The Washington Capitals have moved ahead to first place in the Southeast Division and are now up two points as the leader after victories against the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
A 3-2 overtime win over the Panthers did not look very convincing from the start. The Panthers took over the first period with a goal just under five minutes to go in the first period as a result of a Caps turnover in the offensive zone. However, Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom quickly tied the game at one all about two minutes later.
The Caps took a 2-1 lead as Boyd Gordon was able to cash in his first goal since Dec. 1 after good grinding pressure from Washington’s fourth line. The Panthers tied the game up near the end of regulation on a power play and the game was forced into overtime.
It seemed as though the Capitals said, “don’t worry about that,” though, because just 48 seconds into the extra frame, Alex Semin had a very fluid give-and-go exchange with Marcus Johansson and gave the Caps the two points in Sunrise, Florida.
The very next day against the Lightning, once again Washington came out slowly. Tampa Bay completely controlled the tempo of the beginning portion of the game. The Capitals were unable to enter into the Lightning’s zone much less get any pressure on the team, could not clear the puck out of their own zone efficiently, and gave a potent power play multiple opportunities.
The Lightning took advantage of those opportunities, scoring after Bolts’ captain Vincent Lecavalier won a faceoff and drew it back to his teammate, Sean Bergenheim for the goal. The goal was questionable, though, because of Lecavalier’s slight encroachment on the faceoff, which gave him a slight advantage in winning the faceoff. Nonetheless, the goal went unquestioned and play continued.
At the start of the second period, Michal Neuvirth left the game, possibly for precautionary reasons after he took a puck to the face of his mask. Caps’ backup for the night, Braden Holtby then came in relief, now with both of Washington’s regular goaltenders out.
Tampa had a 1-0 lead the rest of the way, but started to weaken up the middle as Washington was able to gain more opportunities for themselves with power plays and finally being able to gain pressure. Then with about five and a half minutes remaining in the third period, Semin, who was all over the ice in this game put the puck behind Dwayne Roloson with his trademark snapshot.
After a physical and entertaining three periods, the Caps would go into overtime for a second straight game. However, the Caps looked nowhere near fatigued, as they took 10 shots with quality chances and even drew a penalty, but the game went to a shootout. Roloson held on for Tampa all game long, but gave up the lone goal in the shootout to Alex Ovechkin, who beat him and lifted the puck in the net hearing a sea of boos. Holtby’s last shootout against the New York Rangers on Jan. 24 was less than stellar, but against the Lightning, Holtby looked more than confident and was 3 for 3 on saves.
“It was huge obviously,” Holtby said in the Lightning post-game. “I think you can you can learn from any mistake you make and I made a lot in that shoot out.”
Holtby obviously went back to the Hershey Bears organization though and improved his techniques and patience in the shootout. “When I went back down to Hershey, I really worked at my shootouts and breakaways in order to try and make sure I was better next time I came here,” said Holtby.
The four points accumulated over the quick road trip to the state of Florida showed audiences a resilient and very confident hockey team in the Capitals. Despite the slow starts, lopsided power play opportunities, and mid-game goaltending changes, the Caps did not fall back and become passive. Now with a five-game winning streak, and only two points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for first place in the Eastern Conference, the team can only feel good from here on out.
However, there still are concerns for the Caps. While Neuvirth is said to be okay, keeping the goalies healthy is going to be key going into playoff mode. The lack of consistent scoring and the possible connection to a more passive forecheck than last year is an issue for Washington. There also remains concern about the power play. It has been six straight games without a power play for Washington and now they struggle with even gaining opportunities.
“We were just talking about it in there,” Caps’ head coach Bruce Boudreau told WashingtonCaps.com senior writer Mike Vogel after the Panthers
game. “Everybody complains about our power play, and rightfully so. It’s not doing that well but it’s really hard to get a consistency or a momentum on it when you’re getting one power play a game.”
On the other end of special teams, the Capitals are tied with the Nashville Predators for the league’s fourth-best penalty-killing unit. But the Capitals have given their opponents multiple opportunities on the PK. The Caps were whistled five times in both road games, respectively. Boudreau gives the officials some blame for this, especially after Boudreau ripped Steven Stamkos and Steve Downie (who did not play in Monday night’s game) for being excessive divers and over-selling penalties.
The Washington Capitals have a lot going for them right now, and seem to be getting hot at the right time. But whether or not they can actually catch teams for a higher seeding by the end of the season is not Washington’s primary concern. With the things necessary to fix the team physically, for the first time in a while, the Caps do not seem to need to change their mentality.
“I don’t think we’re dwelling on first place or any of that stuff,” Boudreau said according to the Washington Post’s Capitals Insider reporter Katie Carrera. “We all saw what happened last year. At the same time, you want to be as high as you can [in the standings] but we’re not going to dwell on that. Philly’s two points ahead and they’ve got two games in hand and they’re going to start winning again pretty soon.”
Also seen last year (re: the Montreal Canadiens), the playoffs are a different animal and with all of these hungry teams toward the bottom of the playoff pool, Washington needs to be ready to prove critics wrong who claim they cannot even beat a Malkin-less, potentially Crosby-less Pittsburgh Penguins team in the playoffs based on history. As I said before, they seem more mentally prepared for the playoffs at least, even if their squad’s gameplay is not, and that can go a long way.
Notes: The Caps’ next game will be back at the Verizon Center for a home match against the Edmonton Oilers Wednesday night at 7 p.m. … Nicklas Backstrom left Monday’s game with another injury to his hand.