Through the dust that was kicked up over the past 36 hours or so regarding a polarizing former Capital's return to D.C., one could make out a fairly important hockey game. The hosts trailed their division-leading guests (and eighth-place in the Conference) by six points as they readied for the first of five meetings on the season, emboldened by their resurgent captain, scintillating special teams and a big win over a good team, but knowing full well that their margin for error at both the micro and macro levels was minimal.
On this night, there were hardly any errors made at all, as the Caps put it all together in a 3-0 white-washing of the 'Canes.
Ten more notes on the game:
- The big story (as far as media puffery goes, at least) was the return of Alexander Semin to Washington. The Caps faithful greeted Semin with mixed reactions pre-game, and there were some boos when he touched the puck. But the uber-talented winger nearly silenced the building in the first few minutes with a clean shorthanded breakaway (the result of a mind-numbingly bad play by Mike Green at the top of the Carolina zone). Instead, Braden Holtby beat his former teammate and the crowd erupted. (And not to be outdone, Troy Brouwer had a pretty - but ultimately fruitless - shorthanded chance of his own on the first 'Canes power play.)
- A few minutes later, Alex Ovechkin drew yet another penalty (this one... on a backcheck?), and after a good zone-entry that afforded the Caps the opportunity to set-up that scorching-hot extra-man unit, Mike Ribeiro banked a puck off Nicklas Backstrom's stick in front. That makes 13 goals the two have been on the ice for together, and more than 75% of the Caps' goals this season being scored with at least one of the team's two top pivots on the ice.
- That opening tally also marked the eighth game-in-a-row that the Caps have struck first... something that by no means guaranteed (or even implied) a favorable result on its own, especially against a Carolina team that has struggled mightily in first periods so far this season and already has six wins when trailing first. Despite out-shooting the 'Canes 17-12, the Caps would take a 1-0 lead into the first intermission...
- ... which isn't as much cushion as they'd have liked, given that Carolina has outscored opponents 20-12 in second periods entering the game, and the Caps had been outscored 24-14 in those middle stanzas. The Caps, however, would push the play and their lead to 2-0 when John Carlson drove to the net without the puck on a rush, leaving a seam for Backstrom to find the trailer for a one-timer that beat Cam Ward. That trailer? Oh, just John Erskine, he of the new contract, who now finds himself just two goals shy of his single-season career high of four. Guess he couldn't let Backstrom have more goals than him for too long. teams are now 13-0-0 in the regular season when he scores a goal, and the Caps are 10-0-0 in those games. Put him on the power play!
- It was nearly 3-0 when a puck bounced off Joe Corvo, then Cam Ward and right to Joel Ward (no relation), who had a mostly-gaping net to shoot at... but managed to hit Cam Ward's glove. Or Cam Ward made a miraculous save. Or a little of both - I'll let you guys argue that one out.
- The second period ended with the Caps up 2-0, outshooting Carolina 31-20, with the Caps having taken another 23 shots that were blocked or missed the net, and Carolina having 24 of those. That means that in 40 minutes of hockey, there were 98 shots attempted, or one every 24 seconds or so. That's quite a pace, and one the Caps would want to slow down a bit in the third... and it would.
- With 8:31 left, John Carlson would provide an insurance tally on a one-timer off a cross-ice pass from Mathieu Perreault, a well-deserved reward for a great game played by a guy who's had an up-and-down season so far (Carlson, that is - it's been almost all "up" for Perreault). Gotta be the haircut, yeah?
- At that point, there was only one question remaining. The answer? A resounding yes - Holtby's second shutout of the season and the fifth of his career would be a 33-save blanking. Throw him back in there tomorrow night, yeah?
- Back to Backstrom, was this his best game of the season? He was everywhere, not just on the scoresheet. And in other "is he back?" news, Alex Ovechkin didn't register a shot on goal all night, but any slack he left was picked up by others - seven other Caps each had at least three shots on goal apiece, including seven from Jason Chimera and six each for Ward and Carlson. That's how it's supposed to work every now and again.
- The other day we noted that it wasn't just the power-play that was red-hot for the Caps, but the penalty-kill as well. On Tuesday night, they were three-for-six overall (one-for-four on the power play, including that last cheapy; two-for-two on the penalty kill), and won the special teams battle 1-0. That'll certainly work.
The Caps got a team effort in a game they needed and got the result they deserved. It's that simple... so why has it been so hard?
And so it's off to Philly with confidence and momentum, and they can ill-afford to lose either right now.