By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008
RALEIGH, N.C., Nov. 12 -- Six days ago, the Washington Capitals needed a heroic effort from Alexander Semin in the final minutes to beat the Carolina Hurricanes, their primary rival in the Southeast Division.
In the rematch Wednesday, Semin and his linemates, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, left no doubt at RBC Center.
Semin seized the NHL's scoring lead with two goals and three assists, and the Capitals grabbed sole possession of first place in the division with a thorough 5-1 victory.
"This was as good as the [Rangers] game," Coach Bruce Boudreau said, referring to his team's dominant win over New York on Saturday. "But we did it on the road, where it's a lot tougher to do. They got the one goal off the backboard, but other than that, we shut them down pretty good."
Semin, Ovechkin and Backstrom were on the ice for all five goals, four of which came at even strength. Ovechkin finished with a goal and a pair of assists while Backstrom notched his first goal since March and added three assists as the Capitals extended their winning streak to a season-best four games.
"What can you say about our line?" Ovechkin said. "We control the game. We never play in our zone, I think."
But the news wasn't all good. Goaltender Brent Johnson, who has been stellar during the recent run, tweaked his hip while making his 13th and final save of the first period. He did not return to the game but later said he doesn't think the injury is serious.
José Theodore replaced Johnson and stopped all 13 shots he faced in the final 40 minutes. He had not played since the 5-0 blowout loss in Buffalo on Nov. 1.
"Experience just kicks in," Theodore said of coming into the game cold. "I made a few saves, and I was building my confidence after that."
By the time Theodore was called upon, however, the game was pretty well in hand thanks to the Capitals' top line.
Semin already had set up goals by Ovechkin and Mike Green and scored one of his own as Washington raced out to a 3-1 lead in the opening 20 minutes. In the past three games, the Capitals have outscored their opponents 8-1 in the first period.
Semin's sublime performance helped him take the overall points lead from Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin. Semin has 27, while Malkin has 24. (The Penguins were idle Wednesday night.)
"They can be cute if they are going to get five goals a night," Boudreau said. "You can tell the potential they have when they are on top of their game. And all three were on top of their game tonight."
Backstrom, meantime, snapped out of a long goal drought in the third period, collecting his first goal in 21 regular season games to put the Capitals ahead 5-1 in a game that was about as important as games get in early November.
"It's early in the season, but this was so important," Green said of the psychological effect of beating the Hurricanes twice in six days.
Wednesday night, as opposed to their last-minute victory last Thursday, the Capitals got it going early in front of an announced crowd of 14,261.
Semin broke up a defense-to-defense pass with his stick, raced down the ice and dished a pass behind a backchecking Tim Gleason to Ovechkin, who made a bold backhand-forehand move on Michael Leighton (32 saves) to put the Capitals ahead 1-0 at 5:11.
At 10:32, Semin fired an odd rebound off the boards past an unsuspecting Leighton to make it 2-0. Then, after a Scott Walker goal that also ricocheted off the end boards, Green restored the Capitals' two-goal lead at 14:25 with his fifth power-play goal of the season.
The Capitals finished the period by killing off a 1:18 five-on-three power play. Hurricanes star Eric Staal (pointless in five games) missed an open net, then Johnson made a critical pad save in the final seconds, despite having tweaked his hip moments earlier.
"It felt pretty bad out there, but it's tough to tell right now," Johnson said. "It's pretty sore. I felt a lot of pain. We'll see how it feels tomorrow, but it's not looking like it will be a long time."
Unlike the 4-2 win over Tampa Bay on Monday, the Capitals kept pressing in the second period rather than sitting on their lead. Semin got his second goal, and 13th of the season, at 10:04, firing in a beautiful one-timer, set up by a deft pass from Ovechkin.
Early in the third period, Backstrom ended his drought when he fired a deflected pass behind Leighton. Asked whether he would sleep better now that he has his first goal, Backstrom joked: "Maybe I will get nine hours rather than seven hours. I hope so."
Capitals Note: Defenseman Shaone Morrisonn (groin) and Sergei Fedorov (undisclosed) each missed a second consecutive game.