The Washington Capitals knocked off the New York Rangers on Sunday afternoon, 3-2 in the shootout, to retake first place in the Metropolitan Division. What follows are six extended thoughts and analysis of the Caps as they head into the final 16 games of the regular season.
Clutch Performances Yield Two Points – The Capitals really dominated the contest against the Rags on Sunday, but Alexandar Georgiev was dialed in for New York in net and Washington also didn’t get many bounces going their way. That’s why this affair ended up in a shootout and if not for a couple of nice saves in the gimmick by Holtby, the game’s number one star officially, the Caps might have left town with just a loser point. The Holtbeast (22 saves) was clutch, but when it comes to excelling under the ultimate pressure, All Star Nicklas Backstrom delivered when he absolutely had to do so. The Caps were down to their last shot to tie in round three and with Georgiev seemingly on fire, Nicky came in and just blazed a perfect shot just inside the post past the glove hand of the young goalie to give his club a chance for the win. After Holtby made a fantastic pad save, Alexander Ovechkin, who was denied on a breakaway on a five hole attempt in OT after a super feed from Evgeny Kuznetsov, deked Georgiev so badly that the keeper threw his stick into the puck and the Gr8’s stick as Ovi was about to fire the disc into the empty cage for the win. Those were some clutch performances there by Braden, Alex, and especially Backy.
Zebra Convention of Doom – The officiating in this game was downright awful from Francois Charron and Pierre Lambert, who continue to help prove to me that there isn’t a single good French Canadian referee in the NHL. They missed several infractions on the Rangers in this tilt and the call on Tom Wilson for kneeing was a complete joke. NHL officiating is at an all time low, in my book, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a screw up as bad as what happened at the end of the shootout. All four officials either missed Georgiev throwing his stick at Ovechkin and/or they just didn’t know the rule that when this occurs it’s an automatic goal. While one of the clowns in stripes was over explaining to Caps Coach Todd Rierden why they were not awarding a goal, the horn at Madison Square Garden was sounded not just once, but twice, to get the two officials over to the headphones so the NHL War Room in Toronto could set them straight. Thank goodness this was the only game going on at the time and it was on national TV otherwise the shootout might have continued. They ultimately got the call right, but it should have never gotten to that point, so this was a really embarrassing scenario for the NHL and it’s on ice officials. The league has to find a way to improve the performance of the guys in stripes. The on ice product from the players is as good as ever, but the officiating is about as poor as I’ve seen it, especially when it comes to the French Canadian referees. I don’t know what it is about the zebras from there, but they seem to always be watching a different game than many others are viewing?
Deal or No Deal – Caps General Manager Brian MacLellan made two moves to upgrade his third defensive pair and his bottom six forward group for the stretch run and hopefully long post season afterwards. About 10 days into those acquisitions, what the Caps surmised on paper is translating perhaps even better than expected on the ice. Carl Hagelin was brought in to inject speed into the lineup and help a struggling shorthanded unit. BMac also noted that Hagelin was a guy that could be moved up in the lineup, if needed. On Sunday, against a team he started his career with after being chosen in the sixth round of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, Coach Reirden inserted him on the third line and he scored his first Caps goal, drew a penalty (and there were at least two other times the zebras ignored Ranger players tripping him), and helped kill two penalties in 16:36 of ice time. After that performance, it’s hard to see him getting bumped back down to the fourth line. As for Nick Jensen, he was as steady as a rock in 17:05 going plus two along with Brooks Orpik (also +2). That duo has really clicked and they were a big reason both Washington goals came from their bottom six group of forwards. The best GM in the Caps history, after adding Michal Kempny last season before the NHL trade deadline, sure seems to have pulled off two more great moves this year. Credit should also go to Chris Patrick and the Capitals Pro Scouting Department; they’ve certainly improved by leaps and bounds since the awful Martin Erat acquisition and 2014 trade deadline horrible additions that led to George McPhee and Adam Oates getting shown the door following that train wreck of a campaign. These deals were not flashy, but they created depth and more importantly, competition in the lineup, and that’s how teams really improve. Many are calling for Orpik to sit for Christian Djoos now that Jensen is on board, but most of them have Orpik Derangement Syndrome. Brooks has been really good since the bye week and as Coach Reirden noted, Djoos had a major surgery and still can’t do some of the things he needs to do at the NHL level to be effective in the most important parts of the season. With Jensen able to kill penalties, the Caps now have four blue liners that are very good at that aspect of the game, Orpik, Jensen, Matt Niskanen, and John Carlson. The PK is not an area where Kempny, Dmirty Orlov, or Djoos excel.
All You Need is Rest – When the Caps were losing seven games in a row back in January and there were people on Twitter in Caps Nation losing their minds, I kept tweeting that the team looked fatigued and just needed some rest and time away from hockey. That analysis was spot on. Since the All Star Game and Bye Week break the Capitals are now 11-4-1 (23 out of a possible 32 points). They currently lead the Metro division by two points over the Islanders, who lost three of four on home ice this past week. New York is showing some signs of fatigue and that is to be expected given their style of play. The Islanders do have a game in hand. The top of the division is still very close with red hot Carolina in third place with 78 points and one less game played, too. The Pens are in fourth with 77 points and Columbus is in 5th in the Metro and 9th overall at 75 points. Suddenly surging Philadelphia is at 72 points. Bottom line now is every point matters and with so many four point games left, you need to be fresh down the stretch to play what are very tight and close checking contests.
Schedule Sets Up Well – Going forward, the Caps have a very favorable schedule in terms of spacing since they only play one back to back set and do not have to travel outside of the eastern time zone. Yes, they have three games left with the top team in the NHL, Tampa, and three games left with the Flyers, who are making a hard charge to try and get into the postseason, but this stretch, while tough in terms of the type of hockey each game will present, is much better than what some of the other Metro teams have yet to deal with. The Capitals know what style it takes to win when the games matter most, and we are starting to see them employ it. There are still things to clean up in their game, both goals allowed on Sunday were of the ugly and lazy variety, but the overall trend of play is going the right way, by far.
Rangers Game Stats Recap – Proof of the Caps domination were a 60-42 shot attempts advantage and the 39-24 shots on goal difference…Ovechkin had six shots on goal in 23:35 of ice time. Carlson led the Caps and all skaters in TOI with 26:02…Andre Burakovsky started strong scoring a goal to make it 2-1, but he was bumped down to the 4th line before the contest began. His move and shot to tally his 9th goal of the season was very nice, but the coaches clearly didn’t like the soft play he made in the middle of the ice on the Rangers game tying goal in period two. Burky only received one more shift in the game after that one handed miss in the slot…Travis Boyd only played 7:21 without a shot on net. He passed up a great chance to do so in period two and then gave the puck away. The whole team does have a tendency to overpass, at times, and that’s something that must be cleaned up down the stretch and heading into the post season. Pucks and bodies need to almost always go towards the net or below the goal line when the games clamp down…the Caps were creamed on face offs, 32-21. Nic Dowd was 5-4, but he only played 8:23…the Caps went 4-0 against the Rangers this season, the first time in franchise history they’ve done that against the Rags.