From Road Worriers To Road Warriors – A week ago, the Caps downed the Buffalo Sabres by a 5-3 count in one of just two home games they’ll play over a span of 22 days. Then they looked ahead to what some referred to as a season-defining road trip, a journey they knew could make or break their season.
With Sunday’s 3-2 shootout win over the New York Rangers, the Caps ended the trip with three straight wins and they claimed six of a possible eight points along the way. Washington positioned itself for a run at the playoffs, but it must still play three of its next four games away from the friendly confines of Verizon Center.
“Absolutely crucial,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich of his team’s recent performance. “It started in Winnipeg. And now I think the standard is set that nothing less than a win is acceptable.
“We can feel it in here. We’re starting to find a groove and starting to find our game and growing with confidence. Players are figuring out their roles on the team. We feel really good right now and if we stick with it and stay healthy, we’re going to be a very dangerous team.”
After the two teams played a sleepy first seven minutes in Sunday’s game, the Caps took control of the contest. Washington’s fourth line of Matt Hendricks, Jay Beagle and Joel Ward continued its run of solid play with a solid offensive zone shift that sandwiched the game’s first television timeout.
Ward drew a holding call on New York defenseman Anton Stralman to put Washington on the power play, and the Caps cashed in when Alex Ovechkin’s shot from the left dot bounded around in front and went in off Caps center Nicklas Backstrom.
“I thought I was playing soccer there for a bit,” jokes Backstrom. “It was a good header there. It hit my visor, I think. So it was good.”
Washington quickly added to its lead less than two minutes later when Ovechkin deflected Steve Oleksy’s center point shot past New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist to make it 2-0.
The Caps were buzzing for more late in the period, but instead they got caught deep in the New York end and Rangers forward Kris Newbury chipped a loose puck to neutral ice, creating a 2-on-1 for the Rangers with Arron Asham carrying. Asham elected to shoot, and his shot beat Caps goalie high to the glove side to halve Washington’s advantage.
New York’s fourth line tipped the scales again late in the first frame, drawing an interference call on Caps winger Jason Chimera. Less than 30 seconds later, the advantage became a 5-on-3 when Caps blueliner Karl Alzner went off for slashing.
With five forwards on the ice, New York won the draw and scored seven seconds later when Derek Stepan’s shot from along the goal line on the left side bounced in off Holtby.
The two teams had combined to score four times in a span of 10 minutes and 9 seconds, and they traded their fair share of chances the rest of the way. But Holtby and Lundqvist held the fort over the final 46: 57, including overtime. The Caps took the extra point when they won their first shootout in 32 games this season.
“If we don’t get a point tonight – we end up with two – but if we don’t get anything,” says Hendricks, “we look at this road trip as a 50/50 split. So to get tonight’s win is huge. We played a good game in Pittsburgh, great games in Winnipeg and then tonight was a great hockey game. We made a mistake on their first goal, and the 5-on-3 is hard to defend. They snuck one by us. It was a great hockey game back and forth by both teams, give them a lot of credit because they battled back.”
The win raised the Caps’ road mark to 7-9-1 on the season and it was Washington’s first road victory over an opponent outside the Southeast Division this season. The Caps are now 1-8-1 in road games against non-Southeast teams this season.
“Overall, pretty good,” says Caps coach Adam Oates of his team’s road trip. “I thought we played a lot of good hockey on the trip. I thought we had a great game in Pitt; didn’t get the win. Two good games in Winnipeg and tonight, obviously a great start to the game. We leaked a little oil at times, but we kind of managed the game throughout and won on a shootout, our first one.”
“I think it was big for us,” says Backstrom. “It was a big week for us. It’s not just that we got six of eight points. We played better as a team. I think that’s what you have to do if you’re going to fight for a playoff spot. You’ve just got to keep going here. You’ve got to keep working for 60 minutes every game. Hopefully you get success.”
Forward March – When Backstrom scored Washington’s first goal of the night at 7:54 of the first, it marked the first goal a Capitals forward had scored against New York in a span of 216 minutes and 55 seconds. That drought stretched back to the middle of the second period of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the two teams last spring, when Caps Chimera netted what would prove to be the game-winning tally in a 2-1 Washington win.
Between Chimera’s goal last May 9 and Backstrom’s goal tonight, the Caps had scored just three goals – all of them off the sticks of defensemen – in more than three games against the Blueshirts.
Just 111 seconds after Backstrom’s goal, the Caps got another goal from a forward against New York when Ovechkin netted his 16th of the season.
Five-on-Three Disparity – The Capitals had a 5-on-3 power play of their own in the second period, one that spanned 1:42. Backstrom won the ensuing offensive zone face-off, and the Caps maintained possession in the New York zone for the lion’s share of those 102 seconds, but couldn’t convert.
Washington had one shot on net, one that missed and one that was blocked during its 5-on-3.
“Obviously you want to [score],” laments Oates. “It was frustrating because it was a long one and we didn’t really even get enough good looks, quite honestly. But it was good that afterwards – like Pittsburgh when we had that four-minute power play – all of a sudden they didn’t come down and score. The crowd was crazy, [the Rangers] killed a big penalty, and we didn’t let it break us down. We went right back to work in five-on-five, [played] good hockey.”
Washington has scored one goal in six 5-on-3 opportunities totaling 5:57 this season. Including Stepan’s 5-on-3 marker, the Caps have surrendered six 5-on-3 goals in eight opportunities totaling 7:40 in duration.
Sunday’s game marked the first time this season that Washington won a game in which it allowed a 5-on-3 goal.
Carry Fourth – Both teams' fourth lines had an impact on the outcome of Sunday’s game. New York’s fourth line scored the Rangers’ first goal and drew the first penalty that led to its 5-on-3 power play on which it tied the game.
Washington’s fourth line drew the penalty that led to the Caps getting an early 1-0 lead on a power play goal, and the Caps’ fourth unit logged more and more ice time as the game wore on, and it continued to be a dominant factor in the offensive zone.
“I thought they played really, really well,” says Oates of his team’s fourth line. “Beags’ line really gives a lot of energy, a lot of good momentum shifts and had great jump all night long.”
Each member of the Caps’ fourth line skated at least 15 minutes in the game. The trio combined to account for nine of Washington’s 27 hits on the night and it generated a dozen shot attempts.
Three From The Road – Washington’s three-game road winning streak is the team’s longest since it won three straight on the road from Feb. 25-March 13, 2012. Those three wins were part of three separate trips, solo journeys to Toronto and Boston followed by a win on Long Island that opened a five-game road run.
The Caps have won three straight games on the same trip for the first time since March 21-29, 2008 when they won four straight on the road to finish out a six-game journey.
“We want to be a strong home team obviously,” says Laich, “but if you are going to be one of the top teams in the league you’ve got to get it done on the road.
“They’re tough games and we played tough opponents that were sitting there waiting for us but our group has got a lot of character. A lot of preparation went into the games. I think we’re very well coached and had very good game plans going in. When we stick to it, we make short passes and use our team game to take away teams’ will. We get some good goaltending and special teams helps, too.”
Deuces Wild – For the third straight game, the Caps opened up a 2-0 lead in the first period on Sunday against the Rangers. For the first time in those three games, they gave that lead up, surrendering two goals late in the first frame to enable the Rangers to draw even.
Marching On – Speaking of good goaltending, Holtby is now 7-3 in his 10 starts in the month of March this season. He has two shutouts, a 1.88 GAA and a .940 save pct. this month.
Lifetime in the month of March, Holtby is 15-4-1 with five shutouts, a 1.64 GAA and a .945 save pct. More than half of his career shutouts (five of seven) and his career victories (15 of 27) have come in March.
Streaking – Ovechkin has scored a goal in five straight games (six goals). The streak is his longest since this time last year; he scored seven goals over a five-game stretch from March 18-25, 2012.
Ovechkin now has three consecutive multiple-point games, and he has totaled nine points (six goals, three assists) in his last five games. He is tied for 17th in the NHL in scoring with 31 points and his 16 goals are tied for sixth in the league.
Ovechkin is tied for the league lead with 136 shots on net, and he has attempted seven or more shots in each of his last seven games.
“The confidence is growing right now," says Ovechkin, speaking of himself and his team. "It started from the coaching staff and goes through everybody; the trainers, the players have more confidence. When you have confidence you can play much better. You can control the puck better, make moves, make decisions better. So it’s always nice when you have that kind of confidence.”
Power Source – New York entered the game with the league’s 26th ranked power play with an efficiency rate of 13.8%. Playing in their 31st game of the season, the Rangers notched just their 14th power play goal of the season when Stepan struck at 18:03 of the first.
Three of those 14 Rangers power play goals this season have come at Washington’s expense. New York went 3-for-9 (33.3%) on the power play against the Capitals this season.
Stepan has three power play goals on the season, both against the Capitals. One was a game-winner (on Feb. 17) and the other tied the score in Sunday night’s tilt.
Down On The Farm – The AHL Hershey Bears pulled three of a possible six points out of a rugged weekend in which they played three games in as many days on the road. After a shootout loss in Connecticut on Friday and a difficult regulation loss in Manchester on Saturday, the Bears salvaged the weekend with a 4-1 win over the Sharks in Worcester on Sunday.
Patrick McNeill, Matt Pope, Casey Wellman and Garrett Mitchell scored to support the 32-save efforts of Dany Sabourin in the Hershey nets. McNeill and fellow blueliner Chay Genoway each recorded two points in the game, and Genoway and Ryan Stoa each finished at plus-3 on the afternoon.
Joey Crabb – playing in his first game with Hershey after clearing waivers on Saturday afternoon – picked up an assist on McNeill’s goal. Crabb had seven goals and 15 points in nine AHL games with the Toronto Marlies in his most recent stint at that level, early in the 2011-12 season.
The 31-25-3-6 Bears are tied for seventh place in the AHL’s Eastern Conference standings. Hershey is four points away from fifth place and just six points clear of 13th place in the competitive chase for positioning for the Calder Cup playoffs.
Hershey visits Albany on Friday before returning home on Saturday to host the Providence Bruins at Giant Center. Only three of Hershey’s remaining 11 regular season games will be played on home ice.
Down a level, the ECHL Reading Royals also spent the weekend as road warriors. Reading won 3-1 decisions in Evansville on Friday and Toledo on Saturday, and then claimed a third road triumph in as many nights on Sunday when they shaved Toledo again, 2-0.
Stanislav Galiev and Kirk McDonald supplied the offense and Riley Gill made 30 saves in the Reading nets to earn the shutout.
With just two games remaining on the 2012-13 regular season slate, the 46-18-3-3 Royals have clinched the top spot in the ECHL’s Eastern Conference standings.
The Royals will host Trenton on Thursday and Elmira on Saturday as they prepare for the upcoming Kelly Cup playoffs.
By The Numbers – John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 26:26 and in blocked shots with four … Ovechkin led the Caps with five shots on net … New York blocked nearly as many shots (23) as Washington put on net (24) … Ovechkin and Beagle led the way for Washington with five hits each … Hendricks won four of his five draws (80%) … Ryan Callahan led the Rangers with nine shots on goal and he and Brian Boyle led New York with six hits each … The Caps had 65 shot attempts to 55 for the Rangers.