SOMETHING TO BUILD ON

Last Jan-22, the Washington Capitals marched into the Air Canada Centre having lost six of their previous eight games, and much like this year’s squad, were a fragile team that could go either way.

Alex Ovechkin was mired in a scoring slump, and the Caps were just starting to play within the new defensive oriented system head coach Bruce Boudreau implemented during an eight game losing streak the month before.

The Capitals started minor league call-up Braden Holtby in net, who entered the game with a 3-2-1 record. Washington started off slowly, but Holtby kept them in the game as he stunned the Saturday Hockey Night in Canada television audience with great save after great save. Motivated and inspired by the rookies play, Alex Ovechkin scored three times to record his 10th career hat trick, as the Capitals went on to win the game 4-1. Washington won 21 of their final 30 games, their fourth straight Southeast division title, as well as second straight regular season Eastern Conference crown.

Last night, with similar circumstances presented to the Caps, Washington took to the ice in Toronto with essentially their season on the line. The Capitals must finish with at least 95 points to make the playoffs, and could ill-afford another loss, especially on the road.

Washington was coming off a 4-1 home win on Friday vs. Montreal, but looked less than impressive in the process. Washington and Toronto each entered the game tied in points with 65, and were both 3-6-1 during their past 10 games.

The Capitals were also less than stellar in the second game of back-to-backs this year. Washington was just 2-6-1 after winning the night before.  Washington needed to start to fast, and that seemed like a long shot as well when you consider that prior to Friday’s home win Washington had surrendered the first goal in six straight games and was 1-5 when doing so. They were recently outscored 13-5 during a 1-3 road trip, and 7-0 in the first period of those games.

STARTING FAST:

Last season the Caps allowed the first goal of the game 47 times but still managed to win an NHL best 23 times, collecting 51 points. This season, the Caps haven’t been able to overcome allowing the first goal as easily, and have won just 11 of the 33 games when doing so.

Starting fast was a must, and that’s exactly what they did.

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a quicker start on the road for the Capitals this season. Last night’s victory was undoubtedly the Caps best road effort since beating Florida 2-1 back on Feb, 17. The Caps have not scored four or more goals on the road since beating Columbus 4-2 on New Year’s Eve.

Washington quickly jumped on top 1-0 just .32 seconds into the contest. Marcus Johansson scored his 12th goal of the season on a wraparound as Leafs starter James Reimer never followed Johansson around the net.

Johansson’s goal marked the second straight game, the Maple Leafs fell behind 1-0 just 32-seconds into the first period. San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau scored at Air Canada on Thursday night in a 2-1 San Jose win over Toronto.

Johansson has now scored the Caps first goal of the game four times this season, but none was more pivotal to his team, which provided tremendous boost for a struggling road team. However, it was Alexander Semin’s 17th goal of the season a little over three minutes later that could be a turning point for the Capitals with only 20-games to play in the 2011-12 season.

SASHA THE GREAT:

Semin, who has been criticized for much of his career for not hustling, and playing to the whistle outhustled the Leafs defenders for his goal. Semin’s initial shot was stopped by Reimer and controlled by the Leafs Luke Schenn. Semin, who rarely chased his shots in the past, did just that as he stole the puck from Schenn and fired a beautiful wrist shot past Reimer from the left lower face-off circle. To give his team a quick 2-0 lead.

Schenn got caught playing like Semin has in the past and Sasha, as he is called in the dressing room, made him pay. The quick two-goal deficit forced former Caps coach Ron Wilson, and the Leafs much maligned bench boss to immediately call timeout to try and calm his troops down.

 Semin’s remains hot since Dale Hunter took over behind the bench in D.C.  He now has 30 points (12 goals, 18 assists) in his last 31 games, and is playing arguably the best two-way hockey of his career during the last month. He hasn’t taken any stupid penalties, and isn’t forcing lazy and sloppy passes. He isn't giving up on plays, and as you saw in Saturday’s game, is following his shot, and playing to the whistle.

How big were the two first period goals for Washington? When you consider the Caps haven’t scored a first period goal in 20 of their 32 road games this season, I’d say they were pretty damn big.

Saturday’s game marked the first time in six road games that Washington scored a goal in the first period, and was the first time in six games, and just the fifth time all season on the road that Washington held a lead at the conclusion of the first period of road game. 

Head coach Dale Hunter also felt it was a big deal and said so after the game to the Washington media. “That’s big, especially on the road for us. We’ve been getting behind early and it’s hard to come back in this league. It just proves a point again, we’ve got to have a good first [period] and good things will happen.”

Washington’s two-goal s in the first period matched its most goals in the first period of a road game this season, and was the fourth time the Caps have scored two goals in the first period of a road game and the first time they had done so since a 3-0 win over the Canadiens in Montreal on Jan. 18. 

The Caps are 20-6-3 when they score the game’s first goal this season, 16-1-1 when leading after the first period and 19-0-0 when leading after the second intermission this season. During Friday night’s win, the Capitals seemed to play tentatively with a 2-0 lead, and even though they took a 3-0 lead with two goals in 16 seconds, Washington wasn’t playing to put the Habs away. They played back on their heels, and were outplayed badly in the final period, and as a result allowed a shorthanded goal.

 Last night, Washington continued to take the play to Toronto, and scored the third goal and fourth goal before the Leafs scored their first two. Despite allowing an early, and late third period goal on Saturday night, the Caps played better in front of their own net, and most assuredly played much better in front of Toronto’s crease.

Washington sent men towards Reimer all night and the results were there to prove it. When Jeff Halpern popped in his fourth of the season to give the Caps a 3-0 lead, Joel Ward and Jay Beagle were banging on the doorstop in front of the Leafs net minder.

When 33-year-old AHL journeyman Keith Aucoin scored his first NHL goal since Oct, 24 2009, he did so directly in front on the net on beautiful passes from Marcus Johansson, and Alex Ovechkin.

GOALTENDER CONTROVERSY:

After a rough week for veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun, one in which he was criticized publically for his play by Dale Hunter; the Capitals net presence was steadied this past weekend by Michael Neuvirth. Starting in his first back-to-back starts of the season, Neuvy stopped 58-of the-61 shots he faced during this weekend’s contests. He figures to get the nod again on Tuesday when the Caps host the Islanders.

Neuvirth is now 8-9-3 with two shutouts this season, and has improved his goals against to a more respectable 2.87 goals per game. His save percentage leaves a lot to be desired at .903, but the 23-year-old Czech is getting hot at the right time for Washington.

Washington played solid defense in front of Neuvirth on Saturday, and didn’t allow a shot on their young goalie until 31 seconds after the Capitals took the two-goal lead. Neuvirth told reporters after the game about his performance, “Obviously I had a good game [Friday against Montreal] and I was pretty confident coming into this game. When your first save is a little bit breakaway and big stop, that got me going, and I felt great the rest of the way.”

The Capitals now have momentum heading into a very important five game home stand. But before the home stand begins, the NHL trading will pass at 3 P.M. on Monday, and it is possible that there could be a few new faces when the Caps faceoff with the Isles on Tuesday evening.

LOOKING FOR A TRADE:

The secondary scoring the Capitals received during their past two games with goals from Jason Chimera, Marcus Johansson, Mathieu Perreault, Jeff Halpern, Keith Aucoin and Joel Ward (empty net) may be enough to calm the talk of shaking up the roster before the deadline. What also may prevent the Caps from going crazy is   the back-to-back wins over the Canadiens and Leafs is the first time since the middle of January the Caps have won two games in a row. Washington last strung together two or more victories Jan. 11 through Jan. 15 when they won three straight over Pittsburgh, Tampa and Carolina.

It is highly possible that disgruntled veterans Mike Knuble, and defenseman Roman Hamrlik could be moved before tomorrow’s deadline.

Knuble, 39, has been a healthy scratch in five of the last nine games and Hamrlik, 37, has sat out three straight games. Don’t be surprised if the Caps move another veteran, 35-year-old goalie Tomas Vokoun. With his relationship heading downhill with head coach Dale Hunter, the Caps may be able to get good secondary scoring for him, as more than a few teams may be looking to secure the Czech’s services for a playoff push. Obviously the Caps Unrestricted Free Agents (UFAs), which are players not under contract for next season, are also prime candidates to move.

 Some of team’s top, and most expensive talent is on this list.  They are: forwards Alexander Semin ($6.7M), the above mentioned Mike Knuble ($2M), Jeff Halpern ($825K), and All-Star defenseman Dennis Wideman ($3.9375M). Vokoun is also a UFA next season and makes just $1.5 million.

Aside from secondary scoring, Washington G.M. George McPhee no doubt has his eyes on the lookout for toughness, and grit, as the Capitals need help with net presence and play deep in the corners. McPhee has been active every year since the Caps became serious contenders. McPhee’s acquired big time talent like goalie Jose Theodore, and longtime Red Wings great Sergei Fedorov. He has also picked up role players like Joe Corvo and Eric Belanger. Last year it was Dennis Wideman and Jason Arnott acquired at the deadline.

2O WOULD BE A MIRACLE:

While the Eastern conference crown seems out of reach, the Capitals can use last night’s 4-1 win in Toronto as a springboard to their fifth straight Southeast title. Last night was the type of game Caps fans have been waiting for from their team on the road in quite a while. The Caps are now two points ahead of the 10th-place Maple Leafs, one point behind eighth-place Winnipeg Jets and one behind third-place Florida Panthers.

The Capitals will be hard pressed to keep up their current four year streak of winning at least 20 road games. The Capitals won for just the 11th time this year away from Verizon Center, and will need to win all nine remaining road games to hit the 20 win mark. That is highly unlikely when you consider the Caps must visit Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia once, and for good measure, Washington must also visit the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins twice. That’s not all, if the Caps need to win on the last day of the season to secure a playoff berth, they will have to do it against what will likely be the Eastern Conference’s best team.

The Caps visit Madison Square Garden on Saturday April, 7 to close out the 2011-12 regular season against the New York Rangers. Currently, the Blueshirts lead the east by seven points over the Boston Bruins.

Check back all day long tomorrow with continued trade deadline coverage right here on Capitals Corner as featured columnist Kevin Thomas will be on the phones and on the computer ready to keep you up to date with any trades the Capitals make.

Be sure to join Kevin and me as we recap the Caps weekend, and any deadline deals GM George McPhee makes by listening to Z-Best R-Rated Sports Talk. Tune in at 6:30 on Blog Talk Radio. Email the show with any questions at zbestsports1@gmail.com

Team reports were used in the writing of this  article.