I have been watching hockey for nearly 40 years and I would have to really think hard to find an ending similar to how the Caps managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against Winnipeg at the Verizon Center, in a shootout, 3-2, on Thursday night.
After the Caps took a 2-0 lead on Alexander Ovechkin and Alexander Semin third period power play goals the Jets received the man advantage with 4:05 left when Roman Hamrlik took a bad slashing penalty. Shortly thereafter we entered the twilight zone as Brooks Laich was called for playing the puck with a broken stick, even though he didn’t realize it, leading to a six on three goal (the Jets pulled their goalie) and just 12 seconds later a dump in from center ice hit Karl Alzner’s stick at the blue line, changed direction, and went into the net past Tomas Vokoun! It was one of the most bizarre sequences I have ever seen in hockey, or sports, for that matter.
This was a game the Capitals really needed on Thursday night and they certainly played like they really wanted it. They carried much of the play and if not for Winnipeg’s Ondrej Pavelec (32 saves), Washington wins fairly handily. But that is hockey. Washington couldn’t put the Jets away and as a result they only received a point in a game they likely deserved two. The defeat drops the Capitals into a first place tie with the Florida Panthers, who beat the Los Angeles Kings, 3-1, on Thursday. Florida has a game in hand so technically they have the division lead.
What will be most telling now, though, is how Dale Hunter’s club handles this crushing defeat. Will they realize that they played some quality hockey and were only done in by some bad breaks or will they wallow in self pity? If they are smart they will take a look at the last four games they’ve played and realize that they should not hang their heads at all. They are playing much better despite not having Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, not to mention Laich is playing on a bum knee. This club is improving despite their weakness up the middle of the ice. Their passes are much crisper overall and they are coming out of their own zone with greater speed, and that helps generate more scoring chances. There is a lot of cause for optimism.
But the road ahead is very tough as they face the first place in the Eastern Conference New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday before coming home to play the always difficult San Jose Sharks on Monday night. After that they go on the road for five of the following six against several teams they are battling in the standings.
Crushing defeats often define a player or a team. The good players or teams move on quickly, learning what is important in the loss, and they find a way to take their game to the next level immediately. Two Sundays ago at Torrey Pines golfer Kyle Stanley made an 8 on the 18th hole when all he needed was a 7 to win. A sequence of crazy things did him in, much like they did to the Capitals tonight. But Stanley moved on and just this past week he came back to win in Phoenix after most people would have written him off for a good long time. Clearly Stanley has talent but he was mentally tough and he didn’t let the bad breaks do him in permanently. This Caps team has talent, even without Backstrom and Green. The fact that they’ve stayed in the playoff race shows that they have mental toughness too.
A loss like tonight, though, will really test them mentally. In fact, my experience tells me that how they handle this one may just define the rest of the season. They have a day off tomorrow before practicing on Saturday, then heading to the “Gahden” to face the Rangers. If they focus on the positives over the last four games and not dwell on what might have been against the Jets, they will be okay. Clearly it will be up to the even keeled demeanor of Hunter and the leadership in the locker room to help this team keep the proper focus going forward. Stay tuned…