The Caps have claimed the top slot in the Eastern Conference and dominated their division. Despite sitting in a relatively safe spot for the playoffs – which begin in a little over two weeks – the Capitals have made a point to tell the fanbase they’re not going to take it easy these last few games.
Saying it is one thing. Proving it is another.
The Ottawa Senators came into Verizon last night riding a four-game win streak; the Caps were sitting with two losses. Ottawa hasn’t clinched a playoff spot just yet, even though they’re a pretty sure bet for fifth seed. But both teams are looking to hold the balance of rest and form during the last few games of the season; go into the playoffs after a stressful stretch run and a team could flame out early from exhaustion. It’s a balancing act that requires teamwork and a delicate coaching touch.
Last night, however, the Caps just couldn’t pull off that balancing act. Senators captain Alexei Kovalev scored on the power play in overtime with just 19 seconds remaining, giving the Caps their third loss in a row and the Senators a much-needed boost to extend their win streak to five.
Don’t misunderstand; the Caps did string several minutes of excellent play at various times throughout the game. The second period was perhaps their best of the contest as they overcame a 3-1 deficit to tie the game going into the third. Alexander Semin knocked in goals 36 and 37 on the night, powering toward his first 40 goal season. (Semin’s career high of 38 goals from the 2006-07 season will surely fall this season.) Semin’s second goal of the night was from a great combination play with line partner Alex Ovechkin, who notched his 55th assist of the season, a single-season career high. Mike Green and Mathieu Perreault also scored for the Caps, who peppered Senators goalie Brian Elliott with 21 shots on goal; only four came in the first period, a decidedly low output from the Caps high-powered offense.
The Caps looked sluggish in the first period, and the Senators took advantage of it. “Maybe we’re not ready for the first period,” Nicklas Backstrom said when asked about the slow play. “We have to, because I remember last year in the playoffs we weren’t ready the first two games. So we have to get ready now and play a good 60 minutes. We haven’t played a good 60 minutes in a while.”
Part of the problem last night was ice discipline; the Caps were whistled for four penalties – three in the offensive zone. And Ottawa took advantage of the lapses, as the final two Senators goals were on the power play. The last one especially hurt, coming in the waning moments of overtime. “If it is blatant they are going to call it – it was probably a dumb penalty if you ask me,” center David Steckel said of Backstrom’s tripping penalty on Kovalev. “Thirty seconds left in the OT – he’s not going to beat you up the ice. They’re going to call it and it resulted in a goal tonight.”
Coach Bruce Boudreau is clearly using these last remaining games as a period of fine-tuning; the lines were shuffled around throughout the night, but not out of any sense of desperation. It’s easy to jump out and say the team is slacking off because they’re already in the playoffs – what else is there to play for aside from the President’s Trophy? But Boudreau said last night that this stretch drive was different than last season. “I think the teams we’re playing [now] are fighting for something. That was a hard-fought game. That wasn’t a go-through-the-motions-type game. You had two teams wanting it. I don’t think our level of play will be dropping, like it was last year.”
Missing from the Caps lineup last night was Scott Walker (knee), Brendan Morrison (leg), Milan Jurcina (hernia), Boyd Gordon (back), and Brookes Laich (face). Tyler Sloan and John Erskine were healthy scratches.
Not at the game? You can still enjoy the action through my photos.