"You know, our fans deserve a better effort than what we've been giving them lately. Tonight we had some rough patches, but I think we played pretty well" -- Matt Bradley
The Washington Capitals did not play particularly well last night, but they did play well enough to defeat an offensively challenged St. Louis Blues team 3-2, before another sold out crowd at Verizon Center. Coupled with the last minute heroics against the Islanders Tuesday, it's the first time the Caps have won back-to-back home games since their last two in November.
As Bruce Boudreau said, "They're all important." But these four points, heading into a statement weekend in Florida were especially big. The Panthers are absolutely reeling on the heels of their latest fire-sale, and with Tampa Bay's loss to Boston Thursday night, the Caps are behind Tampa and Pittsburgh by a single point for third and fourth place in the conference.
If the Caps can take care of business Sunday against the Panthers, it will set up a battle for first place in the division Monday night in Tampa.
But the Caps had to take care of home ice first, and for a while things looked pretty sketchy. Of course, nothing has come easy for these Capitals in this campaign.
A sluggish first period saw both teams fight with bad passing and little cohesion. Midway through though, St. Louis counter-attacked and Alex Steen beat a lagging Nick Backstrom through the Caps zone to tap in a very nice pass from Chris Stewart and take a 1-0 lead.
With just a minute to go in the period, Matt Bradley decided to take matters into his own hands, and went right after defenseman Tyson Strachan. Strachan did not back down, but perhaps he wishes he would have, as Bradley pounded him with three right hands, the final an uppercut that sent Strachan to the ice.
Bradley's effort at least brought some energy to the arena, which was almost as dead as the team on the ice at that point.
"We got down a goal there and I just tried to get the guys going a bit," Bradley stated rather nonchalantly in the locker room after the game.
His teammates took notice though, as he was awarded the Hard Hat for the night.
For the remainder of the game, the Caps played hard at least, if not well the entire time.
The teams traded second period goals, by defensman Scott Hannan and the Blues B.J. Crombeen, before the Caps took control of the game in the third. Nick Backstrom knocked in a puck out of mid-air baseball style to tie the game at two, and Jason Arnott scored the game-winner with just over five minutes left off a beautiful feed from Alex Semin, on The Enigma's 27th birthday.
It's the type of play we really haven't seen out of Semin for quite some time. Coming into the game, he'd scored in just four of his ten games since returning from injury, with just two assists in that time frame. But breaking in on a two-on-one, he settled the puck and put it right on Arnott's tape. All Arnott had to do was finish.
Boudreau was particularly impressed with the way Arnott swung out a little wide anticipating Semin's feed. "When Semin gave him a really good pass, [Arnott] didn't have to make a play, he just had to shoot the puck because he was already in a shooting position, which I thought was really good to see."
"We're talking a lot on the bench, even with Sash -- we're talking to him and he's talking to us," Arnott explained about the chemistry he's quickly developing with his new linemates. "It's important to communicate to find out where and how guys are when they play around the rink. We keep that up hopefully our chemistry will keep going."
The importance of winning these two games and gaining four points heading into a showdown weekend, especially since this is also the annual "father's trip", was not lost on the room.
"Seems that every game we play is a big game," Bradley said. "Obviously we're chasing Tampa right now and we have a good chance, first with Florida then Tampa. Bruce and the coaches talked about it -- a snowball effect -- getting on a little bit of a roll going into the weekend. We have our fathers coming for the father's trip, so it makes for a good mood starting the weekend out."
"We want to get back to making this a tough place to play," Scott Hannan said, reveling in his first goal as a Washington Capital.
"It's good for our confidence," said Nicklas Backstrom. "We haven't been winning a lot at home lately, so hopefully we gave our fans something good tonight. Hopefully we can continue working on this and get more Ws."
Arnott spoke about that elusive confidence as well. "It's always nice to get confidence going, get on a roll before you go on the road. You can't take Florida lightly and Tampa's got a fantastic team. It's going to be another battle again."
Boudreau was a little more big-picture.
"They're all important. So how important is it? Boy, I was thinking all day 'I'd like to win'. But in the whole scheme of things we won't know how important it is until the end of the season. It's so important to get to that 80-point level and with the teams above you, now you can see [them]. It's not like you're a big distance away, so it was good to get to there."
With two wins, the Caps have set the table. Now let's see if they can clear the plates this weekend.
Every win, every game, every shift is important from here on out.
CAPS NEWS NETWORK THREE STARS
3. Michal Neuvirth. Kept his team in the game until the offense clicked. He could do nothing with either goal, and he turned away all four shots he saw on the penalty kill.
2. Karl Alzner. Blocked four shots and I'll say this as politely as possible: He carried his partner tonight.
1. Dennis Wideman. I know he didn't figure into the story, but he was all over the ice tonight, clearly the Caps best player. He led the team in ice time for the second consecutive game and finished with five hits and two blocks. He also led an effective power play -- for the first time in weeks -- though they still did not score.
CAPS NOTES: Matt Hendricks dished out five hits and won the puck in the corner, leading to Hannan's goal.
Alex Ovechkin registered just one shot on goal but had two assists.
The Capitals improved to 18-16-4 when allowing the first goal of the game.
Arnott's goal puts him at 899 points in his career.
The Caps are 30-0-3 when the score three or more goals.