The last time the Washington Capitals faced the Ottawa Senators, the Caps looked to be once again in position to steamroll the Southeast Division, and contend for the Eastern Conference (regular season*) crown, while the Senators seemed poised for a long season ending in the draft lottery. A mere 7 weeks later, however, and the Senators entered tonight's match up with one more standings point than the Caps. The Senators also sit in what would be the 8th spot in the Eastern Conference, pushing the Caps down to 9th. While the Senators looked to add another two points to their total, and keep inside track for the playoffs (which are meaningless to talk about at this point), the Caps are still trying to find their footing under new coach Dale Hunter. The defensive effort has been there, now could they find some offense? Well, tonight the Caps scored 50% more goals than they had in all previous games played for Coach Hunter, all while holding the opposition to two goals yet again.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Regulation wins are boring. We assume that's what the Shutdown Five were thinking when they gave up a late tying goal. It's hard to find one of Brooks Laich, Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, John Carlson, or Karl Alzner that wasn't out of position or coasting on Milan Michalek's tying goal, which is rare for such stout defensive players. Of course, Coach Hunter came back with that unit (minus Joel Ward) to start the overtime period and they took just twelve seconds to make amends. Congrats to Laich for scoring the game winning goal in his milestone 500th NHL game, against the team with which he broke into the league.
- It shouldn't be a surprise, but given the way the season has gone it sort of seems like one: Through most of the game the Caps seemed poised to take away two points on the back of two goals from the top line. Nicklas Backstrom ripped a shot past Craig Anderson in the first period and then Troy Brouwer put a well-placed wrist shot in the back of the net in the third period, following a beautiful pass from Alex Ovechkin. That line was the best on the night for the Caps, and fans can only hope that trend continues.
- Physical play was a hallmark of Dale Hunter's career, and through 3 games behind the bench it seems to be a hallmark of the team he's coaching. The Caps have been hitting everything that moves, aggressively punishing their opponents.
- Power plays remain a problem, however. Not only did the Caps fail to convert on any of their four power plays, they didn't even look dangerous on any of them. At some point you'd assume that such a talented assemblage of players would begin to convert on the man advantage, but it's been a troubling trend for well over a year now. There's no doubt that'll be near the top of the coaching staff's to-do list.
- And with one fell swoop, the Caps picked up their first 20-shot game, their first multi-goal game, and their first win for their new coach. We're sure there are many more to come, but it's nice to get that first one out of the way.
- Tonight the Caps showed another trait that we'd like to see become a habit: shorter shifts. Al Koken noted that the top line had an average shift length well below their normal shift lengths. Ovechkin finished with a :50 average shift, the highest on the team. We can only hope that such discipline continues to be a characteristic of this team.
- Recently the Caps have been victimized by soft goals. Even in games when they got overall good goaltending, like the last game, there seemed to be conspicuous bad goals that killed momentum or gave their opponents the chance to go into a defensive shell and shut the game down. Some will probably question the first goal Michal Neuvirth let in tonight, but at the end of the day Neuvirth came up with 32 saves and didn't let in a single goal with the game tied. His play was key during a first period in which the Caps were out-shot 16-8.
- It was just one more game in what will be a long process of adjustment, but the pieces are starting to come together. The defensive zone coverage was tighter, the offensive attack was more effective, and the commitment to cycling and playing down low was more apparent. It may not be the high-flying Caps that pundits used to mock (and now all of a sudden pine for), but the physical and hard working nature of this team was fun to watch tonight.
- Collectively, the team has to feel happy about the performance tonight. All four lines played well and created chances. None of the D pairs were a liability, and the goaltending was there. The goals may not have come as easily as they wanted them to, but this was the kind of team effort that makes for a successful team.
- Erik Karlsson had a beast of a game tonight. He scored the first Ottawa goal and was all over the ice, making a difference in all three zones. Unfortunately for him, he got a taste of the Verizon Center ice in overtime, opening up a two-on-one opportunity for Laich and Chimera. Caps fans sure won't mind the hard luck, but it's tough not to feel a bit for the kid.
The Caps, and their fans, finally got to enjoy a win with their new coach, and old legend, behind the bench. While it was still just two points, one regular season game, it still feels great. There's more work to do, and we're sure the coaching staff still has a list of adjustments they'd like to see, but the structure and progress is promising. Next up is a date in Florida with the division-leading Florida Panthers. That will never not feel weird to say, and we hope Coach Hunter and his staff have the Caps back in their rightful position sooner than later.