Welcome back to the Morning After, your home for Washington Capitals game analysis in this shortened season.
GAME 22: CAPS 7, PANTHERS 1 (10-11-1, 21 points, 4th in Southeast, 12th in East, 5 points out of playoff spot)
The Florida Panthers aren’t a very good team. They were missing seven regulars: Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall, Stephen Weiss, Ed Jovanovski, Dmitry Kulikov, Mike Weaver and Jose Theodore. And they had the most nightmarish of nightmare starts, with rookie goaltender Jacob Markstrom giving up two goals on the first two Caps shots.
“I don’t like to hang out anybody to dry, but obviously I don’t think Jacob Markstrom was ready to play tonight,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “And the ball started to roll.”
It was a remarkable, almost unbelievable start. Two goals on two shots, then two more on six shots against backup Scott Clemmensen. Within 8:10, 10 different Caps players had at least a point.
Ever been a part of a game like that?
“Actually I haven’t been at the pro level,” defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “In this league or in any league everybody’s so good that usually there’s not – you don’t want to say easy night – but there’s not usually a night where you score goals in eight minutes and have a 4-0 lead. But they’re professionals in the other locker room, too; we knew they were going to come hard and try to battle back.”
Florida was so demoralized by the shoddy goaltending that it didn’t much battle Thursday night. The Caps scored five-plus against the Panthers for the third time in three meetings.
They haven’t lost to Florida at Verizon Center since Dec. 9, 2010.
“We’re in a situation that we have to play for 60 minutes and I think they smell blood when we come in here,” Dineen said. “If they can get us early, things will start rolling. … Obviously it’s unacceptable.”
Forward Matt Hendricks credited the coaching staff for preparing players not to overlook the Panthers, who looked more like the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League because of all the injuries. The Caps lost two games late in Bruce Boudreau’s tenure in similar situations, but wasn’t a concern this time.
“We talked about [Florida’s] injuries, but we know they went into Winnipeg the other night with injuries, too, and they walked all over Winnipeg,” defenseman John Erskine said. “We were ready for them.”
Markstrom looked like he got run over by a bus as he sat on the bench Thursday night. Two goals in 3:10 and a quick hook will do that.
“I don’t know what to say,” the 23-year-old goalie said. “I couldn’t stop the puck on the first two shots. It’s no excuse for that. It was terrible. I feel like I let the team down. I am there to stop pucks and I didn’t do that tonight. It’s not good enough.”
Both goals were soft, too. Erskine let one rip from the point as he was trying to get off for a line change, and Wojtek Wolski scored on a wraparound.
“Yeah, we just have to shoot the puck at the net, what we did tonight in the first one,” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “Of course I think the whole team was shocking and their team was shocking at that kind of beginning. I think they started very well in the first one and the second one the first shot just goes in. So of course it’s a little bit luck. But we need that kind of luck right now.”
The luck of a goaltender stumbling out of the gates so poorly isn’t something the Panthers need. They’re solidly in last place in the Eastern Conference.
Coach Adam Oates didn’t mind jumping out to a quick, 4-0 lead. But he knows a lot can still go wrong, even if the outcome is all but decided.
“It’s a good luxury, but after that you’re really concerned that we’re going to lose our intensity and blow this,” he said. “Your first concern is in a game like that, I don’t want to see one of my guys get hurt because you’re not mentally or physically engaged in the game. It’s a really tough thing.”
Much like the Panthers, Oates just wanted to get the game over with. There’s no benefit in running up the score but no real way to run out the clock at half-speed.
“When it’s a game like that, it’s very difficult,” Oates said. “You draw on your experience. I’ve been there where it’s hard. Even the fans, it’s not the same intensity in the building. You can feel it.”
Players didn’t seem worried about the intensity dropping off the table as it turned into a rout. They said coming back from down 3-0 against the Boston Bruins two days earlier helped in that respect.
“Our concentration is there, our desire’s there,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “Guys know that we need to get points here no matter what the situation is. Whether we’re playing Boston, which is a [top] team, or tied with Florida. We need to get points it doesn’t matter who it’s against.”
Speaking of points, Oleksy now has three in two NHL games. Aside from Hershey Bears fans, those who followed his career and the defenseman’s family, who thought even a week ago that Oleksy would be on the Caps, let alone contributing?
“It feels great coming out of the gate there hot, and the guys were ready to go,” a confident Oleksy said. “To get up a couple goals it eases the tension, especially in my second game. You feel a lot more comfortable with the puck and in your positioning.”
Oleksy had a few memorable hits to go along with points 2 and 3 of his Washington career.
“I’m not a huge point guy, so every one feels good,” he said. “The first one was great to get the monkey off the back right away. Obviously that’s not exactly what I’m trying to bring. They all help, trying to chip in any way possible. It definitely allows you to focus more on your defense once a couple of those start going your way.”
Goaltender Braden Holtby knew all about Oleksy’s physical game and what he brought in the defensive zone from playing with him in Hershey. The offense? Not so much.
“I’m going to have to tell him it’s not that easy,” Holtby said with a smile. “That’s good to see. That means he’s moving the puck well. A lot of people call them second assists, but for a D-man that’s your breakout pass. That’s if you’re doing your job then you’re going to get those. And obviously he is.”
In a 7-1 blowout, Oates wanted to get some guys extra minutes. That included Oleksy leading the Caps in ice time at 22:13.
“I thought he played great,” Oates said. “I’m happy for him because he’s fought hard this year, he’s earned it. He got two points. But his physical play back there is important. He moves the puck well, he knows the system and he’s helping us.”
Oates managed his bench much differently than usual because of the lopsided score. Defenseman John Carlson took just two shifts in the third period.
“Just because of the score,” Oates said. “We’ve got a lot of minutes on the weekend for him.”
The 16:49 was by far Carlson’s lowest ice time of the season. He played 27:30 Tuesday against Boston.