One-timers: Have the Capitals found line combinations that might stick?

January 28, 2013

(Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

With 48 games in 99 days, there’s not a lot of time to digest what happened in any single contest. So as we churn through this compressed Capitals season, I’ll be rounding up my thoughts and analysis of each game here.

>> A few teams around the NHL wrap up every home game by gathering at center ice to raise their sticks in a salute to their fans, and the Capitals did the same following their 3-2 win over the Sabres on Sunday.

It’s a rare occurrence at Verizon Center, but according to John Erskine, the players wanted to express their gratitude to the fans.

“I think it was just a team thing,” said Erskine, who said Alex Ovechkin and a few other players came up with the idea. “I think the fans kind of hung in there and were loyal to us during the tough time there, and it was just kind of our way of saying ‘thank you’ to them.

“I think everybody was on board. We just wanted to thank the fans.”

Given all that’s happened with a delayed start to the season and the Capitals’ lackluster performances the first two home games, it was a nice gesture.

>> While it’s safe to assume that both goaltenders will see a share of the remaining 43 games, Michal Neuvirth stepped up to give the Capitals stellar performances in each of the past two games and make his bid on the No. 1 starting spot for the time being.

He stopped 54 of the 59 combined shots he’s faced against New Jersey and Buffalo and bailed out his teammates more than a few times. Given that Washington is still working out the kinks of its new system, the importance of strong outings in goal cannot be overstated.

Neuvirth has been up to the task, serving as a safety net by keeping the Capitals in games and allowing them time to get on track or shake off a bad shift. Entering a shortened season where many might have written him off as a backup to Braden Holtby, Neuvirth is showing he’s not about to cede the top spot on the depth chart just because he didn’t play in the 2012 postseason.

>> Five games into the season, Joel Ward has half the goals he had all of last season (six).

Hampered by a sports hernia and one of the many who fell out of favor with former coach Dale Hunter, Ward was inconsistent at best in his first season in Washington, saw his minutes per game dip to single digits and went 42 games without a goal at one point. It wasn’t until his series-winning goal against the Boston Bruins in the first round, that Ward showed why he received a four-year, $12 million contract as a free agent in 2011.

This year Ward is taking advantage of his fresh start under Coach Adam Oates, crashing the net at even strength, on the power play and giving Washington another big body in front willing to hack away at rebounds and bouncing pucks.

He likely won’t produce at this rate all season, but the early success is helping to rebuild his confidence.

“I do try to play for the respect of my teammates first, and once your linemates have a good trust in you, I think things kind of flow a little bit easier,” Ward said. “I’ve played with [Jason Chimera] before, and last year too a little bit, and we had a little bit of a connection at the start there. It’s just being out there, being confident and you know, people got your back. I think once that happens … you can kind of relieve a little bit of pressure off yourself and just go out there and work hard and have fun.”

>> Has Oates found line combinations that might stick? After the Capitals killed a penalty to John Erskine early in the second, Oates reunited Alex Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer for a more conventional top line and balanced forward group.

Putting Ovechkin back with Backstrom and Brouwer seemed to spark all three players as they used strong puck possession to create sustained offensive pressure.

“I think again I think it’s more mentally and the guys get in shape. When you in shape, you have more power and more physicality,” Ovechkin said. “I think our line — Brouwsy and me — can hit and you can see when we have the puck control in our hands it’s very tough to get it back. So it was good.”

Meantime, Ward, Chimera and Mike Ribeiro played their second game together and are showing signs of growing chemistry. Chimera and Ward are more than happy to drive the net and work to find open space while Ribeiro controls the tempo. They all played a part in Washington’s first goal of the game against the Sabres,

“Ribs is so dynamic that he – his patience is unbelievable. He holds onto the puck and not just his plays, but he works hard, too. He’s not the biggest guy, obviously, but he wins battles out there, and I think that’s key for Chimmer and I,” Ward said. “We’ve just got to go find and get the pucks and give it to him and let him do his little thing and we can try and get open. So far, it’s been working pretty good.

After the switch in the second period, the third line featured Jay Beagle centering Wojtek Wolski and Joey Crabb. Beagle and Crabb in particular seem well-suited to each other; they’re both tireless workers and seem to have an endless supply of energy to win loose pucks and 50-50 battles all over the ice.

“Before the lockout just playing shinny and stuff we found that we had good chemistry,” Beagle said Saturday. “Obviously that doesn’t really account for much when you’re kind of playing shinny but for some reason me and him just click. We’ve been saying that right from the get-go. It’s fun to play with him; we kind of have similar styles.”

The fourth line might be the biggest unknown at this point. Matt Hendricks has been a consistent contributor at even strength and on the penalty kill (he’s averaging 2:26 of shorthanded ice time per contest) throughout the first five games. But will Mathieu Perreault do enough to warrant the increase in ice time that he wants? And how quickly will Marcus Johansson work through his early-season slump? Can Eric Fehr, who has two shots on goal in two games, provide the offensive depth he was brought in for?

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Katie Carrera · January 28, 2013