Beninati: Hunter's hunch

Beninati: Hunter's hunch
December 8, 2011, 7:30 am
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For a team that was struggling to regain its identity, the Capitals had a very positive attitude while going through their morning workout Wednesday. Their cheerful outlook made me adjust my thinking as to how I thought this game might play out. The guys were determined to stop their losing ways on the road, and a third-period assault proved to be the difference in Ottawa.

They came out with strong skating legs in the opening period, and continuously pushed the Senators back into their defensive zone. Alex Ovechkin had four quality scoring chances against goalie Craig Anderson in the first 15 minutes, each time coming closer and closer to burying one past the Sens keeper.

Head Coach Dale Hunter elected to skate Ovechkin with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Semin tonight, the latter returning to the line-up after missing two games with an injury. The Big Three looked pretty comfortable together, and most importantly did not hurt themselves significantly in their own end.

Troy Brouwer was united with Jeff Halpern and Marcus Johansson, another shrewd switch by the Caps new bench boss. Hunters hunch to bump Halpern up a couple of lines would pay dividends.

Brouwer was involved in a first-period fight with Jesse Winchester and won the bout thanks to several cagey right-hand uppercuts.

After a scoreless opening period, the Caps jumped to the lead when Dennis Wideman sailed down the right wing and blasted shot that Anderson kicked out, only to see Halpern pounce on the rebound.

That one-goal advantage would hold up for 10 minutes and then turn into a one-goal deficit five minutes later. Erik Condra managed to get loose from John Erskine on the doorstep long enough to tuck in the Senators opening marker.

Nick Foligno would follow that with a highlight-film goal, during which he would deke around two defenders and a sprawling Tomas Vokoun before delicately slipping a one-handed backhand into the net.

The Sens had been a perfect 7-0-0 when leading after two periods, but that record would be tarnished tonight.

The beleaguered Caps power play, which earlier in the night had failed with a two-man advantage for 1:48, would finally click thanks to Backstrom. Brooks Laich found him in an open seam off the rush, and Backstrom ripped the soft pass upstairs over the catching glove of Anderson.

Ovechkin would be rewarded next. He busted down the left wing, where he was covered most of the night by Ottawa defender Erik Karlsson. Ovechkin turned behind the net and skated almost all the way to the far point. He then slammed on his breaks which sent Karlsson sliding out of position. From there, Alex closed in to about 25 feet, bluffed a slapshot, and then quickly snapped a wrister through the pads of Anderson. It was a beautiful goal, and it triggered a joyous celebration from the greatly relieved captain for whom goals have been tough to generate.

The Caps would make it three straight scores only 15 seconds later. Johansson found Brouwer at the far post for what amounted to a lay-up to make it 4-2. For Troy it was the capper on a Gordie Howe Hat Trick; a goal, an assist, and a fight in the same game.
The Sens were not finished yet, however. Milan Michalek celebrated his 27th birthday with his 17th goal of the year, a snappy top-shelf finish on a power-play with only 3:52 left in the third.

The Caps gave the Sens another power play one minute later, and were it not for some outstanding work by Vokoun and the penalty-killers, this game would have been tied.

Instead, John Carlson would clinch the win by hitting the empty net at 19:14. For Carlson, that made it two straight games collecting three points.

Vokoun finished with 31 saves, and several of his best against his fellow countryman Michalek.

The win ends a five-game losing skid on the road, and should have the Caps feeling like a more confident host to the Maple Leafs on Friday.

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