Today's NHL match up between the Washington Capitals and the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, PA was a "character game" for Washington. Going into the game, the Caps knew they needed to all "bring their A game" and try and take it to the Flyers. No talk of injuries, no lament of their defeat at the hands of the Flyers in last season's playoffs; the Capitals could clearly demonstrate they are in the leagues' elite, or they could demonstrate, they are just another pretty good team.
The Capitals came out for the start of the game ready to play getting 8 shots on goal during the first 3 1/2 minutes of the game (including 1 2:00 minute 5-4) power play while the Flyers only logged 1 shot on Brent Johnson. Unfortunately at 4:29, Joffery Lupul scored for the Flyers on their second shot on goal, when he put a slapshot past Johnson. This first goal, what ended up being the only goal of the period resulted from Shoane Morrisonn getting caught up ice and Lupul giving Hershey call-up Alexandre Giroux a lesson in how to play one on one at the NHL level. A short time later at 7:38 Donald Brashear and Riley Cote decided to "mix it up" in a short bout (his 198th of his career) in a fight that Brashear clearly got the best of. Less then a minute after the Brashear/Cote fight, Kimmo Timonen tripped up Alexander Ovechkin and the Caps went onto the power play, their second of the game. However, Flyers goalie Antero Niittymaki once again was the Flyers' best penalty killer making several saves including one that robbed Ovechkin on a rocket fast one timer with an equally "cat like" glove save. After 11 minutes the Capitals had notched 6 scoring chances to the Flyers 1 but Niittymaki had frustrated them all. The Caps got their third power play chance of the game when Lupul cross-checked Matt Bradley and was whistled off to the "Sin Bin." During the third period the Caps finally got "dirty" and put a ton of traffic in front of the net, however once again Nittymaki miraculously kept them off the scoreboard. After 13:30 of the first period had been played the Capitals had outshot the Flyers 22-2 but somehow trailed in the game 1-0. By the 14:00 mark the Flyers were beginning to look a little frustrated while the Caps continued to play what might well have been their best period of hockey so far this season. Unfortunately the Caps were the ones who had nothing to show for their efforts, despite outshooting the Flyers 23-5 to that point in the game. Brashear was called for a cheap penalty with 2 seconds left in the period, the kind of a call that wouldn't have been made on anybody else on either team except for maybe Riley Cote. When will the officiating in the NHL get more, well everything - consistent, even-handed, or just generally better? It's not like these NHL officials aren't fairly paid and are just amateurs who are moonlighting. Despite having clearly outplayed the Flyers in the first period: shots on goal: Caps 27, Flyers 7; hits: Caps 12, Flyers 7; penalties: Caps 2, Flyers 4. Alex Ovechkin - 6 shots, 3 hits, time on ice 9:36, robbed by Antero Nittymaki at least 3 times. Score at the end of the first period: Caps 0, Flyers 1; go figure.
The second period started with the Flyers having a 1:57 second power play and no doubt determined to make their mark against a team that was outplaying them in front of their home crowd. The Capitals appeared determined to keep up what to that point had been a clinic in forechecking on the Flyers but first they had to kill off their second minor penalty of the game. Once again the Caps basically outplayed the Flyers but they made a couple of mistakes and the Flyers made them pay. First at 15:11 Jeff Carter scored an even strength goal to put the Flyers up 2-0. Then at 16:05, with Flyer defenseman Ossi Vaananen in the penalty box for interference, Jeff Carter scored his 24th of the season, and it was an beautiful "shorty" where he just deked the pants off Johnnie while on a 1-0 breakaway, and put the puck left top shelf off his backhand. The entire thrid goal started because Mike Green inadvertantly gave away the puck. During the second period the Caps outshot the Flyers 14 -7; they also outhit the Flyers 10 -8. Overall for the game at the end of 2 periods it was shots on goal: Caps 39, Flyers 14; Hits Caps 22, Flyers 17; Score Caps 0, Flyers 3.
Through the end of the second period, the Caps had played a game that ranged from excellent (first period) to fairly good (worst minutes of the second period). The difference was a combination of several things. Antero Niittymaki performance through the first two periods ranged from was flawless to superhuman through the first 40 minutes of the game, for difference #1. Difference number two was the fact that while the Caps had 39 shots during the first two periods, many were first shots and many were made without any Capitals in the low slot creating traffic and looking for tightly kept rebounds. Difference number three was while the Caps weren't making many mistakes, when they did make mistakes, the Flyers made them pay for it. Unlike the first period where the Caps clearly outplayed the Flyers, in the second period, depsite the shots on goal differential, the Flyers were much more engaged in the game and had more scoring chances. Another piece of bad news for the Capitals was that early in the period, it became apparent that Caps Defenseman Tom Poti had left the game with an injury, an apparent re-injury to his groin during the first period. That was a tough break for the Caps given the belief that Mike green still isn't back to being 100% and through two periods he had already played 22:35 TOI. Things didn't go quite as well during the third period.
At the start of the third period, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau made a change in goal to Jose Theodore and just 39 seconds into the period he was tested and came up with the needed save to let everyone know he was ready. Things still looked like this was going to be a tightly played game. While during the first minute of the period it did become clear that the Flyers were determined to put the game fully away, it was also clear the Caps wanted to fight back despite trailing by three goals and facing a hot goalie. The Caps started driving hard, putting even more forechecking in the Flyers end and trying to exert pressure on Niitymaki. Of course once again after 4:44 the Caps made another mistake (actually 2) and the Flyers' Scott Hartell made them pay for it. Score Caps 0, Flyers 4. Thankfully, right after that the Flyers came out and gave the puck away with Brooks Laich on the doorstep and all the sudden Niittymaki's phenominal shutout bid was gone. Score Caps 1, Flyers 4. However, that was it for the Caps. The Flyers had other ideas on the other hand. At 7:29 with the Flyers on the power play because of a Shoane Morrisonn cross checking penalty, Scott Hartnell scored his second goal of the game. Score: Caps 1, Flyers 5. Then at 9:19 with the Flyers on a 5-3 powerplay, Simon Gagne netted his 17th goal of the season. Score: Caps 1, Flyers 6. At the 12:03 mark of the third period, Riley Cote decided he wanted to go for round 2 with Donald Brashear, while not as much of a beat down as round 1, once again Brashear got the better of the Flyers enforcer. At 16:25, Hartnell got his hat trick assisted by Lupul and Carter. Score: Capitals 1, Flyers 7. The final fight of the evening at 17:54 was Matt Bradley vs. Josh Gratton, a bout that Gratton won handily. The Flyers offense ended up the night quite well: Scott Hartnell led the charge with 3 goals and 1 assist for four points; Jeff Carter also had four points (2 goals, 2 assists); as did Joffery Lupul (1 goal, 3 asssists). The three stars for the game were 1) Niittymaki, 2) Hartnell, and 3) Carter (who along with his 4 points was also +5 on the night).
In summary, the first period portended the games final outcome. Anytime a team takes 25 shots (a new record for the Caps) and doesn't get a goal (or four), it's setting the stage for a disappointing defeat. What's worse is that the Caps couldn't keep things together and in the end Niittymaki didn't even have to come close to stealing the game for the Flyers. Tomorrow is apparently a rest day for the Caps, with a little luck the injury to Tom Poti won't be too serious and some other Caps (like Sergei Federov) will be getting better as well. When they watch film from this game, the Caps will need to take a lot of notes. If they are to make a run deep into the playoffs, it's likely their road to the Stanley Cup will need to go through Philadelphia. The Flyers seemed to know that during this game and put the Caps on notice that they respect the Caps and will not let up at all whenever these two teams meet. The Caps could also learn a little from the Flyers as to how to use their imposing size to their advantage better. The Flyers crash the net every chance they get and they love to get gritty in the low slot. The Caps on the other hand look for more puck movement and tend to be in the mid-slot when they are in front of the net. The Flyers adjusted well to this often clogging the passing lanes and using the extra space between the Caps and the net to block shots and box out the Caps forwards. Clearly the next time these two teams meet the Caps will need to make some adjustments in this regard.
For Caps Fans, the only good thing about this afternoon was the Bruins beat the Hurricanes as well, so the Cps remain 8 points up in first place in the Southeast DIvision.
Next up, the New York Rangers, Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. Tuesday's game will be the second of four this season against the Rangers; the last time the Caps met the Rangers was November 8th at Verizon when they lost 3-1. Hopefully, they will bounce back from this game and tie the series up at MSG.