Washington at Montreal, December 13, 2008
The result: Capitals 2 – Canadiens 1
The background: Montreal came into this game having been undefeated in regulation against the Caps on home ice in the last five games at Bell Centre. The teams were also tied in standings points (37). For the Caps, it was the back end of a back-to-back, their fifth such set of games in a month. They had split the previous four. But the Caps won the first half of the back-to-back leading into this game, and it was a night of note. The previous night was the night that Brett Leonhardt was tapped to take warm-ups and pull baseball cap duty until Semyon Varlamov could get into town from somewhere in Texas, where the Hershey Bears were playing. Well, given the Caps injuries in goal, this night might just as well be the night when Varlamov would make his own debut on the ice.
Why it mattered: Varlamov did, in fact, get the call in this one, and except for one iffy goal was perfect. He made 32 saves on 33 shots (not including one save by the crossbar mid-way through the first period), and many of those saves were of highlight quality. There was also the matter of Michael Nylander scoring the game-winning goal, one which he scored late in the third period to break a 1-1 tie on a ricochet off Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak while falling backward at the side of the net.
The takeaway: Hope. On the one hand, that the Caps investment of a first round pick in Semyon Varlamov would pay the sorts of dividends in the long term that they did in this game. He showed why he was a first round pick, displaying the sort of acrobatic athleticism that allowed him to cover ground (or ice) that few goaltenders could. And, there was Nylander, who scored his first goal in almost two months. Maybe this would be the spark – a somewhat ugly goal – that would get him out of his funk.
Washington at New York Rangers, December 23, 2008
The result: Capital 5 – Rangers 4 (OT)
The background: The Caps were fat and happy heading into the holiday break. They had won seven of eight games since dropping a 5-4 decision to Florida to open the month. But then they went to Philadelphia, played their best period of hockey of the year (25 shots in the first period and utter domination of the home team), but ended up getting splattered across the South Philly pavement after they failed to score in that first period and lost, 7-1. Now, they would head to Manhattan, another inhospitable venue.
Why it mattered: The Caps had shown an ability to come from behind, evidenced by the 4-3 win over Pittsburgh in October, when they spotted the Penguins three goals. But when the Caps fell behind the Rangers, 4-0, early in the second period, watched as Jose Theodore was pulled for a gimpy Brent Johnson (who clearly looked as if he was having physical problems), then saw Theodore go back in (he would give up that fourth goal early in the second), it looked like it would be a Grinchly Christmas for the Caps. But then… Alex Ovechkin spun and threw a puck at the net from the left wing half wall late in his shift. The puck looked as if it changed direction several times before settling over goalie Henrik Lunqvist’s shoulder to at least get the Caps on the board. But later… Tomas Fleischmann scored in the early in the third to make things interesting… then Viktor Kozlov snapped a wrist shot past Lundqvist… then Ovechkin stole a deflected pass at the Ranger line, settled the puck, and broke in alone on Lundqvist, potting the puck and tying the game. When Shaone Morrison scored the unlikely goal in overtime (it was his first of the year, and his first dating back to February 26th, also a game winner), it was another reason to think no lead was safe against the Caps.
The takeaway: Momentum. There is no telling what the effect on the Caps might have been had they been pasted by the Flyers (after that amazing first period) and the Rangers right before the holiday. But the fact is, this game propelled the Caps into a seven game winning streak, what would be their longest of the season.
Washington vs. Detroit, January 31, 2009
The result: Capitals 4 – Red Wings 2
The background: The Capitals hadn’t had a test like this since facing San Jose in November, a test they flunked. And, they were having some trouble getting traction as far as momentum goes. After their seven-game winning streak starting with the comeback in over the Rangers, the Caps lost three in a row, won three in a row, then lost a pair in a row coming into this game. Detroit was missing some parts, too, as Henrik Zetterberg (groin) and Tomas Holmstrom (back) sat this one out with injuries, and Chris Osgood took the day off in favor of Ty Conklin. Still, it was the Red Wings, and the Caps weren’t such a hot team coming in.
Why it mattered: Big time. The Caps traded goals with the Red Wings in the first period (Ville Leino for the Red Wings late in the period, followed by Viktor Kozlov a minute later) and in the second period (Mike Green for the Caps late in the period, followed by Johan Franzen two minutes later). But then, it became the Alex Ovechkin show. Ovechkin scored goals 76 seconds apart in the third period. Big players step up in big games, even on a Sunday in January. And, with the win, the Caps tied the Red Wings with 31 wins on the season.
The takeaway: Momentum II. The win – on the last day of January – served as the right way to move into February, where the Caps went 9-3-1, including wins in New Jersey and in Boston, and against Pittsburgh. But there was another sort of “momentum” that started with this game. Nicklas Backstrom came into this one on a four-game pointless streak (his longest since a five-game streak in October). But starting with this game, in which he had a pair of assists, he would go 7-19-26, plus-4 in his next 21 games, failing to register a point in only three of them.