- Jason Arnott (left) and Brooks Laich celebrate Laich's game-tying goal Tuesday night. (Photo: Associated Press)
Like a college football team losing its homecoming game, a loss to the lowly New York Islanders would have set off alarms ringing at Defcon 1 levels among fans of the Washington Capitals. If there was ever a game that the Caps shouldn't, nay, couldn't lose, it was this one: a home game against a team whose talent could be charitably described (at the positions where such talent exists, anyway) as "raw," the day after going out and trading for two players who were supposed to fill all the team's requirements for a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Hell, even Capital alum Calle Johansson was in the building to give the event even more of a homecoming feel.
And for the first half of the first period, everything went according to script. First Marco Sturm, technically a pre-trade deadline acquisition (he was claimed off waivers on Saturday), forced a shot past Nathan Lawson --but also forced it just past the post. Then Jason Arnott, that second-line center some had been clamoring for since training camp, redirected a pass from Brooks Laich right into the "NY" on Lawson's chest. All they had to do was score one, you thought, and a second, third, fourth goal would swiftly follow.
But the first goal didn't come.
It didn't come when Jason Chimera backhanded the puck completely wide of an open net. It didn't come when Matt Bradley redirected a pass past Lawson only to see it slither past the right post. It didn't come before Matt Moulson finished a simple 2-on-1 giveaway with a wrist shot past Michal Neuvirth halfway through the second period. And as the Islanders began to grow more confident in attack and sure-legged in defense, it appeared that Washington's first goal might not come at all.
"It was very similar to [Saturday's] game on the Island, only reversed," said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, referring to Washington's 3-2 win over these same Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. "We had nine shots [early] and two breakaways and when we don't score, I'm going 'Uh-oh."
The Caps couldn't blame bad fortune entirely for their predicament of trailing 1-0 after 40 minutes. Their passing generally lacked crispness and both of their power play chances were plagued by the same hold-and-pass disease that Washington has struggled with all season. Though Washington comfortably outshot the Islanders in the first two periods (28-13), the visitors proved themselves in the third to be perfectly capable of turning the Caps' discordant play into opportunities of their own. In the final 20 minutes, New York put 15 shots on Michal Neuvirth, and Washington needed their rookie goaltender to be at his sharpest to keep the team in the game.
"They were just waiting for our mistakes," Neuvirth said after the game. "Every turnover, they had an odd-man rush. That's the game I don't like to play, but that's what it is sometimes."
And then, just as panic was beginning to set in, George McPhee's acquisition of Jason Arnott paid its first dividend. After Alexander Semin had prevented the Islanders from clearing their zone with 55 seconds to play, Alexander Ovechkin sent the puck back around the boards to Arnott, who was standing in the far corner.
"I saw [Ovechkin] put the puck back in and around to me, and I saw Brooks standing in front of the net and I just tried to slide it on over to him," said Arnott after the game. "He made a great play and put it in."
As the Capitals and their fans celebrated Laich's game-tying goal with 47.1 seconds remaining, and as 178:06 (the amount of game time since the Caps last scored a goal at Verizon Center) worth of pent-up stress left the building, the question should have immediately came up: would someone like Marcus Johansson have had the composure to pick out Laich the way Arnott did? Perhaps, but even the most youth-obsessed fan would concede that Arnott was probably a better bet in that situation than the Swede or any of his contemporaries. No doubt that was at least partially behind George McPhee's thinking Monday afternoon, anyway.
My Three Stars
Alexander Ovechkin-Game-winning goal number 9 of the season for Employee Number 8.
Michal Neuvirth-If not for his 28 saves, Laich's goal would have served as mere consolation.
Nathan Lawson-Did brilliantly to keep his team in the game for the first 10 minutes, and couldn't do very much about either goal charged to him.
Injury Update-Defeseman Mike Green (head) has been placed on Injured Reserve by the club retroactive to Friday. He can be recalled anytime after March 4.