Caution: Objects in your rear view mirror are larger than they appear!
That line is from an old Far Side cartoon and pictured in that comic is a car mirror with a huge eye ball in it.
Well Southeast Division teams Winnipeg and Carolina, that huge eye ball encompassing your rear view mirror is now none other than Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
The Caps, behind Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who each had a goal, an assist, and a shootout goal, along with the goaltending of Braden Holtby (30 saves), knocked off the Rangers in a contest that went to the gimmick, 3-2, on Sunday night in Madison Square Garden.
It was a gigantic victory for Washington against a team that, on paper, appears to be Stanley Cup Contenders and it improves the Capitals record to 15-16-1.
What is more impressive is that this was three straight victories, on the road, in four nights for the Capitals. The Rangers were the more rested team yet Washington was able to jump out to a quick start, blow a 2-0 lead, and then hold serve until they could win it in the shootout. It was a gutsy Caps victory and getting the extra point is so critical to their playoff hopes right now. New York moves into 8th place but Washington is just two points behind.
The key for the Capitals, though, is the Southeast Division. Now that the club is healthy, they have a good chance to win the division if they can stay away from an injury to one of their top six forwards and their current defensive crew. That is a big if, but this team seems to be really bonding now that one of their leaders, Brooks Laich, has returned. The work ethic has been there in all four games since #21 came back and getting Mike Green, Dmitry Orlov, and even Jack Hillen healthy on defense has made a world of difference.
The Caps did a lot of things well on Sunday but two things they must improve on is their five on three power play and they can’t give up so many odd man rushes. Washington had nearly two minutes to take the lead early in period two with two Rags in the box but the Capitals overpassed the puck and when they shot, it was the wrong selection. Personally, I’d prefer Green out there on the point on the 5 on 3. So far this year the team is one for six in five on three situations while their opponents are a strong six for eight. The Rangers scored quickly on their two man advantage in period one to tie the game.
As for the odd man rushes, it was Green who got caught on the boards in the offensive zone that allowed Aaron Asham to score on a two on one and the Rangers had several other quality looks off of odd man breaks. Marian Gaborik had a second period breakaway but Holtby made his best save of the game to steady things for Washington at a critical time. The Rangers score there and this likely ends up a loss.
But despite some of the areas that need to be cleaned up, the big positive is the way this team is finally playing. Their puck movement and support is much better and they appear to be having fun again. Ovechkin is on a tear and now has 16 goals and 15 assists in the 32 games. In an 82 game season he is at a 41 goal pace (he had 38 goals in 78 games last season). So much for all of that over the hill garbage we’ve been hearing from guys like Mike Milbury. The Gr8 is producing at a better rate lately because Coach Adam Oates now has two lines that are a threat to score, making it tougher for opposing defensive men and coaches to focus totally on Ovechkin.
Hockey is a team game, it can’t be won by individuals and that is what is happening with the Caps right now. They finally have a healthy roster and they are playing together. They dug themselves a huge standings hole with the bad start but this 3-1 road trip that began with a tough loss in Pittsburgh appears to be huge cause for optimism.
Their next seven games are very critical with one against Carolina and the other six against teams sitting 10th to 15th in the Eastern Conference (h/t Corey Masisak). Washington has a solid lineup now, some momentum, and they are playing like a team.
They must take advantage of this upcoming stretch and put themselves into playoff position.
But for now, the teams above them should be awfully concerned when checking their rear view mirrors.
Notes: The Caps were outshot 32-24 but the attempted shots favored Washington at 65-55. The Rangers block a lot of shots…New York won the faceoff battle 27-25…John Carlson led the game in ice time with 26:26 and it was a super road trip for #74. He is playing at a high level for the Caps right now…Holtby’s stickhandling was a big factor in Washington’s ability to get out of their zone cleanly on a number of occassions. That skill is an underrated one and is a big help to the team’s defense…the Capitals can get to .500 with a victory at the Verizon Center on Tuesday against the New York Islanders. The Isles smoked the Caps, 5-2, on the Island back on March 9th.