UNIONDALE, NY - MARCH 13: Travis Hamonic #3 of the New York Islanders rides Marcus Johansson #90 of the Washington Capitals into the boards at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on March 13, 2012 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
"Make or break."
For as long as there's been a question as to whether or not this Capitals team was headed to the playoffs, the road trip that started Tuesday night on Long Island has been described as "make or break" for those playoff hopes - pick up a handful of points and the Caps will likely be fine; come home with nothing and they'll probably be in big trouble. And given how brutal the trip gets after tonight - Winnipeg, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia - this was a game the Caps needed. Or at least. theoretically, wanted really, really bad.
Unfortunately, it sure didn't seem that way early on, and the Caps spent most of the game trying to dig out of holes of varying depths... which they did, en route to a 5-4 shootout win.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Rough start for the Caps, who were forced to kill a penalty just 12 seconds into the game after Jeff Schultz flipped a puck off the rink from his defensive zone, despite having plenty of time to, well, not do that. The Caps killed off that penalty (thanks in part to Marcus Johansson's stick-less block of a shot/pass after handing his off to Dennis Wideman after the blueliner's had been chopped out of his hand, and a courageous block of a booming Milan Jurcina blast by Jay Beagle), but were essentially on their heels from the word go.
- Over the previous four games - an overtime loss followed by three-straight wins - the Caps scored the first goal of the game each time, running their record to 23-6-4 when opening the scoring. Given that they were 12-22-2 when allowing the first tally, scoring first was pretty important... and not to be, as a Matt Moulson shot deflected off Michal Neuvirth, then the end boards, and back off of Neuvirth's chest and in. Yeah, the Caps will take the "H" on that one.
- As unlucky as that opening strike was, it came 8:54 into the game... and before the Caps had registered their first shot of the game (which came a minute later). Needless to say, that wasn't the start the Caps wanted, but it's the one they got, and it didn't get a whole lot better in the first twenty as the Caps would allow a power-play goal (off of John Carlson's boot, natch) and the Caps would get just four shots on Evgeni Nabokov - a pair each from Johansson and Jason Chimera.
- Down a pair early in the second, Johansson was sprung for a breakaway on a beauty of a stretch pass from Roman Hamrlik, but Nabby beat the young Swede who tried to go low to the stick side. Johansson's third shot on goal less than 22 minutes into the game was as many as Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin would combine for through two periods.
- After Ovechkin put the Isles on their fourth-straight man-advantage to open the game (they'd finish the night with all five of the game's power-plays) with a hook on Josh Bailey at the top of the Caps' defensive zone, it took all of seven seconds before John (who's pretty good for a 21-year-old) crashed the net and cashed in on a loose puck in front to put New York up a field goal.
- Possible sign of life? Mike Knuble tipped a Wideman shot past Nabokov to cut the leads to 3-1 just 28 seconds later (Knuble's first goal since December 5), but... two minutes after that, the Isles (Tavares. Again.) embarrassed the Ovechkin line and the Carlson pairing in transition and pushed the lead back to three.
- Perhaps sparked by what seemed like, uh, a long stretch between shifts following that goal, the Ovechkin line cut the lead to two in the final minute of the second period after Johansson found an open Brooks Laich whose shot rebounded to the captain for a tap-in. Wait,Johansson carried the puck, Ovechkin went to the net... and a goal resulted? Novel concept, that. Anyway, the Caps headed to the third down a pair of goals, which is exactly where they were with just four minutes to go in regulation against these same Isles two weeks ago before pulling out a win, so there was still a glimmer of hope.
- Less than three minutes on the game clock later, Johansson (whose name is deservedly all over this recap) found Dmitry Orlov streaking towards the net from his point and a pretty move and finish from the blueliner cut the lead to just one (and gave Keith Aucoin his second helper of the game). Glimmer of hope? More like a full-on flame.
- Earlier we mentioned the importance of Ovechkin letting someone else carry the mail and going to space and/or the net. Well, halfway through the third he did it again, as Aucoin came down the right side threw a pass to Ovechkin on the left who put the puck on net... then the rebound... then finally put the next rebound in the net to tie the game. Tremendous.
- Shootouts are no way to decide hockey games. But as long as they do, it's good to be good in them, and on Tuesday night, Ovechkin and Matt Hendricks were. Ballgame.
And so the road trip from hell starts with two points (and the Caps have now collected points in five-straight games for the first time since opening the season 7-0-0). Maybe not how the Caps drew it up, but the result is what matters, and they've won a game that may not have been one they needed... but certainly was one that they wanted really, really bad.