It is a Wednesday night in April. Washington, D.C. was about 65 degrees in the afternoon with a bit of a chill breeze coming from the water. The townsfolk are buzzing about cherry blossoms and how utterly bad the Nationals are going to be.
For years in D.C., this was not a time to be talking about hockey.
But, there is this red machine is like a fire in the middle of the city. People flock to it for the experience, for the cheers and the hits and the hope to see Alex Ovechkin light a lamp, hear a foghorn sound. For 101 straight regular season games, Verizon Center has been packed to the rafters with manic fans, unleashing fury and clamoring for chicken wings.
It was no different this Wednesday.
And their team didn’t disappoint.
The Caps were sloppy against the Panthers, but they certainly were the better team, claiming a 5-2 victory to finish off their home schedule (25-8-8) of the regular season. Washington is now a win away from claiming its second straight Eastern Conference regular season title and having home ice through a theoretical playoff run.
The Caps were outshot in the first period 18-6. Yet, Semyon Varlamov was up to the task, pushing away all comers and keeping Washington in the game, enough to watch his Panther counterpart, Scott Clemmensen, wilt under power play pressure. Mike Knuble scored the first goal 1:20 into the game on the man-advantage and Jason Chimera added another late in the first and the Caps never really looked back. Even if they were not playing all that well.
“I don’t think we really set a tone. I think that game was a little bit sloppy, actually,” said forward Brooks Laich who had an assist on both the first two goals. “Maybe it is something that we can learn from, a cheap game that we can learn from our mistakes where we are not playing a Philadelphia that puts pucks in the back of our net when we make a mistake, so, I think there are some areas that we could clean up and we will look at the video and go to Saturday and go into the playoffs.”
Coach Bruce Boudreau said the Caps may have been tired after playing in Toronto on Tuesday and getting back in to D.C. late. He rested center Jason Arnott and defensemen Scott Hannan because, more or less, they are old and could use the rest. A couple Hershey Bears and possible Black Aces (minor leaguers on the roster during the playoffs that help during practices) in Jay Beagle and Sean Collins filled in. Collins even scored a goal, the second of his career, more than two years after his first in January, 2009, when he get the third tally after following Alex Ovechkin down the slot on a rush.
In that way, it seemed a lot more like the first game of the year than the last. Training camp seems like yesterday. Back when we were debating if Mathieu Perreault should make the team and if Marcus Johansson was going to get sent back to Finland. Sloppy play, lots of shots against, score a couple goals and win anyway.
“Colly comes in an buries one,” Laich said in true Canadian fashion. “He has done a great job. A lot of our guys have commented, just talk around the room, on how well he has played since he has come up. A few years ago he came up and did a great job.”
Collins himself had a grin on his face and dutifully answered questions at his stall in the dressing room after the game, questions that invariably started “so, nice to get called up and score a goal, huh?”
“He [Ovechkin] is very fun and exciting to play with and creates a lot of offense and I kind of benefitted from that tonight,” Collins said. “After the first one [career goal in 2009] I think I pinched myself a couple times on the bench to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. This time I knew it wasn’t a dream, but it is an unbelievable feeling.”
So, the Caps tune up continues. A good sign is that the power play, which has been defunct a good portion of the season [tied for 16th at 17.1 percent heading into the game]. Between the dredges of the Eastern Conference the last several games Washington has scored five power play goals. It is better than nothing, which is what the Caps were getting against those same teams in December and January.
“We could have had more than two, I thought,” Boudreau said. “That is what we are accustomed two if we took a year off and go back. The great thing about our team last year was teams didn’t want to play their physical game because our power play was good. If we can get that to work on a consistent basis like it was in Toronto last night, like it was here tonight, I think that gives you another element.”
So, the Caps play the final game of the regular season in Sunrise, Fla. against these same Panthers on Saturday. Then, some scoreboard watching on Sunday to see how the rest of the conference shakes up and who will be the first round opponent (Knuble, for his part, said he will be watching the Masters as opposed to hockey).
“We started a job that we would like to finish on Saturday on a positive note,” Boudreau said. “You know, sometimes the most exciting part of your life is two months long and sometimes it is only two weeks long. We hope it is longer than it was last year.”