The Washington Capitals have nothing but pride left to play for in the 2006/07 season. Eliminated from the playoffs weeks ago, Washington's only role in playing out the remaining games, is that of the spoiler. On Thursday night, a win over the division-leading rival Atlanta Thrashers, did just that. Alex Ovechkin got two second period goals, and Brent Johnson stopped 30 of 32 shots to eke out a 3-2 road win for the Capitals.
It looked ominous for Washington in the beginning; Atlanta scored just over a minute into the game. When Ilya Kovalchuk took a Scott Mellanby pass and beat Johnson on the first shot, it looked like the goaltender was in for a long evening in his first appearance since Olaf Kolzig returned from injury. Johnson buckled down quickly though, and the Capitals were able to get out of a first period down by just one goal, despite being badly outplayed, and outshot 10-3.
Washington had a lot more pep in their step in the second period though. They began to get to the net and Thrashers' goalie Kari Lehtonen, and Boyd Gordon was rewarded for their play at almost exactly the half-way point. Gordon scored on Washington's tenth shot and evened the game at 1-1.
Then, the Alex Ovechkin show began.
While it slightly belittles some other good efforts by Capitals' players, this game was all Ovechkin. He simply took over the game in the second period registering four shots, and scoring on two of them.
His first goal came on the power play and got a monkey off of his back. The scoring machine had actually only registered one goal in the last twenty-three games on the power play, but he ended the slump in style. He took a Bryan Muir pass at the top of the circle, took a stride towards goal as he surveyed the net, and surgically picked out the far top corner to beat Lehtonen high glove-side. Ovechkin had his 45th of the season, and the Capitals had their first lead of the game at 2-1 with just over six minutes to play in the second period.
The goal really lit a fire under Alex. Seemingly two strides ahead of everyone, and hellbent on making something happen, he was a one-man wrecking crew. When he picked up a loose puck off of a turnover on his off wing at the Thrashers' blue line, you could sense another goal before it even happened. Ovie broke to the net, head up and looking at his target, and again he picked out the far top corner. It was high blocker side this time, and the unassisted marker was another piece of goal scoring poetry to give Washington a 3-1 lead with less than a minute to go in the second period.
It was Ovechkin's 46th of the season, and his ninth against the Thrashers in eight games this season. The two-goal game was his second of the season in Atlanta, and he also registered his only hat trick of 2006/07 there on December 15th. After the game, Ovechkin said, "I just like this place. It wasn't my best game, but it may have been the best one when we won."
Alex now needs just two goals to reach 100 for his career; he is tied with Ottawa Senators' Dany Heatley for top goal scorer in the last two seasons (98). Alex has also played in every single game for Washington this season - the only Capital to do so. Every night he's a target. Every night he's all that teams worry about on the Caps, and despite a few extended dry spells that put a huge hurting on his final goal output, he is still third in league scoring. That is truly phenomenal.
All that was left for Washington to do was to hang onto the lead in the third period, something they have struggled mightily with since the Christmas break. They got an unforeseen break when Atlanta coach Bob Hartley benched their best player - Ilya Kovalchuk. It still wouldn't come easily.
Johnson was solid in net for Washington, and the Thrashers couldn't beat him until late in the third period. The Capitals even got a break when it appeared as though Atlanta had scored to get back within one with eight minutes to go in the game, but the goal was disallowed. Eric Boulton was called for a high-stick, and the high-stick drew blood, so not only was the goal disallowed, but the Thrashers would have to kill a four-minute penalty.
Unfortunately for the Capitals, not only did Atlanta succeed in killing the penalty, but a short-handed goal from Andy Sutton at 15:32, and suddenly it was 3-2 with the Thrashers surging.
Washington's Brooks Laich drew a delay of game penalty with just a minute and a half to go trying to dump the puck out, and gave Atlanta a one man-advantage. Atlanta pulled goaltender Lehtonen to give themselves a two-man advantage.
Coach Hartley decided that Kovalchuk didn't really need to sit for the entire twenty minutes to prove his point, and put him on the ice for his first shift of the third. It seemed that the Thrashers were destined to even the score.
Then Milan Jurcina was penalized for slashing with just 45 seconds to play, and Atlanta had a three-man advantage. Rarely does a hockey game see a six-on-three situation, how could the Capitals possibly withstand the onslaught?
Johnson was a wall, and stymied all Thrashers attempts, to back-stop the Capitals to just their ninth win in their last 38 games. In all, he stopped 30 shots in what was one of his best outings of the season. The last 45 seconds were tense, but the Thrashers couldn't capitalize, and Johnson and the Capitals prevailed.
After the game, Johnson commented on the late man power situation, "It (the end of the game) was pretty frightening. Especially when you are facing a team with their fire power. It felt like there were nine guys out there (for Atlanta)."
Glen Hanlon summed it up succingtly in the post-game press conference, "He (Ovechkin) was sensational. For us, it's a character win."
While it may seem insignificant to the playoff hopefuls, the win presented the Capitals with a moral victory of sorts. Washington now has 70 points this season to equal their output in 2005/06. Considering the roster purge at the trade deadline, and countless significant injuries, it has to be somewhat uplifting to officially not be going backwards in 2006/07.
Washington will get one opportunity to better last year's output; but it will come against the league's second best team - the Buffalo Sabres. Washington fans get their last opportunity to see Ovechkin and the Capitals this year, in a Saturday matinée game (1:00pm) at the Verizon Center.
The loss could end up proving costly for Atlanta. The Tampa Bay Lightning now sit just one point back of them in the division standings with two games left to go for each. Due to the fact that the three division leaders are guaranteed a top three conference playoff seeding, it's a very big deal. If the Thrashers can't hold on, it would mean the difference between a third seed, and a sixth seed (it could even end up being the seventh seed with how tight the conference standings are). That not only means a drop of three seeds, but the loss of home-ice advantage in the first round. Ironically, if the teams finish third and sixth, that series would be against each other.
Olaf Kolzig Nominated For Bill Masterton Trophy Olie has been nominated for the NHL’s Bill Masterton Trophy by the Washington chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. The trophy is awarded annually to the player who 'best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.'
The NHL couldn't make a better choice for the award. http://admin.washingtoncaps.com/news/news.asp?story_id=4756
Washington Capitals' Fan Appreciation Day The Capitals' final game of the 2006/07 season is on saturday at 1:00pm and it is also Fan Appreciation Day .
All fans in attendance will get an Alex Ovechkin banner, and Capitals' alumnae like Rod Langway, Sylvain Cote, Bobby Gould, Gaetan Duchesne, Lou Franceschetti, Pat Peake, Alan May and more will be on hand to sign autographs before the game.
Last Game: Sabres The Sabres are obviously already in the playoffs and have actually even clinched the Eastern Conference Championship, but they are just one point behind the Detroit Red Wings in the quest for the President's Cup trophy as the league's best team in the regular season. The Sabres have three games left - Thursday, Saturday and Sunday - all against teams that will not make the playoffs (Bruins, Capitals, Flyers respectively).
Buffalo has been battling giant injury problems all year long with huge success. At times, they have had as many as eight guys in the lineup that were call-ups from their AHL affiliate team in Rochester. It's doubtful that the Sabres will need to 'rest' anyone for the playoffs, as many of their key injuries are just getting back into the line-up anyway. Regardless, the Sabres have proven that they can field just about anyone in 2006/07 and still win hockey games consistently.
Washington will get a good taste of what they need to aspire to be on Saturday afternoon.