Caps 7, Panthers 1: Five Observations

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Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

1. It’s another three-game winning streak and one game closer to .500 for the Caps, who drubbed the Florida Panthers yet again at Verizon Center on Thursday. They have beaten the Panthers in the District seven times in a row now and outscored them 31-7. The last home loss to Florida was on Dec. 9, 2010. But don’t go expecting this every night. Rookie goalie Jacob Markstrom, one of the top prospects in the world at his position, looked like he still needs some more seasoning. Making just his 12th career start, the native of Gavle, Sweden – also the hometown of Caps center Nicklas Backstrom – gave up two shaky goals early to defenseman John Erskine and forward Wojtek Wolski. His team about packed it in just 3:10 into the game.

“So of course it’s a little bit luck,” Washington forward Alex Ovechkin said. “But we need that kind of luck right now.”

That’s right. You don’t give them back. And the Caps, to their credit, kept pushing even when Scott Clemmensen came into the game in relief. He stopped the first three shots he faced before giving up two quick goals. Less than nine minutes in it was 4-0 and the crowd was chanting “We want wings!” They’d have to wait until the second period before that promotional giveaway was official. But it was only a matter of time.

“I don’t like to hang out anybody to dry,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said before doing exactly that. “But, obviously, I don’t think Jacob Markstrom was ready to play tonight. And the ball started to roll.”

Seven different players scored for Washington and I still think Matt Hendricks’ goal in the third period should have counted, too. He was ruled to have kicked the puck into the net with his skate.

“It’s nice to score a lot of goals,” center Mike Ribeiro said. “It won’t happen often so that, too, I think we need to know. It’s not going to be the same game Saturday and be ready for it.”

Added Caps coach Adam Oates: “Really, right after that, you’re concerned that we’re going to be a little flat. Because the intensity drops really fast. You didn’t really earn the goals. Tough night for their goalies on a couple of them. It’s a good luxury, but after that you’re really concerned that we’re going to lose our intensity and blow this.”

2. Florida defenseman Tyson Strachan will likely hear from the NHL office of player safety after his late hit on Washington forward Jason Chimera in the second period. He drilled Chimera with an elbow/shoulder from the blind side after the puck had been played ahead in the neutral zone. That’s a no-no in the modern NHL. Strachan earned a five-minute major penalty for interference and was ejected. A woozy Chimera lay on the ice for several moments before eventually skating off under his own power. He sat out most of the penalty, but was quickly given a shift with the fourth line late on that power play and only missed 4:47. He took seven shifts in the third period and appeared fine. Dineen offered a tepid defense and Oates said the hit was late.

“I did not see it during the game. I saw the replay, and it’s one of those things,” Washington defenseman Steve Oleksy said. “A guy’s not looking at you and it really didn’t have any effect on the play. It’s tough as a player, but you’ve got to try to find a way to get out of the way on that play. You know a guy’s vulnerable when you’re coming across there and you’ve got to try to make an effort to get out of the way.”

3. Speaking of Oleksy, he was billed as a physical player capable of laying the body and fighting after his surprise signing and recall on Monday. But he did have two goals and 12 assists at Hershey so there is some offensive skill there, too. On Thursday he added a pair of assists to give him three in two NHL games. The first was a primary on Wolski’s goal and the other a secondary assist on Mathieu Perreault’s pretty goal in the third period.

“I’m going to have to tell him it’s not that easy,” said Caps goalie Braden Holtby, who had played with Oleksy in Hershey during the lockout. “That’s good to see. That means he’s moving the puck well. A lot of people call them second assists, but for a D-man that’s your breakout pass. That’s if you’re doing your job then you’re going to get those and obviously he is.”

4. Don’t underestimate the importance of rest here with the schedule about to take a nasty turn. The Caps won the first of three games in four days with back-to-backs coming up Saturday against the New York Islanders on the road and home Sunday against the New York Rangers. Then they have two critical games in a row against the first-place Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday and Thursday of next week. So to have an easy night where Oleksy was the team leader in ice time (22:13) and John Carlson (16:49) and Karl Alzner (17:57) had a relatively light workload was huge. Those two are usually both well over 20 minutes a night and have minutes to eat up with Mike Green (groin) still out.

“Sometimes even if we feel not that good we just have to simple our game,” Ovechkin said. “And of course sometimes it’s hard to do that kind of stuff all the time because the schedule is tight. But we trying and I think the coaching staff do great job to give us a break and give us day offs and time to relax.”   

Doesn’t hurt to have Tom Poti rested and able to slide back into the lineup this weekend, if needed. Jeff Schultz, a healthy scratch against Boston, was the left-side defenseman on the third pairing next to Oleksy. Oates said Thursday he’s not opposed to swapping Poti and Schultz in and out at that position.

5. Have to feel good for Caps forward Eric Fehr, who continues to justify his top-six minutes. That wasn’t exactly the plan when general manager George McPhee re-signed Fehr the day before training camp to bolster his depth at winger. But he’s been a key addition and scored again on Thursday. That gives him six goals and six assists. Fehr has always had the skill – he scored 21 goals in 69 games in 2009-10 after all – but health has always held him back. For now those two surgically repaired shoulders are holding up.

“But you know what, I played junior against that guy so I know what he has, I know what he can bring to any team and he’s proving it right now,” defenseman Karl Alzner said Thursday morning. “[Fehr] gets overlooked sometimes. He’s got an amazing shot, he’s got those long arms and he’s good at dangling the puck out on a string and bringing it back. He’s a big body and those forwards are in there tight and he can crash and bang and make a lot of room for other guys. And that’s what he’s been doing so far. He’s getting a chance and he’s playing himself into a top-two line guy.”

Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14

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