The red white and blue freight train continues to pick up speed as it rumbles towards a destination that once seemed unthinkable—the NHL playoffs.
The Washington Capitals squashed the Carolina Hurricanes 3-1 on Thursday night behind stellar goaltending and timely scoring to win for the tenth time in twelve games and maintain a two point advantage over the Winnipeg Jets in the Southeast Division with a game in hand and only seven games to play.
Two goals by winger Troy Brouwer and a tally by defenseman Mike Green paced the Caps.
The Hurricanes, who have now lost fourteen of their last fifteen games to plummet out of playoff contention, did not go quietly however. The first ten minutes of the contest featured what seemed like a relentless barrage of scoring chances by the away team that resulted in a shocking 14-0 advantage in shots by the Hurricanes before the first period was half over. Capitals goalie Braden Holtby was under fire from all sides and the Caps were fortunate that Carolina cashed in only once during that span–when center Jeff Skinner pounced on a rebound in front of the net at the 5:01 mark during a four on three man advantage. Notwithstanding the goal allowed Holtby gets most of the credit for keeping the ship afloat as he steered away several other well placed shots that seemed destined for the back of the net.
When the Caps were awarded a power play at 10:02 of the first period they finally had the opportunity they needed to get their legs under them and make the necessary adjustments. The team immediately began to look reenergized—their passes crisper, their skating more determined, and their forechecking more effective. As a result, the Canes didn’t get another shot on goal for over nine minutes as the Capitals turned the tables and outshot the Canes 8-1 the rest of the period. Even though the Caps trailed by a 1-0 score entering the first break the home team had regained its confidence and sent the message that the worst was behind them on this night.
The Caps players acknowledged that it took some time to gain their footing. Said Holtby: “It was nice to get through that little patch. It wasn’t a matter of mental stuff, it was more technical. Being too aggressive on some stuff.”
Green offered that “once we settled down we played our game . . . We were able to take over the flow of the game.”
And the second period gave the fans what they came to see. First, at the 8:08 mark Brouwer tied the score when he connected from the right circle on the power play off a pass from Mike Ribeiro. Caps fans may be surprised to learn that their team’s power play is the most effective in the league given the inconsistency their team has shown at times with the man advantage. But the power play has been key to their recent success and lately teams have been focusing most of their attention on Alex Ovechkin allowing more room for other players to maneuver.
Less than three minutes later Green gave the Caps the advantage for the first time after patiently skating into the right circle and flinging the puck past Canes goaltender Justin Peters on the far side. On this play Green displayed all of the skill that has made him one of the most feared offensive defenseman in the league when healthy. He showed his superior puck control and accurate shot that often times makes him seem more fit to be a frontline player than a blueliner.
Even though the Caps controlled the flow of the game by this point the Canes continued to get their chances and their shot total continued to grow. But thanks to Holtby the Canes first tally would also be their last. The riled up crowd chanted the goaltender’s name throughout this game as he made save after save between the pipes. Although on a few occasions he was fortunate when the puck trickled past him only to miss the goal by mere inches or get cleared from the goal line by a recovering defenseman, he may have played his best game of the season this night. The Canes finished with 44 shots and Holtby stopped all but one.
The Verizon Center faithful equally enjoyed serenading former Caps winger Alexander Semin who returned to D.C. as a member of the Hurricanes and who was roundly booed every time he touched the puck. Although he was credited with eight shots on goal this night his mostly significant entry on the scoresheet was his tripping penalty midway through the first period that turned the momentum of this game in the Caps favor.
Brouwer’s empty net goal in the final few seconds of the game completed the scoring and the surging Caps added two more points to their total.
Caps players admitted after the game that they are scoreboard watching and keeping a close eye on the playoff race. Brouwer said that he and his teammates “knew the importance of this game . . . we saw what the Winnipeg score was and knew we had to continue to play well.”
Capitals coach Adam Oates admitted that he “saw [the Winnipeg score] during a timeout” and added that “there is nothing we can do about it. We have to worry about our game. We got to win our games. Got to get our points. “
But if this freight train continues to pick up speed it won’t matter what Winnipeg does. It’s going to reach its destination.