For a mid-December match-up, there was a surprising amount at stake for the Senators heading into their fixture against the Washington Capitals. The team was clinging to the final guaranteed play-off spot in the Atlantic Division in spite of their relatively hot start, just a point ahead of the Bruins and having played two more games. Further, the Capitals are by almost any measure the best team in the East; if the Sens were to prove their critics wrong, this was a great "measuring-stick" game.
Unfortunately, for the better part of the first period the team wasn't up to the task. Washington showed off its incredible team depth and speed by attacking every fumbled puck in the neutral zone. The Sens' fourth line and third pairing, in particular, often found themselves challenged to merely get the puck out of the defensive end before the Caps regrouped in the neutral zone to attack again. Things got so bad that Jared Cowen was benched for the last five minutes or so of the period. The Caps controlled play to the tune of a 14-8 shot advantage, and were it not for the Hamburglar it could have been much worse than a 1-0 deficit. Washington's lone goal came off a weird play where Michael Latta beat Marc Methot to a bouncing puck before cruising in on Andrew Hammond and burying a goal top-shelf.
Now stop me if you've heard this story before: the Sens were badly out-shot, but extraordinary goalie play kept them in a game that they didn't especially deserve to be in. It's a pattern we've become all-too-familiar with this year, but this time the Sens bucked the trend in the second and more than held their own against the powerhouse Capitals. The top two lines were highly effective at generating speed through the neutral zone and the Sens were rewarded with numerous quality scoring chances. Both the Turris and the Zibanejad line had their moments, in particular an extended 6-on-5 stretch late in the period after Matt Niskanen hooked Mika Zibanejad in front of the Caps' net. Were it not for an unfortunate Caps goal against the run of play stemming from a Curtis Lazar turnover, this would have been a really encouraging period for the Sens. Instead, trailing 2-0 going into the third, we had to settle for moral victories.
The third period was a defensive clinic put on by the Caps, until it wasn't. At 5v5, the Sens simply couldn't generate the same chances off the rush that they had been getting in the second period. The Caps' forecheck generated turnovers and the Sens couldn't get out of their own end. It seemed like we were just waiting for the clock to wind down.Then, with no provocation, Tom Wilson took a match penalty for a head shot on a vulnerable Curtis Lazar that knocked the kid out of the game. Bobby Ryan would avenge his fallen comrade with a goal just 26 seconds into the man advantage. The last three minutes of the game were played entirely in the Capitals' end but the Sens just couldn't find the equalizer.
At the end of the day, it's always tough to say things like "moral victories" but this game really should give Sens fans some hope: the team was more than competitive with the best squad in the East. The final score stings, but the effort doesn't.
Honourable Mention: Andrew Hammond
The Hamburglar just keeps on piling on the stellar performances. It's really impossible to do anything but shrug and smile at this point. He deserved a better fate tonight.
Honourable Mention: Patrick Wiercioch
The much-maligned Wiercioch was excellent tonight. The Sens have been waiting most of this season to see this kind of performance from the big blueliner. Wiercioch played 18:29 of 5v5 hockey during which time the Sens controlled 56% of the shot attempts.
Sens Zero: Jared Cowen
I'm not going to dwell on it, but he was bad. He got benched. He played only 11 minutes. The Sens got killed to the tune of a 29% CF when he was on the ice. The usual. Fin.
Sens Killer: Braden Holtby
Holtby's one of the best goalies in the world. Today, he looked like it and he was the difference.