When George McPhee traded away blue-chip prospect Filip Forsberg for veteran winger Martin Erat and minor leaguer Michael Latta prior to yesterday's trade deadline, he sent a clear message to the hockey world - and most clearly to his own team - that he believes the final Southeast Division title is the Caps' to lose. On Thursday night, in Erat's debut for Washington, the Caps failed to send much of a message of their own, but snagged two points anyway with a 2-1 shootout win.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Over his past four games, Braden Holtby has struggled a bit, posting a 3.44 goals against average and .885 save percentage (despite winning twice and losing a third game in overtime). I say "a bit," because it certainly hasn't all been on him, but both he and the defense in front of him have to be better than they've been. Against the Isles, he was (35 saves on 36 shots against and a clean sheet in the shootout) and they (for the most part) were.
- A sleepy opening period (five shots on goal for each side) ended with a bang when Mike Green potted his fifth goal in his last four games with just 13 seconds left in the frame. (Hey, we told you he was hot.) Just like on Tuesday night in Raleigh, the late tally gave the team something to feel good about after a fairly ugly first period and momentum... in theory.
- Sure, the Caps traded away a Swede yesterday, but the two they've kept (other than Christian Djoos, that is) sure have been good lately, and both assisted on that Green goal. Nicklas Backstrom is now up to 30 assists on the season, good for third-best on the circuit, and boy has Marcus Johansson been skating well since returning from his concussion.
- The Isles came out the stronger squad in the second, registering ten of the first dozen shots in the period. But Holtby held down the fort until the top line had a dominant shift that resulted in a Backstrom drawing a slashing minor (moments after he nearly deposited a brilliant Alex Ovechkin pass behind Evgeni Nabokov). The Caps got three shots on goal during the man advantage (with Mathieu Perreault and Jack Hillen getting robbed by Nabby) and nothing more, but the power play seemed to get them back on track a bit. Still, the period would end as it started, with the Caps holding a one-zippy lead.
- As part of the Salute to the Military Night program at Verizon Center, the USA Warriors took to the ice for sled hockey during the second intermission. Unreal, these guys. True heroes.
- With five minutes left in the third, a failed John Carlson clear led to the Caps running around their own zone, a couple of pretty Islander passes and, predictably, a tying tally (by Kyle Okposo). Holtby never had a chance... but Carlson sure did a few moments earlier.
- I'm not one to complain about poor officiating, but with 2:52 left, Green sent a puck off the rink... but it clearly hit the top of the glass on the out. Unfortunately, the guys whose opinions matter didn't see it that way and dinged Green for a deuce for delay of game. The Caps - or karma - killed the penalty, but that's a brutal missed call and precisely why (as Craig Laughlin pointed out on the telecast) a coach's replay challenge could only be a good thing. To overtime - and then the shootout - the game would go.
- Ovechkin has been white hot of late, so his failure to score during regulation was almost surprising (like the good ol' days, yeah?). But he must've been saving it for the shootout, because his patient and confident backhander was the only puck to beat either goalie. Holtby stoned a couple of Isles and that, as they say, was that.
- If I'm Mathieu Perreault, I know that it won't be long before Erat is elevated to one of the top-two lines, and Jason Chimera is back in the lineup, so I'd be putting more pucks towards than the net when I've got the chance, knowing that if I don't state my case emphatically, the press box likely awaits. To that end, Perreault fired a team-high four shots on goal, his most since his most since his hat trick against Boston on January 24, 2012. Also, if I'm Mathieu Perreault, I'm around four inches shorter than I am now.
- Earlier today we touched on how heavily the Caps have relied on Ovechkin, Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro to carry the scoring load. Tonight, the team scored once, and it came with the top line on the ice. Not only did they not get any goals from secondary (or primary, for that matter) scorers, here's a list of of Caps forwards who had one shot on goal: Backstrom, Brooks Laich. And here's a list of forwards who had none: Erat, Eric Fehr, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Matt Hendricks, Joel Ward. Twenty-two shots on goal in 65 mintues isn't going to cut it; gotta get more production from... well, everyone.
In all likelihood, the Caps will end tonight in... wait for it... first place in the Southeast Division. Third seed in the Eastern Conference. Think about the past three months and then think about that. To be sure, there's plenty of work to be done and the Caps need to and can be better than they were tonight. But for a moment, take a breath and enjoy the customary view from atop the Southeast Division. It may not be an impressive mountain, but it's theirs. At least for now.