Boy it’s fun to win in Philadelphia.
In an entertaining battle of the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals outlasted the Philadelphia Flyers last night to win 5-4 in a shootout in Philadelphia and clinch a spot in the playoffs. In their first game this season without scoring leader Alex Ovechkin, the Caps took advantage of their early chances to jump out to a 3-0 lead after just 22 minutes.
When Philadelphia changed goalies, the momentum swung the other way as the Flyers out-hustled and out-muscled the Caps to score four unanswered goals. “Our biggest problem in the second period was turning the puck over,” said coach Bruce Boudreau. “The first period, we didn’t have any turnovers. We got it out, we got it deep. In the second and third period they were putting more pressure on us but we were turning the puck over.”
With five minutes left in the game, the Caps looked thoroughly beaten. But Mike Knuble, who had a dominating night with a goal and two assists, set up Marcus Johansson for a one-timer to force overtime. After a scoreless overtime, Alexander Semin scored the game winner in the shootout to seal the deal.
While the Flyers thoroughly outplayed the Caps for most of the night, goaltending was the difference as Michal Neuvirth (and a couple of pipes) made the saves while the Flyers starting goalie rookie Sergei Bobrovsky let in three soft goals on nine shots. The Flyers backup goalie, Brian Boucher, couldn’t stop anything in the shootout. For the second straight game, the Caps were badly outshot, but made the most of their scoring opportunities. “It was important for us to show the where-with-all to come back,” said Boudreau. “When you believe you can win, you can do a lot of things.”
Taking the Show on the Road
The Caps are two-thirds of the way through a six-game road trip while the NCAA tournament and circus come to Verizon Center this month. With three victories in four road games, the Caps are one of the hottest teams in the league, winning 10 of their past 11 contests.
The Caps clinched a playoff berth last night. With Tampa Bay losing last night for the ninth time in their past 11 games, the Caps appear to have a clear path to the division title and the first or second seed in the Eastern Conference. There are eight games remaining in the regular season, the Caps arguably have the easiest remaining schedule among the top contenders, with four or five games against teams out of contention for the post-season.
How important is the top seed? It didn’t work out so well last season. The Caps were the top team by 18 points, but limped into the playoffs and were ousted by the eighth-seeded Montreal in the first round. The Caps have learned the lesson that it is more important to play well at the end of the season and be ready for what comes April. “I think we have a much better balance and we’re more prepared,” said playoff veteran Mike Knuble. “I like where we are at this point as a group, how our team is made up much more than last year.”
Ovechkin Out for 7-10 Days
The Caps announced on Monday that team captain and leading scorer Alex Ovechkin would miss 7-10 days for a “nagging ailment” that has bothered him for several months. Ovie has at times this season been bothered by a wrist injury that diminished the effectiveness of his quick and hard wrist shot, one of his best scoring weapons. “He just needs to take some time off to get completely healed up,” said GM George McPhee. Ovechkin has been on fire recently, so it would appear that the Caps will miss him badly. Historically, however, the Caps have done just fine without Ovechkin in the line-up, scoring an average of four goals a game in the 15 games he has missed in his career.
With their sites set squarely on post-season success this year, the Caps have several key players resting. Mike Green has missed 18 games with an apparent concussion. While he has the green light to return to action, the Caps are wisely in no hurry to bring him back. Concussions are tricky, and time off seems to be the key to recovery. Jason Arnott, who contributed mightily to the recent 9-game win streak, is nursing an injured groin. Backstrom recently missed five games with a broken thumb, while Semin was injured for 12 games in January and February. That is a total of 39 man-games among the top scorers over the past two months. Rather than wilt, the Caps have gotten stronger as secondary scoring threats such as Johansson, Dennis Wideman and Brooks Laich have stepped into the breach.
It is often said that the key to playoff success in the NHL is a hot goalie. The Caps appear to have three hot goalies. Some would like to see the Boudreau pick one and stick with him.
There are arguments to be made for why the athletically gifted Varlamov or the technical master Neuvirth should be The Man. And then there is quirky but locked-in Braden Holtby, who earned the NHL first star of the week last week before being demoted to the Hershey Bears. Holtby has the best goals against average and save percentage of the three.
Another way to look at it, however, is to go with what has worked for you during the regular season. At various times this year, Varlamov and Neuvirth have been spectacular, only to be hampered by an injury or a poor outing. Going platoon-style has worked for the Caps all year, cycling through the trio, with each giving his best for extended periods.
All three have had off nights, and yet the Caps are in the luxurious position of knowing that the guy on the bench is still one of the top netminders in the league. Boudreau says he will go with whoever is hot at the time. Let’s keep a good thing going.
Defensive System Paying Dividends
The offensive onslaught we saw last season has been replaced by a more balanced offense that starts with defense and includes opportunistic take-aways in the neutral zone. As the Caps have grown more comfortable with their new system emphasizing defensive responsibility, they have shown the ability to transition to offense. This style is more conducive to playoff success.
The Caps are a far more versatile team than a year ago. They have more ways to win, from strong goaltending to confident defense in close games to the rejuvenated offense that always keeps the other team on its heels. Special teams are increasingly important in April and May. The Caps PK has been stifling all year, while Wideman and Arnott have given the resurgent power play a boost. After an up and down – and up and down – season, the pieces are falling into place.
The Caps face cellar-dweller Ottawa on Friday night, followed by a Saturday night return engagement at the Forum in Montreal for Hockey Night in Canada. It will be a big stage, and the last road game against a team currently in a playoff position and will show how ready the Capitals are for the post-season.