Hockey coaches don’t like playing long stretches of games at home, fearing that complacency will set in among their players. The Capitals on Friday night, with another rejiggered lineup, and skating the final game of a five-game homestand and their second game against the Lightning in about a week, looked like a team in need of a fresh and tough challenge, one to be found on the road. They’ll get it on Sunday in Chicago.
After two periods Friday night, with a seriously outworked Capitals’ team trailing Tampa 3-1, I entertained thoughts of asking Bruce Boudreau in the postgame just how important 120 points and a President’s trophy is to him and his club. I’m glad I didn’t. The coach was in no mood for questions generally, and most especially what mine might have implied: that in the interest of getting 25 bodies sweaters for skates over the season’s final month-plus, he’d occasionally forsake suiting up his best lineup, and potentially sacrifice standings points.
The coach did claim that no matter who he dressed for whatever game his ought to be able to get three goals and a good effort. He got neither Friday night. Still, the guess here is that we won’t see again another game this season without both Jeff Schultz, the team’s leader in blocked shots and a solidly disruptive presence in his own end, and the highly ascendant John Carlson.
Tomas Fleischmann was back at center Friday night, spelling the scratched Eric Belanger, and he scored a beautiful power play goal, his 20th on the season, joining five other Caps who’ve tallied 20 or more on the campaign. He also won 55 percent of his faceoffs. But he’s a natural wing, as the acquisition of Belanger demonstrated.
That the Capitals’ effort Friday night was substandard was beyond dispute. The coach acknowledged it, his players acknowledged it, and most conspicuously the home crowd, in fits and bursts, acknowledged it with boos.
Antero Nittimaki was solid in the Tampa net but hardly spectacular; he didn’t have to be. The Capitals didn’t work hard enough to make his night difficult.
Nittimaki called his team’s 3-2 win “probably the best road game we played all year. Not just because we beat Washington. The overall game. They came pretty hard beginning of the second period, first ten minutes, but other than that we were in total control the whole time.”
“Once they started to believe they could win, they won every battle and they outworked us,” Boudreau said. “It’s pretty simple if you go through the motions, if you don’t work hard, you can’t win.
Tampa Bay, like every other Southeast foe the Caps face these days, is more than 30 points behind the division champions. But their victory Friday night wasn’t fluky, it wasn’t lucky. Luck is the residue of work and desire, the coach intimated in the postgame.
“It’s very rare where games are won where luck is the outcome. If you’re not working hard you’re not going to get one to bounce off you in front of the net like Lecavalier [did]. They worked hard, so it bounced in. He put himself in position and he worked hard to get in front of the net. Did we do it enough? No we didn’t. We didn’t do it enough.”
When the Capitals lost to Dallas on Monday night the coach came into his postgame presser smiling and cheerful. You can’t much question a 50-plus shot effort, nor the caliber of Marty Turco’s stonewalling. When his team nearly lost to Carolina on Wednesday again he was his usual amusing and reflective self afterward. But on Friday night Bruce Boudreau was red-faced and curt and clipped in his postgame responses. He was so disappointed with his team’s effort that he called into question the future of his player rotation plan, beginning perhaps with this Sunday’s game in Chicago.
More game observations from OFB’s Alex Perlmutter:
- The Capitals relied too heavily on their powerplay last night, scoring twice on their four man-advantage opportunities. Towards the end of the game, it seemed as if they were waiting around for a penalty to be called on Tampa Bay — granted there were some questionable non-calls on both ends of the ice.
- Bruce Boudreau was quick to defend Semyon Varlamov after the game, saying the whole team hung him out to dry at points. I would agree with coach’s assessment, but when your goalie lets in a softy to let the other team take the lead — in the final minute of a period at that — the team gets a bit discouraged. Most of the forwards were on their game tonight including most of the powerplay guys, but the defense was extremely sloppy in their own end. On several occasions, the defense’s lazy marking and sloppy outlet passes cost the home team. Had the lateral feeds at center-ice been tape-to-tape, this game would have turned out much differently.
- Tampa Bay had a terrible penalty kill last night, but five-on-five they were stellar. The Lightning closed down the slot — simple as that. Think of a highway work zone, where the speed limit is reduced and traffic becomes excruciating. That was Tampa’s own-zone defensive system, and it worked perfectly. Even though the Caps held the zone for shifts at a time, Tampa was happy to keep the play on the boards and apply pressure there.