In addition to signing prospect Evgeny Kuznetsov Saturday night, the Capitals rallied for a three-goal, third-period comeback to record a 3-2 win over Phoenix. It snapped their three-game losing streak and offered a successful performance heading into a challenging home-and-home set with Pittsburgh on Monday and Tuesday.
So without any further delay, five thoughts on the win over the Coyotes.
1. Urgency. The Capitals have 17 games remaining and as they stared down the possibility of a fourth-straight win in the second intermission against the Coyotes, that reality apparently sunk in. While Washington is certainly in reach of a playoff spot, they don’t own any tiebreakers and every other team in the hunt has at least one game in hand on them. Being within reach, at some point, won’t be enough.
“All you have to do is kind of take a second a realize how many games are left, what kind of position we are in and how the teams around us are playing to kick your butt a little bit, and realize that you have got to do something now or you are going to be in some trouble,” Karl Alzner said. “We’ve been feeling it, of course. We are a team that likes to try and go on runs at the end of the season, so hopefully we can do that.”
Last year, the Capitals went 15-2-2 to close out the season and capture a Southeast Division title and the playoff berth that went with it. But their schedule wasn’t nearly as difficult as the daunting road they have the rest of the way this year – only one game (Nashville) is against an opponent more than four points out of a playoff spot. And they don’t have the Southeast Division anymore. The NHL’s new playoff format gives guaranteed spots to the top three teams in both the Atlantic and Metropolitan divisions, but the remaining 10 teams in the East then vie for two wild card spots.
This team has shown an uncanny ability to win when just as they’re counted out over the years that I’ve covered them, from a third period or final minute push to obtain a win or last year’s run sparked by back-to-back wins in Winnipeg. But if the Capitals are going to hit that accelerator this season, it needs to be soon.
As things stand now they need 22 points of the final 34 that are available to them to reach 92 points, considered the bare minimum that would allow an Eastern Conference team to reach the playoffs. That means Washington, a team that has had two four-game winning streaks through the first 65 games, would need to win roughly two out of every three games the rest of the way.
2. Jaroslav Halak’s debut. The veteran netminder may be in the midst of his ninth NHL season, but his experience didn’t necessarily provide a calming effect in his first game with the Capitals.
“The first half of the game, I was really nervous,” Halak said. “I just wanted to come up with a good impression on the fans and my teammates and I just wanted to prove myself too that I can play. It was a great comeback by our guys and we needed these two points.”
It’s never easy to be traded mid-season, let alone bounce between three different teams in a week. But Halak settled himself and game through with a 31-save outing to out-duel Mike Smith (30 saves) as the Capitals mounted a comeback.
Phoenix’s first goal was the result of a neutral zone turnover and a mistake by Mike Green that led to a breakaway. The second, a power play shot that squeaked through Halak’s pads before Radim Vrbata swatted the puck across the goal line, was the type the Capitals would like any netminder to stop but Halak was screened on the play and didn’t see the initial shot. As Washington mounted its comeback, though, Halak was there to ensure the Coyotes wouldn’t add another tally.
“I went to talk to him and congratulate him. He said he was a little nervous early,” Coach Adam Oates said. “I really like the third period on their power play, he looked very sharp they took some big bombs and he looked in control and gave us a chance, which is what we needed.”
3. Phoenix’s first goal. Speaking of the Coyotes’ tallies, the first one was the latest demonstration of errors combining to cost Washington on the scoreboard.
Jack Hillen was checked by Antoine Vermette as he carried the puck along the boards at the same time Ryan Stoa was trying to come off for a line change. The puck bounced out the pile of players and toward Keith Yandle. As the Coyotes’ star defenseman gathered the puck and sent a pass up ice that caught Mike Green having prepared to head toward the offensive zone. Green turned away from the play as he tried to scramble back, giving Brandon McMillan a step and the angle on him for a partial breakaway.
“Jack carries the puck on his wrong side up to the bench and all of a sudden you get 10 guys clogged there and we didn’t get it in,” Oates said. “I thought Greenie was ready to jump up the play and when they turned it, it kind of hit Stoa’s leg and trickled to their guy. He really just turned the wrong way. If he turned to the boards I think he would have caught the guy, just turned the wrong way and got caught flat footed.”
4. Next shift. So often this season the Capitals have experienced lulls after scoring a goal. But in the third period it was their ability to actually sustain the momentum from a goal, rolling it into a strong ensuing shift and then getting a tying goal out of the equation, that put them on the way to a victory.
“They had some great pressure and the fact that they went right back at it and kept it going was exactly what we needed and what we need after every single goal,” Alzner said. “We’re happy that we changed the trend there.”
5. Laich’s injury. Brooks Laich told reporters after the game “I’m not 100 percent” because of the nagging groin problem that has hampered him for two seasons now. Even though he’s not completely healthy, it comes as little surprise that Laich is determined to play and help the Capitals make their playoff push. This is the same Laich who played on a sprained mcl a few years back after all. But it’s something to monitor down the stretch as Oates balances the risk/reward playing a forward with a known injury, who could be limited during the course of a game, with the fact that he wants Laich in the lineup.
“When I’m in the lineup I expect to do some good things and if I feel I can help the team, I’ll be in the lineup,” Laich said. “If I feel like a detriment, I won’t.”