As I walked out of the Verizon Center on Friday night after the Caps gave up a 3-0 lead to lose to Winnipeg in overtime, there were a lot of non-believers in this Capitals team with just seven games remaining in the season. Personally, I wasn’t even close to being on the ledge following the defeat and felt that Washington just ran into some bad luck (see Mike Knuble missing one from the doorstep), faced great goaltending early on, and had bad execution playing on an empty tank due to back to back games.
Sunday night, the Capitals certainly helped confirm my thoughts as they received great goaltending from Braden Holtby (28 saves) in the opening frame, then dominated the Minnesota Wild en route to a 3-0 victory. The win, which featured a lot of excellent plays by Alexander Ovechkin (1 goal, 1 assist in 26:19 of ice time), puts them back into eighth place in the Eastern Conference with the Buffalo Sabres, who come to town for Tuesday night’s HUGE tilt at the Verizon Center. Both clubs have 84 points but the Caps hold the tiebreaker due to more regulation and overtime victories (36 to 30). The Caps are also just two points behind seventh place Ottawa and with Florida losing at home in the shootout to the Islanders, they are just three points in back of the Southeast Division leading Panthers (FLA has a game in hand).
I still could be wrong about this team, but the way Ovechkin and Alexander Semin are playing, the Capitals seem to be trending up. The Gr8 now has 36 goals when 35 once looked to be a pipe dream. On Friday, many criticized Hunter for having the team hang back and for sitting Keith Aucion and Jeff Halpern in the third period. I did not think the Caps purposely sat back, they just couldn’t get the puck out of their own zone to sustain any forecheck or offense. It was bad execution and Winnipeg was really clicking. Those of you who read what I wrote after Friday’s game though, did notice that I did call for the Gr8 and Semin to get more ice time. On Sunday, Hunter delivered that and the Gr8 double shifted most of the contest as ole number 32 went with just 11 forwards. Ovechkin made that decision look very smart. His hustle to slide and break up a Wild two on one shorthanded break after Dennis Wideman lost sight of the puck at the offensive blue line in the middle frame was a turning point in the game.
Semin continues to play well despite taking more than his fair share of criticism. He now has 38 points (13 goals, 25 assists) and is +14 in 47 games since December 9th (shortly after Hunter took over as coach). He has helped Jason Chimera hit a career high in goals (19) and Mathieu Perreault likely isn’t in the NHL right now without #28. The Russian forward was all over the ice at both ends today and had 16:40 of ice time. He has been battling a lower body ailment but is fighting through it. I still would like to see him get more minutes but given Washington’s weaknesses up the middle of the ice, that might not happen until Nicklas Backstrom comes back (which could be soon).
Holtby certainly has taken advantage of an opportunity and was 2-0-1 allowing just four goals in 185 minutes of hockey this week. His ability to play the puck really helps his defensive crew, which has some slower guys back there. It is hard to see #70 not face Ryan Miller on Tuesday in likely the biggest regular season game for Washington since the season finale in 2008.
So the Capitals got a must win when they needed it and they continue to control their own destiny in their quest for the playoffs. Tuesday’s game is huge and then they have five more contests after that. Some of their poorer finishes recently (see Detroit and Winnipeg) have come in the second half of back to back tilts. Fortunately for Washington, they are done with those this season. That will allow Hunter to rely more heavily on his big guns like Ovechkin and Semin, and both need to continue to play at an elite level for this club to be successful.
Notes: Marcus Johansson (1 assist, +1, in 14:32 of action) rebounded from a bad contest on Friday with a strong one today. MJ90’s decision to not drop pass when coming across the blue line earlier in the shift helped lead to Ovechkin’s goal. Washington got the puck deep, sustained pressure, then took advantage of a Wild turnover in the neutral zone to put this game away…Hunter dressed seven defensemen (Wideman, Mike Green, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, Jeff Schultz, and Roman Hamrlik) with Schultz, Orlov, and Carlson all playing less than 12 minutes…the Caps lost the face-off battle, 30-23, but Perreault went 7-3…Perreault also had the 2nd Caps goal off of a nice feed from Troy Brouwer after Ovechkin kept the puck alive on the power play.