The Washington Capitals were on their way to a second straight blowout loss to a top team from the Eastern Conference. Shoddy defense, poor goaltending — the warts were front and center for the first 25 minutes of the game.
Then came the other half of Jeckyl & Hyde: An impressive power play, two goals from the superstar and suddenly improved play in net after Jose Theodore got a second chance. It all adds up to one of the most improbable victories of the season.
Before we get any further, let it be known that Caps media relations guru Paul Rovnak turned to me during the second intermission and predicted the comeback.
Anyway, here are some notes and quotes:
*First, the logistical stuff — Andrew Gordon, Bryan Helmer and Alexandre Giroux were all sent to Hershey after the game. Giroux had two breakaways tonight and failed on both. If he had just finished his 1-on-0 chances, he’d have four more NHL goals and would probably still be on the roster.
*What a wild night for the top line. His line did not play well defensively in the first 25 minutes — he and Nicklas Backstrom were on the ice for three of the four Rangers goals and Viktor Kozlov was for all four. Backstrom lost a faceoff that resulted in the second goal, and Ovechkin left Ryan Callahan to get free for the fourth one.
Then they flipped the switch and took the game over. Ovechkin had two goals, an assist, 13 shots, four hits, a bloody lip and the first big night at the Garden of his four-year career. Backstrom had three assists, including a great pass to Kozlov, who made it 4-3 with a shot Henrik Lundqvist had no chance on. It can be a roller coaster with those, but that was a lot of wow tonight.
Those last 35 minutes or so for Ovechkin might stick in the minds of some MVP voters from this part of the country in a few months.
*Then there is Jose Theodore. Bruce Boudreau did point out that he had no help in the first 25 minutes. Still, four goals on eight shots — including three on the first five — is not a good night. Here’s a rundown of the goals:
1) Markus Naslund puts home a great pass from Nikolai Zherdev. Hard to fault Theo on this one, and Tomas Fleischmann needed to not be a step behind there.
2) Michal Rozsival wrists one in from the right point after Chris Drury beats Backstrom on a faceoff. Boudreau said he couldn’t see Theodore and he was in a direct line with Rozsival and the net. Translation: there was a lot of traffic. Theodore got caught looking around the masses to the inside and the puck went to his outside. Unlucky, but not free of blame.
3) Ryan Callahan catches a fortunate bounce and bangs one in an empty net. There was plenty of blame to spread around on this one. Theodore got himself out of position trying to square up on Drury, and when his pass/shot went toward the front of the net, he had no chance to stop any kind of shot. Callahan’s shot was actually near the near post and Theo still couldn’t get to it.
That said, Karl Alzner’s outlet pass was picked off to start a 3-on-2, and the two defenders were unorganized and offered little support. The puck went off Alzner’s skate to Callahan, but the Caps were going to need a great save or a lucky bounce to avoid a goal there.
4) Callahan is left all alone for a breakway after a faceoff at center ice. As Lundqvist showed at the other end, stopping 1-on-0s is not easy (at least when Alexandre Giroux wasn’t involved). Both Ovechkin and Kozlov buried their breakaways, and so did Callahan.
Callahan was Ovechkin’s man, and he didn’t try nearly hard enough to backcheck on the play. But Tyler Sloan was the other guy back, and Boudreau said he too was at fault. The play turned into a 2-on-1 and Sloan was too quick to charge to his right to ward off Nigel Dawes, who had an easy play to Callahan.
What’s all that add up to? Again, shoddy defense and inconsistent goaltending — for a 4 1/2 period stretch from Saturday afternoon to Tuesday night, the two demons for this team were working hand in hand.
*All that said, the last 40 minutes from Theodore were exactly what the Caps have been looking for. Sure, he gave up the breakaway, but he went 17-for-17 after that and his glove stop on Drury when it was 4-3 was a game-saver.
“You need defining moments, you need saves at the right time and that was a save at the right time,” Boudreau said. “The guys knew I think on the bench that at that point we had an opportunity to come back if he’s going to make that save.”
The crazy thing is, if Brent Johnson were a little healthier Theodore wouldn’t have had a second chance. Boudreau said he hasn’t done that very often in his career, but tonight it worked. And Johnson was clearly laboring with his sickness/hip inury.
*One more thing that shouldn’t be forgotten on this night: How about the five-forward power play coming through? Without Mike Green and Tom Poti, the Caps went with Brooks Laich on the point opposite Alex Ovechkin, with Backstrom, Kozlov and Fleischmann up front on the No. 1 PP unit. Those guys produced the goals that were sandwiched by Ovechkin tallies.
“Brooks just does everything we ask him,” Boudreau said. “If we needed a goalie, he would have been the guy. He’s played everywhere on our team, and he’s practiced on defense this week. He’s Mr. Versatility and he’s a very valuable member of our team.”