Coffee Is For Closers – The Washington Capitals have recently endured some woes related to protecting leads in games, but they got over that hump in fine fashion on Thursday night at Verizon Center. The Caps jumped out to a 3-0 lead, then bent but never broke on their way to a playoff berth-clinching 4-2 win over the Florida Panthers in the 2011-12 regular season home ice finale.
By virtue of that victory and the Buffalo Sabres’ 2-1 loss to the Flyers in Philadelphia, the Caps clinched a berth in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. By defeating the Panthers in regulation time, the Caps also stayed alive in the race for a fifth straight Southeast Division crown. Washington closes out the regular season with a Saturday night visit with the Rangers in New York.
A Washington win coupled with a Florida loss in regulation at home to the Carolina Hurricanes would give the Caps the division title and enable Washington to open a round one playoff series on home ice.
“You could see that we were intense,” says Caps coach Dale Hunter. “We wanted the game and we were going to do what it takes to win. But it was a high intensity game; they came hard too and forechecked hard. It was one of those games that we had to sacrifice our body and all the guys did. They sacrificed to win, and that’s what you need to win. We got a lot of character in the room and that’s how we won tonight – through the character of the guys.”
The turning point came after Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth left the game with a lower body injury at the 5:39 mark of the second period with Washington nursing a 1-0 lead at the time. Knowing the Panthers’ plan would be to get as many pucks as possible at relief netminder Braden Holtby, the Caps instead took the play to the Panthers.
Before Florida could get its second shot on a cold Holtby, the Caps struck for two goals of their own in a span of exactly two minutes. Given a 3-0 lead with which to work, Holtby was solid in stopping 12 of 14 shots he faced the rest of the way.
“The guys responded real well tonight,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “We got on the board right away, got up a couple and were able to hold onto the lead. It got exciting but we’re very happy to be in the playoffs right now.”
Tone Setters –Hunter juggled his lines after the first period, and he did so to good effect. But the line of Matt Hendricks, Jay Beagle and Brouwer did yeoman work in the first frame to help the Caps to a 1-0 lead after 20 minutes, and also to set a physical, lunch bucket tone to the contest.
On his third shift of the night, Beagle won consecutive offensive zone draws and then scored the game’s first goal – his fourth of the season – a dozen seconds after winning that second face-off.
The Capitals outhit the Panthers 40-23 in the game and 16-6 in the second period. The trio of Hendricks, Beagle and Brouwer accounted for more than a third (14) of that total.
That work ethic was contagious, as the eventual game-winner was scored at the end of a grinding, hard-working offensive zone shift in which Washington wore down the Florida defense and got rewarded when Brooks Laich fired one home.
“I think people underestimate Jay Beagle,” says Laich. “He’s a heck of a hockey player. He’s missed some time this year, but I don’t think the guy gets enough credit. And even with 10 seconds left [in the first], Matt Hendricks lays down to block a shot and then Jay Beagle blocks a shot. I think that line was great.”
Net Loss – Already missing No. 1 netminder Tomas Vokoun because of a lower body injury, the Caps lost Neuvirth – their starting goaltender throughout last spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs – to a lower body injury in the sixth minute of the second period.
Neuvirth was down in the butterfly position when ex-Cap Marco Sturm fell backwards and landed on the netminder’s left leg. Neuvirth was in obvious and immediate discomfort, and he had to be helped to the bench. Braden Holtby come on in relief to secure the victory.
“It was a battle we were in,” says Holtby. “The guys had played too good of a game for it to go down that way. When you get thrown in there, you don’t expect to be at your best, so you just let everything slide off your back and try to battle as hard as you can.”
It’s too soon to tell how severe Neuvirth’s ailment is, but the next goaltender on the depth chart is Dany Sabourin, currently of the AHL Hershey Bears. The 31-year-old Sabourin has 57 games worth of NHL experience with Pittsburgh and Vancouver, the last of which came when he went 6-8-2 in a 19-game stint with the Penguins in 2008-09.
Told You So – Laich got some heat on Wednesday merely for stating (not “guaranteeing”) that the Caps would make the playoffs. Tonight, he skated the skate.
Laich scored what would prove to be the game-winning tally while assisting on another goal to help vault the Caps into the playoffs.
Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller made some noise in the wake of Laich’s comments yesterday; he surrendered two third-period goals as the Sabres fell 2-1 on Thursday, enabling the Caps to clinch. Buffalo went into Thursday night’s game with a 25-0-2 record when leading after two periods of play.
Make that 25-1-2.
Reunited – After several games apart, the defensive duo of Karl Alzner and John Carlson were reunited to good effect in Thursday’s game.
Carlson in particular was a beast, logging a team-high six hits (tied with Hendricks and Brouwer) and a team-high four blocked shots. Carlson skated 20:05 on the night, the first time he logged upwards of 20 minutes since March 13 against the Islanders in New York.
“It was good obviously to play with [Alzner],” says Carlson. “You guys know I love playing with him. But there are bigger things tonight than to talk about him.”
Only Takes One – Semin’s goal came with just 1:02 remaining in the game and it came on his first and only shot on goal of the night. He had teed up five shots prior to that, but all five were blocked by the Panthers.
Spreading It Around – Ten different Capitals found their way onto the scoresheet in Thursday’s game
Soup’s On – Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell notched his 49th assist of the season on Mikael Samuelsson’s second-period goal. Campbell picked up the primary helper on Ed Jovanovski’s goal early in the third as well to reach the half-century mark in helpers.
With that second assist, Campbell has surpassed Robert Svehla’s all-time single-season franchise mark for helpers by a blueliner. Svehla had 49 assists in 1995-96, the year the Panthers went all the way to the Stanley Cup final against Colorado.
Streak Stopped – Samuelsson’s goal was the first the Panthers scored at Verizon Center this season, and it came late in the second period of their third game in this building in 2011-12.
Samuelsson’s strike ended a string of Florida offensive futility on F St. that stretched back 365 days, to when Mike Santorelli scored late in the third period of an April 6, 2011 game against the Capitals at Verizon Center.
In between those two tallies, four different Washington goaltenders combined to keep the Panthers at bay for a total of 157 minutes and 10 seconds.
Congrats, Cats – Even though they lost Thursday’s game, the Panthers have earned their first playoff berth in a dozen years, ending an NHL-record postseason drought. The Panthers can still win the Southeast Division simply by collecting a point in Saturday’s home game against the Carolina Hurricanes.
I’m excited for Saturday,” says Campbell. “If we play like we did tonight, we’re going to be alright. We have to bring that attitude to it. This was a good learning experience to see what it’s like on the road to play in a playoff atmosphere. It was a challenge and we came up short but we learned a lot.”
Campbell and Brouwer were teammates on the 2010 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
“Home ice is huge in the playoffs,” says Campbell, “especially when you have a team that hasn’t been in there in a while and younger guys who are experiencing it for the first time.”
By The Numbers – Marcus Johansson reached the 45-point level (14 goals, 31 assists) for the first time in his NHL career with his assist on Ovechkin’s second-period goal … Lacih reached the 40-point plateau (16 goals, 24 assists) for the fourth straight season … Florida fired a total of 70 shots (27 on net, 25 that were blocked and 18 that missed) to Washington’s 39 (24 on net, 11 that were blocked and four that missed) … The Caps were charged with 26 giveaways to Florida’s 11 on the night.