Hockey fans, it’s time to stop the presses! Why? Because the Washington Capitals have finally won back to back games for the first time since mid January.
All kidding aside, the two victories this weekend over Montreal and then at Toronto, while against subpar teams, is significant because it shows that this club still has a decent chance to make the playoffs. More importantly, if they can add some help up front, specifically in the pivot position, and get Nicklas Backstrom back from injury before the playoffs, then anything can happen.
The Caps have been really struggling on the road and given that they played on Friday night, flew to Toronto, and had to clear customs might have indicated that Washington was ripe for the pickings against a desperate Maple Leafs crew. But that theory went totally out the window, thanks to Marcus Johansson’s wraparound tally in the game’s first minute. For once the Capitals could finally play with a lead on the road and the goal definitely energized them. Before four minutes had elapsed, Alexander Semin would score off a nifty steal and from there the Caps built a 4-0 lead through 40 minutes and won fairly easily.
Michal Neuvirth was outstanding in net with 28 saves. The 2006 second round pick has always been underrated and those who have followed him closely know that he is mentally strong. The young Czech netminder, instead of feeling sorry for himself and pouting following coach Dale Hunter’s decision to sit him against San Jose on February 13th, has worked even harder since and in the games he’s played this week has been extremely strong in goal. Hunter may have made the wrong short term decision to sit Neuvirth against the Sharks, but in the long run, it worked because #30 has taken his play to the next level. Sometimes coaches tell it like it is or play head games with players in attempt to make them stronger and improve their performance. Whether Hunter was trying that or not with his goaltender in that instance, that sequence of events has gotten results.
As for the rest of the team, much of the inconsistency in their play over the last month has stemmed from many factors. The Nicklas Backstrom injury has been extremely difficult to overcome given the lack of quality centers on the depth chart after #19. Johansson is only in his second year in the league and he is more suited to play third line center. Mathieu Perreault has been practically written off several times due to his size and lack of steady results. Both players have been forced to take on increased roles and they’ve had good games and bad ones. On Saturday night both had solid outings but to think they can continue to keep it up, in Backstrom’s absence, is asking an awfully lot.
In addition to the talent gaps up the middle of the ice, the team’s inconsistent play has led to a serious lack of confidence and anyone that has played hockey knows that if your mind isn’t right when you step out onto the ice, you are pretty much beaten before taking a single stride. The Caps have had confidence problems, especially after that terrible fluky loss to Winnipeg at home back on February 9th. But these two wins could get their minds right and if General Manager George McPhee can move some of the dead weight on his current roster and bring in some reenforcements, then it becomes an iterative process of better play and increased confidence, a mode a hockey team wants to be in down the stretch. We’ve seen the Caps do this before from the trade deadline on but can they find a way this year with Backstrom likely on the shelf for at least a couple of more weeks?
Another thing to be happy about is the play of Mike Green. #52 has steadily improved since coming back from hernia surgery and he’s stabilized the defense. With Green getting more minutes, Dennis Wideman, who has had many good games but then his share of clunkers this season, has seen his ice time reduced.
So Saturday’s victory puts the Caps at 31-26-5 (67 points) with 20 games remaining. The Southeast Division is wide open between the Caps, Florida Panthers, and Winnipeg Jets with the winner getting the 3rd seed in the playoffs in the East. Surely if McPhee can add some help, and Hunter is likely looking for some size and definitely speed (note it has been the slower skaters who have been routinely getting seats in the press box), then the Capitals could be poised to win their fifth straight division crown.
That is why this team has to be buyers, at this point. Washington needs help up front to get to where they want to go, fortunately it appears that the prices for forwards are not at as high a premium as we’ve seen with defensemen, based on this week’s trades.
This has been a disappointing season so far for the Caps, but McPhee has a chance to turn it all around with the right moves on Monday. It won’t be easy, but given what is at stake for him and the organization, the next two days are going to be extremely important for his and the team’s future.
Notes: Alexander Ovechkin had two assists in a fairly strong performance. His one big mistake though was turning the puck over on the power play in the third period with the Caps up 4-1. The Gr8 can’t make those type of mental miscues. Neuvirth bailed him out with the breakaway save so Ovie certainly owes #30 dinner…Green had 23:00 of ice time and Jeff Schultz logged 21:40. Give #55 credit for working hard and improving his game with assistant coach Jim Johnson the last couple of months. He has gotten tougher to play against despite his lack of speed…Karl Alzner and John Carlson both played over 22 minutes while Wideman and Dmitry Orlov were essentially the third d-pair in this tilt…The Caps next game is Tuesday at the Verizon Center against the Islanders. It is the start of a critical five game home stand. It will be interesting to see what moves McPhee makes between now and the trade deadline at 3pm on Monday.