Friday, November 08, 2013

A Bigger Win Than You Thought

How many times have we seen the Washington Capitals unravel in close games? A million, gazillion. What happened last night against the Minnesota Wild was a huge step in the right direction by the Capitals. Their head coach, Adam Oates, told his team to be prepared to play a tight game. One goal games have never been the Caps forte.

In the past we have often seen this team lose it when the game is tight. More often it was amplified when it would happen in a play off game. The game would be tight and the Caps would be trailing a goal, when things would just fall apart. Instead of keeping it a close game to the end 1-0 or 2-1, the Caps would make simple mistakes for the sake of making the perfect play to tie the game. Suddenly they would be down 3-1, 4-1 and spiral down to a loss.

Or the team would go away from what had worked for them before, a bunch of individual efforts in order to bring the game back to fold. Only to once again have those efforts fail because one against 5 very rarely yields goals. How many games have fans seen that and pulled their hair out? Remember us looking nervously at the play clock to see time tick away from another win in a grind it out game the Caps couldn't stick with.

The Caps took the early lead with a power play goal by Alex Ovechkin. Then the Wild just sort of played the perfect road game after that. They slowed the game down, took the fans out of the equation. They answered Ovi's goal with a late power play goal of their own. Then took the lead after some relentless forechecking. It was an all too familiar scene Caps fans have endured before. And we all waited for the onslaught of Zach Parise shots and Wild clogging defense keeping the Caps at bay. But, something last night was different.

The Capitals never got away with their game plan. They stuck with it and with some spectacular saves from the goaltender Braden Holtby, they put themselves in the position to win a close methodical game. There was plenty of bending, but no breaking as the Caps remained tough in their own zone, gobbling up second chances and wearing on the Wild defense on the other end.

It just sort of happened, a long sustained forecheck by a mix of lines, Marcus Johansson, Brooks Laich and forth-liner Tom Wilson who was out there late from the previous shift. A tired Wild group, their first line couldn't clear the zone after a few line keeps from Alexander Urbom. The puck worked low, Wilson made a smart pick to open it up for Johansson and Laich pressuring the front of the net as the puck ricochet off a Wild defender and past Josh Harding to tie the game.

"What I like about the tying goal is it took a lot of hard work," Oates said of the late game tally. "We fought through a lot of frustration because they were giving you nothing. It was hard to get shots to the net. You’re going into territory that’s really difficult."

The Capitals moved their feet, worked hard in their zone and were rewarded with a lucky bounce and a game tying goal. There was no panic in the team when they went down 2-1 in the second period. They stuck to their game plan. They executed to play as a team to get the tying goal. And in the end it becomes a maturity moment for a team that has so many times lost those types of opportunities to selfish play or let minor mistakes become compounded through out the game to get them behind the eight ball.

"They [Wild] are playing good," Nick Backstrom said of their foe last night. "Good system, they are backing off, and they are being very patient. Obviously for us, we’ve got to be patient as well. We’ve got to play our system and try to be aggressive on them." 

They didn't need to pull the goalie, or rely on the power play to gain them the goal. It came from sticking with the system, working hard, executing and reaping the rewards for all of those cultivating together to make the game 2-2. It was unfortunate Martin Erat took that penalty late in the game because it took the wind out of the Caps' sails. But the penalty kill once again did a great job when they needed it most.  

Last night was a growing moment for the Capitals. To find a way to win in a tight game was gigantic in so many ways. While the game itself seemed often boring and slow at times, I had to watch again to realize exactly what was going on. The Caps were growing up. They took a gigantic step forward. Even if they had lost the game in the shoot out, there was a lot of good to take away from that game.

Now it remains to be seen if the Capitals can sustain that way of playing. As teams that are much better at trapping and grinding than the Caps, it's important they show they can win games like that. It happened against a very good Western Conference team (which the West has dominated the East early on this season) and if the Capitals can do this consistently, things in the post season will get all that much more interesting in DC.

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