Saturday, March 22, 2008
Following a remarkable 5-3 win over the Thrashers in Atlanta on Friday night, the Caps flew home to enjoy a well-deserved day off today. Down 3-1 heading into the third period, the Caps rallied for four goals in a dominant final frame to pick up two points in what was a must-win game against also-ran Atlanta.
Washington outshot the Thrashers 23-2 in the third period, and it out-attempted Atlanta 27-4 in the final frame. Alex Ovechkin - who scored the Caps' first goal of the game in the first period - netted his 60th goal of the season at 11:30 of the third to make it a 3-2 game. With exactly four minutes remaining, Nicklas Backstrom netted the game-tying tally, and just 32 seconds later, Backstrom followed up with what would prove to be the game-winner. Boyd Gordon removed any doubt with an empty-net goal at 19:52 of the third.
Thrashers center Jim Slater - who now works for the Caps in the player development department - scored two of Atlanta's three goals, including a shorthanded strike.
Ovechkin was personally responsible for six of Washington's third-period shots on net and nine of its shot attempts in the final period, as Atlanta didn't even have a shot attempt until the 13:05 mark of the third.
Coming off a loss in Chicago on Wednesday and playing its third game in four nights, the Caps were in desperate need of points against Atlanta and its nemesis netminder, Kari Lehtonen, who finished his NHL career with an 18-7-3 record against Washington. Lehtonen ended up with 310 career victories, and he earned more of them against the Caps than against any other team.
Lehtonen was on the verge of another brilliant performance against Washington on this night. Ovechkin's goal at 11:30 of the third came on the Caps' 16th shot of the third period. Backstrom's two goals and Gordon's empty-netter came on three consecutive shots, Washington's last three shots of the night.
Washington is in the midst of six straight road games, and it now finds itself in the rare situation of having a Saturday and Sunday at home - and without games - as it gears up for the final two weeks of the regular season and its last half dozen games.
Desperate Days - Faced with a 3-1 third period deficit, the Washington Capitals dug deep and came up with what was arguably their best period of the season. The Caps scored three times to take a 4-3 lead and then iced it with Boyd Gordon's empty-netter in the waning seconds.
Alex Ovechkin scored twice for the Caps and became the first NHL player in 12 years to score 60 goals in a season. He also became just the second Capital ever to reach that milestone, joining Dennis Maruk, who scored 60 in 1981-82. Ovechkin and Maruk now share the single season team record, and Ovechkin still has six games with which to add to his total.
The 22-year-old left wing made sure his milestone marker was a big one, it sparked a three-goal burst in a span of 5:02 that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat for Washington.
"It's a big win for us," said Ovechkin after the game. "We played well in the first period. After we make a couple mistakes and they score three goals, we just say, 'Guys, it's our chance and we can't stop. We fight for this all year. We can't just let it go.' It was a very big game for us and I'm happy for the team.
"We just started working. It's all about work on our team. If we want it, we can beat every team. We started to play well in the beginning of the third period. We dominate them and they don't have chances to score goal. We play three lines and everybody push each other, fight [for] each other and we get results."
In addition to scoring twice, Ovechkin set up Nicklas Backstrom's game-winning goal and Gordon's goal. He was plus-4 on the night and is now plus-23 on the season.
Before Friday's third period outburst, the Capitals were 0-26-2 in games in which they trailed heading into the final frame. More than half (23 of 45) of Washington's shots on goal for the game came in the third period, and the Caps outshot the Thrashers 23-2 in the final period.
Liking Lehtonen - Ovechkin now has scored 16 goals in just 14 career games against Atlanta goaltender Kari Lehtonen.
He was asked about his success against the Thrashers after the game.
"I just like Lehtonen," he quipped.
"I like play in this building," he added. "Right now it doesn't matter what team we play. It's very important games for us. We still have six games and every game and every point is very important for us."
Although he is only in his third NHL season, Ovechkin is now fourth all-time in goals scored against the Thrashers with 20. He trails Vincent Lecavalier (24), Miroslav Satan (22) and Jaromir Jagr (21).
Tough Road Through the Southeast - Washington is 5-6-2 on the road against Southeast Division opponents this season. Until Friday's five-goal outburst against the Thrashers, the Capitals had scored three or fewer goals in each of those Southeast road games, and they had scored two or fewer in eight of them.
Half Century - With his assist on Ovechkin's first period goal, Backstrom became just the second Capitals rookie ever to record 50 or more assists in a season. Backstrom is now four assists shy of matching Ovechkin's single-season franchise rookie standard of 54 helpers.
Big Plus - Playing on the line with Backstrom and Ovechkin, Viktor Kozlov picked up an assist on the night, but was also a plus-4. He is now plus-24 on the season, the best mark of any Capital since Sergei Gonchar posted a plus-26 in 1999-00.
Kozlov had eight shots on goal in Friday night's game, matching his single-game high for the season.
"When you play with great players like Backstrom and Ovechkin," Kozlov says, "everybody is little bit afraid of them so they give them room and space. Maybe that's why I get the chances."
Blueline Blackout - No Caps defenseman has scored a goal in the month of March. Mike Green's Feb. 29 goal at New Jersey marks the last time a Washington defenseman turned on the red light.
First Things First - Friday night's game was the final of eight meetings between the Capitals and Thrashers this season. The Caps outshot Atlanta 97-37 in the first periods of their eight meetings this season. Atlanta scored a first period goal against Washington only once in the eight games. The Caps outscored the Thrashers 6-1 in the first period of their eight meetings this season.
44 Caliber - Caps defenseman Steve Eminger was back in the lineup on Friday after missing nine straight games as a healthy scratch. It was his second longest stretch on the shelf this season; he sat out 17 straight games earlier in the campaign.
Eminger has only played 17 games this season, and Washington is 11-5-1 in those games.
The Chase - Washington's win enabled it to keep pace with Philadelphia, which earned a shootout win over the Rangers. The Flyers moved into seventh place with their win, and the Caps hopped over Buffalo, which suffered a 4-1 setback at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Caps still trail the Flyers by two points, and Washington is now just one point behind the eighth-place Bruins, although Boston has two games in hand. All the teams surrounding the Capitals in the standings (the Rangers, Philly, Boston, Buffalo, Florida and Toronto) have at least a game in hand on them.
The Caps closed to within five points of front-running Carolina in the Southeast Division standings and face the Canes in Carolina on Tuesday. Although they're closer to the eighth-place berth, the Caps have not abandoned hope of winning the division.
"We haven't shelved anything," says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. "Obviously Philly and Boston are closer than Carolina and [the Hurricanes] are playing lights out. Either situation, we know pretty well what we have to do to get in. We have to win."
Seconds Of Pleasure - For those who missed Friday's game or just want to see it again, Comcast is re-airing the game at noon on Saturday.
Recching Ball - Thrashers forward Mark Recchi is 40 years old and will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end. Whether he returns next season remains to be seen, but Caps fans won't be sad to see him retire if he doesn't play in the NHL in 2008-09.
Recchi picked up an assist in Friday's game, giving him 105 career points all-time against the Capitals, tied for second with Wayne Gretzky. Only Marcel Dionne (108) racked up more points against the Caps. Only Mike Bossy (55) and Mario Lemieux (51) have more goals against the Caps than Recchi's 46.
This marks Recchi's first season out of the Stanley Cup playoffs since 1995.
Get Shorty - Jim Slater's second period shorthanded goal was the first of his NHL career in his 209th career game. He came into the game with four goals in 63 games this season. Slater later added a second goal at even strength to give Atlanta a 3-1 lead.
Get Shorty, Part Deux - Eric Perrin assisted on Slater's shorthanded strike, putting a perfect pass on the latter's stick and springing him on a breakaway. Perrin now has 10 shorthanded points this season, tops in the NHL.
Help Less - Atlanta has not been able to offer any help as a spoiler for Eastern Conference playoff hopefuls down the stretch this season. The Thrashers are 5-13-4 in their last 22 games. They had one regulation win in the month of February (2-0 at Washington on Feb. 2) and they've got one in March (6-4 over Calgary on Mar. 13).
The Thrashers have not won a game against an Eastern Conference opponent in five weeks. Atlanta's last win over an Eastern foe was on Feb. 15, a 4-3 shootout win over the Devils in New Jersey. Since then, the Thrashers are 0-10-4 in 14 games vs. conference opponents.
On This Date in NHL History - Caps center Viktor Kozlov scored his first NHL goal on this date in 1995 playing for San Jose against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"It was against the Blackhawks against [goaltender] Eddie Belfour," remembers Kozlov. "[Sandis] Ozolinsh gave me breakaway pass and I scored. I was very excited."
Happy Birthday - To ex-Caps defenseman Al "Wild Thing" Iafrate, born on this date in 1966. Early happy birthday wishes to current Caps defenseman Tom Poti, who celebrates his 31st birthday on Saturday.
Down on the Farm - The ECHL's South Carolina Stingrays downed the Florida Everblades 4-2 at North Charleston Arena on Friday. Captain Cail MacLean scored twice - his 20th and 21st goals of the season - for the Stingrays. Matt Scherer and Todd Griffith also scored for the home team. South Carolina now trails second place Gwinnett by two points in the South Division standings.
The AHL's Hershey Bears host Philadelphia at Giant Center on Saturday and entertain Lowell on Sunday.
Coach Bruce Boudreau on whether he had ever seen his team play better in one period than it did in the third period:
"Not in one period, but there was quite a sense of urgency. I thought we were really bad in the second. We knew how difficult it would be if we didn't come home with two points in this game that it was going to be a real uphill climb to make the playoffs. Not that it already isn't."
"I think it was a case of a team really wanting it more and having something to play for. Once you get into that prevent defense, boy, it's hard to get out of it. And that's what happened. I thought Lehtonen was extremely good in the third period for a guy that let in three goals. We just kept coming. It was a good sign."
On Backstrom's game:
"By Nicky's own admission, he has struggled a little bit the last few games. He was great in the third period. For a guy who mostly sets up goals, I thought that shot of his to make it [3-3] was pinpoint. It was just a great shot. There are a lot of accolades going around right now but that whole line was fabulous in the third period. That's why they played 10 minutes."
On whether this game saved the Caps' playoff hopes:
"It didn't save it, but it's sure going to make me sleep a little easier until Tuesday. That's for sure. It's a game, when you're ahead of a team in the standings, you're really counting on winning this game. We knew they were going to come out and give it everything they've got. What else do you have other than to be a spoiler to get satisfaction out of it? And they played really good I thought in the first and second. They had a lot of energy. But once we started to come in and basically exerted our will on them, I thought we were much hungrier in the third period."
On getting traffic and going to the net:
"We talked about that between periods. We mentioned as a coaching staff that Lehtonen was catching everything right here [points to midsection] but he could see everything. If you don't go to the net - we used to call it 'going to the net in a foul mood' - and stand in front of him, the kid would have made 46 saves because he is that good. So we started getting traffic and going at the net and it is amazing how things work out where they start to score.
Caps center Sergei Fedorov on the Backstrom/Ovechkin combo:
"They play pretty well together that last 10 minutes of the third period. Obviously chemistry is there. It was exciting, what can I say? It was exciting watching from the bench how those guys score."
On hitting the post on a power play chance:
"Yeah, I hit the post on the power play. I was hoping it was going to go in, because defenseman blocked the view of the goalie. Short side was there."
On whether the Caps were worried when they were getting so many chances without success early in the third period:
"I don't think so. As a player you don't have a chance to sit down and think about it. You just try to put your best effort out there; screaming effort I would say. Try to move your feet and make plays. It wasn't happening much in [the first] 10 minutes but I personally felt we were much better as a team with our system and our breakouts were better. I thought we controlled the puck a bit more, so I figured maybe momentum would swing toward us and sure enough, that second goal was big. A lot of rebounds, a lot of shots on net. I guess we gained momentum after that first 10 minutes of the third."
On what made the difference in the second half of the third:
"I think it's the team speed. Whoever we had on the ice skated pretty well as a group. That's why we had a chance to initiate. And obviously that's what brought those shots and chances and rebounds into their zone."
Caps center Nicklas Backstrom on the third period:
"We had a lot of shots and a lot of chances, and finally we score and we win. I think it's the most important win for the season and the nicest one, too.
On the twin milestones of his 50th assist and Ovechkin's 60th goal:
"I'm happy for Alex to score his 60th goal. That's unbelievable. I think so. To be a part of that is great for me. I hopefully help him a little bit."
On the Caps' desperation in the third period:
"There's no desperation. I think every guy decided to go out to do it. I think we knew what happened with the second period. They scored three goals. It was a huge period for us. I think it was the most important period of the season, maybe."
On going to the net in the third period:
"I think we had like three guys around the net all the shifts. We talk about it before the third period and we did it. It worked this time and hopefully we can do it again."
Caps goaltender Cristobal Huet on the game:
"That was unbelievable. The way we played and the way [Ovechkin] played, obviously we never quit shooting the puck and creating traffic. That was just a great effort by the guys to solve a hot goalie.
On having a quiet third period:
"It's not an easy game but that happens sometimes. I knew I was going to be ready for anything to come by me for the third. In the second they had a few breaks and they scored. I tried to re-focus for the third and I didn't have to do anything. I was more focused in the third and I expected more from them."
March 22 Blog Entry "Solving Lehtonen"
The Atlanta Thrashers have not been very good lately, and when they have, it's often because of goaltender Kari Lehtonen.
Back on Feb. 2 at Verizon Center, the Caps outshot the Thrashers 36-13 but couldn't beat Lehtonen and lost 2-0. Eleven days later in Atlanta, the Caps fired 18 first period shots on Lehtonen, but did not score. Washington fell 3-2 in the shootout that night despite outshooting the Thrashers 41-28.
Last Friday in Washington, the Caps outshot Atlanta 37-12, and only Lehtonen's fine goaltending kept the score from being worse than the 4-1 final. So despite outshooting the Thrashers by 114-53 in their three previous meetings, Washington had managed only three of a possible six points in the three previous meetings.
Lehtonen had a .937 save pct. against Washington in the last four meetings between the two teams, but the Caps managed to go 2-1-1.
Volume, volume, turn up the volume.
From previous meetings, it seemed as though Lehtonen often gets better as the game goes along if he's not beaten early. I mentioned that to Brooks Laich after the morning skate, and said Friday's game might be one where the Caps would need a good first period and an early goal or two.
"We'd like to," he replied. "That would be an ideal start. One of the things we'd like to do that we didn't do in the Chicago game is bury our chances. We've been getting chances but we have to make sure they go into the back of the net. A goalie like Lehtonen when he gets on a roll, he just keeps going and going and gets more and more confident. So if we can get one or two on him early and after that keep getting some shots and some traffic we'll be okay."
Bruce Boudreau also has the sense that Lehtonen is like a baseball pitcher that is vulnerable early. Get to him in the second or third inning, because if you don't, he'll be sailing along in the seventh.
"I agree with you," said Boudreau. "The first game we played them that I was here [Dec. 7] we beat them 6-3 and I think we scored three in the first. Once we scored the first one, he was down. And when we scored the second one, he was down further. He's a good goalie that just gets better and better and better. Sometimes the only thing that lets him down is his teammates in front of him. We have to get traffic in front of the net. If you watch other teams against him that are successful, it's because when the puck goes to the net, two or three guys are going to the net like wild men and that's what we have to do against him."
The Caps got 22 shots in the first two period of Friday's game, but only beat Lehtonen once. He made a few strong saves, especially at the end of the second period when the Caps turned up the jets on him a bit. But it wasn't until the third period when they finally began driving the net and penetrating the suspect Atlanta defense that they began to have success. The Caps displayed their resilience once again, rebounding to win a must-win game, another thing Boudreau talked about earlier in the day.
"I think it's real important to show that we can bounce back," he said prior to the game. "That's the No. 1 thing. We have to be able to bounce back and we can't afford any lethargy at this time of the year. If this was game 18 or 20, sometimes you go from a winning streak to having a hard time getting back into it. We're not afforded that luxury. We have to come out and we know what's been successful against them from other teams as well as ourselves. We know their goaltending is great. If we sit back and have 18, 19 shots on them, that's pretty easy for a guy like Lehtonen to stop. So we have to pelt them. If we get 40 shots and can get four goals, hopefully we can hold them to less."
The Caps' fourth goal came on their 44th shot. They added a fifth on an empty-netter. They held the Thrashers to fewer, and they live to fight another day.