After the first dizzying shift of swift skating, sharp passing, hard checking beauty the answer was clear. The Caps team that has made the climb from worst to being right in the thick of a playoff race was back, and not a moment too soon.
Throughout the game the Caps continued to display their defensive prowess for which they have (surprisingly) become known, corralling the big guns down in Raleigh and keeping this one tight. But they also showed a good deal of offensive flash, firing 44 shots on Cam Ward while allowing 27. In fact if not for Ward's heroics, this game could have gotten ugly very quickly as the Caps came out firing in the first and took control right away.
Carolina picked up the pace in the remaining forty minutes, but all that did was make the game more interesting. Interesting is good, right? Still, the Caps seemed to be outplaying them all over the place, foiling passes and blocking shots and when all else failed relying on the strong play of their goaltender to make the final stop. Even the special teams looked good, despite the fact that both Carolina goals came while on the power play - neither was really a power play goal in the sense that the penalty killers failed, it was really just...one of those things. Or two.
So we can forgive the fluky goals - not much you can do about a puck deflecting off a defender a mile away from the net, or a puck propelled over the line when three bodies collide in the crease. In fact, take away those two black marks and the Caps played what was a pretty stellar road game, a great team win.
But as in every great team win there were a few individual standouts - and where there are individual standouts, there is #8.
Ovechkin was a man possessed, barreling around the ice hitting and shooting wherever he could - and he would only be contained for so long, taking a beautiful pass from Backstrom (which stemmed from an equally pretty play by Kozlov) to net his history-making 61st goal of the season. Congratulations to Ovechkin as he continues to set himself apart in a league full of amazing talent.
Huet was sharp when called upon and will probably be in net for the bulk of the remaining games as a result. We can feel nostalgic and sorry for Olie, or we can bask in the glow of a goalie who is now 6-2 in his first 8 games with the club. Frankly the latter is sounding pretty good right now.
And Viktor Kozlov, whose accomplishments and contributions this year have been incredibly underrated, proved to be the biggest hero of them all with an absolute rifle of a shot to beat Cam Ward in the shootout. It was the only one that went in, the only one that counted...and Eric Staal can curse that lovely post all he wants.
This game was, for all intents and purposes, a playoff game. It felt like it for sure, as many of the players acknowledged and those of us watching at home saw for ourselves. There was an intensity that has maybe been missing from previous division games, a sense that this one meant more than the rest. No, a three point game wasn't exactly what the Caps wanted but the two points they came out with in the end were incredibly important for sure.
If you were scoreboard watching last night, as many of us were, you saw one of the more unusual evenings in the NHL. First everything was going the Caps' way, all the right teams losing; then things started to turn and it felt like once again a solid game by Washington would yield little in the end.
But by the close of the night, although the teams ahead of the Caps each picked up two points, it was the teams right on their heels that were the big story. Toronto, Buffalo, Florida - all fell in regulation, clearing out the logjam a bit and giving the Caps some much needed breathing room. It now looks more and more like it will be a three-team race for the final two spots, much better odds for a team sitting only two points out.
So the Caps are now three points ahead of the Sabres and Panthers, four points ahead of the Maple Leafs, two points behind Boston for eighth and four points behind Carolina for the Southeast Division title.
...are we having fun yet?