The Washington Capitals went into what Coach Bruce Boudreau stated at the morning skate would likely be a “Hornets Nest” to face a Montreal Canadiens team that had been shut out 7-0 by the Boston Bruins on Thursday night. But the Caps bench boss, who laid into his own squad following a weak effort in a 2-0 Friday night loss against Ottawa, came out a 2-0 winner at the Bell Centre thanks to a super defensive effort by his club. Nicklas Backstrom led the Capitals offense by setting up two goals and Braden Holtby, who took a three hour drive from Glen Falls, New York, to meet the team at 2 am in Habsville (h/t @VogsCaps), stopped all 18 shots he faced as Washington moved a step closer to clinching their fourth straight Southeast Division title. The Caps are now 44-22-10 (98 points) and any combination of seven points gained by the Caps or lost by the Lightning will likely clinch at least the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Here are the highlights and analysis of a win that gives the Capitals a 4-2 record on this now completed road trip:
– Backstrom was easily the best player on the ice tonight. #19 showed no ill effects of that fractured thumb he suffered via Kris Letang’s cheap slash back in February firing seven shots on Carey Price (31 saves). His first shot on #31 led to a rebound up the slot and Marco Sturm one timed it home for his first goal as a Cap in his 13th game just 84 seconds into the tilt. Backstrom had several quality chances but Price denied him from making it a greater margin for Washington, who dominated much of this contest. #19 and his linemates Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin carried nearly every shift they had and they finally closed the deal with 3:41 remaining on Semin’s tap in from Backstrom after Sturm made a nice play at the center line. The final statistics for Backstrom in this victory: 2 assists, +2, 21:25 of ice time, seven shots on goal, and 8-8 on faceoffs.
– The Caps came out red hot and drew three power plays in the opening stanza. As a result they had a 12-3 shots advantage and they kept the heat on in the second frame to take a 26-11 edge after 40 minutes. Holtby did have to make some quality stops during that time, and #70 did a good job of not giving up many rebounds by snaring the puck with his glove. The young net minder from Saskatchewan looked so calm and confident in net, like he said he would be at the morning skate (h/t @kcarerra). Boudreau has three goalies he can use and feel confident in. Semyon Varlamov had a solid return on Friday in Ottawa and Michal Neuvirth was playing super before getting sick this weekend.
– The Caps, who were 18-1-5 when leading after 20 minutes and 26-0-2 with a lead after two periods coming into this game, added one to the front end of those totals by playing a text book third period from a defensive standpoint. Montreal only had seven shots on net and most came from the perimeter. Washington routinely won the battles to the loose pucks and they were content to dump the biscuit deep as soon as they reached the center line, a great strategy when nursing a lead. The Capitals were also more physical than on Friday in Ottawa and in addition, their puck support was top notch. Whenever a Capital had the puck another Washington player was close by in case something happened. There were lots of good things on videotape for Boudreau to show his club “the right way” to play with a lead or dominate a team.
– Price was very good after the bad rebound on the Sturm tally and kept his club in it on some early Capitals power plays. Washington had four man advantages but the last two were pretty bad. The Caps struggled to get set up and get shots on net, something they did fairly well on their first two attempts. On the PK, the Capitals were a perfect 3 for 3 and they allowed only five shots on net in those six minutes. The return of Jason Arnott, Alexander Ovechkin, and hopefully Mike Green before the playoffs start has to help out a struggling Washington power play. Before #44 was injured, the configuration with him and Dennis Wideman on the points with the Great #8 down low resulted in some of the best man advantage situations the Caps have had all season.
– After a poor defensive effort on Friday, the Caps six blue liners were all very good on Saturday with Wideman, Scott Hannan, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson all standing out. Wideman is so tough, in fact, I think he eats rocks for breakfast. #6 was slammed into the boards in the third period and appeared to injure himself yet he seemed to just “rub some mud on it” and come back and play solid the rest of the way. That acquisition by George McPhee has been a huge difference maker for this team.
– So a road trip that looked extremely tough before it started and then even more daunting as the injuries to Arnott and Ovechkin were revealed ends with the Capitals getting eight out of a possible 12 points. Clearly this team has good depth and if they get healthy they can match up with any team in the NHL.
Notes: Washington won the faceoff battle, 35-30. Laich was 11-6…Wideman once again logged the most ice time for the Caps (25:31)…Kelly Sutherland was one of the officials again on Saturday after Friday’s refereeing debacle and was much better…Boudreau wisely used his timeout in the second period when the Caps five skaters were gassed after back to back icings. The move paid off as Washington won the draw and cleared the zone, great coaching!…the Capitals went 3-0-1 against Montreal this season…next up for the Caps are the Carolina Hurricanes at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night at 7pm. It is a must win for the Canes, who have not defeated Washington all season despite playing the Capitals very tough on each occassion. After the last Caps victory over Carolina, Boudreau said to me afterwards, “that means they are due to beat us,” when I brought up Washington’s 5-0 record against them in 2010-11.