Over the course of an 82-game season a team will inevitably play one or two games where they have no right winning, yet they do. That was tonight's Washington Capitals, a surprising 3-0 victor over a previously surging New Jersey Devils team that had only lost six of their last 29 games.
Michal Neuvirth earned his fourth shutout on the season - looking very impressive - but with ample help in the process. Nope, not help from the Caps defense, but from an unlucky Devils team that repeatedly flubbed shots, failed to convert breakaways, slipped on one-timers and missed wide-open skaters all night. Meanwhile, the Caps forwards generated all of 12 shots the entire game, yet buried three of them. Truly an odd night, but a rewarding one.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Going into the game, the big theme was around how Michal Neuvirth would respond after having a so-so outing against the Red Wings where he apeared to be battling the puck. He passed with flying colors, stopping 33 shots and showing off a very flashy glove hand. Repeatedly. Someone clearly is attempting to stake a claim as the #1 starter.
- Jeff Schultz with a Mike Green-esque one-timer from the point that beats Martin Brodeur glove-side? Seriously?
- Thankfully Schultz scored, because the Caps were thoroughly outplayed in the first period, getting outshot 12-2. In fact, the Caps only had three shots in the first half of the game. The Devils simply wanted it more than the Caps did and it showed in their effort. But in the end it's about converting - the Caps did and the Devils didn't.
- Ultimately, it was a bad mistake by Devils forward Patrik Elias that did the Devils in. Elias overskated the puck on a breakout, Alex Ovechkin gladly retrieved it, whipped what appeared to be a 100-mph pass to John Carlson, who then masterfully faked a shot, fed it to a net-crashing Mike Knuble, and just like that it was 2-0. More importantly, it deflated a Devils team that had been outplaying the Caps up to that point.
- No complaints tonight about the massive difference in PP opportunities, with the Devils getting four to the Caps zero. The Caps should be thankful it wasn't worse. Cheers to the PK for bringing an "A" effort and bailing the team out, especially after Matt Hendrick 's accidental four-minute high-stick penalty late in the second period.
- Mike Knuble has had an off-year, well off his 53-point pace from last season. But he's been a huge part of the recent resurgence, chipping in 5 goals and 4 assists in his last 11 games. Tonight was vintage Knuble, as he buried two beauties and set up Jeff "The Sniper" Schultz for the team's first goal.
- Who was the best Caps rookie tonight? Was it John Carlson (two assists) and his excellent defensive work? Maybe Michal Neuvirth and his shutout? Or how about Marcus Johansson, who was +3 on a night his line dominated offensively? Doesn't matter, does it? What does is that the Caps rookies are growing up before our eyes and becoming every-game contributors. Just in time.
- Mixed night for Nicklas Backstrom, who played his first game since returning from injury. Skating on the second line with Marco Sturm and Alexander Semin the group finished -4 in Corsi differential. Yet Backstrom was 13 for 17 in the face-off dot. Hopefully he's just working off the rust and adjusting to (temporary) new linemates.
- Don't let the score fool you. The Devils thouroughly outplayed the Caps through the first two periods and are a good team. The Caps should hope the Devils don't make the playoffs this season. New Jersey is better than Buffalo, Carolina and the New York Rangers, and if they clinch a playoff spot it changes the dynamics of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
- Watching the Devils wear their throwback jerseys brings back bad memories of the old Jersey teams that included players such as Ken Daneyko, Brendan Shanahan,
Mickey Mouse,Bruce Driver and the dirty Pat Verbeek, who sliced Rod Langway's calf in April 1988 and likely cost the Caps a trip to their first Conference finals. Bad memories.
Momentum and confidence are certainly on the Caps side right now as the Caps manage to pull out a road win against a very good team despite not bringing their "A" game. And again they do it without their star defenseman and second-line center. However, anything less than an "A" game Tuesday night against the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers (by virtue of games played) will most assuredly end up with a loss. That said, don't expect two poor efforts in a row from this squad. The Caps know what's at stake and will be mentally and physically prepared for Tuesday's clash. A win on the road in Philly would send a chilling statement to the rest of the NHL: this year's Caps are good, they're serious contenders for Lord Stanely's Cup, and, unlike last year, they can beat you at any style you want to play.