The Washington Capitals needed a game like this.

Before another capacity crowd, the Capitals finally looked like, well, the Capitals, unleashing a 5-0 shutout on the unsuspecting Edmonton Oilers, winning their sixth straight game in the process.  It's the first time since Jan. 14 the Caps have won by more than one goal.

Rookie Braden Holtby, making his tenth NHL start, blanked the worst-in-the-league Oilers on 22 shots.  The quirky rookie, a fan favorite, ran his record to 6-2-2 for the Caps this season.

Alex Ovechkin scored twice, as did Eric Fehr, making his return to the ice after missing 22 games with an injured shoulder.  Alexander Semin also scored, giving him goals in three straight games.

Washington's six-game run matches its longest of the season (Oct. 30-Nov. 11). The Capitals also have won three straight at home, their longest such streak since mid-November.

It was a night of milestones.  In addition to Holtby's first NHL shutout, Ovechkin notched his 600th point on his first goal.  The Great Eight passed Michal Pivonka on the team's all-time list to take sole possession of third in team history, behind Peter Bondra (825) and Mike Gartner (789).

Jason Arnott's assist on the play was his 900th career point, and defenseman Dennis Wideman's assist on Semin's goal was his 200th career point.

Washington went 2-for-5 on the power play, a good sign as the season winds down that maybe, just maybe, the Caps are pulling out of their team-wide scoring doldrums.

The win keeps the Caps (38-20-10, 86) just two points behind Philadelphia (who beat Edmonton Monday night) for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and two points ahead of Tampa Bay for first in the Southeast Division.  The Lightning defeated Chicago Tuesday in a shootout to keep pace with the Caps.

Some people are never happy though.  In the aftermath of the win, among the jubiliation of free wings there were also plenty of comments on Twitter and other message boards that this was "only the Oilers", the team with the fewest points in the league.  But let's not make light of what happened at Verizon Center last night.

The Capitals soundly defeated a lesser opponent that find themselves in the middle of a road trip.  They did it -- at home -- with dynamic scoring, success on the power play, stingy defense and solid goaltending.  It's  recipe that we've seen bits and pieces of this season.  But rarely -- if ever -- have we seen the complete package.

Regardless of the opponent, the Oilers are still an NHL team, and nothing comes easy in this league.

The Caps are now 8-2 in their last ten games, and appear to be on a serious roll with 14 games left until the playoffs.  There's room for improvement, but all the one-goal wins look conspicuously like "Playoff Hockey".

It's taken a while for the Caps to adjust to playing a more defensively-oriented game.  Having now found success with that style, if they can add few of the elements that made them the highest scoring team in the league last season they could still fulfill the destiny that so many Caps fans, the owner, and the players themselves assumed they would when they reported for training camp in September.

And maybe even the doubters will enjoy it finally.


3. Eric Fehr.  Welcome back Fehrsie.  Two goals, giving this offense a boost it needed with Nick Backstrom sidelined.
2. Alex Ovechkin.  Two goals, including a power play marker from the post.  Sweet.
1. Braden Holtby.  We have a rule around here: Shut out = First Star.  It's a rule.

CAPS NOTES:  Mike Green (head/ear) was placed on LTIR and is not eligible to return until March 22.

Nicklas Backstrom (hand) missed the contest, breaking his consecutive games played streak at 341.

Washington is 32-0-3 when scoring at least three goals.

Braden Holtby and the Caps celebrate a 2-1 shootout win over Tampa Bay. (C.Nichols/Caps News Network)
Don't let anyone fool you.  The Washington Capitals want to win the Southeast Division.  It's a source of pride with them, throughout the organization.  They pay lip service to the idea of making the playoffs and wanting a good seed, etc.  But they believe the Southeast Division banner belongs in Verizon Center.

They took a large step toward that goal last night, beating the team challenging for that title this season, the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in a shootout before a raucous crowd at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Washington tied the game at 14:28 of the third, as Alexander Semin, for the second time in as many games, played the hero.  He took a pass from Dennis Wideman on the left wing and rifled a wicked wrist shot past Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson (29 saves), who was once again stymieing the Caps, turning back everything thrown his way until that point.

The teams traded scoring chances as the time wound down, but neither could find the back of the net again, and as against the Panthers last night, would require overtime.  Washington played their most productive hockey in the extra session, but despite a man-advantage could not find the winner and had to move to penalty shots.

Alex Ovechkin was the first shooter for either team and mad no mistake, deking Roloson and beating him backhanded.  It was the only goal necessary, as Braden Holtby, called upon to relieve Michal Neuvirth, stoned all three Tampa shooters, including team captain Vincent Lecavalier on the final shot to secure the two-point night.

Neuvirth left the game after the first period, reportedly due to a collision with Lightning winger Adam Hall on one of the first shifts of the game, when Hall came through the crease and knocked Neuvirth's helmet from his head.  He stayed in through the first period, but took a seat after the intermission.

Neuvirth was not the only Caps player to not finish the game.  Center Nicklas Backstrom reportedly fell on the same hand he broke his thumb on and was held out as a precaution, according to reports after the game.  The team hasn't released any information on either player other than they were being evaluated and would be day-to-day.

Despite ending the game missing their starting goalie and No. 1 center, the Caps took care of business.  It wasn't pretty.  But they got it done.

This was, in every essence, a playoff game.  It was a tight-checking, shot-blocking, body-sacrificing divisional showdown.  The traditional bully has been pushed around a little bit this season, but have found a way -- in the last five games, all one-goal wins -- to finally play a strong defensive game, the type where one goal will make the difference.

The win not only gives the Caps a two-point lead in the division, something they believe is their birthright, but also draws them to within two points of the top of the Eastern Conference, currently held by the imploding Philadelphia Flyers, losers of four in a row.

The Eastern Conference is tightening up, and with three home games coming up in the next week, the Caps might finally have a chance to solidify their playoff spot and insinuate themselves in the conference discussion.

Just don't expect many high-scoring games or blowouts.  The Caps are playing playoff hockey now.

GAME 66 RE-CAP: Semin Saves Father's Day

Posted by Dave Nichols | Sunday, March 06, 2011 | , , , , | 0 comments »

Dennis Wideman celebrates Alexander Semin's game winner against his former mates. (C.Nichols/Caps News Network)
The Washington Capitals, with their fathers and mentors on hand for the annual "Father's Trip", came to south Florida knowing that a win would give them possession of first place in the Southeast Division and draw them within four points of the Philadelphia Flyers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, as Philly was destroyed by the New York Rangers, 7-0, earlier in the day.

They took care of business, though not without some tense moments.

Alexander Semin, on his only shot on goal of the game, scored 48 seconds into overtime to give the Capitals a 3-2 win over the trade-depleted Florida Panthers.

Overtime was necessary because the Panthers got a five-on-three got from David Booth at 17:34 of the third, with John Erskine in the box for a questionable tripping call, and Dennis Wideman off for a slash during the original penalty kill.

So coach Bruce Boudreau, were you happy the Caps answered so quickly in overtime after leading for so long in the game, then giving up the tying goal with less than three minutes left?  "Any time from the one second to the five minute mark would have been fine.  I'm glad we just answered."

The Capitals have found themselves in a bunch of one-goal games lately, and Nicklas Backstrom, who scored off a one-timer for the Caps first goal of the game, addressed the closeness of the recent victories.  "Obviously we want to see ourselves score more goals so we don't have to put ourselves in this situation, but they had a lot of power plays tonight and a five-on-three there and tied the game.  It's a close game, but you can't let emotions slow you."

Bottom line though was that the Caps escaped with two points.  "Exactly," Backstrom said.  "That was our goal.  We're looking forward to a big game [Monday] night [against Tampa Bay]."

Boudreau was happy with his team's effort and performance in a third period that saw the Caps take just six shots on goal.  "I don't think [the Panthers] had too many chances in the third period.  We were understanding what we had to do.  I thought we played a pretty solid period.  We weren't really trying to score."

If that statement seems odd from a coach known for all-out offense, well, it is.  It's a strange trip the Capitals have been on through 66 games, going from a team that averaged almost four goals a game to a team that now doesn't try to score with a one-goal lead in the third period.

Boudreau's confidence comes from his goalie's performance. Michal Neuvirth -- as he has been all season -- was outstanding. 

The 22-year old Czech made 32 saves, none bigger than a glove save late in the third against Booth during the remainder of Wideman's slashing call.  Boudreau complemented his goalie, saying, "That's why we kept telling people we didn't need any goaltending at the trade deadline.  We've got good goaltending."

Florida opened the scoring on a broken play.  Wideman got tangled up at center ice with Panthers center Mike Santorelli, setting up a two-on-one with only Erskine back.  Michal Repik slid the puck to a streaking Bill Thomas, who made no doubt about it, beating Michal Neuvirth blocker side to take a short-lived lead.

The Caps got on the board less than two minutes later.  Mike Knuble got control of a loose puck and shuffled it to Alex Ovechkin in the corner, who wheeled and hit Backstrom right on the tape in the high slot.  The pivot fired a bomb of a one-timer past Panthers backup goalie Scott Clemmensen for his 19th goal of the season.

"It was a good pass by Alex there," Backstrom said.  "I was just trying to get it on net there, [Clemmensen] wasn't ready.  There were people in front of the net there too.  But it was a good feeling."

Washington took the lead at 10:02 of the second, when Boyd Gordon backhanded a rebound of a John Carlson shot past Clemmensen at the end of a very good cycle by the energy line, with Matt Hendrick picking up the secondary assist.  Gordon gave an exaggerated fist pump after, celebrating his second goal of the season.

Boyd Gordon scores his second goal of the season in 3-2 OT win. (C.Nichols/Caps News Network)
Gordon won the hard had for his efforts, including blocking four shots.  "It was is best game of the year," Boudreau said.  "He blocked shot, he won faceoffs, he paid the price.  That's why he won the 'helmet' tonight.  It did what it took. Scoring a goal for him is a luxury, that's a bonus.  Everything else he did was great."

Gordon summed up this win, but he might as well have been talking about the season since the shift in philosophy sometime during the December eight-game losing streak:
"It's good to get the two points, big game for us.  We were kinda off-and-on there tonight but we did enoguh to win and at the end, a good result.  We're not scoring as much so our defense has a little bit more emphasis on it.  You don't want to give that led up.  Our margin for error might not be as big as it was last year.  But if that's what it takes to win, that's what we gotta do."
Strange days, indeed.

So its off to Tampa for a matchup Monday with the Bolts, who could not take advantage of a 12-game homestand in February to put any distance between themselves and the Capitals.  Now that the divison lead rests in D.C. once again, they probably wished they had.


3.  Nick Backstrom.  The one-timer was a thing of beauty.  65% in the dot too.
2.  Michal Neuvirth.  32 saves.  Stellar. He's been the Caps MVP all season.
1.  Boyd Gordon.  Goal, four blocks, 3:47 of short-handed time.

CAPS NOTES:  The Panthers received seven power plays, including the late five-on-three, to the Caps' two.  "I mean, seven penalties on one, it's quite a discrepancy," Boudreau said.  "Everybody complains about the power play, and rightfully so -- it's not doing that well -- but it's really hard to get a consistency or momentum on it when you're getting one power play a game."


Matt Hendricks, doin' what he does. (C.Nichols/Caps News Network)
The Captain during pre-game skate. (C.Nichols/Caps News Network)

Michal Neuvirth is a study in concentration. (C.Nichols/Caps News Network)

***Caps News Network wishes to thanks the Florida Panthers and Justin Copertino for extending us full credentials, including photography, for Sunday night's game.