The Washington Capitals entered this Sunday matinee still looking for their first win of the season against the Buffalo Sabres. The other night the Caps had their best game so far, forcing the New Jersey Devils to play for over 64 minutes before securing a win. The Caps have had 4 game slumps before and overcome them. 5 games isn't a lot, but another loss today would mean the Caps were winless in the first 10% of the 2013 NHL season. A great team effort, with strong goaltending and special teams, helped the Caps leave with their first win on the season, and a glimpse of what people thought this team could be.
Ten more notes on the game:
- John Carlson has had a tough start to the season, as everybody has noted. Things got worse when he turned the puck over in the neutral zone and the puck ended up in the net. Calle Johansson said the coaching staff was willing to live with a bad bounce, and didn't seem nearly as frustrated as the fan base. We're sure Carlson will take some more heat for that gaffe, but he also rebounded nicely and had a solid defensive performance after that, including some very good penalty killing.
- Joel Ward continues to score like it's the playoffs and is showing Caps fans why he got that handsome contract. There's no secret to his game, when he's effective, it's all hard work. He won't score at this clip all season, but it's nice to see the hard work guys get rewarded. And while the big guns are slumping, the Caps need all the scoring they can get.
- John Erskine's goal in the second period was a big goal. It was only the second time the Caps led all season, and when the team was able to hold the lead it gave them their first intermission lead of the season. It was also the first second period goal since opening night. Until today's game, the Caps had been outscored 8-2 in second periods. Erskine's goal gave the Caps a lead for longer tonight than they had for the rest of the season combined.
- The power play has created more discussion than scoring so far this season. An early observation is that when Mike Ribeiro quarterbacks the PP from the right wing half-wall, it sets up Ovechkin all the way across the formation. Passing through a penalty kill formation is not a high percentage play, and when you go all the way across the ice, or take two passes to get to Ovechkin, a smart goalie like Ryan Miller is going to read the play and get in position for the shot. That puts a high premium on moving the puck, and players moving their feet, to get Ovechkin quality shots. In the first period, Miller was square for the save. In the third period, Ovechkin blasted the puck into a half-open net.
- Mathieu Perreault got his wish and was back in the lineup tonight. While he wasn't necessarily bad enough to give a roster spot back to Marcus Johansson, he didn't exactly seize the opportunity, either. He had a couple nice offensive plays, but he was also a step behind Marcus Foligno when the Sabres scored their second goal. Perreault has a good offensive skill set, but he doesn't produce enough to be a defensive liability.
- Coming off a season in which Ovechkin was given 4th line minutes, Ovechkin played the last game and started this game with 4th line linemates. Part of that is on Ovechkin, but it can't be a coincidence that he started getting dangerous chances when he was reunited with Nick Backstrom. He had several high quality chances tonight, and if he does that every game the goals will continue to come.
- In the two days after I said goaltending has not been an advantage so far, Michal Neuvirth has put up back to back strong performances. We anticipate a seesaw battle in net over the course of this season, but for now Neuvirth has clearly taken control of the crease. If he can keep this play up it will give the skaters a little bit more margin for error as they continue to refine Adam Oates' systems.
- Protecting a two goal lead in the third period, the Caps went on to the penalty kill. Troy Brouwer had a wide open sheet of ice to clear the puck, and he put the puck into the Caps' bench. That's the kind of thing that can lead to a goal against, but after the ensuing faceoff Matt Hendricks had some incredible board work to protect the puck and then deftly pass the puck back through his legs to John Erskine for the clear. It was a small play, but it effectively killed the rest of the Sabres power play.
- Speaking of the PK, after an ugly start to the season the Caps have now killed 9 of the last 10 opposition power plays. The emergence of credible special teams has been a major factor in the Caps becoming more competitive.
- Nice job icing five players looking for the tying goal right out of a timeout, Buffalo.
The Caps finally win a game, and while it wasn't a perfect game by any means, it was easily the best game the team has put together this season. The power play has finally started looking dangerous, and team defense has kept the goals against under 4 in back to back games. It's a short season, but there is still plenty of hockey to be played. If this is a sign that the Caps are getting comfortable with the new systems and are able to build off of this win, the division is theirs for the taking. As always, what happens next is anybody's guess with this team.