1. There’s not a ton more overrated in sports than a players’-only meeting. The move is immediately credited if a team starts winning and if it doesn’t then it’s evidence of a locker room in chaos. Still – the Capitals called for one on Friday after an embarrassing loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins the day before and they responded with a 5-0 thrashing of the Florida Panthers. Did the meeting help? Who knows?
“They had a lot of energy this morning,” Caps coach Adam Oates said “And I thought from the beginning of the game they were into the game. And so if that was the reason, great.”
It’s more likely that playing a struggling team at home helped a lot more. But there’s no denying that was Washington’s best game of the season. Alex Ovechkin didn’t want to discuss what was said and Oates wasn’t sure if his captain called for it or was just part of a leadership group that decided one was necessary. It was really “just to kind of press the reset button”, forward Joel Ward said.
“The meeting was more about what we expect out of each other,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “Guys not trying to do too much, guys trying to do more than they need to, things like that. Just clearing the air in the dressing room, which may have been a little bit late for what it should have been, but it definitely worked out. But we need to continue going forward where we are right now.”
2. So much of the past month for Oates has been learning his players, searching for combinations that click. It’s easy to forget that all the institutional knowledge that was here with Bruce Boudreau – dating to his days in Hershey – has long since evaporated at the coaching level. Dale Hunter was in the building for little over five months. Oates has literally seen his players in NHL game action 12 times now. But for one night, at least, he liked what he saw from the third line of Eric Fehr, Mathieu Perreault and Joel Ward. That trio had never played together before.
Perreault was a solid contributor offensively last season with 16 goals, but his penchant for taking penalties made him a healthy scratch the last two games. By all accounts the center was anxious to get another chance. Oates put him on the third line and he responded with a goal and an assist. Ward now leads the team with five goals after his second-period tally. Oates said afterwards that he wanted to get Fehr more minutes, too. He and Perreault’s hard work along the boards helped force the turnover that led to Ward’s goal.
“There was no let-up, there were no shifts off,” Brouwer said. “Those guys worked unbelievably hard. They’re the guys that kept those shifts going and started them in a lot of senses. Getting lots of chances and getting it so those later lines can get out there and sustain pressure makes it easier for those top two lines and it takes pressure off those top two lines as well.”
Added goalie Braden Holtby: “We were in [Florida’s] end the whole time they were on the ice, so when you see that, you see guys play with that passion, it’s contagious.”
3. Perreault isn’t the biggest guy in the world at a generous 5-foot-10, 185 pounds. Whether you buy that listed size or not, pairing him with two bigger bodies in Fehr (6-4, 212) and Ward (6-1, 226) seems like a good match on the surface. Especially considering Fehr, when healthy, has proven he can score 20 goals in an NHL season. Perreault also thought having two right-handed shots on the same line helped. Fehr has played right wing most of his career, but moved to the left with Oates searching for solutions to his team’s offensive woes.
“I don’t mind that there,” Perreault said. “It seems like [Ward and Fehr] are always on their one-timer side when I get the puck and I looked up.”
4. Caps general manager George McPhee challenged his young goalies on Friday. They needed to be better. And while Braden Holtby wasn’t exactly facing the mid-80s Oilers, he did the job against the Panthers on Saturday night with his fourth career shutout. Holtby had 27 saves.
“His play in general was phenomenal,” said Brouwer, who was the recipient of a beautiful tape-to-tape pass from Holtby on his second-period goal. “He was talking back there, he was letting guys know where he wanted them on the ice, letting guys know what he expected out of them, made big saves and very timely saves which is what we haven’t got so far this season.”
The pass was a thing of beauty. A slow line change by the Panthers thanks to the longer distance to the benches in the middle period left an opening and Holtby took advantage. Jason Chimera joked that it was better than anything he could have done. It’s an advantage Holtby provides that fellow goalie Michal Neuvirth really can’t. Not that he was completely satisfied even after his second career assist.
“It’s kind of funny because I thought this was my worst game playing puck throughout the year,” Holtby said. “It kind of hides that fact, I guess.”
5. This is a two-way street on the goalies, though. Yes, Holtby and Neuvirth have struggled to stop shots. But they needed help from their teammates, too. And it isn’t all on the blueliners, either.
“The type of shots they were [Saturday], though, they were ones I know I have the capability to stop,” Holtby said. “Traffic in front of the net was non-existent today because our forwards really took it to heart this last little while that we need to bear down on our end. It was outstanding tonight. We’re going to need that moving forward.”
Didn’t hurt that the Caps took just two penalties and killed both. A team like Florida thrives off its power play. The Panthers ranked seventh in the NHL last season (18.6 percent) and are 11th so far in 2013 (21.7 percent) and came into the game 10-for-44 with the man-advantage. After giving up three power play goals in the Pittsburgh loss, Washington’s penalty killers got back on track – at least for one night. They’ll see Florida again on the road Tuesday.
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