Caps 2, Islanders 1 (Shootout): Five Observations

Loose Pucks,Sports,Brian McNally

1. The Caps just rode the Southeast Elevator from 11th place to third place in the Eastern Conference. Man – they’re gonna miss this place when they turn the lights out. Dumpy records from their division rivals gave Washington a chance to shake off its 2-8-1 start. In the Atlantic or Northeast Divisions the Caps probably would have been buried. In the Southeast? They might just pull a three seed. Enjoy it while you can because next year they merge back into the unforgiving Atlantic with all the old rivals under the NHL’s new realignment plan.

“It is tough to stay positive when you’re 2-8-1 and looking towards a short season where Carolina was kind of pulling away at the time,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “So everything has kind of balanced itself out because of the shortened season and because everyone plays each other so many times. We’re in a good position right now, but it’s not over. We still have seven or eight more divisional games, which there could a lot of movement within the division.”

The Caps are 16-9-1 since that awful start. On March 13 they were actually 10 points behind Carolina for the Southeast Division lead and the next day found themselves down 2-0 in a game in Raleigh. They rallied to win that night and are 8-3-1 since. The injury-riddled Hurricanes, meanwhile, are an abysmal 1-9-1, including a 5-0 blowout loss at home to Tampa Bay on Thursday.

2. Looked like a puck caught Caps forward Brooks Laich in a…um…sensitive area just 42 seconds into the second period. He was in enough pain that he had to crawl to the bench, eventually made his way down the tunnel, but returned to the game about four minutes later. Unfortunately, he also couldn’t play the final 9:26 with an undisclosed injury unrelated to that original one, according to Caps coach Adam Oates.

“The first time was a little shot in the pills. That’s not fun for anybody,” teammate Brouwer joked.

At the suggestion of trainer Greg Smith, Oates held Laich out. There are two more games this weekend, after all, against Florida on the road and Tampa Bay at home. Laich missed the first 28 games of the season with a groin injury. No word on if there was a relapse there. Neither Oates or Laich were discussing specifics.

[Laich is] kind of aching all over,” Oates said. “He’s really crammed a lot of hockey into a short span of time, and he looked a little sore all over.

Washington is off on Friday so there’s no media availability until Saturday’s morning skate in Sunrise, Fla. We’ll know more then.

3. New trade acquisition Martin Erat woke up early in Nashville on Thursday morning, boarded a flight to Washington and was on the ice with his teammates by 10 a.m. at Kettler Iceplex. That made for a long day so it was probably a bit much to expect the Ryane Clowe treatment – two goals and an assist in his first game with the New York Rangers this week.

Erat played on the third line with Mathieu Perreault and former Nashville teammate Joel Ward. That helped ease him into Oates’ system – even though the Predators employ some of the same tactics. Erat played 14:43 with just over a minute on the power play, but no time shorthanded. He was credited with three hits, but didn’t register a shot on goal. He did create a quality scoring chance 6:10 into the game when he spun and slipped a pass through the crease that Perreault just missed tapping home for a goal.

“You can see, obviously, his skills. He really helped us in the cycle. He’s a smart guy – you can tell,” Oates said. “I thought he did a great job. Getting traded is not always easy. He played on a franchise for a long time and all of a sudden you’ve got to go out the door and say goodbye and meet new guys and step into a lineup. You know, it’s nerve-wracking. Very stressful.”

Oates said he talked to a few of his friends who work with the Czech national team and they praised Erat’s hockey IQ. He didn’t put himself in bad positions defensively. It’s a start. An early hit got Erat into the game, he said. But not having so much as a practice with his new teammates made for slow going offensively.

“It’s kind of hard for me, you know, with all the crazy stuff that comes with the trade,” Erat said. “My plane was leaving at 6 o’clock in the morning which means I didn’t get enough sleep. I was so excited to be here, and excited to be in this city.”

4. Defenseman Mike Green, sporting a new haircut, scored for the sixth time in seven games with his first-period tally. It was a change-up that spun past Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov. Green had been slashed just before releasing the puck and floated the shot home. This is a pretty good run for a player who is now healthy again. Green started the year that way before a groin injury knocked him onto injured reserve for 13 games out of 15.

We’ve seen this before. It’s far from the hottest stretch of his career, though. Green once scored 12 goals in an incredible 13-game span between Jan. 13 and Feb. 14, 2009. Later that season (March 14-April 1) he had seven goals in seven games. But it’s been a while. Green had five goals in eight games between Oct. 30, 2010 and Nov. 14. He had three in six games later that year (Dec. 23, 2010 to Jan. 8, 2011).

Green, by the way, was whistled for a penalty he literally didn’t commit late in regulation. A clearing attempt hit the top of the glass and skipped out of play. But none of the on-ice officials caught that and after a conference they decided it was a delay-of-game penalty for sending the puck out of play on purpose. Luckily for the Caps they killed the penalty and won the game anyway. Green didn’t seem all that burned about it.

“I shot it and I seen it and it tipped off the glass,” Green said. “I know it’s tough to see, especially when you’re not right there, you didn’t shoot it. But it did tip off the glass. It happens though.”

5. A big night for Washington goalie Braden Holtby, who stopped 35 of 36 Islanders shots. He had a pokecheck on Frans Nielsen late in the second period and then scrambled to get his pads in the way of a Thomas Hickey shot moments later. With 1:53 left he made a fine stop on a wrist shot from Brad Boyes while his team was on the penalty kill to preserve a 1-1 tie and help send it to overtime and eventually a shootout. Holtby now has a .915 save percentage, 21st overall in the NHL – though 12th for goalies with at least 18 games played this season.

“[Holtby] works real hard in practice and stays out afterward, taking guys’ shots and trying to better himself through all the games,” Brouwer said. “He never gives up on plays and that just shows his perseverance and the willingness he has to win. And that rubs off on our team because if we see him make a couple of those huge pad saves in the second, one very, very late in the third, those really lift your team. And the guys want to play for him when he’s playing like that.”

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