Bruce Boudreau must be wondering where this Washington Capitals team was the first 25 games of the season.
Two power play goals, scored quickly into the first shifts of each, and some stellar goaltending by Tomas Vokoun led the suddenly resurgent Capitals to their fourth straight victory, this time over the visiting Calgary Flames, 3-1, before a Tuesday night sold-out house at Verizon Center.
The game also marked the return of defenseman Mike Green, back from the reported groin injury that shelved him for all but eight contests this season. Green, who declined to give himself a grade for his evening’s performance, skated 17 shifts and logged 15:43 of ice time, only 43 seconds of which came on the power play. He did not register a shot on goal, had two other shots blocked, and was credited with three hits and two blocked shots.
“There’s a little bit of conditioning stuff we can do, I only had this week of skating,” Green told media after the game. “But I think more so it’s just getting in the game and playing. There were times I thought I had a good jump but didn’t have the energy to do it, so it’s just a matter of getting everything back and functioning properly.”
The power play, which had been truly dreadful for much of the season, was functioning properly last night. A mere 35 seconds after the Flames’ Rene Bourque was sent to the penalty box for holding, just 1:11 into the game, the Caps lit the lamp, with a classic Alex Ovechkin one-timer from the left wing face-off dot. He was given the perfect pass from Marcus Johansson, who took a feed from Nicklas Backstrom (three assists), then started a move to the high slot, which drew the defense from away from Ovechkin, leaving one of the league’s most dangerous shot wide open.
The goal (17) was Ovechkin’s seventh in as many games (seven goals, four assists), and his assist later gave him multiple points in four straight.
Johansson, asked about his comfort level playing with Backstrom and Ovechkin on the power play until, responded, “You can get the puck anytime. I think [Backstrom] had three points [three assists] tonight. I gave a simple pass to him and he found me right back and opened everything up. Not a lot of guys can do that.”
Where the first power play goal was of the “pretty” variety, the second one was “dirty”. Ovechkin unleashed a shot form the point that Flames goalie MIkka Kiprusoff (18 saves) knocked down. But Troy Brouwer (11) was camped out in the crease, and stuffed the puck under Kiprusoff’s pads before he could recover from the first shot.
“Dale [Hunter] told me if I don’t want to stand in front [of the net], I’m not going to play on the power play,” Brouwer said, only half-jokingly. “[Power play success] gives us a lot of confidence, especially early tonight when we had a couple good plays. The two guys on the half-wall [Backstrom and Johansson] have as much patience as anybody out there, so they found Ovi and he made a great shot [for the first goal], and the other one, you know, just putting puck to the net.”
Hunter agreed with both Johansson and Brouwer when it came to heaping praise on Backstrom. “Nick is a great playmaker. He sees the ice and you can’t teach that, that’s god given ability. He has the ability to pass pucks and see who the open guy is when he can’t really see them. That’s why he is what he is.”
Not all the news about Backstrom was good, however. Mid-way through the third period, Bourque leveled the Swedish pivot with an elbow to the jaw, earning an elbowing penalty and sending Backstrom from the game. Hunter was unclear if Backstrom was taken to the league’s mandated “quiet room” for evaluation during the game, but the coach did indicate that Backstrom was being evaluated this evening as a result of the hit and more would be known about his condition Wednesday morning. Backstrom was not available to the media following the game.
Dennis Wideman capped the scoring late in the second, with a blast from the right wing face-off circle off another great play by Backstrom, who held the puck long enough along the goal line to draw the defense, which created space for the charging defenseman. It was Wideman’s seventh goal of the season, and Backstrom’s 29th helper.
The win moves the Caps back into a playoff spot, tied with New Jersey with 44 points for the last two spots in the conference, with Winnipeg and Toronto just a point behind. But it also inches them a couple of points closer to Division leading Florida, who now sit just three points ahead of the Caps. The Caps put themselves behind the eight-ball this season with their lackluster play early, and every point in the standings is going to be crucial from here until April.
CAPS NOTES: The Capitals blocked a season-high 24 shots. Washington outshot Calgary 21-19 and won 63 percent of the face-offs.
Vokoun has won four straight, and given up just five goals in those four games. He recorded 18 saves, including several spectacular stops when the game was still tied in the second period.
Backstrom has eight points (one goals, seven assists) in a current five-game point streak. Johansson has one goal and three assists in his last four games.
Photo gallery from last night’s game.