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The issue for the Caps this season hasn't been playing a solid game now and then - we've seen it and know it's possible, which is why the frustration is so palpable when they follow good, strong performances with games that would make men's league players squirm with embarrassment.
We're much less accustomed to them doing so on any consistent basis... hence their current predicament, a bubble team with twenty games to go. Add in their struggles on the road (10-18-3), their record in the second of back-to-back games (2-6-1) and their current position as far as playoffs go, and yes, the Caps came into Toronto with plenty to gain, plenty to lose and plenty to prove.
Tonight was a step in the right direction, as they took two very important points from Toronto and did so in good, team-win fashion. Two good games against slumping opponents do not a consistent team make... but it's certainly a good start.
Ten more notes on the game:
- Only twice this year have the Caps won the second of back-to-back games coming into tonight; before this weekend, only one of those wins followed another win. It's not a pleasant stat, particularly considering that the Caps certainly aren't done with back-to-backs, but at least this weekend improved those numbers a bit as the Caps go two for two.
- How important was it for these two teams to get off to a good start? Both have struggled with doing so, with Toronto falling into 2-0 holes in two straight games, but when they start well they generally end well. Before tonight the Caps were 15-1-1 when leading after one with the League's second-best win percentage in that category, while Toronto was third with a record of 19-3-0. And it all started with Marcus Johansson scoring a wraparound goal early - like thirty-two seconds early - to give the Caps a lead against a sluggish Leafs team (and kick off one of Johansson's better performances in recent memory).
- Not to be outdone, just moments later Alexander Semin continued his hot streak (and kicked off a good game of his own) by stealing the puck right out from under Luke Schenn's stick and beating James Reimer to give the Caps a surprising two-goal cushion before the game was five minutes old. Winning on the road often hinges on taking the hometown crowd out of it early, and the Caps not only succeeded in doing this but even turned the Toronto fans against their own team and goalie.
- One of the problems with the current system in place for the Caps has been their overly defensive posture to protect a lead (i.e. sitting back when they manage to jump out in front). For awhile early in the second, it seemed like this was going to be the gameplan once again. At about the halfway mark of the period, however, the Caps began to take back what little momentum the Leafs had snatched, putting the pressure on in Toronto's zone for a good two to three minutes straight. It may not have led to any goals (or power plays) but it did create plenty of shots, scoring chances and energy and was darn fun to watch.
- Case in point: it was followed by a hard-working fourth line shift, some slick moves at the blueline by Dmitri Orlov to evade Phil Kessel, a good scoring chance and a juicy rebound goal for Jeff Halpern, who was parked in front of the net and perfectly positioned to capitalize. Not only would it become the eventual game-winner, but it was also Halpern's first goal in 32 games.
- Another spotless performance for the penalty killers tonight, as they took care of business on four shorthanded situations and allowed just five shots on goal over that span, all of which were turned aside by Michal Neuvirth. Granted, the Toronto power play tonight looked about as toothless as Montreal's last night (and the Caps' power play on any given night), but still.
- Neuvy's performance tonight was another good one for a guy who has battled, like his team, to find some consistency. After getting passed over for back-to-back duty the last time it popped up on the schedule, credit to Dale Hunter for riding the hot hand who was so effective last night and trusting him to do it again. Much, much more credit to Neuvirth for using his benching and some criticism by his coach as fuel for some great performances, including a hell of a glove save in the second period. Goalie controversy?! (Spoiler alert: No.)
- At first glance a line of Johansson, Alex Ovechkin and Keith Aucoin would seem a little strange - after all, it's not apparent whether it's a demotion for Ovechkin or a promotion for Aucoin or perhaps just the last three names who didn't have linemates. The trio was very good, though, and cashed in with the team's fourth and final goal of the night after a beautiful passing play up ice set up a tap-in for Aucoin. Congrats to the little guy, by the way, as he gets his first NHL goal in almost three years.
- Dave Steckel somehow has managed two shorthanded breakaways against his former team this year; thankfully tonight he didn't cash in (and if you watch it on fast-forward he looks almost as fast as a normal player). Not something you want to see too often, and judging by Neuvirth's reaction afterward it's not something he was exactly thrilled with, either.
- Another thing he probably wasn't too thrilled with? Running into Dennis Wideman in his crease, falling down as a result of the collision and then being unable to get up because of Wideman's ongoing presence - leading to a goal banked in by Tim Connolly (in a rare non-IR game for him).
Two games, four points, a win on the road and eight goals scored - it doesn't get much better than that. And all you have to do is look at the standings, the results from today's games and how tight things are to see just how important it was that the Caps squeeze every possible point out of this weekend. They may still find themselves outside looking in, but they now trail both Winnipeg and Florida by just one point (with games in hand on the Jets) and put a bit of a gap between themselves and the teams behind them.
At this point that's all they can do - take care of their own business and hope that the rest falls into place.