaltender Michal Neuvirth. That goal was the eighth straight unanswered tally the Caps had surrendered in a span of four periods to that point, and it put the desperate visitors in a 2-0 hole.
Washington was lucky it wasn’t worse; Neuvirth’s excellent netminding kept the Caps from getting blown out early. Afterwards, a confluence of events brought the visitors back and got them out of town with a 3-2 win.
As he has done so often this season, Caps winger Matt Hendricks took matters into his own hands when he challenged New York’s Zenon Konopka – one of the league’s toughest customers and most prolific fighters – to a bout. Konopka led the NHL with 33 fights last season and he is second with 20 in 2010-11.
In his 13th fight of the season and eighth road fight of the campaign, Hendricks hung in well enough to avoid getting clobbered and sparked his moribund team in the process.
“After the Hendy fight, I think we got better,” says Neuvirth.
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau made optimal use of his timeout just minutes after Hendricks’ scrap. The Capitals were being outshot 19-9 at 5:35 of the second when the bench boss let his charges have it.
“Quite frankly, I was telling them we stink,” says Boudreau. “And that we were being embarrassed by a bunch of 22- and 23-year-olds. And we were. We were lucky up that point that it wasn’t 5-0. After that point, when Brooks got his goal, I thought, ‘Okay, we know we can score a goal again,’ and we got a little bit of life and we played like a hockey team after that.”
Seconds after that timeout, the Caps faced more adversity when forward Brooks Laich took an offensive zone tripping call. The Caps killed off that infraction without incident, and then Boudreau juggled his forward lines for the next even strength shift, reuniting Alex Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin. Laich was paired with Marcus Johansson and Mike Knuble. The results were virtually instant; Laich more than redeemed himself with his 13th goal of the season less than two minutes after exiting the penalty box.
Early in the third, Johansson’s speed and the net presence of Laich and Knuble resulted in the equalizer, Knuble’s 15th of the season.
“It was a very important goal,” says Johansson of the tying tally. “We did what we talked about. We got the puck deep, and we got to the net. That was a very good goal for us and I think it got us going really good.”
Just over three minutes after they drew even, the Capitals went ahead when Semin’s sharp wrist shot bounced off both posts behind New York netminder Al Montoya and went in.
Neuvirth and the stingy Washington defense took care of the rest. The isles had nine shots in the game’s first seven minutes, but only seven in the final 20. The Caps did not allow a shot on goal in the game’s final three minute and they blocked five shots in the final 90 seconds of the contest.
“It was just a gritty win by us,” says Knuble, “especially rebounding after [Friday] night, getting embarrassed at home. It was a huge win tonight.”
“In the grand scheme of things,” says Laich, “[Friday] night’s loss is only one loss and tonight’s win is only one win. But it’s a come-from-behind win.
“The main thing is a good feeling going back home after last night. You want to forget about [Friday] night’s game. It wasn’t pretty. We were disappointed with what happened. But to bounce back – especially after being down 2-0 – show some resolve and come back to get a hard-fought win, make the guys feel good about ourselves and come ready to work for the next game.”
Time To Change Partners – Boudreau started the game with Johansson between Ovechkin and Knuble and Backstrom on the left side of a line with Laich in the middle and Semin on the right.
Those combos weren’t working, so Boudreau shuffled the deck.
“Well, Nielsen’s line was owning and was all over Ovechkin, Knuble and Marcus,” says Boudreau. “So I had to do something. I said, ‘I’m going to roll the dice here, and put Semin back on there, and see how it worked.’ Then Laich went back to wing. Him, Marcus and Mike Knuble I thought were the guys who led the way.”
That trio was terrific throughout the final half of the game, but Semin also seemed to be inspired playing alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom again.
“I thought he was good,” says Knuble of Semin. “I thought he competed hard. For whatever reason, he played hard and he was the difference. He got the game-winner and he was a good player tonight.”
Big In The Back – Caps defenseman Scott Hannan skated 24:37 on the night to lead Washington in ice time. His 21:34 in even-strength ice time was more than two minutes more than any other Capital.
Hannan and blueline partner Jeff Schultz were both plus-2 on the night, and together they accounted for more than half of the Capitals’ total of 18 blocked shots on the night. Hannan blocked six shots – the most of any player on either side – and Schultz got in front of four intended Islander shots.
Hey, Nineteen – Neuvirth’s Saturday night win was his 19th of the season, moving him to within one victory of matching Bob Mason’s single-season franchise record for rookie goaltenders. Mason won 20 games for Washington in 1986-87.
“Neuvy was a big factor tonight,” says Knuble. “If they were just five percent sharper on a couple plays, it could have been 4-0 or 5-0 before we even got going. He made a couple of saves and held the fort down for us. We were beaten to pucks and outplayed for 30 minutes, and then we kind of reversed and turned the tables. But he was there to haul us in. We were lucky it was only [2-0] at the time.”
Neuvirth deserves a lot of credit for a strong bounce-back game. A night after he was dented for a season-high six goals against, the Caps rookie goalie came to the rink on Saturday morning expecting to be the back-up for slated starter Semyon Varlamov. But Varlamov came up with a lower body injury at the morning skate, thrusting Neuvirth into a starting role.
The 22-year-old responded well, stopping a barrage of early Islanders shots and keeping his team within shouting distance until it could get its offense on track.
“It’s always tough when you get six goals against. It wasn’t an easy game for me. But I thought it wasn’t my fault; I think I could have made maybe one save on one goal. Tonight, I felt confident. They had a lot of shots early in the game and I got my confidence back.
“I think they got two lucky goals. I felt good tonight.”
Saturday Night Slayer – Saturday’s win was the 30th of Neuvirth’s NHL career and one-third of those have come in Saturday night games. He is now 10-4-1 lifetime on Saturday night contests.
Road Warriors – Washington now has just one fewer win on the road (16) than at home (17) this season. Starting with the 3-2 win over the Senators in Ottawa on Dec. 19 – the victory that ended Washington’s eight-game winless streak – the Capitals are 10-4-2 in their last 16 road games.
Ford is Forty – A mere two nights after he was nicked for three goals in a span of 40 seconds while tending the twine for Hershey against Lake Erie, goaltender Todd Ford got his first taste of the NHL life, backing up Neuvirth on the Island.
Summoned from AHL Hershey earlier in the day and with the ink barley dry on his newly signed NHL contract, Ford wore uniform No. 40 (last sported by Varlamov prior to this season). He took warm-ups and had a great view from the bench for the rest of the night.
Ford was Toronto's third-round choice (74th overall) in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.
Green On The Blueline – New York’s six defensemen for Saturday’s game came into the contest with a total of 627 career NHL games between them. More than half of that total was supplied by the greybeard of the group, Bruno Gervais (317).
Andrew MacDonald led the Islanders’ defensemen with 25:09 in ice time, 21:19 in even-strength ice time and five blocked shots. He also had an assist.
The Caps’ game plan involved trying to exploit the Islanders’ youthful bunch of blueliners.
“I think halfway through the game you could start to see their [defensemen] were a little bit tentative and maybe a little fatigued going back for the puck,” notes Laich. “That comes with working together and getting pucks deep and applying pressure. We were able to get a goal and from then on I thought for the most part we stuck to our game plan, which was to try and pressure their [defense] and try and attack their net.
“We ended up doing it enough and we got enough goals to win.”
Need More Juicy – Ex-Caps defenseman Milan Jurcina missed Saturday’s game with a groin injury. The Islanders are 20-13-3 with Jurcina in the lineup this season and 3-19-5 in the 27 games he has missed because of injury.
Down On The Farm – Fresh from a two-game trip to Toronto and Cleveland, the AHL Hershey Bears returned home to host the Albany Devils at Giant Center on Saturday night. Hershey came away with a big 4-3 win behind the netminding of Jared DeMichiel (27 saves) and the playmaking of Keith Aucoin (four assists).
Boyd Kane scored twice (his 20th and 21st of the season), and Francois Bouchard (his ninth) and Steve Pinizzotto (his 15th) scored on the power play to account for the Bears’ offense.
Kane, who is closing in on 800 games played in the AHL, notched the third 20-goal season of his AHL career. All three of those 20-goal campaigns have come with the Bears.
Playing in his first game as a North American pro, 19-year-old Russian defense prospect Dmitri Orlov – the Caps’ second-round (55th overall) pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft – picked up his first point, an assist on Pinizzotto’s goal.
The second-place Bears are now eight points behind front-running Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and two points head of third place Charlotte in the AHL’s East Division standings.
Hershey closes a busy week with its fourth game in five days on Sunday when it travels to Bridgeport.
Down a level, the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays hosted the Florida Everblades in a key South Division tilt on Saturday night at North Charleston Coliseum.
Shane Owen started in goal for the Stingrays, backed up by John Havrilack. The Rays fell down a goal early, but rallied for a 2-1 lead on goals from Luke Popko and Jordan Pietrus in the second period. The Blades drew even at 2-2 early in the third, but Pietrus’ second of the night and fourth of the season came at 17:56 of the third and made a winner of Owen (16 saves), who is now 5-2-1-1 on the season.
The win puts second-place South Carolina three points ahead of third-place Florida in the ECHL’s South Division standings.
South Carolina hosts Florida again on Sunday at 4 p.m.
By The Numbers – Johansson’s 17:36 in ice time was second most among all Capitals forwards, trailing only Laich (17:45) … The Caps had two power play chances on the night, and the second one was short-circuited after just four seconds when Semin took an offensive zone interference call. The Isles had four power plays totaling 6:04 in length. New York had seven power play shots on goal to none for Washington in the game … Both New York goal scorers (Kyle Okposo and Hamonic) netted their third goals of the season.
1 - 0 NYI
2 - 0 NYI
2 - 1 NYI
2 - 2 Tie
3 - 2 WSH