Tonight's rendition of "biggest game of the year" saw the Washington Capitals close out the season series with the Eastern Conference basement-dwelling Montreal Canadiens. Thus far the Caps have won all three games against the Habs, surrendering only one goal in the process. A must win game against a team they've handled all year that currently has nothing to play for... sounds like a recipe for trouble. After jumping out to a 2-0 lead, the Caps increased their goals allowed to the Canadiens by 200% tonight, eventually having to settle the game in the shootout for the second time in a row. And for the second time in a row, Michal Neuvirth made some big saves and the Caps took home a 3-2 shootout win, banking two of the ugliest points you could ever be happy to see. Oh, and Nicklas Backstrom returned to the lineup for the first time since his concussion, which is kind of a big deal.
Ten more notes on the game:
- How often do you see a team dominate the first period but not take advantage, only to see the wasted opportunities come back to bite them? Tonight the Caps flirted with providing another example. After playing brilliantly at even strength, building a 2 goal lead, but also failing to capitalize on 3 power plays, they got the biting started with a late first period goal that let Montreal take a 1 goal deficit to the locker room in a game that could easily have been over already.
- If Backstrom was out of shape after his lengthy absence, it sure didn't show on the score sheet. With over 19 minutes on the night this sure wasn't an "ease him into the lineup" kind of game. He may not have been rewarded with any points, but watching him win puck battles and embrace the physical play sure made our... spirits rise.
- Matt Hendricks now has more shootout goals than hockey goals on the season. After abusing big name goalies like Tim Thomas, Ilya Bryzgalov, and Evgeny Nabokov, it appears as though Peter Budaj finally got around to watching some film and for the first time in recent memory a goalie didn't bite on Hendricks' go-to shootout move. Of course, Budaj also didn't leave the crease at any point and left plenty of net for Hendricks to shoot at. Hendricks made no mistake and buried the puck under the crossbar.
- Even though Backstrom's return was the story of the night (well, that and the whole "can the Caps make the playoffs" thing), Alexander Semin's line was the best line for the Caps all night. Semin came out strong and created several chances seemingly on his own. The game didn't even last 5 minutes before Mathieu Perreault made a nice conversion off of one of Semin's passes. Semin showed great patience and vision to get the puck over to Perreault, and Perreault made a nice play to adjust to a pass that was slightly behind him and waste no time firing the puck home.
- All four goals tonight were at even strength. And Dennis Wideman found himself on ice for all four goals as well. Add in four penalty minutes and you've got a bit of a microcosm for Wideman's season. His highs have been high and his lows have been ugly.
- Neuvirth's night started slowly, but as the Habs picked up momentum he really had to come up with some nice saves. In particular, the third period saw power play opportunities for the Canadiens in the early and latter stages of the period. A goal on either power play could have been a back breaker, but in both cases Neuvirth stood tall. And just like in Boston against Rich Peverly, Neuvirth saved some of his best work for the shootout.
- Lately, blown leads have been a bit of a theme with the Caps. In the last 5 games they've blown leads of 3, 2, and 2 goals. Luckily they ended up with 5 points in those 3 games, but for a team that's clawing tooth and nail to make the playoffs it's baffling to see the level of play drop off so drastically with a lead.
- As disappointing as it is to see them blow leads, it really is the way that they do it that is so frustrating. On the first goal tonight the Caps first let the Habs blow by them in the neutral zone, and then failed to cover (overpaid) Erik Cole as he crashed the net and picked up a loose puck to get the Habs back in the game. There simply has to be more defensive urgency at that point in the period.
- Roman Hamrlik had a generally solid game, but he was victimized badly on the game tying goal. He just seemed to be moving slow motion when Tomas Plekanec attacked him down the wing, and then he let Plekanec cross him and get an easy pass to the net. Give credit to Plekanec for the move and the shot, but you've got to wonder how many times Hamrlik has seen that move in the last 4 years.
- So I guess if hitting people in the head was the point of the game, Rene Bourque would be a fantastic hockey player. Instead, he gets to settle for being a player that disappoints fans by never living up to his potential. It must be nice to make over 3 million dollars by not meeting expectations, but at some point "what could have been" has got to get frustrating.
The Caps did what mattered, they took two points from the Canadiens. At the same time the Caps were playing, the Toronto Maple Leafs did the team (and their fans) a big favor by defeating the suddenly-not-white-hot Buffalo Sabres. That means the Caps have a 2 point lead (and hold the tiebreaker) for 8th place in the conference with 3 games to play. The Caps control their own destiny, and even have a sliver of margin for error. If things break absolutely right, the Caps could still win the division. Winning the upcoming pair of in-division games, including one against the Florida Panthers, will be crucial if they want to open the playoffs in Verizon Center.