By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009
The Washington Capitals unfurled another Southeast Division championship banner before a boisterous, red-clad crowd Saturday night at Verizon Center. Then the most exciting team in franchise history showed exactly why it's regarded as such.
Alex Ovechkin, Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich each scored before 14 minutes had been played, and the Capitals took a five-goal lead into the third period before hanging on for a 6-4 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"I was once told that any time you win you shouldn't complain, because there are so many times you lose," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "I told the guys that was a great win, a great start, but we have to learn how to win 6-1 when we're in that position and not think we're going to win 9-1. Hopefully it was a cheap lesson for us."
Washington improved to 2-0-0 and stretched its winning streak in home openers to eight, while Ovechkin extended a streak of his own. The two-time MVP, who also had two assists, has at least one goal in each of his five career home openers, and eight total.
The Capitals also got two goals from Alexander Semin and another from Brendan Morrison. For Knuble and Morrison, the goals were their first since signing as free agents in July.
Although the season is only two games old, Washington is already putting up some staggering offensive statistics. They hammered the Bruins in Boston on Thursday, and they've scored 10 goals. Ovechkin and Laich each have three goals and a combined 11 points, while Semin and Nicklas Backstrom have five points apiece.
And for the second game the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin line put on a passing clinic and was all over the score sheet as the Capitals opened a 6-1 lead after 40 minutes.
"We've been playing together for three years now, so the chemistry is obviously there," Semin said through an interpreter. "The main thing is not to be selfish. When you pass, you know you're going to get the pass back. It's a pleasure to play that way."
But as potent as the offense was, there was concern in the home locker room over a third-period letdown that resulted in goals by Alexei Ponikarovsky, Mikhail Grabovski and Niklas Hagman (in the span of six shots) to trim the Leafs' deficit to 6-4.
"It's scary," Knuble said of the Capitals' early offensive outburst. "I think that's a big part of our identity. It's what people think of the Capitals. But at the same time you don't want to be in a situation where you have to flat outscore people to get the win. We'll do a better job."
Boudreau said of 21-year-old goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who finished with 27 stops in his first game of the season: "For the first two periods, he was great. When he had to make the big save, he made the big save. But the guys in front of him let him down a little bit in the third period."
Just before the opening faceoff, the Capitals celebrated last year's division championship with a sellout crowd of 18,277 when a new red, white and blue banner was unfurled from the rafters.
The ceremony, however, was intentionally understated compared with last year's, which was twice as a long and involved the banner being raised slowly to the roof. Team officials said they wanted to acknowledge the achievement but didn't want to make a big deal of it since the organization has loftier aspirations this season.
Seventy-seven seconds into the first period, the biggest reason for the high expectations put the Capitals ahead, 1-0.
The play began with Semin breaking the puck out to Backstrom in the neutral zone. Backstrom then sent a cross-ice pass to Ovechkin, who raced into the Toronto zone with only defenseman Luke Schenn to beat. Schenn was no match and neither was Vesa Toskala, who was replaced after the first period by Jonas Gustavsson.
Knuble made it 2-0 by doing what he was brought to Washington to do. On the power play, the rugged winger went to the net, out-muscled Toronto defenseman François Beauchemin and fired his own rebound past Toskala.
Laich then padded the Capitals' lead with about six minutes remaining in the opening period. In the Capitals' end, Laich swept the puck out of the crease before Ponikarovsky could tap it in. Seconds later, Laich finished a tricky breakaway deke and pulled even with Ovechkin for the team lead in goals.
"He's a tough guy to keep up with," Laich said with a smile. "They're going in now and that's great. Hopefully they'll keep going in."