Everybody around the Capitals are starting to get a little bit antsy. Washington is a point back for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, it has won eight straight games and doing so in gritty style. The trade acquisitions are paying off and it does not seem to matter who is in goal, Washington is pulling out victories.
The Caps themselves do not seem to be antsy. If anything, a good adjective to describe them would be focused. Focused describes the surrounding media and fan base also, all looking towards the ice and seeing a team that is playing well and asking ‘what is it going to mean in the playoffs?’
Sunday’s 4-3 overtime matinee win against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks was a showcase game. It was the NBC Game Of The Week and had a little bit of a “what-if” surrounding it. What if the Caps had not gotten run by the Canadiens in the first round? What if they were able to grind through and make it through the Eastern Conference to play in the Finals? What if the faced this same Chicago team last June for it all?
One thing is for certain … it would have been fun to watch.
Sunday was one of those hockey games that sparks the interest of even casual fans. It was up and down, there were hits and mistakes, good plays and questionable calls. There was enough scoring to make it interesting but not too much for it to be a joke. The Blackhawks took an early lead only to have the Caps come tie it minutes later with a short-handed goal by center Boyd Gordon. Washington scored again in the first (been a while since it had two goals in the opening frame) when Jason Arnott tallied on the power play, but Chicago tied it again in the second. Washington looked to put it away early in the third when Brooks Laich knocked down the door after a great feed from Eric Fehr behind the net but Hawks’ rising star Jonathan Toews tied it with 38.5 seconds left on the power play with an empty net behind him.
If you were to script the prototype for what constitutes a compelling regular season hockey game, Sunday would have been a perfect fit.
Chicago has been hot. Over the last couple of weeks they have risen from behing out of playoff position to the middle of the Western Conference. They are young and quick and know how to win (hence, the Stanley Cup they currently are the proprietors of).
The Caps straight beat them on Sunday. As the game wore along at Verizon Center, Washington kept on taking longer shifts in the offensive zone and the Blackhawks had a harder time getting back into their own rhythm. All four lines clicked for the Caps, evidences by the players who did the scoring — Gordon, Arnott, Laich, Knuble. Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin did not have a single point.
“I am not sure how much we wore them down but thought that overall we were carrying the play,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We played better then them. It might not be that way the next time we play them and they might have been tired from being on the road for eight or nine days but I thought today we were the better team.”
There are little signs that this team is starting to get a hang of itself a lot better than it has for a good portion of the season. Dennis Wideman, Marco Sturm and Arnott have solidified the Caps ability to move the puck through the neutral zone, with Wideman being a good cog in the underrated task of just getting the puck out of their own zone. Sturm, skating with Arnott and Semin, has a good head for puck possession and has been good for Semin, even if the Russian sniper seems to have lost his bearings a little bit recently. Sturm should be able to teach Semin a lot on how to be patient and to keep your head up in making plays as opposed to how frantic Semin sometimes plays, like the puck is a hot potato he must do something with immediately for fear of getting burnt.
Everybody wearing red on the ice just looks a lot calmer, more confident and the results are showing up in the standings.
But, what does it all mean?
Hockey is not some metaphysical microcosm of life, the universe and everything. It is a game. A game played in phases and stages according to the time of year and dynamic of all the moving parts.
“The playoffs are a different animal,” Boudreau said. “This is still the regular season. You want to play as hard as you can, all teams are trying to position themselves. Unless you have been in the playoffs, once you are in there play amps up an awful lot no matter who you play.”
Everybody wants to know who the goaltender will be in the playoffs. It is a fair question. Braden Holtby was good, but not great, against the Hawks and there are some worrying signs with him. Michal Neuvirth is healthy and should probably be the first option for Boudreau come April. Semyon Varlamov can be extremely hot from time to time.
“They really are not making it easy on me. I am not trying to be aloof here but Varly was going great, then he gets hurt. Neuvy was going great then he gets hurt. Holtby is going great and it is decision time,” Boudreau said. “I will obviously talk to a few other people before but Braden has come in and been 6-0-1 in the last seven and I will go out on a limb and say that he is the Player Of The Week, this week. Neuvy is ready to play and he wants the net back and Varly is getting better. We have to make a decision pretty soon and hopefully we will but they are all playing so well it is making it difficult for us.”
Holtby is only 21 years old and has just a handful of NHL games under his belt. Yet, he could be what Carolina goaltender Cam Ward was to the Hurricanes when they won the Cup in 2006. Ward played 28 games before the playoffs then led his team all the way to glory at age 22. But, there is a little bit of a sneaking feeling that Holtby could get picked apart over an extended playoff series. He is very active around the net and tries to play the puck a lot with his stick. Teams are starting to try and play behind him in the trapezoid and feed it back into the front for snap shots and even though he has been good at keeping those out of the net this last week, that is not always going to be the case. The second goal he allowed on Sunday was a his fault and his alone when Tomas Kopecky threw a little bullet from the corner, behind the goal line, towards the crease. It hit Holtby in the shoulder and pads and then bounced into the net. Holtby should have been playing the post but his eyes were up ice as he figured that the puck was basically about to be cleared.
“I didn’t feel that great out there. Today was kind of a battle the whole game,” Holtby said. “It was a little tough just trying to get myself into it and give myself opportunities to make saves and thankfully the guys played a great game especially defensively, didn’t give up too much. A little bit of a mistake by me there in the second but we were still able to come out on top.”
Fatigue in the playoffs is a big concern for teams with young goaltenders. Look at the Bruins last year, who thought they would ride Tuuka Rask to the Cup after being hot for the final months of the season and the first nine games of the playoffs. Rask ran out of steam and started to allow softies and the Flyers came back from a three-to-nothing series deficit and then on to the Stanley Cup against the Blackhawks. Holtby would love to be the playoff goaltender but even he does not know what to expect from himself should that be the case.
“That is a hard question to answer based on the fact that I really have no idea what it takes to play in the playoffs,” Holtby said. “That is going to be a coach’s decision. I am going to be ready if called upon, willing to put my heart on the line for this team but I am sure that whatever choice they make with the three goalies here, the team will feel comfortable.”
As Boudreau said, the playoffs are a different animal. Even with 12 games left, it is hard to gauge what team is really going to be able to step it up to make an extended run in for some spring hockey. Washington looks good right now, with eight straight wins and a shot at the top seed, but the upcoming six-game road trip could prove otherwise.
Yet, after the game on Sunday, all the talk was about what is coming for the playoffs. How are the lines coming together? Who is going to be the goaltender? Who is going to be the goaltender? And, yeah, by the way, who is going to be the goaltender?
It is good to be the Caps right now and they are playing well enough to enjoy this run of success. It is an evolving process and we await the fruits of the labor that has been 7o games and counting. We will see what happens once the middle of April rolls around. Is Washington looking for the top seed? Boudreau would not mind it, of course, but the process this year has been more informative on where this team is headed than it has in previous years. It will be interesting to see how it all comes together.
For the moment though, the work is in progress. The paint on the canvas is still drying.
“I don’t want to think about it,” Boudreau said of the top seed in the playoffs. “Yeah, it is a nice feather in your cap and we got a little boost from winning the Presidents’ Cup last year but in the end I don’t care if we are eighth or first. I have got to believe that the eight can beat the one, it’s happened, I think. As long as we get in and get a chance to go to that party, I think we will give somebody a tough go.”