Maybe it’s a product of so many games in so few nights. Maybe it’s a product of learning another new system.
Whatever the reason, the Washington Capitals have been playing a lot of ugly hockey early in this season. Friday night’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers was no work of art, even though it was an improvement from some previous outings.
The difference was that the Caps got a victory this time, 3-2 over the Flyers at Verizon Center. It wasn’t pretty, but given the brutal start to the season, they’ll take points any way they can get them right now.
“It was really big,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We had a tough road trip here; we played good against Ottawa, had a lead before the third period and the same thing against Toronto. We really needed this one, especially in this position we’re in. We need points.”
Friday’s win gave them just five in the first eight games, but it was enough to lift the Caps out of last place in the NHL, Eastern Conference and Southeast Division.
For the majority of two periods, the play was somewhat choppy and indicative of two teams down on their fortunes through more than a handful of games this season. Neither Washington nor Philadelphia has shown much early on this year.
Ex-Caps right wing Mike Knuble, now with the Flyers, cautioned that there’s still plenty of time left.
“The fact is there’s still 40-plus games left and so both teams have time to really get things going, and you’re not that far out of things,” Knuble said. “You get a decent win streak and we’re all back in.”
It takes one to get started. The Caps felt good about Friday night’s performance.
“Very good,” coach Adam Oates said. “I think the last week we’ve been playing better hockey and stayed with it again today and it took 60 minutes, but we got the job done.”
They were 0-for-5 on the power play, including an ugly five-on-three advantage that came up empty. The penalties piled up, though not to the same embarrassing extent as in Thursday night’s loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Philadelphia couldn’t take advantage.
How the Caps eventually erased a deficit and scored goals on the Flyers, though, was a thing of beauty. Nicklas Backstrom’s goal, his first of the season, was a roof job on Ilya Bryzgalov on a breakaway.
“Been waiting a couple games for that goal,” Backstrom said.
And Troy Brouwer’s was a pick-a-corner special made popular around here by Alexander Semin in recent years.
When Wojtek Wolski poked the puck away from Flyers defenseman Luke Schenn on what turned out to be the game-winner, it was precisely the kind of goal Oates’ system is designed to generate: offense from neutral zone turnovers.
Oates was pleased with how his team performed in that area.
“We stifled their ability to come through the neutral zone quite a bit with our neutral zone,” Brouwer said. “We were in good position tonight, guys were reading the plays really well. We were able to transition, create a lot of offense as a result.”
But the goals could’ve been garbage cleanup in the crease and it would not have mattered. It was the first time Washington scored three even-strength goals in a game this season.
“Big, obviously. It’s been a few games coming, and guys hung in there and played very good hockey again tonight,” Oates said. “Very encouraging.”
After blowing third-period leads in each of the past two games, both losses, the Caps needed something to feel good about.
“How things went on the road trip we knew were unacceptable and we couldn’t come in tonight and use the back-to-back, the travel as an excuse,” Brouwer said. “We had to come out, we had to play real hard, real tough, just battle through all that exhaustion.”
They got it Friday night as they improved to 2-5-1 on the season going into their Super Bowl Sunday showdown against the rival Pittsburgh Penguins. And as much as the two points means something, having positive feelings about a game could do wonders moving forward.
“I think it was huge for our whole group,” said goaltender Braden Holtby, who picked up his first victory of the season. “We obviously don’t have the record we would like right now, but … we definitely have the group to turn things around. We knew tonight was a huge game for not only the standings, the win, just for our confidence and to see the character we have.”