If the Washington Capitals fail to make the playoffs, many will point to their 4-3 overtime loss on Friday night to the Winnipeg Jets as the turning point down the stretch that cost the Capitals momentum and a very valuable point. I won’t!
Now you won’t find another that is as critical of the Capitals as I am, but I say not so fast Caps fans on this one. All is not what it seems, and the fact that Washington earned another point when you consider the circumstances may be a reason they make the playoffs instead of miss them.
Of course this all depends on whether or not the Caps take care of business on Sunday afternoon when the struggling Minnesota Wild (3-6-1 in their last 10) visit Verizon Center, but assuming they do, Friday’s loss will not look nearly as bad as it appears right now.
What the average hockey fan sees is the Capitals choking, and allowing the Jets to come back and score four straight goals to win the game in overtime. What many fail to realize is the fact that Washington got a point at all isn’t that bad of an outcome.
Even though the Caps were at home and playing the team with the worst road record in the Eastern Conference, this was a perfect storm Washington came home to, and one that they did everything to avoid, but fell victim to anyway.
Winnipeg was sitting and waiting for the Caps to get back home to D.C. In fact, the Jets were in the nation's capital before the Caps left to play the Flyers on Thursday. Winnipeg arrived in Washington in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Both the Capitals and the Jets practiced at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington on Wednesday, and Winnipeg had another session at Kettler on Thursday.
The Jets were rested and ready when Washington returned home to play the second game of their fifth back-to-back set in a little over a month, and second just this week. This, not to mention the Caps had just completed their longest road trip of the season with stops in Chicago, and very hot and humid Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
With some adrenaline still in their veins from having earned a tough point the night before in Philly, the Capitals were able to mount a three goal lead before the Jets could knock off the hotel rust from the past two days. By the time Winnipeg had done that, fatigue could almost literally be seen settling in on a very tired Capitals team.
The Jets banked on this happening and even said so. On Thursday following practice at the Capitals facility Jets head coach Claude Noel told reporters, “"They're in a back-to-back situation when we play this game tomorrow, and we've got to take advantage of that and hopefully jump on them and go from there."
Winnipeg did jump on Washington, but it didn’t happen until later in the game. The Caps were like a heavyweight fighter who has his opponent on the ropes and on the verge of knocking them out only to end up punching themselves out and tiring allowing the other fighter to take charge and earn the knockout win late in the fight.
The stats from the contest back this up as Washington trailed 23-21 in shots at the end of two periods. However, from the start of the third period on, the Jets fired 19 of the games remaining 21 shots and managed to escape with a two point win.
Sure the Capitals were disappointed in their performance, but they knew what they were facing. The Jets always play the Capitals tough. Last night was the sixth and final time the two teams played this season, and guess what Caps fans, Winnipeg ended up winning four of those games this season. This includes two of the three overtime affairs at the Phone Booth this season.
While both teams needed the win, if you had to pick one team that needed it more, it would be Winnipeg. A regulation loss would have dropped them seven points behind the eighth-place Caps in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Adding to the perfect storm was the fact that the Capitals never, and I mean never, lose a hockey game when leading after two periods this season. Washington was 22-0-0 in games in which they led after 40 minutes, and Friday was also the first time they lost a game when leading by three goals. Winnipeg was 0-22-3 in games in which they had trailed after two periods, and had lost 24 of 35 games away from the MTS Center this season.
The Caps weren’t beaten by the Jets top lines, they were beaten by Winnipeg’s fourth line and while you might say that’s even more embarrassing, I would say it proves my point that fatigue was more of factor than you think. The fourth line is often referred to as the “energy line”, the line that tries to skate circles around teams top lines, while trying to generate scoring chances by playing physical and skating nonstop.
Washington did not have the energy to keep up with the energy and speed of Winnipeg’s youthful fourth line during the second half of the contest. The Jets Ben Maxwell scored his second career goal, and Spencer Mahacek, playing in just the 17th NHL game of his career and fifth this season, scored his first ever marker when he tied the contest with only 3:45 remaining.
By the way and for good measure, the third member of the Jets fourth line, Tim Stapleton, wouldn’t be denied last night. Stapleton scored the game winner 2:37 into overtime.
The Caps fourth line, which did a great job on the recent five game road trip, was benched by Dale Hunter for much of the contest Vs. Winnipeg as their legs never got going. “Our fourth line didn’t do the job so a couple of them sat down,” Hunter told reporters following the game.
The Capitals were upset with their performance, but varied on why and how they lost the game when talking to reporters following the contest. "We took our foot off the gas," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "We just fell apart pretty much. It was an embarrassing, embarrassing loss."
“The game went 3-0 and [Caps goalie] Michal [Neuvirth] I thought was having a pretty routine night,” says Caps right wing Mike Knuble. “And then all of a sudden we were up 3-0 and it’s like we stopped playing.
Jason Chimera, who set a career high with his 18th goal of the season last night said, ““You don’t want to sit back, you don’t want to let them come at you, that’s for sure. We knew they were going to come at us because their season was on the line. But you can’t sit back like that.
Chimera scored the Caps first goal of the contest as his speed once again was the catalyst for the breakaway goal that beat Jets starter Ondrej Pavelec with just 3:54 to play in the opening period. Chimmy finished by saying, “You need one good shift to get out of that and we didn’t get that. It’s all on us. It’s nothing they did. It’s how we played. We had it where we wanted it, and we just didn’t finish it off.”
Head Coach Dale Hunter said, “They were bringing it,” says caps coach Dale Hunter of the Jets. “We were backing in too much. The [defense] were backing in and they were giving [the Jets] an opportunity to carry it in more.”
Hunter was again exposed as a rookie head coach during the latter stages of the game as Jets head coach Claude Noel dictated the on ice match-ups, which in the NHL is hard to do considering the home team gets the final change.
Noel’s top line of Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, and Bryan Little skated an average of 23:39 minutes. With so much ice time, Hunter chose to counter with Matt Hendricks, Jay Beagle and Troy Brouwer. This kept Ovechkin off the ice as the Great 8 logged just 18 minutes and 51-seconds of ice time during the contest. One night after leading the team’s forwards with over 22-minutes of ice time, Ovechkin was fourth in Fridays’ contest vs. Winnipeg.
According to Mike Vogel of the Capitals web site, Ovechkin skated 8:29 of the game’s first 25:47, as the Caps took a three goal lead. But Noel adjusted and took control of the match-ups and Ovechkin logged just 10:22 of the game’s final 36:50.
SPEAKING OF THE GREAT 8
For the third time in his last six games, Alexander Ovechkin scored two goals for his team in one game. The Capitals Captain scored on two classic Ovechkin shots less than six into the middle frame. On his first goal, Ovechkin used the defender as screen and snapped a wrist shot past Pavelec for his 34th of the season. Just four minutes and five seconds later, and while Caps starter Michael Neuvirth was pulled for an extra attacker during a delayed penalty call, the Caps super star converted a beautiful Mathieu Perreault pass and drilled what had to be a 100-plus mph slap shot past Pavelec for his 35th tally of the season.
Both goals came from about the same point and both were an example of how Ovechkin seems to have once again found his repertoire of shots and the accuracy to match them. It was his eighth multiple goal game of the season and The Great 8 is now tied for fourth in the NHL in goals with several other players this season.
It has been a while since Ovechkin has produced this kind of goal scoring. The last time Ovechkin produced eight goals in such a short time span was back during his 50-goal season of 2009-10.
Ovechkin had eight goals in five games from Jan, 31-Feb, 7 as he concluded that run with a hat trick on Super Bowl Sunday at home vs. the Penguins.
Michael Neuvirth got the nod from head coach Dale Hunter last night and was average at best during the contest. Granted, Neuvy had to fend off a barrage of Winnipeg shots in the final period but his flopping has got to stop as he continues to expose the top half of the net with too much consistency.
Neuvirth has got to learn to be more patient in the crease and keep his feet a second or two longer. Yes he played well enough to win, but he also allowed four or more goals for the fifth time during the month of March. Sometimes, your goalie must be your best defense and when Neuvy is in net, I get the feeling the Caps are a fragile team at times.
Neuvirth did make a few game savers during the third period, especially Andrew Ladd’s shot from the low slot and a beautiful back door save on Blake wheeler, but if you go back and examine the four goals he did allow, how many should have never found their way over the goal line? By my estimation it was at least two of them and a great goalie would have kept three of the four from reaching the back of the twine.
Look for Braden Holtby to return to net on Sunday, and possibly again on Tuesday as Tomas Vokoun continues to recover from a groin injury. According to published reports, Vokoun says he hopes to return sometime this week, but with a big game looming vs. buffalo on Tuesday, it is hard to imagine Dale Hunter allowing Vokoun to test his groin in that contest.
The loss and one point leaves the Caps with 82 points, tied for eighth place in the Eastern Conference standings with the Buffalo Sabres. Washington does hold the tiebreak as the caps have more wins in regulation than do the Sabres. However, the Sabres are hot. They beat the Rangers at Madison Square Garden and goalie Ryan Miller is on fire right now.
Buffalo is now 6-2-2 in their last 10 games and aren’t a bad road team at 17-18-2 this season.
I’m not making any excuses for the Capitals loss to the Jets, this is the NHL, and while many are saying if you can’t hold a three goal lead this time of the year at home you don't deserve to make the playoffs, I’m saying, let’s just wait on this one, at least until Sunday night.
I understand how you feel, and usually agree, but not this time. The schedule has a way of evening itself out this time of the year, and the Capitals have been the benefactors on many occasions of this very same situation, waiting for a team to get back home to play them in their own barn.
The Capitals have been the benefactors of the same situation on many occasions. I am merely pointing out that while these loss stings, if the Capitals win on Sunday vs. Minnesota, it will sting a lot less. And if they win on Tuesday, you will hardly even remember it.