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Postseason Notebook -- January

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
The first month of calendar 2009 started the way 2008 ended, with the Capitals on a winning roll. For the fourth straight month, the Caps posted a winning record. They also kept up a pace that put several long-standing club records within their reach.

Jan. 1 vs. Tampa Bay
Fast Firsts –
Washington got off to a quick start in Thursday’s game, firing three first period goals past Lightning netminder Mike Smith. Fast starts in the first have been a home ice trademark for the Capitals this season. The Caps have now outscored opponents 25-9 in the first period of their 18 home games in 2008-09.

Five Spot – Thursday’s win was Washington’s fifth in a row and its 10th in the last 11 games. The Caps have had three five-game winning streaks this season.

Here’s Johnny –
After missing two games because of injury and backing up Jose Theodore on Tuesday night in Buffalo, Caps goaltender Brent Johnson was back between the pipes on Thursday against the Lightning, making his first start since suffering a 7-1 setback to the Flyers on Dec. 20 in Philadelphia.

Johnson is now 11-5-2 on the season and he has won six of his last seven starts overall.

No. 1 For No. 62 –
For the second consecutive game and for the fourth time this season, a Capital scored his first NHL goal on Thursday. Caps defenseman Sean Collins notched his first NHL tally against the Lightning’s Mike Smith, a game after Chris Bourque turned the trick against the Buffalo Sabres.

Bourque and Collins join Tyler Sloan (Oct. 25 at Dallas) and Karl Alzner (Dec. 6 at Buffalo) on the list of Caps who’ve tallied for the first time in the NHL in 2008-09. Collins is the first of the four to do so at home. The Caps are 4-0 in games when a player scores his first NHL goal this season.

Defensive partner Shaone Morrisonn assisted on Collins’ goal. Morrisonn’s assist came on the fifth anniversary of his own first NHL goal. Mo scored for the first time while with Boston on Jan. 1, 2004 against Toronto’s Eddie Belfour.

Jan. 3 vs. New York Rangers
The Turning Point
– In a 1-1 hockey game late in the second period, the New York Rangers had a chance to take a lead going into the third period of an important road game against an Eastern Conference rival. The Caps’ Matt Bradley went off for a questionable delay of game call at 18:02, giving New York a chance to regain a lead in a tightly played defensive struggle.

Given the state of the Rangers’ power play, you can debate how good a chance the Rangers actually had to take the lead.

In their previous 14 games, the Rangers were 5-for-55 (9.1%) with the extra-man. And New York entered the game having given up 11 shorthanded goals on the season, most in the NHL.

Make it a dozen.

Seconds after missing out on a shorthanded chance, the indomitable Alex Ovechkin took a pass from David Steckel (who was a monster at both ends of the ice tonight) in neutral ice. The Caps left wing faked a slapshot, which caused Blueshirts blueliner Wade Redden to back off just a bit. Ovechkin then gained the zone and launched a shot that eluded Rangers goaltender Steve Valiquette, who was seeing his first action since Dec. 17. With just over a half a minute left in the middle frame, it was Washington – and not New York – that took a 2-1 lead.

Having already rushed to both ends of the ice on the same shorthanded shift, you couldn’t blame Steckel and Ovechkin for doing a dump and change, but they stayed with the play and it resulted in what proved to be the game-winning goal.

“It was at the end of the shift,” noted Ovechkin. “I just want to shoot the puck. Like I said it was kind of a lucky goal and sometimes you need luck. It was an important goal.”

The Caps were able to nurse that lead to the finish line. Despite going without a shot on goal for more than 10 minutes at the start of the third period, Washington dominated for significant stretches in the attack zone and took the air out of the Rangers, who didn’t have the third period legs you would expect from a team that hadn’t played since Monday.

Six Pack – Saturday’s win was Washington’s sixth in a row, its longest winning run of the season. The Caps have won 11 of their last 12 games and are now 17-1-1 on home ice this season. Dating back to 2007-08, Washington is 23-1-1 in its last 25 regular season home contests.

After Forty – With Saturday night’s win over New York, the Caps have run their record to 26-11-3 (55 points), the best mark in franchise history after 40 games. The 1985-86 edition was 25-11-4 (54 points) through its first 40 games.

“I think records are great to break when you have an opportunity to break them,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, “no matter if it’s a team record or individual record. Anytime you can break a record of 34 years, the players should be proud of themselves, so I am happy they did it.”

Short Stuff –
Ovechkin’s shorthanded goal was his first shorty of the season, the fourth of his career and his first since March 2, 2006 at Ottawa. Saturday’s shorthanded strike from Ovechkin marks the first time in his career that Washington has won a game in which he has scored while his team was a man down.

Going for the Gordie? –
Semin picked up an assist in the second period on Mike Green’s power play goal, and then engaged in the first fight of his NHL career when he scrapped with New York defenseman Marc Staal in the third period.

At that point, Semin was only a goal shy of recording a Gordie Howe hat trick (goal, assist and fight in the same game). Alas, Semin’s bid for the Gordie was undone – literally – by his own inexperience as a fighter. Not having been in a fight in his 214 games in the league, Semin did not have his sweater tied down. Staal was easily able to remove Semin’s sweater, and that resulted in an automatic game misconduct for the Washington winger.

Semin’s assist did extend his scoring streak to six games (one goal, five assists).

Jan. 6 vs. Philadelphia
Six Pack –
Theodore won his sixth straight start, matching his longest streak of last season, a six-game run from Feb. 26-March 8, 2008 while he was a member of the Colorado Avalanche.

Theodore is one win shy of matching his career high seven-game winning streak. He won seven straight while with Montreal from March 28-Apr. 9, 2002. It was that winning streak that helped Theodore cement the 2002 Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player.

During the life of his current 6-0 streak, Theodore has fashioned a 1.85 GAA and a .932 save pct.

Seven Up –
Tuesday’s victory was Washington’s seventh in succession, matching the seven-game winning streak that closed the 2007-08 regular season. The Capitals’ last winning streak of more than seven games came nearly two decades ago. Washington ran off an eight-game run from March 7-26, 1989. The club record is 10 straight wins during the 1983-84 season.

Streaking Semin – Alexander Semin notched an assist on Nicklas Backstrom’s first period goal, the only goal of the game. The helper pushed Semin’s scoring streak to seven games (one goal, six assists).

Cooking at Home – With Tuesday’s win, the Capitals have now won nine straight on home ice, the second longest streak in franchise history. Washington reeled off 10 straight wins at home from Jan. 4,-Feb. 23, 2000.

The Caps are 18-1-1 overall on home ice this season. In three of the last four seasons and in 13 seasons of their history, the Capitals did not win as many as 18 home games all season.

We’re Halfway There –
After Tuesday’s game the Caps are exactly halfway through the 2008-09 regular season schedule with a record of 27-11-3 for 57 points. That puts Washington on a pace for 114 points, which would shatter the team’s franchise record of 107 established in 1985-86.

Firsts at Home –
Washington edged Philly 1-0 in the first period of Tuesday’s game. The Caps have now outscored the opposition 26-9 in the first period of their 20 home games this season. Over the last 15 home contests, the Caps hold a 15-3 first period advantage.

Washington has surrendered more than one goal in the first period of a home game only once this season, back on Oct. 11 in the home opener when Chicago nicked the Caps for a pair of markers in the first stanza.

Jan. 9 vs. Columbus
Dial “M” For Mason –
In the world of movies, Alfred Hitchcock is known as “The Master of Suspense.” In the world of coaching, there are some who consider Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock “The Master of Defense.” With eight of his players – including his top three scorers and five of his top nine forwards – sidelined with various injuries, Hitchcock and his charges managed to whitewash Washington by a 3-0 score for the second time in 42 days.

Blue Jackets goaltender Steve Mason, a 20-year-old first pro who started this season with the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL, came into Friday night’s game as the NHL’s leader in both GAA (1.82) and save pct. (.934). He was tied for the league lead with five shutouts. After blanking the Caps 3-0 on Friday, Mason now leads the league in shutouts as well.

Playing with a cobbled together lineup and with a few players who were still ailing, Hitchcock’s did exactly what he said they had to do before the game: win each period. Columbus scored one goal in each frame.

It marked the first time the Caps had been shutout at home since Atlanta’s Kari Lehtonen pitched a 2-0 shutout on Feb. 2, 2008.

Mason was terrific at controlling his rebounds, the Jackets were very adept at getting to the rare rebounds he left for the Caps, and Columbus blocked 16 of Washington’s shots. The Caps managed to get 45 shots on Mason, and they missed the net entirely with 14 others. So the Caps teed up 75 shots to the Blue Jackets’ 43 (23 on goal, 11 blocked by Washington and nine misses).

“It’s kind of a relief to be honest with you,” said Hitchcock after the game. “I think everyone knew our situation and I think we gained a lot of confidence by surviving the first period. I think a lot of our guys were in awe of what’s going on.  I think we were nervous and wondering what the heck was going to happen. We had not even spent any time [with the lines]. We never had one line that was even a line a week ago, and to come here and survive the first period gave us some good confidence. Then, when we got the first goal we kind of lifted ourselves from there. But, they’re a great team. I would not want to play this team with this lineup ever again.”

Jan. 13 vs. Edmonton
Seen This Movie Before –
Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to Edmonton was Washington’s third straight setback, matching its season high losing streak. The Capitals have lost only four of their last 16 games, but in three of those defeats (against Philadelphia on Dec. 20, Columbus on Jan. 9 and Edmonton tonight) they dominated the play territorially in the first period only to come up empty-handed – and behind, even – on the scoreboard.

In those three losses, the Caps have outshot the opposition by a combined total of 62-19 in the first period but have been on the short end of the score in the same three games, 4-0.

On this night, however, Washington’s 19 first-period shots might have been a bit on the misleading side. There weren’t many red sweaters in front of Oilers goaltender Dwayne Roloson, and he stopped all 19 with relative ease.

“We had 19 shots in the first period,” observed Caps coach Bruce Boudreau after the game, “but I don’t think he had more than one or two tough ones. Everything was [from the] perimeter. From the bench you could see [Roloson] catching everything between his pads. There was no traffic in front, and that was something we really dwelled on before the game. We dwelled on it.

“When it gets to a point where everybody wants to be the scorer but nobody wants to be the mucker, you’re not going to do anything. Everybody is waiting, and when you put a skilled lineup together – and I think we’ve got a fairly skilled lineup – but nobody wants to do the grunt work. Until we get that happening, we’re not going to score a lot of goals.”

Weak Against the West – Washington has dropped 14 games in regulation time this season, and eight of those have come at the hands of Western Conference opponents. The Capitals are now 6-8 against Western Conference foes (with four games remaining against them) and they are 21-6-3 against the more familiar Eastern Conference.

Jan. 14, 2009 at Pittsburgh
No. 8 In The Third –
Wednesday’s game in Pittsburgh was a big one for the Caps; it came against a chief conference rival a night after they dropped their third game in succession. As he has done so many times this season, Alex Ovechkin came up big in the third period tonight to help ensure the end of Washington’s losing streak.

Ovechkin broke a 2-2 tie with a power play goal early in the third period. He added another goal and an assist in the final frame to help the Caps to a 6-3 win over the Penguins at the Igloo.

"Today was very emotional game for us," said Ovechkin after the game. "We lost three in a row and had to go on the road to play against a tough team, and we bounced back."

Jan. 17 vs. Boston
Top Notch Tilt –
Tonight’s contest between the Capitals and the Bruins was as thrilling a 2-1 contest as you’ll see. It lived up to its billing as a game that featured the top two teams in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.

Although only three goals were scored on the night, the game was rife with hits, scoring chances, excellent defensive plays, skating and virtually everything you’d want to see and expect to see from the top two teams in the conference.

The two clubs will hook up again in Boston ten days from now in the first game for both teams after the NHL’s All-Star break. After tonight’s game, more than a few observers mused aloud about the possibility of seeing these two teams hook up again in May with a trip to the 2009 Stanley Cup final at stake.

“I hope we get to that point,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau after the game. “I hope we get to May. It’s been a while. Right now we just want to go as far as we can in the regular season and have the best record we can possibly have. When it comes playoff time, hopefully we’re still around and hopefully we get a chance to do it. But it’s too early to be talking about playoffs.”

With the win, Washington pulls to within nine points of the Eastern Conference leading Bruins. Boston has a game in hand on the Caps. In the rear view mirror, several teams are right behind Washington in the conference standings. Washington has 61 points, followed closely by Montreal (60), the New York Rangers (58), Philadelphia (57) and New Jersey (57).

Jan. 27 at Boston
Tough Way to Lose –
For the second time in 11 days, the Capitals and the Boston Bruins hooked up in an exciting and compelling game that kept spectators glued to the action from start to finish. Unfortunately for the Capitals, Washington lost it 3-2 in overtime when Bruins center David Krejci banked a shot off Caps defenseman Shaone Morrisonn for the game-winner, the first overtime goal of his NHL career.

A game this good deserved a better ending, a “cleaner” game-winning goal. But the Capitals certainly had their chances to put this one away earlier.

Both goaltenders made some great stops but Washington had the better of the scoring chances on the night. In the first minute of the extra session, Nicklas Backstrom nearly won it for Washington when he pounced on a rebound of an Alex Ovechkin shot, only to have Boston’s Tim Thomas rob him. The Bruins tore off in transition, and Backstrom was forced to hook the B’s Zdeno Chara to eliminate a glorious scoring chance.

Washington goaltender Jose Theodore made a game-saving stop on Boston defenseman Shane Hnidy late in regulation and another brilliant glove save on Krejci early in the Boston overtime power play, but wasn’t able to make the stop on the fluky carom off Morrisonn.

Although the game-winner might not have been a pretty one, this contest left many observers hoping for a playoff series between these two teams this spring.

Shooting Gallery –
Washington outshot Boston 36-28 on the night, marking the 12th straight game in which the Capitals launched 30 or more shots on goal. That is the second longest streak of its kind in the team’s franchise history. Washington had 30 or more shots on goal in each of the team’s final 15 games of the 1983-84 season.

Historic Start –
With one game remaining in January, the Caps are now 6-4-1 this month. In gaining a point against Boston on Tuesday, the Capitals ensured themselves of finishing the month with a winning record (or what passes for a winning record in the modern NHL) for the fourth straight month at the start of the season for the first time in franchise history.

The 200 Club –
Caps left wing Donald Brashear dropped the gloves with Boston’s Byron Bitz midway through the third period of Tuesday’s game. The tilt marked the 200th fighting major of Brashear’s 970-game NHL career and the first fighting major (and first penalty minutes) of Bitz’s seven-game NHL career.

Jan. 31 vs. Detroit
Alarm Clock –
While discussing Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Red Wings with the assembled media after the game, Caps left wing Alex Ovechkin casually mentioned that he wasn’t at peak alertness for today’s 12:30 tilt.

“I think in the first two periods I did not have a lot of chances and I was still kind of sleepy,” admitted Ovechkin.

Ovi’s alarm clock went off in time for him to score a pair of third period goals to help the Caps to a rare win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Red Wings. The league’s best third period player administered some 2:30 thunder instead of his usual 9:00 thunder.

With today’s two third period tallies, Ovechkin now has 17 third period goals, accounting for more than half of his season total of 33 which leads the NHL. Ovi’s 17 third-period strikes are also the most in the NHL.

The two goals came in a span of just 1:16 and broke a 2-2 deadlock in a terrific hockey game witnessed by another sellout crowd at Verizon Center.

Moving On Up – Ovechkin now has 196 goals in three-plus NHL seasons, tying him with Bengt Gustafsson for fourth place on the Capitals’ all-time ledger.

Welcome Back – To Caps defenseman Tom Poti who returned to the lineup after missing the last 15 games because of a groin ailment. He made his presence felt immediately.

On a first period shift, Poti’s stick came up large three times in three different zones. First, his diving pokecheck on a backcheck knocked the puck off the stick of a Wing who was headed toward the Washington goal on an odd-man break.

Seconds later, he used his stick to thwart a Detroit player who was attempting to skate the puck out of his own end of the ice. Poti poked the puck back into the attack zone.

Finally, he got a stick on an indirect Detroit pass in the neutral zone, keeping the Wings from entering the Caps’ zone cleanly.

Poti finished with 20:38 and five blocked shots, most of any player on either team.

Let ’Em Play – There was a tremendous amount of flow and pace to today’s game, and there were several instances where play went on for a few minutes without being broken up by whistles. Generally speaking, most NHL games average about a face-off per minute. Today’s game had just 47 face-offs.

Four times this afternoon – once in the first and third periods and twice in the second – play went on uninterrupted by a whistle for a span of more than four minutes. There were no icing calls on either team until the first two minutes of the third period when both teams were guilty of icing the puck within 18 seconds of one another.

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