There are times in a sports season when a team needs a certain player to come up big and help carry their club to victory on a given night.
With the Washington Capitals facing a Tampa Bay Lightning squad that had its back to the wall, Coach Adam Oates really needed goalie Michal Neuvirth, who hadn’t played a game since March 16th, to be that guy on Sunday evening.
Number 30 delivered and the Caps might have been three or more goals down if not for some great saves the Czech net minder made in the opening frame, which saw Washington trail only 1-0 despite being out quality chanced by a two to one ratio. Bolts captain Vinny Lecavalier, who scored that big overtime goal in game two of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Caps in 2011 on Neuvirth that pretty much ended that series, was not able to beat Neuvy on this night and he had a couple of one on one chances in the first period. Simply put, #30 was the man on Sunday and was the game’s first star, in my book.
From Alexander Ovechkin to Nicklas Backstrom to John Carlson, they all praised the play of their goalie afterwards, for keeping Washington in the game until they could get their legs under them in the middle frame.
Hockey is a game that is so much based on good health and confidence. Right now, that combination is what has Washington’s top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson firing on all cylinders. They are as dominant as any line in the NHL at this juncture and Ovechkin notched two goals, including the clinching empty netter, to tie Steven Stamkos for the league goal scoring lead at 25 tallies. Alex is playing outstanding and he seems as happy as I’ve seen him in years. I can’t help but think his life off of the ice, which includes a recent engagement, is a part of the picture, but the coaching of Oates and more importantly, the play of his linemates is making it easier for him.
Backstrom, after a shoulder injury in 2010, a nasty concussion in 2011, and some type of neck injury in December of 2012 did not reach 100% health again until several games into this lockout shortened campaign but Oates told the media after the game that for the last month and a half he is playing outstanding. Nicky doesn’t get the accolades that the Gr8 gets, and let’s be honest, Ovi is a rock star, but he is as important to the Capitals hockey team as Ovechkin is. In past years I’ve talked about how strong Backstrom is on his skates and he has that back again this year. He is winning a large majority of the one on one battles on the boards and as a result he is dominating play.
As for Johansson, Oates acknowledges that the young Swede has the hardest role on that line. He has to feel the pressure to get the puck to the two superstars and yet he’s playing as well as he ever has. His confidence is sky high right now. If he can work on taking his shot more often, that would help keep the opposing defenders and goalie more honest, which would open things up even greater for the entire line.
Washington really played well as a team from the second period on and their strong play in their own end led to numerous odd man rushes in this contest. In fact the winning tally by Joel Ward came on a 3 on 2 rush and #42 beat Bolts goalie Ben Bishop short side because the goaltender was cheating to his left thinking pass. It was a big goal and seemed to deflate the Bolts.
Carlson’s blast to tie the game up, also took some wind out of Tampa’s sails and it was a downright rocket. I am not sure I’ve seen a slap shot that hard in a game in a long time. To quote Crash Davis from Bull Durham, “Well, he really hit the <bleep> out of that one!” #74 is playing some good hockey paired with Jack Hillen (two assists).
Another player so key to the Capitals success, and they’ve now won four in a row and have a two point lead on Winnipeg in the Southeast Division, is Mike Green. #52 is the club’s number one defensemen and although he had 0 points in the game, he was outstanding at both ends of the rink. Mike’s health is good and as a result, he is very confident on the ice and playing as well as he has in his career. Another thing that helps out Green is the play of his partner, Karl Alzner. King Karl is hard to notice but all you have to do is look at Stamkos’ stat line tonight: three shots on net, 0 points, and -1. #27’s job was to shut down the league’s other premier goal scorer and he did it. Green and Alzner are the team’s top defensive pair and both logged over over 23 minutes at even strength to lead all players in that department. Overall Green played 26:37 while Alzner logged 25:34.
Unfortunately, as good as Ward was tonight in scoring the game winner and adding a helper, plus making a great back check to thwart a tying goal in period three, #42 had to leave the game after blocking a shot late in the contest. With Brooks Laich down for the count and slated to see a specialist on Tuesday plus Martin Erat still out day to day after being cheap shotted by Erik Gudbranson on Saturday, the Caps are likely going to be down three wingers when they face Montreal at the Bell Centre on Tuesday. Just when the Caps were finally getting healthy, the injury bug has struck again over the last three tilts, but that’s hockey.
Still, the team is on a roll and if the top line and defensive pair keep playing at the elite level while the goalies and other skaters do their respective jobs, then the Southeast Division is the Caps to seize. There are nine games to go, with six at the Verizon Center. After a very rough start and numerous injuries, their first goal, a division title, is very much there for the taking.
Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, and Braden Holtby have all been carrying this team in recent weeks, as they need to be doing. But on Sunday night, Washington needed a big game from their other goalie, and Michal Neuvirth more than delivered as the catalyst in a critical victory over Tampa.
It was a game that wasn’t built up to be ultra important by Washington, but had Tampa been victorious, the whole Southeast Division race dynamic changes. Neuvirth would not let that happen on Sunday and so the Caps continue to control how this playoff race will play out.
Notes: Tampa is now eight points in back of the Caps. They have 10 games left, including another at the Verizon Center on Saturday…Backstrom was also dominant from the dot tonight going 13-7. The Caps won the face off battle, 35-32…Washington out shot Tampa 38-30 and shot attempts were 60-56 in favor of the Caps.