With the three recently-acquired Capitals - Jason Arnott, Dennis Wideman and Marco Sturm - still getting comfortable with their new teammates (and vice versa), the NHL schedule has done them the favor of handing them a trio of games against non-playoff-caliber opponents in the Islanders, Blues and Panthers before a showdown with the Division-leading Lightning. The new-look Caps struggled for the better part of the first 59 minutes against the Isles before stealing a victory on Tuesday, and the second of the three "warm-ups" was Thursday night against St. Louis. And if simply making progress - getting better - is the goal right now, mission accomplished, as a more-consistent effort and a late Arnott goal gave the Caps a 3-2 win.
Of course, simply making progress is not the ultimate goal, and there's plenty of work to be done for Bruce Boudreau's Caps. But for a team that now has a three-game winning streak for the first time since the final buzzer sounded to end the Winter Classic, if the progress continues there's reason to believe that there may be good things ahead.
Ten more notes on the game:
- The Caps' first-period struggles continued, as the team failed to score in the opening stanza for a sixth-consecutive game. No team has scored fewer first-period goals than the Caps on the season, this one year after leading the League in that metric. That's about as clear an indicator that the team's not ready to play on a nightly basis as one could imagine.
- Bad Pinch, Part 1: Nicklas Backstrom, with Alex Ovechkin and Mike Knuble deeper than he was and St. Louis in possession of the puck, challenged the puck carrier (Barret Jackman), who made a cross-ice pass to create a 3-on-2 which the Blues converted thanks to a nice pass back across the ice... and a soft backcheck from the Caps' top trio of forwards. 1-0 St. Loo.
- Everyone loves to mock secondary assists, but Matt Hendricks' on Scott Hannan's first goal since Christ was in diapers was every bit as valuable as Ovechkin's needle-threading primary helper on the goal. Hendricks stuck with the puck at the blueliner, dug it out of the corner, and got it to Ovi, and the game was tied at one moments later. Kudos, Secondary Matt.
- Bad Pinch, Part 2: Roughly two minutes after Hannan's goal, John Erskine gambled and lost on a 50-50 puck, allowing B.J. Crombeen to lead a 2-on-1 the other way and rifle a shot past Michal Neuvirth. Memo to Big John: That 50/50 puck? It's actually 25-75. Drop back. 2-1 St. Loo.
- Not to pick on Erskine, but when it was revealed that he'd be paired with minutes-muncher
, the initial reaction was that it could go one of two ways - too many minutes for Erskine or too few for Wideman. But Bob Woods managed both men's minutes well, with Erskine coming in at 14:59 and Wideman - the Caps' best blueliner on the evening - at 22:20, which led all blueliners. Good balance.
- Post-Steckel Faceoff Watch: the Caps won 51% of the draws on the night, with no center who took more than four being more than half a draw under 50%. Of note, Backstrom took a dozen draws (winning seven), an indication that his thumb is healing, presumably. Of further note, Boyd Gordon won nine of the thirteen defensive-zone faceoffs he took.
- It tough to type it, but Mike Knuble right now looks like a guy whose mind is willing but whose body isn't quite there - the hands seem a split-second slow, the feet even more than that. A healthy Eric Fehr might give Knuble a deserved - and perhaps needed - chance to rest up for the playoff run.
- I have no clue what started the Matt Bradley-Tyson Strachan fight, but there was no question what ended it - a Bradley uppercut that caught Strachan right on the button and sent him to the ice. That'll teach him not to do whatever it was he was doing that earned him that beat down.
- Backstrom's batted-out-of-mid-air tally deserves mention, but I refuse to make the obvious "He could hit second in the Nationals lineup" joke. Oops.
- On Military Appreciation night, it's the very least we can do to extend a heartfelt thanks to everyone who is serving or has served and their families. Thanks, and be safe.
And so it's off to Florida for a Sunday evening entanglement with the Panthers. Come Monday, the Caps could be playing for first place in the Division. More importantly, come Monday this team should be one step closer to being as good as it can be - you know, making progress.