"Every game is important," said seemingly every Caps player before and after seemingly every game in this season of 48 games in 99 nights. That was true in January, and true in April. But with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that some of those games were a good deal more crucial than others. Here's a look back at 10 games that shaped the Capitals' 2012-13 regular season.
Jan. 25 at New Jersey – Washington went out on the road for its second away game of the season and the back half of its first set of back-to-backs on Fri. Jan. 25 against the Devils in Newark. The Caps were 0-3, they had allowed at least four goals and had surrendered multiple power play goals in each of the season’s first three games.
Now, they were playing coach Adam Oates’ former employer, the Devils. Caps captain and left wing Alex Ovechkin made the switch to the right side for the first three games, but requested to be shifted back for the game in New Jersey.
“I’m getting used to it but I think tonight I’m going to play on the left side,” Ovechkin told reporters before the game. “We’re struggling with our games. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to play left side, center or right side. We just have to play the system the way Adam tells us. We just have to be mentally ready. It’s not about one player or two players, it’s everybody.”
Down 1-0 in the second, Washington fell into a familiar pattern of penalty trouble. The Caps took three minor penalties in less than four minutes late in the middle frame, leading to a 5-on-3 power play goal for the Devils’ Patrik Elias and putting the Caps down 2-0 and 20 minutes away from starting out 0-4.
In the third, it was the Devils who got into penalty trouble, taking five minors in a span of 5:13. Mike Ribeiro scored a 5-on-3 goal with 7:15 left, but that was all Washington could do with all that third-period power play time.
Mike Green scored with 2:56 left to get the game to overtime and earn the Caps their first point of the season. The Devils went on to win on an Ilya Kovalchuk overtime goal, but seeing the way the Devils played and actually playing against roughly the same system Oates was installing helped crystallize things just a bit.
“They’ve had a little bit longer to fine-tune theirs,” noted Caps right wing Troy Brouwer of the Devils’ system. “And you see how well it works creating neutral zone turnovers, killing the play in the [defensive] zone and things like that. But anyone who is paying attention to the playoffs last year, seeing New Jersey go to the finals and play the way they did, that should clarify how well the system can work if it’s executed properly.”
Even in the loss, Oates was happy with the progress he witnessed.
“That’s the way we have to play,” says Oates of the New Jersey game. “You are going to be successful if you play that way. It took 57 minutes [Friday] night but we finally tied it up. But we did so many things better, so many things. We played like a group, we faced the puck, we waited until it got out of the zone before we left the zone. We did so many things forechecking-wise. We played a complete game and that’s very encouraging.”
Feb. 12 at Florida – Still saddled with a 3-8-1 record, the Caps took off for their first road trip of three of more games. First stop, South Florida to play an injury-riddled Panthers team.
It was a seesaw game for most of the first 40 minutes, but when Panthers rookies Jonathan Huberdeau and Drew Shore scored late in the second and early in the third, respectively, the Caps were down 5-3 on the road in their bid to win consecutive games for the first time in the season.
With 5:07 left in the game, the Caps pulled to within a goal on Eric Fehr’s first goal of the season. A slashing call on Huberdeau gave Washington a late power play, and Ovechkin fired the puck past Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen to even the game at 5-5 with just 2:49 remaining.
A minute after Ovechkin’s tying tally, Mathieu Perreault went off for hi-sticking. Suddenly, the point the Caps had clawed their way back to get was in jeopardy. With Fehr getting the first sustained penalty-killing opportunity of his NHL career, the Caps killed off the minor that carried into the first 15 seconds of overtime.
Just after the Perreault penalty expired, Nicklas Backstrom sent a brilliant pass to Troy Brouwer, springing the Caps’ winger on a breakaway. Clemmensen made the save, but Brouwer deposited his own rebound to give the Caps their third goal in a span of 5:39 and two much-needed points.
It was the first of five victories the Caps managed in 2012-13 when trailing after 40 minutes. It wasn’t pretty, but it was necessary.
“Two points is two points,” said Brouwer afterwards. “We’ve had a few games where we’ve given away two points, and now it’s our turn to battle back and get those two very important points.
“The way we did it I think it was very encouraging, too. Because we rely on our skill a lot of the time but this time it was ugly. It was good bounces, guys going to the net. [Matt Hendricks] going to the net, Fehrsie going to the net. Those are the ways that you score those goals and that’s how we get back into games, those guys working hard. Perreault’s line had a great night tonight and that’s how we’re going to continue winning games.”
Feb. 23 vs. New Jersey – Two nights before this one, Washington suffered a heartbreaking 3-2 loss to the Devils at Verizon Center. The Caps owned a 2-1 lead going into the third but they came unglued by taking five minor penalties in a span of less than eight minutes in the first half of the third. The Devils cashed in twice on the resulting power play, and the Caps absorbed a setback that dropped them to 5-10-1 one-third of the way through the season.
This Saturday matinee against New Jersey – the second straight game against the Devils – was crucial, but it was a taut 1-1 game after 40 minutes. Ovechkin’s first-period goal gave the Caps a 1-0 lead, but Kovalchuk tied it for the Devils in the final minute of the second, a potentially deflating goal.
Ovechkin scored his second of the game at 1:23 of the third to put the Caps up 2-1, but defenseman John Erskine was sent off for delay of game less than a minute later, giving the Devils a chance to draw even. Instead, Fehr scored the first shorthanded goal of his NHL career to give Washington a 3-1 lead, effecting a potential two-goal swing.
Ovechkin filled the hat trick with a late power play goal, and he assisted on Brouwer’s goal with 2:51 left to record a four-point game in a 5-1 Washington win.
Starting with this game, Ovechkin finished the season with 27 goals and 46 points and a plus-10 in his final 32 games. He had five goals and 10 points with a minus-8 in 16 games coming into that Saturday afternoon game against the Devils.
“The chances are there,” said Ovechkin. “Sometimes I feel that the puck just doesn’t want to go in. Today, it was that kind of game that almost every shot goes in, or at least it feels like that. It’s kind of nice.”
March 5 vs. Boston – Facing the Bruins for the first time since upsetting Boston in the first round of the playoffs in April 2012, the Caps took the ice with a shell of the team they had last spring. Two 20 minute-plus defensemen (Mike Green and Dennis Wideman) were missing. Three top six forwards were gone, Alex Semin via free agency, Brooks Laich to a groin injury and Troy Brouwer to the flu.
Of the six defensemen Washington deployed in Game 7 of the 2012 ECQF series against the Bruins, only two – Karl Alzner and John Carlson – were in the lineup. Also on the ice were defensemen Tomas Kundratek and Steve Oleksy. Kundratek was playing in his 20th career NHL game and Oleksy was making his NHL debut.
Few were surprised when the Bruins – a 14-3-2 juggernaut at that stage of the season – roared out to a 3-0 first-period lead against the team that ousted them from the playoffs some 10 months earlier. But the Caps didn’t feel they had played poorly in the first; they just didn’t get any bounces.
Even with a depleted lineup, the Caps kept it together and kept chipping away. Oleksy picked up his first NHL point, assisting on a Ribeiro goal that made it 3-1 at 5:46 of the second. Kundratek notched his first NHL goal in the middle of the second to make it a 3-2 game.
Boston was putting good pressure on the Caps in the third, looking for the goal that would make Washington go away. Braden Holtby shut the door after the first period, and Wojtek Wolski got behind the Bruins defense and scored to even the game at 3-3 with 6:05 left.
The Caps killed off a late hooking minor on Ovechkin and then went to work in overtime. Backstrom fed Fehr, the Caps winger split the Bruins defense and barreled in to beat Boston goalie Tuukka Rask with a backhand shot that gave the Caps a wildly improbable 4-3 victory.
“We’ve talked about how when we’ve been down in the past how we’ve deviated and gotten away from our game and got a little too individual,” said Hendricks. “Tonight we just kept our noses down and worked hard and stuck to the system and it rewarded us.”
March 14 at Carolina – This game in Raleigh started the most grueling stretch of schedule for the Capitals, one in which Washington played nine of 11 games on the road. The Caps were coming off a 4-0 shutout loss to the Canes in the District two nights earlier, and they owned a 3-7-1 road record at the time. With a 10-14-1 record at that stage, the Caps trailed the Canes by 10 points in the Southeast Division standings.
Clearly, Washington’s fate was on the line.
Carolina jumped out to a 2-0 lead before the midpoint of the first period, and it kept buzzing for more. Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth – making his first start in more than a month – made some key stops to keep it close.
Carolina, winners of six of their previous seven and the Southeast Division leader at that juncture of the campaign, entered the game with an 8-0-1 mark when it scored the game’s first goal and a 6-0 mark when leading after 20 minutes of play. And the Canes owned a combined 21-6 advantage in the middle period of their home games this season to that point.
Just before the six-minute mark of the second period, an unlikely trio combined to manufacture what turned out to be one of the biggest goals of the season. Alzner broke the puck out of the Washington end, feeding Aaron Volpatti on the left wing wall. Volpatti gained the zone, pushed his way past a defender and threaded a perfect pass to Joey Crabb, who drove the net and chipped the puck past Carolina goalie Dan Ellis to halve the deficit to 2-1.
It was the second of Crabb’s two goals on the season and his first in nearly two months. It was Volpatti’s only assist of the season and one of five helpers Alzner recorded in 2012-13.
“Big goal, huge goal for us,” said Oates. “The game had kind of leveled out and we needed something. Aaron took it down the wall and got by the [defense], and great little pass, shot, goal. It gave us a lot of life and we got through the second period just down one.”
Ovechkin scored a power play goal a minute into the third to make it a 2-2 game, and the Caps pulled ahead late when Ribeiro followed an Ovechkin breakaway and tapped home the loose change for a 3-2 win with just 2:16 remaining in regulation.
In the proverbial four-point game, the Caps left two only eight points shy of Carolina instead of 12.
“It shows character,” said Oates after the game. “Good for them. We got through that little wave [in the first period]. We stayed strong. You make mistakes. Neuvy hadn’t played in a while, probably wants the second one back and we fought through it. Great. He played solid, really solid after that.”
March 21-22 at Winnipeg -- In the middle of a season-long four-game road trip, the Caps stopped in Winnipeg for a rare pair of back-to-back games in the same location against the same team. Having absorbed a difficult 2-1 loss to the red-hot Penguins in Pittsburgh two nights earlier, the Caps got to Manitoba with a 12-16-1 record.
By this point, the Jets had dislodged Carolina on top of the Southeast Division. The Caps were 14th in the Eastern Conference standings, three points ahead of basement-dwelling Florida and nine points behind Winnipeg for the Division lead.
Washington needed wins, and it needed regulation wins. It got two of them, two statement wins. The Caps came out hard and fast, and they rolled the Jets in their own barn. Washington never trailed taking a 4-0 win in the first game and a 6-1 decision in the second.
When they left town, the Caps had closed the Southeast Division gap to five points with 17 games remaining.
Getting Laich back in the lineup for the Pittsburgh game and Green for the Winnipeg games helped, but Ovechkin’s presence and swagger was back in a big way, too. He had three goals and five points in the two games in Winnipeg.
“We were playing well before then,” says Caps defenseman Jack Hillen. “But those two wins maybe showed us that we could play that same way and get results. That probably gave our team a lot of confidence.
“The game before that in Pittsburgh we thought we played a great game. We had a chance to win. They took a four-minute minor right at the end of the game and unfortunately we weren’t able to score. They came right out of the [penalty] box, go down and score the game-winner. That was a great hockey game. When we left the arena, you could tell we had a little bit of our confidence back, that we had just played one of the best teams in the league extremely tough and the coaches showed us positive film of why we should have won. Instead of showing us negative stuff that made us lose, he showed us reasons why we should have won. We took that momentum right into Winnipeg and came out with four huge points. We’ve been rolling since.”
Oates himself is more succinct.
“Those two games in Winnipeg are why we are where we are,” says the Caps’ bench boss.
March 30 at Buffalo -- More than a week after winning two straight over the Jets in Winnipeg, the 15-17-1 Caps were coming off a tough home ice loss to the New York Islanders. The Caps still trailed Winnipeg by seven points as they visited Buffalo for a Saturday night game. Having watched the Jets drop a 3-1 home ice decision to the Hurricanes earlier in the day, the Caps knew a win over the Sabres would pull them to within five points of the top spot in the Southeast.
That knowledge didn’t stop the Caps from falling into a 3-1 hole after 40 minutes.
Brouwer scored a key shorthanded goal early in the third period at a spot where falling down 4-1 would have likely doomed the Capitals. Washington vied for the equalizer and finally got it late when Green scored at 19:20 of the third with a sixth attacker on for Washington.
The Caps won it in a shootout to get the two points they needed.
“We came out flat, really flat,” said Green. “We didn’t deserve to win early on in the game, but going back to the ‘character’ word, it’s exactly what we showed tonight. These are the type of games that we’re going to need to steal to make a playoff push and get the points that are needed to make the playoffs. It’s a big win for us.”
April 9 at Montreal -- The Caps came into Montreal to face a hot Habs team that was 11-3-1 in its previous 15 games. Washington came out buzzing, generating 11 shot attempts to just two for the Habs in the game’s first six minutes. From that point forward, the Habs manufactured 74 shot attempts to just 35 for the Capitals, but it was Washington that left the building with a 3-2 victory and two points.
Montreal had shots galore, but virtually nothing in the way of scoring chances. The Habs took a 1-0 lead to the room after 20 minutes, but Ovechkin and Fehr scored less than three minutes apart in the second and Hillen added a key goal in the third.
The Canadiens were continually frustrated by their inability to get shots from prime scoring areas, and they could be seen slamming sticks and bench doors as the game wore on.
“I think our team is playing really well defensively,” said Fehr. “We’re pressuring the puck really well. We’re not giving other teams time. Skilled players want time and we’re not giving it to them. It’s a good job by our defense closing gaps and by our forwards coming back to help them.”
With Winnipeg heating up, the Caps’ win was a huge one, and it gave Washington a 7-0-1 record in its previous eight road games. The win enabled the Caps to maintain a two-point lead over the Jets with eight games to go, and it concluded a rough stretch of schedule in which Washington played 18 games in 32 nights in 12 different cities. It also silenced some in the media who claimed the Caps had padded their record against Southeast teams and wouldn't be able to compete against the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
April 23 vs. Winnipeg -- This was Washington’s “win and you’re in” game. The Jets arrived in the District with a faint playoff heartbeat on the heels of a 2-1 win over the Sabres in Buffalo the night before.
While Washington’s big stars such as Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and Holtby had played the hero role most nights over the previous six weeks, the foot soldiers – or, in Hendricks’ preferred nomenclature “the wagons” – stepped up and finished off the Jets.
Hendricks himself scored the game’s first goal and Jason Chimera scored the second to give the Caps a 2-0 jump. The defensive duo of Erskine and Carlson combined to make a couple of key stops behind Holtby.
The Jets hung tough, scoring twice in the second to draw even, but Ovechkin and Backstrom combined to put the Caps back on top less than a minute later.
Perreault supplied the game-winner, and Ovechkin the punctuation with an empty-netter.
“Obviously it feels good right now,” said Oates afterwards. “It was a very good hockey game too, that iced it. It was a hard-fought game. The building was electric. [The Jets] played very well, I thought. We generated 40-something shots and played good. It had a playoff atmosphere to it.”
Washington had its division title and its wild ride to what once seemed like an unlikely playoff berth was complete. The Caps went 25-10-2 in their last 37 games, they were 17-4-2 in their last 23 and 11-1-1 in the month of April.
In a shortened schedule of just 48 games, every point earned is a big one. But the 10 tilts listed about were turning point games, and had any one of them gone the other way it might have altered the course of the Capitals’ destiny for the rest of the campaign forward.