By Rodger M. Wood
After a 5-1 dubbing by the Sabres with four games to go in the regular season, the Caps playoff future looked bleak. Led by the whitewash goaltending of Ryan Miller, the Sabres looked like a team of destiny headed for a late season playoff position comeback win and Caps fans would be looking to join the Caps players for an early summer golf outing foursome.
But then the Caps players came out of their slumber to decide to go down fighting rather than resign themselves to a long hot summer. Led by captain Alex Ovechin, who scored 11 goals in the last 16 games of the season, they beat the 2011 Stanley Cup winning Boston Bruins and last place Montreal Canadiens in overtime 3-2 shootouts, SE Division leading Florida Panthers 4-2, and President Trophy runners ups New York Rangers, 4-1, in the last game of the regular season.
In the home stretch, Ovie was a big force on both ends of the ice. His hard checks motivated teammates to follow suit. He got back on defense to save the game against the Panthers, and Canadiens. In the Rangers game, he rocked monster man Dan Giardi with a check so hard the big guy had to open his glove hand to see if he spit any teeth out.
Raising their play a couple octaves, other Caps players took charge of their season’s final destiny too.
Brooks Laich refused to concede and predicted a playoff berth for the Caps in an interview the last week of the season. He crunched opponents with abandon game in and game out, scored critical goals against the Rangers and Florida, and netted five goals in the last 16 games of the regular season.
With his animated play, forward Jay Beagle became a game winning factor, scoring 4 goals in March/April and hard forechecking each and every game.
Forward Matt Hendricks played his heart out every game and delivered critical shootout goals in successive games against the Canadiens and Bruins.
In the home stretch, forward Alexander Semin played hard two way hockey, delivering four critical goals and hard checks during the March stretch.
Forwards Keith Aucoin, Mike Knuble, Jay Chimera, Mathieu Perreault were factors, giving the Caps four balanced lines who could score a goal when needed.
A big spark to Caps playoff fortunes came when center Niklaus Backstrom returned to the ice against the Canadiens, and showed signs of recovery from his concussion with a big goal and an assist against the Rangers in the last game of the season.
After losing Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth to injuries, Caps’ goaltending hopes were buoyed by 22-year old Braden Holtby 35-stopped shots and one goal performance against the mighty Rangers in Madison Square Gardens.
While lopsided underdogs against the defending champion Boston Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs starting Thursday in Boston, the Caps have some hope.
Mike Green and Niklaus Backstrom are on the ice again and getting their games back.
They have four balanced lines, who can all put the puck in the net. Their captain is playing hard and providing them the inspiration needed to be winner.
John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Dennis Wideman, and Roman Hamlik and four other talented defensemen are ready to suit up, block shots, check hard and play mistake free hockey blocking shots and score an occasional goal..
Veteran goalies Thomas Vokoun and Michael Neuvirth are back on the ice, but questionable for play yet. It looks like young Holtby will be in the nets, but don’t sell this kid short. Coach Dale Hunter and the Caps players say they like his aggressiveness in the nets and he did a spectacular job against the Rangers last game. Although 15 years younger, he reminds me of a young Bruins goalie Tim Thomas who he’ll face Thursday.
All in all, the Caps may be peaking just in time for the playoffs. They’ve had to fight hard to get there, and maybe they’ve found a team identity. Maybe it’s a team who won’t give up until they win. That’s a whole better than what they were mid season, and now as underdogs, we have some hope our guys will play hard the whole game and maybe, just maybe, they’ll come out winners against the Bruins.