Friday night we saw something that’s been in conspicuously short supply this hockey season in D.C. : passion. Also, 60 minutes of quality play. The result was perhaps the Caps’ finest road showing of the season, relative to the caliber of opponent, and the Caps will lace ’em again on Super Sunday against their most bitter rival with, suddenly, a little swagger in their stride.
In the leadup to the Caps’ showdown with first-place Tampa there was chatter among the blogging class about Friday perhaps representing a “must-win” game for the visitors. Lose and confront a 7-point deficit to a Tampa team that won’t next see a road game until the 27th of this month, while the Caps contend with a slate of toughies at home and away. Win and the division title game’s on. The Caps won alright, 5-2, in resounding fashion, and they have their first line to thank for it.
Four points for Captain Ovechkin — who all night long looked very much like the Ovechkin of his first five NHL seasons. Four points for a similarly AWOL-all-season-long Nick Backstrom. All told, the Ovechkin-Backstrom-Jason Chimera unit accounted for 10 points and 17 shots and seriously outclassed the Lightning’s vaunted first line. With his team leading 4-2 in the game’s final minute Bruce Boudreau had his first line out on the ice again, and such was their potent swagger that they tallied an empty netter for good measure. The much-maligned first line couldn’t have picked a better time to break out, at the start of a very high profile weekend of play.
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Passion in hockey is bred by commitment — to systems, to back-checking, to winning races to pucks, to setting a physical tone, to crashing the net. Early on Friday night Matt Hendricks let it be known that he was going to get his nose dirty in tight, and Dwayne Roloson and his Lightning teammates didn’t take kindly to it. Soon thereafter, gloves dropped. We saw great balled-fist showings by both Hendricks and Matt Bradley. They were bell-answering engagements by hockey players on a committed mission — not altercations as so many have been this Washington hockey season to try and alter a game’s sour momentum. As such, the game had a great old time winter Friday night feel to it.
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Watching the first frame on TV, you didn’t get the sense that the Caps were skating with the dictates of a new and disorienting and uncomfortable system clogging their thoughts: the seventeen shots that pelted Dwayne Roloson — he of the consecutive shutouts of Washington in the clubs’ previous meetings — were an exclamation point of the vertical and up-tempo attack the Caps carried off. For this, credit Bruce Boudreau. He brought a fresh tactical approach Friday night. To attack Tampa’s 1-3-1 neutral zone moat he had his defensemen play a patient puck possession game that targeted stretch seam passes and long dump-ins that the Caps’ fast forwards could easily chase down around Tampa’s lumbering blueliners. Once in Tampa’s end, many of his forwards were committed to making Roloson’s night miserable with distracting traffic.
But tactics are of little utility if your big guns aren’t firing. The Capitals’ first line has been firing blanks most of this season. In the lead up to Friday night’s game the NHL Network broadcast separate, consecutive tributes to the Gr8, and it was difficult to watch so stirring a montage of virtuosity from our captain relative to his perplexingly non-productive play of this season. Friday night seemed very much a coming out party for Ovi and his linemates.
Ovechkin’s best games involve high tallies of glass-bashing hits, leg-churning puck-rushing through the neutral zone that brings a backing off by quality defenders, and space created by which to unleash one of the world’s best shots. We saw all of that from Ovi Friday night. We also saw his boyish exuberance in each instance of new-found success.
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We also saw a remarkable rebound effort by Semyon Varlamov, who yielded a goal on the first shot he saw and then clamped down to the tune of stopping 23 of the last 24 shots he faced. The Capitals were strong enough Friday night that they didn’t need their young no. 1 to stand on his head, but they needed him to be quite good, and he was.
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The Lightning, it’s said, are a team to watch with an eye toward the trade deadline because they’re already vastly improved and they have cap space with which to play. But Friday seemed to showcase Tampa’s glaring slowness of foot on the blueline — Ohlund, Kubina, Hedman, and Smaby especially, and Lundin and Jones are only moderately more mobile — and a unit’s snail’s skating isn’t easily rectified in a buyer’s market in February. Steve Yzerman will be fun to watch this month, but his team’s true achilles heel may be one he can’t substantively address until the offseason.
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Dispute its degree of importance if you like, but there’s no denying that Friday night brought a big game for the Caps. And they came up large. 2011 at last has a 60-minute highlight. Best of all, the Caps were led productively by their leaders, and they played a brand of Caps’ hockey familiar to us all. An even bigger game arrives Sunday, against a Pens’ team that may be missing both Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin. Suddenly, Sunday seems Super in its hockey possibilities.