As I sat down to watch the Caps take on the Hurricanes, I was comforted in my knowledge that so far it had been a good weekend for the teams I was rooting for.-The Caps won in Toronto last night; Carolina lost last night; the Hershey Bears won #10 in a row last night; the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Giants today; and the Johnstown Chiefs (yes of "Slapshot" fame) beat the Cincinnati Cyclones 3 - 2 last night as well. I sat down with a nice French Made "Frambiose" Belgian Style beer and began to watch the Caps take on the Hurricanes, or perhaps since they were wearing their semantically incorrect new third jerseys they should be referred to as the Carolina "Full Gales" today. If you haven't seen the Carolina third/alternate sweater before it looks as shown in this photo. Any Mariner worth half his or her salt knows that the symbol for a hurricane is two red flags with black inset squares flown one above the other; yet, the 'Cane's third jersey only has one such flag as shown. I guess one of two things could account for that situation a) the Hurricane is so windy it has blown the other flag off the hockey stick, but since that doesn't really appear to be the case, b) they just don't really know what the symbol for a Hurricane is or they don't care. Given the Hurricane's lackluster record so far this season, I'm thinking management in Raleigh has other things on their mind, and they don't have any Merchant Mariners on the Management team. Well those were my thoughts at the beginning of the game.
As the game wore on and the Caps stayed sharp and in the game, I could only get happier. Sure the Caps were down 1-0 at the end of the first period, after Carolina scored first for the first time in 13 games when Ray Whitney controlled Joni Pitkanen's rebound and stuffed it past an sprawling Jose Theodore at the 13: 18 mark of the first period. But the Caps hung in there and they were playing with heart and passion, despite having called up yet another member of the Hershey Bears for this game - Alexandre Giroux. The following players on the ice tonight were on the Hershey Bears roster at the start of this NHL season: Giroux, Keith Aucoin, Karl Alzner, Sami Lepisto, Bryan Helmer, and Sean Collins - 2 forwards and 4 defenseman. Despite that at the end of 40 minutes of hockey, the Caps were engaged in the game and they were out shooting the 'Canes 27 - 19, and were in the thick of things as they say. At the tail end of the second period, with Carolina on the power play, Alex Ovechkin, the Great Eight was pulled down from behind by Joni Pitkanen on a breakaway and given a penalty shot. Unfortunately, at 19:58 of the period OV was stopped on that attempt - the fifth penalty shot of his career in regulation by Hurricanes goaltender Michael Leighton and the period ended with score still 1-0 hurricanes.
The third period started with the Caps skating hard and dominating the Hurricanes. The Caps got a 5 on 3 man advantage at 7:33 in when Ryan Bayda was whistled off for Delay of Game (puck over the glass) with Joni Pitkanen already in the penalty box for a hooking call he received at 6:25. The Caps failed to score with the the two man advantage but right as Pitkanen had exited the box Alexander Ovechkin made a beutiful feed to Nicklas Backstrom who scored his eighth goal of the season. Backstrom whipped a lightning quick wrist shot top shelf past a stunned and helpless Leighton that knocked the 'Canes goalies' water bottle off the top of net - just like you would ring a bell. At that point, Caps fans watching the game everywhere had to be thinking - okay we have at least one point tonight now lets get the second one and see if we can hold these guys off the board too. Things continued to look that was surely going to be the story for another couple of minutes. Indeed at around the 14:30 mark, during a shift when it looked like the entire team consisted of Hershey Bears on the ice, the Caps dominated the play and held the puck in the 'Canes end for over 30 seconds. Only Leighton's great play kept the Hurricanes in the game through the first 15 minutes of the third period. Then the wheels sort of came off and it didn't seem obvious to those watching the game why that occurred. However at the 15:51 mark, Eric Staal, who was playing a strong game, dug out the puck from behind the Capitals goal. Staal then moved to the front and fired a backhander past goalie Jose Theodore on the short side, surely a goal that JT60 would like to have back. Theodore yielded the post and left a nice gap for Staal to put the puck past him. Then just 2:07 later at 17:58 Ray Whitney scored his second tally of the net to give the Hurricanes an insurance goal with only 2:02 left to play. That goal too was one that Theodore probably wants back.
However, the real story tonight isn't so much as the Capitals loosing the game as Hurricane's goaltender Michael Leighton beat them. The Caps outshot the 'Canes 39 - 25; the Caps and 'Canes were almost even in hits Caps 28 - 'Canes 29; Caps had 6 takeaways to the Hurricanes 3. yes the Hurricanes dominated the faceoff circle winning 63% of the faceoffs but the Caps only yielded 2 giveaways as compared to the Hurricane's 5. As far as disciplined hockey, the Caps only took 4 minor penalties to the Hurricane's 7 and you almost have to discount Brooks Laich's hooking penalty with 00:04 left to play in the game. In short, despite being plagued with injuries and playing the second of back to back away games against a division rival at home - who was playing the second of back to back home games - the Caps played well enough to win. If not for the stellar play of Michael Leighton, the Caps might be 3-0 in their series so far against the Hurricanes instead of 2-1. That said the Caps first line was -2 on the night and the second line finished the night -1. While straight +/- ratings have their limitations, all three goals by the Hurricanes were even strength goals. Perhaps it was the extra wear and tear of the travel or the extra wear and tear of the high number of minutes being played by the number one and two lines and the number one defensive pairing because of all the injuries, but during the last five minutes of the game the Caps could make something happen. Or perhaps it was just great goaltending by Leighton during the prior five minutes that got them wondering what they would have to do to get a puck past the guy at even strength. Who knows in the end the bottom line was a "no point night" for the Capitals.
Interestingly, in a quirk of NHL scheduling the Caps now do not face the Hurricanes, who are currently 4 points behind them in the Southeast Division standings until March 3rd. During the last three weeks of the regular season the Capitals have 3 games against the Hurricanes and eight (8) of their final 13 regular season games against Southeast Division rivals.
As a side note, tonight in Hershey, the Hershey Bears won their 11th game in a row in front of shutout goaltending by Daren Machesney. Tonight's performance was Machesney's third shutout he's backstopped during the bear's current 11-game win streak. "Cheeser" faced and stopped 30 shots tonights from the Norfolk Admirals. How's that for a "WOW". The three stars of this evening's game in Hershey were: 1) Daren Machesney, 2. Greg Amadio, 3. Steve Pinizzotto (Who was recently recalled from ECHL affiliate South Carolina). The 11 game winning streak is an all time record for the Hershey Bears - a club with a 70 year history, so that's something, eh'?
Next up for the Caps - the RED HOT Boston Bruins home at the Verizon Center in DC on Wednesday evening. My STH partner Tom has the tickets so I'll be watching the game on Comcast and "Rockin' the Red" Here in Bristow. The Bruins have been awesome so far this season and lead the Eastern Conference with 40 points and a 18-4-4 record despite having played just 26 games.
LETS GO CAPS!!!!!!!!!!!!!