Saturday, December 8, 2007

I Love You, Coach Boudreau: Part II (Caps over Thrashers, 6-3)

...or: Why Mike Green Should be an All-Star

Capitals 6, Thrashers 3

"Wow, the Capitals working very hard here in the first period. They must have gotten a very strong message last night, even beyond Pothier sitting out."

So said one of the Thrashers television commentators a little more than halfway through the first period, with the Capitals up 2-0 and buzzing around the Thrashers' zone.

The first period in tonight's game was the complete antithesis of the first period against New Jersey is almost every way - the Caps came out with a snarl, looked energized and aggressive, and finished the period with a two goal advantage. The most notable improvement was the forechecking, as the Capitals put pressure on the Thrashers' players every time the puck was in their zone. Not only does aggressive forechecking yield the commonly talked-about advantages of wearing out the other team, keeping the puck out of your own zone and generating more scoring chances, it helps you to draw penalties as the opposition gets tired and frustrated, something that's especially true in the post-lockout NHL. That Capitals saw that first hand tonight, drawing five penalties in the game's first twenty-five minutes (one was waived off due to Schultz's goal).

Why, why, why does it feel so good to beat the Thrashers? Their ugly uniforms? Their whiny, poutey, superstar who can't control his temper (and who once grabbed Chris Clark by the facial protection Clark was wearing after breaking his palate bone and pulled)? Retribution against Don Waddell for ruining the U.S. Olympic team? Because I live in Atlanta? Whatever the reason, this was a very satisfying win.

One question I'm toying with is this: was the game closer than the score or not as close? On the one hand the Capitals controlled the play most of the game and the Thrashers' last two goals came late enough that they weren't really a threat. On the other hand the Capitals only outshot the Thrashers by one (27-26) and had at least one lucky goal (Ovechkin's), one caused by the Thrashers' player running over his own goalie (Pettinger's) and one that where Kari Lehtonen just should have made the stop (Green's second).

I'm inclined to say that the game really wasn't quite as close as the score. Yes, Ovechkin and Pettinger scored goals that were at least somewhat lucky but they were also good plays by the Capitals. Plus, on the Thrashers' last two goals Olaf Kolzig didn't look too great - they weren't scored as the result of the Capitals being clearly outplayed

That note brings me to another question mark: Kolzig's inconsistent play in this game (one goal on eighteen shots through periods one and two; two goals on eight shots in the third). Early on Kolzig looked like a man on a mission, not surprising as his career success, veteran status and competitive nature probably meant he was upset about being called out by Boudreau, and hence indeed was a man on a mission. Still, those third period goals were pretty weak. Here's hoping they were just the result of a 37-year-old playing on back-to-back nights getting tired in a game that was already decided.

All things considered, a stellar effort for the Caps and much of the credit must go to Coach Boudreau. This team could easily have shrugged off last night's loss against the Devils as a decent game and the result of bad luck and come out flat again against Atlanta. Instead the team came out flying, playing like they were hell-bent on winning and, just as importantly, like they expected to win. Quite a change from the Hanlon days when the team looked like they were merely hoping to win.

SportsSouth aired a brief pre-game interview with Boudreau in between the first and second period. As part of it Boudreau said (this is a little paraphrasing):
We won't accept mediocrity and we shouldn't accept mediocrity. There might be guys who want to look at it as 'oh, well we lost by one goal to New Jersey and we outshot them in the last two periods' and think that's enough. That's not enough.
and then went on to talk about how what mattered was winning, essentially giving a roundabout explanation as to why there are no moral victories at this point for the Capitals.

Boudreau's approach is quite refreshing after Hanlon's. With Hanlon the impression was that if the Capitals came out and outshot the other team and were the better team for the last two periods it would be considered a successful night. There was nothing wrong with that approach initially; in fact it was the right one while the Capitals were more concerned with developing their young players than their win-loss record. The problem was that attitude had carried over into this season, where the emphasis is on the win-loss record. With Boudreau behind the bench it's not going to be okay to play fifty-five good minutes out of sixty, and wins and losses are measured by the final score alone. Boudreau has said several times that it's his job to prepare the team to the point where they think they will win every night. I can't speak for the team, but his attitude has me believing they can pick up two points any and every time out...and unwilling to accept less.

DMG's 3 Stars
(1) Mike Green - 2 goals, +3
(2) Nicklas Backstrom - 1 goal, 2 assists, +3
(3) Alexander Ovechkin - 1 goal, 1 assist, +3, 5 shots

Quick Hits
  • The Caps first penalty of the game, to Erskine was painful for two reasons. First of all, what's happening in this league when you can't even hit a guy as the puck is getting to him? Secondly, if the refs had called intereference like that in Jersey on Friday the Caps would have spent 40% of the game on the powerplay.
  • The wave at a Caps game? I can't remember the last time I saw that!
  • Garnet Exelby should have been called for kneeing Kozlov in the second period. It wasn't intentional, but it was still a knee and needed to be called.
  • Speaking of Excelby, he's a tough one on the blue line. Imagine if Atlanta had him and Dion Phaneuf patrolling back there. Could have happened if Don Waddell hadn't decided to pick Braydon Coburn with the eight overall pick, leaving Phaneuf for the Flames at #9.
  • Speaking again of Excelby, how did he make it through the game without being beat down by Brashear?
  • Man, from the goals he has scored it seems weird to me that Nicklas Backstrom was only shooting 5% coming into Saturday's game.
  • Three Capitals had three hits: Brashear, Erskine, Ovechkin and Jeff Shultz (!) (bet you didn't see that one coming).
  • The Thrasher;s announcers were pretty adamant Holik didn't hit Matt Pettinger from behind, or even from the side, in the second. Didn't look that way to me.
  • Fantastic decision to pinch by Green on the play that led to his first goal.
  • Does anyone get more excited when their teammates score than Alex Ovechkin?
  • Marian Hossa had a very quiet night - I didn't hear his name until 10:45 had gone in the third.
  • Milan Jurcina had one play in the second where he cleared the net by putting a guy right on his butt and a big hit on Chris Thorburn (who drew a retaliatory penalty) in the third. Quite different from when Jurcina tried to explain a holding penalty by saying the Capitals wanted him to play physical. I guess he's getting things figured out.
  • I really wish John Erskine were a decent skater because it's great to have his attitude in front of the net.
  • Against New Jersey he was zipping around the ice, drew penalties and scored a nice goal. Against Atlanta he drew at least one more penalty, picked up an assist and broke Kari Lehtonen's mask with a wrist shot. Alexander Semin looks like he's finally back.
  • And now for the unsung hero section - Quintin Laing. Late in the second the was not only tough around the net, he tried to goad Ilya Kovalchuk into a fight. Laing is the prototypical NHl fourth-liner: hustles every second he's on the ice, fights for puck, blocks shots. At this point I'd like to see him in the lineup over Bradley if the Caps ever get healthy enough that they have to make that decision.

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