Coming To Crunch Time, Caps Get Help
By Stephen London
Going into their game March 31, the Washington Capitals were not in control of their current situation. Even if they beat the Montreal Canadiens, the Capitals needed help from the Toronto Maple Leafs in order to take over the eighth seed -- and the final playoff spot -- in the conference.
From the Capitals' perspective, they need to try to win each of the last four games and just hope that the Buffalo Sabres fall from their eighth spot in the conference. Considering the Caps have gone into overtime during three of their last five games, it was not surprising to see this game get taken into a shootout. Michal Neuvirth and Matt Hendricks were key when it came time for the shootout, edging the Canadiens, 3-2.
The hometown fans were ecstatic to see a face they have not seen in gameday attire since Jan. 3, Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom made a difference just being in the lineup. The passing was almost too quick at times, but that cohesiveness will become better during the next couple games.
Head coach Dale Hunter did not seem to hold Backstrom out much because of his injury, considering he received more than 19 minutes of ice time. Whether it was because of Backstrom returning to the lineup or the fact that it was the second-to-last home game on the schedule, the Capitals started out strong.
It took only four minutes and 16 seconds to get the game's first goal, as Mathieu Perreault logged his 15th of the season. It was a great two-on-one opportunity, turned into a rebound goal after a defenseman blocked Alex Semin's shot. Semin was credited with his 31st assist and Karl Alzner received his 15th of the season.
The Capitals were playing strong defense as well as creative offense during the first period. Jay Beagle received a hard pass from Matt Hendricks for a tip-in goal with just less than four minutes to play during the period, giving the Capitals a 2-0 lead. Beagle's goal marked his third and Hendricks' fifth assist as well as Mike Knuble's 12th assist of the season.
After the Capitals went up two goals on the Canadiens, it was their game to lose. But out of five power-play opportunities, the Capitals converted none. Capitalizing on those power-play chances is a crucial part of being able to win in the playoffs, especially when the game is at home.
The first period ended with the Canadiens getting a bit of life sent back into their team when former Carolina Hurricane Erik Cole was able to put in his 32nd goal of the season. From that point forward, the Canadiens outshot the Capitals, 32-21, including a 5-0 shot differential in overtime. The Capitals should be outshooting their opponent at home, and if not, at least get a shot on net in overtime.
The second and third periods consisted of the Capitals playing a more defensive game. But 15 minutes into the second period, the Canadiens were able to put another by Neuvirth, tying the game at 2, thanks to a Tomas Plekanec goal, his 16th of the season.
At this point, all of the hard work that seemed to have paid off at the beginning of the game was rewritten. With the third period remaining scoreless, the Capitals went to their fourth overtime during the last six games.
When it came time for the shootout, the entire Verizon Center knew about the Sabres losing to the Maple Leafs. With the Sabres' loss, the Capitals could have jumped them in the standings if they pulled a win out of the shootout.
Hendricks, who has quickly gained a reputation for his paralyzing capabilities, took the first shot and exceeded all expectations when the goaltender, Peter Budaj, did not bite on the fake shot. Hendricks threw the puck top shelf after giving a head fake, which was enough to beat the Canadiens' goaltender.
Neuvirth had a spectacular game, stopping 39 of 41 shots, but really played well during the shootout, stopping all opportunities faced. With Alex Ovechkin missing his shot, it was up to Semin to either end the game or give the Canadiens another chance to come back. Semin put the puck right between the legs of Budaj to put the Capitals in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
• The Canadiens have not done well at the Verizon Center since knocking the Caps out of the playoffs two years ago. The Capitals have gone 7-0-2 during their last nine home games against the Habs.
• Semin's assist puts the Russian winger at 37 points during the last 46 games.
• Perreault's goal marks his sixth point against the Canadiens during seven career games.
• The Capitals have a crucial game April 2 against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Sabres have another game against the Maple Leafs April 3.
• With the win against the Canadiens, the Capitals are only a game behind the Florida Panthers for the lead in the Southeast Division.
• The last home game of the regular season is April 5 against the Florida Panthers, which presents an opportunity for the Capitals to make another jump in the standings, to third in the conference.
Posted April 2, 2012