WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 13:Washington Capitals' Eric Fehr #16 and Matt Hendricks #26 (C) celebrate after Brooks Laich #21 (R) scored a goal against the Chicago Blackhawks in the third periord at the Verizon Center on March 13, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
The Capitals' win over the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday demonstrates just how much they have grown as a team in the last few weeks.
Jonathan Toews scored with 39 seconds to play in regulation, sending the contest to overtime, but the Capitals prevailed as Mike Knuble lit the lamp at 3:51 of the extra frame to extend the Capitals winning streak to eight games with a thrilling victory over the defending Stanley Cup Champions.
Washington is used to close calls this season. Seven of its eight wins in this stretch have been decided by one goal, requiring the use of fundamentally-sound hockey to pull out victories. The effort put into this streak will only help them better approach the rigors of postseason hockey where success has proved elusive.
Brooks Laich scored 6:23 into the third period after Tomas Kopecky drew the Hawks even at two apiece in the second. Laich's goal would have been enough if not for Toews, who has been an exemplary leader and outstanding playmaker during an impressive run which has boosted Chicago into prime playoff positioning.
With the Blackhawks on the power play and Corey Crawford pulled to give Chicago a six-on-four advantage, Duncan Keith hammered a shot at young Capitals goalie Braden Holtby. Toews located the rebound and squeezed the puck by a mass of bodies to tie it up.
However in the extra stanza, the veteran Knuble delivered.
Marcus Johansson saw Knuble in front creating a screen and passed him the puck. Knuble maneuvered it to his forehand around Crawford and notched the game-winner in front of a sellout crowd on national television.
The Capitals were very aggressive taking the puck to the net all game long and when it mattered most Knuble came through. That is the approach they'll need in postseason where every team looks to tighten up their game in the defensive zone.
"It's just practice for what's coming up," he said. "You're not going to score off the rush on pretty tic-tac-toe plays so that's something you try and hammer home to guys. You watch playoff games and they're ugly, you're kicking them in around the crease, there are guys diving for the puck, trying to jam it in. The way you're going to win games is just who's going to be grittier around the net."
The Capitals have become a different team since trading for Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman while picking up Marco Sturm off of waivers. A lot of that is due to the consistent energy seen during this win streak. All four lines are cycling and skating well on the forecheck, and their recent resurgence indicates they might finally be ready for the arduous task of winning 16 games in the postseason.
"They were all good [and] that's why I didn't shorten the bench because all four lines were going," Bruce Boudreau said after beating Chicago. "You'll see me shorten the bench pretty easily if I deem certain players or certain lines aren't going ... But lately it's been hard because they are all contributing."
And to think just weeks ago, the Capitals were being written off by many as a complacent team ripe for the picking after several horrific losses, including a 6-0 debacle against the Rangers.
"I think deep down the confidence was [always] there about how we were going to play," Knuble said. "The guys that [General Manager] George [McPhee] got at the deadline really just solidified everything. It gave us three great two-way players and the results are there; the proof is right there in our results."
The transition to a more defensive oriented approach has been far from painless, but the recent acquisitions have seemingly put the Capitals over the top. Boudreau mentioned Sunday that the playoffs "are a different animal," but presently the Caps have established themselves as one of the favorites in, what is for the most part, a wide open Eastern Conference.
Washington still has 12 games to play in the regular season and concerns remain for Boudreau. Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green are both injured, and there is little question Washington is a better team with them on the ice. However, Johansson continued to display his talents on Sunday while anchoring the first line and Wideman has been pulling off a terrific impersonation of the puck-moving Green.
Yet even though the trade deadline, winning streaks, and injury woes are hot-button topics, it is the impending decision Boudreau will have to make at goalie which is taking center stage.
Michal Neuvirth has started the bulk of the season, but Semyon Varlamov has been good when healthy. Boudreau has alternated between the two for much of the year and just when it seemed Neuvirth was distancing himself as the starter with Varlamov injured again, Holtby entered the scene.
Despite playing in only 12 NHL games, the 21-year old goaltender has played his way into the discussion, winning his last four games with a goals against average of 1.05 and a save percentage of .965.
"They're really not making it easy on me," said Boudreau of his three young goalies. "Varly was going great then he gets hurt. Neuvy's going great, he gets hurt. Holtby's going great now. You know it's decision time ... We [want] to make a decision pretty soon, hopefully we will, but they're all playing so well it‘s making it difficult for us."
Though Holtby is breaking out in a big way, I'm not ready to hand him the keys to the car at the moment. He has been rough around the edges and even he admitted he has some aspects of his game that require modification.
While I fully endorse Holtby as a future franchise player, the Capitals would be best served by sticking with Neuvirth and Varlamov at present, provided they are in good health. Both have more NHL experience and have played at a high level when called upon.
Even with these questions, the Capitals will start generating some buzz in the coming weeks. They have shown more creativity on the power play while maintaining a prolific, top-five penalty kill. Furthermore, the emphasis on strong special teams units have improved the quality of play while skating five-on-five. Washington scored both short-handed and power-play goals early against the Blackhawks, assisting their even strength efforts.
Chicago came into Washington on the tail end of a four-game road trip, needing a win to keep pace in the Western Conference after suffering back-to-back losses. They are playing some of the best hockey in the NHL, but the Caps were able to match their intensity and up the ante with a dramatic overtime win in a playoff type game.
"Looking back on the past few years in Washington there hasn't been a whole lot of adversity," said Matt Hendricks. "[Now] guys are really coming to the plate, we're fighting to the end of the games and we're pulling out those one goal games. It's a lot like playoff hockey right now."
The victory might be a regular season win, but it was an indicator of just how much the Caps have evolved not only in the last month but in the last year. They aren't coasting into the postseason like last season and they certainly aren't mailing in games like last month.
"I just like our team so much more than at this point last year," Knuble said. "I think we're definitely headed in the right direction."
Time will tell, but for now so does everybody else.