1. One month was all it took. The Capitals were 10 points behind the Carolina Hurricanes on March 14. They overcame a 2-0 deficit during a game in Raleigh that likely would have ended their season. Instead, a dramatic victory catapulted Washington to a 12-3-1 stretch that has it on the verge of a division title. The opposite happened for the Hurricanes, who are an incredible 1-13-1 since that date, an epic collapse that has destroyed a once-promising season.
In 28 days the standings have swung 22 points in the Caps favor. That is an incredible turnaround. But it still isn’t over yet. The Winnipeg Jets continue to hang around with a sponge soft schedule at home against the worst teams the Eastern Conference has to offer. The Jets won for the third game in a row on Thursday, have outscored Philadelphia, Buffalo and Florida by 15-4 and have three more coming with only the New York Islanders in a playoff position. Still – the lead is two points with the game in hand for the Caps coming Saturday at home against Tampa Bay. Win that one and they are in good shape. Lose it? Then things get interesting. But the players aren’t worried about that for now.
“I honestly don’t care about the Jets,” Washington goalie Braden Holtby said. “If we do what we need to do, win games when we need to and keep the streak going, that’s not going to matter.”
2. Having said that – the Caps kind of dodged a bullet here. The Hurricanes dominated the first 15 minutes of Thursday’s game. Play like that against Tampa Bay on Saturday and that game in hand will go away with nothing to show for it. Thank Holtby for his play. It wasn’t exactly pretty at times, but he managed to keep it at 1-0 Carolina. At one point Washington was being outshot 14-0.
“Huge. Huge. I remember looking up at the scoreboard and the shots were outrageous and we had nothing,” defenseman Mike Green said of his goalie. “He was outstanding throughout the whole game, I mean even the last five, 10 minutes of the game he made some big saves that should’ve been goals.”
Holtby finished with 43 saves, a career-best in the regular season. Michal Neuvirth may have gotten two starts from coach Adam Oates this week to make him feel more a part of things – and, more importantly, to be prepared in case Holtby goes down with an injury. But there’s no question whose net it is. Holtby was brilliant. And his team needed that early. Credit to defenseman John Carlson, too, who was there with 53 seconds left in the first period when a slap shot by defenseman Jay Harrison off a Carolina faceoff win trickled through Holtby’s pads.
“The more shots he gets, the better he is and the bigger the game the better he plays,” Green said. “He’s been outstanding.”
3. Washington’s power play is No. 1 in the NHL right now (25 percent) for good reason. The options are impressive. Alex Ovechkin has 14 power play goals in just 41 games. Teams know this. The Hurricanes sagged on Ovechkin during a 5-on-4 in the second period. Nicklas Backstrom pushed the puck to Troy Brouwer inside the right faceoff circle. He quickly got it to Mike Ribeiro down at the goal line and Carolina forward Eric Staal freaked out and immediately cut towards Ovechkin to take away the backdoor pass.
He had reason to be worried. But teammate Tim Gleason also skated backwards towards Ovechkin. Defenseman Justin Faulk put pressure on Ribeiro – but not enough. Alex Semin failed in the same way with Brouwer. Instead, Ribeiro used Ovechkin against the Hurricanes and slipped a pass to the unmarked Brouwer for a one-timer and a critical goal that tied the game at 1-1.
“We kind of pieced them apart right there,” Oates said. “[Ribeiro] made a nice decision and he’s got options and he picked [Brouwer] and obviously he was in a good position. You know, that’s their job. They’re our quarterbacks over there. [Backstrom is] a half-wall guy and then Ribs and Greenie – their job is to find the options and create them.”
Added Backstrom: “Obviously, we don’t have only one option on power play. I mean, it’s been working with Ovi on the backdoor, but we got a couple different looks and it was good for our power play that we scored tonight and got our confidence back.”
4. Green scored just 2:38 after Brouwer’s game-tying goal. It was a thing of beauty as he deked around overmatched forward Jeff Skinner and fired a shot over the shoulder of goalie Justin Peters. But the credit can’t stop there, apparently.
“Nah, Greenie gets a lot of goals. I’m gonna give all the compliments to my linemates – [Wojtek] Wolski and [Jay] Beagle,” a laughing Matt Hendricks said. “Wolski made a great chip for Jay, Jay was able to keep his speed going to the corner and get it. I think everybody thought he was gonna pass it to [Karl] Alzner coming down the slot and he made the other choice and went far side to Green. And as a defender it’s hard to get back in your position.”
And one more: Ovechkin failed to record a point for the first time in four games. But he played a big role on Green’s goal just by occupying space to the right of Peters. It wasn’t quite a screen, but his presence gave Green options. He simply chose to employ his wicked wrister instead of a pass for a possible deflection. It worked to perfection.
“I think he’s in a great position there,” Oates said of Ovechkin. “He occupies guys and the goalie’s worried about him, and if he is, then a great play by Mike.”
5. The second line has been relatively quiet lately. Brouwer hadn’t recorded a point in the previous five games or a goal in six. That changed with his two goals on Thursday. Ribeiro over the previous eight games had just a goal and three assists. It hasn’t helped at all that both Brooks Laich and Martin Erat are out with injuries and left wing on that line is again a roving collection of grinders. On Thursday Oates turned to Aaron Volpatti, figuring he could at least use his size and strength to get the puck for his more skilled linemates. He at least played 14:45 and had a shot on goal and two hits, but Volpatti certainly isn’t a long-term solution there.
Oates is hopeful Erat can play on Saturday against Tampa Bay. But at least Ribeiro, who recorded that power-play assist, and Brouwer can go into it with some renewed confidence. Brouwer now has 15 goals, second-most on the team behind Ovechkin (26). Ribeiro has 27 assists and 39 points, third on the team in both categories.
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