- Hendricks and Arnott celebrate Friday's winning goal. (Photo: Associated Press)
Over the course of the NHL regular season, most media people use the phrase "playoff-type game" or "playoff-type atmosphere" to only describe games that pit top teams in each conference. Sunday's nationally televised matinee between the Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks is likely to receive the same blessing from the NBC broadcast booth.
But the phrase "playoff-type games" doesn't always apply to these relatively rare occurrences. There are also games like Friday night's 2-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, games that involve desperate teams. These games, which might not get as big of a slice of the spotlight, are usually far, far trickier to win.
"It's a lot like playoff hockey right now," said Matt Hendricks, who scored the game-winning goal on a rebound with 12:36 left in regulation.
"These are more fun than blowouts," said Mike Knuble a reference to Wednesday night's 5-0 win over Edmonton, in which the Oilers were, as the saying goes, lucky to get nil.
The Carolina Hurricanes have spent most of this season ricocheting around the league's bottom three Eastern Conference playoff sports, but they came to Verizon Center Friday night finding themselves two points outside of the playoff places, a victim, in large part of the resurgence of the Buffalo Sabres. With the edge of their season visible on the horizon, the Hurricanes came out with renewed intensity, and made their intentions clear from the start, squeezing off five shots on goal before Washington was able to pull the trigger against Cam Ward.
Oddly enough, however, though Washington was outshot in each of the three periods (13-9, 12-10, and 16-7), the Caps never had the appearance of being out of the game. Indeed, they should have scored the first goal of the game after Chimera wristed a shot off the goalpost just five minutes into the opening period.
But both goalies were at their sharpest Friday night, and the teams rolled on and on in a stalemate, barely pausing for breath, until Tuomo Ruutu gave Carolina the lead with 35.1 seconds remaining in the second period. Habitual observers of this year's team will recall the December 9 game against the Florida Panthers, in which the visitors broke a scoreless tie very late in the second period and prompted a memorable, profanity-laced tirade from Bruce Boudreau. Back then, the Caps slumped to a 3-0 defeat. This time, inspired by a game-tying goal from Alexander Ovechkin 47 seconds into the third, Washington turned the game on its head.
"I didn't think we were particularly sharp tonight," Boudreau admitted. "They had 40 shots on goal [actually 41']. I think they were carrying the play and they were beating us to the puck. We made the plays in the third period we needed to win, and that was it. I think they are probably pretty frustrated right now."
Carolina had good reason to be frustrated, as they should have scored a game-tying goal with less than three minutes to play after the referees incorrectly ruled that Braden Holtby had held onto Cory Stillman's shot when, in fact, he had never come close to having control of it. The puck was turned into the net shortly after the whistle by Jay Harrison, but the official was already waving his arms to stop the play.
But the win itself, however ill-earned, however sharp or not sharp the Caps played, can be seen (and was seen, by a couple of the players) as another exhibit in the case for George McPhee's trade deadline acquistions. Washington has won all six of the games it's played since the deadline, and both Hendricks and Knuble spoke to the effect the influx of veterans has had on the team.
"I think everyone's playing their best hockey right now," said Hendricks. "You know, we have guys who want to improve, but for right now we need to hold each other accountable."
"I think we're all happy that it's not November or December that we're putting this streak together," said Knuble. "And the new additions have been great. It shows that [McPhee] is listening and watching this team and is taking the proper steps to help us."
And so far, all is going according to plan.
My Three Stars
1. Braden Holtby- Followed up his first career NHL shutout with 40 saves, and the Capitals needed every one of them.
2. Alex Ovechkin-Continued his recent good play with a vintage performance, throwing his body around and scoring his 28th goal of the seaon.
3. Matt Hendricks-Showed great alertness to follow up Jason Arnott's break and score the game-winning goal midway through the third period.