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Caps Fall to Cup Champs, 6-4 in Chicago

October 2, 2013

Washington’s power play picked up right where it left off last season, scoring three goals in the team’s 2013-14 season opener at Chicago on Tuesday night. But the Caps were outscored 5-1 when they weren’t on the power play, and the end result was a 6-4 defeat at the hands of the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks.


Playing in his first game as a member of the Capitals, center Mikhail Grabovski was involved in all four Washington goals. He had a hat trick and added an assist.


Chicago defenseman Johnny Oduya’s fluky goal with 6:07 left in the third period broke a 4-4 tie and proved to be the game-winner as the Blackhawks prevailed in the season opening contest for both teams. Oduya took a shot from the right point that appeared to be heading wide, but Holtby reached out with his glove hand and the puck caromed off it and into the cage.


“I just kind of lost vision of it,” rues Holtby. “I was not expecting it to hit me in my glove there, that’s for sure. I was expecting it to go well wide. I’ll have to look at it to see what exactly happened. I just missed it.”


The Capitals’ potent power play propelled them to a 4-3 lead in the third, their first advantage of the night. But the Caps were below par at even-strength, and the Hawks were able to score the tying and go-ahead goals in a span of less than six minutes in the final frame.


“Obviously it’s going to be a big key for us this year to get the power play going right away,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, who had a pair of power-play helpers on the night. “I think we did a good job there, but we’ve got to be better 5-on-5 and make sure we don’t allow too many goals, too many simple goals. We have a couple of areas that we have to clean up.”


Washington had a golden opportunity to knot the score again when it had a 5-on-3 power play for 1:26 in the waning minutes of the contest. The Caps controlled the puck well and had some good looks – the best of which came when Eric Fehr’s back door jam bid was denied on a great save from Hawks goalie Corey Crawford – but couldn’t net the equalizer.


“Fehrsie missed an empty net, and it happens,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “They got a lucky goal that Oduya scored. I think we played great today. The power play works well, but I think our line has to create more chances out there. Especially in the neutral zone because with the skill we have, we have to make decisions better. I think we had lots of turnovers, our line. But overall, I think we played well. They’re a tough team.”


After the Caps’ power play unit scored three times on its first four chances, the Hawks’ beleaguered penalty killing outfit came through with the game on the line.


“I saw [Crawford] make a couple good saves,” says Caps coach Adam Oates of his team’s late 5-on-3 opportunity. “And I saw a couple of one-timers get blocked. I think in a sense [the Hawks] got lucky because they went into the stands. Sometimes when a guy blocks a shot, it stays on the ice. That helps the power play because now they’re moving around. Where if the guy blocks the shot and it happens to go into the stands, they get to reset and we have to win the draw again. So they get a little bit of momentum from that.”


The Caps pulled goaltender Braden Holtby and were vying for a tying tally with an extra attacker when Chicago’s Marian Hossa and Caps defenseman Mike Green raced back toward the vacant Washington net for a loose puck. Green dove to try to knock the puck away from Hossa’s stick and appeared to succeed in doing so, but officials ruled an automatic goal for Hossa at 19:22, a ruling that sealed the Caps’ fate for the night.


“I actually thought [Green] got the puck first,” declares Oates. “But I think it was just because [we just] had the 5-on-3 and it looked like [Hossa] got tripped.”


“I think Mike and Hossa were at the same level,” Backstrom explains. “It looked like Greener was touching the puck before his skates so it was kind of weird. But it is what it is.”


After a lengthy and stirring Stanley Cup banner-raising ceremony, the puck dropped on the 2013-14 campaign just after 7:30 p.m. local time. Chicago had an early power play opportunity when Fehr went to the box for hi-sticking at 2:01 of the first period. The Caps managed to kill off the penalty, but Chicago scored just five seconds after Fehr was sprung from the box.


Hawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson fired a shot on net from the right point, and Hawks winger Brandon Bollig was able to stand his ground in front long enough to pot the rebound to give the defending champs a 1-0 lead.


The Caps narrowly missed responding with a tally of their own. Caps captain Alex Ovechkin had a one-timer opportunity after a pair of tic-tac-toe passes from linemates Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Backstrom, respectively. But Ovechkin’s shot was just off, banking harmlessly off the side of the cage.


Ovechkin didn’t miss on his first power-play shot of the season. After Bollig was busted for roughing Holtby at 10:06 of the first, the Caps gained the zone and got set up in their usual 1-3-1 power play formation. From his customary spot on the right half wall, Backstrom fed Grabovski, stationed down low on the same side. Grabovski slid a pass to Ovechkin. The feed clanged off the goalie paddle of Hawks netminder Corey Crawford and went right to Ovechkin, who hammered it home to make it 1-1 at 10:42 of the first.


Less than half a minute later, the Hawks regained their one-goal advantage. Chicago broke into the Washington zone on a 3-on-2, with captain Jonathan Toews carrying the puck down the left side. Caps defenseman Mike Green deftly deflected Toews’ centering feed, but the puck went right to Hawks winger Patrick Kane, who gloved it down in the high slot. He settled it, skated to his left and ripped a wrist shot that deflected off the shaft of Caps’ defenseman Mike Green’s stick and went short side over Holtby’s right shoulder.


Crawford made a solid lateral stop on Ovechkin in the 18th minute of the frame, going to his right to deny a one-time bid for the tying tally.


Washington had the better of the territorial play in the first half of the middle frame, and it drew even just past the midpoint of the frame. Joel Ward pushed the puck to Grabovski in the Washington end, and the Caps’ pivot and Jason Chimera tore off on a 2-on-1 break. Grabovski elected to shoot rather than pass, rifling a wrister over Crawford’s glove hand on the short side to make it a 2-2 game.


With rookie Caps blueliner Connor Carrick in the box for holding, the Blackhawks scored a power play goal some four minutes later. Holtby stopped Hossa’s shot from in tight, but Hawks blueliner Brent Seabrook jumped up and potted the rebound to restore the Hawks’ lead.


Washington was somewhat sloppy on its own half of the ice for the remainder of the second period, but Holtby made a series of stellar stops to keep his team close.  From the Grabovski goal until the end of the second period, Chicago had 13 shot attempts to just one for Washington.


Chicago’s Andrew Shaw was whistled for tripping at the 20-minute mark of the second, giving the Caps a power play early in the final frame. The Caps took advantage of that opportunity, cashing in when Grabovski deflected Green’s point shot past Crawford to make it a 3-3 game.


Washington’s lethal extra-man unit went to work again when Hawks defenseman Michal Rozsival incurred a hooking minor at 4:16. Once again, it was Grabovski tipping a Green shot past Crawford to give the Caps their first lead of the evening.


The Hawks evened it up at 7:55 when Brandon Saad and Michal Handzus worked a give and go. The Caps had three men back, but Saad got behind the defense and managed to redirect Handzus’ return pass up and over Holtby.


“It was a pretty intense game, very unique,” notes Oates. “A lot of goals. Obviously, we blew a lead. We fought so hard to get the lead and then we let it get away. But they’re the champs for a reason. They kept coming. They’re a very good hockey team and their goalie made some big saves for them. You’re left with a little bit of a hollow feeling right now.”


Dashing Debut – Grabovski recorded the first hat trick of his NHL career in his 368th game in the league. He had scored two goals in a game nine times, the most recent being March 3, 2012 in a game for the Maple Leafs at Montreal.


That two-goal Grabovski effort came one day after Randy Carlyle was named Toronto’s head coach and three days before he signed a five-year contract extension with the Leafs. Toronto used an amnesty buyout to evade the final four years of that pact this past July, making Grabovski an unrestricted free agent. The Caps signed him in August.


The opening night goals were also the first of Grabovski’s career against the Blackhawks; he had two assists in four career games against Chicago prior to Tuesday’s tilt.


Grabovski’s opening night hat trick was the first ever by a Washington player in the team’s 39 season-opening contests.


First October Action On October First – This is Holtby’s fourth season in the NHL but Tuesday’s game marked the first time he had manned the crease for an NHL contest in the month of October.


As mentioned earlier, Holtby kept the Caps close during the second half of the second period when the Caps were struggling in their own end and rarely had any offensive push of their own. But he’s his own harshest critic, and that was the case after Tuesday’s opener.


“Yeah, but that’s my job, to bail our team out if they make mistakes,” says Holtby. “I didn’t do a good enough job tonight. There were two goals – obviously the second one that goes off Greenie at the side of the net and in, and then the last one – which are plays that you can’t really practice too much. They just kind of happen. But the other ones I know I have to work on those and make sure that I bail the guys out in those situations.”

Holtby has surrendered as many as five goals only seven times in 58 career NHL appearances. In addition to Oduya’s goal, Holtby believes he could have had two others on Tuesday.


“The first one, I know I can get over there and get my blocker on top of that and give them nothing,” he says of Bollig’s goal, “and then the fourth one {Saad’s goal] as well. A long pass like that, it gives me plenty of time to react and skate over there. I just didn’t get a very good push and I got a little sprawled out and not on top of the puck. Those two are two that I feel I should have.”


Two of Chicago’s goals – including the Hawks’ power-play goal – came on rebounds, but Holtby was satisfied with his rebound control on Tuesday.


“It was fine,” he says. “[The Blackhawks] put a lot of pucks in good positions. Obviously they play well with each other. They put a lot of soft shots on your far pad that were well-placed where you can’t really do much with them other than put them in the left-hand quadrant of the ice. I think I kept them out of their hands enough. There are certain plays – like the third goal – the shot was in tight. It’s hard to control your rebound on that.”


Kid Stuff – Three different Capitals played in their first NHL regular season games on Tuesday against the Hawks. Defenseman Carrick and forwards Michael Latta and Tom Wilson all suited up for the first time in Tuesday’s contest.


Carrick, who hails from nearby Orland Park, was able to make his NHL debut in his hometown building. He logged 10:46 on the night and recorded a pair of hits.


Latta’s first shift came while Washington was shorthanded; he skated 33 seconds of his total of 6:04 on the night while the Caps were a man down. Latta won three of six draws and recorded one hit and one shot on net.


Wilson, who played in three Stanley Cup playoff games with Washington last spring, skated 6:40 on the night and was credited with a hit and a shot on net.


“Fine, yeah fine,” was Oates’ blanket assessment of the three rookies’ performance in the opener. “Tough environment for the first game, this building, Cup champs, kind of overwhelming. But I thought they did good.”


New Sweaters – Carrick, Grabovski, Latta and Wilson are the 485th, the 486th the 487th and 488th players in franchise history to pull on a Caps sweater for a regular season game.


New Look – With several new faces in the lineup, Washington’s forward lines took on a somewhat familiar and somewhat newfangled look. The Johansson-Backstrom-Ovechkin trio remained together after finishing last season as arguable the league’s hottest unit over the second half.


With Grabovski in the fold and Laich healthy enough to suit up, those two skated with Troy Brouwer.

Fehr moved from right wing to center in the preseason, manning the middle of a very effective line with Chimera and Ward during the exhibition season, and that trio stayed together for the opener.


Veteran Martin Erat skated the left side of a line with Latta and Wilson. That left Jay Beagle and Aaron Volpatti as healthy scratches among Washington’s forward ranks; defenseman Steve Oleksy also did not suit up for the opener.


Beagle’s healthy scratch designation ended a personal streak of 72 straight regular season games played. He was one of seven Capitals to skate in all 48 games during the lockout-truncated 2012-13 season. Beagle averaged a single-season career high of 12:06 of ice time per game last season.


Oleksy was a healthy scratch for the first time since making his NHL debut with the Caps last March 4. He played in each of Washington’s final 28 games of the 2012-13 regular season and all seven Caps playoff games last spring.


Back In The Saddle – Injuries limited Laich to just nine of Washington’s 48 games last season and a different ailment made him available for just one of the Capitals’ eight exhibition matches this fall.


Laich logged 17:26 on Tuesday, including 3:12 in shorthanded ice time and says he felt fine in his first game action in eight days.


“It actually felt really, really good,” says Laich. “Legs and everything; wind. With the puck I felt more like myself. I felt very, very good.”


Banner Year – As best as this old chunk of coal can determine, Tuesday night marked just the second time in the history of the Capitals – and the first time in nearly 40 years – the Washington club was on hand for the raising of a Stanley Cup banner earned in the previous campaign.


At the outset of their second season in the league – 1975-76 – the Capitals played their second regular season game on Oct. 9, 1975 at Philadelphia. It was the first home game for the Flyers – who were coming off a second straight Stanley Cup championship – and whatever passed for a “banner ceremony” in those days likely occurred at The Spectrum in Philly that night.


By The Numbers – Ovechkin’s 22:13 led all forwards on both sides and Green’s 26:48 led all blueliners in the game in ice time … The Caps were on the power play for a total of 6:28; Green was on the ice for 6:10 of that time and Ovechkin for 6:00 … John Carlson led the Capitals with 3:44 in shorthanded ice time … The Caps teed up 57 shots on the night with 14 of them coming from Ovechkin and 10 from Green … Ovechkin led all players on both side with nine shots on net … Green led the Caps with four blocked shots and Brouwer paced Washington with four hits … Hjalmarsson and Oduya each finished the night at plus-4.