There were about 30 compelling reasons to expect the Tampa Bay Lightning to deliver an inspired performance with first place in the Southeast on the line in Monday night’s matchup with the Caps, and for the Caps, playing the second night of a back-to-back on the road against a comparatively rested hosting foe, to struggle. The Caps on their previous visit to the St. Pete Times rink had handed the ‘Bolts their hat (5-2, February 4). Surely Tampa wanted to atone for that. And early on, the Caps saw more key pieces skate off to the dressing room. Tampa doesn’t much do national TV, and Monday’s was a national television appointment. It was a big game. Pierre McGuire was in the house.
A victory like Monday’s by the visitors, under the circumstances the Capitals confronted, wouldn’t have been possible 10 days ago, we allege. At least, there was precious little precedent for it through the season’s first 60 games. But that’s why surgeon George McPhee took a scalpel to his roster last Monday. Down 1-0 in the third period last night, with a host of key pieces out of the lineup due to injury, the Capitals skated in statement fashion coming home, and thereby boarded a plane home with their fathers in possession of a sweep of the state of Florida, in possession of first place in the Southeast.
Speaking of heart transplants, the new EKG on Alexander Semin is mighty healthy. You get the sense with Semin that perhaps he’s not so much “mercurial” or “erratic” but rather that he just needs something large and special and good to happen for him to unleash the full compliment of his prodigious talent. And perhaps it also doesn’t hurt to have the game mean something. It also probably doesn’t hurt that he now has a legit second-line center helping him out. Sunday night in Sunrise Semin scored an overtime game-winner to catapult his hockey club into first place for the first time in months. Monday night offered the residue of that heroism: Semin was the best player on the ice sheet last night, and his game-tying goal late in the final frame seemed in its virtuosity and swagger to assure the Caps of leaving town with two points. The Capitals are a vastly different looking hockey club when Sasha skates with swagger.
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If you want the identity of a fella who’d finish last in his class at medical school: Lightning coach Guy Boucher. To be fair, Boucher is an NHL rookie bench boss. But also to be fair and accurate, were he otherwise, what he did with his shootout lineup in his team’s biggest game of the season last night might have been a firing offense.
Managers pay elite talent hockey players seven or eight million dollars a season, or more, principally because of their production, but also because they’ve demonstrated a penchant for coming through when it counts most. Last night, wholly cognizant that last season’s Eastern conference representative in the Stanley Cup finals only qualified for the postseason because of shootout victory in game no. 82, Boucher allowed his big guns — St. Louis and Stamkos — to sit on the pine while the likes of Dominic Moore and Adam Hall (???) tested their penalty shot acumen on Capitals’ rookie netminder Brayden Holtby. And Boucher opted to bring a quasi washed up Vinny Lecavalier in to the contest too late in the proceedings. It was beyond stunning and shocking; for Lightning fans, it had to be appalling.
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Goals may be scarce in the Capitals’ boxscores these days, but the wins are there, and so is the conspicuous depth of talent in goal, lavishly on display in Washington’s 2-1 shootout win over the Tampa Monday night. You want to know why George McPhee refuses to deal any of his three prized young netminders, ever? Nights like Monday. But also: like all Caps’ fans, McPhee probably still has no idea who among Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth, and Braden Holby is going to emerge as go-to guy in crunch time. And all three might.
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We no longer have firing squads, meaning, almost certainly we are stuck with Pierre McGuire on Versus telecasts the remainder of the season and beyond. So insufferable. Often speaks apparently merely to hear his own voice. National Football League national telecasts had his ilk back in the day in Howard Cosell. Pretty sure Pierre could be lodged down at ice level for a late September exhibition game between Columbus and St. Louis and swear we were witness to “playoff atmosphere.”
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Capital Braden Holtby’s most valuable asset as a goalie may be his ability to rebound from scarring experiences. His shootout debut with the Capitals earlier this season was the unfortunate kind of unforgettable, but he more than made up for that last night when he stopped Tampa’s final shooter, Vincent Lecavalier, stone cold on the goal doorstep. Three saves by Holtby and one dirty goal by Ovechkin in the shootout sealed the outcome. Holtby’s development, however, is far from unexpected. Boudreau said back in 2009 during Development Camp that Holtby reminded him of Semyon Varlamov, who, at that point, was the darling of the Caps’ fanbase thanks to his uncanny ability to rise to the occasion in big games (in his case, the 2009 playoffs). Holtby is showing that same almost unteachable asset as he spends more time in Washington: he gets called off the bench to start the second stanza after Michael Neuvirth took a puck to the mask in the game’s opening minutes (Neuvirth for his part deserves an iron man shoutout for finishing the period after that incident) and follows up with some spectacular highlight reel saves, including a stick save on Simon Gagne that pretty much defied the laws of physics.
The only downside to the Holtby storyline Monday was that his dad wasn’t able to join many other Capitals’ proud Papas on the annual father-son roadtrip, and see the game in person, since he was apparently on his way to Hershey when Holtby got the callup.
So this is playoff hockey: allow the other team to score just one goal, don’t score a goal until the third period, and then duke it out in overtime, with power play goals becoming an extinct animal? The power play remains a singular area of grotesque concern for Bruce Boudreau. But for what it’s worth, Chicago finished the regular season last year 16th on the power play before going on to claim the Stanley Cup (although that’s still nine spots ahead of the Caps this time around). This year, Chicago is first in the league in power play like the Caps were last year.
The usually durable Nicklas Backstrom left the game, and the Washington Post’s Katie Carrera reported afterwards that Backstrom fell on his left hand (fractured thumb) but that he wanted to return. Backstrom’s hand has been of concern lately, but it sounds like there’s nothing wrong with his work ethic. According to Carrera, Boudreau said Backstrom would be fine.
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Can the Capitals keep the Dads in tow for the next three months?