Sunday, March 13, 2011, 3:22 p.m.Updated at 4:57 p.m.
CAPITALS PAGE CAPITALS VIDEO
By Mark Zuckerman
Marcus Johansson got the puck just behind the left circle and had to make a decision. He could have attempted to fire a shot at Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, throw the puck on net and hope it either slipped through or rebounded to a teammate.
Instead, Johansson paused for just a moment, recognized Mike Knuble asking for the puck to the left of the crease and softy passed to his veteran winger. Knuble took over from there, and the Washington Capitals can thank both players for making Sunday's 4-3 overtime victory (the team's eighth straight win) possible.
"Real heads-up play by Marcus," Knuble said. "It would have been very easy for him to bury his head right there and try to jam it through. But I kind of laid my stick out to the side, and he put it on the tape. It was a very smart play by him."
Smart and redeeming, for it was Johansson's hooking penalty late in regulation that allowed Chicago to score the tying goal and force overtime in the first place. Playing with a two-man advantage thanks to the power play and an empty net, the Blackhawks momentarily silenced the sellout crowd at Verizon Center when Jonathan Toews beat Braden Holtby with only 38.5 seconds showing on the clock.
Watching it all from the penalty box, Johansson might have worried he had just cost the Caps the game. Instead, his smart play at the offensive end more than three minutes into the overtime period set up Knuble's game-winner and left everyone in good spirits at the end of the afternoon.
"I'm sure Marcus wanted to work doubly hard on that shift," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He felt responsible for them getting the tying goal, even though I thought it was a pretty chintzy call."
The winning goal required some nifty stick work by Knuble, who received the puck from Johansson on his backhand side, flipped around to his forehand and then went around to the other side of the net to beat Crawford.
A younger player might have gotten overanxious and tried to force the issue. The 38-year-old Knuble recognized the Chicago defense was flummoxed and out of position, giving him time to set up his best shot.
"Very rarely do you have time to pull it and turn and do all that," he said. "Maybe we had them running around; I have to see the replay. ... You just try to execute the play and hope that it goes. It doesn't happen very often, because I think we had them spinning around a little bit and there was a gap in coverage."
This wasn't as clean an overall performance from the Capitals as some of their previous wins during this streak. Holtby, who had allowed only one goal his last 165 minutes, surrendered one to Nick Leddy less than five minutes into Sunday's game. One period later, he allowed Tomas Kopecky's shot from behind the goal line in the left corner to ricochet off his back and into the net.
Holbty, who admittedly didn't feel like he was on top of his game from the very beginning, credited his mounting NHL experience for helping him battle through an off day.
"Before, I guess I would have got a little fazed by that second goal because it wasn't a goal that should be going in," the 21-year-old said. "I just tried to calm myself down and make sure I was still there."
Holtby's teammates made sure he still wound up on the winning end. Thanks to the Johansson-Knuble combo, the Capitals were able to pack their bags at the end of the day with smiles all around.
Now five points ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Southeast Division and only one point behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Caps squad that now embarks on a six-game road trip feels a lot more comfortable than the one that only a couple of weeks ago seemed to be hanging on for dear life.
"Before we went on that last road trip, we were looking at it like if we didn't have a successful road trip, we're fighting our lives for a playoff spot," Boudreau said. "We haven't guaranteed anything. But since then, we've got 90 points. So we're at least in the hunt for thinking we're going to make the playoffs, and looking for more. It's a different mindset."
Contact Mark Zuckerman at email@example.com.