They don’t ask how, they ask how many. The Caps pulled two points out of Thursday night’s home opener against the Calgary Flames, earning a 5-4 shootout win on the strength of two Alex Ovechkin goals, some clutch special teams play and a solid relief effort from goaltender Michal Neuvirth.
The Caps dug themselves an early 3-0 hole against the rebuilding Flames in the home opener, and Washington never owned a lead in the game. But after a rugged first period, the Capitals gamely chipped away at the Flames’ lead and they managed to come away with their first win of the season.
Starting Caps goalie Braden Holtby allowed three goals on 11 shots in 16:22 of work on the night. He yielded to Neuvirth after Jiri Hudler’s power-play goal gave the visiting Flames a 3-0 lead with 3:38 left in the first frame.
Neuvirth came on and helped the Caps – termed as “flat” in the first frame by coach Adam Oates – stabilize themselves heading into the second. There were still some choppy waters to be navigated, and Neuvirth allowed an unsightly goal of his own that left the Flames with a 4-1 advantage midway through the contest.
“I would say we really got outworked in the first period,” says Oates. “Maybe [Tuesday’s opener in] Chicago affected us more than we thought it would. For the first game of the year it was a pretty emotional game. We fought so hard in the third period to come back, and our top dogs played 10 minutes in the third period with all the power plays. So I think we were really flat coming out, I really do. We didn’t expect it, but I really thought we were. It was their first night and they were flying. They get a couple of goals and now you’re fighting a real uphill battle.”
Ovechkin, who was a beast all night, ignited the rally with a pair of goals in the second half of the second. The first of those tallies came on the power play, and the second came three seconds after an offensive zone draw that immediately followed an icing call on Calgary.
After whittling that three-goal hole down to a one-goal deficit heading into the third period, the Caps found themselves in some dicey penalty trouble early in the third. Including a bench minor for too many men on the ice incurred in the waning seconds of the middle period, Washington too three minor penalties in a span of just over five minutes of playing time.
Leading 4-3 and with one power-play goal in the bag already, Calgary had a chance to tack on some insurance and even had a two-man advantage for 47 seconds. But Washington’s penalty killing outfit stiffened and kept the Flames at bay.
The young and mostly inexperienced Flames ultimately let the lead slip from their hands with a pair of ill-taken penalties of their own in the middle of the third period. Calgary managed to kill off a Matt Stajan offensive zone slashing minor, but were forced back on the kill just over a minute later when T. J. Galiardi was busted for goaltender interference.
Taking two offensive zone minors in short succession in the third period of a road game while nursing a one-goal lead is never a grand idea, but it’s particularly foolish against a team that boasts a power play corps as lethal as Washington’s.
“We had some bad decisions in the second period,” says Flames coach Bob Hartley. “We let them back in the game and then had two absolutely unnecessary penalties in the offensive zone by two veterans. That can’t happen, that just can’t happen. I feel for the guys because we wasted a real good effort.”
Caps pivot Nicklas Backstrom is generally the quarterback of the Caps’ extra-man unit, deftly surveying and distributing to the other four members of Washington’s top unit. On this night, Backstrom played the role of the trigger man, wristing the tying tally over the outstretched glove hand of Calgary goaltender Karri Ramo on the power play.
Backstrom’s goal evened the game at 4-4 with 5:50 left in the third. Hartley used his timeout to good effect at that juncture, settling his young troops. With Washington’s bench shortened, the Flames rebounded and had the better of play for the rest of regulation and overtime. But Neuvirth was strong and composed, keeping the red lights off and setting the stage for the Caps to win the skills competition.
From the time of Backstrom’s tying goal until the last two seconds of overtime, Calgary outshot Washington 11-3 and had 16 shot attempts to just seven for the Caps.
“I think Michal is very underrated,” says Caps’ forward Brooks Laich. “He’s been working hard in practice. He comes in, and he’s always calm and poised – that’s sort of the nature of the guy. He just kind of locked it down. I think he had one little bobble behind the net, but other than that he rises up big in the shootout, gets the job done. We’re happy for him.”
The Flames traded away longtime captain Jarome Iginla and stalwart defenseman Jay Bouwmeester last season, and netminder Miikka Kiprusoff retired. Calgary’s team now is a youthful bunch, one that is somewhat reminiscent of the 2005-06 and 2006-07 Capitals.
“Our effort was good tonight but we struggled a bit on the power play,” laments Flames captain Mark Giordano. “Whenever you get those chances, especially in the third [period] when we had a few, we have to be better.
“We have to find a way to kill those penalties at the end, but they’re a good team, a good offensive team. I thought we had a lot of chances. We generated a lot, I thought, in the overtime; we played well.
“It sucks to lose that one because, obviously, of the lead we had. But in the NHL, if you get out to early leads, it’s never safe in this league now because of power plays and all that sort of stuff, and they made us pay. They scored two big power play goals.”
The Hurting Game – Caps defenseman Jack Hillen went down with what appeared to be a lower body (right leg) injury near the midpoint of the first frame. Hillen absorbed a hit from Calgary center Lance Bouma along the wall in the Washington end and collapsed to the ice.
The Washington blueliner was clearly unable to put any weight on his right leg and was gingerly helped off the ice by Ovechkin and head athletic trainer Greg Smith.
Hillen suffered a serious shoulder injury in the Capitals’ season-opening contest at Tampa Bay last season, an injury that sidelined him for the better part of two months. Tonight’s injury came in the Caps’ second game of the campaign.
While playing with the New York Islanders back in 2009-10, Hillen missed several weeks of action after he was struck with an Ovechkin slapshot a few weeks before the Olympic break. Tonight’s injury is the third serious injury he has suffered in a span of less than four years.
First Tally – Nineteen-year-old rookie Caps defenseman Connor Carrick saw his workload increase in the wake of the injury to Hillen. Carrick skated just 10:46 on Tuesday in the Caps' season opener, his NHL debut. HIs time nearly doubled to 17:26 on Thursday.
Carrick had an interesting couple of minutes in the early minutes of the second period.
At the 5:21 mark, Carrick was whistled for a phantom hooking call on Calgary’s Jiri Hudler. All Carrick did was lift Hudler’s stick, legally. Off to the box he went anyway, with Washington already in a 3-0 hole.
Carrick was unleashed from the box at 7:21, just as Caps center Marcus Johansson was corralling a puck near the left wing wall just inside the Washington blueline. Johansson spotted the 19-year-old rookie breaking for the Calgary line on the opposite side of the ice, and saucered a perfect pass right to Carrick’s tape. Carrick had all day to coast in and throw a couple of moves that twisted Calgary goaltender Karri Ramo into a soggy pretzel in the crease.
Carrick calmly tapped the puck into the yawning cage and went about celebrating his first NHL goal, as pretty a first goal as you’ll ever see.
“Momentum’s a big part of the NHL hockey game,” notes Carrick. “You hear a lot of coaches mention it throughout the league, so anything I can do to swing the momentum our way, I’ll be happy to do, and I was lucky to do it tonight.”
Carrick became the fifth Capital ever to score his first NHL goal in the team’s home opener. The last to turn the trick was Ovechkin, who scored twice in his Oct. 5, 2005 NHL debut against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Verizon Center.
Carrick’s initial NHL tally earned him a major league shaving cream bath at the hands of impish team captain Ovechkin, the usual purveyor of such foamy hijinks.
Power Surge – The Caps concluded the 2012-13 regular season with a 3-2 overtime win over the Boston Bruins at Verizon Center on April 27. They scored all three goals in that game on the power play.
Including that game more than five months ago, Washington has now scored multiple power-play goals in three straight regular season games. The Caps netted three power play strikes in Tuesday’s season opener in Chicago.
The Caps are 5-for-9 (55.6%) on the power play this season and they’re 8-for-14 (57.1%) in their last three regular season games, dating back to last April.
The last time Washington scored multiple power play goals in three consecutive regular season games was March 27-April 3, 2009. The Caps went 8-for-19 with the extra man in those three straight games more that four years ago.
Tough Night – Holtby allowed five goals in Washington’s season opener, a 6-4 loss to the Blackhawks in Chicago, but he played better than his goals against figure would indicate.
The 24-year-old netminder has a history of bouncing back nicely from bad beats; he entered Thursday’s game with a 6-1 career record, a 2.14 GAA and a .931 save pct. in his seven prior career starts that immediately followed games in which he allowed as many as five goals.
Those numbers weren’t helped by Thursday’s outing, but Oates didn’t hold Holtby at fault for his team’s 3-0 deficit.
“The first and the third goals I thought had eyes, “ says Oates, explaining his decision to pull Holtby. “Great shot on the first goal. [After what] happened [Tuesday] night at the end of the game, I just wasn’t sure where [Holtby] was mentally.”
Oates also made it quite clear that Holtby would man the net on Saturday when Washington plays its next game, against the Stars in Dallas. He has already informed Holtby of that fact.
“Everybody has hiccups,” says Oates. “Everybody. And to me, he’s got to understand that’s what it is.”
What A Relief – Neuvirth made the 16th relief appearance of his NHL career on Thursday against Calgary, earning his first relief victory since March 29, 2012 at Boston.
Neuvirth is now 3-1 in his career NHL relief appearances with a 2.95 GAA and an .899 save pct.
First Bout – Caps right wing Tom Wilson dropped the mitts for the first time in his NHL career, taking on Bouma in the immediate aftermath of his hit on Hillen.
Helping Hands – Johansson had three helpers on the night, a single-game career high. Johansson has had two assists in a game on eight occasions, the most recent of which occurred on April 6, 2013 in a 4-3 Caps win at Florida.
Thursday’s game was Johansson’s first three-point game in the NHL and his 19th multi-point effort.
First Point – Flames forward Sean Monahan was the first of Calgary’s three first-round choices in the 2013 NHL Draft. Monahan made the Flames’ squad out of camp this season, and he made his NHL debut at Verizon Center on Thursday night, nine days shy of his 19th birthday.
Monahan collected his first NHL point on Calgary’s first goal of the night, earning an assist on David Jones’ goal at 5:18 of the first period. He finished the night with two shots on net and four face-off wins in nine draws in his 11:40 minutes of ice time.
By The Numbers – Washington improved to 12-2-1 all-time in home openers since moving downtown to Verizon Center … Caps defenseman Mike Green led all skaters on both sides with 31:01 in ice time. Green logged 24:56 at even strength, and was on the ice for 13:06 of the game’s final 25 minutes … Ovechkin had 11 shots on net and took a total of 17 shots in Thursday’s game. Ovechkin has teed up 31 shots in two games, getting 20 on net, having seven blocked and missing four times … Washington won 46 of 75 draws (61%) in the game … Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer paced the Caps with five hits each … Green led Washington with five blocked shots … Three Calgary defensemen – Mark Giordano, Dennis Wideman and T.J. Brodie – logged at least 26 minutes for the Flames on Thursday … Lee Stempniak led the Flames with eight shots on net.