The Washington Capitals took home ice needing a win against the Minnesota Wild to get back into the playoff picture. Following a day off after the embarrassing meltdown to the Winnipeg Jets, you expected the Caps to come out with some urgency. With each passing game, and each point left on the table, the situation gets more dire and the possibility that the Caps could miss the playoffs becomes more real. The Caps did come out with a strong effort, led by Alex Ovechkin, but the Wild were able to weather the storm and by the end of the first period they had accumulated several great chances of their own. The second period was much better; the Caps didn't get a ton of chances but they were opportunistic on the chances they did get and converted a pair of two-on-one opportunities and gave themselves another chance to defend a multi-goal lead in the third period at home. This time the Caps were able to lock it down in the third period, even adding to the lead with a goal of their own. The result was a 3-0 victory and two much-needed points.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Braden Holtby didn't have to be great very often today, but he stepped up big when the Wild did threaten, particularly in the first period. The Caps gave up several quality chances in the first, including three in a row to the Wild's top line at one point. Between two teams that like to focus on defense (sigh), you knew the first goal would be big. Holtby kept the door shut long enough for the Caps to find their offense, and then secured yet another shutout in his young NHL career.
- Usually you don't see teams dress 7 defensemen in the NHL, but with the depleted forward reserves and several D that don't seem to have Dale Hunter's complete trust, the Caps chose to make it 7 tonight. It was nice to see the minutes get spread a bit more, especially for Dennis Wideman who went from 28+ last game to "just" 23:53 tonight. John Carlson, Dmitry Orlov, and Jeff Schultz all saw their ice time suffer (though I'm sure Orlov is just happy to have a sweater), and it tells you all you need to know about Hunter's confidence in the team's defensive corps. (At least) One of those guys needs to step up to solidify the D corps, two pairs won't get it done.
- Right now "hot" doesn't even begin to describe Ovechkin's play. He's been providing energy, physicality, and (most importantly) goals. He's got goals in 5 straight games, and 6 of 7, totaling 9 goals in the 7 game stretch. For all the heat he's taken this year, he's found his game at the right time. His continued production will be vital to the Caps' efforts to make the playoffs. The Captain also deserves kudos for his defensive play on the shorthanded two-on-one by the Wild in the scone period, as well.
- Normally the Caps have a reputation as a tough team at home, with strong performances from both special teams units in the Verizon Center. Coming in to tonight the Caps had a 0-for-22 streak (spanning 9 games) at home. They finally ended that streak with Mathieu Perreault's power play goal tonight, and of course it came on a cheap power play when Clayton Stoner was sent off for delay of game. We'll take it.
- Stoner had a tough night all around. After Semin victimized him on the first goal (though we always sympathize with the D who gets trapped playing the "one" in a two-on-one, a little help is nice), he got hit with a tough-luck delay of game penalty a few minutes later. It looks like Mike Knuble probably got a piece of that puck before it left the rink, but Stoner ended up in the box. One horrible PK line change later and Perreault was cashing in yet another gorgeous pass (this time from Troy Brouwer) on a two-on-one (and it should be no surprise that he was about 3 feet from the goal line when he shot the puck).
- Timing is a funny thing, Pierre McGuire called out Semin to be better just moments before Semin led a two-on-one rush with Jason Chimera, and then set up Chimera for a tap in after a great pass through Stoner. We don't think Semin's game was bad enough to be called out before that goal, but it just goes to show how quickly things can change with number 28.
- One of the themes under Dale Hunter has been to play a "playoff style" of hockey. Limit odd-man rushes, play tight defense, cycle the puck, and stop relying on scoring on the rush. Tonight both of the first two Caps goals came on two-on-one opportunities. I'm sure Coach Hunter wouldn't turn down those kind of goals, but unless he can get the team to create some offense another way, he may need to embrace the rush a little bit more.
- Nobody told us it was open season on Marcus Johansson. Another game, another couple brutal hits on MoJo. First, Cal Clutterbuck picked up a roughing with a late hit, and then in the third period Johansson took another violent hit into the boards. He did manage to pull the D out of position and poke the puck forward for Ovechkin to pick up with speed. Then Ovechkin took away some of the pain by finishing the play off with a five-hole wrist shot. There's your definition of "taking a hit to make the play."
- Every week we post our Capitals Ups and Downs, I don't think I'm spoiling anything when I say that Holtby's shutout win should set him up for a nice even rating this week.
- Recently Coach Hunter got a lot of attention for playing Jay Beagle more than he played Ovechkin against the Jets. We'd like to see Ovechkin get more ice than he did Friday, but maybe giving a forward 26+ is a bit of an over-correction...
The Caps put up a strong effort for 60 minutes, and were rewarded with 2 points. They'll need to do that again Tuesday night, as a date with the Buffalo Sabres awaits. The Caps and Sabres are currently tied with 84 points, so this next game will go a long way toward determining the final playoff spot in the East. The mistakes of the past, the disappointing individual seasons, the points they failed to secure, are all irrelevant. The Caps have 6 games left, and they control their own destiny. 6-0 seems unlikely, but they certainly need to secure the majority of the points available to close out the season. Win pretty, win ugly, just win.