Caps Tie Up The Race
By: Grant Paulsen 
Posted: 2008-04-02
Category: Washington Capitals News
George McPhee isn’t one to show his emotions, and when he does, he isn’t normally smiling. Even a poker-faced executive like McPhee, the General Manager of the scalding Washington Capitals, couldn’t help being joyous as he watched his team skate to a 4-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes last night. With the win the Capitals, who are 7-1-0 in their last eight games, skated into a first-place tie at the top of the Southeast division with Carolina. Washington and Carolina each have two games remaining and both play the same remaining schedule (games against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning).

Last night’s game was the most anticipated on the NHL docket, and fittingly was played in front of a capacity crowd at the Verizon Center. The atmosphere at the 'phone booth' in downtown D.C. looked like something straight out of a movie, with the majority of the 18,277 on hand having shown up wearing all red. Whether participating in the team-mandated “red-out” or not, all of the fans in attendance helped to make last night’s game feel like Washington’s first playoff game of the season.

There wasn’t a happier spectator in attendance than McPhee, who was perhaps the NHL’s busiest decision-maker at the trade deadline. He’s been watching the trades he orchestrated back on February 26th pay off for the last month, but the trio of players he added at the deadline may have had their best games in Washington last night.

Matt Cooke, acquired in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks (for Matt Pettinger), was the third star of the game. Sergei Fedorov, another deadline deal, assisted on two goals en route to being named the game’s second star of the night. And Cristobal Huet, with Montreal until the deadline, did his best impression of a brick wall all night and was awarded the night’s first star honors for stopping 21 of 22 shots.

Cooke scored Washington’s first goal of the game at the 15:00 mark of the opening period. The tally - assisted by Mike Green and Sergei Fedorov - came when Cooke was alone in front of the net as a rebound bounced his way. Unable to get his stick to the puck, he kicked it towards his stick with his right skate, and then slapped it past a sliding Cam Ward for his 10th of the season.

Fedorov’s second assist (14:28 into the second period) came when the 38-year-old slung a cross-ice pass to Green, who blasted a shot off of Carolina goaltender Ward and through the crease to Alexander Semin. Semin knocked the bouncing biscuit past Ward for Washington’s third goal of the night, a commanding two-goal advantage at 3-1, and Semin's 25th goal of the season.

Before Semin forced his way onto the stat-sheet, Brooks Laich’s 21st goal of the season at the 19:01 mark of the first, extended Washington’s lead to 2-0. The two-goal advantage didn’t last very long though, as Scott Walker scored Carolina’s lone goal of the night 2:38 into the second period.

Throughout much of the third-period it seemed like Washington was going to hold on to a 3-1 win, but Alexander Ovechkin had other ideas. Ovechkin, the first 60-goal NHL scorer this decade, shot a rocket past Ward with just under four minutes to go. Ovechkin’s goal, a franchise-record 63rd of the season, was assisted by Jeff Schultz and Nicklas Backstrom.

There isn’t a Capital who has benefited more directly from Ovechkin’s brilliant season than Backstrom. He has been on Washington’s first-line all season, and the Swedish-born center became the first rookie since Ovechkin to post 50-assists in his rookie campaign. With just two regular season games left, Backstrom now has 53 assists to go along with his 14 goals, and sits one point ahead of Chicago's Patrick Kane as the NHL's overall rookie scoring champion.

Thanks largely to both the performances of youngsters like Backstrom and Ovechkin, and the contributions supplied by the trio of veterans acquired late last month, Washington is still alive. The ‘Caps don’t control their own destiny, but that doesn’t seem to be bothering the Capitals very much.

"All we can do is win our games, and that’s all we’ve been worrying about since the loss in Chicago," said Cooke. "The only thing we can do is control how we play, and get as many two-point nights as we can."

The most telling comment of the team’s victorious post game locker room session came from second-year defensemen Mike Green.

"We still haven’t accomplished anything yet and we know that," Green said. "These next two games are the biggest games of our careers, and hopefully come Saturday we’ll be where we want to be."

The Capitals have already accomplished one thing that has been missing for a while in Washington - meaningful hockey games down the stretch. With a 7-1-0 record in their last eight games, they're certainly doing everything they can to get to get there.

By Grant Paulsen

Grant Paulsen is a nineteen-year old writer and broadcaster in Washington D.C. Check out Grant's website at www.grantpaulsen.com or tune in XM radio to Channel 144 (Grant's Sports Take – weekday mornings), and Channel 175 (Minors and Majors – Saturday 10:00am - noon). You can also check out his weekly column in the Sunday Edition of the Fredericksburg Freelance Star.
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