Coffee Is For Closers – For 38 minutes on Tuesday night in Ottawa, the Caps played nearly perfect hockey. The exited their own zone cleanly and with a minimal number of passes. They executed in the neutral zone, even forcing a turnover that led to the first of their two goals. And they dominated the offensive zone for long stretches of time, pinning the Senators in their own end and forcing them react like rats in a maze at times, especially in the second period.
Alas, while the season itself is abbreviated, games are still 60 minutes.
The Caps didn’t play poorly over the game’s final 22 minutes, not by any stretch. They just didn’t play as well and weren’t as dominant. They weren’t as close to perfect as they had been, and Ottawa exploited Washington’s mistakes to roar back and hand the Capitals a stunning 3-2 setback.
“Honestly, I thought we played a good hockey game,” says Caps coach Adam Oates. “What we’ve been talking about lately, I thought the guys did. We held them to 11 shots about 38 minutes into the game. We had a breakdown for the first goal, but we had the intermission to regroup. The second goal was a tough one. We won the draw but we lost position and then it’s a tie game, it’s anybody’s game and they score on a power play.”
Washington took a 2-0 first-period lead on goals by Troy Brouwer and Matt Hendricks. Hindsight shows the Caps’ greatest sin was in not adding to that lead when they had the opportunity. The Caps haven’t had a lead of more than two goals at any point this season, and if they had been able to forge one on Tuesday, the Sens might have gone away.
Thoroughly dominated for most of the second period, the Sens halved the lead late in the frame on a Jim O’Brien goal, a tally that came about as a result of one of the Sens few clean exits of their own zone in the second period, followed by some crisp passing and some good East-West movement in the attack zone. That marker, with just 1:23 left in the second, gave Ottawa confidence and momentum.
“We had the intermission to regroup,” says Oates. “We were in a great position. On the road if you’re up 2-1 after two, you’re in a great position. We were playing great hockey. They had one [scoring] chance, really. All game long they only had six [scoring] chances five-on-five, so we did a lot of good things.”
The Sens struck quickly in the third. Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom won a defensive zone draw, but Ottawa’s Milan Michalek reached the loose puck first and ripped a sharp backhander that beat Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth to the far side.
“It happened very quick,” says Neuvirth. “They won the face-off. He just hit it. I’m not sure, I’ve got to look at the video.”
Neuvirth was solid for a fourth straight game.
“He played a good hockey game for us,” says Oates of Neuvirth. “I’m sure he’d probably want the second one back, but other than that, I thought he played good.”
Washington was unable to regain the momentum it had early in the game, and the Sens won it on a Sergei Gonchar power-play goal with 2:30 left in regulation.
Joel Ward was sent to the box for high-sticking Sens defenseman Patrick Wiercioch, a call that Ward protested. The Caps right wing believed he had caught Wiercioch with a follow-through, which is not a penalty.
“[The official] said I didn’t attempt to go and get the puck,” relates Ward, “or I didn’t hit the puck so he called a high-sticking on me. I asked him. It was a follow-through; I was swiping at the puck.”
Ward’s opinion didn’t matter, the Sens scored on the power play, and the Caps wasted a strong effort to fall to 1-4-1 on the season.
“I take the blame on that last goal,” says Hendricks of the Gonchar game-winner. “It hit my shin pad and redirects into the net. My job in that situation is to block that shot and not let it get through me. That’s a bad bounce, but that’s part of hockey.”
“That’s the details of the game,” laments Caps center Mike Ribeiro. “You cannot get scored on in the last two minutes at the end of the period. You’ve got to score there to get momentum out of it and we couldn’t get momentum back in the third period.
“You have to finish teams when it’s 2-0. We played great in the second period. I don’t think we gave them much. If we can score that third goal there in the second and extend our lead, then it’s much harder for them to come back. [We have to] be smart at the end of the periods, and not give them momentum and come back in the third at 2-0 and try to get the next one and put those teams away and push them back.”
The Caps finish up the road trip on Thursday against the Maple Leafs in Toronto.
Working Man – Caps defenseman John Erskine picked up an assist on Hendricks’ goal to record his second point in the last two games. Erskine logged 8:06 in ice time in the first period of Tuesday’s game, more than he had skated in four of the 28 regular season games in which he played last season.
By night’s end, Erksine had skated 21:12, surpassing the 20-minute mark for the second consecutive game. As Ben Raby of 106.7 The Fan reported, this marks the first time Erskine has skated more than 20 minutes in consecutive contests since Jan. 23-29, 2008 when he did so in three straight games.
Stifled – When the Sens scored their first goal of the game at 18:37 of the third, it ended a stretch of shutout hockey that Washington had pitched over a period of 48:24, dating back to the third period of Sunday’s win over the Sabres.
The Caps allowed just 19 shots on goal during that stretch of nearly 50 minutes of shutout hockey.
Washington was particularly dominant in the middle of the second when it hemmed the Senators in their own end for shifts at a time.
“We had a five-minute wave there,” says Oates. “They couldn’t move. We did a lot of good things. It’s tough that they got one at the end of the second, but you’ve got to be a strong enough team to handle that.”
Even Strength – Coming into tonight’s game, the Capitals had been outscored 10-6 in 5-on-5 play this season while Ottawa had enjoyed a 10-4 combined advantage over their foes in 5-on-5 hockey.
That Senators advantage was even more pronounced with Anderson in goal. The Sens’ No. 1 netminder did not allow a single even-strength goal in his first three starts of the season, and he had stopped 90 of the 91 even-strength shots he had seen on the young season before the Caps got to town on Tuesday.
Washington scored a pair of even-strength tallies over a span of 4:28 in the first frame of Tuesday’s game, thereby doubling up the total of even-strength tallies previously permitted by Anderson.
Fast First – Washington authored its best first period in six games this season against the Sens, playing well in all three zones and taking a lead to the dressing room after 20 minutes for the first time all season.
The Caps owned a 15-9 first-period advantage in shots on goal, 20-14 in shots attempted, 13-11 in hits and they won 12 of 19 face-offs (63 percent) in the first frame.
Prior to Tuesday’s game, Washington had been outscored 6-3 in the first period of their games this season.
Biting the Hand – Gonchar was a first-round choice (14th overall) of the Capitals in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. The 38-year-old blueliner spent the first 10 seasons of his 18-year NHL career in Washington.
Gonchar played 654 games with the Capitals, fourth all-time among defensemen behind Calle Johansson (983), Rod Langway (726) and Kevin Hatcher (685).
Gonchar now has five goals and 22 points in 26 career games against Washington. Three of his five career goals against the Caps came on the power play and two were game-winners.
Ten Years After – Ten years ago tonight, the Senators were in Southern California where they absorbed a 3-2 loss to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim at the Honda Center. The Anaheim goal scorers that night were: Paul Kariya, Adam Oates and Steve Rucchin.
For Oates, it was the third of nine goals he would score for the Ducks in 2002-03, his penultimate season as a player in the NHL.
Also, in case you somehow haven’t heard it already, Sens coach Paul MacLean was a first-year assistant coach on that ’02-03 Ducks team that eventually went all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final before falling to the New Jersey Devils.
Vintage Laundry – The Senators wore their “heritage sweaters” for Tuesday’s game, the first of seven games in which they’ll don them. Ottawa wore the heritage threads eight times last season, posting a 2-5-1 record with them.
By The Numbers – Mike Green led all Caps in ice time (25:01) for the sixth time in as many games … Alex Ovechkin was on the ice for 3:58 of the Capitals’ 4:00 in power play time on the night … Green led the Capitals with five shots on net … Erskine led the way with eight hits … Nicklas Backstrom won 13 of 19 draws (68%) … Chris Neil led the Senators with six hits … Fifteen of the 24 forwards in the game took at least one face-off.