Oct. 3 vs. Calgary Flames at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio Network
Calgary Flames (0-0)
Washington Capitals (0-1)
Two nights after suffering a 6-4 road loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in their season opener, the Caps host the Calgary Flames in their 2012-13 home opener at Verizon Center.
Washington hung with the Cup champs all night, and even owned a brief 4-3 lead in the third period. Center Mikhail Grabovski notched a hat trick in his first game as a member of the Capitals, becoming the first Washington player ever to achieve that distinction. With an assist on Alex Ovechkin’s first-period power play goal, Grabovski was involved in all of the Caps’ scoring in the season opener.
While Washington’s power play unit clicked for three goals, the Caps were outscored 5-1 in tallies that didn’t involve special teams. The game was tremendously fast-paced and entertaining, and a great way to go from zero to 90 mph in a short span of time.
“We expected that coming in,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich of the Blackhawks. “That’s the way they play. I think they push the pace as well as any team in the league, and that’s going to be the identity of our team. too. [It was] 4-4 with six minutes left, it’s a pretty good hockey game. Chances both ways, teams are making plays.
“We gave them a few too many chances; I think we’re going to get better, clean some areas up. I thought we came into a tough environment and played a very good hockey game. We just didn’t get the result.”
Some Caps fans may have been reminded of the Bruce Boudreau era in Washington, when 6-4 hockey games were somewhat de rigueur. But the Caps want Tuesday’s tilt to be an outlier in the set of 82 games, not the norm.
“That’s not the way we want to get into it,” says Laich. “They are a good hockey team. They make good plays and they have talented players. Their five-man units all over the ice are tough to stop. But that’s not going to be the identity of our team, getting into river skating and hockey like that where it’s shooting out the lights. We’ve got to play tighter in our own zone and through the neutral zone and we’ll clean those areas up.”
It’s just one game, but when it’s the only game to date there is a tendency to magnify aspects of it, both good and bad.
“There were a lot of really, really good things in that game,” says Caps coach Adam Oates of his team’s “We made some mistakes, no question. I’m sure [Braden Holtby] wants the last goal back, but I told the guys, ‘Look at the two breakaways he stopped in the second period. He bailed us out.’
“It’s about us. They’re the best team in the world right now; they’re the champs. And we walked away from that game feeling lousy because we let one get away. If we can play against them, we can play against anybody and it’s about us.”
Washington will focus on the positive aspects of Tuesday’s loss, and will try to tidy up the areas that were a bit on the sloppy side.
“Our system was good and our structure,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “I think it was just individually we made some mistakes as far as turnovers that really cost us. Not that they necessarily scored on any of them, but it really kind of turned the pace and the momentum to Chicago.
“If we can eliminated those little mistakes we’ll be fine, because our structure and our system, we played it well.”
The Caps scored two power-play goals early in the third period to take a 4-3 lead, but were unable to squeeze a road point out of the game, and that left a little bit of a sting.
“The power play was obviously a strong spot for us,” says Alzner. “That was great. I thought our neutral zone was pretty good. We had some good offensive zone entries and tracks and there were bits and pieces of everything that I thought we did pretty good. But we need to clean up our decisions with the puck and turnovers.
“A couple of times we were trying to change and we turn the puck over and something happens from it. We can take a lot of good from that game. I think we could have won that game easily. Holtsy did have to make some big saves for us, but I think we should have won that game. When you play that well against the defending champs – who have a good chance of repeating – that’s a good sign.”
Holtby was especially solid in the latter half of the second period when Washington struggled to get out of its own end of the ice and committed a few egregious turnovers that resulted in Grade A scoring chances for the Blackhawks at a point in the game where Chicago already owned a 3-2 lead.
Holtby wasn’t happy with his performance after the game; he believes he should have had a couple of the goals that got past him. History shows he usually follows up those difficult outings with much more characteristic ones.
“I think that’s one of the things that I’ve learned from when I was young,” notes Holtby. “That’s one thing my dad instilled in me; ‘Bad games happen, but if you want to be successful you don’t let it happen twice in a row.’ That’s how you bounce back, that’s how you show your confidence in yourself and that’s just something I’ve prided myself in. I want to make sure I don’t lose confidence that easy and to bounce back and make sure I show the team that it won’t happen often.”
It hasn’t happened often. Holtby has allowed as many as five goals only eight times in his 58 career NHL appearances. In the start immediately following the previous seven occasions on which Holtby has surrendered as many as five goals, he is 6-1 with a 2.14 GAA and a .931 save pct.
Calgary starts its 2013-14 season on Thursday night, and it’s the front end of a set of back-to-backs to open the season for the Flames. Calgary must travel to Columbus on Friday to supply the opposition for the Blue Jackets’ season opener.
The Flames are carrying a string of four straight seasons without a playoff appearance into the ’13-14 season, and virtually all of the North American hockey pundits are predicting that streak will push its way to five in the campaign ahead.
Calgary’s most significant off-season loss was certainly that of longtime netminding stalwart Miikka Kiprusoff, who announced his retirement. The Flames’ No. 1 goaltender for the last nine seasons, Kiprusoff retired with a 319-213-71 record for a team that wasn’t always anywhere near the most talented squad in the circuit. Kiprusoff won the Vezina Trophy in 2006, and one of the looming questions ahead for Calgary is who will follow in Kiprusoff’s footsteps.
At last year’s trade deadline, the Flames jettisoned their best forward (Jarome Iginla) and their top defenseman (Jay Bouwmeester), getting a couple of late first-round picks and a quartet of middling prospects in return. They figure to be in rebuilding mode this season; their payroll ranks 29th in the NHL and they’ve got roughly $13 million in salary cap space with which to work.