- Michal Neuvirth turned in another solid performance between the pipes, stopping 31 of the 33 shots he faced. (Photo: Associated Press)
The Washington Capitals could have given up the lead so many times Wednesday night. They could have given it up after Alex Ovechkin drew a delay of game penalty at 14:19 of the second by accidentally depositing the puck into the crowd from his team's defensive zone. That came just 1:24 after Buffalo's Jordan Leopold had drawn the Sabres to within 3-2 by finding a loose puck that no one else could locate in the slot and firing it past Michal Neuvirth.
They could have lost the lead after Jason Chimera took what he later called a "dumb" hooking penalty at 11:17 of the third period (meaning he was dumb for drawing it, as opposed to the officials). They could have lost it at anytime during the final two minutes, as the Sabres applied all kinds of pressure to Neuvirth's net in an attempt to grab a desperately needed point.
But they didn't, and the 4-2 final score of Wednesday night's game means a lot more to the Capitals than just another two points gained in November.
"This was a game that you can't say we escaped with a win," said center David Steckel, who scored the third and decisive goal at 2:45 of the second period to put the Caps up 3-0. "You can't say we got by on talent alone."
No, David, you certainly can't.
Mind you, it hadn't looked like the Caps would be put in a position to brag about their performance. With the team already having shown themselves perfectly capable of giving up multiple goals in short time spans, fans could be forgiven for thinking after Leopold's goal cut the margin to one that Wednesday night would offer more of the same.
Instead, the Capitals put in a third-period performance that had the "p" word on everyone's lips.
"During the second intermission, Bruce talked about it," said winger Matt Bradley. "This is playoff style hockey, when you are up a goal or down a goal going into the third. I thought we locked it down pretty good in the third."
The formula to winning playoff games is pretty simple: solid goaltending, direct offensive play, and a few breaks. The Capitals got the goaltending performance they've come to expect from Michal Neuvirth, who saved 31 shots and generally outplayed U.S. Olympian Ryan Miller.
"I keep going back to those two [AHL] championship rounds of the playoffs [Neuvirth's played in]," Boudreau said. "He knows how to buckle down." When asked if he worried for his young Czech goaltender during the final period, in which he stopped all ten shots he faced, Boudreau answered with an emphatic no: "Not during the third period. During the first period, yes. But by that point in the game, he's warm, he's into the game, he's mentally right, so I didn't worry about it at that point."
The Capitals also got the requisite direct offensive play on their first three goals Wednesday night, all of which were scored from close range and all of which came after some lovely passing, especially the second two goals, which were made by beautiful passes from Jason Chimera.
"We kept it simple and got pucks in deep," Chimera said afterward.
"When we try to be fancy and do things we shouldn't, that's when we get in trouble," Bradley said. "We're just playing a simple game. That's what we did tonight."
Even though much has been made of the "new" NHL, with it's rule changes and emphasis on speed and scoring, the ethos of Stanley-Cup winning teams hasn't changed very much at all through the years. The Capitals have played like contenders since the first puck dropped October 8 in Atlanta, but on Wednesday night, for the first time all season, they played like champions.
My Three Stars
Jason Chimera-Two beautiful assists to set up linemates Bradley and Steckel for goals. "With a guy who has [Chimera's] speed, if you can just get the puck in the zone, you create chances for him," Steckel said. "He's a good player, and he'll know where you'll be." He certainly knew tonight.
Michal Neuvirth-Continued to impress with 31 saves, including 10 in the third period.
Matt Bradley-Scored a (slightly fortuitous) goal from close range in the first, and earned a secondary assist on Steckel's game-winner.