In a season that has seen a coaching change, some key injuries, and more than its’ share of ups and downs, the Washington Capitals finally made the playoffs with one game remaining, after a 4-2 victory over the Florida Panthers combined with the Philadelphia Flyers win over the Buffalo Sabres, 2-1. The Caps, believe it or not, still have a shot at the Southeast Division title and can finish either 3rd, 7th or 8th in the East, depending on the outcome of Saturday’s contests. Their first round opponent could be the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, or New Jersey Devils.
But back to Thursday night, where the Caps faced a must win in their biggest game of the season. They got the job done, but it was not without another injury, and it was not an easy victory. Washington started sloppily in the opening frame but thanks to a Jay Beagle tally on a rebound of a Troy Brouwer shot plus some super goaltending by Michal Neuvirth, the Caps were fortunate to have a 1-0 lead. But things took a bad turn at the 5:39 mark of period two. Panther forward Marco Sturm fell into Neuvirth and #30 fell back awkwardly with his left leg trapped under him. He was in clear pain and he had to leave the contest after stopping all 13 shots he faced, many of them quality scoring chances.
At that point, the game could’ve gone either way when Braden Holtby (12 saves) entered. Knowing that #70 came on cold with no warmup, the Capitals immediately picked up their play. In addition, they received a boost from Coach Dale Hunter’s line combination changes that he made after the opening 20 minutes. Hunts moved Brooks Laich (1 goal, 1 assist) to center Alexander Ovechkin (1 goal) and Marcus Johansson (1 assist) while moving Nicklas Backstrom with Alexander Semin (1 goal) and Jason Chimera. The switch triggered the Washington offense and Ovechkin and Laich tallied two minutes apart to give the Caps a 3-0 lead.
“He wanted myself on that line just to add a little bit more defensive responsibility. That opens up Marcus and Alex to go and attack. If they know that I am going to be third guy high and then try and win my battles low and get the puck to them, they’re both great skaters that if I can get the puck to them in our zone, they can skate it out. That was the only thought process, shortly after that they both come down and they score a goal. So, it’s good strategy by the coaches,” added Laich on coach Hunter’s line juggling to start the second period.
Washington has struggled with leads lately and tonight saw another round of that start to occur. When five guys swarmed the puck after the Panthers crossed the Caps blueline, Sean Bergenheim alertly fed a streaking Mikael Samuelsson, who was all alone coming down the left wing. #26 fired a laser top shelf by Holtby and suddenly the Cats had life. Florida would pressure Washington, who had several stretches where they could not get the puck out of their own zone, for the rest of the period, but after 40 minutes it was 3-1.
But just 43 seconds into the final period, the Caps failed to dump the puck deep and Florida took advantage getting an easy entry into the zone as the Capitals forwards changed. Then with the Caps defenders running around, Ed Jovanovski fired from the middle of the point and it went through a maze of players before getting by Holtby. At that point every Capitals fan had to think, “We’ve seen this movie before!” and for the next nine minutes it seemed like only a matter of time before the Panthers were going to tie it up. Luckily, the Caps finally found their legs when the Beagle line generated a super forecheck and from there on out Washington carried much of the play with Semin closing the deal with his 21st goal of the season with 1:02 to go.
It was another game where the Capitals looked like world beaters for stretches and then there were other periods where they seemed like the worst team in the league. When they struggled their breakouts were not crisp and they were lazy, at times, in the neutral zone, and that allowed Florida to get more offensive zone time. They did not play well away from the puck at all during those downturns and it was especiallly apparent that they were sitting back in the first 10 minutes of the third. Defensemen Karl Alzner (1 assist) commented on why they struggled early in the third period but were better down the stretch.
“I think we relaxed a little bit more and started getting a little bit of confidence back. We were talking about that on the bench, if there is a play to be made, make the play. Play with confidence, play still on the offensive with what made us get that lead. And that is what happens with all of the teams, you tighten up and you play too much defense and then we get picked apart through the neutral zone. So it was just getting a little bit of our swagger back, I think,” added King Karl on the problems the Caps have had lately when they get a lead and how they adjusted on Thursday.
At the end of the night though, the Capitals achieved their first and most important regular season goal: to make the playoffs. It is a different feel this spring as Washington is likely not going in as a favorite in their series. Because of the injuries and coaching change, they still have not played their best hockey either. They have been wildly inconsistent and their confidence needs boosting. Alzner’s point about getting their swagger back is an important one, Washington needs to find that right balance to be successful in the confidence department.
In the past, the Caps have gone into the post season having had long stretches of solid play during the latter part of the regular season. Maybe they’ve been overconfident in past years, but that won’t be the case this year. Also one could argue that the last four seasons, the Caps had already played their best hockey going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Again, that certainly is NOT the case this year.
Will it make a difference in the post season results this year? We will find out, but one thing is for sure, there are plenty of things the team needs to work on before the first round starts. There is lots of room for upside and improvement and they’ll need to do so, especially if both Tomas Vokoun and Neuvirth aren’t healthy for the playoffs. Right now it looks like it is Holtby’s net, but #70 seems ready to handle that pressure.
In closing, there is one regular season game left at Madison Square Garden on Saturday against the Rangers (6:30 pm start). A win by the Caps and a regulation loss by the Panthers gives the Caps the Southeast Division title, home ice, and a date with the Devils. If the Cats get at least a point, the Caps win, and Ottawa loses in regulation, then Washington goes to Boston as the 7th seed. Finally, if the Caps lose or both Florida and Ottawa get at least a point, then it is the eighth seed and another series against John Tortorella and the Rangers.
Whoever they face, the Capitals have the potential to be a dangerous team, especially if they improve their play with the puck as well as away from it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rangers would prefer facing either Florida or Ottawa instead of a team that underachieved in the first 82 games and finally has a healthy set of skaters, especially if they find their game and get their swagger back.
Notes: Semin’s ice time was increased to 19:19 after #28 only played 14 minutes on Monday. Smart move by Hunter to get the hard working winger more playing time…John Carlson logged 20:05 and had his best game in weeks, maybe even in months…Ovechkin now has 37 goals on the campaign…the Caps lost the faceoff battle 29-32, with Beagle (1 goal, 18:35 of ice time) going 10-6. #83 has been one of the most positive stories of the 2011-12 season and the coaching staff continues to use him in a key role on this team…Neuvirth is reportedly day to day with a lower body injury so expect the Caps to call up Dany Sabourin from Hershey if Vokoun isn’t ready yet…Joel Ward should be closer to returning and they will need #42 to play like he did for Nashville in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs…the Sabres loss put the Panthers in the post season for the first time since 1999-2000.