After a shaky start to the five-game, eight-day road trip for the Washington Capitals, they finish over .500, closing the stretch away from home with a 1-0 shutout victory for Michal Neuvirth in the final game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Monday night against Pittsburgh, the Caps matched up to their physical game play with constant hitting, winning battles along the boards, and a fight between Washington’s Matt Bradley and Pittsburgh’s Ryan Craig in the third period. Whether it was fueled by the intense gameplay that is always expected between the two teams, or if it was just Washington showing a sense of urgency to win, the Capitals increased the level of aggressiveness to wear the Penguins down.
The other story in tonight’s game was the goaltending, where Neuvirth stopped all 39 shots tonight, partially in part to quick reactions by his defense to clear the puck and his rebound control looking significantly improved from previous games. Neuvirth made some game-saving stops himself, especially against Pittsburgh’s Jordan Staal for his return to the Penguins’ lineup tonight, their biggest offensive weapon at this point (EDIT: Technically, Staal did not “return” last night. He was hit in the face with a puck but was cleared to still play Monday night).
It also helped that Alex Ovechkin seems to be getting back to his standard form, scoring the game-winning goal on the power play on a vintage wrist slap shot from the point. The team’s top scorers are gaining points and have contributed to the Caps’ power play in three straight games.
After losing four out of the last five, the Capitals allowed only one goal in the last two games using Semyon Varlamov against the Sabres and Neuvirth in Pittsburgh. The Caps combined for a 2.60 goals against average during the five games on the road trip. Without the crazy 7-6 win over Anaheim, they allowed only 1.75 goals per game. Even though the start to the lengthy trip away from Washington, DC was questionable, they were able to pull it together by toward the end on two nationally televised performances.
While many would argue that the Capitals won against a poor goaltender against the Ducks with some lucky bounces, a lowly Sabres squad, and a battered Penguins team, the flip side to that argument is that… well… a win is a win. To be able to take advantage of such situations and still come out on top is something that the Caps were unable to do earlier in the year, and it is something they can take pride in for the coming games, that they no longer play down to their opponents.
These victories may show tremendous upside for the Caps and their ability to win important games, they still seem to struggle on
offense. Players like Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich may be improving, but the team still has holes that must be plugged. Monday afternoon, Penguins’ GM Ray Shero won in a trade with the Dallas Stars, where he gave away defenseman Alex Goligoski for a much-needed winger in James Neal and Matt Niskanen for the blueline. While this may not be a Cup-winning year for Pittsburgh, the trade gave the Penguins an offensive option for once Sidney Crosby returns, and shows trust in the development of their current defenseman Kris Letang to be their number one defender, as The Hockey Writers’ own Mike Colligan said in his article about the trade.
As Pittsburgh, along with other teams make moves right before the deadline, the Capitals must continue to look at their options to provide help for their top-liners. Brad Richards only continues to look more and more out of the picture for a trade deadline pickup, and the demand for Caps players is less pronounced in the public. However, always known as a general manager who does not say much about what he plans to do, the Caps can only hope that George McPhee is doing work behind the scenes. In an effort to win now, there is no more need for pieces for the future, and they can only get better if they add to the offense; seemingly their main weak spot in their game.
The Capitals play again February 25 at home against the New York Rangers. Following the game the Caps travel to New York to play the Islanders and return home to face the Islanders again.