The new car smell has worn off of the 2011-12 season and the Caps enter their second tilt against the division rival Carolina Hurricanes. That's right, division rivals. If it wasn't clear before tonight, it should be now as the players on both sides showed plenty of disdain for each other. John Erskine was taking no prisoners with Eric Staal (he of the league leading plus/minus... it's scored like golf, right?) and Justin Bieber's long lost cousin, Jeff Skinner. Give Skinner credit, he wasn't backing down and showed plenty of animosity in his own right. They aren't the Penguins or Flyers, but games like this with the Hurricanes and Lightning are sure adding some flavor to the most geographically counter-intuitive division in the NHL. Just in time for realignment...
Ten more notes on the game:
- Russians have been the backbone and face of the Capitals for several years now, but right now the Swedes are taking over. As the score stands now, Swedes are up 23-19 in points and Nicklas Backstrom has been the team's best skater. You've gotta think Alex Ovechkin will have more to say before this is over.
- In a battle between two of the worst faceoff teams in the league, it seemed as though there would be an advantage to the team that could bring the less-futile effort in the faceoff dot tonight. And lo and behold, Carolina took the lead less than five minutes into the game after a clean faceoff win and some solid net presence. Thankfully, that's the last positive bullet I have to write about Carolina tonight.
- Power plays are always something to watch in the NHL, and tonight was no different. Carolina had three straight power play opportunities down a goal in the second period, but failed to convert, and ended the night 0/4 with the man advantage. Then, with a tenuous one goal lead, John Carlson scored a power play goal to give the Caps a much needed two goal advantage. The Caps never looked back and cruised to victory. (And while we are talking about the Swedes and Russians, we should note that the Americans had themselves a pretty solid night as well.)
- Every game between the Caps and 'Canes seems to be hotly contested and come down to the wire. Through 40 minutes, this was no different. But going into third period, on the road, with a 1 goal lead, the Caps came out with one of their best periods of the season. Performances like that have to make people take notice. This team is good.
- 44 (Roman Hamrlik) almost got his first assist with the Capitals tonight, but after initially being credited with the assist the score keepers saw fit to reward Cody Eakin with his first NHL point. Good for Eakin, because he had two great hustle plays on that shift to help set up the goal. On the first, he stayed with his point man to get the puck out of the defensive zone. On the second, he won a physical battle that allowed Marcus Johansson to take the puck down the wing and dish some sweet sauce to Troy Brouwer for the game winning goal. Not only that, but Johansson had the presence of mind to retrieve the puck for Eakin to keep as a memento, what is it with Johansson and Hershey call ups?
- And Eakin wasn't done yet. In the third period he scored his first NHL goal as the Caps poured it on and broke the game open. Congratulations, Cody, that was a sweet shot and one heckuva a game playing top 6 minutes. The competition for a sweater looks to be fierce all season long.
- For the first time in a long time Mike Knuble has been seeing fourth line duty. While he certainly doesn't love the demotion, his effort hasn't lapsed and he continued his strong work on the boards. At the same time, the top lines continue to produce even without their resident net-crasher. That kind of depth wins lots of games. And, hey, Knuble won a Stanley Cup as a 4th liner. Just sayin'...
- Alex Semin has incredible hands. One would hope that he'd have the confidence to try to use them more. Maybe try a curl-and-drag in traffic once in a while, Sasha. Or use that crazy shot to try to pick a corner on the goalie. What's that you say? Yeah... Cam Ward and the entire Hurricane's D corps knew that already, too.
- Looking at Michal Neuvirth's numbers before the game did not paint a pretty picture. To be sure, he hadn't played nearly as bad as the numbers suggested, but he also hadn't played as well as Caps fans hoped or expected. Tonight he responded with a very solid outing, proving once again that he will not lay down and hand the net over to his elder countryman.
- Losing is never fun, even in the regular season. With two straight wins after the ugly western Canada trip, the Caps have gotten back on their game and continue to tally up the points in the standings. Sure, they'll probably lose at least one more game this season, but nights like tonight are fun to watch. Just as long as you aren't rooting for those black jerseys.
Tonight was one of the most complete games the Caps have seen this season. They battled for 60 minutes, didn't have any major letdowns where they let the opponent take control of the play for 10+ minutes, and paid attention to detail. Sure, Karl Alzner probably wants that backhand pass back and Jeff Schulz probably should have gotten Anthony Stewart's stick tied up, but a 5-1 win doesn't leave too much room for complaint. And did we mention that the Caps put up 5 and let in only 1 without their best defenseman? Get well, Mike Green, but don't rush it, because this team has the depth to survive without you, for now. All we can ask for is more of these performances, and fewer of the ones that leave us pulling our hair out. Hang on for the ride, because if nothing else, this team is going to make it fun for 82 games.