The Caps came out flying against the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Place tonight. Just over 1 minute into the game, Alexander Semin took the puck from behind the Senator net and put it into the goal right in front of a stunned Martin Gerber. Semin's goal, his 6th of the season, was unassisted. Slightly over 3:40 later, the Caps power play, which had been dormant their prior three games, came alive when Alexander Ovechkin netted his 27th goal of the season and first goal of the night. Ovechkin's tally was assisted by Mike Green and Semin. At 11:36 of the period, Shoane Morrison took an interference call and the Senators' Daniel Alfredsonn netted his 23rd goal of the season with helpers from Wade Redden and Dany Heatley on the Senators' power play. As the first period ended, the Caps took a 2-1 lead into the locker room. Each team had taken two penalties and the game looked like it was going to be a good, close typical NHL Eastern Conference relatively defensive battle, even though the Caps had out shot the Senators 11-2.
The second period started with the Caps Nicklas Backstrom getting a tripping penalty at 0:43 which the Caps successfully killed off. At about 3:13 Backstrom, just out of the sin bin, made a nifty backhand move to outlet Ovechkin who then executed a textbook give and go with Tom Poti that resulted in the AO getting his second goal of the night (28th of the season) and giving the Caps a 3-1 lead. The Caps then had to kill off a questionable call tripping penalty that Tomas Fleischmann got at 4:06 before the Senators Mike Fisher got a questionable call for holding that went the Caps way at 5:43. After the brief 4-4 that resulted, the Caps power play converted a goal by Michael Nylander that was a beautiful setup by Rookie Nicklas Backstrom. It was one of those plays that Backstrom has made all month where he looks like a seasoned veteran rather than a rookie. It was also his second assist of the night/period. At this point (6:41 in the second period) the Caps were in clear control of the game by a score of 4-1 and in every statistical category but faceoffs won. At 8:49, Shean Donovan was called for holding and the Senators penalty killing unit played with abandon determined not to yield another goal to the resurgent Capitals. In fact a little over 1 minute into the penalty the Senators sprung their team captain, Daniel Alfredsson on a 1-0 breakaway that resulted in Mike Green interfering with him from behind and Alfredsson getting a penalty shot. If tonight's game was going to be storybook for Caps fans, Olie Kolzig would have stoned Alfredsson, but that was not the case; Alfredsson scored on a set of beautiful moves and a pretty goal at 10:06 re-energizing the Senators for much of the rest of the second period. At about the 18:00 mark, the Caps surged in response to a push by the Senators, siezed control of the pace of the game, and played the majority of the final two minutes of the second period in the Senators zone. After a couple of late scoring chances, Nicklas Backstrom got his first goal and third point of the night with assists from Victor Kozlov and Alexander Ovechkin with 00:03 left on the clock for the period (19:57). At the end of two it was Caps 5, Senators 2 and this game was looking more like a Western Conference shootout, but the Capitals still seemed to have things well in hand. The period ended with a hockey fight between the Senators Chris Neal and the Capital's tough guy Donald Breshear that saw "Brash" land numerous good punches in a fight started by Neal before Neal finally responded, they fell to the ice and the refs/linesman could break the heavyweight bout up. In addition to the fight, Brashear played a pretty solid game even though he only had 6:34 of ice time.
To say "all hell broke loose" in the third period would be cliche', but the goal total between both teams in the third period was seven (7). The Senators scored first on a slap shot by Jason Spezza at 4:08 and at 6:41 Mike Fisher scored his first of the night, and the Senators second shorthanded goal of the evening as well, pulling the Senators to within one at 5-4. The pace of play clearly picked up at this point and both teams responded playing exceptionally exciting hockey. It was clear somebody was going to score again but who? At 9:13, during a line change, Tomas Fleschman passed the puck to an oncoming Alexander Semin who drove into the Senators zone, with some excellent stick handling, before pulling up and passing the puck over to Michael Nylander who put the puck into the other side of the net, top shelf, on Gerber and putting the Caps up by two goals once again. At 11:38, Caps penalty killing machine and defensive forward, Dave Steckel was called for holding when the Caps were trapped in their zone for too long and he was pushing to try and break up a well developed play by the Senators awesome first line. On the resulting Senators power play, Mike Fisher netted his 13th of the season for his second goal of the night and the Senators were once again within one at 6-5 Caps. Clearly this game was not your usual defensive one goal Eastern Conference night any longer. The Senators sellout crowd was again energized and it seemed all bets might be off for the Caps. However, a little over a minute later, at 13:46 after getting a pass from Jeff Schultz; Alexander Ovechkin netted his third goal of the night (the third hat trick of his career) putting the Caps two goals up again at 7-5.
Since great teams never say die and never give up, and the Eastern Conference leading Senators are having another great year, that's exactly what they did at this point - "kicking it up another notch" as Emeril would say. The Capitals responded as well, Ovechkin began double-shifting, clearly the adrenalin of the hat trick trumped whatever negative effects his cut thigh was having. At about 17:30, the Senators pulled Martin Gerber for the extra skater and at 17:55 Mike Fisher scored his third of the night, getting his hat trick and making the score 7-6 Caps. The Caps responded and made several good plays, breaking up Senator rushes, and making it hard for the Senators to set up again, despite the fact they again were playing 6 skaters on 5. At just over 19:00, Ovechkin got a bouncing puck took it out and pushed it toward the net looking like he'd get his fourth of the night then, but it hit the outside of the post and icing was called on the Caps. The Senators took the next face off; Olie Kolzig made one of his 16 saves of the night and Ovechkin broke up another Senators play. This time Ovie pushed a solid wrist shot down the center of the ice and scored his fourth of the night; an empty netter at 19:32 as the six Senator skaters on the ice could do nothing but watch him collect his 30th goal of the season.
It wasn't pretty, but it was exciting to watch. The Caps got two points they very much needed on a night when all the teams in the Southeast Division played and the Hurricanes, Panthers and Lightning all lost, which means the Capitals are no longer in the cellar. The sole SE Division Cellar dwellers are now the Tampa Bay Lightning. In the rest of the Eatern Conference, Toronto and the Boston Bruins also lost however the Flyers and the Atlanta Thrashers won. The number 7 and 8 teams in the Eastern Conference are now Buffalo and the Bruins each tied with 40 points. The Caps are five points (2 1/2 games) back with 35 points. The point range between the final four playoff spots in the Conference is 1 game (42 points for # 5 Pittsburgh; 40 points for # 8 Boston); and the Caps have just completed their best month of hockey since the end of the 2002-2003 season.
Despite the final result, there were some things to look to improve tonight, while statistically Tom Poti had a good night (+/- +2; 23:11 of Ice Time and 1 assist), but when he looks at the game tapes he'll likely be unhappy with his play during the first period Alfredsonn goal; the Spezza goal; and the last two goals by Mike Fisher. In particular the two Fisher tip-ins where he gave Fisher enough room in front of Olie to make the plays will likely catch his eye. Since Poti is the team's number one defenseman, even though his offensive play tonight was very good, he got burned a couple of times in the Capitals end. As the number one, mature, go to defensive guy, he's just expected to be held to a higher standard. Mike Green's move, that resulted in Alfredsson's penalty shot probably wasn't a smart penalty either nor were the two other times he got caught too far up and yielded breakaways. But Green is young and other than the Alfredsson move, he got away with his mistakes because Kolzig made the saves. Poti is a big guy as are Schultz, Jurcina and Morrisonn, when those guys are on the ice, nobody should be able to camp in the low or mid-slot in front of the Caps net. On the other hand, Olie Kolzig had a better night than the stats indicate. Statistically, Kolzig stopped 16 of 22 (a SV % of just 0.727); but there were at least three times when he came up with the big save on the Senators big scorers that kept the Caps ahead. On the downside, for the first game in several, the third and fourth line did NOT contribute to the scoring.
When you go in to the Division Leader's home ice and come away with two points, you can't get too negative, but the third period of this game was not the best hockey the Caps have played this month. Bottom line: a two point night on the road - thanks for the excitement Caps!
Next game - home at Verizon Center, against these same Ottawa Senators. Hope to see you ring in the New Year; I'll be there rooting for two points to start 2008. LETS GO CAPS!!!!