Morning After: Canadiens 4, Capitals 1

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Welcome to the newest feature here on Capitals Watch: Morning After. It’s a shortened season, so there’s less time to pick over the details of each game, but as Brooks Laich said recently, it also means: “it’s not like the NFL, but in a way that every single game is gonna be scrutinized so much more.”

So, welcome. I’m essentially stealing my colleague Rich Campbell’s “Initial Thoughts” blog idea, renaming it and doing it with the Caps instead of the Redskins. My hope is that this can serves as something of a postgame notebook, with analysis that you can’t get in the paper or in online stories.

GAME 3: CANADIENS 4, CAPS 1

Karl Alzner and John Carlson showed they could be a stellar shutdown pairing in last year’s playoffs. Being so good defensively helped earn Carlson a six-year, $23.8 million contract in the offseason.

These past two games have not been their finest moments, and Thursday night would be hard to surpass for struggles. Alzner and Carlson were on the ice for all four Montreal goals.

It was so bad that Alzner went to assistant coach Calle Johansson and asked for something to change.

I was saying to Calle that it’s just not going the right way for us. We’re not getting the bounces,” Alzner said. “Plays that I would normally do an easy poke check isn’t happening. And it’s for the both of us. You can’t have two guys where things aren’t going their way together.

And so I kind of mentioned it to Calle between the second and third that we’ve got to do something here, either a switch or take us down a little bit because we weren’t contributing to anything good for the team.”

It’s hard to argue that. So in the third period Johansson and coach Adam Oates paired Alzner with Mike Green and Carlson with Tom Poti.

They’ve been married to each other for a long time now,” Oates said of Alzner and Carlson. “Just kind of wanted to split them up. And the score kind of forced us to do that just to give Greenie a chance to see Karl and see what happened there. Just looking at combinations at that point.”

Oates said he wouldn’t hesitate to put them back together, but I wouldn’t expect it for Friday night’s game at the New Jersey Devils. Why not try something else? The old pairings just weren’t working.

***

In 180 minutes of hockey this season, the Caps have led for 2 minutes and 32 seconds. They’ve been tied for 54:43. And, here’s the kicker, they’ve trailed for 122:45. That’s mind-boggling.

Several players pointed out Thursday night that just playing with a lead could do wonders.

We need a good bounce,” left wing Wojtek Wolski said. “I think we’ve come out pretty strong the last couple first periods. And we just need a bounce. To get that lead would really help us.”

With the score tied, the Caps look like a team scared to make a mistake. Playing catch-up, they press and mistakes happen. It snowballs.

It makes it easier to play when you have that one-goal cushion. You know, you can play… a little less tense,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “You’re not as tight out there. You’re not as tense. You know, worried about tiny little plays. You can go out there and clear your head and play hockey, so playing in front of anyone, I’ll tell you, is a little bit easier. But it’s still not easy, and we’ve got to find a way to get in front.”

Putting an emphasis on scoring first is cliché: Everyone wants to score first. But for a team that’s as “fragile” – Oates’ word – as Washington is, it’s almost necessary.

That would be great. A little bit of a confidence booster would be nice for all of us right now,” Alzner said. “We definitely need the first goal, maybe even the second goal if we can get it and then just get everyone’s spirits up.”

***

Brouwer went off on his teammates after the loss, praising a few guys along the way.

One guy showing up to play. We had 26 playing hard every night,” Brouwer said. “There was a few guys: Matty P., Joey Crabb, Matt Hendricks showed up tonight and that was about it. From there, I don’t have a whole lot for you.”

So, we’re all in agreement that Mathieu Perreault (who rebounded from a dumb penalty on his first shift), Crabb (who scored a goal) and Hendricks (who fought again) showed up. Joel Ward and Jay Beagle, too. And it’s probably a good thing when Poti, Roman Hamrlik and Tomas Kundratek go unnoticed.

Not a good thing when Green isn’t noticeable despite playing a game-high 25:44 or Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom are never close to being factors.

That must change, and fast, for the Caps to start winning.

***

If you were counting, Oates’ Ovechkin to right wing experiment lasted eight periods before he was put back on the left side for the third against Montreal. Don’t expect the superstar captain to go back to left wing permanently, though.

Oates was looking for a spark with his team down four.

I know it’s what he’s used to. I still think he should be a right winger,” Oates said. “But I also want him to be happy and get something out of his game.”

Where to start with that? Well, if Ovechkin isn’t “happy” at right wing, the patience needed to keep him there will have to be long. The Caps are already the last team in the NHL without a point, and they need Ovechkin to score.

Perhaps a better question is: Will Ovechkin on right wing actually work? Oates saw Ilya Kovalchuk enjoy success last year in New Jersey after making the change and observed that Marty St. Louis shifted over to the left wing a few years ago in Tampa Bay without needing too many games to adjust.

One of Ovechkin’s problems could be the rotating cast of characters to play with him and Backstrom. First it was Marcus Johansson, then Hendricks for a bit, then Wolski, then back to Johansson.

It remains to be seen who will start with Backstrom and Ovechkin at the Devils. But at some point the stars need to take over, no matter who they’re playing with.

You want them to produce every night,” Oates said. “They play the lions’ share of the minutes. We want that right now.”

***

Michal Neuvirth allowed four goals on 22 shots, but he could maybe be faulted on one of them. The five-on-three goal by Tomas Plekanec was a bad bounce, and so was Andrei Markov’s power-play goal less than a minute later.

The Brian Gionta goal happened when Carlson couldn’t stop Rene Bourque and Alzner left Gionta wide open.

I felt good in the first. I thought I made big, key saves,” Neuvirth said. “But a tough start in the second period, give up early two goals. That second period was just a nightmare.”

It could’ve been worse than 4-1.

I thought he played very well,” Oates said. “Gave us a chance.”

That said, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if Oates went back to Braden Holtby for the second half of back-to-backs. How he plays could determine who starts Sunday against the Buffalo Sabres.

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