Since the start of the year, this California trip has been circled on most Caps' fans calendars - and likely on the calendars of the Caps themselves - as the trip that would likely be the team's ultimate test. One week, three California cities, three of the League's top teams, all in the thick of the playoff push. Of course, at the time we may not have had a full understanding of how critical the trip would be for the team's postseason hopes; fair to say that it has become even more crucial that the Caps return home with something more than Disneyland souvenirs.
The quest for points kicked off tonight in Anaheim, against a slumping but still potent Ducks team - and the Caps rose to the challenge.
Ten more notes on the game:
- It didn't take long for the pace to pick up in this one, as a little over two minutes into the first period the Caps were on the board courtesy of - who else? - Joel Ward, with his 21st goal of the season. The game's opening tally was scored in typical third-line fashion, with Ward, Eric Fehr, and Jason Chimera all doing work on or below the goal line. No one makes a garbage goal look prettier than that trio, and that was another beautifully ugly goal.
- The Caps giveth, the Caps taketh away. As quickly as Ward got on the scoreboard, it took even less time for the Ducks to even things back up again, with Ben Lovejoy (remember ol' puffy-face?) slipping a point shot past Halak for the equalizer under a minute after the Caps opened the scoring. That's the fastest goal given up by the Caps after scoring one of their own since all the way back on... last Monday. But hey, it was a good, solid three-game streak, boys.
- If the opening three minutes made you think this was going to be an end-to-end goal-scoring romp reminiscent of the last time the Caps visited Anaheim, you were probably pretty disappointed in how the rest of the opening frame went, with the two teams exchanging a few shots but not much else in the form of either chances or intensity.
- Saku Koivu made sure to do his part to make the first period a little more interesting, albeit waiting until the last minute to do so, when he took a penalty late in the opening frame. With just about thirty seconds with which to work before intermission, the Caps' potent power play made sure they'd go into the locker room happy, and Troy Brouwer kept his hot hand going with a little backhand flip into the net for his 21st of the season.
- So much of the talk surrounding the Caps before this game was about Alex Ovechkin's new center, Jay Beagle - a line combination that seemed beyond ludicrous prior to puck drop soon revealed itself to be, well, beyond ludicrous. Sure, that top ("top"?) line perhaps gained a bit of defensive ability, but at what cost? They never seemed able to generate any sort of sustained pressure, and Beagle ended up in the penalty box - twice. That's the thing about playing with and against the best players - you have to be able to play with and against the best players. And while Beagle has some strengths, those are not his.
- One of the things this team has struggled with at times is the inability to get out of their own way - taking bad penalties, making bad turnovers, etc. It seemed like this one was doomed for that route when the Caps were whistled for two consecutive penalties that fall into the "shoot yourself in the foot" category in the second, with a too many men call immediately followed by a delay of game. And yet somehow the Caps killed it off... with a lot of help from their best penalty-killer between the pipes, Jaroslav Halak.
- Let any team get enough power-play chances, however, even one that's struggling with the extra man the way Anaheim has of late, and you're going to get burned - and that's exactly what happened. Jay Beagle headed to the box late in the second period, and remained there to start the third. One second away from his release, there was our old friend Mathieu Perreault with a seeing-eye shot to tie up the game. Not much Halak could do on the play, unless he suddenly developed X-ray vision to see through Patrick Maroon's giant form parked in front of him.
- At the beginning of the game, it was the Caps letting the Ducks snatch back momentum with a quick-strike goal; in the third, the roles were reversed, with a timely power play leading to an even more timely power-play goal to give the Caps back the lead. All it took was seven seconds of five-on-four work - because that's about how long it takes to get the puck around to Alex Ovechkin. And once the puck gets around to Alex Ovechkin, odds are it's going in the back of the net.
- That goal is obviously something we've seen from Ovechkin a lot this season (and every season), but a big reason for tonight's rendition was the beauty of a fake slapshot-pass executed to perfection by John Carlson. And it was just one of a number of great plays Carlson made tonight, as he was active at both ends of the ice - in a good way - and had a little extra jump in his step throughout.
- Even after all this time, 2010 looms large in our memories. So yeah, tonight it was nice to be on the other side of Jaroslav Halak frustrating the hell out of a Bruce Boudreau team. Say what you will about Adam Oates's handling of his goalies (and I could say quite a bit) but Halak has certainly given his team every chance to win the games, and tonight he came up big, with 43 saves on the night.
So one game is in the books on this tough road swing - and it's a win, a gritty, hard-fought one that had a little bit of everything. Nice to see the boys go into a tough arena, against a tough team, and do exactly what they needed to do to get the two points.
They'll need to remember how that feels, though, as they have a tougher task lying in wait for them on Thursday against the red-hot Kings.