Coming off of the win on the road against the Ottawa Senators, the Washington Capitals came home tonight to face the other team from Ontario, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Capitals were also looking for their first win under Dale Hunter against a team that was not the Senators. In fact, the last time the Caps beat a team that had a better points-percentage than them, it was against the Phoenix Coyotes. The last time the Caps beat a team that most observers would consider a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, it was against the Detroit Red Wings on the last game of their 7-0 start back in October. It's time for the Caps to start beating quality opponents. It isn't just the points you're taking, it's who you're taking them from. How do you expect to run with the wolves come night when you spend all day sparring with the puppies? Well, tonight the Caps looked like the wolves as they took care of business and dispatched the Maple Leafs by a score of 4-2.
Ten more notes on the game:
- We mentioned earlier that these two teams were the only teams to average three goals for and against on the season. Well tonight the Caps held up their end, scoring 4 goals. But they also managed to keep Toronto to only 2. While Tomas Vokoun played well on the first shots, team defense gets the credit tonight. There were rebounds to be had, but the Caps D was clearing pucks all night and making sure Maple Leaf forwards couldn't cash in on the vast majority of them.
- I've got to ask: If every time Colby Armstrong plays he takes a cheap shot, why'd they let him play? You got to, this America, man. Thankfully for the Caps, Armstrong limited his questionable play to a high stick tonight. But it's never an easy feeling when that guy is on the ice against a player you would prefer to stay healthy. Guy's got more bodies on him than a Chinese cemetery.
- Recently the Caps have struggled, it's no secret. But the defensive play has been strong under Dale Hunter, and the offense has been flexing its muscles of late. The growing pains associated with a new system are surely not over, but with each passing game the performance looks crisper, and the Caps seem to be sending a message to the league, and to the haters that are taking joy in their adversity: You want it to be one way, but it's the other way.
- Every time Alex Ovechkin stepped on the ice tonight he was a force. It was fun to watch him go head to head with Dion Phaneuf as both guys tried to impose their will on the other. At the end of the night, Ovechkin ended up with 8 shots, one power play assist, 1(?) hit, 2 posts on one shot, and a plethora of quality scoring chances. His play was even better than the stat line, and he was the most dynamic forward on the ice for either team tonight. Hey yo, lesson here, D: You come at the king you best not miss.
- Quality special teams are a key to winning in the NHL. Tonight the Caps showed up with 4 power play goals (on 6 chances) and a 100% successful penalty kill. Both percentages are (most likely) unsustainable over the course of the season, but for tonight at least they showed scary potential, even without their best power play player. Caps fans can only hope that if they hear the music, they're gonna dance.
- Usually the Caps are a productive team at even strength, only the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins have more even strength goals than the Capitals. Tonight... not so much. To be sure, they had plenty of high quality chances that just wouldn't go in, frequently from their marquee players. But relying exclusively on the power play is generally not a recipe for success in this league. We're not worried though. Worrying about the Caps scoring at even strength is like worrying if the sun's gonna come up.
- On the Caps' PP Dennis Wideman was the obvious star. He scored the first hat trick by a Caps defenseman in 11 years, and added an assist for good measure. Somehow he still ended up -1 on the night, but we can cut him some slack for that. The game is out there, it's either play or be played. Tonight Dennis Wideman did the playing.
- Throughout this season, Alexander Semin has seemed to have the attention of the referees. He got yet another minor penalty tonight, and he didn't seem to agree with the call. At this point there's nothing anyone can do about it, the reputation is set and the refs are going to call what they call. Semin has the hockey stick, Francois St. Larent has the whistle. It's all in the game though, right?
- Even though Semin took a penalty, he managed to come up with an assist later in the game, a rare sight this season. The vast majority of Semin's points have come either in games in which he was not penalized, or before he was penalized. Who knows, maybe this is the kind of play that will rehabilitate Semin's value and have Caps fans asking "Where's Sasha? George, George! Where's Sasha?!"
- Something I need to get off my chest: For the second straight game Vokoun visibly berated a defender following a goal against. Last game it was John Erskine after a bad giveaway ended up in the net. Tonight Vokoun got after Karl Alzner after the second Maple Leaf goal. While Alzner no doubt wants that play back, and he needs to come up with the block if he's going to get in the shooting lane, Vokoun's response was entirely uncalled for. Alzner leads the team in plus/minus while taking on the hardest competition and toughest zone starts. The guy is flat out getting it done, and a little patience/forgiveness is warranted. Vokoun needs to look in the mirror and ask if he can say the same. He's been turning in far too many 40 degree days this season, and we'd like to see him think a bit before he shows up a teammate next time. A man must have a code. What's Vokoun's?
And so the Dale Hunter era rolls on, looking better with every passing game. The Caps still need to work hard and pay attention to detail, things aren't going to come easy. As much as fans of the Caps and teams across the NHL expect the Capitals to sit on top of the Southeast division at the end of the season, it won't just be handed to them. This is the NHL, the gods will not save you. Hard work and commitment will save you. But through the hard times and the adversity, if you ask whether we'll be here standing by our team, watching as they continue to fight for a chance to win what Dale Hunter came oh-so-close to winning as the Captain of this team, there's only one answer: "Oh indeed."