Reflections from a reporter born in 1987

For the Caps, normal service is restored against the Oilers

March 10, 2011 - 12:48 AM
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Eric Fehr (left) and Brooks Laich celebrate Fehr's second-period goal Wednesday night. (Photo: Associated Press)

The ingredients were there again for the Washington Capitals: a home game, a struggling opponent entering the second game of a back-to-back and missing its best player. On paper, Wednesday night's 5-0 victory over the Edmonton Oilers should have been a laugher. At various points throughout last season and perhaps prior to the holidays this season, it would have been a laugher. But there have been many other times this season where one or two or occasionally three of the above-listed conditions have existed and the Capitals have failed to capitalize on them. Throw in the absence of Nicklas Backstrom for the first time in his NHL career and the presence of (an admittedly improving) Braden Holtby in net, and there appeared to be just enough wild cards in play to make many of this club's more cautious followers just a touch nervous as 7:00 approached last night.

As it turned out, whatever fears existed were unfounded.

For once this season, the Capitals treated a last-place team like all good teams should treat last-place teams: They got ahead, they took advantage of Edmonton's miscues (and there were many), and they never gave the Oilers a sniff of getting back into the game.

It ended 5-0, but the last three goals were window dressing. It was really over at 10:32 of the second period, when Eric Fehr, making his first appearance since January 14, poked the puck past a stranded Nikolai Khabibulin to make it 2-0. Even against a team like Edmonton, which had scored the 5th-fewest goals in the league entering last night's game, a 1-0 lead is still very fragile. One bad bounce, a deflection that veers right instead of left, and all your work is undone.

But with the exception of a shorthanded breakaway chance by Andrew Cogliano seconds before Alex Ovechkin went up the other end and broke the scoreless tie, the Oilers never did look like scoring one goal in the game, never mind two or three. The Capitals showed no intention of letting the Albertans get even a consolation marker, as they held their visitors to just one shot on goal in the third period before a late flurry pushed the total up to five. 

Neither the absent Backstrom (who is still feeling the effects of a fractured left thumb) nor Mike Green (more on him in a bit) was missed tonight, with the returning Fehr's two goals providing more than enough offensive firepower. Mention must also be made of Marcus Johansson, who filled in admirably for his countryman between Ovechkin and Mike Knuble on the first line and drew high praise from his coach:

"What I thought was good," said Bruce Boudreau, "was that Marcus played his game. Usually young guys get with Alex and they feel obligated every time they touch the puck to give it to him, and Marcus played the way he plays and Alex played off him."

Mind you, that wasn't completely true the entire night. It certainly wasn't true on Ovechkin's second goal of the evening (Washington's third), on which he and Johansson played a game of cross-slot catch at a distance of about five feet before the Russian ended the frivolity with a blast past a helpless Khabibulin. In the locker room after the game, I asked Johansson whether he didn't at least think about trying for a goal of his own. The Swede, who is demure even by NHL rookie standards, paused and said. "I think everyone knew who was going to shoot that."

Ovechkin, for his part, joined a very select group in recording his 600th career point a little more than a month before the end of his sixth NHL season. Only nine other players have notched their first 600 points within their first six NHL seasons. They are: Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Peter Stastny, Mike Bossy, Jari Kurri, Dale Hawerchuk, Bryan Trottier, Denis Savard, and Paul Coffey.

There are no accidents on that list, folks, and there are no frauds. All are Hockey Hall of Famers, and with the exception of Stastny and Savard, all are Stanley Cup winners. Many, myself included, have written and speculated about various aspects of Ovechkin's game and health throughout this season. But despute all that, lo: His 72 total points are good enough for 5th place in the NHL, just 12 behind the league leader, Vancouver's Daniel Sedin. It's no accident that over the last six games, while Ovechkin has recorded at least a point in every single outing, the Capitals have gone 6-0-0. At the same time, Ovechkin, like his team, is in the process of vindicating those who warned that you write both off at your own peril. 

My Three Stars

1. Braden Holtby-Followed up his first career NHL shutout (22 saves) by getting the Player of the Game treatment from TSN in Canada, which included giving an on-camera interview to a (presumably) captive nationwide audience. He's come a long way from flopping around on the deck during that shootout loss to the Rangers back in January.

2. Alex Ovechkin-Look at that list of players who hit the 600-point mark before the end of their sixth NHL season again. Wow. And Ovechkin crossed that threshold in fine fashion with a three-point night (2 goals, 1 assist).

3. Eric Fehr-You can never have too much scoring depth, and Fehr hit another high point in a trying season with two goals on the night.

Injury Update

Mike Green (head) has been placed on long-term injured reserve by the team retroactive to February 25. Long-Term Injured Reserve status requires a player to miss a period of both 10 games and 24 days. He will be eligible to return March 22 for the game at Philadelphia.

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