A 'character win': Why Caps' victory is one to rally around

Nic Dowd

On paper, Monday's game may not look like much. You might scroll by the 6-3 Capitals over New York Rangers score on your phone and not think twice about it.

It's a Stanley Cup playoff-bound team beating a non-playoff Rangers team on a Monday night late in the season. But this win was so much more than that. Monday's game was the type of win a team can build on and rally around as it prepares for its championship push.

Washington was going to be missing a few players for this game, but no one knew just how many until mere hours before game time. Already out injured was defenseman Justin Schulz. Forward T.J. Oshie was out for personal reasons as announced during Monday's morning skate.

Then a few hours before the game, it was announced forward Evgeny Kuznetsov and goalie Ilya Samsonov would not dress for disciplinary reasons after being late to a team function. Captain Alex Ovechkin and defenseman John Carlson were both game-time decisions and while Carlson managed to play, Ovechkin came out after just 39 seconds.

That's a lot of significant players out of the lineup for one game.

“We’ve just been answering the bell all year," Carlson said, "Out, injured, whatever it is and you know, you just see the level of compete go up. The players that need to step up, step up. Players need to play bigger roles, they play bigger roles and not just do the job but succeed at it and I think that is a sign of a really good team that has each other’s backs.”


It wasn't a perfect night by any means.

After going up 2-0, Mika Zibanejad, as he often does, torched the Caps. He scored twice to erase Washington's early lead. In the second period, the Caps found themselves trailing, dealing with the miscommunication that comes with constantly having to shift lines and it looked like the game was getting away from them.

It would have been very easy for a team that already has secured its spot in the playoffs and with every excuse to lose this game to pack it in. Instead, they rallied.

With several top offensive players out, the fourth line delivered. It was easily Washington's best line of the night and both Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway scored in the effort.

"We took a lot of pride taking those draws in the d-zone," Hathaway said. "We work hard to get it to the o-zone."

With Ovechkin out, Daniel Sprong once again delivered, scoring his fifth goal in five games. His proved to be the game-winner on Monday.

"He’s really moving," Laviolette said. "He’s trying to attack the game with speed. He is a fast player. I think the goals are a result of that because when he’s moving, he’s dangerous. But there’s been other things, too, I thought have been good. He’s been trying to play physical. He’s been trying to get into battles."

While Vitek Vanecek only had 23 saves on 26 shots, he came through as well with a critical shorthanded save in the third period with the game still tied.

"I thought he's been unbelievable all season for us," Hathaway said. "He stepped up when we needed him to and I think that just goes back to it. When we needed guys to play their best for us to win tonight and he's one of the guys."

The Caps were riding high after a three-game sweep of the New York Islanders, but were brought back down to Earth after two losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins. In the wake of that sweep and with several players out, Washington seemed to be losing momentum at at time when teams hope to be gaining steam. That's why Monday's game could prove to be so important.

Wins like this can be an lesson for teams to understand the importance of winning together as a team. There was no Ovechkin hat trick to bail them out in the third period, no incredible setup by Kuznetsov, no momentum-swinging play from Oshie. It was just the Caps playing to their system to a win because they knew they had to.


Will this win mean much if they come out a lose again on Wednesday? Perhaps not, but after the Pittsburgh series, Monday's game felt like a shot of confidence for a team that needed to be reminded just how deep it really is.

"It was a big effort win for us, character win, and it's just the guys in the room that just came together," Hathaway said. "That's about the best I can say. It wasn't pretty for a while, but we managed to play our game in the end and come out with a win."