They’ve been through some growing pains in the last five games, but there’s no doubt the undefeated Capitals are going in the right direction. Out of their 5 wins this season, the 3-0 shutout of the Florida Panthers Tuesday was the first contest this year where the Capitals set the tone, sustained it throughout the game, and finished on their terms.
Even the fans felt the difference. The “Unleash the Fury” cheer inside Verizon sounded the most inspired it has all season, particularly for a low-scoring game with the home team ahead (or maybe everyone in the seats had just consumed an extraordinary amount of Red Bull). But the fans didn’t need the Capitals to score goal after goal to make watching them exciting, as in years past. They were treated to three solid periods of good hockey by the home team against an opponent that had the best power play in the league, was tied for the fourth-best penalty kill in the NHL, and had only lost one game this season.
This wasn’t sit-back-and-wait-for-them-to-make-a-mistake hockey. The Capitals outshot, outhit, and outplayed their opponents, particularly on the special teams front. Defenseman Dennis Wideman said postgame that the Capitals may have been more cautious in previous starts, hesitating to see what their opponents would do, but last night they were ready at puck drop.
Before Tuesday, the Capitals had been unable to prevent their opponents from going into the second period as equals on the scoreboard (except for the game against Ottawa Saturday, in which a sloppy second period dimmed the virtue of the lead).
Tuesday was different. The Capitals scored on the power play early—Marcus Johansson by the net with assists from Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin—and also killed off a penalty in the first. Florida wouldn’t get a shot on goal for the entire man advantage.
The penalty kill unit, in fact, looked like a work of art. Coach Dean Evason told OFB previously that the Capitals changed their PK style last year to be super aggressive, and the players followed the blueprint to perfection Tuesday. Solid checks led to puck clearing.
Overall in the first, it took over 5 minutes for Florida to even manage a shot on goal. The Panthers limped out of the first period with only two shots on goal for the entire period, compared to the Capitals’ 11.
Coach Bruce Boudreau said afterwards he thought his team lost momentum for the first 3 or 4 minutes of the second period. But, even though the Capitals didn’t score in that period, they produced quality chances and managed 10 more shots on goal. And these shots weren’t reminiscent of the first-round playoff barrage of shots they threw at Montreal Canadiens goalies two years ago. These were shots gained by bearing down on the net—and not just one guy going towards the net. Quality chances. And in the third, Alexander Semin had a great wrist shot to beat goalie Jacob Markstrom, who played an impressive game. Caps goalie Tomas Vokoun, meanwhile, finished with a shutout against his former team.
The Capitals had also identified an Achilles’ heel in their opponents: Florida played division and in-state rival Tampa on the road Monday, so the team faced a quick turnaround for the game against Washington on Tuesday.
“We came out of the gates hard. We know they had an emotional game last night and got in here really late, so we wanted to push on them early and try to get the pucks in deep, ‘cause we know that they had a long game last night and then a late night, so we wanted to try to take advantage of that,” defenseman Dennis Wideman said when asked if he could pinpoint anything in the Capitals’ preparation or discussions on the bench that produced a solid first period.
Boudreau had similar analysis.
“This was the perfect advantage for us in the scheduling,” Boudreau said. “We got a break. And if we don’t take advantage of the break, shame on us.”
A good point, and one that showed the savvy in the Capitals’ game preparation. The result? The Capitals showed everyone a team they could get behind.