In a year full of ups and downs, the Washington Capitals are finding themselves in a familiar spot with just two games to go in the regular season, Southeast Division champions (for the 4th straight year) and now once again first in the Eastern Conference standings. The Caps knocked off the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-2, in the gimmick while the Ottawa Senators defeated the Philadelphia Flyers, 5-2, to give Washington a two point lead on the Broad Street Bullies with just two games remaining. The Capitals (47-22-11, 105 points) control their own destiny for first seed in the East with a home and home series remaining with the Florida Panthers.
Here are the highlights and analysis of a contest that saw wily old veteran Mike Knuble score the only goal in the shootout on eight tries:
– Alexander Ovechkin (1 goal, 7 shots on goal in 17 attempts, 4 hits) was the best skater in this contest. The Great #8, who seems to love playing in the Big Smoke, dominated this game but the on fire James Reimer (39 saves), several broken sticks, and the post cost Ovie from racking up a bunch of points on this night. Alexander the Great logged 23:36, including 4:36 of power play time, and his laser with the Capitals on a five on three power play in period one tied this contest at a goal a piece. From there, it seemed like Ovechkin was going to match the hat trick he had at the Air Canada Center back in January but it just wasn’t meant to be.
– Reimer was the first star of the game. The puck seemed to continually find the Maple Leaf crest, which was the result of good positioning. The 2006 4th round draft choice, who reportedly started the season 5th on the Leafs goaltending depth chart, has stolen the hearts of Leafs fans and gave them crazy thoughts of a late run to qualify for the post season. But since the Buffalo Sabres knocked off the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night, Leaf Nation should now focus on the 2011 NHL Entry Draft and any parades planned for Yonge Street will wait yet another year. The Caps were only able to beat #34 three times, once on Ovechkin’s PPG, Knuble’s shootout winner, and John Erskine’s blast that was going wide and deflected off the glove of a Toronto defender into the cage. The kid put on a show for his fans on this night.
– As for the Capitals goaltender, Michal Neuvirth (19 saves) had a shaky start giving up two tallies in the first 22 minutes. The first one was on a Toronto power play by Nikolai Kulemin from the slot that #30 will want back. But the second was the result of poor defense. Scott Hannan was beaten wide down the left wing by Phil Kessel and he slid a pass to the far post that Joffrey Lupul, a long time Caps killer, tapped in. Standing next to #19 was Jeff Schultz, who made a terrible defensive play by allowing Lupul to get such an easy marker. After that though, Neuvy made several big stops, including some key ones in the third period to get the tilt to the extra frame. In my book, #30 didn’t do anything to give up his lead on the #1 goalie job for the post season, but there are still two games left. Either way, whether it is Neuvirth or Semyon Varlamov, the Caps are set in the cage for the playoffs.
– Without Mike Green or Dennis Wideman, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau has gone with a power play configuration, that at times, employs five forwards with Ovechkin and Brooks Laich manning the points. The results have been good and the Great #8 tally gave the Capitals a streak of three straight PP situations with a goal. The remaining two man advantage opportunities saw tons of offensive zone time and only Reimer plus some shots that went wide, prevented more goals from the power play. This unit seems to be finding a groove at the right time of the season.
– On the other hand, the Washington penalty kill went one for two for the second straight contest and the defense is clearing missing both #52 and #6. The blue line is suffering from a lack of speed right now so it is imperative that either Green and/or Wideman get back for the post season. If Tom Poti’s groin finally heals that would be a boost as well. Despite only giving up 21 shots on goal, the Capitals defense was sloppy on several occassions and Toronto had its’ share of quality chances. With a slower blue line, it is really imperative that the Caps forward back check hard to close the gaps and not let opposing teams hit the late men when the Washington defense is in retreat mode.
– Still, a win is a win is a win. So it is back to DC on a late night flight and a Wednesday evening date at the Verizon Center with the Panthers (7 pm). Boudreau will likely go with Varlamov in goal in the back to back situation. One would also expect Alexander Semin to suit up for the contest. #28 stayed home to try to get rid of a nagging ailment but had this been a playoff game, he definitely would have played according to Mike Vogel (@VogsCaps) of the Washington Capitals.
Notes: Washington lost the face-off battle, 38-36. Boyd Gordon was 12-9…Hannan and Schultz, 26:12 and 26:03, respectively, logged the most ice time for the Caps. #55 needs to avoid those big breakdowns in games that he seems to be having lately…Jason Arnott only played 14:01 and was -1 but he did have four shots on goal…Eric Fehr had three quality scoring chances early on in the first period but couldn’t convert. #16 played 13:40…Sean Collins was the 6th d-man and was +1 in 10:49 of ice time…Tyler Sloan, who was injured on Saturday night, made the trip but didn’t play…DJ King and Jay Beagle were the other Capitals scratches.