Prior to puck-drop on this second-to-last Saturday of the regular season, the Caps were in sole possession of second-place in the Eastern Conference while their opponent on this night, the visiting Buffalo Sabres, had a tenuous hold on seventh. The significance there, of course, being that if the two teams held their places in the standings through the end of next week, they'd face one another in the first round of the playoffs days later.
But as far as "playoff previews" go, Saturday night's tilt was only so informative, primarily because one team didn't start the goalie to whom they'll be pinning their hopes in the NHL's second season. Additionally, the Sabres were missing Ryan Miller, who's day-to-day with an upper-body injury. Ahem.
Regardless, both teams had plenty to play for, and, at times, each team showed that. More than that, the Caps showed that they are a resilient and talented bunch, as they erased two one-goal leads in the last six minutes of regulation before - who else - Alex Ovechkin won a wild one 5-4 in overtime (and showed off a new goal celebration). Ho hum.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Hope you were in your seat (wherever it might have been) early, as the Caps scored twice in the game's first five minutes, with Mike Knuble getting things started cashing in on a John Carlson rebound just 37 seconds into the game and Alexander Semin depositing a loose puck in front 4:10 later. Buffalo answered with two of their own in the next five minutes... and then there was no scoring for 43:07 before the teams scored five goals in the last 10:44. Go figure.
- Back to the first two Caps goals - Knuble's goal was his 22nd and Semin's his 28th. With both men matching their jersey numbers on this night, I'd probably have swapped Semyon Varlamov in for Michal Neuvirth at that point, just in case that trend was going to continue.
- And actually, a move to Varly would have saved Neuvirth from allowing the two questionable goals he surrendered immediately thereafter. Whether deflections or bad ice played a part in them, they were saves that he has to make. On the plus side, he settled down for a while thereafter and got little or no help on the next two Buffalo goals (Carlson, in fact, pushing in the latter), but the bottom line is that Neuvy has given up four, three and four goals in his last three games and has a save percentage of just .883 in those games, not once topping .895. Not confidence-inspiring stuff.
- Another day, another injury on the blueline, with Tyler Sloan being able to go after a shift late in the second period. So here's a question - do the Caps have a better five-man D-corps healthy (Carlson, Karl Alzner, Scott Hannan, Jeff Schultz and Sean Collins) or injured (Mike Green, Dennis Wideman, Tom Poti, John Erskine and Sloan)? On Saturday night, by the way, Alzner led all skaters with 26:37 of ice time, his second game of the last three with at least that much.
- One of the big storylines heading into the game was Bill McCreary officiating his final NHL game. One of the big storylines 48 minutes into the game was that not a single penalty had been called, and when one finally was whistled, it was a linesman tagging the Caps with a Too Many Men infraction. Mike Vogel put it best: "Apparently, McCreary retires after tonight's game, but he gave his whistle a one-game head start." (McCreary actually did make a call with just under seven minutes left to break up his personal no-no.)
- How 'bout that Caps' power play? A perfect two-for-two on the night, including a deflection goal by Knuble and Jason Arnott's 400th career goal on a rebound with the goalie pulled.
- The Caps' second line of Semin, Backstrom and Marco Sturm was pretty clearly the team's top trio, not only combining on the Caps' second goal, but dominating territorially all night and registering 13 shots on goal, with each of the three firing at least four. Backstrom also finished the night with three assists, a plus-two rating, and a faceoff win percentage of 53%, and Semin had the goal, an assist and a plus-one rating.
- On the other hand, the top unit of Alex Ovechkin, Marcus Johansson and Knuble struggled a bit at even strength (that game-opening tally notwithstanding), with each of the three ending the night with a minus-two rating and MoJo going 4-for-15 in the faceoff circle. Arnott's probably a better fit as the pivot up there, leaving Johansson on the third line with Eric Fehr and Brooks Laich. Of course, there's always that Backstrom guy, who was on with Ovechkin when he ended the game with the team's skating four-on-four.
- Reality check: allowing 35 shots on goal (and four shots in goal) through regulation isn't good enough, though it should be noted that Buffalo is a top-ten offense this year.
- John Carlson was all over the score sheet, with two assists, a plus-one rating, 25:19 of ice time, a shot, two hits, three giveaways, a takeaway and two blocks. But not a second of power-play time. Huh.
Don't look now, but the Caps are in first place in the Eastern Conference. But a lot can change between now and the end of the season. For the Caps, the hope is that those changes include good fortune on the health front, some more-committed team defense, and a few more saves from their netminder (whomever it might be). Because if those three things get sorted out, they'll be exactly where they want to be when the real game start.