Playing their third game in four days (and fifth in eight), the Caps managed to hold off an equally tired Atlanta team last night 6-4 with a ripping shot from John Erskine with just under seven minutes remaining. It was Erskine’s second goal in four games; previously, he’s had seven goals in 336 career games. There was some joking in the locker room that the sudden burst of offense from the defenseman of late was from the new mustache. “Yeah, the ‘stache has been good luck this month,” he joked. “I talked to the wife and I might be keeping it for a while.”
“He’s let a couple of really good shots go this year. He’s finding the mark,” said coach Bruce Boudreau. “He’s a big strong guy and when he gets it all he can score. Good for him. He played real hard.”
Erskine and the rest of the Caps defense stepped up on the offense in the third period, finally shutting down a resurging Thrashers team that took advantage of another lackluster Caps second period. The Caps came out strong in the first with team captain Alexander Ovechkin notching his 10th goal of the season after Thrashers goalie Chris Mason bobbled the slapper and deflected it into the net behind him. Mike Green then took advantage of a penalty to Atlanta’s Ben Eager, slamming home a slap shot near the point on the power play. The Caps finished the first period strong and it looked as if the Caps were on their way to blowing out the visitors.
Midway through the second, however, Atlanta had tied the game 4-4, despite the Caps having chased Mason from the net. The malaise that had seized the team Saturday in Buffalo had apparently come back. Play was sloppy all around, with little cohesion and a lot of bobbled passes. “It was a mental lapse completely by our whole team,” said defenseman Mike Green. “I think we were successful in the first period and got confident but we set ourselves back in the second. It wasn’t our team – we have to play a full 60. We made it a very close game and we made it real tough on ourselves.”
“It wasn’t very good. We made mental mistakes,” said Boudreau. “It was ugly, but the good thing is they righted the ship. We talked about not wanting to beat teams 6-4. We want to shut teams down.” The Caps listened; the third period saw a markedly different Caps team return to the ice.
“We were a desperate hockey team,” said Green. “When your back [is] up against the wall and you are in that position, you have to make sure you are doing everything right or else you aren’t going to win in this league. Tonight we came through.” The Caps defensive corps stepped up their offensive and Erskine’s game-winner was the end result. “I don’t know if it is contagious or what, but the forwards are doing a good job of giving us the puck and we are able to get shots through,” said Tyler Sloan of the ramped-up intensity by the blue liners. “I don’t know what it is, but we are going to continue doing it.”
Boudreau agreed. “I think you need someone other than Mike Green scoring goals and getting points from the back end if you want to be successful. Those guys (Erskine and Sloan) are getting them and that’s great.” Sloan, Green, Erskine, and fellow defenseman Jeff Schultz combined for 6 points (2 goals) on the night.
Not that the offense is sputtering along. Alexander Semin notched his 13th of the season near the end of the first. He extended his points streak to eight games on a brilliant shot sliding down the right wing, backhanding a great saucer pass from Ovechkin skating up the left. Semin leads the Caps in goals and is second to Ovechkin in total points. Nicklas Backstrom stretched his point streak to three games with an assist on Ovechkin’s opening goal.
Whether the Caps can find some consistency for a full 60 minutes remains to be seen, though it is still early in the season. The Caps continue to find immense success at home (9-1-0 this season, have won their last six) and have yet to lose in regulation time this season. The Buffalo Sabres visit on Wednesday, giving the Caps a chance to erase Saturday’s overtime loss and build upon their new-found offense from the blue line.