1. The Capitals had to have a solid week with time running short in the playoff race. They got that and more with two wins over Winnipeg and a gritty victory at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night. They blew an early 2-0 lead, but hung with it enough to force overtime and eventually win in a shootout.
Washington is now two points out of the No. 8 and final playoff spot. They gained one on the Rangers, who hold that berth right now. New York does have a game in hand. And ninth-place Carolina has two games in hand on the Caps. So they aren’t exactly in a solid position. But there’s hope and that’s something this team has been lacking in recent weeks. Washington remained five points behind Southeast Division Winnipeg, which beat Tampa Bay on Sunday.
“We’ve been playing good hockey for a while,” Caps coach Adam Oates said. “Desperation or just solid hockey, I’m not quite sure. Obviously the points are very important for everybody and we played good.”
This week is a bit lighter. A Tuesday home game against the Islanders is followed by road games back-to-back at Philadelphia and Buffalo on Saturday and Sunday.
“It feels nice, but at the same point we’re still humble,” Washington forward Brooks Laich said. “We’re not going to hurt our arms patting ourselves on the back by any means. We’re still on the outside looking in in the playoff picture. But building blocks, for sure.”
2. The one loss of the road trip saw the Caps botch a four-minute power play and immediately a turnover and a decisive goal by the Penguins led to a loss. Washington could have fallen apart after it failed to score on a 5-on-3 on Sunday against the Rangers. But it didn’t. The Caps weathered that storm and found a way to earn the two points. That might not have happened earlier in the season. There was a fragility there that has only recently been shed. It’s a reminder of how they played last year down the stretch under former coach Dale Hunter and again in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“The crowd was crazy, they kill a big penalty and we didn’t let it break us down,” Oates said. “We went right back to work and [played] five-on-five good hockey.”
Added Laich: “We felt we had a really good first 12-13 minutes and then the goals that they got, one was a 2-on-1 that we gave them and the other was a 5-on-3. They really weren’t goals that they really earned. We wanted to stay with our game plan. It was 2-2, it stayed tight, but even with 20 seconds left Troy [Brouwer] and I have a chance in front of the net to win the game. We played the percentages tonight, we thought that we had more chances than they did and we thought if we kept working we were going to get one. Went a little longer than we thought but the guys got it done in the shootout.
3. A game like the one Washington played in Pittsburgh can go one of two ways: Either a team gets discouraged when a solid effort yields no result and it goes into a shell or it builds off that performance. The Caps chose the latter path. It dominated Winnipeg on the road two nights in a row and it came into the Garden and jumped on the Rangers right away. It was the response that was missing earlier in the year and the one they need going forward.
“Because we played well in Winnipeg,” Oates said. “But I was really worried about that game because we really played a good game in Pittsburgh, and sometimes that hurts you going into the next game, a tough environment in Winnipeg. I thought the guys didn’t even look back, which was great.”
4. The Caps didn’t escape unharmed though. Forward Eric Fehr took just two shifts in the third period with an upper-body injury, according to the team. Oates would only say that Fehr would be reevaluated on Monday. He’s been one of the surprise stories of the season after playing in Finland during the lockout without an NHL contract to fall back on. Fehr has six goals and six assists in 29 games – though he hasn’t recorded a point in his last 10 games. He has a long history of shoulder injuries so hopefully that isn’t the case here.
5. At long last the Caps finally participated in a shootout, their first of the season. They were the last NHL team to do so. A team that had some serious shootout weapons – Matt Hendricks along with offseason additions Wojtek Wolski and Mike Ribeiro – figured to make hay in that department. It just hasn’t happened yet. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Shootout wins don’t count when determining playoff tiebreakers. But there are some nights you just need a point and this was one of them.
“I know it’s a crowd thing,” said Oates, who has made his disdain for the format clear. “For me it’s tough to lay it on the line for 65 minutes and end it that way. But it’s the same for both teams.”
Wolski was a healthy scratch so he was out. Hendricks tried to trick New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist to no avail. But Braden Holtby stopped both Rick Nash and Ryan Callahan through the first two rounds. Alex Ovechkin deked and slipped the puck under Lundqvist’s pads to put Washington in front. Derek Stepan beat Holtby with a backhand to keep the Rangers alive and Ribeiro’s cheeky five-hole attempt was stoned by Lundqvist. That led to the fourth round. Brad Richards missed the net and Nicklas Backstrom won it for the Caps by beating Lundqvist glove side. Sometimes keeping it simple is the best strategy of them all.
“[Lundqvist is] good when you try and dangle him so I just find a spot there I can shoot,” Backstrom said. “I was lucky maybe.”
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