In many ways, Dale Hunter's tenure behind the Caps' bench to date has been marked by relatively equal ups and downs, one step backwards for each step forward. The team won seven of its first 14 games, neither losing nor winning more than two in a row; they ripped off four-straight wins and seven of nine before losing nine of their next 13; and while they've turned their possession and scoring chance disadvantages around of late, they haven't always translated into wins. For the better part of three months, the Caps have done more treading water than moving forward.
So after Friday night's huge step forward - a road win against the team they're trying to chase down for Southeast supremacy - one could fairly approach Saturday night's game against a team that has essentially given up on the season with some trepidation.
Sure enough, the Caps came out of the gates slow and seemed out of synch all night, en route to a 2-1 loss. One step forward, one step back.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Prior to the game, there was plenty of buzz about Mike Green 's possible return to the lineup for the first time since the first week January, and, sure enough, the Caps' two-time Norris finalist laced 'em up and played (Hunter dressed seven blueliners, so as to manage Green's workload). He ended up playing 14:14 and having a minimal impact on the scoresheet, but more than the stats, seeing Green skate and just play his game is all the reminder Caps fans needed to recall just how important he is to this team's success. Once his timing and stamina are back, look out (we hope).
- If you're going to make backhanded passes in the neutral zone while trying to beat a trap, you're not going to last long in the NHL. Luckily, Dmitry Orlov doesn't do that often. Unluckily, he did it two minutes into the game, resulting in a turnover and a Tom Pyatt goal that leaked through Tomas Vokoun (who got better as the night went on).
- So Pyatt now has three goals in his career against the Caps... of the ten he's scored in 151 career regular season games. And that's 29 fewer than his old man scored for the Caps. The more you know.
- Similar to Orlov's turnover, Matt Hendricks lost a puck in a bad spot (this one at the top of the offensive zone), and you could put this one up on the board before Steven Stamkos crossed the center-ice stripe on his breakaway. Sure enough, Stammer deposited his 40th of the season behind Vokoun and it was 2-0 Bolts very early in the second period.
- Over the last four games prior to Saturday night, the Caps didn't get a single goal from a forward not named Alex (Ovechkin and Semin had potted two apiece). That streak had run to more than five full games-worth of hockey before Brooks Laich converted on a pass (or was it a shot?) from Mathieu Perreault to cut the lead to 2-1 halfway through the game. Nice anniversary gift, eh?
- For all of the well-deserved grief that the Caps' penalty kill has taken for its performance on the road this season (25th in the League entering the game), it actually held them in the game, stuffing three Tampa opportunities through two periods and another two in the third. Big step-up by that unit (which has actually gone four-straight road games now without allowing a power-play goal-against).
- For all of the well-deserved grief that the Caps' power play has taken for its performance on the road this season (28th in the League entering the game and two for its last 30 since Green's last game before Saturday)... let's give it some more. The unit looked fairly awful in two attempts, managing just a single shot on goal in 3:27 of work with the extra man.
- Going back to that Pyatt note, when was the last time the Caps played a game against a team that featured multiple sons of former Caps? In addition to Pyatt, Brendan Mikkelson is a Bolt, and his poppa was an original Cap... and was an NHL-record minus-82 in that first season.
- Unlike an evening ago, the third period comeback wasn't to be. Considering that the League's best win percentage when trailing after two is only 30% (and that they'd turned the trick on Saturday), that was certainly the safe bet, made all the safer by the fact that the Caps mustered all of two shots on Mathieu Garon through the first 16 minutes of the period and seven overall for the stanza (23 for the game). Not good enough.
- You keep waiting for Marcus Johansson to put it all together... and you keep waiting. Another night for the young Swede full of a reluctance to shoot, a brutal whiff, poor play on the boards and bad decisions (including a terrible late penalty). Perhaps Johansson is being forced into a role in which he's going to have difficulty succeeding... but he's got to be better.
And so it's a Sunshine State split for the Caps, which is particularly disappointing after winning the first (and bigger) game of the two. Milk spilled, it's on to Carolina.