The Washington Capitals may not score pretty goals and light up the scoreboard like they did last year, but they continue to become a more resilient bunch this season and one has to think that quality will finally pay dividends for this franchise in the spring for the first time ever. The Caps would not lead after the first period for the eleventh straight contest but they found a way to fight back and get stronger as the game went on despite playing on back to back nights against a rested opponent in the Tampa Bay Lightning. Alexander Semin scored on a gorgeous shot with 5:32 left in regulation and then Alexander Ovechkin notched the only goal in the gimmick to win the game for Washington, 2-1. Braden Holtby came on in relief of Michal Neuvirth, who had metal in his eye after an early shot broke his mask, and he was outstanding stopping all 21 shots he faced, plus all three Bolts shootout attempts. The Caps victory runs their record to 37-20-10 (84 points) and they have a two point margin over the Lightning in the Southeast Division race, but Tampa has a game in hand. Oh, and Washington is now just two points behind the Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia Flyers so the #1 seed in the East is still not out of the question with 15 tilts left in the regular season.
Here are the highlights and analysis of the Caps fifth straight victory, and their eighth consecutive victory by one goal:
- If not for two outstanding saves by Holtby in the middle frame on Simon Gagne, including one with the paddle of his stick when #12′s shot seemed surely destined for the back of the net, and another on Eric Brewer with his left pad late in the game, Washington doesn’t have a chance to come back and win. Holtby was very composed in net in relief of Neuvirth and he also received a break when a Tampa shot hit the pipe right after he came in the game at the start of period two. In addition, the one puck that got by him into the cage was wiped out due to incidental contact by Martin St. Louis in the crease. As impressive as #70 was in the game, and his outstanding stickhandling skills were on display in full force too, he was best in the shootout. In Holtby’s first NHL shootout against the Rangers in early February he was overly aggressive and gave up three goals on four shots. Tonight he didn’t commit early and the result was a perfect three for three against Dominic Moore, Adam Hall, and Vinnie Lecavlier.
- Let’s talk some more about the Caps resiliency I mentioned in the opening of this blog. Last season the Caps struggled when they got behind but this year’s squad has recently developed a sense of calm and is finding a way to scratch out wins when in the past they would have been defeated. We saw it last week late against the Islanders and Blues and once again they rallied in the third period when they should have been out of gas. Nicklas Backstrom (thumb) left the game with just three minutes left in the second period forcing Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau to juggle his lines. The bench boss bumped Jason Arnott up to first line center with Ovechkin and Semin, put Marcus Johansson in the two hole with Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble and then sprinkled in the other five forwards on a third line the rest of the way. Keep in mind the Caps were already without Mike Green, Tom Poti, and Eric Fehr and with their third goalie in the net, the prospect of a victory looked bleak. But the 8-44-28 line found some instant chemistry, in fact Arnott had an open net that he missed on the backhand before Semin tied this one up, and MJ90 turned in another outstanding performance in 17:13 of ice time. The back to back games MJ90 played in Florida may have been his most consistent two contests this season. Clearly this kid, if his minutes are continued to be managed properly, may turn out to be a real plus in the post season instead of having the tank on empty in his first year of playing pro hockey in North America.
- When Semin wants to play, he is as good as there is and his buddy Ovechkin really turned it up late in the game as well. The Great #8 and #28 led a Capitals onslaught in the overtime period that saw them fire 10 shots on Dwayne Roloson (29 saves). The Caps only had 20 shots on goal in the first 60 minutes but the two Russian stars seemed to smell blood in the water, nearly winning the game in the extra session. On one sequence, Ovechkin made two steals and on the first he partially shanked his attempt sending it wide left and on the second one he fed Laich in front but #21 was denied a shot attempt by a trailing Lightning defender. Shortly thereafter Laich drew a penalty off of a faceoff and the Caps ended the OT period with a 1:16 four on three man advantage. The special teams tally on the night was 0 for 3 for the Caps while the Bolts went 1 for 4.
- Steven Stamkos, who leads the NHL in goals with 41 (seven higher than any other player), probably is very happy that he doesn’t have to face the dynamite Washington first year blue line duo of John Carlson and Karl Alzner in the final 16 games of the regular season. #91 has not scored against the Caps in the last five games and the two first round draft choices have stymied the #1 overall pick from the 2008 NHL entry draft. Washington went 4-1-1 against the Bolts this year and Boudreau is 19-3-3 versus Tampa since he took over the Capitals coaching duties in 2007. Yes, I will gladly take a Washington-Tampa first round series since the Lightning have an old goalie and a slow defense.
- In summary, this was another ugly win for the Caps and they ran their record to 7-1 since they started dragging the dads along with them to Florida each year. Clearly the sons do not want to let their proud papas down and they delivered with back to back victories again this year in the Sunshine State. Also, credit needs to go to Caps GM George McPhee for hanging on to his three young goalies at the trade deadline in addition to the two trades he did make. The Arnott and Dennis Wideman acquisitions have been a big factor in this recent winning streak (Caps are 4-0 since those moves).
Notes: The Caps won the faceoff battle, 38-33, but the one Lightning goal came directly off of a Laich loss on a shorthanded draw. Backstrom was 7-0 before departing and Arnott was 12-7 from the dot…Wideman led the Caps in ice time with 28:02 with Ovechkin second at 24:39…d-man Jeff Schultz returned to the lineup and logged a solid 17:13…Semin (6), Laich (5), and Ovechkin (4) combined for half of Washington’s 30 shots on net. Laich nearly won the game in OT but didn’t get his one timer up high enough, but Roloson made a great save too…MJ90 set up Knuble for a good chance in the third period but #22 bobbled the puck when a one timer was needed…next up for the Capitals are the Edmonton Oilers at the Verizon Center on Wednesday night at 7pm.