The Washington Capitals will lose a game this season – many games, in fact – but they have not done so yet, and showed no interest in starting Thursday night in Philadelphia.
On the road at the Wachovia Center, Washington was wholly unfazed by the Broad Street Bullies mystique and the new-look Flyers, sans Mike Richards and Jeff Carter and featuring Jaromir Jagr. The Caps waltzed in, put five of their 42 shots past Philly netminder Ilya Bryzgalov, and waltzed out with a physical but surprisingly easy 5-2 win.
With the victory Washington Caps bumped their league-leading record to 6-0-0: the Caps are the only team in the Eastern Conference without a loss, and the first team in the NHL to register six wins.
More importantly, after several uninspired efforts at the start of the regular season, Washington has now strung together two straight games of dominant hockey, demonstrating an ability to put away both an upstart squad in the Florida Panthers and an established league power in Philadelphia.
Three Washington goals in a 2:25 span early in the third period put the score at 5-1 and effectively ended the game. However, even though Bryzgalov was between the pipes for every Caps strike, little of the blame for the third period outburst can be foisted on his highly-paid shoulders.
Roman Hamrlik opened the scoring sequence at 2:23 of the third, his wrist shot deflecting off a Flyers player in the slot and ten slipping through a mass of players in front of the net to fool Bryzgalov. Shortly after, Flyers captain Chris Pronger took a tripping penalty, putting Washington on the power play with one of Philly’s best penalty killers in the box.
Pronger’s opposite captain, Ovechkin, quickly capitalized on the opportunity. Stationed in the low slot, Alexander Ovechkin slipped away from Max Talbot just long enough to take a quick pass from Nicklas Backstrom and take a snapshot from the top of the circle. Talbot defended the play perfectly, putting his stick in front of Ovechkin’s shot, but the Russian had enough power behind his attempt that the puck still went on net and the deflection was enough to elude Bryzgalov once again.
Joel Ward finished the scoring streak with yet another deflection from the low slot. The goal was less a shot than a fortunate redirect of a pass from Jeff Schultz that bounced beyond the reach of Bryzgalov’s left leg. It was the first goal of the season for Ward, an offseason acquisition who has manned the right wing on Washington’s dominant checking line and is better known for his defensive prowess.
On the other side of the ice, Washington netminder Tomas Vokoun put in yet another outstanding performance, stopping 26 of 28 Flyers shots faced, only allowing a first period breakaway goal to Claude Giroux and a meaningless rebound goal by Sean Couturier with 14.7 seconds to play in the game.
As prominent as the rivalry between the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins has been in recent years, the proximity-enhanced feud between the Caps and Flyers once again manifested in 60 minutes of highly physical hockey. Referees Tim Peel and Kevin Pollock were active in the first frame, whistling 14 minutes of infractions, before the game settled into a clean, hard-hitting rhythm.
Giroux’s goal came amidst a series of penalties by both teams. With the Caps on a four-minute power play after Brooks Laich took a high stick to the face, Ovechkin drilled Talbot behind Vokoun’s net to earn an interference penalty. During the ensuing 4-on-4, Washington had the puck in the Flyers zone when Alexander Semin drifted with the puck to the left point and Hamrlik rotated down into the zone. Semin was reckless with the puck and Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds knocked it off his stick, spring Giroux on what amounted to a penalty shot. Vokoun bit on Giroux’s initial move, and Philly’s leading goal-scorer quickly deked to his forehand to notch his fifth goal of the season.
Washington also struck in quick succession at the end of the first period to turn what had been a subpar frame into a bit of momentum. Perreault put the Caps on the board with a slick play high in the offensive zone, picking off an errant Scott Hartnell clearing pass and whistling a wrist shot past Bryzgalov with 80 seconds to play. Then, with just 11.8 seconds left in the period, Ovechkin managed to sneak alone to the weakside post as Backstrom work along the strong side, and pounced on a loose rebound with nothing but an empty net in front of him.
The multi-goal game was an encouraging sign from Ovechkin, who has looked unsettled early in his seventh NHL season. Most notable was Ovechkin’s second goal, a power play marker scored from a part of the ice through which he rarely ventures with the man advantage, the high slot. Ovechkin’s usual spot, the left point, was instead manned by defenseman Dennis Wideman, freeing the captain to agitate in the middle and draw Philly’s attention away from two booming slapshots at the point. The Caps now have power play goals in four straight games, and the power play is operating at a 26.1% clip.
It would be irresponsible to suggest that Washington can continue to play at their current level for the entire regular season, but Thursday’s game was an emphatic demonstration of Washington’s potential this season. However, potential has never been the Capitals’ concern. Consistency has, and this team’s early season consistency will be sorely tested in their next game, Saturday’s home tilt against the also-undefeated Detroit Red Wings.
Washington has challenged and defeated two of the Eastern Conference’s top contenders, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, in their opponent’s buildings, but Saturday’s Detroit game will be the true bellwether of Washington’s mental fortitude.
CAPS NOTES:Hamrlik’s goal, his first of the season and 154th of his career, came 19 years to the day after the Czech defenseman scored his first career goal as a member of the expansion Tampa Bay Lightning.
Wideman earned a secondary assist on Ovechkin’s second goal, giving him points in all six Washington games this season.
Jay Beagle missed his third straight match and has yet to touch the ice in a practice or game since losing a fight to Arron Asham last Thursday. Although Beagle was cleared of a possible concussion immediately after the game, his subsequent absence has raised the possibility of concussion symptoms displaying after the original diagnosis.