- Knuble (22) and Johansson celebrate the overtime winner. (Photo: Associated Press)
If the National Hockey League is feeling any extra urgency to gain new converts (or regain former ones), they should be sending tapes of Sunday afternoon's 4-3 overtime win by the Washington Capitals over the Chicago Blackhawks to every news outlet between New York and Nanjing. The matinee, witnessed by yet another raucous sellout crowd at the Verizon Center and by millions more watching nationwide on NBC, was by some distance the most thrilling game the Capitals have played this season, outstripping all four games against the Pittsburgh Penguins (yes, even the Winter Classic), both overtime games against the Flyers, and even the 6-0 demolition of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thanksgiving Friday.
"These Sunday afternoon games are like our version of Monday Night Football," said Mike Knuble, whose 16th goal of the season was the game-winner at 3:51 of sudden-death overtime. "They're fun to play in, and it presents challenges for both teams, having to get up and go so early."
Both teams had prolonged stretches where they were on top. Chicago dominated the early portions of all three periods, while the Capitals came on strong late. Capitals coach Joel Quenneville said his team "[wasn't] very good," but in reality, the Capitals shaded the play by only the smallest of margins over the 65 minutes. Though in fairness to Quenneville, Chicago was lucky to take the game to overtime to secure their point.
Beginning with Brooks Laich's goal to make the score 3-2 to Washington with 13:37 remaining in the third, the Caps piled into the Chicago zone with every intention of either scoring a fourth goal or killing off the game through forechecking. And they appeared on their way to achieving the latter goal when Marcus Johansson was called for hooking while attempting to clear Washington's defensive zone with 1:50 remaining. The odds of stopping the Blackhawks on any two-man advantage are never good, and with Chicago crashing the net in desperation, the game-tying goal by Jonathan Toews with 38.5 seconds to go in regulation felt very much like an inevitability.
If the Blackhawks had managed to go on and get the extra point, no one would have felt worse about it than Johansson, who proved again Sunday that he was up to the task of centering a first line that featured Knuble and Alex Ovechkin on the wings. He was active right from the face-off, getting away seven shots in all, leading the rush into the zone, and generally making life difficult for the Chicago defensemen. As it was, the Swedish rookie redeemed himself by finding Knuble down low in overtime for the game-winning goal.
"I am sure Marcus wanted to work doubly hard on that shift, because he felt responsible for them getting the tying goal" said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, who called the last minute hook on Johansson "a chintzy call."
"Real heads-up play by Marcus," said Knuble. "It would have been very easy for him to bury his head there and try to jam it through, but I kind of laid my stick to the side and he put it on the tape. It was a very smart play."
Another player who was redeemed by the overtime victory was goaltender Braden Holtby, who, while not at fault for Toews' scrambled equalizer, could have stopped Nick Leddy's opening goal, and definitely should have stopped Tomas Kopecky's goal that made the score 2-2 early in the second. However, Holtby recovered well enough to make the unquestionable save of the game, when he denied Michael Frolik's point-blank chance with 2:48 remaining to preserve what was at the time a 3-2 Washington lead.
"I knew I wasn't feeling as good as [earlier this week]," said Holtby, who was making his fourth straight start on the back of his first NHL shutout Wednesday night and a 40-save performance against Carolina Friday night. "But I knew that I would just have to battle, whether it was a 2-1 game, a 1-0 game, or a five-goal lead. I knew that I would have to keep as sharp as I could."
"You know, you just don't feel perfect every day," said Holtby, when asked if he was feeling unwell. More likely he was suffering the combined effects of Daylight Savings Time kicking in earlier today, as well as having to face a high-powered Blackhawks offense in a 12:30 p.m. faceoff when it still felt like 11:30 a.m for most.
The Capitals won''t play at home again until March 29 and will travel to Montreal, Detroit, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Ottawa, and Montreal again. With a playoff place all but secure and with a three-point cushion over Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division race, Boudreau was quick to shoot down any questions relating to the playoffs.
"The playoffs are a different animal," he said when asked if he considered the upcoming trip to be a dress rehearsal. When asked if he was shooting for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, Boudreau replied, "I don't want to think about getting the number one seed. You gotta believe an 8 [seed] can beat a 1. I think it's happened before," he concluded as the assembled media giggled.
OK, the playoffs are still a month away, but it's never too early to plan ahead. And on Sunday afternoon's evidence, it'll be hard to find too many people who'll say no to these teams meeting between four and seven times in early June.
My Three Stars
1. Mike Knuble-A game-winning overtime goal (his first since February 26).
2. Marcus Johansson-Provided an assist to Knuble on the latter's game-winner, and was the hardest-working man in red on the ice before that.
3. Boyd Gordon-His shorthanded goal 1:25 after Chicago had taken the lead brought the Caps right back into what had been a very one-sided game up to that point.