Make it three in a row for the Caps, who went on the road Thursday and avenged the season-opening loss at Tampa Bay. They are tied with five other Eastern Conference teams at 11 points now – though Winnipeg, the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers have all played fewer games. Washington (5-8-1) is four points back of the No. 8 seed New York Rangers, whom they conveniently play at Madison Square Garden on Sunday evening.
1. Let’s start with forward Eric Fehr. Caps coach Adam Oates wanted to get him more ice time and that happened with a move to left wing on the third line last Saturday. We noted Fehr’s two strong games in a row against the Florida Panthers. Well, he took things to another level on Thursday with a pair of goals against Tampa Bay.
Maybe Fehr will never be what the organization envisioned when it took him 18th overall in the 2003 draft – in the process passing on some top-notch talent in one of the best classes of all time. But Fehr isn’t exactly a bust. He had 21 goals and 18 assists in 2009-10. His creaky shoulders, among other issues, have kept him from being much more than that and his increasing salary made him expendable in a July, 2011 trade to Winnipeg, where another shoulder injury derailed his season.
But he has a wicked shot when given space to use it. Tampa’s “D” was guilty of that on Thursday on the second goal. Too concerned with center Mathieu Perrreault, the Lighting conceded the right wing to Fehr. Perreault found him and he ripped a shot past backup goalie Mathieu Garon. It was a thing of beauty reminiscent of Fehr’s Winter Classic goal on Jan. 1, 2011 against the Pittsburgh Penguins – a memory that will live around these parts long after Fehr departs again.
His first goal was a result of something Oates has talked about for his team – a hard shot missing the net and essentially becoming a turnover. The guilty party for Tampa was Teddy Purcell. Washington’s Joel Ward chased defenseman Matt Carle all the way into the offensive zone and straight swiped the puck from him. Not sure we would have seen that burst from Ward last year with that sports hernia injury. He fed the puck in front. Perreault and Fehr were chasing hard after the play and it clicked off Perreault’s skate to Fehr, who buried it.
2. I’m no math major, but 8-for-15 on the power play seems like a pretty good streak, no? The Caps earned one power-play chance on Thursday and they made the most of it with some beautiful passing that led to a Perreault feed in the slot to Troy Brouwer. That pushes them to 27.1 percent on the season (13-for-48), good for fourth in the league. Not bad. Perreault was playing the role Marcus Johansson had at the start of the season – down low to the right of the net in a 1-3-1 set-up. Not sure if Oates is switching things up since we only got to see the one power play. But Mike Ribeiro was not out there with Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom and Brouwer, who now has a team-high seven goals in just 13 games.
3. Speaking of Perreault, that was his first three-assist game of his career. That third line continues to roll and it’s tough to see Perreault coming out of the lineup any time soon. He now has a goal and four assists in his last three games. Penalties were an issue for him during the first four games of the season. Since returning to the lineup he has taken just one minor in three games. So far, so good.
4. Those late-game meltdowns are pretty fun, huh? Yeah, probably not. But where the Caps blew third-period leads in Ottawa and Toronto, at least they secured the two points this time around. Still, Tampa scored twice in just over five minutes to cut a three-goal deficit to one. Purcell and then Nate Thompson made things interesting. The former was one Washington goalie Braden Holtby probably wants back. That soft backhander from along the goal line somehow found its way through some legs and slid under Holtby’s pads. That swung the momentum back to the Lightning.
He probably didn’t make the best decision on Thompson’s breakaway, either. Holtby went for the desperation pokecheck and whiffed and Thompson easily deked around him and scored to make the game closer than the Caps needed given their recent history. That play, by the way, is on Ward, too. Carle knocked the puck from him along the boards in the Washington defensive zone and Ward couldn’t recover it. He lost the puck a second time to Martin St. Louis, tripped him for a delayed penalty and yet St. Louis was, from the seat of his pants, still able to hit Thompson in stride in the neutral zone. He split Green and defensive partner Karl Alzner easily and was off to the races to make it a 4-3 game.
5. Stick tap to Holtby for his work late in the first period. He robbed Purcell from the slot, snagging a hard blast with his glove. That was an issue in some of Holtby’s earlier ragged performances so that’s a good sign he’s seeing the puck well. Nothing more demoralizing for a forward than that kind of save – except maybe banging one off the post as Caps forward Jason Chimera did later in the game. Speaking of a guy needing to sacrifice a goat or a cow, it just isn’t bouncing Chimera’s way so far this season. He remains scoreless after a career-high 20 goals last season.
Back to Holtby: He made the save on Purcell in a tie game with 2:59 left in the first period and made a kick save on Carle 12 seconds later from the slot again. Those were the pucks he didn’t see in the season-opening loss at Tampa when defensemen Eric Brewer, of all people, scored twice on him. I would assume we’ll see him again on Sunday against the Rangers, but the Caps are off on Friday. We’ll have to wait until Saturday’s practice at Kettler Iceplex (10:30 a.m.) to see which direction Oates is leaning. After that the Caps don’t play again until next Thursday against New Jersey so it could be a long stretch off for Michal Neuvirth, who last played on Feb. 7 against Pittsburgh in a 5-2 loss.
Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14