Capitals 2, Avalanche 1
For much of this season, Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Cassidy's first in the NHL, he has refrained from matching his top defensive personnel against the top lines of his opponents. Cassidy did not want his players to infer that he trusted only certain lines and defensive pairs in pivotal roles and thus avoided the time-tested tactic.
But with the playoffs fast approaching, his team in a tight race for a division title and the powerful Colorado Avalanche in town, Cassidy embraced tradition and utilized strict matchups to neutralize Colorado's best talent and lead the Capitals to a vital 2-1 win before a sellout crowd at MCI Center. Washington pulled within one point of Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division race as the playoff-like strategy resulted in the kind of defensive effort it will take to advance in the postseason.
"We're getting closer to the playoffs now, and in the last two weeks we've tried to identify those [matchups] a little more so that when the playoffs come it becomes a little more automatic," said Cassidy, who also made certain to use only his best defensive players late in periods after getting burned in those situations recently. "You can make an argument either way -- [match lines] all year or not, and some coaches have different philosophies, but tonight we got what we wanted."
The Avalanche, which has lost consecutive games in regulation time for the first time all season, was without injured top center Peter Forsberg and Coach Tony Granato opted to use his three best remaining offensive players -- Joe Sakic, Alex Tanguay and Milan Hejduk -- on one line.
Forsberg, Tanguay and Hejduk had been scoring at an improbable pace, accumulating 41 goals over the last 26 games, and Cassidy countered by switching his defensive pairs from last game, putting Calle Johansson and Jason Doig together and using them with his checking line of Jeff Halpern, Steve Konowalchuk and Mike Grier whenever Sakic's line was on the ice.
"Everybody in this room here knows how important those guys are to us," goalie Olaf Kolzig said. "And with our big gun [injured Jaromir Jagr] out of the lineup and with one of our best defensemen [Brendan Witt] out of the lineup we've got to win games like we did tonight, 2-1 . . . and those guys stepped up big time."
The matchup worked as Doig was a physical force, Johansson played superb positional defense and Halpern's line forced Sakic's line to play defense in its own zone. Halpern's line excelled in the kind of challenging assignment they used to receive on a daily basis.
"That's one heck of a line they have over there and we knew from the onset it would be our job to shut them down," Konowalchuk said. "You get a little more adrenaline when you know that's your job and you try as hard as you can defensively, and then our other lines scored for us. You'd like to be able to take that game and photocopy it."
The Capitals adhered to the trapping defense that has served them well, holding Colorado to 12 shots through two periods and scoring twice in the opening period.
Dainius Zubrus created the first goal by lugging the puck behind the net with a series of cuts back and forth, buying time for his teammates to align themselves around the crease. Sergei Berezin, playing his second game since being acquired from Chicago, screamed to Zubrus when he found open ice -- "He yelled for the puck and I gave it to him," Zubrus said -- and Berezin fed Sergei Gonchar for a potent slap shot that Colorado backup goalie David Aebischer had no chance to stop from such close range.
Grier triggered the second scoring rush, making a diving poke check in the defensive zone and blocking a shot to clear the puck. Berezin's line then jumped on the ice and Berezin beat top defenseman Adam Foote at Colorado's blueline before passing to Robert Lang, who slipped the puck back to Berezin to complete the two-on-one. Washington has scored three goals with Berezin in the lineup; he has scored two and assisted on the other.
"We were slow going in the first period and the first thing we know we're down, 2-0," Tanguay said.
Colorado's only goal came with Halpern and Konowalchuk off the ice. They had completed a shift on the power play and Granato alertly sent out Sakic's line. Washington's replacements -- defensively sound rookie center Brian Sutherby and defensively challenged winger Ivan Ciernik -- were not able to prevent Sakic from scoring easily, but Cassidy made sure Halpern's line shadowed Colorado's stars for the rest of the game and the Capitals played expertly with the lead.