Another goal from Mike Green helped the Caps continue their surge. (AP)
The Washington Capitals kicked off the Martin Erat era on a high note Thursday, beating the New York Islanders for the first time all season by a final score of 2-1 in a shootout. After Mike Green scored his fifth goal in four games to put the Capitals on top very late in the opening frame, the following 35 minutes were characterized by little pressure by either team. The Islanders came on strong late in the frame and managed to tie the contest with a Kyle Okposo one-timer, but both teams were able to draw out the game to get to overtime and then a shootout. Alex Ovechkin scored the lone goal in the shootout and Braden Holtby completed a sublime performance by shutting down the door to get the Capitals above the .500 points mark at 18-17-2 for the first time all season. With their win, the Caps now lead the Southeast Division based on games played, and have their playoff chances at 55.3%, according to SportsClubStats.
First thing’s first on new acquisition Martin Erat – though he was in the middle of an almost 20-hour day, he looked good. He was fast, tenacious, and his offensive instincts were apparent in his just over 14 minutes of ice time, though his rather empty stat line would not indicate it. It will take him some time to adapt to Adam Oates’ complex system and get used to having more offensive freedom than he did under Barry Trotz, but I certainly liked what I saw in terms of helping the team create offensively if the organization is going to go in to the full “win now” mode.
About that Mike Green fellow. As mentioned in the open, Green has five goals in his last four games and has looked for the last two weeks since returning from yet another injury the offensive stud that everyone knows he can be when he is healthy. He got royally shafted late in the game on a delay of game penalty, falling victim to a bad call of a juvenile and silly rule, but otherwise was nearly flawless in all aspects of his game. He has the potential to really turn a team’s fortunes when he is gunning on all cylinders like he is right now, and his presence and rythmn in the Caps’ lineup has been a catalyst for this run to the top of the Southeast.
Alex Ovechkin’s point streak was stopped tonight, but it wasn’t because of a lack of effort. Now fully around that point-per-game pace that has eluded him for the last two calendar years, Ovechkin has come to play without fail every game for just about the last month and has been reinvigorated by the power of Adam Oates’ power play scheming and his smart decision to move the Great Eight to the right side of the ice at even strength. As was mentioned during the game, it remains to be seen if Alex is in fact “back,” but the last month has been tremendously encouraging on all fronts from the captain.
One man’s points streak was not stopped, and that man was Nicklas Backstrom. Coming off of his four-assist game against Carolina, Backstrom added another apple and is now himself agonizingly close to a point-per-game pace. You’d like to see a little bit more goal scoring from the Caps’ franchise center, but his playmaking has been unbelievable recently and he, like Ovechkin, has really rebounded after a bit of a lull in the middle of the season.
Braden Holtby was stupendous once more, making 35 saves for yet another win. Holtby has claimed the number one job with authority and run with it like he stole it. I can’t say anything more about Holtby than I already have in this space other than to say that he has been amazing and fully deserves this run. If the Capitals are truly to contend for it all, Holtby must maintain this level of play. So far, he shows no signs of stopping. It has been a joy to watch him mature and grow over the last 12 months. He is, by most indications, a very good and improving goaltender in terms of technique.
One minor note here is that Brooks Laich left the game briefly in the second period after taking a puck in a, um, sensitive area. He came back and looked fine, but was shut down by Adam Oates midway through the third period at the advice of the training staff because of “aches all over.” It certainly seems as though the Caps’ most versatile player will be good to go and has avoided serious injury.
Overall, this was the type of game that earlier versions of this year’s Caps might have lost. But they did not, sticking together in the face of adversity to pull out a big two points and take the lead in their Division for the first time all season. It was impressive to watch. The Caps’ management has taken a large risk with the acquisition of Erat, but for now to see what the team looked like with him in the lineup was impressive. The team has taken advantage of their weak Division to put themselves in a position to make the playoffs, draw a somewhat favorable match up in the first round, and perhaps put on a bit of a run. Now all they have to do is execute.
The Capitals will be off Friday and travel to Florida for a game against the Panthers on Saturday, the first half of a back-to-back set that will culminate against Tampa Bay on Sunday.
Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here for all your news needs this season.