The game is clicking for the Caps
Since the players of the Washington Capitals unanimously named Alex Ovechkin captain on January 5th, the team has won 12 of its past 13 games. Coincidence? Maybe, but I think his new role is part of it. One of the other key factors that seems to be a part of the wins the Caps are amassing in January is that Coach Bruce Boudreau has finally kept the forward lines together instead of tinkering with them every night. The third factor is that Boudreau appears to have finally found a way to motivate this team to play well, regardless of whether or not they're playing a winning team or one in the basement of the standings. Considering how often the Caps played down to lesser competitors the last couple of years, that's a huge step forward.
All four forward lines are gelling in a way I have never (and I mean never!) seen in Washington. It reminds me of watching the Detroit Red Wings the one and only time the Caps reached the Stanley Cup finals. During game one, I watched mouth agape at the tape to tape perfect passes the Red Wings made and knew that there was no way the Caps were going to win that series, even though they kept the score competitive in all the games until the final one.
Lately, I've watched the Caps move the puck into the offensive zone with my mouth agape. In last night's game against Florida, the other hockey fanatic in my house, Jeff & I looked at each other in awe as Eric Fehr and Brendan Morrison passed to each other up the ice. It was pretty. And, if a pass doesn't land perfectly on the tape, all the forwards seem to have the ability to move the puck with their feet to get it on the tape. It's sick, as Ovi would say.
And, there's so much more going right for the Caps, right now.
Mike Knuble playing on the line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom has given the Caps a prolific goal scoring top line because of his ability to crash the net and pot in garbage goals. My excitement over Knuble's arrival last summer has only intensified because it's so clear the hole he fills for the Caps and he nets the kind of goals teams must get in the playoffs. He has 18 goals and 13 assists for 33 points this season and he's having a blast playing with this team.
Ovi is taking his game to a whole new level as he has 6 more assists, at 40, than his 34 goals. He's playing +34 hockey and it shows in his better defensive play. He still has too many giveaways, some nights, but he's playing well and inspiring this team.
Backstrom is also taking his game to a whole different level as he's becoming a goal scorer with 22 goals (his season high last year), in addition to, being a playmaker. He's playing +25 hockey and it's so much fun trying to watch opponents get the puck off his stick. Backstrom frequently looks like he has velcro on his stick.
I'm not sure what's gotten into Alexander Semin but I've never seen him play better. He's always been an extremely talented, but injury prone and streaky player who gets lazy during the long grind of the season. He shows up in the playoffs though, so I give Semin a lot of slack. Since returning from his wrist injury in December, he's been one of the best forwards in the NHL, getting 16 goals and 36 assists and playing +19 hockey. Semin received the number one star of the game four times in a row this month against Anaheim, the New York Islanders, Phoenix and Pittsburgh.
The team's blue line is also playing well and Jeff Erskine, Shaone Morrisonn and Jeff Schultz all broke long scoring droughts in the last several games. Mike Green, unfortunately suspended for three games for an elbow to the head of Michael Frolik against the Panthers last night, is playing much stronger defense, he's +22 and still racking up points.
Goaltending is still a concern for the Caps. Jose Theodore has won his last six games against Pittsburgh, Anaheim, Detroit, Philly, the Islanders and Florida, but he's a streaky goaltender. His stats aren't in the top half of the league. Semyon Varlamov can't get or stay healthy. Michal Neuvirth is going to be a good goalie in the NHL, but, at times, he looks overwhelmed and could use more time in Hershey. He played a strong game last night and made a spectacular glove save as the force of the shot pushed him back down to the ice after he caught it.
So, what does it all mean? It means nothing because it's January. It's just fun to watch.
Tampa Bay Lightning up tomorrow.
Let's go Caps!