Plenty of Positives

For the first 40 minutes of Sunday’s preseason opener between the Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes, things went about as well as you could hope for the young Washington team. Even with six players playing in their first ever NHL preseason games, the Caps forged a 2-0 lead on Mike Green’s first period goal and a second period power play strike from Nicklas Backstrom.

For the final 20 minutes of the game, the Hurricanes brought a storm of offense and activity in Washington’s end of the ice. After mustering a dozen shots on veteran goaltender Brent Johnson through the first two periods, the Canes fired 17 missiles at untested teenaged rookie Michal Neuvirth in the third, and two more in overtime. Four of them found their mark behind the Washington goaltender, three on the Carolina power play.

As you probably know by now, the Canes prevailed, 4-3.

Losing a 2-0 third period lead and having to settle for a single point in a road game against a division rival would sting particularly hard during the regular season, but not so in the preseason opener with a young club taking the ice.

It’s more or less a meaningless game in the scheme of things, but you can’t tell that to guys who are fighting for jobs or kids who are experiencing the NHL pace for the first time. I wondered about what vets might say to these jittery kids.

“System-wise, we’re not up to where we should be,” said Caps captain Chris Clark afterwards, “and guys know that if they have questions about it. But if they’re working hard and they’re showing that they want to be out here, that’s just the thing. It’s not to be nervous. You get the first couple of shifts under your belt and then it’s a regular hockey game. So don’t look at it as if you’re playing in an NHL game. You’re playing, you’re supposed to be here, you’re in the NHL or in the NHL preseason for a reason, you’re good enough to be here. So take that and just play your game.”

Caps coach Glen Hanlon even singled out one of the rookies who was making his preseason debut for some praise.

“The one player that played better than what I’ve really seen before was Kyle Wilson,” said Hanlon. “He really did some good things out there. He found some people. The game was quick. He made plays under pressure and in tight areas he made some great plays. I thought he played really well.”

Wilson has had a good camp, and he continues to build off his terrific first pro season of 2006-07. But he had company. Most of the Caps looked good.

“There were a lot of positives,” said Clark. “You look at the last goal [against], a 5-on-3 where a guy breaks his stick. If they didn’t score, it would have been a bigger deal. Looking at all the positive things with having such a young lineup and new guys in our system and all that, and how they competed. We had one shift where we held the puck in their zone the whole time and I could hear Glen behind me the whole time [saying], ‘Tape that, we’re going to show that tomorrow.’ It’s great to hear stuff like that because it was a lot of the young guys doing it at the time. I thought we battled really hard, and played really good.”

I believe Joe Motzko, Chris Bourque and Wilson were on the ice during the sequence referenced by Clark.

All four forward lines played well at times. The penalty killing unit was solid for the first 40 minutes, with several players making contributions to the cause. Washington’s top two choices from the last two drafts – Backstrom and defenseman Karl Alzner – were both solid in their first taste of competition against another NHL club. Brent Johnson was strong in goal, stopping all of the dozen shots he faced in the first period.

The Caps youngsters acquitted themselves well overall in Sunday’s opener, and the ones you’d expect to perform the best did. The veterans looked like they had little rust to shake off. All in all, it was a pretty good afternoon. And a hell of an improvement over the team’s preseason opener in Carolina exactly two years ago.

With a police escort through Friday Triangle-area rush hour traffic from the airport to the arena, the Caps’ team buss rolled down the shoulder of the highways around the stopped traffic and arrived at RBC Center at 6:20 for a 7:00 game. The Canes were on the ice for warm-ups and the Caps had to hurriedly dress and get out for the anthem. Playing in the “new NHL” for the first time, Washington surrendered about six first period power plays and was blown out early.

So there’s another example of progress over the last two years. And that’s what we’re all looking for.

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