Okay Caps fans, if you cruised the news and the blogsphere yesterday and today, you know a few things: 1) the Capitals got off the schneid on Friday evening with a 3-2 OT loss against the New Jersey Devils then they Won in Regulation at home 3-2 against the Buffalo Sabres today; 2)Now 10% of the way into this abbreviated season the Capitals are 1-3-1 with 3 points in 5 games.
Writing this blog after today's win over the Sabres is a LOT different than it would have been had the Capitals lost and given the way the Caps won today's game - the Caps led or the game was tied for all of it except for 5:28 of the first period. Today's game really wasn't as close as the final score indicates, IMO. While the Caps allowed Sabre Tyler Ennis to score first at the 9:34 mark of the first period; the only reason they weren't up by a score of 2 or 3 - 0 at that point was a guy named Ryan Miller. Of course being a Caps fan I'm ignoring the fact that Michal Neuvirth robbed the Sabres once before he let them find the back of the net on one o the few goals lately he'd want back. In any case, from my vantage point, prior to Buffalo scoring the game was already slightly in the Caps favor. They worked hard from the opening puck drop and controlled the flow of the game throughout. I confess, I read the other post game blogs before I started writing this one and I must say upfront, the fact that I write a "fan" blog will come through loud and clear tonight as much as ever when one compares this post to the other post-game summaries today. Simply put, I can't be as critical of any of the Capitals tonight as the other folks in the Capital's blogsphere are being. A win is a win and today the Capitals were tied or led the game all but 5&1/2 minutes. Pull it all up to the 39,000 foot level and at cruising altitude that's being fairly dominant. Sure, the Sabres were without Tomas Vanek, and sure they too are off to a slow start with a 2-3-0 record right now; but those guys in Blue and White unis on the other side of the ice facing the Capitals were a full blown NHL team led by an All-Star who won the Vezina just a couple of seasons ago. So there's no reason to at like the Capitals should have won this game by just showing up and playing half-assed pond hockey. They shouldn't have; couldn't have and didn't.
Was it a flawless game - no. However, it was the first game this season the Capitals showed us they know how to play with and extend a lead. It was a game where the Capitals built on the start to righting their "ship" that they started on Friday in Newark. It was a game where they played their new coaches system. This game wasn't won by Bruce Boudreau's Capitals; or Dale Hunter's Capitals; it wasn't even won by Alex Ovechkin's Capitals. This game was won by Adam Oates' Capitals - and that too was an important step. A step that was sorely needed as they get ready for a two week period where they have seven (7) games to play. A game basically every other night, including three road games and two games against the Penguins (currently 3-2-0); one game against the Senators (currently 3-1-1); one game against a hungry Flyers team (currently 2-4-0); two games against the enigmatic Maple Leafs (currently 2-3-0) and that ends with a Saturday Night home game against the Panthers on February 9th.
So in my view it's great the Capital, one and all who played today, had a game you can build on. "Even" John Carlson who in other blogs it is being pointed out made the mistake that led to the first goal had a good game in my opinion. Carlson played 23:18 and many of his 26 shifts were tough ones. He finished the game with a stat line of 1 SOG; 1 missed shot; 1 hit; 2 giveaways, 2 takeaways; and 1 blocked shot - his +/- for the game was 0. Ribero, Ward and Chimera all had 2 point games and finished the game +2. The Caps goal scorers were Ovechkin (vintage AO one-timer on the powerplay); and Erskine (with a great setup from Ward and Chimera on play that Ribero started); after Ward opened the scoring (assisted by Chimera and Ribero).
For my two cents and to my great delight, the best player for the Capitals on the ice today was Mike Ribero. Ribs showed his awesome puck sense all day long. He was in the Sabres passing lanes more than they themselves were today; and once he got the puck he turned the play around so fast he and his linemates were often exactly where Lindy Ruff did not want them to be. Ribero also went 64% in the faceoff circle today and that didn't hurt his line's ability to reek a little havoc now and then.
Perhaps best of all, I'm pretty sure that the 8-83-15 line was broken up for good at the end of first period and while I really, really like both Beagle and Crabb, I just don't like them on the first or second line or whatever they are when AO is on their left wing on this team. That said, the "experiment" did accomplish something because today is the first game I can remember Ovi genuinely looking like he was having fun playing hockey at Verizon Center since October 2011 (yep that would be while Gabby was coaching the Capitals.) Ovechkin, also clearly played like a guy who at least so far has "bought in" to Adam Oates' system and the energy level and willingness to get into the spots on the ice where it can sometimes be painful though productive - well he did that the entire game. The only mistake I felt AO made was hitting the post, instead of getting his second goal of the game into an empty net. The 8-19-20 line looked very, very good and happy to be together in the final two periods today and played like one expects the first line on a potential playoff team should play.
Turning to Nicklas Backstrom, the Swedish Flash's game was one that you can build on too, IMO. While his stat line was respectable and he too played with solid energy; better yet late in the third period he again appeared to have glue on his stick whenever he needed it carrying the puck. Speaking of Jay Beagle, I don't think the the Caps have had a guy with the success he had today in defensive zone faceoffs since they traded Dave Steckel. Today "Beags" went 12-3 (3%) in the faceoff circle and took the majority, if not all of the defensive zone draws in the third period - SWEET.
The Blue Line Corps was generally solid as well. Mike Green looked a good or better today then he did on Friday night - "Game Over" led the Caps in TOI today with 27:58; got a primary assist on Ovechkin's goal with a laser setup pass and two blocked shots. He and Karl Alzner made a solid first defensive pairing. John Erskine played 22 shifts for 20:56 TOI and had 3 blocked shots to go with his goal and was paired most often with John Carlson, and they seemed to compliment one and other well. Even third pairing Kundratek and Schultz played fairly well. Schultz still needs to get more physicality into his game IMO but in his 11 shifts and 9:46 TOI he had 3 blocked shots. Oh and that Michal Neuvirth guy - well he had a 0.917 SV% stopping 22 of 24 SOG and came up big on at least three occasions where you could see the saves on highlight reels. No longer do I have any doubts; the 6'1" 24 year old Czech has what it takes to be a number one goaltender in the NHL, he played great today.
Now looking to this upcoming week. This week, the Caps travel to that land in the great white north - Canada - home of Labatts Blue Beer, eh and the cutting, cold winds off the Arctic tundra. They play Ottawa on Tuesday and Toronto on Thursday, before coming home to face the Flyers at Verizon Center on Friday Night and then the Sunday NBC game against the Penguins also here in the District. It's not an easy stretch but then no NHL team has many easy stretches this season. If they continue to play with the energy level they had today and they continue to work out the little things in adapting to this new system, they should have a good record by next week this time; am I saying it will be a 5-3-1 record - probably not but I'm now willing to think it's possible. The truth is the Cap's regular season is 10% over today. That can be looked at as "only" 10% or "already" 10% but at the end of the next two weeks, the Capitals regular season will be 20% complete and in a normal season that would be 17 games in, usually around mid-November. The discussion about whether or not the "sample" size is large enough to make some reasonable extrapolations and draw some conclusions will be moot. It will also mean there will "only" be 38 games and 10 weeks left for the Caps to make the playoffs; at that point, there really won't be a lot more time for anyone to still learn the Adam Oates system. I'm a fan and an eternal optimist, so I'm betting the Capitals won't need any more time to learn the system by then.