Wow. Talk about your 180 degree turnaround.
Last night's home opener featured a team that we all hoped existed but had yet to see in the regular season. They seemed confident, made few mistakes, and actually seemed to connect as a team. No more dress rehearsal, this was the real thing.
It's really hard to do good news/bad news today, because there was really very little wrong with how they played. It wasn't a perfect game, but it was as close as I think they can get at this point in the season, and I would expect them to only improve as the lines start to gel and people get more comfortable together. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's going to be a very fun season to watch if Alex and Alex 2.0 can continue to light the lamp. They rarely have a boring or ugly goal between the two of them...and congrats to Semin on his first NHL hat trick!
Defensive coverage all around was highly improved from Thursday night and even from the preseason. The defensemen played very well overall, but I was impressed by how the whole team responded - odd-man rushes were generally shut down as the Caps gave the opposition very little room to maneuver, forechecking was strong and effective, and the penalty kill continued to be impressive despite allowing one goal. Carolina is a fast, puck-moving team and they were never really able to get their game going thanks to the positioning and awareness of the home team.
Things I Watched For:
- Discipline - The Caps followed up their 3-penalty night on Thursday with only 5 last night. They did allow one goal while shorthanded, but that's going to happen sometimes and it was a pretty good shot from the point that beat a screened Olie Kolzig. The Caps responded with 2 power play goals of their own and got a third on a delayed penalty call, so all is forgiven.
- Carolina Goaltending - Cam Ward started in net for the 'Canes, which came as a complete surprise to me and the 50 media outlets predicting that Grahame would be the starter. Despite the chants of "Ward you suck!" from the 16,622 fans in attendance, I thought he played very well last night. I have kind of an inappropriate crush on Ward and would love it if he went to a less evil team...
- Energy - The Caps did come out strong, evidently pumped by the home crowd and were able to pretty much carry that energy through the entire game, with the exception of the first half of the second period. They were hitting, shooting, and forechecking with a vigor that was definitely missing in the season opener.
- Lines - I loved the lines Hanlon threw out there. The reunion of Clark with Ovie and Zubie was a welcome move by the coach that seemed to ignite the other two, but the other three lines were also very effective. Semin, Klepis and Fata added a second offensive punch, while Brashear, Sutherby and Laich proved to be a firestarter line with their grit and several scoring chances in their own right. The fourth line of Zednik, Beech and Fleischmann also had some good opportunities and featured some pretty passing plays that given time may eventually connect. Having said that, the return of our injured threesome (Pettinger, Bradley, and Gordon) is hopefully not too far off, so we'll have to wait and see.
Now, not everything was perfect - the 'Canes came out firing in the second period, scoring two goals in a span of less than four minutes and generally wreaking havoc in front of Olie. In the future the Caps have to get better at clearing out the front of the net. During the first ten minutes of the middle frame, 'Canes were planting their bodies in front of or around Olie for the screen or the chip in shot. That's something the Caps need to learn to do themselves and I started to see it in the third period, with players getting rebounds and those important second and third shots.
I would also love to see the quick back-to-back goals stop - that's two games in a row that the Caps have fallen behind after a brief flurry of offense from the other team, and it shows how important the shift immediately following a goal is.
Everyone knows about the dynamic Russian duo and their amazing 5-goal performance last night, so I'd like to present my three stars of the night not named Alexander:
1) Chris Clark - he was the third star at Verizon Center, the third star on Caps Postgame Live, and there's a reason. He played well on Thursday, too, but he was instrumental in creating plays and moving the puck while clearing the ice for the Alex's and was rewarded with three points on the night. He also was the first one in to defend Ovie after he was kneed by Tim Gleason - Ovie went down and Clark literally came flying into the corner and jumped on Gleason's back. Luckily Ovie walked away with little more than a boo-boo on his pinky finger and Clark continued to earn the respect of his team and the fans.
2) Brian Sutherby - I'm really enjoying watching Sutherby develop as a Capital. It was only the beginning of last year when he was taking stupid penalties and making costly mistakes on the ice, but as the season went on he started to mature right before our eyes and has improved his game immensely. That continued last night, as he and his linemates created energy and scoring chances with their gritty play, particularly in the second and third periods.
3) Dainius Zubrus - Zubie was all over the ice last night, hitting people, shooting the puck and generally creating mayhem for the visiting 'Canes. He opened up the ice even more and was a physical presence all night long - guess he's feeling better.
Honorable Mention - Kris Beech, Brian Pothier, Olie Kolzig and Rico Fata for their individual performances, and the whole damn team for just a great all-around effort in their defeat of the Stanley Cup Champs (who are now 0-3 on the season...)
And now for the Jackass award, it's a tie:
1) Tim Gleason - I saw the replay, and that knee-on-knee hit was definitely intentional. Hopefully he'll have a bullseye on his back the rest of the season. Actually, let's throw the whole Carolina team in here; the end of the third period featured them at their gooniest, with cheap shots coming rapid-fire against our boys. That's just so Atlanta...
2) Whatever Hurricane joker snuck into the Caps dressing room and greased Clymer's skates - the guy couldn't stay on his feet all night long (although he still played pretty well).
Alexander Semin on a 3-goal night: "I scored three goals tonight, but I could have scored more."
Alex Ovechkin after 2 goals and 15 shots: "First period, I played awful. Terrible. Second period, I told myself: Shoot everything."
Alex Ovechkin about the kneeing incident: "I don't know what happened, but he play not fair. I just have move and he hits me."
'Canes coach Laviollete lays down the law: "We're kidding ourselves. We're taking bad penalties instead of doing the work. We're mouthing off instead of doing the work. And selfish acts are costing us games...[i]t needs to be corrected, and it will be."
Quote of the Night:
Hanlon on his Russian Superstars: "I don't rate them one and two...[a]fter I thank God at night for having a great wife, I say a quiet prayer for having those two guys on my team. Olie usually gets in on that one, as well."
For more in-depth, learned (and slightly less biased) coverage, check out the big boys:
Washington Times 2
Semin #1 Star on NHL.com
That's it for now...the Caps are off until Thursday, so I may not be posting as much this week, but I'll try to check in if there's any news to report or if I come up with something else to rant about.