Caps Blank Oilers, 5-0

Photo courtesy of
Holtby Save on Shorthanded Cogliano Breakaway
courtesy of ‘clydeorama’
The Capitals’ season-long retooling project took a strong step forward last night as an offensive explosion propelled the Caps to a 5-0 win and a shutout for rookie goalie Braden Holtby against the Edmonton Oilers at Verizon Center. The Caps rediscovered the wonders of the power play scoring two goals on the man advantage in the second period. Alex Ovechkin lead the fireworks with two goals and an assist, as Eric Fehr returned from an injury to add two more lamp-lighters.

The retooling effort that got underway in earnest in mid-November has aimed to play a style more suited to success in the post-season. This has included playing “responsible” hockey with a focus on defensive assignments and middle zone traps. After two years of ever-increasing offense firepower under coach Bruce Boudreau, the change has felt more like shock therapy.

No longer do defensemen jump into the offense at every chance. Gone are the freewheeling wingers with a license to bolt out of the Caps’ zone at any time. But also gone are the odd-man rushes against the Caps and the defensive zone turnovers. After three months, the Caps have adjusted well and are gaining confidence in their ability to play in tight games. Before last night, the Capitals’ last eight wins were each decided by one goal.

The remaining question has been: where did the offense go? The power play, once a fearsome weapon in the arsenal, has been impotent this year, resulting in a goal-per-game reduction in scoring from last year. Has the sacrifice been too much? Can the Caps find the sweet spot between hitting the gas, or the breaks, without the wheels coming off? Last night was good confidence-building, old-fashioned thumping. The Oilers are the worst team in the league, so it was a good night to shake off the rust and let the throttle out, and find out how that gas pedal works. Particularly in the last two periods, the Caps were able to control the tempo of the game.

But it wasn’t all pretty. The first period was typical 2010 Caps with lots of shots and fast pace. There were no whistles for more than seven minutes to start the game as the Caps forced the action. But many of those shots were from the perimeter while others missed the net entirely or were easy saves for Oiler’s netminder Nikolai Khabibulin.

Photo courtesy of
Nikolai Khabibulin make a save on Mike Knuble
courtesy of ‘clydeorama’

In the past, this has been a recipe for giving a goaltender some confidence. How many times have we heard after the game that the Caps were up against a “hot” goalie? Can we forget game 7 last year? At the end of the period the Caps lead in shots on goal by only 12-10. The Oilers had good scoring chances with Holtby giving up some juicy rebounds.

But it was a Holtby save five minutes into the second period that may have turned the game. The Oilers’ Andrew Cogliano forced a turnover on a Caps’ power play to earn a clean breakaway. Holtby stoned him. Moments later at the other end of the ice, Jason Arnott wound up from the top of the circle and froze the defense and Khabibulin, then made nifty slap pass to a wide open Ovechkin on the far post for the one-timer. It was Arnott’s 900th NHL point, and the fans gave him a warm standing ovation.

On the next power play, Fehr established himself in the slot and picked up a rebound of a John Carlson slap shot and stuffed it between the pads of a falling Khabibulin to make it 2-0. Suddenly the power play had legs.

In interconference games the teams often don’t know each other well. These two teams have only met five times in Ovechkin’s career. It appeared that the Oilers had not studied the film on Ovie. They gave him room to work and the Great 8 took full advantage.

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‘Ovechkin and Johansson Celebrate’
courtesy of ‘clydeorama’

Three minutes into the third period, Ovie pick-pocketed Oilers’ defenseman Kurtis Foster to create a 2-on-0 with Marcus Johannson. The two made four dizzying tap passes down the slot before Ovechkin buried it over Khabibulin’s sholder to make it 3-0. The rout was on.

Four minutes later, Khabibulin tried to outrace Jason Chimera to a loose puck at the mid wall. Bad idea. Chimera got there first and poked it out to a streaking Eric Fehr for an easy goal into a vacant net to make it 4-0. Alexander Semin closed out the scoring after Dennis Wideman sprung Sturm and Semin for a 2-on-1 break.

Three signs that the offense is ripening:

1. The play of Marcus Johansson on the top line for the injured Nicklas Backstrom. Suddenly the Caps look strong down the middle with three highly effective centers in Backstrom, Arnott and Johansson. Brooks Laich was also called upon to play center and won 15 or 21 faceoffs.

2. Three of the five goals came on outstanding plays by the primary assist. When facing a “hot” goaltender (see above), one option is to change the point of attack. Finding a man down low, forcing the goalie to commit to a play, or creating new shooting lanes opens more ways to score. Not just shots, but smart shots.

3. The big guns are blazing. Ovechkin is the undeniable spark for the offense. For much of the season he has looked like he was borrowing someone else’s stick or playing through a wrist injury, shanking shots and forcing plays. The last few weeks he has been on fire. And Semin is heating up, too. He has a three-game scoring streak going, and the Caps are undefeated this season when he scores.

Alex Ovechkin makes a lot of Caps fans dream about the Stanley Cup on a regular basis. But last night Ovie also made one dream come true for a 13-year-old boy from British Columbia, Canada. Ryan Rowlinson, who is battling neurofibromatosis, got to spend part of the day and evening with Ovechkin through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Ryan attended morning practice and the game, rode the Zamboni between periods, and sat in Ovie’s “Crazy 8s” seats. Ovie did not disappoint. No doubt it was a thrill for Ryan to see his hero notch two goals and an assist in person.

With a season best six-game winning streak on the line, the Caps face Carolina on Friday and Chicago on Sunday, both games at Verizon Center.

Will Packard

Will moved to DC 33 years ago to go to college and never left. By day he is the director of finance at an interactive marketing agency near Dupont Circle. When not hanging out at Kettler Iceplex or Verizon Center, he can often be found out rowing on the Potomac River or searching for the perfect burrito.

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