The NHL playoffs were suppose to be a guarantee. The Washington Capitals were suppose to skate to their fifth consecutive Southeast Divisi0n titile. In fact, after the 7-0 start, it looked nearly certain. Instead, the Caps have played streaky, sometimes awful, hockey which has put them in a spot where they are battling for a simply NHL playoff spot. Fortunately, the Capitals seem to be gaining momentum at the right time. With the 2-0 shutout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs yesterday, the Capitals have now won three consecutive games and have pulled to a four point lead over the Winnipeg Jets for the final, eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. The winning streak has also pulled the Caps to within 1 point of Southeast Division leader Florida.
Capitals fans can thank three specific skaters and two units for the resurgence. First, the Caps have been getting some outstanding play from Alexander Semin, Bro0oks Laich, and Jay Beagle. Semin has been utilizing his speed, staying out of the penalty box (except his first penalty in nine games yesterday),and playing some tough, gritty hockey that fans are not accustomed to from Semin. In the three game streak, Semin has produced a goal, 2 assists, and has been a +3 on the ice. You have to love the way Semin is stepping up after a pretty lackluster season. Brooks Laich is invoking images of the past-Laich, hanging out in front of the net and and even getting a few breakaway opportunities. Things are clicking for Laich and net presence is a big part of it. His net presence against the Boston Bruins led to the game winning goal, a deflection in front of the net. Laich has scored 3 goals in his last 4 games. Jay Beagle has two goals in his past four games. Beagle has been playing with excellent speed, has been leveling some good, solid hits, and is getting himself in position to get shots on net. Since February 28, Beagle has 18 shots on goal. Beagle heard the message from Coach Dale Hunter that in order to end scoring droughts, shots have to be put on net more frequently. Beagle has answered.
You also can give credit to the blue liners. Not only are they playing more solid defense and helping out their net minders, but they are getting shots to the net and allowing guys like Laich and Beagle to answer deflections. It has been a emphasis that more shots must come fromt he defense and it is happening.
The defense isn't perfect. During this three game stretch, the Capitals have also been getting oustanding goal tending by both Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. Last Thursday, Vokoun stopped 24 of 26 shots and made some really terrific saves, bailing out the Capitals. Two days later, Vokoun stopped 30 of 33 shots to help lead the Capitals to a win over the defending Stanley Cup champs. The Caps put up four goals on Tim Thomas and the Bruins, first time the Bruins allowed 4 goals at home since Janaury 7. Then yesterday, the Caps got a masterful shutout performance by Michal Neuvirth, his third shutout of the season.
For the Capitals to seal the playoff deal and make a run to gain a point or two to take the Southeast Division lead, they will have to do it where they have not had little success this season, on the road. Washington's next five games will be on the road and they will not see the friendly confines of the Verizon Center until March 23. On this extended road trip, Washington will face the NY Islanders, Winnipeg, back to backs with Chicago and Detroit, and finishing it off in Philadelphia. Beginning Thursday in Winnipeg, the Caps face a ciritical stretch, facing Winnipeg twice in a week and half (3/16 and 3/23) and playing 3 of 4 nights starting this Thursday. By the time we get to Tuesday March 20, the Capitals season may be a bit more clear.