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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Capitals 4, Blackhawks 3 (OT)

The Washington Capitals came into Chicago for a rare morning game against a Blackhawks team chasing them in the race for the President's Trophy and a popular pick to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.  Suffering from the hangover of winning the division with 15 games to go, they had suffered a listless loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night.  They had little to play for, and it showed.  They found themselves down three goals in the third period and without their captain after Alex Ovechkin was the recipient of another questionable ejection from the NHL on-ice officials, who were Dan O'Halloran and Frederick L'Ecuyer.
Four Capitals showed up prepared to play today from start to finish, and only three finished the game.  The top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble had great offensive pressure while they were together, and Knuble had most of the best scoring chances in the first two periods, even after Tomas Fleischmann was moved up to the top line.  Jose Theodore was solid in net from stem to stern, but he was only able to do so much against a concerted attack from wunderkid Olympians Jonathan Toews (2 goals) and Patrick Kane (2 assists) who had great chances all night and showed why they are so highly regarded.

For most of the first period the Capitals didn't have much going their way.  Two unnecessary offensive zone penalties by Alexander Semin in the first period did the Capitals no favors.  Semin was in the box when the Blackhawks scored 4-on-4 and again after running goalie Antti Niemi on a shorthanded breakaway to put the Capitals down two men.  Before that second penalty, the Capitals looked like they would gain some momentum from killing off the 5-minute boarding penalty to Ovechkin.

Once Ovechkin was gone for the game, the Caps got down on themselves and the first period ended with Chicago up two goals.  Even an end of period scuffle and an early second period powerplay courtesy of Adam Burish did nothing for the Caps, who found themselves down three goals before the second period was 7 minutes old.  The only good news for the Caps was that they were able to mostly contain the Blackhawks in the second period and didn't give them any more powerplays after Ovechkin's major expired.  They let the Blackhawks lull them to sleep and didn't put up much of a fight.

For the first 37 minutes of the game, it appeared the Capitals were being lulled to sleep by a young, fast, and disciplined Blackhawks team.  When the Capitals realized they were going to to be embarrassed by this team, they awoke quickly and stormed the crease beginning in the final three minutes of the second period.  The Blackhawks had suffered a late loss the previous afternoon after surrendering a third period lead to the Philadelphia Flyers.  They were playing their second game in 21 hours and were without All-Star forward Marian Hossa and veteran defenseman Kim Johnsson.  Once the punch-drunk Capitals came around, they were too much for the depleted Hawks.  Knuble, Jason Chimera, and Eric Belanger all had quality scoring chances for the Capitals, but they were unable to cash in.

Semin made up for his two penalties when he drew a high sticking double minor from Jordan Hendry.  The Capitals had an excellent powerplay chance, and when Colin Fraser high-sticked another Capital, Brooks Laich put home a rebound on the delayed penalty.  The Capitals proceeded with a two minute 5-on-3 powerplay in which they had excellent puck movement, traffic, and shots, but their textbook powerplay execution amounted to nothing until two seconds after the powerplay expired.  Backstrom, who had assisted on the Laich tally, drove to the net and got inside position on the Blackhawk defender to cash in on a Joe Corvo bank shot off the end boards.  Backstrom fluttered a chip to the top shelf after the puck had careened to the front of the net.

A shellshocked Blackhawks team had no answer on the next shift.  David Steckel, all 6'5, 217 of him, chased down a loose puck behind the Blackhawks' net, won the scrum for the puck, and centered it to Eric "I only score big goals" Fehr who had positioned himself in the slot.  With all the Blackhawks defenders mesmerized by the puck behind the goal, Fehr had time to pick a corner and tie the game 13 seconds after Backstrom had drawn the Caps to within one goal.  Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville made good use of his timeout to calm down his troops, but the damage was done.

For the last 12 minutes of regulation, the Capitals carried the play, with the exception of a shift from Kane and Toews, and got the game to overtime to ensure a 100-point season to become the fastest Capital team to reach that mark.

Three minutes into the extra session, Nicklas Backstrom made an egregious mistake.  He sent a lazy pass at his own blue line that was intercepted by Troy Brouwer.  As Brouwer closed in on Jose Theodore, Backstrom stole the puck and counter-attacked, leading the rush.  Backstrom entered the zone, surveyed his passing options, then made a cut to the middle with a sick curl-and-drag around Duncan Keith and sent a shot through Niemi's five hole.

Backstrom finished off a statement game for the Capitals.  He showed that the Capitals can beat you in three minutes if you don't take them seriously.  He said "We don't need Ovechkin to beat you or to make your Norris Trophy-candidate defenseman look silly in overtime."  Jack Rose would call him a warrior-poet.  Backstrom also got a measure of redemption for finishing second to Patrick Kane in the Calder Trophy voting in 2008 by earning first star honors with a three point night.  He also made Mike Green's case for the Norris a little stronger this season by embarrassing Keith, but Green helped himself with two assists to Keith's one.  

-On the Ovechkin ejection, it was a case of reputation plus the letter of the law contributing to an excessive penalty.  Ovechkin was forechecking Hawks defenseman Brian Campbell midway through the first period.  Just as Campbell passed the puck he appeared to get his skate caught in a rut when Ovechkin gave him a shove below and to the left of Campbell's numbers that sent him careening into the boards behind his net.  It was borderline as to whether it would be considered a hit from behind, but since it was Ovechkin, he knew it would be a penalty, and normally that calls for a two minute boarding penalty, but since Campbell was deemed to have suffered a head injury on the play, it became a automatic major penalty and ejection.  It should not elicit a suspension, but game misconducts draw an automatic $200 fine, unless the league deems the misconduct should be rescinded.

-Congratulations to Boyd Gordon, who played in his 300th NHL game.

-The last time the Capitals played in Chicago, they lost 5-0 in what turned out to be Olaf Kolzig's last game as a Capital as Cristobal Huet carried the load the rest of the season.

-Speaking of Cristobal Huet, this is the second time he has avoided playing his former team.  Way to man-up to leaving town for more money.

-There's still a little miscommunication among the new Caps.   Joe Corvo and David Steckel got their signals crossed on the Hawks' first goal and left Toews wide open.

-The Capitals penalty kill was excellent tonight, pressuring the puck and blocking passing lanes.  The powerplay goal by Toews was on a 5-on-3 on a very nice seam pass.

-#needsmorebradley:  only 8:42 for Mr. Offense tonight.  Bradley had said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau had told the Caps after the second period they just needed a powerplay to get back into the game.  All he really had to say was if you didn't play well, you'd be sitting down while Quintin Laing got back into the lineup.

-I don't usually mind goalie-crashing penalties, as they usually get the goalie off his game and Semin's hit on Niemi was hilarious, but it cost us a goal.  Great play by Semin to intercept the puck and create a scoring chance shorthanded, though.

-Let's hope for Joel Quenneville's sake Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman doesn't mistake him for Admiral Ozzel after two Imperial-scale failures in a row.

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