Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Washington Capitals: The 2013 Season -- Ten (well...six) Games that Mattered: Capitals at Jets, March 21/22

We’ve reached Game 3 in our look back at games that mattered for the Washington Capitals in the 2013 season.  This one – two actually – propelled the Caps into the race for the Southeast Division lead…

March 21, 2013: Washington (12-16-1) at Winnipeg (16-12-2)
March 22, 2013: Washington (13-16-1) at Winnipeg (16-13-2)

Results: Capitals 4 – Jets 0 / Capitals 6 – Jets 1

The Background:  The Caps righted the ship when they beat the Devils back on February 23rd, but they had yet to make much progress in climbing the standings in the games that followed.  They were 6-6-0 in the dozen games played after they beat the Devils back in late February.  Worse, they had just embarked on a four-game road trip that would take them to Pittsburgh to face the Penguins, to Winnipeg for a pair of games on consecutive nights against the Jets, and then to New York to visit the Rangers. 

The Caps did not get off to a good start on that road trip, dropping the first game in the trip to the Pittsburgh Penguins by a 2-1 margin.  It was a moral victory of sorts, since the Caps had already lost twice to the Penguins back in early February by a combined 11-4 margin.  Still, with the Caps sitting in 14th place in the East, nine points behind the Jets for first in the Southeast Division and five points behind Carolina for eighth place in the Eastern Conference, time was starting to get scarce, and the Caps needed to make a move.

Why it mattered: The Caps already split two games with the Jets, losing a 4-2 decision in Washington’s home opener, then beating the Jets at MTS Centre on March 2nd by a 3-0 score.  They also happened to be on a see-saw with their schedule, alternating wins and losses over their previous five games (2-3-0).  The Jets were on a bit of a roll, going 6-1-1 since dropping their first two decisions in March.

It was the Caps who looked like the team on a roll and the Jets like the one treading water in the first game of the set.  Part of it was getting Mike Green back in the lineup.  Green missed 10 games with a(nother) groin injury.  He would not get a point in this game, but his minutes would allow John Carlson to bear less of an ice time burden.  In the ten games Green missed, Carlson averaged almost 26 minutes of ice time a game.  In this one Carlson would finish with 23:23.  The recalibrating of ice time seemed to work for the defense; they would hold Winnipeg to just 20 shots on goal for the game, the fewest the Caps would allow an opponent all season.

And, while Braden Holtby was stopping all 20 of those shots on goal, the Caps were being very efficient at the other end.  Troy Brouwer got the Caps off and running just 3:06 into the game on the Caps’ second shot on goal. It was all Brouwer, who blocked a pass attempt by Grant Clitsome outside the Caps’ blue line, skated down the right side and fished the puck out of the corner, dropped a pass for Brooks Laich, took a return pass, backed out from the opposite corner and wristed the puck past goalie Ondrej Pavelec. 

Brouwer’s effort was typical of the Caps’ performance in Game 1 of the two-game set.  Late in the period it was Marcus Johansson bumped off the puck by Mark Stuart in the neutral zone.  But Johansson kept after it, heading into the Jets’ end to apply the forecheck on Dustin Byfuglien.  A pass from Byfuglien to Evander Kane eluded the recipient, and Alex Ovechkin picked it up.  As he was doing so, Johansson circled out from behind the net and was in perfect position to redirect a centering pass from Ovechkin to make it 2-0 at the first intermission.

The Caps clamped down after that, and when Ovechkin scored a power play goal with less than six minutes left, followed by a Nicklas Backstrom goal with 1:38 left, the Caps had their second straight shutout of the Jets at MTS Centre.

Game 2 started in much the same fashion for the Caps, who scored twice in the first period.  Laich and Brouwer, who combined on the first Caps goal in Game 1 had one apiece in the first 20 minutes in this contest.  Laich outdueled Dustin Byfuglien for a loose puck along the wall, then beat him to a spot in the left wing circle to score from one knee on a pass by Mike Ribeiro.  For Brouwer it was another three-zone effort that started when he chipped the puck, not once, but twice off Winnipeg sticks to get it into the neutral zone.  He collected the puck on the run and skated it to the Jet’s blue line where he slid it over to Mike Ribeiro.  Brouwer one-timed the return pass into the back of the Winnipeg net, and the Caps had another two-goal lead at the first intermission.

The Caps added a pair in the middle frame, one on a Jay Beagle one-timer from the edge of the right wing circle, the other on a wrister from Alex Ovechkin less than two minutes later.  And if that did not end the competitive portion of the evening, a goal by Mike Green just 1:51 into the third period did.  Dustin Byfuglien ended Braden Holtby’s shutout streak of 190:37 against the Jets when he made it 5-1, but Ovechkin got that one back with a power play goal with 4:02 left to seal the 6-1 win and the sweep at MTS Centre.

The Takeaway:  Everything went right for the Caps in the two-game set.  They outscored the Jets, 10-1.  They were 2-for-7 on the power play, while they killed off all eight shorthanded situations they faced.  Seven different players recorded goals, and 14 skaters had at least one point (the Caps had 14 skaters with a point in Game 2).  They led for 104:44 of the 120 minutes and never trailed.  Braden Holtby stopped 50 of 51 shots on goal (.980 save percentage).

The Caps got production from its top line.  Alex Ovechkin was 3-2-5, Marcus Johansson was 1-3-4, and Nicklas Backstrom was 1-2-3.  They got production from the grinders with Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, and Joel Ward picking up points.  Mike Green had a goal, and John Carlson had a pair of assists from the blue line.  In fact, five different defensemen had points in the two-game set with Karl Alzner, Steve Oleksy, and Dmitry Orlov contributing.

This was about as good as it gets in an early-spring series in Manitoba.

In the end...

By the time the two-game set ended, the Caps climbed to 10th in the Eastern Conference, just three points behind the New York Rangers for eighth place and only five behind the Jets for the Southeast Division lead.  It could have been a road trip that killed their season, and when the Caps lost in Pittsburgh to start the trip it looked as if that might happen.  But they dominated the Jets in two games, starting the Jets on a slide that saw them finish the season 8-7-1 and out of the playoffs. 

For the Caps it turned their season from being one of waiting on the end of the regular season to start their summer early to one of having a realistic chance of making the playoffs.  But to build on that and to make the road trip a success, they still had one more stop to make, a game in New York where the Caps would complete a successful road trip with a 3-2 Gimmick win.  In the meantime, a two-game trip to Winnipeg and the sweep that resulted made these games that mattered in the 2013 season.

Photo: Marianne Helm/Getty Images North America

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