- Erskine celebrates his game-winning goal (Photo: Associated Press)
It was a game in which neither team played its Sunday best. But a pretty two points count just the same in the standings as an ugly two points, and in the end, it was the Washington Capitals who walked away with the spoils as John Erskine's goal with 6:49 left in regulation broke a 4-4 tie and led to a 6-4 Washington win tonight at the Verizon Center.
The Caps appeared to have control of this game on multiple occasions as they held leads of 2-0 midway through the first period, 3-1 after 20 minutes, and 4-2 after Matt Hendricks chased Atlanta starting goalie Chris Mason with a goal from a tight angle at 2:23 of the second. But the Thrashers responded with two goals from Bryan Little to even the score at 4-4 after two periods.
Neither of the two starting goalies (Mason for Atlanta, Michal Neuvirth for Washington) was particularly sharp, as each gave up four goals in the first 16 shots they faced. Mason was pulled immediately after Hendrick's goal in favor of Ondrej Pavelec, who saved the first 15 shots he faced before Erskine connected on his game-winning slap shot from the left point. David Steckel added an empty-net goal with 37 seconds left to secure the final margin of victory for the Capitals.
In their 18th game of the season, the Capitals kept to the form that has defined them to this point in the fall of 2010: play a close game, play at least one bad period, but win anyway. That's exactly what they did Sunday night, when, less than 24 hours after a tough overtime loss at Buffalo, the Capitals survived a ghastly second period to top the Atlanta Thrashers 6-4 at the Verizon Center.
"It wasn't very good," Capitals head coach Bruce Boudreau said of a period in which he watched his team turn first a 3-1 lead, then a 4-2 lead into a 4-all tie at the second intermission. "It was ugly, but the good thing is, they righted the ship. We talked about not wanting to win these games 6-4. We don't want that reputation. We want to shut teams down."
The Capitals will have to wait at least until they host the Buffalo Sabres Wednesday night to begin building that reputation. But they did build on one characteristic Sunday night that might bode very well for them in the future: a strong finishing kick. After two more third-period goals that secured Sunday night's win, the Capitals have now outscored opponents 24-13 in the third period.
Apart from that small sign of encouragement, there was very little to take from an odd game with a fittingly odd start time (5:00 Sunday afternoon). The bizarre began at 1:30 of the first period, as Thrashers goalie Chris Mason appeared to save an Alexander Ovechkin shot comfortably enough. But in his scramble to control the puck, Mason accidentally knocked it into his own net. That was just the beginning of a long afternoon for Mason, who was often found scrambling around his crease in a manner that suggested that he was new to the position and once, when facing a hard first-period slap shot, appeared to throw up his hands and cower like a five-year-old still learning how to play catch with his father. It felt like an act of mercy when Atlanta coach Craig Ramsay sent on Ondrej Pavelec at 2:23 of the second period, after Matt Henricks's shot from astride the goal line deflected in off Mason's pad to give Washington a 4-2 lead. Pavelec represented an immediate improvement for Atlanta as he stopped the first 14 shots he faced before Erskine's blast got the better of him.
At the other end, however, Michal Neuvirth, making his first start since Thursday's 6-3 win over Tampa Bay, wasn't much sharper. However, much as Mason could claim no contest on two of the four Capitals goals he allowed (Mike Green's goal to make it 2-0 was deflected in front and Alexander Semin's backhander to make it 3-1 was simply brilliant), Neuvirth could claim to have been victimized by bad bounces and poor defending.
To wit: The first Atlanta goal was batted into the net out of mid-air by Rich Peverley. The third goal by Bryan Little was the result of a deflected centering pass that was not properly cleared. And the fourth goal, Little's second of the game, came after Neuvirth had denied Andrew Ladd on a shorthanded breakaway, only to have the puck bounce around his person like a pinball and drop right at Little's skates on the doorstep. Indeed, only the second Atlanta goal, a soft shot from along the goal line by Ladd at 1:12 of the second, can be legitimately claimed to be Neuvirth's fault.
But all that notwithstanding, Neuvirth, like the rest of the Capitals, improved immensely in the third period, stopping all seven shots he faced and earning praise from his coach.
"Neuvirth's been really good in the third period of games," Boudreau said. "He reminds me a lot of Gerry Cheevers [the great Boston goaltender of the 1970s] in that it didn't matter if it was 1-0 or 7-6 as long as he made the big saves at the very end."
Boudreau's statement about his goaltender could be applied to his whole team at this point. They've certainly got the tightrope act down pat.
My Three Stars
-John Erskine- Recorded the game-winning goal, a +2, three blocked shots, and got the better of Eric Boulton in a big-swinging, crowd-pleasing fight, television replays of which appeared to show Erskine grinning as he swung. Winston Churchill first said it, and I'll repeat it: "I like a man who grins when he fights."
-Mike Green-Scored his fifth goal of the season and did his part on the defensive end as well, recording six blocked shots.
-David Steckel-Wrapped the game up with an empty net goal, and also had the primary assist on Erskine's game-winner. Had another good night in the face-off circle as well, winning 19 of his 23 draws.
Defenseman Tom Poti (lower body) did not play for the second consecutive night. Boudreau did not say whether Poti had suffered a setback when he announced the Massachusetts native's absence pregame, only saying, "All I know is, he's not playing tonight." The Capitals have a day off Monday before returning to practice at the Kettler Iceplex Tuesday morning, and we'll find out just how limited Poti is then.