The Capitals are not playing pretty hockey.
But, when it comes to end results, it has been effective hockey.
The first period against the Panthers on Saturday night at Verizon Center was atrocious. Washington played a cute but ultimately inefficient style of hockey for the first 20 minutes before grinding through the final two periods to seal a 3-2 victory over Florida.
For most of the night actually, the Capitals were almost laughably bad. Drop passes turned into self-zone clears. Back passes turned into partial Panther breaks and rushes. Giveaways were rampant (12 on the night against the Panthers three) and play was overall sloppy. It was not one of the beautiful games.
But, the players who have been the best for Washington recently stepped to the forefront. Eric Fehr, coming off of his two-goal game in the Winter Classic, had a goal and an assist. He banged home the Caps’ first goal to tie it at one in the second period and assisted on a power play goal that Mike Green scored to go up 2-1 in the third.
It was give and take for Fehr and Green. Fehr’s goal was set up by a wrap-around attempt by the defenseman that ended up on Fehr’s stick at the top of the crease. Quick and easy flip for Fehr to beat Panther goaltender Scott Clemmensen.
“I just try to throw it out front. I can’t believe it worked out. Lucky, I guess,” Green said.
Yeah, it was lucky. I guess. The thing about luck in hockey though is that you tend to make it yourself. Work hard, go to the danger zones, keep your head up. Then the puck goes in the net and it is like “how did that happen?”
“I was just trying to go to the front of the net with my stick down and hoping there would be a rebound or anything and luckily he put it right on my stick,” Fehr said.
There is that luck thing again. The reason that Fehr and Green have been so good the last several games is because they work hard and have good hockey sense. Fehr now has four goals and three assists in his last six games. On a team that features two of the supposed best crease bangers in the league (Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble), it has been Fehr who has been effective doing the dirty work in front of opposing netminders.
“Just something that I have always tried to pride myself on is going to the front of the net and finding pucks and lately it has been working. I try to find myself in front of the net as much as I can,” Fehr said.
Bruce Boudreau, who has not been all that complementary to Fehr this season (non-committal praise at best), actually had mild kudos for the third line winger after the game.
“He has got confidence, he is getting more confident,” Boudreau said. “Eric is the kind of guy that thrives on confidence and playing a little bit more. So, those are all good things. I think, if I recall correctly, he started scoring a lot of his goals in the middle to the latter half of the year last year. So, maybe he is just a naturally slow starter and he is going to come on now.”
Until the Capitals scored in the second period they had gone nearly a game-and-a-half without a goal. They were shutout against Tampa Bay on Tuesday and had not lit the lamp since 11:59 in the third period of the Winter Classic when Fehr made it 3-1. Boudreau said that when you are shutout and in a slump like that, players have a tendency to get cute with things, thinking that if they make the perfect play then the slump will be over.
“Every goal you get is such a difficult goal. You go watch the highlights and every highlight you watch is like it is an easy goal and we are wondering if we are ever going to score again,” Boudreau said. “It is simple. It is not simple to score but simple plays was one of the big keys in the game. I talked about that before the game. When you are in a slump, as a real ex-hockey player, you use to try to be real cute with things, to make the perfect play to get out of things. In the end what you need to do is work harder and go to the net more and if you do that then something will bounce off of you and that will be the jump start, you know, to where you want to be.”
That was pretty much the key to grinding away the Panthers, who were on the latter half of a back-to-back after losing to the Hurricanes 5-3 in Sunrise, Fla. Friday night. After watching Boudreau swear like ferret with tourette syndrome during the HBO mini-series leading up to the Winter Classic, it was fair to wonder if he gave the Caps an expletive-laden lashing after the first period. When asked, he said that he did not.
“I didn’t curse. I just said that, quite frankly, that we are playing … we are not forechecking at all,” Boudreau said. “We are getting it in and worried about being in position and the system but if we don’t go and put pressure on them, nothing is going to happen. That is why I think we had five shots in the first period. We have to be better. We are too good to be this mediocre.”
Alex Ovechkin, who is on pace for “only” 28 goals and 56 assists, scored the pull-away goal in the third period on a breakaway after a nice outlet pass from Knuble. It was one of those “Ovechking being Ovechkin” type of plays. Boudreau said he as happy for him. Green’s goal in the third period came on the power play, an area where Washington has not had much success in recent weeks. But, as well as Fehr has been playing, Green has been pacing the Capitals since November. He has had high energy, been playing smart and looks to be more physical than at other times in his career. Apparently he has more freedom from his coach to play his game as well.
“He just tells me to be me and … I don’t know what that means,” Green said. “It is funny because sometimes when you go by the book, bounces don’t go your way or you are a step off. When you read and react you just play the game and good things happen. You have to find a balance between that free range and that structured game.”
Green, along with partner Scott Hannan, have been able to organize the Capitals’ defense for the last ten games or so, leading Washington to 15 out of the possible 20 points. The team has only allowed 16 goals in those 10 games and Boudreau’s new style of defensive-first hockey is paying dividends.
Yes, it has been hard to watch. Yes, goal-scoring is, oddly, becoming a problem. Yes, the Capitals can get much better. In the end though, it has been working.
“I think they have been excellent,” Boudreau said. “But, all of the ‘D’ have been excellent. You look at our goals against in our last eight games and if its not as good as any teams then I don’t know what it is. But, it is better than we have ever had it here before, at least in my tenure.”