Welcome to Washington, Messrs. Walker, Belanger and Corvo, and buckle your chin-straps - the game's played a little faster and looser here.
Through forty minutes of Thursday night's 5-4 win over Tampa, the Caps had done a solid job of controlling the game, save for discipline issues and a penalty kill that yielded a couple of tallies before turning into a Swedish-built brick wall. But whether it was lingering rust, tired legs after a game and subsequent travel a night earlier, or just a loss of focus, the Caps' played an ugly third period and were somewhat lucky to escape with a win.
Ten more notes on the game:
- When the Caps picked him up from the 'Canes on Wednesday, Scott Walker had all of three goals on the season and just eight total since the start of the 2008-09 campaign. On Thursday night, he scored twice in under three minutes in the third period, including the game-winning tally, while skating just ten shifts for the game. Beats the hell out of Carolina, doesn't it, Scotty?
- Eric Belanger's Caps debut wasn't nearly as storybook, as he was on the ice for both Bolts' power-play tallies (one on which his lost draw led directly to a deflected-in point shot) and lost seven of the 12 faceoffs he took on the night. Perhaps the "Belanger is a great penalty killer" meme should be reconsidered, especially in light of evidence to the contrary.
- Nicklas Backstrom also was on the ice for those two Tampa power-play goals, but his late second-period 3-on-5 penalty-killing shift in which blocked three Kurtis Foster shots in succession sans twig was heroic. In fact, it was downright Laichian (and more than a little scary to watch).
- The third player to make his debut as a Cap - Joe Corvo - introduced himself by hitting Steve Downie on his first shift and finishing the night with that hit, a trio of blocked shots and 20:19 of ice time (including 2:37 on the power play and 2:54 shorthanded). Solid.
- The only Cap older than Walker - Mike Knuble - continued to pile up the goals with another two tonight. He now has 25 on the season and looks to be giving his career-best of 34 a serious run. Given that he has lit the lamp 18 times in his last 22 games, we like his chances.
- As impressive as the Caps' are now, just wait until Alexander Semin gets back from Vancouver.
- Then again, Semin isn't the only member of Team Russia to be struggling lately - Alex Ovechkin has now gone 321:35 without scoring a goal (his last marker came immediately preceding a shower of hats against Pittsburgh nearly a month ago). His second-period helper, however, gave him 90 points on the season, making him the only player in the League to hit that milestone in each post-lockout season.
- Sticking with struggling Russians, Semyon Varlamov did not look sharp in his first Verizon Center start since December 3. He has now given up 10 goals on 57 shots against in his last two NHL starts, but avoided losing back-to-back starts (something he's only done once this season).
- Entering the game, Tampa backup netminder Antero Niittymaki was 6-2-1/2.38/.926 lifetime against the Caps. Starter Mike Smith was 0-4-0/4.64/.849. Rick Tocchet must have had some action on tonight's game.
Boyd Gordon - fighting for playing time given the logjam among the bottom-six forwards - distinguished himself with a 12-for-14 night in the faceoff dot, an assist on Walker's first goal, and 4:15 of penalty-killing time during which nary a puck got passed Varly. Fantastic effort.
An ugly win is still a win, and the Caps, for the moment, have opened up a five-point lead in the race for the President's Trophy. But while it's quaint to say "they don't ask how, they ask how many" when it comes to wins, this is precisely the time when "how" does, in fact, matter. We'll cut 'em a little slack for now - this team is a bit of a work-in-progress, with new players and players returning from a long break - but it's getting very close to crunch time, and efforts like tonight's third period have got to become more and more rare.