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The Washington Capitals, save for one player, were completely outplayed by the Detroit Red Wings at the Verizon Center tonight. That they escaped with a 3-2 win is simply remarkable.
The one player that kept his mates in the game, goalie Jose Theodore, was the most important player on the ice.
"That's probably the best I've seen him," coach Bruce Boudreau said after the game. "I'm watching him, going 'this must've been how he was when he won the Vezina and the Hart in Montreal that year,' because without him it could very well have been 6-0 at the end of the first period."
The embattled goalie made 44 saves—some spectacular in nature—to keep his team in the game until the rest decided to match his intenisty.
Theodore, for his part, said his confidence hasn't wavered, despite at times being relegated to the bench by goalies much his junior this season.
"[My confidence] is pretty good, but I never try to get too high or too low on myself," he said after the game. "When I wasn't playing, my confidence was still pretty good because I was working hard, practicing hard."
Through 53 minutes, the Wings held a 2-1 lead. But by all accounts, including Boudreau's, it should have been five or six to one. Theodore, making his third consecutive start, played quite simply his best game as a Washington Capital, time and again turning away Detroit's skilled players.
The Caps were sloppy, slow, and committing the biggest hockey sin by often being found watching the play. On several occasions, Messers. Ovechkin, Green, Semin, et al. simply stopped skating while the play was still in action, notably in the offensive zone.
Repeatedly the Caps would get a puck to the slot, or behind the crease, and they would wait for it to come to them, or for someone else to go chase down the puck.
It's a plague that occasionally affects individual members of the squad. But tonight it took it's toll on most of the team.
Center Nicklas Backstrom admitted that the Caps had the play taken to them for most of the game.
"They outworked us, I guess," he said.
Boudreau was particularly disappointed by the play in the first period.
"Well, today it was like men versus boys," he said. "[Detroit] came out with a vengeance, and I'm sitting here thinking this is what Stanley Cup champions that are desparate do. And it's a bar we have to get to."
"It was just fortunate that our goalie was great in the first period," Boudreau added.
But something happened here in the middle of the third period. Detroit's Todd Bertuzzi took a tripping penalty at 12:40, and perhaps getting the man-advantage was enough to wake the sleeping giants.
For 35 seconds later, Nicklas Backstrom took a pass from his captain, Alex Ovechkin, made a hard move around a Detroit defender, and beat goalie Chris Osgood to even the score at two all.
From that point on, the Capitals joined the fight against a team that reached the Stanley Cup finals last season but are fighting for their playoff lives this season in ninth place in the Western Conference.
Less than a minute later, defenseman Karl Alzner won a puck at mid-ice and started into the offensive zone. He dropped a pass for winger Alexander Semin, who fired a laser toward the crease. Center David Steckel got just enough of the puck to redirect it past Osgood, and just like that, the Caps held a 3-2 lead.
Not known for his scoring, Steckel said, "I honestly thought it went wide at first until I looked back."
It was the only lead of the game, and they made it stand up, killing the final of five minor penalties assessed against as time wound down.
Steckel, who logged major minutes on the penalty kill tonight, summed up the effort playing a man down tonight and killing all five opposing power plays.
"It was huge. Coach just challenged us because we haven't been that great lately," he said. "Theo was our best penalty killer."
Could one of this season's worst performances as a whole end up as one of the biggest wins of the year?
Matt Bradley, who scored the first goal for the Capitals, might think so.
"We were lucky to get the win tonight. But it was still a win," he said.
Notes: The Caps have won four games in a row and seven of their last eight.
Washington sits atop the Eastern Conference with a record of 31-12-6 and 68 points.
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