By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Alex Ovechkin, without a doubt, was having his best performance since returning from an injured shoulder five games ago. But the two-time MVP didn't get the opportunity to finish it.
He was ejected for the second time in his career in the third period, leaving his teammates to protect a one-goal lead without their best player. The Washington Capitals did, thanks to a clutch goal by Eric Fehr and another sparkling performance by Semyon Varlamov, who earned his first career regular season shutout in a 2-0 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.
The Capitals' win snapped a three-game losing streak (0-1-2), but the focus afterward was on Ovechkin's controversial hit on Sabres agitator Patrick Kaleta at 3 minutes 38 seconds of the third period and whether the Capitals' winger would face any supplementary discipline from the league. Ovechkin's penalty, strangely enough, was the first on either team all night.
Ovechkin appeared to catch Kaleta as he turned toward the boards. According to the rules, Ovechkin was tossed because the boarding infraction resulted in an injury to the face or head of Kaleta, who left the ice bleeding from the nose.
"We just watched it a half a dozen of times, and he hits him in the shoulder, in the side," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Kaleta saw him coming. It might have warranted a two-minute minor, but I don't think it warranted anything more than that."
Ovechkin, who had scored his 17th goal in the first period, added: "I just got take a hit and he's turned and he fell on the boards. It was too much penalty."
Asked whether he expected to hear from league disciplinarian Colin Campbell, Ovechkin said: "If it happens, it happens. I don't think there's going to be something."
Ovechkin is no stranger to controversy. He was fined $2,500 for a "slew foot" on Atlanta's Rich Peverley on Oct. 22. And three years ago, he was ejected after receiving a major penalty for boarding then-Sabres center Danny Brière.
Ovechkin's ejection deprived the Capitals of their best player. But it also seemed to spur them on.
After killing off Ovechkin's penalty and then a delay-of-game infraction on Mike Green, Fehr scored with 6:22 remaining to help the Capitals close out an opponent in the third period and win for the first time in more than a week.
"We wanted to make sure that we got another goal," Fehr said. "The fact that Alex was gone really fueled the fire for us."
Fehr's goal was set up by Brendan Morrison, who circled the Sabres' net and then sneaked a pass through the crease to Fehr, who fired the puck past Ryan Miller (22 saves).
Miller was outstanding. But Varlamov was even better. The 21-year-old is 4-0-2 in his last six games with a 1.48 goals against average and .949 save percentage.
"Miller made some unbelievable saves," Boudreau said. "But Varly was solid. It's like he was saying, 'I'm not letting this happen to me again in the third period.' "
Varlamov added: "I've gotten over being nervous."
Boudreau also praised Karl Alzner and Nicklas Backstrom for their performances tonight.
Alzner, in his first game with the Capitals this season, skated 20:15 and was on the ice in the final minute as the Capitals clung to the lead.
Thanksgiving "is one of my favorite days of the year," said Alzner, who has been called up near Thanksgiving the past two years. "Hopefully next year I won't have to worry about getting called up for Thanksgiving. I'll already be here."
Backstrom finished without a point, but had a number of dominant shifts. He has one assist in his past seven games.
"He was moving his legs a lot better than he has in the last six or seven games," Boudreau said. "He didn't get rewarded on the scoreboard. But usually what happens is he'll get rewarded in a game or two to get him out of his little funk that he's in."
Ovechkin also came into the game in a slight funk, but it was obvious early that he had snapped out of it.
Not even seven minutes in, Ovechkin carried the puck almost the length of the ice, cut across the Sabres' zone to lose defenseman Tyler Myers and ripped a shot past Miller.
Ovechkin also was credited with three hits in the opening 20 minutes, including a crushing check he laid on Paul Gaustad along the boards.
"He did have a good game," Boudreau said. "He had four legitimate chances to score goals. Maybe with another goalie, he would have put [another one] in. He was playing really good and responsible and he was moving his legs. It's unfortunate that [the ejection] happened. But I think it spurred our team on. It was, 'Hey, for once, let's come to his defense.' "
Capitals notes: There was a moment of silence before the opening face off in honor of Capitals founder Abe Pollin, who died Tuesday. . . . Mike Knuble skated on his own for the first time since suffering a broken finger Nov. 13. He's expected to return Dec. 9. . . . Alexander Semin is expected to return to practice on Friday. He's missed the past four games with a sore wrist.