We already know hot teams are no match for the Capitals. Well, now we know that completely non-hot teams, like the Thrashers, losers of 10 of 12, are fodder as well. Further, with last night’s 4-1 win over Atlanta, we see another curse apparently broken. Recently, the Caps have solved Boston goalie Tim Thomas and the entire city of Buffalo, and now they can check Kari Lehtonen off their list of tormentors, he being the tormenting type that annoyingly likes to stop almost 40 shots, turning away a dozen or more quality scoring chances in the process (there’s still that irritating Pittsburgh hex to work on, but that could be taken care of by, say, a playoff victory this spring).
The moment the Lehtonen hex was lifted was easy to spot. It happened mere microseconds after Alex Ovechkin’s wrist shot brutally tore through his five-hole. The scored-upon-four-times Atlanta goalie smashed his fists on his pads in obvious frustration, perhaps rage. The game was already quite over by that point, given the constant Washington domination that preceded it, but that goal sealed the game as securely as Atlanta’s non-playoff fate is sealed.
Even when Slava Kozlov’s tricky little shot snuck past Kolzig to put Atlanta up 1-0, ‘tism levels in the arena noticeably did not take a hit. It clearly had something to do with the magnificent tilt in the ice last night towards the Atlanta defensive zone. Maybe it also had something to do with the massive deficit the Thrashers were accumulating in shots. Maybe the 18,000+ in attendance felt that, this time, all those chances against the mighty Kari were going to lead to something.
Of course, they were right, and optimism was rewarded just a few minutes later when Brooks Laich, clearly becoming a fan favorite if the pre-game introductioncheers are any indication calmly roofed his 18th goal.
Laich was at it again a couple of minutes into the second period, getting Verizon Center vibrating (and my ears truly hurting for the first time at a Caps game all season) by grittily poking the puck into the net as it was about to be knocked askew. At that point in the game, Brooks had as many goals as Atlanta had shots (their last shot coming on their goal 11:41 into the first period). He continues to form into the player I had always hoped Matt Pettinger would become: that grindy, gritty player who could park in front of the net, kill penalties, and score 30 goals a season while doing it. Hmm, sounds like a soon-to-be-returning injured captain, doesn’t it. Two guys like that on a team offer all sorts of line balancing combinations. Put Laich in line just behind Mike Green as the next player in need of a 13-year contract extension.
The highlight of the second period, though, had to be the Trade Deadline Payoff Play, brought to you by George McPhee. Fedorov assists Cooke on a shorthanded breakaway goal. Fedorov almost did it again about a minute later, brilliantly setting up Matt Bradley for a layup on a 2-on-1 break. Just barely not enough air for Brads, though. Oh well. Point made. The only thing that could have made the sequence more perfect (vindicating?) would have been an electrifying save by Cristobal Huet on the penalty kill. As it was, Kolzig had it well in hand anyway. Thus the period ended with the Caps up 3-1, holding the Thrashers to all of six shots, and making my neck sore from having my head turned towards the Atlanta goal for almost all of the period’s 20 minutes.
In the third, Fedorov kept it up with all that faceoff winnin’ and started a power play that ended with the aforementioned lethal Ovie wristshot goal. Laich also reminded us what a stout defensive player he is with a blocked shot on a penalty kill that boomed and resonated throughout the areana. Later he assuaged fears he might have been injured by the shot, declaring it only hit his shin pad. Still, it sounded dramatic enough to be injury-inducing.
Bruce II summed up the game nicely afterwards, calling the team “determined” and christening the Caps’ effort “as complete a game as I’ve seen.” Hard to argue with that. And with the Hurricanes suffering a hopefully confidence-and-season-crushing 7-1 defeat to Buffalo, the division lead suddenly doesn’t seem such an absurd goal again. Five points back, one game in hand, two games vs. Carolina. Pretty good. Regarding the fall-back plan of the #8 seed, they are three points behind the Flyers, who are soon to lose to the Bruins, who are in turn set to lose to the Capitals on Sunday. Thus the circle is complete and the Caps are closer to the postseason.
So you still can’t count the Capitals out of anything. As the soon-to-be-20-goal-scorer Laich said, “We were written off early in the season too”, and we know how that turned out, so it is way, way premature to write off their chances to catch the Hurricanes.