The Washington Capitals 5-3 hard fought road victory over the Detroit Red Wings gave Caps fans a glimpse into what might have been for this past season. In two games this season vs. one of the NHL’s best teams, Washington is 2-0, and has outscored them 12-4 in the process.

Now there were some injury circumstances Monday night as the Wings were without their all world, all-super human defenseman, Nicklas Lidstrom for the 12th straight game. Lidstrom’s absence isn’t the only key injury in Detroit for a Wings team that has now dropped five in a row.  Darren Helm, Joey MacDonald, Johan Franzen, Jakub Kindl, and Jonathan Ericsson  are all missed the contest. 

But being the healthier team hasn’t stopped the Caps from blowing games this season. Think back to two losses in late November when they Caps were beaten silly by the Maple Leafs and Sabres as both teams were missing a combined 16 regulars. Both still combined to beat the Caps 12-2, and the 5-1 loss to Buffalo on Nov, 26 was Bruce Boudreu’s final game behind the Washington bench.

While Monday’s win provided hope, and what could have been this season, Sundays 5-2 loss in Chicago is the cold hard reality of where the Capitals actually are with just nine games to play. With Monday’s victory, Washington remains two points in front of the Buffalo Sabres and four points in front of the Winnipeg Jets for the eighth and final playoff spot.

Buffalo dismantled a faltering Tampa Bay Lightning team 7-3 in Florida on Monday, and the Jets dropped a rare home game the night before to the Carolina Hurricanes, and were destroyed by James Neal, Evgeni Malkin and the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight. Winnipeg is officially fading as they play seven of their final 10 away from the MTS Center where they own one of the NHL’s best home ice advantages.

Winning the Southeast division for a fifth straight year is a longshot at this point for the Capitals, but not impossible. Florida won their fifth straight game in Philadelphia tonight, a place where the Caps will play on Thursday, and now lead Washington by five points.  

The Panthers are playing great right now, but will be hard pressed to keep it up with six of their final 10 games away from the friendly confines of South Florida. This includes a four game road trip to end the month of March in Montreal, Minnesota, Columbus, and Detroit. The Panthers are a middle of the pack road team at 16-14-5, and Caps fans are hopeful that the April, 5 showdown at Verizon Center will be a contest to help decide the Southeast title.

Washington will end the regular season two nights later at Madison Square Garden in New York and with the Rangers clinching a playoff berth with their win over the New Jersey Devils last night, it is possible that they would also have the No.1 seed in the East wrapped up by then. If that’s the case, than it is possible that head coach John Tortorella will rest some players in the season’s final game against Washington. That may not be how you want to win a hockey game Caps fans, but it would be nice if Washington beat Florida that Thursday and then were able to face a depleted Rangers team that is resting players for a first round match-up against the FLORIDA PANTHERS! I hope you get my point on that last one.

FINALLY A FIRST ON THE ROAD TO TALK ABOUT:

For all of their goal scoring capabilities, the Washington Capitals have been horrendous this season during the first period when it comes to scoring goals. In fact, the Capitals have been outscored in the first and second periods (138-108) this season by 30 goals. The fact that the Capitals are in the playoff hunt at all with those slow starts is a minor miracle.

Washington had been outscored by a combined total of 5-1 in the first 20 minutes of the three games to date on this current five game road trip. Washington entered Joe Louis arena having been outscored by 19 goals in the first period alone this season, while the Detroit Red Wings were second in the NHL with 71 first period tallies. Despite having lost four in a row, were hosting a slow starting Capitals team on the second game of a back-to-back set.

There must have been something in the water bottles, or it could have been the unseasonably warm weather in the Detroit area, but not only did the Capitals score three time in the opening frame, but two of them came on the power play. That’s not all, both were scored by team captain, Alex Ovechkin who scored his 31st and 32nd of the year.

Ovechkin scored the game’s first goal at 7:48 on the power play. The goal was made possible by Marcus Johansson, who split the Red Wings’ defense at the blue line, then made a perfect pass to Ovechkin where he loves the puck the most, on his stick and in the slot.

The Great 8 snapped a beautiful shot past Red Wings starter Jimmy Howard, who made just 17 saves in the game. “Perfect pass,” Ovechkin said. “I knew when he gave me the pass; I knew it was going to be in. I saw the net and I have lots of time.”

Ovechkin’s second goal of the period, again with the extra man, staked Washington to a 3-0 lead. The two extra man scores marked the first time Washington scored more than one power play goal in a road game since March 15, 2011 when the Caps went 2-for-5 with the extra man in a 4-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens. Ironically, Braden Holtby was also in net for that contest.

For the Great 8, it marked the first time he scored two power play goals in the same game since Oct. 30, 2010; Ovie notched two quick ones just 12-seconds apart in a 7-2 win over the Flames in Calgary. The Washington captain has now matched his goal output for all of last season with nine games to play. His 13 power play goals are the most in one season since he had 13 during the 2009-10 campaign. 

Since Dec. 30, Alex Ovechkin has scored 18 goals in 32 games. Ovechkin tallied 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) during the months of October and November (23 games) and has since recorded 38 points (24 goals, 14 assists) in his last 46 games.

SPEAKING OF HOLTBY:

I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the Washington Capitals are a different hockey team with Braden Holtby in net. Maybe it’s the fact that they trust his puck handling ability more, allowing a smoother transition out of the defensive zone, or maybe they like his ultra-aggressive style in net. Whatever it is, I like the way they play when he stands between the pipes.

Last night in Detroit, Holtby was good enough to get his first win of the season. He made 30 stops to get the “W” but it wasn’t easy, especially when you account for the heat inside the “Joe” for Monday night’s game.  The temperature outside was almost 80 degrees in Detroit yesterday which made for hot and humid conditions inside.

Holtby could be seen breathing heavily after almost every whistle stop in the third period, and the Red wings knew it. Holtby remained fundamentality sound, stood up to the shots, and protected the top corners of the net all net, and especially in the third.

“I felt really good out there the first two periods,” he says. “In the third, I don’t think I had enough fluids or something in me; electrolytes and stuff. I just started cramping up through the whole period. I tried to battle through that. He guys did a great job in the third, especially blocking shots. They could probably see that I was fatiguing a bit, and we pulled out a win.”

His biggest save of the game came when he stopped Daniel Cleary on a point-blank shot to help preserve the Caps three goal lead in the first period.  Holtby stopped all 12 shots he faced in the opening stanza and deserves a chance to start Thursday in Philadelphia.

Holtby, along with Michael Neuvirth, and Semyon Varlamov combined to make NHL history last season. Washington became the first team ever last season to have three goalies, aged 22-years or younger win 10 or more games. Holtby, who was the Capitals’ fourth-round choice, 93rd overall, in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, posted a 10-2-2 record with a 1.79 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage in 14 games with the Capitals. He became the first Caps rookie goaltender to be named NHL Player of the Week since Jim Carey accomplished the feat during the 1994-95 season.

BE LIKE MIKE:

It’s been an interesting season for Caps elder statesman, Mike Knuble. If in fact this is his last season with the Capitals, than Knuble’s game in Detroit on Monday had to be very satisfying for him. I’m sure the Caps 39-year old winger spent some time on the bench reflecting on his career that came full circle last night.

Knuble scored the Capitals second goal of the game and just his sixth on the season. Monday night’s goal was his third in four games after scoring just three in his previous 60 contests.

Entering the 2011-12 campaign, Knuble was on a very impressive streak of scoring at least 21 or more goals in each of his last eight seasons. This recent burst from Knuble is not surprising; he always heats up in March. He did so last season when he scored six of his 24-goals during the month, and in fact, according to Mike Vogel, Knuble has scored 54 of his 274 career NHL goals during the month. That is nine more than he has scored in any other month.

However, prior to this March spurt, age and numerous system changes seemed to have finally caught up with him. Knuble, who celebrated his 1000th NHL game earlier this season, has missed 10-games this season, eight of them as a healthy scratch.

He was thought to be on the trading block less than a month ago, but when the Feb, 27 deadline passed with no deal, Knuble’s game has steadily seemed to come back.  He is playing more intense, and his ice time has increased as a result. He’s gone from 10, 11, and 12 minutes a game to 14, and 15 minutes of ice time.

The time for reflection as Knuble scored his goal vs. Detroit must have been almost immediate. Knuble began his NHL career in Detroit nearly 15 years ago (on March 26, 1997) and his goal was his first in that building since Jan. 7, 2004. He won a Stanley Cup as member of the Wings when they swept the Capitals during the 1998 Finals. Knuble is a smart guy and knows that last night represented a full circle of what has been a long and successful career in the NHL. I for one am glad the Caps didn’t trade his leadership.

BENCHED?

If you watched Sunday’s loss, then you must have noticed Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov wasn’t on the ice vs. Detroit on Monday. He, along with Joel Ward was listed as healthy scratches. Ward was scratched one other time this season for missing a meeting during the Boudreau administration and Orlov needed to be benched, and taught a lesson.

He was beaten badly by the Blackhawks Viktor Stalberg on Sunday when he skated right past the rookie at center ice and created a breakaway. Stalberg deked Neuvirth in the crease and extended the Blackhawks’ lead to 2-0. While Orly wasn’t the only Caps player to look terrible on Sunday night as the Hawks held a 12-0 shot advantage to start the game, he was beaten pretty badly.

Orlov is not exactly slow and the play was nothing more than his not hustling to stop Stalberg from making a play. As for Ward, he has struggled all season and whether it’s from playing with the lofty expectations that came from being a highly sought after free agent, or the fact that he isn’t that talented, his lack of production is killing the Caps almost as bad as his $3 million salary.

Ward has just six goals and 18 points this season, and is on pace for career lows in each. He got off to a fine start with four goals in first 12 games, but since then has just two tallies since Nov, 5, a span of 58-games. Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Halpern took their spots respectively.

Head coach Dale Hunter didn’t pull any punches when asked about Orlov’s absence. “We though Orly made a few mistakes [against the Blackhawks] so we decided to sit him down and let him watch from above.” In other words, your benched rookie!

POWER SURGE:

The Capitals recent power play success is the result of continued hard work down low and crisp effective puck movement. The Capitals began to move the puck around quicker two weeks ago, but despite not having success, stuck with the philosophy of cycling the puck back to a rotating back line of players that were cycling down low behind the net, and back out to the blue line and into the high slot.

The crisp passing catches teams flat footed, and the Capitals have taken advantage. Washington is 5-for-their last 12 with the extra man, and is 2-1-0 when scoring during that span. The Capitals haven’t scored two goals on the PP since Jan, 9 and have only done it seven times all season but is 6-0-1 when doing so.

GREEN LIKES RED (WINGS)

Caps defenseman Mike Green was awarded the second assist on Jason Chimeras empty net goal that sealed the Caps 5-3 win over Detroit. The last time Green hit the score sheet registering an official point in the NHL was in the Caps last game vs. Detroit way back in October. That night Green tied a career high with four points as he scored twice and added two assists as the Caps crushed the Wings 7-1. Green now has eight points (three goals, five assists) in six career games vs. Detroit.

Since that October night Green has missed 53 games with a groin injury and is playing in his second game back from a three game NHL suspension for an illegal hit on Tampa Bay’s Brett Connolly. In between, Green has gone 15-games without a point until Monday night’s helper.

 

O FROM D CONTINUES: 

Ten of Washington’s 18 skaters collected a point in the victory over the Wings, as the Caps blue liners continue to make their mark. Washington’s 10 defenseman have combined 28 goals and 105 assists for 133 points in the team’s 73 games this season. Blue liners has contributed at least one point in 57 of Washington’s games this year, and with nine games to play, have now combined for 12 more points this season than they amassed last season (28 goals, 93 assists).

BACKSTROM BACK?

Now don’t be silly, he isn’t going to plat\y this year, but according to the Washington Post, he is making significant progress. After skating for seven straight days, Tuesday was a scheduled off day for Nicklas Backstrom. The Capitals’ star center is expected to be back on the ice Wednesday, a team spokesman said, as he continues to recover from the concussion that has sidelined him since Jan. 3.

While there remains no time table for Backstrom’s return, his presence on the ice is encouraging, as are his recent comments to both North American and Swedish reporters. After skating for seven straight days, Tuesday was a scheduled off day for Nicklas Backstrom. The Capitals’ star center is expected to be back on the ice Wednesday, a team spokesman said, as he continues to recover from the concussion that has sidelined him since Jan. 3.

While there remains no time table for Backstrom’s return, his presence on the ice is encouraging, as are his recent comments to both North American and Swedish reporters.

Backstrom spoke with Swedish TV network SVT and another great Caps website, Japers’ Rink has a translation of the interview, courtesy of Malin Andersson. A brief excerpt follows.

What are you dreaming about when you are out here working on your own on the ice?

“I’m dreaming about finally getting to train with the team again and maybe after that to play in a game. Also about making the playoffs. Because maybe then there is a chance I can play again.”

You can check out the full translated interview at Japers’ Rink.