The Washington Capitals began the 2007/2008 season on the road against the Thrashers on Friday night, and it was the first chance that Caps fans have had to truly gauge their off-season acquisitions and changes. After a 3-1 win that saw two of the goals scored by new recruits, so far they look good.
Victor Kozlov and Michael Nylander both scored goals in their 2007 debuts; but perhaps more importantly, they help set a tone that was very different than any set last season. Washington brought a ton of speed and offense into Atlanta, and threw everything at Thrashers goaltender Kari Lehtonen for 60 minutes. The Capitals registered 40 shots on goal - more than any total that they managed last year (38).
The Capitals took the lead half-way through the first period on a power play when Nylander picked up the puck in the corner after some good puck work from rookie Nicholas Backstrom. Nylander found a soft spot low in the zone, came out in front of the net, and buried what could be the first of many power play goals. Backstrom was credited with the assist, giving him his first National Hockey League point.
The nineteen year old didn't look at all out of place in his first ever NHL appearance; coach Glen Hanlon thought as much as well, "For a player still not 20 years old, we have great expectations for him. ... He seemed to be in the right spot all night, on offense and defense."
Just over two minutes later, John Erskine stretched the Caps lead to two with an unassisted blast from the point. The Thrashers coughed up the puck in their own zone and it came out to Erskine who was waiting on the blue line. He hammered a one-timer past Lehtonen at 12:03 of the first period for what would ultimately be the game winner, and at the time, give Washington a 2-0 lead.
It stayed that way for most of the second period, but with just over five minutes to go in the frame, Bryan Little cut the lead in half. On a goal that Brent Johnson would love to have back, Little picked up a rebound at the side of the net and threw it back out in front. The puck caromed off of Johnson's pad into the net, and gave the Thrashers some jump as the lead was back to just one at 2-1.
Despite the somewhat weak goal, Johnson played a great game for Washington, stopping 28 of the 29 shots that he faced. He was solid when it mattered most, and made some good saves early in the third to keep his team ahead. Considering that the Capitals took just 20 points in the 30 games that Johnson appeared in last season (6-16-8), a win is a win, and a win on the road, is a big win. Washington needs to be able to count on Johnson to play 20 or more games again this year to keep Kolzig fresh.
Washington's final goal came on a deflection five minutes into the third period. Mike Green fired a shot from the point, and Kozlov tipped it past Lehtonen for the Caps third goal and a 3-1 lead; but the goal was all Alex Ovechkin. Ovechkin picked up the puck in Atlanta's end and skated around with it until there was an opening. With the puck glued to his stick, he circled behind the Thrashers net, around the bottom of the circle, and fired a cross-ice pass on to the tape of Green's stick. Green quickly snapped it on goal for Kozlov to tip in, and Ovechkin had yet another point against Atlanta.
The Russian superstar has always been a force against the Thrashers. The assist on Kozlov's goal was Ovie's 29th point against Atlanta in just two seasons plus a game - more than any other team has given up to Ovechkin.
If an away win that saw 40 shots on goal isn't enough of a positive to take out of the Capitals' first game, there were other superlatives to talk about as well:
Tom Poti logged a monstrous 28 minutes in his first game on the Capitals blue line; that's almost half the game that Hanlon was able to get his top new defenseman on the ice. In a very young defense corps, having a veteran that can log so much ice, drastically affects the overall experience of the group.
Alexander Semin didn't even play and the Capitals were still offensively sound. Semin stayed home to rest an injured ankle, and Washington didn't seem to miss a beat. In 2006, the Caps proved time and time again that if you could shut down either Alex, or better yet both of them, then you were going to beat them nine times out of ten. It's only one game, but it looks as though that may be a stigma that can no longer be attached to this team.
Commissioner Gary Bettman seemed to think that might be the case. He was a guest in the Comcast TV booth and at one point said the following of this new Caps roster, "It doesn't matter how much you spend, as long as you're in the range... and you spent wisely to build your team the right way."
Considering last night's performances by Nylander, Kozlov, Backstrom and Poti, owner Ted Leonsis and General Manager George McPhee certainly appear to have spent the money wisely.
Only time will tell.
Notes: Washington have their home-opener at the Verizon Center on Saturday night against the Carolina Hurricanes. It will be Caps' fans first opportunity to see the smoking new red RBK uniforms that were introduced recently. Tickets are still available for the game, so get out and support the new Caps regime.