On January 15, 2014, In Interview, By Chris Gordon
Photo credit: Rob Carr
Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates has been searching for five-on-five production all season. While Alex Ovechkin has thrived, other members of top six have been less consistent. After the first period on Tuesday, Oates had a new iteration for the first two lines: Eric Fehr-Nicklas Backstrom-Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich-Mikahil Grabovksi-Alex Ovechkin.
“We haven’t scored a lot of goals the last couple games and he’s looking for a spark,” Laich told me of Oates’s change. “Our line had a couple of good chances.”
The Buffalo Sabres are a disastrously bad hockey team. Twice in two weeks, though, they’ve shut down the Washington Capitals, holding them to just two goals total. Each time, the Caps generated plenty of offensive opportunities. Ryan Miller, however, stood in the way. In those games, Miller has stopped 77 of 79 shots against.
“I try to stay pretty calm in the the net,” Miller said when I asked him about containing Washington’s talented forwards. “Sometimes the mindset is to challenge those guys and they just pass around you.”
The Sabres pitiful play is well documented. Sunday’s win was their first one the road since November 5, an 11 game losing streak. A lot has changed since then. They fired their GM, Darcy Regier, and coach, Ron Rolston. Under new bench boss Ted Nolan, they are — at least — no longer historically bad. Buffalo’s record now stands at a sterling 13-26-5.
“It’s already gotten too far, but it’s something the guys can feel good about,” Miller said of the streak. “I think tonight was a good opportunity to reset.”
Braden Holtby has had a bad year, relegated to the bench for most of the last two months. Another Braden, though, has it worse. Eight-year-old Braden Neinaber of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan suffers from Langerhans cell histiocytosis, a disease similar to cancer.
Saturday, the two Bradens, along with Tom Wilson, Eric Fehr, and Olie Kolzig skated at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, a dream granted with the The Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada. The younger Braden faced off against his idol in net and got into a mock fight with Wilson. Afterwards, he got a tour of the Caps locker room and met head coach Adam Oates.
Neuvirth salutes the crowd after being named the first star of the night. (Photo: Rob Carr)
Michal Neuvirth had been left behind in the Capitals goalie controversy. While Braden Holtby has struggled to find playing time, Neuvy hadn’t suited up for a game since November 29, when he got hurt stepping on the ice for warmups. Eventually, Neuvirth’s agent requested a trade. The status quo, though, continued. Philipp Grubauer got the starts, Holtby sat on the bench, and Neuvy watched from the press box. With little notice, Capitals head coach Adam Oates finally gave the Czech netminder a chance Friday.
“I was nervous as hell,” Neuvirth said of his thoughts before the game. “I was probably as nervous as my first NHL game. My girlfriend told me ‘Just do what you do and try to be good.’”
“First time I step on the ice for warmup, I was feeling pretty good and confident,” he added.
This season, Alex Ovechkin’s shot has been an unstoppable force of destruction. Ovi has registered 31 goals. His line’s scoring, however, has often been one-sided. Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin’s linemates for much of the season, have scored just six even-strength goals. When Ovi’s hitting the net, it’s not a problem. But if last year’s MVP hits some bad luck, as he did over the four games before last night, the line struggles. Ovechkin has just a single assist during five-on-five play.
“It’s not enough,” Oates said when I asked him about that stat. “It shows how much all three guys are important.”
For Thursday’s game against the Hurricanes, Oates switched up his lines, putting Ovechkin with Eric Fehr and Mikhail Grabovski while placing Johansson and Backstrom with Brouwer.
On December 8, Steve Oleksy scored his first goal in 273 days, after seven games as a healthy scratch. Now, 25 days later, he’s got another, a game-tying tally against the Carolina Hurricanes. It was a typical Oleksy goal: seemingly accidental.
“It’s a good feeling when you don’t get many,” Oleksy told me after the game. “That’s the way it goes. Especially at this level I’m not really known for the goal scoring touch from the blueline. You go through spells where you don’t pop any in. It’s important that you’re getting looks. I’ve had some good looks over the last couple games. It’s nice to finally have some go in.”
Earlier this week, former NHLer Marty McSorleytook the hatchet out on Alex Ovechkin. Broadcasting for Sportsnet during Monday’s game in Ottawa, he criticized last year’s MVP for not playing defense and being bad during five-on-five, using Ovechkin’s poor plus-minus as an example. Ovi’s defenders were outraged, pointing out the unreliability of plus-minus as a statistic. However, one person seems to buy that criticism: Alex Ovechkin.
“I think we have great offense, but on the defensive side, if you look at my stats, I’m a minus-13 or minus-14,” Ovechkin told reporters after Thursday’s morning skate. “It’s kind of a situation where you want to be better.”
“Defensive side can win the game,” he added. “More responsibility in your zone is going to help your offense as well.”
The Capitals absorbed two tough losses in the past two days. Alex Ovechkin, in the middle of his longest goal drought of season, seems frustrated. He took it out on the referees after Monday’s contest in Ottawa, which Washington lost 3-1.
“To be honest with you, tonight I think both teams play well, but four guys out there didn’t do their job,” he told reporters, indicating the officiating staff of Brad Meier, Jean Hebert, Mark Wheler, and Pierre Racicot. “I think the guys celebrate New Year’s too early right before the game.”