As if it was a playoff game.
This is really the only rivalry that qualifies for the Caps in the Southeast Division. As goaltender Olaf Kolzig characterizes it, the Thrashers are "a team we hate." While still a pale imitation of what were the rivalries of the old Patrick Division, last night conjured up images of those old days. That the Caps are starting to feel a bit of the urgency of trying to secure a playoff position only added to the drama of what would turn out to be a 3-2 overtime win over the Atlanta Thrashers.
One had the feeling that Atlanta brought more talent into this game than the Caps, but at no point did the Thrashers truly dominate the action. The Capitals might have played their most complete defensive game of the year, holding the Thrashers to single digits in shots in each of the periods (including only one – but what a scary one it was – in the overtime).
There were heroes aplenty, and not just the ones who scored or set up scores . . .
Let’s start with Lawrence Nycholat. Is this guy an emerging story, or what? He led the club in ice time last night (more than 27 minutes), +1, three shots, a couple of hits, three blocked shots, and his was but one of several fine efforts from the blue line.
Or Donald Brashear . . . one doesn’t always need a fight to establish some momentum. He only had 7:45 of ice time, but made the most of his opportunities with a couple of hits and a lot of jump. The Peerless doesn’t remember him skating this well when he was in Philadelphia.
Or Olaf Kolzig . . . it would have been understandable if on this, his King Clancy Trophy tribute night, he wasn’t entirely in focus. But when you’re 36 and have been in 679 regular season and playoff games, you’ve seen most of it, if not all of it. Nothing reflected the kind of effort he had and the kind of player he is than taking J.P. Vigier’s skate to the back of the head, felling him for a couple of minutes as he shook the cobwebs out. Then, while still a bit woozy, he got just enough of the Vigier penalty shot with the inside of his right pad to deflect the puck to the far post and snuff the play. The guy is a linebacker on skates.
Chris Clark . . . was on the ice for each of the Caps’ goals. And he’s not just a bystander when the Alexes do what they do. He was right in the thick of things on the game-winner, drawing a defender to the outside to open up the ice and allow Steve Eminger to come through the middle and take the pass that would then become the behind-the-back feed on highlight clips this morning.
Add in the kind of performance that doesn't show up on the scoresheet (at least directly, but the Thrashers had only 22 shots in more than 64 minutes) by Shaone Morrisonn, Boyd Gordon, Brian Sutherby, Dainius Zubrus, Matt Pettinger, and others, and it was a fine all-around night.
There are very few numbers from last night that jump off the scoresheet, at least among individuals. The Alexes had 13 of the Caps’ 37 shots, but that’s not entirely unexpected. That Brooks Laich was next with four is. That ties his season high.
The real deal in the numbers is the balance . . . of the 18 skaters:
- 14 recorded shots on goal (of 37 total)
- 15 were credited with hits (of 28 total)
- Six had blocked shots
- Nine had takeaways
- Five had points (which does not include Olaf Kolzig, who had an assist on the first Alexander Semin goal)
- 16 had power play time (ok, Brashear had two seconds, sue me)
Both teams came in nicked – Atlanta was missing such as Andy Sutton and Slava Kozlov, the Caps John Erskine, Bryan Muir, and Matt Bradley. It had the feel of a playoff game, especially as the contest was winding down in regulation when the crowd of 15,642 seemed to get into the spirit of things. As the horn sounded to signal overtime and the game tied 2-2, one could only think of Joe Gould, the manager of “Gentleman Jim” Braddock . . .
. . . and at the 4:42 mark, Alexander Semin – with the help of Chris Clark and Steve Eminger – did just that.
It calls to mind a quote from the real Jim Braddock, who before his championship fight with Max Baer was called "a bum" by the Baer camp. "I may not be a great fighter, but I ain't a bum," replied the challenger.
And this morning, neither are the Caps.