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. The idea is to give you, the reader, a full meal of details and analysis from the most recent game.
Enjoy your breakfast:
GAME 5: CAPS 3, SABRES 2
What a difference playing with a lead makes.
In the Caps’ first four games of the season, they led for a grand total of 2 minutes and 32 seconds. From the time defenseman John Erskine scored Sunday against Buffalo to the final horn, they led for 36:42.
“It was fun. It was fun,” left wing Jason Chimera said. “It was nice, definitely better playing with a lead than coming from behind.”
Spending so much time coming from behind this season, players pressed and often made mistakes as a result. Chimera said he and his teammates relaxed a little too much with a two-goal lead Sunday, but once it was tight they figured out how to hold on.
Getting a lead was a confidence booster for a group that needed something to go right.
“It’s a good feeling when you’re always up,” right wing Joel Ward said. “You never want to be behind and chasing, but I thought we did good things – a lot of skating – that will carry over, and you know, we executed on a few good things today, and we played well defensively.”
It’s funny how breaks start to go a team’s way when it’s playing smart hockey. Some of it is coincidence and some of it is making breaks. See: Ward going to the net to put in Chimera’s rebound.
“We were working hard and getting to the front of the net,” right wing Joey Crabb said. “It was a good bounce, but we were putting pucks on net and had guys in the front. When you do that, you get goals. It’s nice to be rewarded once.”
Alex Ovechkin scored the game-winner and led the way by forechecking, chasing down loose pucks and racing back to cut off odd-man rushes. As Chimera said: “When he moves his feet, he’s the best player in the world.”
But the captain didn’t want to talk much about himself. Asked about breaking a four-game goal drought, Ovechkin made it about the Caps.
“Well, we finally win. So it’s much, much better for us right now,” he said. “No pressure to our shoulders right now. I think we play really well in New Jersey. We set the tone, we give them chance only short-handed opportunities and they use it. And I think five-on-five we play much better right now.”
Ovechkin said he felt “pretty good. All the games I feel comfortable. I feel my skates, I feel the stick.” Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers (6-foot-8, 225 pounds) sure felt him, too, on a big hit.
And even though he didn’t score until the third period, Ovechkin was noticeable for the first time this season.
“I thought Ovi played good today,” coach Adam Oates said. “He obviously could have had a couple in the first, hit Joey in the back, had a chance in the second and scored a big goal for us and then could have had an empty netter. I would hope that he would look at it like ‘Yeah I had a lot of good chances.’ ”
Oates’ line-jugging, taking Ovechkin away from Crabb and Jay Beagle, worked, too. The rookie NHL head coach finally decided to reunite a line from last season: Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer.
“I thought they played good,” Oates said. “I thought they were fine before that so maybe it just gave them a little extra.”
Mike Ribeiro centered Chimera and Ward, Beagle centered Wojtek Wolski and Crabb and Mathieu Perreault centered Matt Hendricks and Eric Fehr.
Chimera, Ribeiro and Ward were particularly effective against Buffalo.
“Well, Ribs is so dynamic that his patience is unbelievable. He holds onto to the puck and not just his plays, but he works hard, too,” Ward said. “He’s not the biggest guy, obviously, but he wins battles out there, and I think that’s key for Chimmer and I. That’s no secret.
“We’ve just got to go find and get the pucks and give it to him and let him do his little thing and we can try and get open. So far, it’s been working pretty good.”
Don’t be surprised if those lines remain the same for Tuesday night’s game at the Ottawa Senators.
Michal Neuvirth’s performance in goal should not go unnoticed. The 24-year-old wasn’t as brilliant as Friday night at New Jersey, but he didn’t have to be. Neuvirth made 22 saves on 24 shots, some of them big as the Caps held on to a lead.
“Played very well, really well,” Oates said. “Gave us a chance to win, that’s his job.”
Neuvirth in his career against the Senators is 4-0-0 with a 1.55 goals-against average and .945 save percentage. Any doubt as to who’s starting Tuesday? I think not.
Want to make the penalty kill look roughly a billion times better? Stop taking penalties.
The Caps did that Sunday. After 25 minors in their first four games (that’s an average of over 6 a game), they took just two against Buffalo.
“At least they weren’t coming in clumps, and we didn’t give up a five-on-three,” Brouwer said. “So we’re going in the right direction right now.”
It’s the first game of the season Washington did not give up a power-play goal. Also the first time it won the special teams battle (1-0).
“It’s been like that since the beginning of the year and I guess the last few years is special teams will make a big difference in games,” Ribeiro said. “Five-on-five there’s not much goals. There’s one or two a game, and special teams, the goaltender has to be big and once again Neuvy was big for us. But the main thing is that I think we learned how to play and how we’re supposed to play to win games.”