On Monday and Tuesday, Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter stressed the importance of Tuesday night’s game against the Florida Panthers, which was for first place in the Southeast Division, calling it a playoff game. With the Caps struggling with some key injuries and being losers of six of their last nine games, the big question was how would his team respond to his challenge?
After a 4-0 victory over the Cats at the Verizon Center, Hunter and everyone else had their answer. The Caps are still alive and kicking this season and have the horses to turn it on, when necessary. Washington made a statement that they aren’t the four time defending division champs for nothing. They stated that with authority by scoring 13 seconds into the game (Mathieu Perreault) and then Alexander Ovechkin tallied on the power play midway through the first period to stake the Capitals to a lead they never really had to worry about.
“We jumped on them early. It changed the game a bit when we got two quick goals. They had to play a different game and it ended up at our advantage. We knew what was on the line tonight. We’re battling with Florida. Every two points means a lot, ” said Hunter afterwards.
They received excellent goaltending from Tomas Vokoun (42 saves), who like Tim Thomas did to Washington on Sunday, made key stops in the opening frame when the Caps did have some major defensive breakdowns.
“Tomas [Vokoun] was sharp all night. We might not have had the lead in the first period if it wasn’t for Tomas [Vokoun]. They had a lot of breakaways and he came up big for us. He was one of the main reasons why we won. I thought Tomas [Vokoun] had a great game. They threw a lot of pucks from all angles and he had to be sharp all the time. He came up big and gave them no momentum. I thought he was a first star,” added Hunter.
Not only did Hunter’s “playoff” mantra seem to inspire the Caps, but the ability of Brooks Laich to be able to play after suffering what looked to be a vicious knee injury on Sunday had to amp up the rest of the Washington players. After all, if #21 is going to play through pain, shouldn’t the rest of the guys feel obligated to lay it on the line too? That is pretty much what happened as several Capitals used their strengths in this contest. Marcus Johansson was all over the ice displaying his speed to open things up for Ovechkin (2 goals), Troy Brouwer (5 hits) and Joel Ward (4 hits) were physical presences, and Jason Chimera was seemingly everywhere (1 goal, 1 assist, 8 shots on goal).
The Capitals were really good in nearly every facet of the game, outside of a few first period breakdowns. They won the special teams battle scoring on their only power play, shut down the Panthers on all four of theirs, and also scored shorthanded (Chimera). Vokoun was much better than Florida goalie Scott Clemmensen (20 saves). The Caps number one goalie saw a lot of rubber but not a significant number of quality chances in the last two periods. Most of the Florida shots, after it was 3-0, were from the perimeter or were with no traffic in front. When a goalie knows where the shots are coming from and he can see them, it is much easier to make the save and that is what is mostly happening for Washington in Hunter’s system.
Tuesday’s victory was a feel good win and should give the team some confidence going into another important game against Winnipeg on Thursday at the Verizon Center. With Nicklas Backstrom out the Capitals have struggled to be consistent, so they now have a chance to build on several of the good things they did on Tuesday. As I blogged after Sunday’s loss to Boston, the Caps had their chances but didn’t finish them in a 4-1 defeat. On this night, Washington made sure they put the biscuit in the basket and the reward is first place in the Southeast Division, once again.
Notes: The Caps are now 28-21-4 (60 points). Florida is a point back but has a game in hand…Washington was much better on face-offs after getting smoked on Sunday by the B’s. The Capitals went 32-25 from the dot with Laich winning 7 of 8 of his draws…#21 only played 9:28…the Capitals outhit the Panthers 31-19.