Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin blocks the shot of Penguins left wing James Neal in front of Capitals goalie Tomas Vokoun (Credit: Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE)
Wednesday night's 1-0 shutout of the archrival Pittsburgh Penguins ended the Washington Capitals' tumultuous first half on a high note.
Not only did the Caps beat the Penguins for the 12th time in 15 meetings over the last four regular seasons, they - at least temporarily -- grabbed the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Washington's 22-17-2 first half was good for 46 points, its fewest in four years. But as the Caps have learned after being upset in the playoffs the past four springs by the Philadelphia Flyers (2008), the Penguins (2009), the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens (2010) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (2011), just reaching postseason is the key. Home ice advantage means nothing, at least if Washington is on your jerseys.
Tampa Bay visits the Phone Booth on F Street tonight for the first time since the second game of the season. Washington's 6-5 victory that night on a shootout goal by enforcer Matt Hendricks happened more than three months ago, back when Bruce Boudreau was behind the bench for a 7-0 start and ace defenseman Mike Green was finally healthy again after missing nearly half of 2010-11 with a groin injury.
Green's groin flared up less than two weeks later and he has played in just three games since. Boudreau, the Coach of the Year in 2007-08, his initial season in Washington, was fired on Nov. 28 with the Caps in the midst of a 3-7-1 slide.
Meanwhile, former MVP Alex Ovechkin continues to search for his once-feared scoring touch, ranking JUST 18th in the NHL with 17 goals. And top center Nicklas Backstrom has missed the past three games with concussion-like symptoms.
So it wasn't a fun first half for the Caps, Washington's only winning pro team during the Obama Administration. But better times might lie ahead.
The well-played conquest of injury-riddled Pittsburgh behind the stellar goaltending of newcomer Tomas Vokoun raised Washington to 10-8-1 under new coach Dale Hunter, 7-4-1 in the crucial contests against its Eastern Conference rivals. The victory was also the start of a 15-game stretch against the teams with whom the Caps are competing for a fifth consecutive playoff berth, a feat they haven't achieved since a 14-year run from 1983-1996. Hunter, then a physical two-way center, was a key figure in the final decade of that streak.
Hunter's 7-4-1 record against the East combined with Boudreau's 9-5-1 mark makes Washington an impressive 16-9-2 in the games that matter most and bodes well for the next month, especially since just five of the 14 games are against teams that currently hold playoff spots (two visits from the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, home and home matchups with the surprising Florida Panthers and a date at the conference-leading New York Rangers).
And for all of their ups and downs this season, the Caps trail the Panthers by just four points for the top spot in the Southeast Division with a game in hand (not that having home ice advantage has ever done them much good come playoff time).
If the season ended today, the Caps would open the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Rangers, the only team they have defeated in postseason since 1998. That was in the first round in 2009. Just nine Caps - including Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green - and six Rangers - including star goalie Henrik Lundqvist, captain Ryan Callahan and top defenseman Dan Girardi - remain from that series and both clubs have changed coaches since so what happened three years ago might have little bearing if Washington and New York meet in April.
Still, as the preseason Cup favorite Caps start the second half tonight, they have to feel that their season is finally headed in the right direction.
WUSA-9's Sports Insider, David Elfin, has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of five books on the Redskins including the new "Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History."