WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 28: Michal Neuvirth #30 of the Washington Capitals makes a save against the Boston Bruins at Verizon Center on September 28, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
Bruce Boudreau thought his Capitals played as hard as they had all season during the first 10 minutes of Tuesday night's game against the Bruins.
And then, well, things fell apart.
The Bruins scored twice in a span of less than three minutes midway through the first period thanks to some poor defensive decisions, giving them a commanding lead. To make matters worse, after the second goal, Caps' starting netminder Michael Neuvirth complained of dizziness and a headache, forcing Boudreau to pull him from the game.
Semyon Varlamov came in and did well in his first action of the season, but the Caps couldn't solve B's goalie Tim Thomas more than once in an eventual 3-1 loss at the Verizon Center.
Boudreau seemed as puzzled not only by his team's sudden defensive lapses in the first period, but also his starting goalie's sudden bout with the flu. The coach said he had no idea that Neuvirth wasn't up to snuff.
"That was the first I knew of it," Boudreau said after hearing Neuvirth complain after the second goal. "If he wasn't feeling good I wouldn't have started him."
But as Boudreau said, even if Neuvirth was 100 percent, there was little chance he would have stopped the Bruins' first two tallies.
The Bruins opened the scoring just under 10 minutes into the first on a nifty two-on-one by Nathan Horton and David Krejci. The play was set up by a bad pinch by Karl Alzner, who tried stepping up on Milan Lucic, but the hulking winger was able to send a pass up the middle to Horton. With only Tyler Sloan back and Caps center Nicklas Backstrom trailing too far behind, Horton and Krejci executed a perfect two-on-one, getting Sloan to commit. Krejci took the Horton pass and fired it past Neuvirth low stick-side for the goal.
Krejci factored in on the second goal of the game, as well. Just over two minutes later, he skated down the left wing and stopped on a dime, leaving Alzner in his wake, and fired a pass to Johnny Boychuk at the far point just out of the reach of Alex Ovechkin. Boychuk's shot was stopped by Neuvirth, who came far out of his crease, but Milan Lucic outmuscled Jeff Schultz for the rebound and pushed it into the net.
"I was just trying to get body position," Lucic said. "And the puck came to me and I just swatted at it and it was able to go in."
Neuvirth was pulled about a minute later. Varlamov came off the bench and gave his team a chance to win.
Things started to look up in the second period when Marcus Johansson scored the first goal of his NHL career. And it came thanks to some gritty work by Matt Hendricks and Jason Chimera, who played some dump-and-chase hockey to perfection.
The goal came after the Caps' failed to score on a two-man advantage. With the stars on the bench, the grinders took over.
Hendricks chipped the puck into the Bruins end. Chimera went down low behind the net to retrieve it and quickly sent a pass out front to Johansson, who managed to slip it past Thomas low on the short side. A highlight-reel goal it was not, but the rookie will take it. Hey, you can always exaggerate the story to the grandkids later on in life.
"It was a good feeling," Johansson said of seeing his first goal go in the net. "I got some of the pressure off of my own shoulders and now I can keep going."
Oh, and Johansson may have the goal, but after the game he sat in the locker room without the puck. He didn't know where it ended up, but there's a good chance it will have some tape wrapped around it with his name on it soon.
The Caps found it tough sledding against the Bruins the rest of the game. When their shots weren't being eaten up by defensemen's shin guards in the slot, Thomas was up to the task between the pipes. He continued his stellar play so far this season, flipping and flopping in the crease all night. Oftentimes it wasn't pretty, but he was able to stonewall Ovechkin and the Caps all night stopping 35 of 36 shots. His teammates blocked another 19 shots in front of him.
"That's my style," Thomas said. "I had to battle through some screens and there were some funny little tips that you had to stay on your toes for."
Now it's off to Boston for the second half of the home-and-home series Thursday night.
The Bruins, well, they'll be more than happy to be home. The game, you see, will be the team's home opener.
By the time the Bruins play the Caps at TD Garden Thursday night, they will have traveled 9,072.40 miles already this season. That's a lot of frequent flyer miles.
That tally includes 2,981 miles from Boston to Belfast; 911 miles from Belfast to Prague; 108 miles round trip from Prague to Liberec in the Czech Republic; 3,892 miles from Prague to Boston, 392 miles round trip from Boston to Newark; and 788 miles from Boston to D.C.
"It's good to be going home," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "We've had our fair share of road games."
But the big question remains: Did their bags fly free?