With eight minutes left in Saturday's Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, Eric Fehr took a pass from Jason Chimera and sprinted down center ice on his way to a breakaway. Fehr would fire a top-shelf wrist shot that beat Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury over his glove hand, a goal that would give the Capitals a 3-1 lead.
For most teams, a two-goal lead with less than 10 minutes left would be enough to hold on for a victory, but the Caps have well-documented problems doing just that. Yet, on a national stage, the Caps finally found their defensive side and shut down any chances of a Pittsburgh comeback.
It took the Penguins about 6:30 of the remaining 8:01 following Fehr's goal to threaten in the offensive zone, let alone enter it in the first place. Washington clogged up the neutral zone, something that had proven fatal for themselves against their opposition, and even showed signs of a trap. The Penguins could only hope to dump the puck into the zone and chase it, but they couldn't even get that far. As soon as the Penguins entered the neutral zone, the Caps cleared it back and made them chase the puck in the opposite direction.
Recent history, especially under the run-and-gun watch of head coach Bruce Boudreau, has repeatedly shown that the Capitals lack a killer instinct when it comes to shutting teams down once they have the lead. The Capitals have held a two-goal lead or more entering the third period before blowing it on three separate occasions this year. In a November 3 game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington entered the period up 3-1, but within seven minutes, that 3-1 lead turned into a 4-3 deficit, one that the Caps woud grab back in a 5-4 shootout victory.
Two days later against the Boston Bruins, the Caps entered the third period with a 3-0 lead, and the game was tied at 3-3 by the midway point. The Capitals would win that game 5-3, but weren't so lucky in a rematch with the Leafs December 6, when they blew a 4-1 third period lead and lost 5-4 in a shootout.
The Capitals' problems with shutting teams down has manifested itself during Boudreau's tenure, most notably in last year's Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Montreal Canadiens. The Caps had a 3-1 series lead, but found it difficult to beat then-Habs goaltender Jaroslav Halak, meaning that the offensive juggernaut that was the Caps would have to rely on defense. They couldn't and they lost because of it.
With all that in mind, it should come as a surprise that the Capitals were able to finally conjure up some defensive killer instinct. It just so happened that they decided to do so on arguably the biggest stage in franchise history. Everyone knows the Capitals as a "score goals first, play defense later" kind of a team, but judging by Saturday's defensive performance, they just might be turning things around.
The adage "defense wins championships" has been thrown around for decades, but the Washington Capitals could be the perfect example. Washington's high-octane offense has yet to yield championship results, but with a defensive acumen like the one executed in the last 10 minutes of Saturday's Winter Classic, the Capitals could reach the pinnacle.
Boudreau said after the game that "this is as close to the Stanley Cup as we've gotten." If things progress from Saturday, the Capitals could be holding that thought come June.