With just five games left in the 2013 season, the Washington Capitals are hitting their stride at the perfect time. Don’t believe me? Just ask the Toronto Maple Leafs, who were blown out in a hurry during a thorough 5-1 beatdown at the Verizon Center Tuesday night.
With that in mind, here are 10 random thoughts after the Capitals picked up their eighth-consecutive victory:
- At the start of the game, this affair had a ‘ho hum’ kind of vibe. Washington and Toronto haven’t ever really had an intense rivalry or a nasty feud, so the first half of the opening period felt like it took a while to get things going. Even after defenseman/baby daddy Jack Hillen lit the lamp for his third goal of the season, the atmosphere in the arena was still subdued. And then someone took a cheapshot on Nicklas Backstrom …
- Everything changed once and for all when Toronto center Jay McClement nailed Backstrom from behind — a hit that made everyone in attendance gasp as the top-line center went flying face-first into the boards. The referees, naturally, missed the dirty play. Alex Ovechkin, however, did not. The Great 8 immediately came to the defense of his teammate and tried to take McClement’s head off. While Toronto might have temporarily benefited from the sequence, because they went on the powerplay, that cheapshot clearly woke up the Capitals. For the rest of the game, every player representing the hometeam was clearly invested in the game and playing with a purpose.
- The longer Caps coach Adam Oates is around, the more I’m convinced he’s the perfect fit for this team. In years past, the Capitals were soft and would let other teams intimidate them from time to time. When the first-time coach was asked about the McClement hit and Ovechkin’s retaliation, his answer was perfect: “You want to stick together,” he said. “There’s times where you obviously don’t want to take penalties to do it, but I think that it’s great that we killed that penalty. It is important; obviously we have to protect our guys.” Translation: these are your same, old Capitals.
- The second period was basically a hockey clinic — with Washington’s players skating circles around the Maple Leafs for a full 20 minutes of play. Martin Erat, the top six forward who up to this point had only been known for the prospect the franchise surrendered to land him and getting injured 10 minutes after he arrived, played a great game and showed the first glimpse of why the front office jumped at the chance to land him. He aggressive with his forechecking in the offensive zone. He made smart and sound decisions with the puck. Oh, and he was productive — crashing the net to tally his first goal for the Capitals on a tip in.
- For the game, Erat skated on the second line with center Mike Ribeiro and forward Troy Brouwer. While the majority of the attention is on Washington’s first-line of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, the team’s second unit was equally impressive against Toronto. Erat had a goal and an assist, Ribeiro picked up two assists and Brouwer scored the prettiest goal of the night when he deked his way through traffic and then backhanded the puck through goalie Ben Scrivens’ legs for his 17th goal of the season. Legitimate playoff teams need to have more than one line worth gameplanning for. If these three guys keep playing like this, the Caps should be in good shape in that department.
- Maybe it’s because I think Phil Kessel is a totally douchebag and deserves to be punched in the face all day every day, but I couldn’t help but wonder why Jason Chimera opted to drop the gloves with a nobody like McClement after the Backstrom hit. Wouldn’t it send more of a message if you target one of their best players with your payback rather than trading punches with a nobody?
- John Carlson, Mike Green and Ovechkin all upped their game in dramatic fashion after getting a haircut during the season. Shouldn’t someone politely suggest to Chimera — who has struggled to score goals all season long — he should grow out his hair for a couple of weeks and then cut it all off in hopes of joining the club?
- Every time I see Aaron Volpatti taking a shift, I think the same thing: “Isn’t it adorable that they let him carry around a stick like he’s an actual hockey player.”
- Simply put, Oates officially won me over with one simple act: at the end of the third period, with the game all but decided and his team heading to the powerplay after another unnecessary cheapshot by a Maple Leafs player, Oates sent out the follow five players on the man advantage — Matt Hendricks, Jay Beagle, Volpatti, John Erskine and Steven Oleksy. Sure, he knew those guys would struggle to register a single shot on net, but he also knew it would send a clear message to a possible playoff opponent. Enough is enough. Knock it off or my guys will do it for you. Maybe the days of watching Caps players get pushed around without fear or anyone in Washington growing a backbone is finally a thing of the past.
- For all the talk about Washington feasting on bad competition in the Southeast Division, the Caps continue to simply handle whoever lines up in front of them these days. Ovechkin has 10 goals in eight April games and goalie Braden Holtby looks like the same goalie who played out of his mind last year in the playoffs. While it would be nice for opposing teams to underestimate the Capitals because of the pitiful division they play in, I think that shipped has sailed thanks to this eight-game winning streak. Oh well. At least hockey’s fun to watch again in our nation’s capital.