With a shootout win over the Islanders Thursday night, the Caps found themselves rocketing up from 10th place to 3rd place, taking sole possession of first in the Southeast; less than 48 hours later, a win by the Winnipeg Jets sent them right back down to 10th. So the Caps headed into the home of the Florida Panthers tonight looking to take back their spot atop the division and extend their winning streak over the Cats to four this year (and to six straight dating back to last season).
Thanks to a dominant second period and led by the captain’s second hat trick of the season they did just that, winning their third straight game and bouncing the Jets from their perch once again.
Ten more notes on the game:
- This game was all about special teams, as the Caps feasted on the Cats while up a man to the tune of three power play goals (while also giving one up to Florida’s power play unit). With those three PPGs, the Caps improve their League-leading power play percentage to a very impressive 25.5%.
- With Brooks Laich day-to-day with whatever injury he’s dealing with, it was a chance for all of us to see our new top-six winger Martin Erat in the top-six. His time alongside Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer lasted just 5 shifts, however, as a dirty hit by Erik Gudbranson sent Erat into the boards face- and knee-first. Gudbranson would be tossed, Erat would not return and Wojtek Wolski’s music begins to play.
- That Gudbranson hit would give the Caps a five-minute power play on which they could score at will. So with the League’s best power play unit facing off against the League’s worst penalty kill you’d expect the Caps to absolutely dismantle the Panthers, right? ...wrong. They did manage one goal, which is good, but after striking about a minute in they failed to generate much of anything else and Florida killed off the rest relatively unscathed.
- The lone goal on that extended power play came from - who else? - Alex Ovechkin. Not only was that his 11th goal in his last 10 games, but it also gave him four more power play goals (soon to be five) than anyone else in the League and drew him into a short-lived tie with Claude Giroux for third in the NHL with 19 power play points (which was also tied for first among forwards). Remember when Ovechkin used to be stuck on the power play point? Good times.
- The power play dominance would continue, moving on to one of the other Caps who has been lighting it up on a regular basis with the extra man, Mike Ribeiro. Nice work by Ribeiro to be in the right place at the right time to tap in a dribbler in order to give the Caps a 2-0 lead... although that was far from the prettiest power play goal he’s scored this year. We’ll take it, Ribs.
- As ugly as that one was, that’s how beautiful the next tally was when the captain extended the lead to 3-0. Ovechkin continued to channel his vintage self and absolutely undressed Filip Kuba on the rush. The stick lift, the sharp-angle shot, the corner of the net popping up... beauty from start to finish.
- He wasn’t done yet, either, as shortly after a Matt Hendricks penalty negated what would have been a hat trick (darn it, Hendricks!!) he went ahead and got the hattie anyway on the power play. That goal gave him 23 for the year, pulling into a tie with John Tavares and just two behind the League’s leader, Steven Stamkos... who the Caps will face tomorrow.
- Ovechkin finished the night with three goals and one assist. Mike Ribeiro, a goal and an assist. Nicklas Backstrom, three assists. Marcus Johansson, two assists. Mike Green, one assist (to extend his point-scoring streak to five games, seven points during that span). Leaning on the power play too much isn’t a recipe for long-term success - and neither is leaning on just one line - but having your best players be your best players certainly is and they certainly were tonight.
- Braden Holtby didn’t have much action for much of tonight’s game, and perhaps that snuck up on him a bit as the third period rolled around. He’s often talked about how facing a lot of pucks early helps him keep his focus, and with just 14 shots through two he didn’t exactly get that - he wasn’t all that bad in a more active final frame but Florida’s goal kind of slipped in behind him when he should have been holding the post. Obviously the only thing it does is make his numbers a little less pretty (and make the game look a little closer than it was)... but still.
- After being outshot 26-14 through 40 minutes, the Panthers seemed to come alive a little bit in the third. They fired 16 shots on Holtby while limiting the Caps to just 5 and struck twice in a span of two minutes in the middle of the frame, adding a third in the final minute to make this thing just a bit too close for comfort. Score effects and all that, but the Caps have been pretty good about shutting teams down after taking a big lead of late and they didn’t exactly do that tonight - credit to the Panthers for not giving up, though, as Dineen’s got his young team primed to play spoiler down the stretch.
As the Caps slide back into the top spot in the division, they set themselves up for a bit of a rollercoaster ride as we head into the season’s final ten games. With two games in hand on the Jets (and by extending their lead over the flailing ‘Canes to six points) they will most likely be in a head-to-head race with the Jets for that division title - and perhaps the only playoff spot for a Southeast Division team this year.
Do they have it in them to maintain this pace over the final stretch? Here’s hoping.