Washington Capitals Must Continue Winning Ways in Winnipeg

Alan Zlotorzynski@@zlotsportsCorrespondent IIIMarch 16, 2012

With 12 games remaining in the 2011-12 season, every contest is a playoff-type, must-win game for the Washington Capitals.

If the Great 8 and company are going to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup this spring, than they must treat every game as if they are on the brink of elimination. Well, maybe not like some Caps playoff teams from the past few seasons when on the ropes, but you understand the importance of each game.

Washington is 7-2-1 in its last 10 games and is currently riding a four game winning streak. The Capitals trail Florida by one point for the Southeast Division lead and have a three-point lead over Buffalo for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Up to this point, the jury is still deliberating on whether Washington will make the postseason, but right now, they are in a pretty good place and playing pretty well. Unfortunately, their lack of consistency this season says their solid play of late may not last.

But then again, as Caps fans, we are still waiting for them to turn it on and play like the team that started a franchise best 7-0 this season.

Washington’s current four-game winning streak suggests that they may indeed be doing just that, but when it comes to the Capitals, everything is not always as it seems. Their 15 points in their last 10 games mark the best 10-game stretch since Oct. 8-Nov. 1 when the team went 8-2-0. The Capitals went 12-2-1 in March last season, but this season has proven to be filled with inconsistent play.

Just when you think they are about catch fire, their flames are somehow extinguished, and usually by their own doing.

Not to burst anyone’s bubble—I am also a Caps fan—but of their past 15 wins dating back to Jan. 11, only five have come against current playoff teams. Of their 15 losses during that same stretch, the Caps have lost seven times to current playoff teams and missed eight opportunities against teams with a lesser record than them.

Two weeks ago at home, Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov had Washington on the ropes.

He didn't allow a goal for the first 57 minutes of play as the Islanders held onto to a two-goal lead late in the third period. But fate found its way into the Washington lineup, for once, and the Caps managed to win 3-2 in overtime.

However, they failed to build any momentum during the first game of a five-game homestand, and earned five of the crucial 10 points that were there for the taking during the rest of their homestand.

They were shutout in back-to-back affairs and outscored 6-0 in the process. Many wondered how Washington’s dramatic come-from-behind victory failed to spark a team so talented and so desperate during the most crucial time of the NHL season.

Maybe fate is on the Caps side.

Despite the sorry homestand, Washington managed to stay put in the standings, never falling further than three points out of a playoff spot and four points from first place. The Capitals did manage to rebound from the lackluster home performances. But oddly enough, they did so in the one place they have struggled mightily this season: on the road.

Heading into TD Garden last Saturday afternoon, the Capitals were a paltry 11-18-3—third worst in the Eastern Conference at the time. The Capitals caught the defending Stanley Cup champions at the right time, and also played a great road game as they dealt the struggling Boston Bruins a 4-3 loss.

Washington won the game by playing solid physical hockey in front of the net, in the corners and along the side boards. They got great goaltending, scored a power-play goal and didn’t allow one.

Finally, with momentum seemingly captured once and for all, Washington returned home to whitewash the Toronto Maple Leafs 2-0 last Sunday evening to once again reclaim a playoff spot. But Tuesdays night’s game against the New York Islanders has Caps fans thinking playoffs, and even wondering if this year’s team could be the 2010 version of the eighth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers.

The reason for the excitement is not that the Caps beat one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference, but how they beat them that caused Washington fans to take notice.

Washington fell behind by three goals, and never got down when the Islanders outshot the Caps 10-4 in the first period and led 2-0 after the first 20 minutes. They even kept their heads up when Matt Moulson scored a goal as fluky as a three dollar bill. They never appeared to be defeated when their second came off the skate of a Caps defender in front.

They continued to fight when they trailed 4-1 with a little over eight minutes left in the second period.

Then, it happened.

For the first time in quite a while, team captain Alex Ovechkin put his team on his back and skated them to victory.

The Capitals, led by the Great 8, scored the game’s next three goals. Every man on the bench and every fan watching at home knew Matt Hendricks was the choice during the shootout and head coach Dale Hunter used three shooters before him—including a rookie whose never been in an NHL shootout. Regardless, the team stayed positive.

And finally, when Hunter turned to Hendricks and finished the game, the Capitals were officially on the momentum train. They most certainly will need to stay there, including tonight and during their next four games are on the road in Winnipeg, Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia.

The Red Wings and Blackhawks have combined to lose just 11 games at home this year, and tonight’s opponent, the Winnipeg Jets, are 5-3-2 in their last 10, and have just 10 losses all season at the MTS Center, including a 6-1-2 in their last nine home games.

If anything, the Capitals have proven they will play until the final horn. Washington ranks fourth in the league in goals scored in the third period (75), and Tuesday marked the seventh time this season that the Capitals have won after trailing when going into the third period.

Washington ranks tied for third in the league in wins when trailing after two periods.

Momentum is huge this time of the year and something the Capitals haven’t had since they began the year. It was the Capitals’ third road win in a row—the team’s longest road streak in nearly a year—since a franchise-record-tying six-game streak from Feb. 20-March 15, 2011. 

The Caps have also collected at least a point in five straight games (4-0-1) for the first time since they opened with a franchise best seven straight wins to start the season. 


Captain Ovie to the Rescue

Alex Ovechkin is once again heating up, and to say that it couldn’t come at a better time would be seriously overstating the obvious.

Ovechkin’s first goal of the game came in the final minute of the second period. That goal made it 4-2 and provided the Caps with a much needed lift. Ovies 29th of the season tied the game at four goals each. His goal in the shootout kept the Capitals alive in the contest.

Ovechkin appears to be learning what Caps coach and former team captain Dale Hunter is trying to teach him about being a team leader.

Each of his last three goals has either won or tied the game for Washington. Captain Ovie has three goals and four points in his last four games, and the Caps are 17-4-2 when Ovechkin scores.

When Ovie scores goal No.30, he will have begun his career by scoring at least 30 in each of his first seven NHL seasons. The Great 8 will also become the second active player (Ilya Kovalchuk) to have scored 30 or more goals each season since 2005-06 (his rookie season).

Ovechkin recently became the 17th player in NHL history to score at least 25 or more goals in each of his first seven seasons in the league (third active; Kovalchuk and Jaromir Jagr).

Alexander the Great becomes a part of an all-time great group when he hits the 30 plateau.

Many of the 17 that scored at least 25 goals drop from the list when it reaches 30. The company Ovechkin will keep is impressive. Only six of the top 30 goals scorers in NHL history began their careers with at least 30 goals in each of their first seven seasons. Aside from the obvious (No.99) the list includes Brett Hull, Luc Robitallie, Jari Kurri, Mark Recchi and Mike Bossy.

Former Caps great Mike Gartner could also be included because he scored 30 goals in each of his first seven seasons in the NHL, but scored just 27 in 78 games with the Cincinnati Stingers of the WHA during the 1978-79 season. 


Laich it or Not

Not to be outdone by the teams captain, assistant team captain Brooks Laich is once again back on track, and scoring goals from where Caps fans are accustomed to seeing him shoot from—directly in front of the opposition's net.

Laich registered an assist in Tuesday’s victory but scored the game-winning goal last Saturday in Boston, and again on Sunday when he scored Washington’s first goal during a 2-0 win over Toronto. Laich now has three points in three games, but more importantly is torturing opposing goalies and defenseman with his play in front of the net.

Both of his goals were hustle plays—one in front of the net, and the other a goal from a turnover.

Laich is not the only Caps player stepping up when it matters most.

Keith Aucoin must feel like a yo-yo, as he has been sent down and called up from the AHL Hershey Bears numerous times over the past few weeks, but it hasn’t affected his play. Aucoin tallied a career-high three assists on Tuesday against the New York Islanders, marking the fourth time this season that a Capital has tallied three assists in a single game.

The five assists and seven points he has recorded this season are all highs since joining the Capitals in 2008-09. His two goals tie his high with the Capitals; he has now recorded seven points in just 15 games this season with Washington.

Two Hot to Handle

The Capitals are fortunate to have both of their goaltenders playing very good between the pipes right now.

Tuesday’s starting netminder Michael Neuvirth wasn’t great, but he showed poise as he, like his team, hung in and pushed his record to .500 this season. Neuvy is now 5-0 vs. the Islanders in his career. The young Czech is 11-11-4 on the season with a 2.81 goals against, and three shutouts.

Tomas Vokoun seems to be back on track with a 2-0 record in his last two starts. Vokoun is now 25-16-2 on the season with a 2.51 GAA. While both are not going to crack the top 10 leaderboard with their numbers, playing well this time of year gives the Capitals a commodity they have never had should they reach the playoffs—two potential hot goalies. 


Defense is Offensive

Led by Dennis Wideman, the Capitals defense is flourishing with the puck on their stick this season.  Capitals defensemen notched four assists in Saturday’s win against Boston. Washington’s 10 blue liners have scored a combined 28 goals and 102 assists for 130 points in the team’s 70 games this season.

A defenseman has contributed at least one point in 55 games, and with 12 games to go on the season, Washington’s defensemen have now combined for nine more points this season than they amassed last season (28 goals, 93 assists).

Wideman, the Caps lone All-Star representative during this year’s game, is riding a five-game point streak (five assists), his longest streak since his seven-game point streak (two goals, five assists) from Oct. 8-22 and tied for the longest assist streak in his career. Wideman is tied for second in the league in points among defensemen (44).

Rookie defender Dmitry Orlov has notched one goal and four assists in his last six games and is tied for third in the league in points (17) among rookie blue liners (all rankings as of Thursday).

Orlov is only four points behind the Maple Leafs Jake Gardiner for the top spot in scoring amongst rookie defenseman. However, Orlov has played 12 less games and averages more than four minutes less ice time than Gardiner.

Interestingly, the Caps defense has done this without their leading defensive scorer from the past five seasons, Mike Green. Green has missed the last games serving a suspension for his hit on Brett Connolly during the Caps win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 8.

Prior to Green's departure for bashing Connolly’s head into the corner glass, Green was enjoying his longest active consecutive games streak. While the fans of D.C. aren't ready to anoint him the Iron Man, Green had played in 10 straight contests, his longest run of consecutive regular season games in more than a year.

Green returns tonight and the Caps hope he returns from his suspension better than he did from the groin injury that sidelined him for 53 games this season.  Green failed to record a single point in the 10 games since his return on Feb. 18. He hasn’t appeared on the score sheet officially in the points column since Oct. 22 during a 7-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings in which Green had a four-point night with two goals. 


Special Teams Must Get Better

The Caps are going to need Green if their power play is going to improve on the road, and overall.

Washington has just three extra man goals is their last 36 opportunities—a span of 13 road games. One true indicator of how successful the Caps can be when their special teams is clicking is that Washington is 19-7-1 this season when they score a power-play goal, and owns a 14-1-0 record when scoring a power-play goal and not allowing one.

Despite winning four in a row, the Caps are still just one-for-six with the extra man during the streak. Since the start of the new calendar year, the Caps are an embarrassing 12-for 85 (14.1 percent). If the Caps are going to make the Stanley Cup playoffs and have any success, it will be because their power play began to click.

The Capitals have looked better with the extra man. They are moving the puck better and have drastically increased their puck possession time in the offensive zone with the extra man.

Like the Capitals play of late, which seems to be on the verge of producing the results everyone expected for the entire season, their power play also seems on the verge of breaking out. It’s no coincidence that Washington is playing better because of it. Even if they don’t score, keeping defenders chasing crisp passes for almost two minutes takes a toll this time of the year, especially in the third period.

In case you missed it, Washington is doing some pretty good things late in games these days. 


Tonight's Matchup in Brief

Tonight is the fifth matchup between the Capitals and Jets this season. Each team has won twice, and each team needed overtime to win one of those games. Washington is 16-8-1 in its last 25 games against the Atlanta/Winnipeg franchise.

Washington leads 38-23-5-6, entering the 73rd meeting, and is 15-15-2-4 on the road. The Jets, 5-3-2 in their last 10 games, enter play tonight trailing Washington by four points in the Eastern Conference. The Jets are coming off of a 5-2 win over Dallas on Wednesday night.

The Caps two Alexs—Ovechkin and Semin—have had a great deal of success versus Winnipeg/Atlanta during their careers. The Caps captain has recorded more points against Winnipeg than any other team in the NHL during his career. Ovechkin has collected 67 points (32g-35a) in 46 games against the Jets franchise since joining the league in 2005-06. Alexander Semin recorded a goal and an assist vs. Winnipeg on Feb. 9 and has 38 points (20g-18a) in 35 career games against Winnipeg.

The Jets have some players that do pretty well vs. the Caps as well.

Winnipeg’s Evander Kane has three goals vs. the Caps this season, and scored a pair in their first game on Nov. 17 at MTS Centre, a 4-1 Jets’ win.

The former fourth overall pick of the Thrashers during the 2009 NHL entry draft has eight goals and two assists in 13 career games. Another former fourth overall pick (2004) has also enjoyed some success vs. Washington during his career. Former Carolina Hurricanes winger Andrew Ladd has 10-goals and 11 assists and is a plus-9 in 28 games.

The Capitals 22nd ranked penalty kill will have to be sharp in Manitoba tonight.

The Jets power play clicked at home again on Wednesday night when Winnipeg went one-for-three versus Dallas on the man advantage. The goal improved the Jets’ NHL-best home power-play percentage to 25 percent (36-for-120). The Jets have scored on 11 of their last 21 power play chances at home dating back to Feb. 19.

Overall, the Jets are 41-for-212 (19.3 percent) on the power play this season, which has them ranked eighth in the league.


Second and Third Best

The Capitals will head to Chicago to play the Blackhawks on Sunday, where the Hawks own the league’s third best home record, and then onto the Motor City where they face the league’s second best home team, the Detroit Red Wings on Monday night.

The Capitals may be catching both teams at the right time. The Hawks and Wings are a combined 8-10-2 over their past 10 games, with the Wings currently sporting a three-game losing streak.


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