1. Well, that weekend didn’t go so well. The Caps are exactly halfway through the 2013 season and in 12th place in the Eastern Conference. The No. 8 seeded New York Rangers left town with a 4-1 win on Sunday and are seven points ahead of Washington for the final playoff spot.
The Carolina Hurricanes, meanwhile, are eight points ahead and lead the Southeast Division. The two teams play twice this week – Tuesday in the District and Thursday in Raleigh. Lose both and that lead expands to 12 points with 22 games left. That’s pretty much game, set, match. Win both? Well then – right back in it at four points out of the No. 3 seed with 22 left and two more head-to-head games to make up ground on Carolina. This week is the tipping point.
2. Wrote about the undisciplined penalties the Caps have taken this season. Alex Ovechkin’s two-on-one-play disaster Sunday spelled the end. The Rangers scored on the delayed penalty and then added another goal on the ensuing power play. One player noted that referee Dean Morton had also worked Saturday’s loss to the Islanders when four-minute penalties to Mike Ribeiro (high sticking, misconduct) and Jeff Schultz (high sticking) turned a 2-2 game into an eventual 5-2 loss. Let’s just say the Caps weren’t happy with his performance over the weekend.
Still, the Schultz penalty on Islanders defenseman Andy MacDonald was obvious. Blood was drawn. Ovechkin’s trip of Rangers forward Ryan Callahan was obvious, too. It happened in front of everybody. Even Washington coach Adam Oates had no problem with that one. Ribeiro isn’t exactly a friend to referees at this point. He’s been hit with three misconduct penalties in 24 games. But the Caps have a point that Morton and his mates missed a couple obvious infractions against the Islanders on Saturday right immediately before the Ribeiro and Schultz penalties. And Ovechkin’s hold of Ryan McDonagh was clearly questionable – especially when the Rangers were already headed for a power play.
Oates clearly thinks officials are being overly sensitive this season. At the same time, he admits his team needs to be smarter. They are calling misconducts. They are tacking on extra minutes. Stop barking and go play. Simple as that. Notice that winning teams rarely have these meltdowns because the points aren’t as precious to them. They have a margin for error and can shake off a bad night by the officials. The Caps don’t and can’t. That leads to frustration.
“We talk about the unsportsmanlikes and what we’ve done,” Oates said. “We talk about how they’re more sensitive. And we have to abide through the rules.”
3. A lot was made of NBC killing Ovechkin for his play on the Rangers’ first goal. He whiffed – or pulled back depending on your point of view – on a neutral zone hit of Derek Stepan. That led to a rush the other way and New York scored. In this space last week I blasted NBC analyst Mike Milbury for his over-the-top comments on Ovechkin during a Feb. 27 broadcast in Philadelphia. They just weren’t rooted in what was happening on the ice and completely ignored his stellar play over the previous five or six games.
However – there is always a kernel of truth in any rant and Sunday’s criticism by analyst Pierre McGuire had some merit, too. Ovechkin coasted after missing Stepan. Would his presence at the other end have made a difference? Maybe not. The goal was on goalie Braden Holtby for being out of position and on Tomas Kundratek for letting Stepan behind him. It was a really nice play by the Rangers, too. It was not the correct play by Ovechkin.
“No. It’s not,” Oates said. “We have tracking rules and I think he was gonna hit [Stepan] and he let him go and because of that we got a little out of position.”
I get that folks in the organization are frustrated Ovechkin has become such a punching bag. I still agree the criticism at this point is shrill and hurts the NBC’s credibility. If we simply assume that every time Milbury or Keith Jones cranks up the telestrator that they will bash Ovechkin, then they simply won’t be taken as seriously when he really should be ripped. But you are also just feeding those analysts ammunition if you coast on a scoring play. Yes, if we isolated a camera on any random NHLer we could pick their game apart. But they don’t isolate third or fourth liners. The cameras are on the guys making $9.5 million who have won two Hart Trophies. It’s a different standard. It’s life.
4. Marcus Johansson returned to the lineup for Washington for the first time since Feb. 7. He’d clearly been dealing with concussion symptoms since a training camp collision with Ovechkin. And he played well on Sunday. By the end of the game he’d been promoted back to the top line, where he started the season before struggling.
“I thought he was one of our best players,” Oates said. “That looked like maybe that hit in training camp really did affect him because that looked like what I saw on tape.”
Johansson played 15:12, saw a little bit of ice time on the power play and the penalty kill, had one shot on goal and won five of 13 faceoff attempts. He was the third-line center at the start of the game. We’ll see if Oates pushes him back to the top line for Carolina on Tuesday.
“This is the best I’ve felt all year so it was nice to be out there again,” Johansson said.
5. Let’s finish with a positive. Defenseman Steve Oleksy recorded his first NHL goal and gave the Caps a 1-0 lead in the first period. Yes, for one of the AHL’s top fighters, a player who would have been double digits on the blueline depth chart in training camp, that is four points in four games. Though to be fair, Oleksy did have two goals and 12 assists this season at Hershey. He isn’t a goon, by any means. And so far at the NHL level he’s finding multiple ways to contribute. He’s thrown a handful of quality hip checks and had some big hits, too. When his face appeared on the giant HD scoreboard at Verizon Center with a congratulatory message on his first goal and the Verizon Center crowd roared, Oleksy couldn’t stop smiling.
“It’s tough. I don’t really know what to say. I’m just kind of the kid living the dream right now,” Oleksy said. “The guys have been great, too. It’s hard to hold a smile when you look over at them and they’re all laughing at you.”
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