The Caps couldn’t muster enough energy last night to play a complete hockey game, falling to the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in a shootout. “I feel like at some points in the game we were just coasting a little bit instead of pushing the envelope and that’s what bit us in the end,” said rookie defenseman John Carlson, probably the best player on the ice in red last night. “We gotta be able to compete and beat any team that’s going to come hard because everyone is going to be fighting for their lives in the playoffs.” Let’s hear it for rookie leadership.
Indeed, the Hurricanes were five points out of the playoffs coming into last night’s game and will likely have to win all of their remaining games to qualify for the playoffs, so the intensity was high. And after resting some key players during a recent road trip, the Caps lineup last night looked remarkably like a playoff team.
Alex Ovechkin and Jason Arnott returned to action, and Semyon Varlamov started in goal for the second time in three games. Ovechkin made his presence felt immediately as he recorded four scoring chances in his first three shifts. But the rust was evident. “Alex’s timing was off,” said coach Bruce Boudreau.
The Caps dominated the early part of the game, with the top three lines keeping most of the action in the Carolina zone. The Hurricanes were not able to set up in the offensive zone, but generated some scoring chances on 3-on-2 or 2-on-2 rushes into the zone.
There was hard hitting in the corners and around the net. Both teams finished their checks. Dennis Wideman was hit off balance and landed awkwardlylate in the second period; he did not return to the game and is listed as day-to-day. Hurricanes captain Eric Staal took an errant high stick in the face and bled profusely before skating off.
Unfortunately, the Caps took some dumb penalties and the Canes lit the lamp first on a power-play goal by Jussi Jokinen early in second period. “I think we obviously took too many penalties and that got momentum for them,” said Marcus Johansson. “I think for our penalty kills it was hard. We have to stay five guys on the ice as much as possible and not take those penalties.”
On a Caps power play midway through the second period, Chad LaRose took advantage of a line change for a short-handed breakaway. When Wideman hooked him from behind he was awarded a penalty shot. Varlamov poked the puck away from LaRose before he could get a shot away.
It was a spark, and soon the Caps found their grove by bringing the puck to the net. Alexander Semin was able to sneak in from the side boards to beat Cam Ward between the legs from a sharp angle to tie the game.
Minutes later, Marcus Johansson dashed down the right side and took the puck all the way to the net where he beat Ward with a nifty deke for a 2-1 lead. The Caps were on a roll, preparing for one of the many ways they know how to win a game.
But then they didn’t. The Caps have been one of the best teams in the league in the third period this season, but allowed a soft goal to rookie Jeff Skinner early in the third to tie the score. “I was just trying to get it on net,” said Skinner. “I was just going to dump it in. There was just a little bit of space there so I just took it in and just tried to put it on net and luckily it went in.”
Varlamov was inconsistent and did not make a strong case for himself to be the starting goaltender when the playoff start next month. He misplaying a few shots and did not have a good feel for the net. He gave up long rebounds, and was not effective with his glove. He had some luck as the puck hit both posts and the cross bar in the first two periods.
Varlamov’s athleticism in net makes some of his saves look acrobatic as he dives and turns to prevent goals. But it is often because he is out of position in the first place that he has to make a dramatic effort to make the save.
The Caps were unable to respond or generate sustained intensity until overtime when Ovechkin had three good scoring chances but could not find the back of the net. Skinner and Ruutu scored in the shootout to steal the point.
In a game that looked a lot like playoff hockey, the Caps outshot the Hurricanes by a significant margin (40-26) but allowed opportunistic and soft goals. Hmm, sounds like last April. Taking cues from your opponent’s intensity level is a recipe for playing catch-up hockey in the playoffs. The Caps need to find motivation within themselves to take it to other teams and dictate the pace of the game. It starts with a healthy dose of fear and respect for your opponent. “I thought at times it was a very lackluster game,” said Boudreau after the game. “If you don’t play with emotion, it’s tough.” With five game remaining, this may be the last piece of the puzzle for this team.
The Caps face the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team out of the playoff race, tomorrow night at Verizon Center. Let’s hope the Caps bring their A game.