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The last time Michal Neuvirth stepped into the net at Tampa Bay Times Forum was over a year ago, as he took the loss in the final game of the Caps' 2010-11 season. But with Tomas Vokoun still ailing, Neuvirth had a chance to bring the swagger from a very solid shootout win a few nights ago into the building that was the scene of so much pain last spring.
It was a game that his team badly needed in order to expand their lead over Buffalo, to perhaps keep themselves in the running for the Southeast crown. And it was a game that, facing one of the League's better snipers in Steven Stamkos, seemingly would require his very best.
Unfortunately he didn't have that tonight, nor did the team in front of him, as the Caps turned a sleepy start into a frantic middle and a depressing end - and now have to hope for some help once more.
Nine more notes on the game:
- Going to the box early and often is hardly a good game plan for a road team desperate for points, but that's exactly what the Caps seemed to want to do as Hendricks found himself in the sin bin. It didn't result in a power play strike by Tampa (that fun would come later) but it wasn't a good penalty to take regardless. Although one questions how easily a guy falls down who is as big and strong as Victor Hedman...thankfully he shook off the trauma of his massive tumble in time to high stick Marcus Johansson in the face (with no call). The refs weren't the only reason the Caps lost this game, but it's blown calls like that which can make us invest in tin foil.
- Often times we've seen Brooks Laich block a shot, wince a little and keep on trucking; the shot he took off the heel of his boot did not look like it would be one of those "I can still play" shots. But there he was, back out on the ice after a momentary trip to the locker room. And he's not the only one, a few Caps made their way gingerly back to the bench and/or the locker room after absorbing a shot only to return moments later, apparently none the worse for wear. Always amazing.
- Letting any goalie see every shot probably won't result in much offense, and for most of the first half of the game (and large portions of the second half) the Caps simply gave Dwayne Roloson too much time and space and visibility. Roloson's been a sieve this year but he's been in the NHL for upwards of a century - give or take a year - and is likely going to stop the ones he can see. Far too many shots coming from the outside by the Caps.
- Even when they got a guy in front, though, it seemed like they simply lacked the ability to finish - a fact which was most frustratingly demonstrated by a play that found Alexander Semin all alone with all the time in the world and the puck on his stick. In a surprisingly smart and patient move he got the puck from his backhand to his forehand, corraled it towards the net, and clanked it off the outside of the post. That one stung for a few seconds...
- ...and was almost immediately followed by a laser of a goal off the faceoff by Semin himself. Redemption can come at the sweetest of times, and you could tell 28 wanted that one bad. Major kudos to Mathieu Perreault for the faceoff win to set up the play, taking advantage of a rare defensive zone start by Vincent Lecavalier .
- For a brief window of time it felt like that one goal might be enough, might be able to hold up in a game that, until that point, had been a sleepy stalemate with few chances on either side. Unfortunately that window slammed shut in the span of twenty-five seconds. First the Caps went shorthanded for the fourth time on the night and found out what happens when you play with fire, surrendering a power play marker to Teddy Purcell; it was almost immediately followed by a deflected shot in front of a screened Neuvirth (who didn't look all that great on either goal) - and just like that it was a one-goal game the other way.
- Sometimes a big save can fuel momentum, and it certainly felt like the bizarrely spectacular glove save by Roloson on Mike Green - who is probably still looking up to the heavens wondering what happened - was one of those saves. At least he was forced to make the save because someone shot the puck, though... yeah, we're looking at you, Troy Brouwer.
- Good things happen to those who go to the net, and it was that mantra that led to the game-tying goal with just three minutes remaining. Green looked positively Green-esque as he carried the puck through the neutral zone, broke through the swampy neutral zone and got the puck on net; all it took then was Jason Chimera camped out in the crease to tap in the easy empty-netter and it looked like the Caps would manage at least a Florida point out of this one.
- Oh, but this is Caps hockey, and nothing is ever easy or lacking in drama - because after a quiet night in general it was, of course, Steven Stamkos who made Dennis Wideman look ridiculous and gave the Bolts yet another one-goal lead with just a minute left in regulation. Naturally he would pad his stats with the empty-netter, as well, and that was the ball game.
This was one of those games where the mental mistakes would add up - where the turnover by one player would lead to the bad penalty by another player which would lead to a goal, where a goalie would think he had the puck only to see it trickle in behind him and another goalie on his last legs would make stops that reminded us all of how he used to own this team (and perhaps still does).
And it was a game that the Caps sorely needed, if only to give themselves a little peace of mind heading into the final two contests. But it appears that the path to the playoffs won't be easy and the Caps now become the biggest fans of Toronto and Winnipeg that you've ever seen.
Because not getting the job done yourself means that all you can do is sit, wait, and hope for the best.