When the Caps jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the middle of the first period of Saturday night's game in Columbus, one could fairly have assumed that the next goal would be big. Push the lead to three and the Jackets - already eliminated from playoff contention - would likely pack it in; let the hosts halve the difference and it would be a game again.
So when Mike Green's 5-on-3 blast put the Caps up three, it was hardly a surprise to see one team more or less check out for the rest of the game. What was surprising, however, was that that team was the Caps, who immediately after grabbing that big lead surrendered a shorthanded goal to a Columbus penalty kill that hounded them all night and then had to hold on as the Jackets fought until the final buzzer before simply running out of time.
But when the guy who writes the checks comes right out and refers to these last handful of matches as "exhibition games," it's hard to get too worked up about the Caps coming out, taking care of business early, and then holding on for a franchise-best 51st win of the season. Killer instinct? Let's hope it's there when it needs to be.
Ten more notes on the game:
- A few Caps were engaged and quite good for the full sixty minutes (including Mike Green, Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin), but none were as locked in as Jose Theodore. Coming off a couple of rough starts in a row, Theodore was superb, stopping 34 shots (27 after the first period) and getting a well-deserved First Star of the game.
- When the Caps got a first-period 5-on-3 (and actually scored on it - their first goal with a two-man advantage in their last six opportunities), you knew that Columbus would get their own chance up two men later in the game. What you didn't know is that the Caps would kill it - all 1:23 of it - thanks in large part to a pair of Eric Belanger faceoff wins in his own end. Huge.
Tomas Fleischmann was back at center, scored a goal and won 75% of his eight draws on the night. Can't ask for much more from him than that, but it's still a "Plan B"... right?
- If Tom Poti and Tyler Sloan as a defensive pairing didn't sound like a disaster waiting to happen pre-game, it certainly proved to be one in-game. The duo repeatedly backed in rather than challenging Blue Jacket forwards, and got caught chasing the puck on the second C'bus goal. And yet, if Tyler Sloan might be in the mix for playoff ice time (by necessity, not choice), he needs some minutes down the stretch rather than being thrown, ice cold, into a game that actually matters.
- Speaking of bad defense, Columbus's first goal (the shortie) was technically a 2-on-1, but the way Joe Corvo played it, it might as well have been a 2-on-0. Make the right play or make the wrong play, but at least make a play. That said, Corvo and Shaone Morrisonn were a very solid pairing at even strength on the night (as Pepper predicted on the ol' radio show this morning).
- Apparently R.J. Umberger isn't impressed with the Caps, and I'm pretty sure the feeling's mutual. By the way, did he play tonight? In any event, R.J. will have plenty of free time to watch the Caps in a week or so and maybe he'll change his mind.
- As for the Caps' power-play, it was 0-for-5 in 9:19 of 5-on-4 time. Not good.
- It's not often that the Caps will win 59% of a game's faceoffs and David Steckel will win just 30% of his draws, but that's what happened tonight. Belanger's 11-of-15 led the way.
- Alex Ovechkin had yet another off night, finishing with no points, just two shots on goal (another eight that didn't make it on net) and a minus-two rating. He continues to carry the puck a bit too much for my liking, but if there's one number that should calm the nerves of Caps fans a bit, that number is one, as in the number of hits AO had on the game. When he's hitting everything that moves (or at least registering more hits than Jeff Schultz) and still struggling, let me know and we can panic together.
- Finally, on a housekeeping note, the conditions on the Milan Jurcina trade are as follows: if Juice plays five games (regular season or playoffs), the Jackets get the Caps' sixth-round pick in this year's draft. With Jurcina expected back late in the second round, here's hoping the Caps have to surrender that pick.
And so the Caps wrap up their season against the Western Conference... or at least the regular season portion of it.