It’s been a strange and, at times, tumultuous season for the Washington Capitals, but they have found themselves in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, despite losing, 4-3, to the Winnipeg Jets at home in overtime. Part of the reason the Caps are in a playoff position is due to teams currently below them failing to work to get in the playoffs at various points this season, but the Caps have actually played pretty well as of late, winning a good portion of their games and some against formidable opponents.
One of my major criticisms and explanations about why the Caps have done so poorly this year was the expectation that everyone on the team should play “communist hockey.” This style and expectation suppressed everyone’s ability to do what they did best. It was a form of defensive hockey, but they were still losing games and almost entirely afraid to put out offense.
Lately, however, it seems the Caps have let up a little on the offensive choke-hold and have let some players go on the ice. Players like Alex Ovechkin have heated up and suddenly the Caps look like the team people have been waiting to see all season. In the game against the Jets, he scored two goals, one which should have been “the nail in the coffin.” He’s done his part to not only boost his game, but fire the rest of the team up on the ice. The loosening up has helped other players, mainly Mike Knuble.
Undoubtedly the leader of this team, vocally and from his demeanor regarding every game, Knuble’s presence had been missing many games when Dale Hunter first took on head coaching duties. It started slowly with being pushed down line-by-line until Knuble was a regular fourth-liner. Hunter then decided to scratch Knuble, citing the grizzled vet’s lack of production. For a player that stats guru Neil Greenberg said scored on every 20 scoring chances, and played top-six forward minutes, it seemed as though Hunter was trying to create an excuse to sit Knuble — how can Knuble produce when he’s buried in the lineup, playing far fewer minutes than he usually plays?
The trade deadline came and went and despite numerous rumors, especially because of Knuble’s apparent displeasure with his playing situation, the 39-year-old was not moved. Instead, he spent, yet, another week out of the lineup in D.C., watching his team beat the Islanders, but lose two bad games at home against the Devils (5-0) and Flyers (1-0).
Knuble was re-inserted into the lineup against the loss against the Flyers, but the next game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Caps won in overtime, 3-2. Despite the negative vibes from his time sitting out games, Knuble didn’t give up trying to play hard — something that can always be credited to him. Following the win over the Lightning, Knuble registered three goals and an assist going into Friday’s game against the Winnipeg Jets. Coincidentally, including the Lightning game, the Capitals have been 5-2-1. That record extends to a five-game road trip — an area where the team has struggled significantly — where they picked up five out of a possible 10 points. When they returned home to play the Jets, Knuble contributed to Ovechkin’s second goal of the night with the primary assist, adding to his production totals since returning to the active roster.
“It’s only been one game I’ve played with him [Alex Ovechkin] so far,” said Knuble. “but it’s definitely a great assignment. It’s a lot of pressure on yourself to make sure you’re doing well. Don’t hold him back too much.”
Knuble, who used to play on a line with Nicklas Backstrom and Ovechkin when Bruce Boudreau was bench boss, knows how to handle playing with Ovechkin. Not holding Ovechkin back is something he’s familiar with, and while it only produced an assist for Knuble, it did create plenty of chances in front of the net that Knuble will certainly bank-in when he’s back to being comfortably in the lineup.
Things still aren’t perfect in Washington — regular players are still healthy scratches, Tomas Vokoun has had a slight injury that caused Braden Holtby to be called up, and yes, the team lost a key game Friday night. Not to mention they’re still adjusting to balancing the firepower of Ovechkin and playing defensively responsible hockey. However, it’s important to keep in mind the intangibles that certain players bring, and Knuble seems to be that guy.
Karl Alzner said the team needs to “stay more calm” in order to keep their extra gear to hold leads like the 3-0 one they lost Friday against the Jets. The Caps’ goaltending has done the job for them, so it’s moments like these where a player like Knuble and Ovechkin can step up and help Washington play through tough moments against opponents that may cost them a lead. Deep down, Washington is still the team we thought they were before the season started, if they pick up these pieces and keep trucking the last seven games of the year.