There's no question about it - the Caps are clinging to their playoff hopes by the skin of their teeth. Their margin for error is razor thin. There is no room for mistakes, no space for a loss of any kind. And even if they win out, they need to hope someone else falls apart ahead of them (a hope that faded even more tonight with wins by all three teams ahead of them).
All that aside, however, the focus had to be on the task that lay directly ahead of them, with a very tough St. Louis team looking to knock the Caps out for good. Facing the best of the West, the Caps brought what was their very best - and got a milestone for their captain - en route to an impressive, crucial win.
Ten more notes on the game:
- The Caps are pretty well-known as a team that has struggled in their own zone... to put it mildly. You wouldn't have known it at the beginning of this game, though, as the Caps held the Blues to just a single shot on goal through the opening ten minutes.
- There are few metaphors more fitting for this Caps' team than the sheer number of times they've collided with each other - they just can't seem to get out of their own way, literally and figuratively. That was true yet again tonight, when Troy Brouwer and Marcus Johansson collided near the Caps' bench in a scary moment that saw them both shaken up for a bit. Both would return and appear to be no worse for wear...but maybe next year we can teach them not to hit the guys who are wearing the same jersey as they are.
- With Alex Ovechkin scoring goal #49 the other night, it seemed like it would be only a matter of time before the captain picked up the big 5-0 - and he didn't make us wait long, picking up his fifth 50-goal season of his career with (what else?) a power-play goal late in the first period. A beauty of a shot from his typical Ovi spot that just rifled past Ryan Miller puts him in some fine company, and kicked off what was a nice night for the captain, with a couple of assists for good measure.
- That lead would hold for the remainder of the first, but it wouldn't make it too far into the second before the Blues struck right back. It started with a poor attempt at clearing the zone by Brouwer, a weak little pass up the boards that was easily picked off by Steve Ott. Ott fired the puck on net, Braden Holtby gave up a juicy rebound, and there was Maxim Lapierre waiting to pounce. Not only was it a pretty disastrous play all around by the Caps, but a goal by Lapierre from Ott has to be up there as the pest-iest goal ever scored.
- A few minutes later, it looked like things were about to get worse, as Evgeny Kuznetsov took a delayed penalty for hooking, and on the ensuing delayed call, threw a stick to Karl Alzner to replace his busted twig, taking another minor, because... well, you're really not supposed to throw sticks, cool-looking play or not. But hey, if you're going to take your first penalty in the NHL, you might as well make it memorable, amirite?
- Thankfully for the Caps, they were able to survive the ridiculous stretch that saw them penned in on the delayed call(s) to Kuznetsov, a good minute or two where they were simply running around trying to clear the puck with little success. Thankfully for the Caps, they were able to eventually stop play when the Blues put the puck into the netting. And thankfully for the Caps, they were able to kill off both minors - with a little help from the Blues taking a penalty of their own to negate some of the power play.
- That turned out to be a pretty crucial mistake for St. Louis, as it put the teams at four-on-four for two minutes. Mikhail Grabovski took advantage of the extra space on the ice, using it to wheel through the neutral zone, into the offensive zone and around the circles before finally calling his own number. The shot he put past Miller was a filthy one, and would eventually go down as the game-winner.
- It wouldn't be the last of the Caps' offense, however, as Nicklas Backstrom got into the act with a pretty nifty goal of his own. Ovechkin drew a defender to him before placing a pass perfectly on Backstrom's stick, who was able to find a seam up the middle of the ice and fired an un-Backstrom-like shot past Miller. Nice pass from Ovechkin, nice shot by Backstrom.
- That wasn't the end of the night for Backstrom, either, as he took a beautiful cross-ice pass from Ovechkin on the power play to give the Caps a 4-1 cushion very early in the third period. Nice pass from Ovechkin, nice shot by Backs-...oh, wait, we said that already. Hell of a night all around for Backstrom, who is suddenly scoring goals like that 50-goal guy he's been saddled with all these years.
- The Caps did a decent job of limiting shots, but for all the ones that got through, Braden Holtby was there to make the save. All told, he turned aside 28 of the 29 shots he faced on the night and was incredibly solid. Good thing Adam Oates made sure to cover his rear and remind everyone that it wasn't his decision to play Holtby over Jaroslav Halak, right?
It's hard to watch a game like this, where the Caps come up with a gritty effort against a good team, and not be a little bit frustrated. Tonight they got timely scoring, effective special teams, decent defense and strong goaltending. The forward lines, at least, didn't appear to be cobbled together by a blind man. In a vacuum, these are all good things. But considering where the Caps sit in terms of standings and schedule, it almost would have been more palatable if they'd just fallen apart tonight. Because after a game like that, we're reminded of what could have been... and what probably won't be this year.