Ovi hot like Olympic torch. (Reuters Euro)
The Washington Capitals won their home opener in classic Capitals fashion on Thursday night at Verizon Center, defeating the Calgary Flames 5-4 in a shootout. After finding themselves in 3-0 and 4-1 holes, the home side battled back with two goals from Alex Ovechkin and Connor Carrick, who opened his NHL account in really cool fashion with a breakaway goal. Nicklas Backstrom then scored his first goal of the season with 5:50 remaining in regulation to send the game in to overtime on an absolutely nifty set-up from Mikhail Grabovski in front. Following a scoreless overtime period dominated by Calgary territorially, Grabovski and then Ovechkin scored in the shootout while Calgary was kept off the board by Michal Neuvirth. Washington is now 1-1-0 on the young season.
Despite the win, the defense in this game by Washington was once again next-level awful, especially at the start. There were breakdowns, missed assignments, and just bad play by seemingly every Capitals defenseman – and the result was a see-saw game against a poor team. This was a problem last year, and nothing has changed this offseason as George McPhee didn’t have any cap room to bring in some new rearguards. As I wrote last week, the top three is solid, but the bottom three leaves a LOT to be desired and with a forward corps generally tuned to try and generate offense, the Caps will likely have to rely on hot goaltending to keep them in games – defensively at least. That wasn’t entirely the case in the later stages of Thursday’s game, as the penalty kill came up huge on a 5-on-3 midway through the third, but you get the feeling that will be the refrain this year.
That goaltending from Braden Holtby was not very good Thursday, as he allowed three goals on 11 shots in just over 16:30 of work. He’s off to a slow start, as he was last year after two games, but the defense isn’t helping him. The play of the goalies is least concerning to me still right now, as they need some help; but when you’re the goalie for a team who allows a lot of shots, like Washington, you need to be on top of your game almost every night to win. Hopefully that comes soon for Braden.
Neuvirth was solid in relief, however, when he didn’t misplay pucks behind the net – 27 saves on 28 shots, many of them exceptional. You probably won’t hear many people talk about it because he’s “soft,” “bad,” and a “waste of money,” but whatever. Once again, having two good, young, cheap goalies is a good thing. I give Michal the start in Dallas.
Alex Ovechkin has been a man possessed over the first two games of the season, with a power play goal in both contests and a fantastic even-strength marker Thursday from the top of the circle. Washington’s captain was at the center of the comeback effort, throwing his weight around and rifling shots at Karri Ramo from all over the ice. He is a dominant offensive player, especially when he is in a groove like this, and Adam Oates has done wonders to help him turn it around along with Blaine Forsythe, the video coach. Ride him while he’s hot, boys.
Jack Hillen went down early in the opening period, less than two minutes after getting beat clean for Calgary’s first goal by David Jones. He took a hit along the boards in the defensive zone and his knee gave out, as he was unable to put any weight on it. Hillen has struggled to open the season, so his loss likely isn’t huge, but it sucks to see a guy go down like that. This opens a lineup spot for Alexander Urbom, claimed off waivers Thursdsay, and hopefully paves the way for a Dmitry Orlov callup.
One final note here: Tom Wilson and Martin Erat, who are supposed to be x-factors big enough that they cost the Capitals two good young forwards on their roster, both barely played six minutes on Thursday night and closed with two shifts in the third period and overtime. That is very, very worrisome.
Overall, this was just a weird game. A horrid first 20 minutes put the Capitals in a big hole against a bad team, but they found a way to battle back and tie it with a prolific offensive effort, once again aided by a power play marker. Grabovski is amazing, Ovechkin is on fire. This season is shaping up like last season’s late surge, as told by my good friend Paul Oxley – an excellent offense, poor positional play in the defensive zone, a scintillating power play, and back-and-forth games night in and night out. Buckle up, guys, it’s going to be one hell of an interesting, entertaining, and at times massively frustrating ride.