Things are really starting to go the Capitals way.
Seven wins in a row. A fresh young goaltender riding a hot streak. A string of victories in one goal games. And now they have retaken second place in the Eastern Conference within striking distance of the Flyers for the top spot heading into the playoffs.
Where has this team been most of the year?
Washington was good in the fall. They were mediocre in November, January and a good portion of February. They were terrible in December. Yet, with a scrappy, opportunistic 2-1 win over the Hurricanes on Friday, Washington controls its destiny in the Southeast Division and is within a game of where everybody thought they would be when the season got rolling in October.
On the top.
“I think we are all happy that is not November or December. We have really started playing well towards the last bit here,” forward Mike Knuble said.
Braden Holtby made 40 saves on the night and overall the Caps were not all that sharp against Carolina, a team fighting just to make it to the tournament for Lord Stanley’s Cup come April. Washington was shut out through the first two periods and a quick wrist shot from Canes forward Tuomo Ruutu in the last minute of the second period looked like it would bury Washington.
But it was not to be.
Alexander Ovechkin tied the game in the first minute of the third period when he took a drop pass from rookie center Marcus Johansson and hooked it through Carolina netminder Cam Ward. The energy at Verizon Center spurred the team in red and they kept the pressure on the Canes while withstanding a flurry of chances from Carolina as Holtby made himself big in net. Washington took the lead for good at 7:24 in the third when Matt Hendricks blocked a shot at the Caps blue line straight to Jason Arnott, who had just jumped out of the penalty box from a hooking penalty. Arnott had the break and deked Ward off his skates, but Ward got a pad up and knocked Arnott’s attempt down.
But Hendricks was there for the follow.
It is the type of play that you try to teach kids as they grow up through the hockey ranks. “Follow your shot.” “Always know where the puck is.” “Crash the net, always crash the freaking net.”
“I have all the confidence in the world in Arnott but I knew that if there would be a rebound, I wanted to be the first one to get it,” Arnott said.
It was the quintessential Hendricks play. Block a shot, follow the play. Hope it goes in. Hendricks is the classic third/fourth line grinder — good for a couple goals here and there, play good defense, get in a scrap or two.
“That is what he does. He is going to get those dirty goals in the crease,” coach Bruce Boudreau said.
Holtby has been the story of the week. The goaltender blanked the Oilers earlier in the week and withstood 40 of 41 shots from the Hurricanes. He has saved 74 of the last 78 shots he has faced and had a streak of 156:15 without a goal before Ruutu sniped him one in the second. The Caps have three young goaltenders who have played well in streaks this season between Holtby, Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov. Boudreau’s choices on a night-to-night basis are becoming difficult. At least when at all three are healthy, which has been a rarity of late.
“Making it tough,” Boudreau said. “Three really good goalies and he obviously doesn’t want to leave the net, he is doing a good job.”
Washington is looking a bit like a different team than the one that had been spinning wheel for months. It is hard to put a nail on it, but they just have a more solid feeling about them. The additions of Dennis Wideman, Marco Sturm and Jason Arnott have provided stability to a team that had grown at times too flashy for its own good. Or complacent. Effort on a game-to-game basis wasn’t consistent and the big guns weren’t producing.
It may be no coincidence that Ovechkin as a seven-game point streak (four goals, seven assists) and the Caps have won seven straight games. Alexander Semin continues to be maddeningly inconsistent and Nicklas Backstrom was out for a rare game. Mike Green is on the injured reserve, able to come back later this month.
And the Capitals have gone streaking in spite of it. Even when they do not play top-level hockey, they are taking two points away from contests.
“I thought we were a little lucky tonight and they are overdue to beat us. Sometimes it is a great matchup but sometimes you are hoping that you don’t play them in the playoffs,” Boudreau said. “I didn’t think we were very sharp. They had 40 shots on goal, I think they carried the play to us, they were beating us to the puck. We made the plays in the third period that we had to make to win and that was it.”