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Postseason Notebook -- December

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
December proved to be the Capitals’ best month of the season. After splitting their first four games of the month (2-2), Washington went on a tear to close out the 2008 portion of the schedule. The Caps won nine of their last 10 December games, and won three straight to start January for a 12-1 run overall.

The month began with Washington’s first regulation loss of the season on home ice, a 5-3 setback at the hands of the Florida Panthers. That loss ended a run – dating back to the 2007-08 season – in which Washington gained at least a point in 16 straight regular season home games (15-0-1).

Dec. 4 vs. New York Islanders

Secondary Scoring – Caps coach Bruce Boudreau mentioned over the last couple days that he’d really like to see some secondary scoring from his charges. In the seven games leading up to tonight’s tilt with the Islanders, 13 of Washington’s 18 goals came off the sticks of just four players: Alex Ovechkin, Tomas Fleischmann, Viktor Kozlov and Nicklas Backstrom.

Washington got a pair of first period tallies, and as usual it was Ovechkin and Kozlov who were the lamp-lighters. The Isles answered with a late goal in the first and another in the second to knot the score heading into the final frame. And that’s when the secondary scoring kicked in.

Donald Brashear finished off a terrific, hard-working shift by the Caps’ fourth line with his first goal of the season to give the Caps a 3-2 lead at the 6:50 mark of the third period. Eric Fehr netted his third of the season on a Washington power play in the 17th minute of the period to put away the pesky Islanders for good. Fehr’s goal was his third of the season, a single-season career high.

Backstrom sealed it with an empty-netter, and the Caps put their two-game losing streak in the rear-view as they prepare to head out on the road for two games in as many nights this weekend.

On The Board – Caps rookie defensemen Karl Alzner picked up his first career NHL assist with a heady play on Brashear’s goal in the third period. With the Caps in the midst of a lengthy and dominating shift in the offensive zone, Alzner took a pass from defensive partner Milan Jurcina. Not seeing a shooting lane, he cagily pushed the puck in deep and off the wall.

The result was strong. The puck came off the wall and a scrum ensued in front. With some help from linemate David Steckel, Brashear was able to get to the loose puck and tap it home.

Dec. 6 at Toronto
No Guns Needed –
Karl Alzner and Milan Jurcina supplied all the offense as the Caps eked out a 2-1 win over the Maple Leafs. For Alzner, the goal was the first of his NHL career.

This game turned out to the Capitals’ lone victory of the season in games in which the team’s Young Guns – Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom – did not score a goal. Washington went 1-9-1 in the 11 games in which all four Young Guns were silenced.

Dec. 10 vs. Boston
Johnny Hardhat –
You don’t often think of goaltenders as gritty, but Brent Johnson gave the Caps a gritty, gutsy performance on Wednesday against the Eastern Conference’s most prolific offensive team in Washington’s 3-1 win over Boston.

Johnson withstood the Bruins’ fast, physical and multi-faceted attack, and made many stellar stops on the night. He also played through some obvious physical discomfort from the middle of the first period on, staying in the game and stopping 33 of the 34 shots he faced on the night.

With Wednesday’s win over the Bruins, Johnson has now won each of his last three starts. He and Jose Theodore have each claimed half of Washington’s 16 wins on the season, and the eight victories are the most Johnson has earned in a season since he notched nine in 2005-06, his first campaign as a Capital.

During the life of his three-game winning streak, Johnson has stopped 79 of 83 shots (.952 save pct.) and he has forged a 1.33 GAA. For the season, Johnson is now 8-4-2 with a 2.47 GAA and a .918 save pct.

For his efforts, Johnson earned the hardhat for workmanlike performance and also was named the game’s No. 1 star.

A Needed Lift – With the best team in the Eastern Conference in the building for the first time this season, the Capitals got a much needed lift on Wednesday with the return of injured players Alexander Semin, Tom Poti and Tyler Sloan to the lineup.

After missing the previous dozen games, Semin had the puck on a string for most of the night and he picked up an assist on Alex Ovechkin’s empty-netter that finally and ultimately drove a stake through the heart of the Bruins. Although he stated that he was not yet at 100% and that his shot wasn’t where he wants it to be after the game, Semin’s return to the lineup gave the Capitals a dimension they had been lacking in his absence.

Poti skated 22:01 to lead all Washington defensemen, and his steady blueline presence was missed for the half dozen games he was out of the lineup.

Sloan skated 19:03 after missing each of the last two games.

Down Double Digits – For both of its games this past weekend in Toronto and Carolina, respectively, Washington played with a list of injured that stretched to double digits. Ten players sat out both games due to a variety of maladies.

With two days off between Sunday’s loss to the Hurricanes and tonight’s tilt with the Bruins, the Caps healed up just a bit. They were able to send three players (defensemen Sami Lepisto and Bryan Helmer and forward Keith Aucoin) back to AHL Hershey, and they got three injured players (defensemen Sloan and Poti and forward Semin) back in the lineup. The Caps also lost another player (forward Tomas Fleischmann) to injury and recalled yet another player (forward Oskar Osala) from Hershey.

What all that means is that Washington’s roll of infirm shrunk from 10 to eight between game No. 28 and game No. 29. The double digit figure is significant because it marked the first time in more than a decade that the Caps have been down 10 players at the same time.

You’ve got to go back to a Nov. 7, 1998 game against the Senators in Ottawa to find the last time Washington had 10 players sitting out simultaneously because of injury. The Capitals visited Ottawa that night, and spotted their hosts a 5-3 second period lead. At that point, the Caps pulled netminder Olie Kolzig and replaced him with Mike Rosati, who was playing what would prove to be the only game of his NHL career.

The Caps got goals from unlikely sources Dmitri Mironov (his second of the season), James Black (his first) and Mike Eagles (his first) and got a hat trick from Peter Bondra on their way to a come-from-behind 8-5 win over the Sens at Corel Centre. With irregulars like Rosati, Matt Herr, Nolan Baumgartner and Steve Poapst in the lineup, Washington scored five unanswered goals in the game’s final 27 minutes.

The lift didn’t last long. The Caps suffered a franchise record 510 man games lost to injury that season and plummeted 24 standings points to a 31-45-6 mark in 1998-99.

Dec. 12 vs. Ottawa
A Tale of Five Goalies –
In one of the more surreal and memorable days in the 30-plus year annals of the Washington Capitals, goaltender Brent Johnson turned in a fourth straight stellar performance on Friday, leading the Caps to a 5-1 win over the Ottawa Senators. But while Johnson continued his run of stellar play, the local focus centered on several other goaltenders.

Netminder Jose Theodore was injured early Friday and he left practice early, at which point Web producer Brett “Stretch” Leonhardt donned the pads and stepped between the pipes to practice for Washington for the second time in as many days.

The Capitals then put out a call to Houston, where Hershey goaltender Simeon Varlamov was out on the road with his Bears teammates. Getting Varlamov to Washington in time for the game would prove to be tricky, and getting South Carolina goaltender Michal Neuvirth from Florida to the District in time for the game was not even possible. That didn’t prevent an erroneous report of Neuvirth’s recall from surfacing early in the afternoon.

By midday, it was apparent that Leonhardt would likely have to suit up for warm-ups and possibly more. The 6-foot-7, 26-year-old former college goaltender (Oswego State and Neumann College) signed a contract in the afternoon and tried his best to go about his normal game-day duties. But there was nothing normal about this game day.

While Varlamov flew in from Houston, Leonhardt watched pregame video in the Capitals locker room with the same players he has covered for the last year in his “day job.” And he donned his goaltending gear, his college goalie mask and a big red sweater with No. 80 on the back.

Leonhardt went out and took warm-ups with the Caps, a dream come true for a kid who was born and raised in Canada and lives and breathes the game daily. He got quizzical looks from fans on the glass and the coaches on the Ottawa bench, but he performed admirably between the pipes.

Meanwhile, Varlamov’s plane was touching down and he was hurriedly getting dressed in the car en route from the airport to Verizon, with Ian Anderson, director of team services, at the wheel. Varlamov replaced Leonhardt on the Caps’ bench midway through the first period.

Amid this maelstrom of craziness and activity, Johnson calmly went about his business. He came within a few minutes of blanking the Sens. Of the 33 shots he faced on this night, only one found its way behind Johnson. The win was Johnson’s ninth of the season, his highest total since he won nine in 2005-06, his first season with the Capitals.

As for tomorrow, we know only that Theodore and Leonhardt won’t play. Johnson and Varlamov are on a plane bound for Montreal.

Dec. 13 at Montreal
The Kid and The Killers –
The 20-year-old Varlamov made 32 saves to earn his first NHL win in his first NHL start on one of the game’s biggest stages, a Hockey Night in Canada Contest before a capacity crowd of 21,273 at Montreal’s Bell Centre. Michael Nylander netted the game-winner late in the third period and the Caps killed off eight Canadiens power plays.

“I thought we played a really strong game,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “I think the first half of the game we were really good and we didn’t allow them too much until we ran into our fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth penalties. When you give a team eight [power plays], usually you don’t succeed. I think that was our best penalty killing effort of the year. Hopefully we don’t do that too often.”

It marked the first time in nearly two years (since Jan. 26, 2007) that the Caps killed off as many as eight opposition power plays in a game without a blemish.

Dec. 16 at New York Islanders
The Great Eight –
Alex Ovechkin’s goal with 10.7 seconds left in overtime lifted the Caps to a 5-4 win over the Islanders. Ovechkin’s goal enabled the Caps to sneak off with a win against a lesser foe in a game in which Washington held a two-goal lead midway through the final period.

With six overtime game-winners to his credit now, Ovechkin has surpassed Kelly Miller and Peter Bondra for the top spot on the all-time franchise ledger in that department.

Dec. 18 vs. St. Louis
Kid Stuff –
Thursday night’s game pitted a pair of first-year pro goaltenders who each carried one NHL win into the game. The Caps’ 20-year-old Simeon Varlamov got the best of his counterpart, 22-year-old Blues freshman Ben Bishop in Washington’s 4-2 win over St. Louis.

Varlamov made 29 saves in earning his second NHL win in as many starts. The game against St. Louis was his first ever appearance at Verizon Center, and he received the loudest pregame ovation of any of the six Capitals starters on this night.

With his father Alexander in attendance, Varlamov gave Caps fans a glimpse of what they believe and hope will be a long and bright future in the Washington nets. After Thursday’s win, Varlamov now has a 1.50 GAA and a .953 save pct. in his brief NHL career.

The NHL’s holiday roster freeze goes into effect at midnight on Friday, so if injured Washington goaltender Jose Theodore isn’t healthy enough to play after Friday’s practice, Varlamov’s NHL stay will be extended until at least Dec. 28, when the roster freeze is lifted.

Really Rocking The Red – All three stars for Thursday’s game are Russian Capitals. With a pair of goals (his first two-goal game since Jan. 21) and an assist, Viktor Kozlov took the game’s first star honors. Varlamov was the second star and Alex Ovechkin was the third star.

Kozlov, who is in his 14th NHL season, said after the game that he could not recall being previously involved in a troika of Russian three stars selections previously in his career.

Dec. 23 at New York Rangers
He believes, so we believe.” -- 

Dec. 26 vs. Buffalo
Another One –
Alex Ovechkin added to his pantheon of highlight reel goals with a third period strike that wound up being the game-winner. Caps defenseman Bryan Helmer made a nifty play to push the puck up the ice, and Ovechkin corralled it and did the rest. He blazed through the neutral zone and past Sabres defenseman Toni Lydman, then worked Buffalo blueliner Henrik Tallinder, turning him inside out as he weaved the puck through him.

Tallinder managed to take Ovechkin down, but the Caps’ dazzling left wing – who had a goal called back earlier in the game because of a Brooks Laich goaltender interference minor – pushed the puck past goaltender Patrick Lalime to give the Caps what proved to be a key goal, giving Washington a 3-1 lead.

“It was a pretty cool goal,” admitted Ovechkin afterwards. “It happens sometimes … I just made some moves. Puck was probably neutral, so I won the battle. I was tired and I just fell, and I shoot. It was in, so that’s pretty cool. It was a great goal and I’m glad it happened to me.”

“I just shoveled it up to him and he made a hell of a play,” said Helmer. “That’s why he’s the best in the league. He never gives up on the puck and the next thing you know it’s in the back of the net. It was a pretty goal … I was a spectator on that shift. It’s amazing what he can do.”

The goal was Ovechkin’s third game-winner of the season and the 27th game-winner of his career.

Making the Most of the Opportunity –
Helmer played in his eighth game of the season for Washington on Friday. He collected a pair of assists and was a plus-2 on the night, earning the first star designation for the game. The 36-year-old defenseman, who will captain the AHL’s Team Canada in the 2009 AHL All-Star Game in Worcester next month, is making the most of his first NHL action since the 2003-04 season.

Friday night marked Helmer’s first multiple-point night in the NHL since he had a goal and an assist for Vancouver in a 4-1 win at Calgary on Feb. 8, 2002.

“He can still play,” said Caps bench boss Bruce Boudreau after the game. “In Hershey, he’s the guy who’s used in all the pressure situations. He’s the guy they use when they need something done.”

Dec. 28 vs. Toronto
No. 11 –
Prior to Sunday night’s game with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington hoisted Mike Gartner’s No. 11 to the Verizon Center rafters where it will remain. No player will wear that sweater again for the Capitals. Gartner joins Yvon Labre (No. 7), Rod Langway (No. 26) and Dale Hunter (No. 32) as the fourth player to have his sweater retired by the Capitals.

Gartner spent nearly two decades in the NHL, finishing his career with 708 goals. Among all right wingers in NHL history, only Gordie Howe (801) had more NHL goals than Gartner. Gartner spent nearly the first decade of his NHL career in Washington, scoring 35 or more goals in nine straight seasons for the Capitals before he was traded to Minnesota on March 7, 1989.

At the time of his departure from the District, Gartner was the team’s all-time leader in games played (758), goals (397), assists (392), points (792), power play goals (98) and game-winning goals (54).

Gartner’s career spanned from 1979-98. Only Wayne Gretzky (885) scored more goals among all NHL players during that span. Gartner established an NHL record with 15 straight seasons of 30 or more goals, a streak that was stopped by the NHL’s lockout in 1994-95 when a lengthy labor stoppage shortened the regular season schedule to just 48 games.

What doesn’t show up on any stats sheets or record books is Gartner’s class, his dedication to the game, his humility and his competitiveness. He was truly a role model during his playing days, and he continues in that respect today with his involvement in such programs as Goals and Dreams and World Vision and with National Training Rinks, the business he now operates with fellow former Cap and longtime friend Wes Jarvis.

Hard Hat Trick – Coming off his first 20-goal season in the NHL in 2007-08, Caps center Brooks Laich is now halfway to that milestone again this season by virtue of his two-goal effort against Toronto. Laich netted his ninth and 10th goals of the season, scoring both from familiar territory, at or near the top of the blue paint. Last season, Laich scored his 10th goal of the season in the Capitals’ 61st game of the season. He is 24 games ahead of last season’s pace.

Laich earned the hard hat for his workmanlike effort in Sunday’s game. He missed out on an empty-net opportunity (Alex Ovechkin shot himself rather than trying to pass to Laich, who was well covered by Toronto’s Tomas Kaberle) that might have resulted in his first career hat trick, but he is the first Capital to record the “hard hat trick.” Sunday night marked the third time Laich has earned the hard hat, he is the first Cap to claim it three times.

There’s No Place Like Home – Sunday’s win over the Maple Leafs pushed the Capitals’ Verizon Center record to 15-1-1 on the season. Washington won each of its last six regular season home games in 2007-08, so it is now 21-1-1 in its last 23 regular season contests on Verizon Center ice.

Sunday’s game was Washington’s final home ice tilt of calendar 2008. The Caps closed out the year with a 31-6-3 mark on the Phone Booth sheet.

The Capitals’ total of 15 home ice wins ranks second in the NHL this season. Only San Jose (18-0-2) has more wins at home. The Caps head to Buffalo for a Tuesday game against the Sabres, and then they’ll return home for a four-game homestand.

Dec. 30 at Buffalo
No. 1 for No. 56 –
Caps winger Chris Bourque potted the first goal of his NHL career in Washington’s 4-2 win over the Sabres in Buffalo.

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