Capitals clip Flyers in overtime but questions still linger

The Capitals have found their sea legs.

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(Photo: Associated Press)

Long story short

Alex Ovechkin is tied for third in the league with 18 points, but is he still the transcendent player Capitals fans know and love?

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Washington is on top of the Eastern Conference standings after taking two points from the Flyers on Sunday with a 3-2 overtime win at Verizon Center. The two teams are now tied with 20 points but the Capitals get the tie-breaker with more notches in the win column.

The Capitals have enough talent to keep winning in the regular season, even against the top teams like Philadelphia and Boston, as has been seen these last two games, but something seems off. It is not quite rotten in Denmark, but the landscape smells circumspect.

“I think we played really two really good teams in Boston and Philly,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “Those were good tests for us, I think. It is getting better and better and hopefully we can continue this and on the road.”

Perhaps it is the captain.

Alexander Ovechkin does not seem to be his usual self so far this season. He has the points and the goals, ranking ninth and third in the league in those categories, respectively, but the cocky thump that has defined the Russian superstar to start his career does not seem to be present 14 games into this season.

There was a play in the second period where Ovechkin had a Flyer lined up in the corner for what could have been a crowd raising hit with playmaking potential, but Ovechkin let his prey go with nary a shove. Two years ago he would have made that hit. Then another one right after it.

The official stat line will tell you that Ovechkin registered a team-high four hits on the evening, but that is deceptive. He skated in 21 shifts for 23:02 of ice time, tops among Capitals forwards and as the king banana of the Capitals he is going to draw a fair amount of attention. Hence, the hits will come by virtue of  opportunity (also, the hometown scorer may be a little friendly to Ovie).

Overall, the Capitals were out-hit by Philadelphia 30 to 17. In the blocked shots department, the Flyers had an advantage of 23 to 14. For a team that thought this was one of their more “complete” efforts of the season, those stats are a little troubling. At the same time, Washington did rain shots on Flyer goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (39 total) so part of the low numbers are because Washington had the puck longer, but the margins are still disturbing.

The effort from the top line on Sunday had a hint of what could have been apathy. The Flyers were on the backend of a back-to-back and had played three games in four days and were, admittedly, not on top of their game.

“If we are being honest, not at our best,” Flyer coach Peter Laviolette said. “I thought we played our best in the third period. The heart was there to go out and compete and battle, but we could have been better.

If Ovechkin, Backstom and Alexander Semin had really wanted to, they could have broke the game open in the first two periods. But somehow, the unit was off.

Coach Bruce Boudreau noticed.

“I thought that the first period-and-a-half that Semin and Ovie and Nicky looked a little off and so I wanted to make a change,” Boudreau said.

So, late in the second period and at times in the third, Mike Knuble moved back up to the top line where he actually started the year, with Semin on the second unit. Semin scored on the power play in a sequence where Ovechkin shot one of his patented rockets from the dot, the rebound kicked out to Backstrom on the other side and the center hit Semin coming down the slot to make it a 2-2 game at 8:54 in the second period.

“I saw Ovie was shooting then saw that it was in front of me and saw that Sasha was open so it was a good power play goal,” Backstrom said.

Boudreau kept his top unit together for a couple more series but as the game wore on and defense became more of an issue, Knuble played more with Backstrom and Ovechkin.

“Semin scored on the power play and I said OK, we will keep it there,” Boudreau said. “But in the third period I thought about throwing them back together because I wanted to get that goal. I thought that if I could get the right line combinations, I wouldn't be worried as much defensively.”

Ovechkin and his line mates will get their points. They are the only three players on the team that have broken the double digit mark in points so far in the season and each will be among the league leaders in points. This is a product of their talent but also has a lot to do with Boudreau’s style and the big minutes the coach has them play. There is a question of if Boudreau is leaning on them too much and tiring them, but that will have an answer in due time as the season wears along.

Yet, the Capitals keep on winning. They are now 7-1-0 at home and are 5-0-0 in overtime, courtesy of Mike Green’s game-winner 29 seconds into the extra frame (Backstrom and Knuble got the assists). Despite the lack of transcendent play that the Capitals are used to from Ovechkin, the team is doing things well.

For the second straight game Washington held a quality opponent to a pittance of shots through two periods (nine against Boston, 17 for from the Flyers, though it had been only 12 with a few minutes left in the period). After some early season troubles moving the puck, Backstrom and his fellow centers, along with the puck-moving defensemen, have figured out the neutral zone enough to keep the attack moving in the right direction. And, once again, the third line brought a lot of energy and came away with a goal, thanks to a hustle and wrist shot by Eric Fehr late in the first period.

So, yes, the Capitals are rolling. Almost, but not quite, like they were last year when they were a juggernaut from start to finish.

“I think that the whole team is playing better and we are following our game plan that we set up before the game,” Backstrom said. “That is our key, I think. We are forechecking good then we are scoring on our chances so I think that is really important right now.”

Two solids wins should help Washinton’s confidence as well as the top perch in the conference come Monday morning. The Capitals can compete and in the first week of November, Boudreau is happy with that.

“I know that we can compete against better teams. We are in the mix,” Boudreau said. “I am not saying that we are better or worse but we are in the mix and we can compete against better teams.”

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