PITTSBURGH PA - DECEMBER 31: Washington Capitals players pose for a group picture during practice for the 2011 NHL Winter Classic between the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins on December 31 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
With 2011 quickly drawing to a close, it seems to be as good a time as any to wax nostalgic, reflect on the past twelve months, and say… good riddance.
Don’t let 2012 hit you in the hockey haunches on your way out.
We kid, of course. After all, it wasn’t all bad... right? For every heartbreaking loss there was a somewhat uplifting win, for every rout there was a furious comeback, for every coach fired there was a fresh start and a new face (and a new Ovechkin-related meme, huzzah!). Good times all over the darn place.
And so with a little over a day remaining before we turn the page on the calendar – and hopefully turn over a new page in the ongoing saga of the Washington Capitals – we look back at the best (and a little of the worst) of 2011, after the jump.
Best All-Around Game: February 4th @ Tampa Bay
The Caps have occasionally provided fans with a glimpse of the greatness they can achieve, whether it’s timely scoring or special teams clicking or a strategy perfectly suited to their opponent. In this game, however, a game frequently referred to as a "must-win", it seemed like everything fell into place.
Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom's matching four-point games fueled the offense. The power play connected. Dwayne Roloson threw a hissy fit thanks to Matt Hendricks. And while Boudreau’s tactics have been bastardized since, his game plan that stressed patience and eliminated deadly Tampa’s transition game achieved the appropriate results – he beat the 1-3-1 and outcoached Boucher.
Of course, knowing what happened between these two teams just a few months later makes this one a bit of a bittersweet memory at best… but there’s no denying that it stands out among the 82 as one to remember.
Honorable Mention: December 20 vs. Nashville – A 4-1 victory that saw Dale Hunter’s Caps jump on a stingy team early, hold off a second period resurgence and not only shut it down defensively but also continue the offensive pressure. Easily one of the finest of Hunter’s young NHL coaching tenure.
Best Comeback: April 20 @ New York Rangers
After taking the first two games of their 2011 Eastern Quarterfinal series against the Rangers and dropping a lackluster Game 3, the Caps went into Madison Square Garden hoping to avoid returning home with a tied series. They were well on their way to doing just that, however, as a horrific second period (that included two goals in seven seconds) came to a close with the good guys down by three.
But then the Caps woke up and mercifully began to take over the game. First it was Alexander Semin breaking the shutout just under three minutes into the third; a minute later, it was Marcus Johansson with his first career playoff goal. Nine minutes after that, he had his second, and the Caps had a tie game. Regulation ended, one scoreless overtime period passed, a second overtime period began... and ninety-two minutes after the game began, Jason Chimera ended it and became the subject of Henrik Lundqvist's nightmares. Game over, comeback complete, series stranglehold applied.
Best Overtime Win: March 13 vs. Chicago
The Caps and the 'Hawks don't get to see each other very often, but when they do the result is usually an exciting, close, entertaining game. In fact, the two teams have played five times since the lockout - and three have gone to overtime, including the last two.
This one had the makings right from the start, as Chicago jumped out to a 1-0 lead less than five minutes in only to see the Caps strike back - shorthanded, no less, on a knuckler from noted goal-scorer Boyd Gordon - just two minutes later. A Jason Arnott power play goal to close out the opening frame would give the home team a 2-1 lead and kick off a back-and-forth scoring seesaw that wouldn't end until Mike Knuble said so, with a little over a minute remaining in overtime. When the dust had settled the teams had combined for 72 shots on goal, blocked 37 and seen sixteen different players picking up at least a point as the Caps rolled to an eighth-straight win.
Now that's entertainment.
Worst Loss: November 19 vs. Toronto
Rounding out a trio of games that easily make up one of the more disastrous road trips the Caps have taken in recent years, the Caps' visit to Toronto was not one worth remembering - and yet its hard to forget.
This horror film actually started out rather mild, with the Caps and Leafs exchanging goals in the first three minutes and then settling into scoreless bliss, leading us to foolishly believe this would be an entertaining, evenly-played contest. But as the first period wound down the Leafs took the lead... and never looked back, raining down offense on the Caps with some sort of unholy vengeance while the Caps made their much-maligned goalie (and former savior) Jonas Gustavsson look like Patrick Roy's doppelganger.
When all was said and done both Caps' goalies had been shellacked and seven different Leafs had scored a goal, including Matt Frattin with the first of his career and David Steckel with the first "that's for trading me, jerks" of his.
Honorable Mention: February 25 vs. New York Rangers - Nothing pretty about this one in the least, as the Caps gave up goals early and often to the Rangers, including to Steve Eminger, and failed to generate anything offensively. Two goals a period, two on the power play, and Erik Christensen finished with four points? Yup, that's a bad, bad game.
Biggest Nailbiter: February 16 vs. Anaheim
For whatever reason, interesting things happen when the Caps play certain Western Conference opponents. Games against Chicago are tight and fast-paced... games against the Ducks? Insane. And their second meeting of the 2010-11 season was no exception, as team defense went out the window and goaltending stats got blown up in the ultimate firewagon hockey game.
For this was a night where no lead was safe.
The Ducks went up 1-0, only to have the Caps jump ahead 2-1. And then the Ducks scored twice and it was 3-2, and again to make it 4-2. Caps, Ducks, Caps, Ducks - until it all ended with the Alexander Semin show. The mercurial winger picked up his twentieth goal of the year (and second of the night) to tie it up halfway through the third, and then capped off his hat trick in spectacular, ta da in the nick of time fashion to put the Ducks down for good.
Best Goal: Alex Ovechkin, March 1 vs. New York Islanders
Pretty sure this one doesn't need much of an intro... take it away, Alex.
Best Shutout: Braden Holtby, March 9 vs. Edmonton
It may not have been against a contending team or a game with playoff ramifications, but it's notable for the plain fact that it was the Milestone Game to end all milestone games.
First up? Braden Holtby, whose 22 saves gave him his first career NHL shutout in just his 10th game. Then there was Jason Arnott with his 900th point, an assist on Alex Ovechkin's power play goal, followed by Ovechkin getting his 600th career point assisting on Eric Fehr's power play goal. And not to be outdone, Dennis Wideman's assist on Semin's gravy goal? 200th career point. Cookies for everyone.
Honorable Mention: Michal Neuvirth, February 21 @ Pittsburgh - So remember when Dan Bylsma is talking to his team about Neuvirth in 24/7, and he refers to the Caps' young goaltender as "shaky"? Neuvirth certainly does.
Highlight of the Year: April 23 vs. New York Rangers
It speaks a bit to the kind of year the Caps had to say a series-clinching win over an eighth seed team in the first round of the playoffs is the highlight of the last twelve months, but it's hard to deny that it was a big win - and one that exorcised quite a few demons for this team and its fans (albeit while unwittingly inviting a few more over for tea).
It was a game the Caps needed to win, not because a loss would bump them from the playoffs but because it would bring back memories of a year earlier, when a blown opportunity to close out a Montreal teams on the proverbial ropes came back to haunt them. They needed to win and win well, to come out and dominate from start to finish.
And dominate they did. From the opening ten minutes, where a raucous Verizon Center crowd was treated to hard hitting, offensive cycling and a 1-0 lead for the good guys, right up to the final horn, everything was dictated by the Caps. The win catapulted them into the second round for the first time in two years, the first time since completing their series comeback with a Game 7 win against these same Rangers.
Honorable Mention: January 1 @ Pittsburgh - It may take honorable mention solely because it was a regular season game, but anyone who attended or watched or saw the build-up to this one (or simply experienced it vicariously through the cavalcade of Clips lovingly compiled by Emily the following day) knows it was anything but regular. It was a spectacle, a hype-filled, rain-splattered battle in the fresh air and under the stars that, while perhaps not great hockey in the purest sense, was still a fantastic game and a phenomenal experience.
Would we say the same if the Caps had lost? Hopefully... but luckily we never had to find out.
From all of us here at the Rink, wishing you a happy and healthy New Year - and here's to better things ahead in 2012!