WASHINGTON, D.C. — Following last season’s heartbreaking elimination in round 1, the Washington Capitals from the owner down to the fans shared the same point of view:
the regular season does not matter, only the playoffs do
What nobody counted on was just how frustrating the President’s Trophy to early playoff exit hangover would be. The team has been lethargic for a bulk of the season and sometimes just bad. They endured an eight game losing streak into December. Superstar Alex Ovechkin had been slumping and Nicklas Backstrom was not playing the way he did to get a 10 year contract. Mike Green has been out with a head injury and Alex Semin has also missed time. The power play has had a power outage.
In the darkness though, there has been a bright spot — greatly improved goals against average. The trifecta of Michel Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby, has played lights out with each contributing while healthy. Varlamov, has been typically fragile and Neuvirth has established himself as the #1 goalie it would seem. However, Neuvirth’s recently injury has allowed Hershey call-up Holtby to show his capabilities and he responded by being named 1 star of the week by the NHL.
In addition to strong goaltending, the Caps had what appears to be an excellent trade deadline. David Steckel was traded for Jason Arnott and while Steckel was highly reguarded for his prowess on faceoffs, the trade has been a steal for Washington. Since Arnott arrived, along with Macro Strum and Dennis Wideman — both of who were exchanged for spare parts or low draft picks, the Caps have won 8 in a row. The captain has started scoring again and playing like he had for the previous 5 seasons.
Sunday’s Caps game against the Chicago Blackhawks was the first and likely only one I will see this season. We arrived late (12:30 starts are tough), with the game tied at 1. We were walking from Metro Center when we saw that Boyd Gordon had scored, short-handed to tie it up. Arnott scored on the power play, but Tomas Kopecky snuck a bad angle shot behind Holty to tie it up.
In the 3rd period, Brooks Laich scored on a beautiful centering pass from Eric Fehr to put the Caps up 3-2. They held onto the lead into the final minutes with Verizon Center getting loud. Marcus Johansson‘s second hooking penalty of the day put Washington back on the penalty kill late and with the Blackhawks’ goalie pulled the score was tied with under a minute. Given that we were late, some free hockey wasn’t anything I minded and when Mike Knuble knocked in the game winner which in a redemption bid, Johansson assited on, I was pretty happy that my one game in person was a winner. Funny, when I lived in Pentagon City and the Caps were bad (during the unfortunate black sweaters era) I saw about 6 games a season and I could decide at 6:30 to go to a game and be in my seats (about $22 or so) by the time the puck dropped. Now, it is hard to get tickets and they cost a lot more than $22.
This morning it came out that Arnott is out on a week-to-week basis with an undisclosed injury. The timing isn’t great, as the Caps have won every game since Arnott was acquired. The 8 game winning streak has put them a point behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the conference lead and three points above division rival the Tampa Bay Lightning. They are about to embark on a six game road trip that includes two trips to Montréal for the first time since the Canadiens eliminated the Caps in last year’s playoffs. Eight of the final twelve games are on the road, but as Ted Leonsis said on his blog “suck it up.”