Reporting David Elfin
Between periods of last Tuesday’s Caps-Maple Leafs game, John Walton and Mike Vogel noted that it was the 19th anniversary of the most remarkable night of Peter Bondra’s super career. The leading scorer in Washington history put four pucks in the net in just 4:12 against Tampa Bay on Feb. 5, 1994.
But after last Tuesday’s loss to Toronto and another two nights later in Pittsburgh, the current Caps were an NHL-worst 2-8-1 and had yet to score even four goals in an entire game as a team.
With just 37 games to play in the lockout-shortened season, the outlook couldn’t have been much bleaker for Washington, one of just four teams learning a new coach’s system and the only one with a bench boss who had never previously filled that role.
So were the consecutive victories over Florida – a 5-0 shutout four nights ago and a rousing 6-5 come-from-behind overtime triumph last night on the road — aberrations or signs that the Caps are finally getting back on track towards a sixth straight playoff berth?
First of all, it’s definitely great news for rookie coach Adam Oates that an offense which had scored just 25 goals in 11 games pumped in 11 in the pair of contests against the admittedly lowly Panthers. The back-to-back outburst rocketed the Caps to 10th in the NHL with 2.77 goals per game.
And as much as young goalies Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth have struggled this season, Holtby’s shutout last Saturday helped reduce Washington’s goals-against average to 3.54, lower than those of the Panthers and the New York Islanders.
Mike Ribeiro’s goal that opened the scoring just 4:26 into last night’s action and captain Alex Ovechkin’s tally with 2:49 left in regulation that forced overtime raised Washington’s power play percentage to 25.5, tied for fourth-best in the league. The Caps killed all five Panthers power plays, lifting their penalty-killing efficiency to 74.1 percent, better than five rivals including former coach Bruce Boudreau’s Pacific Division-leading Anaheim Ducks.
Oates also has to be pleased with the balanced scoring. Troy Brouwer’s game-winner last night was his team-leading sixth goal, one more than the totals for newcomer Ribeiro, Ovechkin and Joel Ward, the hero of last spring’s upset of the then-defending champion Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
The flip side is that the rest of the Caps have combined for just 15 goals. Marcus Johansson, who’s currently sidelined, Wojtek Wolski and Jason Chimera, all of whom have been skating on one of the top three lines, have combined for only three goals and 11 points in 35 games. They’re also a collective minus-13. In fact, Ward (plus-6), All-Star defenseman Mike Green (plus-4), Ribeiro (plus-2) and first-line center Nicklas Backstrom (plus-1) are the only Caps with positive ratings.
Thirteen games don’t usually mean that much, but this year they’re more than a quarter of this season so it’s pretty telling that Washington is 0-6-1 against the eight teams currently holding onto Eastern Conference playoff berths and 4-2 against those, like themselves, that are on the outside looking in at postseason for now.
Beating Florida back-to-back in itself isn’t that revealing, but if the Caps can carry the momentum from the shutout and the rally to prevail in overtime into victories tomorrow at Tampa Bay and Sunday at the New York Rangers then maybe Oates and Co. can really claim that they have turned the proverbial corner.
Not only are the Rangers in eighth place and the Lightning just a point behind, but they happen to be the teams who ended Washington’s last two playoff appearances. Extending their winning streak to four in the buildings where their Stanley Cup hopes died the past two springs could be the springboard the Caps need to make the final two-thirds of this odd hockey season meaningful in Washington.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin