What We Learned from the Washington Capitals Road Trip
Barely clinging to their playoff lives just a week ago, the Washington Capitals embarked on their most important road trip of the season—and returned very much alive and in the thick of a very tight playoff race in the Eastern Conference.
At Pittsburgh, at Winnipeg, on back-to-back nights, and at Madison Square Garden—and all in six days no less—was a gauntlet run the likes of which the Caps had not seen before. To say it would be season-defining would have been an enormous understatement.
But when they absolutely, positively had to rise up to the challenge, the Capitals suddenly turned back into the Capitals.
Though they lost in Pittsburgh, 2-1, last Tuesday, the Caps played very well against their biggest rivals and a team that had humiliated them twice already this season. Losing to the Pens, who have now won 12 straight, is nothing at all to be ashamed of.
In fact, that loss actually seemed to give the Caps momentum. They went into Winnipeg—one of the toughest places in the NHL to play—and absolutely crushed the Jets on back-to-back nights, 4-0 and 6-1, respectively. The games were just as lopsided as the scores suggested.
For the record, in three games in Winnipeg this season, the Caps have throttled the Jets by a combined score of 13-1—and all in the month of March no less.
Then, on Sunday, the Caps went into Madison Square Garden to tangle with the New York Rangers, a team they must leapfrog in order to make the playoffs this season. For the third time this season, the Caps scored first against the Rangers, and for the third time this season, they could not hold the lead.
But, unlike the first two games, the Caps found a way to win on Sunday, besting the Blueshirts in a shootout.
The Caps' fortunes have changed radically in less than a week, and the playoffs are no longer a pipe dream. The team seems to be peaking at just the right time and teams in the Eastern Conference will have their hands full with this version of the Caps if they make the tournament.
Things have changed so much that the Caps actually bolted up 15 spots in this week's ESPN power rankings. Pretty impressive to say the least.
So what exactly did we learn from the Caps fantastic four-game road trip?
Here are four things.
1. Did the Caps Miss Brooks Laich and Dmitry Orlov or What?
The road trip started with a 2-1 loss to the Pens, but Laich and Orlov made their season debuts—and their presence was most certainly felt.
Is it mere coincidence that the Caps season turned around as soon as two key players, who had been MIA all year, returned?
I don't think so.
While the Caps have dealt with a run of injuries recently, particularly on defense, injuries to two key players before the lockout ended have had a definite impact on the Caps underachieving 2013 season so far.
I am, of course, talking about Brooks Laich and Dmitry Orlov.
Laich suffered a groin injury while playing in Europe during the lockout. Initially, it was believed he would only miss one to two weeks (SBNation.com).
Instead, Laich would miss the first 28 games of the season, and his absence was absolutely felt by the team. A spiritual leader of the squad, a good goal scorer and a physical presence in front of the net, Laich's absence was far more damaging to the Caps than I believe many people realize.
But as the road trip began in Pittsburgh last Tuesday, the Caps got the great news that Laich was, at long last, ready to go (Washington Post). The impact of his return was felt immediately.
Never was this more evident than when Laich laid a couple of really good checks on Penguins' superstar Sidney Crosby, one of which sent Sid The Kid tumbling skates over head. The Caps seemed to feed off of this, and they played the Pens very tough before falling 2-1.
In the back-to-back games against the Jets, Laich was even more of a factor collecting a goal and an assist. Beyond that, though, Laich was very disruptive in front of the net as he set numerous screens and was just in the middle of everything. His efforts were a big reason why the Caps scored 10 goals in just two nights north of the border.
In just four games back, Laich has a goal, and assist and, as if to show just how valuable he is to the team, a plus-four rating. The Caps are just a different team with Laich in the lineup and never was that more evident than it was on the recent road trip.
Equally as impressive was the performance of Orlov. Like Laich, Orlov missed the first 28 games of the season after suffering a concussion while playing for the Hershey Bears during the lockout but he too returned against the Pens (dumpandchase.com).
Like Laich, Orlov made an immediate difference. His energy level was infectious, and you could see other Caps' defenders, such as Steve Oleksy, really feeding off it. Orlov was more physical than I remembered, and he seemed to play a style of defense very reminiscent of the way the Caps shut down the Bruins and Rangers in the playoffs a season ago.
With the Caps dealing with lingering injuries to defenders like Tom Poti and John Erskine, having Orlov back in the lineup, at just the right time, was certainly fortuitous. Having him be as effective as he has been—well that is icing on the cake.
In his four games back, Orlov has an assist, with four blocked shots and he is averaging over 14 minutes of ice-time per game. Even more impressive is his solid plus-five rating in just four games.
Did the Caps miss having Laich and Orlov in the lineup for over the first half of the season? Absolutely—and then some.
Whether the Caps got both back in the nick of time to save the season remains to be seen.
2. Braden Holtby Is the Real Deal
Braden Holtby gets his fourth shutout of the season as the Caps blanked the Jets 4-0 on Thursday.
What a roller coaster of a season this has been for Braden Holtby.
The beginning of the year could not have gone much worse. In the first five games he played, Holtby posted a 1-4-0 record with a 4.20 goals-against average and a .849 save percentage. Along the way, he lost his starting job to Michal Neuvirth—or so it seemed.
On Feb. 7, in an ugly loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Holtby relieved Neuvirth after he gave up a second goal. It was at that moment that coach Adam Oates turned to Holtby at a critical juncture—and he delivered.
Holtby would go on to start the next 11 games for the Caps. His record was 8-3-0 with a 2.00 goals-against average, a .929 save percentage and three shutouts.
But along the way, Holtby was pulled twice by Oates, once in an ugly 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 27 and then again in a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers on March 10.
Nevertheless, the Caps saw the future in their second-year netminder. This was evidenced by the Caps' signing Holtby to a two-year contract extension worth $3.7 million back on Feb. 25 (NBC Washington Channel 4).
During the Caps' recent road trip, the future of the Caps in net was definitely the present. Holtby was nothing short of spectacular during the four games. He yielded only five goals and collected his fourth shutout of the season along the way—his second of the season in the hostile confines of the MTS Centre.
During the Caps' road trip, Holtby went 3-1 with a 1.25 goals against average and a .963 save percentage. His performance in the shootout against the Rangers was brilliant and Rangers' fans in particular must be about sick of seeing Holtby by now.
When one thinks about where Holtby started the season and where he is now, the turnaround is very impressive.
Holtby now has a record of 13-10-0. His 13 wins has him ranked eighth in the NHL. He now has four shutouts, which has him ranked second in the NHL. His goals-against average has dropped to 2.64 (26th in the league) and his save percentage has climbed to .917 (17th in the league).
Though there have been a few hiccups along the way, there is no denying that Holtby has gradually regained the form that made him so tremendous during the playoffs last season.
If he keeps playing like he did on this recent road trip, then Holtby and the Caps are going to get a shot at doing it all over again this season.
3. Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom Can Still Bring It
Alexander Ovechkin powers the Caps to a 6-1 pasting of the Jets on Friday.
No two players on the Caps are more heavily scrutinized than Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. No two players have had to shoulder the blame for the Caps' problems this season more than Ovechkin and Backstrom. And much of that criticism and scrutiny was, for a while, very well deserved.
For Backstrom, the 2013 season has been somewhat odd. He is not scoring a ton of goals—he only has five on the season so far, tied for sixth on the team. For a natural goal-scorer like Backstrom, the lack of moments where he has lit the red light is rather surprising.
On the other hand, Backstrom has become a surprisingly adept setup man for the Caps offense. He is currently tied for the team lead in assists with Mike Ribeiro with 24. Backstrom also ranks third on the team with 24 points.
In other words, Backstrom is having a pretty solid season, albeit not quite the type of season many of us expected.
How good was Backstrom during the Caps' recent road trip? He scored two goals, added three assists and had a plus-two rating. He also had the game-winning goal in the shootout against the New York Rangers. The Caps will take that to the bank all day, every day.
Ovechkin, on the other hand, has been on fire lately and is starting to look a lot like the Ovi of old. After spending much of the season being almost an afterthought to players like Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and John Tavares, Ovi has been on a frightening tear the past couple of weeks.
During the Caps' recent four-game road trip, Ovi was as good as it gets. He had five goals, three assists and a plus-three rating. But if you go back a bit further, you will see this was not an isolated stretch.
Ovi has scored a goal in five straight games now and in six of his past seven outings. He now has 16 goals on the season, good enough for sixth in the NHL. If an 82-game schedule was being played, Ovi would be on pace for a 41-goal season, which would be an improvement from last year.
On the power play, Ovi has been nothing short of lethal. His 10 power-play goals leads the NHL. And no one shoots the puck more than Ovechkin, who leads the league with 136 shots.
Ovechkin's recent explosion has given the two-time former Hart trophy winner plenty of ammunition with which to fire back at his critics. As Ovechkin said in an interview with NHL.com:
Right now I'm scoring goals and I'm king of the world. Couple weeks ago, I was, you know, almost in the toilet. Maybe [they] just forget to flush me. It is kind of a situation where I don't care right now.
Well, when you are on a roll like Ovi has been on lately, you can get away with talk like that.
Ovechkin was so good, he was named the first star for the week ending March 24 by NHL.com.
What we learned from the Caps' recent road trip is that the rumors of the decline of Backstrom and Ovechkin appear to have been grossly and prematurely exaggerated. If Backstrom and Ovechkin continue on their torrid pace, there is no telling how far the Caps just might go.
4. The Caps Are Very Much Alive in the Playoff Race
The Caps edge the Rangers to pull within two points of a playoff spot.
It seemed like just a few days ago that many of us were beginning to spread dirt on the coffin of the Washington Capitals' season.
What a difference a successful road trip made. Suddenly, the Caps now find themselves just two points behind the New York Rangers for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
But why stop there? The Caps sit just five points behind the Winnipeg Jets for the Southeast division lead. If you look at the upcoming schedule, things might be breaking perfectly for the Caps to recapture the Southeast division crown after a one year hiatus.
Six of the Caps next seven games are against teams ranked at or below where the Caps are. The Caps next play at home against the New York Islanders and the Caps will be looking for payback against the Isles, who beat the Caps, 5-2, back on March 9.
From there, the Caps hit the road to take on the Buffalo Sabres, a team that they have beaten twice in two meetings so far this season, and then it is on to Philadelphia to battle the struggling Flyers. Obviously, the caps will be hoping for a better result than the game on Feb. 27 when the Flyers chased Braden Holtby in a 4-1 Philadelphia victory.
The Caps then go to Carolina to face the Hurricanes. How bad has it gotten for the Canes? They have lost five in a row and have even managed to score the hockey equivalent of an "own goal" in a bad loss to the New Jersey Devils last week.
The Caps then host the Islanders again before once again going on the road to play a Florida Panthers team the Caps have outscored 18-6 in three meetings so far this season.
The fun stretch then ends when the Caps travel to Montreal on April 9 to take on the Canadiens, who currently hold the second-best record in the Eastern Conference with 45 points.
Still, there are seven games in a row coming up that are all winnable. While winning them all might be a bit much to hope for, there are definitely points to be had and position to be gained during the next crucial two-week stretch.
If the Caps can continue to play as they have been, then making the playoffs might no longer be the ultimate goal, but just a checkpoint along the way to something much grander.