The game needed little set-up - both teams playing Game 81 with their plans past Game 82 not yet set. Both teams controlling their respective destinies... but not doing much to help themselves lately. Both teams playing in a building in which they met four years ago to the day in a game which set up similarly for the home team.
And so the Caps and Panthers played their game Game 81 and before it was even over both teams received the good news that Philly had beaten Buffalo in regulation, meaning the Cats were in the playoffs and the Caps' path got a bit easier - two points and they'd be in, which is exactly what they got with a 4-2 win. And by doing so in regulation, they left open the possibility of winning the Division... but we'll have to wait for Saturday for that to be decided.
Ten more notes on the game:
- The Caps drew first blood less than six minutes into the game when Jay Beagle put a Troy Brouwer shot past Jose Theodore after inadvertently blocking it first. Great work by that line on that shift (started with a faceoff win in the offensive zone by Beagle and well-cycled by Brouwer with help from Karl Alzner), and it gave the Caps exactly the start they'd wanted - we know how important scoring first has been under Dale Hunter (Monday night notwithstanding).
- If the Caps had scored the next goal quickly, it might very well have been game over early... and if frogs had wheels, they wouldn't bump their butts. The Caps couldn't build on that Beagle goal and, in fact, nine of the remaining 14 first period shots came off Panthers' sticks, with the Caps only putting another three on Theodore at even-strength before the first intermission (and things picked up where they left off early in the second period).
- Jeff Halpern, Cody Eakin, John Erskine and Jeff Schultz have been scratched like the head of a kid with lice lately, but it's hard to say that any of those players deserve a spot in the lineup right now. Maybe you'd sit Keith Aucoin... but those scratches don't offer much that the guys who dressed don't bring to the table.
- Time flies when there are few penalties called, and tonight there were only two minors called in the first 57 minutes of the game (with at least one fairly obvious penalty each way being let go in the third period). Most players and coaches would be fine with a game called that way - call it tight or call it loose, but call it consistently.
- A pestilience seems to have stricken the Caps goalies over the past week or so, as Tomas Vokoun left the ice during the first period in Boston and tonight it was Michal Neuvirth who had to leave the game after Marco Sturm fell on his extended left leg. Enter Braden Holtby.
- A game like this one often boils down to a simple - but true - cliche: a team's best players have to be its best players. In the first period, the Caps' best players were absent. Eight minutes into the second period, however, a Marcus Johansson shot was stopped by Theodore, but the rebound shot from Alex Ovechkin wasn't. 2-0 Caps.
- Two minutes later, under a hail of Caps shots and bodies, Aucoin (bouncing up after getting cleaned out) found Brooks Laich in the slot, and Laich ripped a shot past Theodore to give the Caps a 3-0 lead... and cashed that check he wrote yesterday.
- The Panthers, at times, swarmed like locusts in the Caps zone, but didn't have much in the way of transition offense. That is, until Mikael Samuelsson found himself wide open on the left wing (Mike Green and Jason Chimera probably would like to revisit how they played that one), who rifled one hell of a shot over Holtby's left shoulder.
- A darkness began to descend upon the Verizon Center crowd just 42 seconds into the third period when an Ed Jovanovski knuckleball from the blueline eluded Holtby. But the "sit-back in a shell" Caps actually pushed back a bit and held on for the win, getting a late insurance marker from Alexander Semin... just like four years ago.
- Now the Caps will have a chance to slay the Panthers' first (born) Division title on Saturday and claim what we all thought would be theirs from Day One.
And so it's off to New York for the Caps with the Southeast Division title potentially up for grabs. At this point, the only thing that's settled is that the Caps' ultimate fate on the season won't be decided until their last game of the campaign - just like in each of the last four seasons.