With a match-up against the Tampa Bay Lightning for first place in the Southeast Division looming on Monday night, the Caps had the somewhat difficult task of not looking past Sunday evening's opponent, the Florida Panthers, before heading up state. Then again, one look at the standings should have provided all the motivation the Caps needed - win and head to Tampa in first place; lose and stay in second.
Whether it was that motivation or simply being the more-skilled team, the Caps looked to be on their way to victory against the Panthers until an awful tripping call on John Erskine with under four minutes left and a slashing call on Dennis Wideman during the ensuing penalty kill put the Caps down two men, an advantage which David Booth converted to tie the game and send it to overtime.
Early in overtime, Alexander Semin took a Marcus Johansson pass and blew it by Scott Clemmenson and that was that - a 3-2 win. It wasn't pretty, but it was two points. And, to put it generously, the Caps should have plenty left in the tank for Tampa tomorrow night - another effort like the one against the Cats likely won't be good enough on Monday night.
Ten more notes on the game:
Michal Neuvirth had a very strong game, stopping 32 of 34 shots and allowing only the 3-on-5 goal and a well-executed 2-on-1 to beat him. In a season during which his team has struggled with consistency, Neuvy now has his third four-game win streak of the campaign.
- To say the Caps' top line was their best line in the first period would be an understatement. The trio combined on the team's goal (Backstrom from Ovechkin and Knuble), registered all six of the team's shots on goal, and Backstrom won six of his seven draws - the rest of the team won seven of 22. The strong play out of this group continued for much of the night, and if Mike Knuble was finishing this year like he was last (a common "if" on this squad, to be sure), they'd have had three or four goals.
- As good as the first line was (especially early), the second line was that bad, as they failed to register a single shot on goal through three periods and Jason Arnott won just four of his eleven draws over the first two periods (seven of nine on the night). But then Semin scored in OT and all was forgiven... or not.
John Carlson took a bad penalty for retaliating against Steve Bernier early in the second period, but made up for it with a primary assist on Boyd Gordon's first goal in 27 games in his first full shift after his teammates killed off his ill-advised infraction. Good things happen when you shoot the puck, Johnny. That said, Carlson added another in a string of uneven performances, a situation which bears watching... and possibly a night off at some point.
- Speaking of nights off, are we buying "healthy scratch" for Jeff Schultz, who didn't play in the last seven minutes or so of Thursday night's game (while his partner, Scott Hannan, got four more shifts)? Regardless, Schultz taking a seat got Tyler Sloan back in the lineup. Sloan's first shift lasted an interminable 1:49. His second shift saw him blow a wheel which led to a couple of quality Panthers scoring chances. His seventh shift ended when he elbowed Darcy Hordichuk in the head and went off to the penalty box. You get the point - not a good night for T-Slo.
- It's easy to second-guess the puck carrier's decision whether to pass or shoot on a failed 2-on-1. But when a 2-on-1 turns into a 1-on-goalie because the defender commits to the other guy, you've gotta shoot,
- Post-Steckel Faceoff Watch: The Caps won 32-of-65 draws on the night, led by Backstrom's 11-for-17 (the only Cap over 50% who took more than a single faceoff). Also of note, Gordon won just 3-of-10 in the defensive zone.
- When Matt Hendricks dropped the gloves with Kenndal McArdle early on, it was the 14th fight of the season for the Caps' grinder, the most by a Cap since Donald Brashear had 14 back in 2006-07. The last Cap to have more? Stephen Peat, with 15 in 2001-02.
- The Caps' dual power-play problems - drawing 'em and scoring on 'em - continued, as the team failed to register so much as a shot on goal in its only power-play opportunity on the night. Brutal.
- Back to the point above about the Caps having plenty left in the tank for tomorrow night, despite the game going to overtime, Alex Ovechkin skated just 16:53 on the evening. Granted, the Caps' lack of power plays contributed to that, but so to, you'd think, did his coach's desire to keep his troops as fresh as possible for the tougher of the two games in this back-to-back set. To wit, no Cap topped Carlson's 23:49. Good balance for a second game in a row.
So it's mission accomplished in Miami (or, more accurately, Sunrise), and off to Tampa for the biggest game of the year to date for the first-place Washington Capitals. Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?