Tonight's game pitted the top-ranked team in the Eastern Conference against a team currently out of the playoff picture, a description that could have characterized most of the games between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers over the last three seasons. However, unlike those past few years, it was the Rangers in command of the conference and the Caps the laggards hoping to climb back in the playoff picture.
But you never would have guessed it by watching the actual game. In front of a national audience, the Caps put together a strong performance en route to a 4-1 victory. The game wasn't perfect - the Caps made more than their share of mistakes and giveaways - but, for at least one night, they found their offensive stride and earned a much-needed win over their once-and-future division rivals.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Concerns over Tomas Vokoun being rusty after his unexpectedly long layoff were unfounded. He played great tonight, routinely bailing out the Caps skaters, many of whom were guilty of consistently turning the puck over in their own zone. Vokoun's effort is the type of goaltending the Caps need to have a shot at a successful season. And two goals in his last five periods isn't bad...maybe the extended rest was beneficial?
- The Caps still have a problem taking too many stupid penalties. John Erskine, Troy Brouwer and Dennis Wideman were all guilty of taking unnecessary minors. Happily for the Caps, their PK unit played great, stopping all five shorthanded opportunities and continuing a streak of home PK dominance under Dale Hunter.
- Jeff Halpern also deserves a stick tap for his performance tonight. In 16:03 of ice time he had three hits, three shots, two blocked shots and 3:37 in perfect PK time. Oh, and he added two assists too. Not a bad night!
- It was nice to see the first line up to the challenge tonight. Rangers coach John Torterella did his best to match up the Dubinsky-Boyle-Callahan line against Ovechkin-Backstrom-Semin, but it wasn't effective. The Care Bears scored two beautiful goals, both courtesy of Semin. The first one they notched as a trio - to give the Caps their third goal - was truly something special: Ovechkin stands up Brad Richards at the blue line. Backstrom saucers a beautiful 100-foot pass to Semin. Semin has an easy finish. Where's that been all year?
- Of course, on the flip side, both those Care Bear goals were scored in the transition game. And we know that opponents won't allow those opportunities in the post-season. Additionally, the Care Bears were collectively -12 in CORSI on the night. It's rare a line gets out-CORSI'd yet outscores their opposition by two goals. Morale of the story: there are still a few things to work on.
- If you watch 24/7, you know the Rangers believe they are the hardest working team in NHL. They may be right. No one's hard work was exemplified more than the Rangers Ryan Callahan, who sacrificed his body to block three shots in the last few minutes of the first period, one of which led to an assist. The Caps need to take a lesson from selfless play like that. Or just trade for the guy.
- The Caps first goal was a great hustle play by Marcus Johansson, putting himself in position to pilfer a bouncing puck and then going to the bakery for a rebound goal. Although there were a few fortuitous bounces in that sequence, we're not going to complain. A bit of first-period luck is something the Caps have not enjoyed in the Dale Hunter era...
- ...and then shortly thereafter John Carlson had the misfortune of falling down at the wrong time, the Rangers skated down the ice on a 2-on-1, and Vokoun failed to cover the short side. So much for that first-period luck.
- Carlson, however, redeemed himself on the Caps second goal. Not every defenseman can drop to his knees, stop a bouncing puck at the blue line, get up instantly and fire a low, hard wrister on net with an NHL forward charging him. That's a big-boy play.
- Finally, a little love for Roman Hamrlik. He's been a poster boy for the Caps shoddy defensive play this year, but tonight he did alright. He wasn't perfect, but he ate up minutes (21:13), led the team in PK time (5:43), put three shots on net and blocked five shots. And that's good enough for us to ignore those three giveaways.
The Caps won their share of one-on-one battles, they hustled, they received good goaltending, and they finished their chances. Those four events occurring simultaneously haven't occurred frequently enough for the Caps this season. Because of that they earned two points and showed a little bit of resolve in front of a national audience that probably didn't expect too much out of them.
But it was no more than eight days ago that Washington was celebrating a 4-1 drubbing of the Nashville Predators. The Caps followed that beauty up with two uninspired stinkers. For tonight's win to be meaningful they will need to avoid the same fate and find the mental toughness to string together a few solid performances. Motivation should not be an issue for Friday night's game. It is, after all, the Buffalo Sabres that are coming to town, an injury-riddled team that has already embarassed the Caps twice this year.