By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green received a phone call before last night's game from a childhood buddy who needed some help. His fantasy hockey team was struggling and he needed Green to have a big night.
Green promised to help out his old friend, then went out and put on a historic performance, notching two goals and an assist to help the Capitals shake off a sluggish start and rally for a 5-3 victory over the NHL-worst New York Islanders at Verizon Center.
Green's goals were his 29th and 30th of the season and make him the first NHL defenseman to reach the 30-goal plateau since Kevin Hatcher scored 34 in 1992-93 and only the eighth in NHL history to accomplish the feat. Both of Green's tallies came on the man advantage, giving him the Capitals' record for power-play goals by a defenseman with 18.
"I promised my buddy back home that I'd get them tonight," Green said with a grin. "So I got to give it up to Kyle Lieske, a good buddy of mine. I promised him, so those ones are for him."
The Capitals' win, their seventh in the past 10 games, moved them to within one point -- won by them or lost by the Carolina Hurricanes -- of clinching their second consecutive Southeast Division title. A loss by the Hurricanes to the New York Rangers tonight would do it. Last night's victory combined with New Jersey's 6-1 loss to Pittsburgh also gave the Capitals a three-point edge over the skidding Devils for second place in the Eastern Conference with five games remaining in the regular season.
Green's back-to-back goals capped a wild turn of events for the Capitals, who early in the second period were being out-played in their own building and were down 2-0.
It began when Green triggered a tussle with a hit on Islanders center Andy Hilbert along the boards. Several players tangled, and Jeff Schultz squared off with rugged Islanders winger Tim Jackman, drawing the first fighting major of his career. It wasn't much of a fight, but it served its purpose: It fired up the Washington bench.
"A guy who isn't known to fight steps up, guys get pumped and we started playing hockey," Green said of Schultz.
The Capitals killed off the charging penalty assessed to Green, then scored five of the game's next six goals to avoid a potentially embarrassing loss to a team that was without its leading scorer -- Mark Streit, who was sidelined with a groin injury -- and arrived in Washington with only 59 points.
None of the goals was more important than Green's. His first came with 9 minutes 5 seconds remaining and tied the game at 3. He sneaked backdoor, collected a cross-ice pass from Alexander Semin and beat Islanders goalie Joey MacDonald.
Only 83 seconds later, Green stepped up into the play and intercepted a misguided clearing attempt by Islanders center Nate Thompson. Green held the puck at the blueline for a moment, then launched a wrist shot that went between Tomas Fleischmann and the Islanders' Brendan Witt and sneaked past MacDonald to put the Capitals ahead 4-3.
"I just felt like [Thompson's pass] was coming right for me, so I just waited for it," Green said.
Alex Ovechkin, Keith Aucoin and Nicklas Backstrom scored the other goals for the Capitals, whose 101 points mark the fourth time in team history they've eclipsed 100. They are also six points shy of tying the franchise record for points in a season, set in 1985-86.
Last night, however, was all about 23-year-old Green, who earlier this season set an NHL record for consecutive games with a goal by defenseman with eight. Now he's done something no defenseman in 16 years has accomplished and his 70 points are the most for a defenseman since 2005-06. Making his feat all the more remarkable is the fact that he missed 14 games with injury and illness this season.
"It's a relief," Green said of reaching 30 goals. "I'm proud. But I think it would have bothered me years from now if I didn't do it."
Coach Bruce Boudreau has watched Green mature from a minor leaguer with the Hershey Bears into a Norris Trophy candidate with the Capitals. But even he's a bit surprised by the numbers Green is putting up.
"I knew he could skate, and I knew he competed his rear end off," Boudreau said. "But I never knew that he had the offensive capabilities that he has. He has grown so much as a player -- his puck handling, his confidence. Sometimes it comes and bites him because he's so casual, thinking he can deke out everybody. But when he's on, he's pretty good to watch."
Capitals Notes: Stefan Della Rovere, the team's seventh-round draft pick in 2008 and a member of Canada's gold-medal winning world junior team, signed a three-year, entry-level contract. . . . Goaltender Brent Johnson faced shots in full gear for the first time since undergoing surgery to repair a torn hip labrum in February. . . . Defenseman Milan Jurcina was a healthy scratch. . . . Left wing Donald Brashear missed his ninth consecutive game with a sprained knee. . . . Aucoin's goal was his first as a Capital.