With many of the players expected to make the opening night roster in the mix Wednesday night, the Capitals captured a 4-1 win over the Nashville Predators at Verizon Center. Eric Fehr recorded two goals and Alex Ovechkin (power play) and Nicklas Backstrom also scored in a game that was over before the third period even started.
The Predators, who are headed to the Naval Academy for two days of team building activities, didn’t dress several of their regulars, including Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber, Matt Cullen, David Legwand and Roman Josi.
1. Not a bad introduction. It’s only the preseason but in six periods of play, Mikhail Grabovski has five assists. The center looked quite comfortable against the Predators, setting up a variety of plays and taking an instrumental role in two of the Capitals goals. He won a battle along the boards and sent the puck back toward the net, providing the catalyst for Eric Fehr’s first goal of the night. And on the power play late in the second period, Grabovski sent a quick pass across the crease for Ovechkin to tap home a goal that made it 4-0 and looked almost too easy.
In addition to the offensive plays he’s helped create, Grabovski’s willingness to get involved in a game physically has stood out. He is not reluctant to push an opponent off the puck, grind away along the boards to maintain possession and doesn’t hesitate to venture into the corners. That’s certainly a different dimension than his second-line predecessor.
2. About the power play. There’s been some concern as to how Mike Ribeiro’s departure might impact the power play, which finished best in the league at 26.8 percent last season. The first glimpse of Grabovski on the first power play unit, though, is encouraging.
He was able to thread a setup pass to Ovechkin for the goal and also displayed a fluency in the rapid-passing decisions that make the unit thrive. After years of playing on the second unit in Toronto, Grabovski is glad for the chance to play on the main unit.
“For me it’s a big experience and big change. I’m very excited to play, very happy coach give me chance to play with this line,” said Grabovski, who likes the style of the Capitals’ power play. “It’s very easy. It’s like Russian style, like we used to play in Russia, just move the puck and don’t skate a lot. Let’s keep it secrets, we still need to play against a lot of teams but I think the key for this power play is every player can score every player can move the puck.”
3. Center experiments. Coach Adam Oates’s logic for moving Martin Erat to center was apparent against the Predators. He has the ability to read a play correctly and the awareness to handle all the responsibilities of a center, but it was still just the first game of this latest experiment. Erat won four of the 11 draws he took and also was whistled for two interference penalties.
“I’ve seen him make those plays before,” Oates said. “The West Coast is a little different from the East in terms of how the majority of teams play. He is definitely a guy that if you give him a little bit of room out there he can find the late guy.”
Fehr, meanwhile, moved back to wing and had something of a welcome return. He scored twice, the first goal of the contest when he got the puck in the slot after a smart play by Grabovski – a play he admitted likely wouldn’t happen if he were at center because he wouldn’t have been able to linger in the offensive zone — and then in the second period when he made a power move out of the corner to the front of the net. At this stage, Fehr is prepared to start the season at either position.
“I was starting to feel pretty comfortable at center,” Fehr said. “I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen next practice next game, where I’m going to be but I felt comfortable back on the wing but I enjoy center. It will be interesting to see.”
4. Neuvirth playing the puck. Michal Neuvirth’s shutout bid ended with less than 14 seconds remaining in regulation. Although he put in a solid night’s work with 33 saves, it was his puck-handling that stood out. Playing the puck has always been a hallmark of Braden Holtby, but goaltending coach Olie Kolzig has been working with Neuvirth to improve his confidence with the puck. Against the Predators, Neuvirth appeared much more willing to go behind his net, corral the puck and help move the play along to his teammates than he has behind the net.
“It’s much better. He’s going to make mistakes, we all do,” Oates said. “But part of his job is to save his defensemen, slow the other team down and indirectly he ends up saving himself because every play he can make maybe it turns into one less chance he gets.”
5. Welcome back Hendy. There was quite the reception for Matt Hendricks, who returned to Verizon Center for the first time after signing a four-year, $7.4 million deal with the Predators as a free agent this summer. He caught up with former teammates in the hallway, and even building staff members waited to say hello and wish him luck before he headed out after the game.
Before the game, Hendricks joked that while he didn’t have much time to speak with the Capitals he was sure there would be “plenty of talking” on the ice. He held up his end of the bargain, offering hits and jabs to anyone he came near, exchanging shoves with Aaron Volpatti, receiving a cross check from Jason Chimera and tying up Steve Oleksy when the two teams paired off in the second period. All good natured and not with full regular-season intensity of course.
Hendricks believes he has found a good fit for himself in Nashville.
“This organization really suits the way I play. The way they’re coached, the personnel that they have, were the kind of a team that’s going to play by committee, score goals by committee, play tough by committee,” Hendricks said. “We rely on the whole, the entire group to be successful and it’s a lot of fun playing that kind of hockey.”