By Allan Muir
It's too early...way too early...to suggest that the Washington Capitals are clawing their way out of the deep hole they dug with their disastrous 2-8-1 start.
Even after a calmly efficient 3-0 win over the Hurricanes on Tuesday night, the Caps remain in 14th place in the East, spared residence in the basement only by virtue of two games in hand over the equally slow-out-of-the-gates Sabres.
But there were signs in that victory, and the one that directly preceded it, that suggest we might want to hold off just a little longer on engraving the tombstone for Washington's troubled season.
All the noise about the return of Alexander Semin obscured the fact that Tuesday night was a gut-check game for the Caps. Had they lost, they would have fallen a distant eight points off the Southeast division lead. Instead, they woke up just four back of the Hurricanes, Jets and Lightning, thanks to a total team effort that saw them ring up 40 shots without a single bid from captain Alex Ovechkin.
It was a big win, but a small step on the path to salvage this season. It's going to take something like 54 points to earn a berth in the Eastern playoffs, which means Washington needs to win 20 of its final 30 games. That's a very steep climb.
If it happens, it starts in net, where Braden Holtby will be making his eighth consecutive start in Wednesday night's game against Philadelphia. Holtby struggled early on, allowing 18 goals in his first four appearances, but he's pitched a pair of shutouts and allowed just 14 goals-against during this seven-game stretch. The difference? He's benefited from the team tightening up in front of him and reducing the number of high-end scoring chances against him, but he also looks more confident, squaring up and challenging shooters like he did during last spring's magical playoff run. A little video reinforcement from goalie coach Dave Prior worked wonders for his confidence.
A hot power play can take a team a long way and there's no unit more dangerous right now than Washington's. The Caps struggled to adapt to Adam Oates' 1-3-1 system early on, but as they've grown more comfortable they've learned that it gives them more possession time in the offensive zone, leading to opportunities that arise from tired defenses. There's also a different end game. The puck isn't being dished expressly to set up an Ovechkin one-timer, making it less predictable and tougher to defend. Five different players have scored the last five goals for a unit that's now clicking at 28.6 percent, second best in the league.
The return of Mike Green on Tuesday night sparked a defense that is getting more involved in the offense. Oates routinely speaks about getting the blueliners involved in the play and moving up as a five-man unit. That showed against Carolina with far better gap control than the Caps displayed earlier in the season and directly contributed both to their own shot count and in limiting the quality of chances that the Hurricanes could create.
And then there's Ovechkin. He doesn't bring fans to the edge of their seats every time he touches the puck as he did in years past, but he's finally settling in on the right side after initially spitting the bit.
Ovechkin scored his first home hat trick in three years in Sunday's 5-1 win over the Devils and has 11 points in his last 10 games after netting an assist last night against the Canes. More important, he has 53 shots on net over that span, a staggering sum that highlights the wisdom of Oates' plan, and new center Mike Ribeiro deserves a lot of credit there. Both players are better when they have the puck, and both have been accused of hanging onto the biscuit too long in the past. But the former Dallas Star is giving it up to his winger more often, giving Ovechkin a reason to keep his feet moving and get to better spots on the ice. It's the sort of chemistry you can't force, but the two are finally in sync.
Ovechkin may never get back to terrorizing opposing defenses, but he's finding different ways to create chances, which is exactly what Oates asked of him. And as long as he maintains this consistency, the points will come. The pieces are starting to come together for the Caps as they face off against the hated Flyers. Rival or not, they need to focus on the two points up for grabs. There's still time to climb out of that hole, but it's running out fast.