DETROIT — The Capitals departed warm and muggy Tampa Bay — where it was 76 degrees after Washington’s 3-2 win over the host Lightning last night — for cold and snowy Detroit, where it is currently 27 degrees. It was snowing when we pulled in here just before 2 a.m. today, and it’s still snowing this afternoon. I’m not really sure how much snow is on the ground. This weather shock rivals one we endured last January when we left 81-degree Miami for sub-zero Ottawa.
Today is a richly deserved day off for the team. Tomorrow, the Caps face the league’s best and hottest team in what will be Washington’s seventh game in 11 nights.
After letting a winnable game slip through their fingers at home against Buffalo on Friday, Saturday’s triumph qualifies as a character win for the Caps. Washington was determined to keep the Lightning to two goals or less and it did so. Vincent Lecavalier got his two points, but the Caps kept Marty St. Louis in check, even though he skated 27:04. St. Louis averages 24:44 a night and he had three goals and six points in the previous three meetings between the Caps and Bolts, so neutralizing him was key.
With the rugged start they had this season, the Caps are in a position where it’s important for them to win games in chunks, and to avoid losing them in chunks.
“I think it was a real important game to always show that you can bounce back,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau after the game. “And it was a team win because I thought everybody contributed. Alex [Ovechkin] said to me coming off the ice, ‘It wasn’t my night.’ On a night like that when everybody else can step up, that’s a good indicator of you becoming a good team.”
The Caps got goals from less-than-likely sources in Tomas Fleischmann, Dave Steckel and Brian Pothier. Both Fleischmann and Pothier had been healthy scratches recently, and Steckel’s goal was his second of the season.
Fleischmann has been a prolific scorer in the AHL, and I asked Boudreau before last night’s game about the difference between that Fleischmann and the one we’ve seen in the NHL.
“He’s got to think a little quicker, and I talked to him about this today,” said Boudreau. “In the AHL, he would be able to go right next to a guy and make a move and the guy wouldn’t be able to react to him. The sticks are so much better and the positioning is so much better here. He’s trying the same stuff but at the same time he’s got to do that a second earlier. If he does that, then he’ll be successful.
“You watch him in practice and he has the moves and he has the great vision. You scratch your head when he’s not successful on a consistent basis, because we’ve seen him play great games. I told him, ‘We need more consistency out of you if you’re going to be a top six forward.’”
Fleischmann’s goal was his first in more than a month, and it came a night after he sat out as a healthy scratch in a 5-3 loss to the Sabres.
“I don’t know who I’ve got to sit out next,” joked Boudreau. “It was great to see Flash [score]. He has always been one of my favorite guys and for him to get two points is [great]. He can make the plays. He’s just got to be determined and he’s got to say, ‘Okay, I can’t be satisfied with that. I’m going to do the same thing on Monday against the team that traded me.’”
The Caps have now defeated all four Southeast Division rivals since Boudreau took over and are 4-1-1 vs. Southeast foes with Boudreau behind the bench.
Here’s another interesting sidebar bit from last night’s game. (And for even more interesting sidebar bits on Saturday night’s win in Tampa Bay, check out my postgame notebook.) Pothier’s game-winner came on a third period power play. That power play came about when Lightning defenseman Shane O’Brien clipped Caps center Brooks Laich with a high stick in the corner to the left of the Tampa Bay goal. No stranger to the penalty box, O’Brien has logged 71 PIM in 33 games and ranks ninth in the league in that department.
The tussle between O’Brien and Laich ended up being the key play of the game. And it drew the ire of Lightning coach John Tortorella.
“We’re taking too many penalties,” said the Tampa Bay coach after the game. “[O’Brien’s] got to be responsible with that stick. He’s had a problem with that all year.”
It wasn’t the first time Laich and O’Brien have tangled on the frozen sheet.
Back in the spring of 2006, Boudreau’s Hershey Bears roared their way to a Calder Cup championship. Their biggest hurdle was a hard-fought, seven-game Eastern Conference finals series with the Portland Pirates. O’Brien was a member of that Pirates team, a hard-nosed defenseman who logged a lot of ice time, played a chippy style and was not averse to running his mouth.
“We go back,” Laich said of he and O’Brien, after Saturday’s win in Tampa. “We have a little history that goes back to the Hershey-Portland series. It was just a battle in the corner, he got his stick up on me and he started running his mouth. Petty makes a great pass to Potsie, and Potsie puts it top shelf and that ends up being the difference. It’s something that we talked about before the game, winning the special teams battle. We get one on the power play, they don’t and we win by one.
“I guess Tom Brady said it best a couple weeks ago, ‘Well done is better than well said.’ At that time I wasn’t interested in getting into a chirping match. Fifteen minutes left in the game and we needed that win. Fortunately, we got it.”
Finally, I’ll leave you with this thought. I could see Brent Johnson getting the start here tomorrow when the Caps take on the Wings.
Neither Caps goaltender has had particularly great success against the Red Wings during his career. Including the playoffs, Johnson is 2-8 lifetime against the Wings. His last win against Detroit came in a Stanley Cup playoff game on May 7, 2002. His only regular season win over the Wings was less than a month before that.
Kolzig is 2-12-1 lifetime against the Wings, including the 1998 Stanley Cup finals. His last win over Detroit came on Oct. 31, 2000 at MCI Center. In the last 15 years, the only Caps goalies to win here at the Joe are Kolzig (Apr. 7, 2000) and Rastislav Stana (Nov. 24, 2003).
Johnson hails from the Detroit area, and his grandfather (Sid Abel) is a hockey legend in these parts, having played, coached and managed the Wings. A member of the vaunted Production Line, Abel is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and he frequently took his young grandson along to games and practices back in the day.
Futhermore, although he has played sparingly of late, Johnson has played well when he has played. Since the beginning of November, Johnson is 2-1-1 with a 2.12 goals against average and a .920 save pct. in five appearances (four starts). Kolzig is 3-2 in the month of December, but his 3.18 goals against average and .869 save pct. aren’t up to his usual standards.
We’ll know by this time tomorrow. In the meantime, we’re slogging around in the snow here in Hockeytown.
One more thing: with Michael Nylander now back for two games and showing he’s healthy, the Caps today reassigned forward Joe Motzko to Hershey of the AHL. He won’t be playing for the Bears tonight, however. Hershey’s scheduled 5 p.m. game today has been postponed because of inclement weather.