WASHINGTON – For the fourth consecutive year on opening night, the Washington Capitals raised a Southeast Division championship banner to the Verizon Center rafters. And for the seventh consecutive year on opening night, the Caps sent their fans home happy, this time with a thrilling, but at times frustrating, 4-3 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes. Mike Green played hero, scoring 2:24 into overtime on a power play after the Hurricanes had tied it late following a Brooks Laich power-play goal near the end of regulation. “This was huge battle for us, you know, we had to fight through,” said Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “First win of the year, it’s very important, so, you know, it’s nice.”
The home team played very poorly in the opening five minutes, letting the Hurricanes carry play to them and failing to get the puck out of their own zone for long stretches. “I think we stuck with it, I think we started a little bit slow, seemed like we were a bit nervous,” said Green, whose goal was his first since January 8th of last season. Washington was able to slow down Carolina’s momentum eventually and got some solid possession of their own, being rewarded with two consecutive power plays midway through the frame. “Once we settled down, I think, started finishing our checks, and getting in on the forecheck, I think we tired them out,” added Green. But the Caps were unable to get anything going through both, and the period ended with the teams knotted at zero.
Energized by the crowd, DC came out and dominated the second period early, earning the first five scoring chances and spending minutes at a time in the Carolina zone. Despite their pressure, however, they could not break through, as Brian Boucher made several nice stops to keep his team on level terms. Eventually, however, the inevitable happened after John Carlson took a tripping penalty, as a beautiful sequence of passing left Hurricanes captain Eric Staal wide open on the wing with an empty net to shoot at. Staal made no mistake, burying the puck past an out of position Michal Neuvirth for a 1-0 lead at the 12:16 mark.
The Capitals were able to break right back, however, picking up their play immediately and continung to pressure Boucher. The home side was finally rewarded when John Carlson released Alexander Semin with a beautiful stretch pass, sending him in alone. The oft-criticized sniper deked to his backhand and roofed the puck into into the top corner, equalizing for Washington at 14:28. The Capitals continued to carry play as the period wound down, and Jason Chimera struck again for the hosts with just 21 seconds left in the frame after taking a pass from Joel Ward, speeding around Tom Kaberle, and finishing cleanly over Boucher’s glove. “That was a great pass by Ward,” said Chimera. “I think he knew I was coming down with speed and he just got it to me. It was kind of a funny goal, I just got some topspin on it. It’s weird, those seem to go in more than the good shots.”
Washington’s lead would be short-lived, however, as Eric Staal scored on the power play again just 18 seconds in to the third period following a late delay of game call on John Carlson. More precise passing opened up the vaunted DC penalty kill and Staal was left uncovered by Roman Hamrlik in the on the right side, where he slammed home from a little more than ten feet out.
The final frame of regulation carried through it’s middle stages relatively uneventfully, with neither team getting a concerted effort nor any great scoring chances until about six minutes were left, when a crazy bounce gave Mathieu Perreault a chance in front of an unoccupied goal. But the Quebecois could not get a handle on the puck, and it bounced away harmlessly.
The hosts were not finished were their pressure, however, and continued to carry it to the Hurricanes with a dominating shift from the second line. DC was given a power play with a little more than 4 minutes remaining, and then a 5 on 3 advantage was awarded following Alex Ovechkin being hauled down in front of the Carolina net. It didn’t take long for the Capitals to convert on this two man advantage, as Brooks Laich corralled a rebound off an Ovechkin point drive and backhanded it under Boucher for a 3-2 DC lead at 16:15.
Carolina refused to go away, however, and came right back at the Capitals. After pulling Boucher with a little more than 1:35 remaining, a loose puck in front squirted out to Jussi Jokinen, who shot it over an outstretched Neuvirth to knot the score at three with 1:19 left in the game. Things got worse for the hosts when Alexander Semin took a boarding penalty right as the clock expired, forcing the DC penalty kill unit, which was 0 for 2 on the night, to pull off a huge kill to keep the game alive in the extra session. But coach Bruce Boudreau said he wasn’t worried after Carolina had tied it: “I kept telling them, we’ll get another, don’t worry about it, guys.”
The killers were, in fact, up to the task, helped by the fact that Jokinen took a penalty 1:29 into overtime. After 31 seconds of wide open 3 on 3 hockey, the Caps immediately set up a box with their man advantage. Mike Green took care of the rest, taking a pass from Dennis Wideman and rifling a shot that squeezed through Boucher’s legs and into the goal.
Outside of the overtime, in which they were terrific, the normally dominant Caps penalty kill unit was sub-par and ineffective. They looked lost early and were cut apart easily by the tandem of Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal. The penalty killers also found a way to leave one of the best players in the world in Staal totally unmarked, twice, which cannot ever happen against a team with one big line like the Hurricanes. But Boudreau isn’t the least bit concerned about his penalty kill: “That’ll get better. Dean [Evason] does such a good job, I know that’ll pick up.”
Michal Neuvirth was solid if unspectacular in his 2011 debut. The sophomore Czech looked to move easily but was caught out of position on the first two goals; the second one he would probably like to have back but the third he had no chance on. But nevertheless, he played well in overtime when the Caps needed him to. “That’s when you need the goalie to make the big save,” said Boudreau.
Power play? Good and bad. The first two, especially the second, were awful, with the Caps struggling to even maintain possession of the puck through those first four minutes they were up a man. But the power play kicked in when DC needed it most, giving them the lead late in the third and then the winner in overtime. Boudreau experimented with Alex Ovechkin on the point again (sigh) early but then switched to a primarily two defenseman setup down the stretch, including the final goal. It’s still a work in progress, but it was nice to see some improvement after a disastrous campaign with the man advantage last year.
The Capitals are set to practice tomorrow morning at 11 AM at Kettler. Their next game is home against the Lightning on Monday; puck drop for that contest is set for 7 P.M. Follow me on Twitter here for all your practice needs.