One-timers: Caps take over first in Southeast; Martin Erat debuts

(Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

(Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

 

With 48 games in 99 days, there’s not a lot of time to digest what happened in any single contest. So as we churn through this compressed Capitals season, I’ll be rounding up my thoughts, analysis and various notes on games here. If you missed them, check out the game story from the 2-1 shootout win over the Islanders with more on Brooks Laich leaving the game with an injury and Braden Holtby’s 35-save performance.

It took 37 games over 2 ½ months, but for the first time this season the Washington Capitals are in a playoff position and sitting atop the Southeast Division.

Granted, all of that can change in an instant, but after starting the year a dreadful 2-8-1 the Capitals are finally seeing their improved play translate into movement up the standings.

“It’s a great feeling. We’ve been fighting a lot to get up there. I think we’ve been playing a lot better lately; we’ve been playing really good games,” Marcus Johansson said. “The last eight, nine, 10 games I think we’re playing great hockey. It’s good that we’re getting some results.”

Over the past eight games the Capitals are 6-1-1. That run began on March 21 in the first of back-to-back games at the Winnipeg Jets, and when Washington headed into that contest it sat second to last in the Eastern Conference with 25 points – nine out of first in the Southeast and seven behind eighth place in the conference.

“I think our team game has come a long way. I really think that we’re starting to grasp the system and the advantages we can get from it. I think we’re starting to frustrate teams,” said Brooks Laich, who left the game with an undisclosed injury. “They’re not getting the chances and the goals that they were getting before. I really think we’re supporting each other well. We’re starting to suffocate teams a little bit more and getting healthy. Getting Mike [Green] back was big. And now we have the addition of Marty. I said before: I really think that the best hockey lays ahead for this team, and we’re just starting to peak.”

Even with Washington’s improved play and surge up the standings, it’s important to note that of its 18 wins this season, only three have come against teams currently in a playoff position and none of those victories were in regulation. The Capitals beat the fourth-place Boston Bruins, 4-3, in overtime on March 5, defeated the eighth-place New York Rangers, 3-2, in a shootout on March 24, and on Thursday bested the now seventh-place Islanders, 2-1, in a shootout.

Washington will have plenty of opportunities to measure itself against playoff-bound teams down the stretch, though, with six of its final 11 games of the season coming against teams among the top eight in the East.

>> Martin Erat made his Capitals debut Thursday night, skating 14:43 but was held without a point against the Islanders. While the 31-year-old winger didn’t make an impact on the scoresheet, it’s not difficult to see where his skillset should help the Capitals.

Erat’s strong skating ability and speed was evident in every shift he took, he protected the puck well and didn’t shy away from contact – he had a nice hit early on Colin McDonald in the neutral zone — made a few nice passes and showed a veteran’s ability to keep himself out of bad situations even if it was his first game in a new system with a new team after waking up at 4:30 a.m.

“I think he did a great job. I really did, yeah. You can see, obviously, his skills. He really helped us in the cycle. He’s a smart guy – you can tell. I thought he did a great job,” Coach Adam Oates said. “Getting traded is not always easy. He played on a franchise for a long time and all of a sudden you’ve got to go out the door and say goodbye and meet new guys and step into a lineup. You know, it’s nerve-wracking. Very stressful.”

Erat acknowledged it wasn’t a perfect debut, but once he gets a few more days and practices with the Capitals things should go smoothly.

“It’s always hard when you have to come to a team and don’t practice with those guys,” Erat said. “They are great players, and it was very good to play with them.”

Erat skated on the third line with Mathieu Perreault and Joel Ward against the Islanders, but it’s likely Oates tinkers with the lineup more in the coming days. While the intention is for Erat to eventually fill the left wing spot on either of the Capitals’ top two lines, he might not skate on the top unit opposite Alex Ovechkin as quickly as many expected given Marcus Johansson’s strong play recently.

>> Mike Green’s goal with 13 seconds remaining in the first period gave the defenseman his fifth goal in the past four games.

He’s played in eight straight since returning from a lingering groin injury and over the past week Green has started to show some of his old confidence with the puck and demonstrate the on-ice vision that makes him such a potent offensive weapon.

“Absolutely. And I think that’s just because I feel good,” Green said when asked if this is the best he’s felt in a while. “I had a rough go the last few years and finally healthy. So feel great.

More on Green to come in tomorrow’s paper.

>> Washington has gone to a shootout three times in its past six contests after not needing the tiebreaker in the first 31 games of the season. The Capitals are perfect in games decided by the skills competition thus far, defeating the Rangers, Sabres and Islanders.

Ovechkin is a perfect 3-for-3 in shootouts so far this season and against the Islanders he beat goaltender Evgeni Nabokov when he roofed a backhand shot. Ovechkin went 3-for-8 in the shootout last year and has scored 23 shootout goals on 68 attempts in his career.

“To be honest with you, no,” Ovechkin said when asked if he was approaching shootouts differently this season. “I just try to score and watch the video on how the goalie played before the game.”

>> The Capitals are off Friday before back-to-back games this weekend at Florida Saturday and then home against the Tampa Bay Lightning Sunday.

Also on Capitals Insider

Braden Holtby stellar with 35-save outing against Islanders