1. Let’s be honest – Carolina goalie Cam Ward is the only reason that wasn’t a 5-0 or 6-0 win for the Capitals on Tuesday night at Verizon Center. His glove save on Joel Ward with an entire net to shoot at was one of the NHL’s best of the season. Washington goalie Braden Holtby wasn’t tested in nearly the same way by the Hurricanes, though he did finish with 33 saves. But a 2-on-0 glove save against former teammate Alex Semin on the penalty kill during a scoreless game? That will play just fine.
“That’s a game-changer right there,” Caps forward Troy Brouwer said “They go up 1-0 it’s a different game.”
It was Holtby’s second shutout of the season. He didn’t look great early on this year, but in this stretch of seven consecutive games started he has a 2.01 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage. With Michal Neuvirth ill and rookie Philipp Grubauer recalled from AHL Hershey this morning, Holtby will almost certainly be on the ice again tonight in Philadelphia.
2. After a couple of days of hype I think the players were tired of discussing Semin, their former teammate. Whatever you want to say about him, there’s no question the skilled right wing was a point-producing machine during his time in Washington. And if Brouwer wasn’t particularly gentle discussing Semin the other day, other teammates were more neutral. And there was nothing new on Tuesday that we hadn’t all seen before. Just the usual moments of wizardry where the puck seemed glued to his stick and a wrist shot that can beat any goalie on the planet at any time.
Semin took four shots on goal, had three more blocked and missed the net twice. He was on the ice for Caps defenseman John Erskine’s goal. But the defining moment was getting beat by Holtby on the 2-on-0 early in the game. Given his stated desire to play more short-handed minutes last season – and his frustration when that never happened – it would have been an especially sweet way to score for Semin.
“A guy like that is never easy to play against if he’s on his game,” Holtby said. “If he decides to play, he could be the best player in the world, so you have to be aware of that and, like any skill player like that, you have to be aware of where he is on the ice all the time.”
But otherwise there were no fireworks. Semin was booed roundly by the crowd when he touched the puck and earned the traditional “whooping” cheer that often follows prominent ex-Caps. But his presence didn’t appear to be a distraction – just a lot of words exchanged back-and-forth between Caps and Hurricanes with Semin, as usual, remaining silent.
“Definitely my generation I don’t think that would’ve happened. It’s just a little bit more the social media and the way people talk and Twitter,” Washington coach Adam Oates said of the back-and-forth. “It’s different. The guy came in, the fans booed him, it happens to players. It’s a difficult situation when a guy’s on a team for a while and they move. I thought both teams did a good job of ignoring it.”
3. Don’t think the Caps were unaware of Carolina’s injury situation. Defensemen Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason and Jamie McBain (upper-body injury) were all out Tuesday. Forward Jeff Skinner, the team’s third-leading scorer with seven goals and seven assists, was down as well with a concussion
“When they got a few younger guys on their back end, they’re missing some key guys, it’s no secret: you’ve got to get pucks in deep and make them work 200 feet,” Joel Ward said. “We tried to wear them down as much as we can and pin them in their own zone. When teams are missing key players, you’ve got to make use of it and obviously get pucks in deep.”
4. So how close are the Caps to really understanding what Oates wants at all times and all over the ice? This is a work-in-progress. It will probably never get to a point this season, with 30 games left, where this system is just second nature. But when pressed he said “60, 70 percent.”
“It’s not automatic. Guys are still making decisions from habits from before, from whatever team they were on or whatever system it was,” Oates said. “It’s still not automatic all the time. We have waves of it where it looks automatic. But then we shoot ourselves in the foot a little bit.”
Still – in a span of 8:26 in the first half of the second period the Caps put 11 shots on goal and could have scored far more than just Erskine’s low, hard goal off the rush. At one point in the period Washington was outshooting the Hurricanes 14-3. It looked like the old days.
“Cam Ward stood on his head. That’s the only reason it was even close because, by far, that’s the best I’ve seen us play probably since I’ve been in the organization,” said Holtby, who made his debut during the 2010-11 regular season. “That 10-minute span was outstanding. It was a good sign.”
5. The power play continues to hum with yet another goal. This one came in the first period when Nicklas Backstrom strolled to the front of the net and deflected Mike Riberio’s pass home after some nice puck movement. That all started with Alex Ovechkin’s cross-ice feed. Make it 13-for-30 (43.3 percent) on the PP since a Feb. 3 loss to Pittsburgh and nine games in 10 with at least one power-play goal. The Caps are second in the league overall (28.6 percent) behind only St. Louis.
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