Two months ago and in a similar situation, the Washington Capitals might have lost Friday night’s game. Down 1-0 headed into the third period against the Carolina Hurricanes, the slim lead may have been an insurmountable one against Cam Ward and the Carolina defense.
But this Caps team is a much different team than it was two months ago.
Friday night, they battled back behind goals by Alex Ovechkin and Matt Hendricks to beat the Hurricanes 2-1, extending their current winning streak to seven, the longest of the season.
The win wasn’t pretty – Washington was out-shot 41 to 26 – but another superb effort from rookie goalie Braden Holtby and some great penalty killing put the Caps in a position to take two points from the Hurricanes. While it was another stressful one-goal game, head coach Bruce Boudreau has confidence in his team’s ability to battle back, even when they’ve struggled this year.
“I’ve always been confident in one-goal games, I’ve always thought we were going to catch up, I always thought we were going to keep the lead,” Boudreau said. “I’ve never once in four years thought, ‘Uh oh, there’s no way we can keep this lead.’”
The biggest reason they were even in a position to take – and keep – the lead was because of Holtby’s play. The rookie goaltender had 40 saves and made several big saves on the penalty kill, which shut out Carolina power play.
“He’s [Braden Holtby] making it tough,” Boudreau said. “Three really good goalies and he obviously doesn’t want to leave the net. He’s obviously doing a good job.”
His only blemish came with 35 seconds left in the 2nd period, when Hurricanes forward Tuomo Ruutu fired a shot past a screened Holtby while on an odd-man break. With the momentum clearly in Carolina’s favor, the Caps headed to the locker room down a goal.
But 47 seconds into the third period, the ice began to tilt Washington’s way. Alex Ovechkin took a drop pass from Marcus Johansson at the top of the circles and fired a rocket past Ward to tie the game at one as Verizon Center erupted.
“It was an important goal for us,” Ovechkin said. “It was kind of a good shot and it was the end of the shift and I just try to shoot the puck and go change.”
With momentum now in Washington’s favor, the two teams traded chances until Jason Arnott broke free on Ward seven minutes later. Ward made a great save on Arnott but Hendricks, trailing the play, swooped in and knocked in the rebound past Ward.
“If there was going to be a rebound, I wanted to be the one to get it,” Hendricks said. “I just wanted to try to get it over his pad.”
Added Boudreau: “That’s what he [Matt Hendricks] does. He is going to get those dirty goals, in the crease. He’s not going to get those end-to-end goals. I think it was his first one in 16 games or something, so [I’m] happy for him because he works really hard all the time and he deserves some success offensively.”
Hendricks’ goal gave the Caps a lead and Holtby continued to his stellar play of the last week, making his case to be the team’s go-to goaltender going forward into the postseason.
“You always want to be the guy that plays in the playoffs” Holtby said. “I want to play every game like I’m going to be sent down [to Hershey] the next day.”
While Holtby and the Caps’ defense – which Boudreau thinks doesn’t get enough credit – kept the Hurricnes out of the goal the rest of the game, the coach wasn’t entirely happy with his team’s play and thought they were a little bit lucky.
“I didn’t think we were very sharp,” he said. “They had 40 shots on goal. I think they were carrying the play [and] they were beating us to the puck. We made the plays in the third period that we needed to win, and that was it.”
Lucky or not, the Capitals emerged from the game with two points in a hard-fought, physical game that required everyone on the team to give a full effort. Its games like these that the team can use to learn from when it comes playoff time – something that has been lacking the last few seasons.
“It’s kind of become a little bit of a character builder for us this year,” Hendricks said. “Looking back over the past few years, [in] Washington there hasn’t been a whole lot of adversity and guys are really coming out and playing and fighting to the end of the game and pulling out those one-goal games. It’s a lot like playoff hockey right now.”