Keith Jones understands what we’re seeing. During the Versus postgame show, after Washington pushed their record to 22-21-5, the former Caps grinder pointed out that, should the Caps make the playoffs, they will be the first NHL team in history to come back from dead last in the conference to make the postseason. Coincidentally enough, on the same day Keith gave us this historical nugget, I dug out my own piece of Keith Jones history: a ticket stub from April 28, 1995 autographed by one of my favorite Caps of yesteryear (the Caps Official Guide tells me the game was a 5-1 win over the Sabres). I suspect some fine Jim Carey and Pat Peake items await me in the same corner of the closet from which I unearthed the Jones piece.
Thirteen-year-old faded stubs are pointless, however, unlike six of the past seven Capitals games, which have thrown 12 standing points on Washington’s growing pile. Atlanta might as well be in the rearview mirror, and Carolina continues to desperately grasp at their tenuous hold on first place. Their overtime win today kept them three points ahead of the Caps, but the end result here is clear. DCO sees a first-place Caps team absolutely no later than mid-February, possibly much earlier than that (post All Star Game?). We see a first-place team not looking back and keeping a solid hold on that position all the way to April and a third seed in the playoffs. It’s a first-place team that will produce a stone-cold lock Jack Adams award for Bruce Boudreau, a Calder Trophy for Nicklas “4 Assist” Backstrom (and possibly a Yahoo! Sports section that does not link to the Minnesota Wild goaltender whenever the Caps’ phenom is mentioned. And while we’re hoping for Yahoo! improvements, let’s get a game summary that does not feature Sidney Crosby’s non-playing mug in a story about a thrilling Caps shootout victory), and a Maurice Richard trophy for Alex Ovechkin (Hart and Ross as well?). Let’s throw in another King Clancy Trophy for Olie as well.
The win over Pittsburgh (a partial burying of the Penguins demon that has haunted this team for far too long), like more than a few Capitals’ games this season, looked bleak for a while, when that iffy Pens goal stuck Washington in their latest 1-goal deficit. Conditions were ripe for detractors to jump on the poor penalty killing, Olie’s .600-ish save percentage, etc. But when Viktor Kozlov (another oft-labelled “underachiever”) scored his fourth in two games, some viewers might have gotten that tinge, that little whisper that said it was possible to win this one. It was optimism.
Then there was that overtime. That overtime with the two-man Penguins advantage for a minute-plus. Seemed a prime time for a Penguins’ tap-in goal against the 3-for-7 victimized Caps penalty kill. But while Pittsburgh passed around trying to set up Evgeni Malkin for his hat trick score, a funny thing happened: the Caps realized they could be really, really good at killing penalties. Quentin Laing continued to build his growing legend as a sublime shot blocker, knocking away consecutive power play shots for the second time in less than a month. Dave Steckel (no stranger to key blocks himself) knocked away the ensuing attempted centering pass, and after a maddening flurry in front of the net, the penalties were all but dead. Kolzig even got a save in there, keeping the game alive.
The shootout. The Caps stink at those, right? The Penguins are loaded with deking, goal-scoring gods, right? Again, funny thing. Kolzig forces two shots wide (well, one off the post), and the Alexes put away some of their own frustrating shootout memories to dent the thought-to-be-undentable Ty Conklin. A win. A huge win. Biggest win of the season.
Keith Jones and the rest of the former ESPN hockey crew recognize the surging greatness that is this team, even while the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network continues to bury the Caps in their power rankings, always ignoring the piling up of wins. and throwing in snippy and negativecomments whenever possible. A few weeks ago it was: Viktor Kozlov stinks and makes too much money. Last week it was: how will they survive without Michael Nylander. Presumably this week we’ll hear about the fact that Matt Pettinger is struggling (disregarding of course his sweet setup of Kozlov on the game-tying goal). But in the end it’s not respect from the Chris Berman network we should be hoping for. It’s that third seed. It’s a lock.