You didn’t want this one preserved on the DVR, but the bottom line is that a Mike Green-less Capitals club has scratched and clawed its way through a litany of one-goal victories of late to reclaim first place in the Southeast division. The Caps are alone in first place in the Southeast for the first time since December 29, and they’ve won four games in a row for the first time since early December. And their last seven victories have come by a single goal. My kingdom for a two-goal breather W!
The team’s hold on first is tenuous — they’re in Tampa Monday night, the ‘Bolts losers of their last three games. Win and complete the sweep of Florida and the Caps suddenly will have a sliver of breathing space against the upstart ‘Bolts. But to win and retain first place the Caps will, as with their last visit to Tampa ( the super impressive 5-2 triumph), have to drive hard and in ornery fashion toward Dwayne Roloson’s cage. I think this is an improved Capitals’ club relative to the one that won so well on its last visit to Tampa, but I look for the hosts to offer a much stronger effort in what is certainly the biggest game the teams have played this season to date.
Bigger picture: Suddenly, the Caps are just four points back of Philadelphia for first in the Eastern conference. And if you watched the Flyers’ performance on national television yesterday afternoon, you’d favor the Caps or Bruins prevailing for first coming down the stretch.
- Sunday night, the Caps’ second line — so impressive against St. Louis last Thursday night — went shotless through the game’s first 50 minutes, but Alexander Semin again made a big play late to get his team the W. Bottom line: Production is at last coming from a more balanced top six forward corps.
- An exceptionally questionable tripping call on John Erskine set in motion final minutes madness for the Capitals’ penalty killers, and allowed the punchless Panthers an opportunity to square things at 2 late. Bruce Boudreau took note of the glaring discrepancy in penalties Sunday — seven for the ‘Cats, just one extra-man opportunity for the visitors.
- As aesthetically challenged as Sunday night’s win was, there was a trait to it that bodes well for the postseason. Once the Caps took the lead in the second period, they became a 20-man unit of puck protection in their own end. Pucks were secured and chipped and smacked off boards, up and away from harm’s way. The only time you saw pucks played into the middle of the ice on breakouts was when Panthers’ skaters over-played one side of the ice, and even then Capitals’ skaters made wise decisions with the puck.
- Dave Steckel’s departure has created an unprecedented opportunity for Boyd Gordon. He responded on Sunday with what Boudreau called his best game of the season. Marcus Johansson deserves plaudits for shaking off a brutal-looking leg injury early on and coming back and delivering the game-winning assist.
- Penalty killing has become an increasingly shared burden among Capitals’ forwards. Bruce Boudreau appears to have confidence in virtually all of his forwards to kill penalties. The result is that on a night like Sunday, with its glaring power play discrepancy, with greater balance overall now in place among the forward lines, there’s far greater balance of minutes skated than we’ve seen in previous seasons. Under 17 minutes for Ovi Sunday, 13-plus for Boyd Gordon, 16 minutes for Jason Arnott, 14 minutes for Marco Sturm, 15 minutes for Semin. Good way to stay fresh.
- Much has been made of Ovi’s return to impact form in recent weeks, but Nicklas Backstrom, too, looks like his game-breaking old self at long last. Suddenly he’s a world-class stickhandler again, suddenly his shot has sting on it.
- Scott Hannan: Another rock solid showing. Must. Be. Re-signed.
The Caps are 3-0 since the big moves of last Monday. They ought to feel good about that, but those results came against three teams who will not be playing postseason hockey. A much better test comes Monday. Let’s win another for the Dads and label them first-place good luck charms.