On paper, tonight's game against the Florida Panthers didn't look very promising. The Panthers were well-rested, the Caps were coming off an overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning the night before, and the team was still missing its captain and star player, Alex Ovechkin, to the final game of his three-game suspension. If that wasn't enough, this was a road game, which haven't been too kind to the team.
True to form, the better-rested Panthers outlasted a depleted Caps squad, breaking open a tie game in the third period and skating away with a 4-2 win and sole possession of first place in the Southeast Division. Meanwhile, the out-classed Caps end their three game stretch without any of the Big Three skaters and eagerly await the return of Alex Ovechkin for Saturday's game in Montreal.
Ten more notes on the game:
- The big takeaway from tonight's game - and last night's as well - is that without the Big Three trio of Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green and Nick Backstrom, the Caps are a bad team. Tampa and Florida are both below average hockey teams, and in both games the Caps were never in control of play and came out with two losses. Sure, optimists will point out that the same depleted Caps beat a good Boston team a week ago. But if forced to play a full season with this roster, the Caps are no more than an 80-point team. That's an ugly reality for a team that fancied themselves Stanley Cup contenders with all the off-season "upgrades".
- In what is becoming an all-too-familiar refrain for the 2011-12 Caps, the team was out-shot yet again, 38-28. Hey, at least the Caps hit 28!
- Michal Neuvirth had a so-so game. He made some beautiful saves and kept the Caps in the game the first two periods, but he was conned into letting in a second period 100-foot softie and the third period power play goal he allowed wasn't much better. Bad goals kill and it did the Caps in tonight.
- At least the Caps played a very physical game, outhitting the Cats 38-23. If there's a silver lining to being without their superstars, it's that necessity has dictated that the team pick up its physicality. The shot disparity will shrink if and when the Caps get their skill players back, but it appears, for now, that the Caps are becoming harder to physically play against. At least one-half of the equation is coming together.
- However, as physical as the Caps were tonight, the Panthers employed a pretty good strategy of their own and that was to crowd the crease and create opportunities via deflections and close-in shots. The Caps defense needs to pick up the physical pace and not allow a softer team like Florida to crowd the crease and create havoc. There may be options available at the trade deadline to help out with this issue.
- Shake your head and frown when you read this: the Caps have scored power play goals in two of the past 11 games. Sigh.
- Don't stop frowning when you read this nugget: the Caps won 35% of their non-neutral zone draws tonight. The team's faceoff aces, Jeff Halpern and Brooks Laich, were a combined 2-for-11 in the defensive zone. No team can drive puck posession if you constantly lose key draws.
- Ice time is always an interesting stat to track under the Hunter regime. Tonight's ice itme included 6:18 for Joel Ward, 6:03 for Cody Eakin and a quiet 9:48 for Jeff Schultz. Then there's Joel Rechlicz, who skated four shifts for all of 2:48, notching two hits and getting declined on his invitation to dance with Krys Barch. With all due respect to Joel - who should be having the time of his life with this unexpected call-up to the bigs - this roster spot could be better used. It's becoming safe to say that Dale's roster management is head-scratching.
- On a lighter note, Brooks Laich beauty of a goal looked a lot like the type of goal that Ovi would have scored three years ago. Except Ovi usually did it at double the speed. No matter, they all count the same!
- If you're a hockey purist, there is something disconcerting about a Florida Panther team that is flirting with winning their division despite a 23-26 won-loss record. They've mastered the art of the loser point, and we only have Gary Bettman to blame.
Seeing that the Florida trip wasn't too successful, there is a lot of pressure on the Caps to perform well this upcoming weekend at Montreal and at home against Boston. The Caps need points, else not only will first place in the division start to slip away, but the 8th spot in the conference will also become more distant. With no return date set for Green or Backstrom, Ovechkin's going to have to carry this team on his shoulders, or else the unthinkable will start becoming more of a reality: a playoff-less season in Washington.