Despite not having Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie due to upper body injuries, the Washington Capitals went into Denver to take on the high flying Avalanche and came out victorious in overtime, 3-2. On a four on three power play, Nicklas Backstrom potted the game winner after Tom Wilson did a great job to win a board battle and get the puck to All Star Nicky in the middle of the ice inside the offensive blue line. From there, with one of the defensemen leaning towards Alexander Ovechkin, #19 played give and go with John Carlson and then sniped it top shelf past former Capital Philipp Grubauer to improve the Caps record to 9-7-3 (21 points).
What follows are 10 thoughts on the triumph in Colorado, as well as the state of the team after three very strong efforts in four nights on the road.
This was one heck of a win because not only did the Caps come out on top with three of their star players out of the lineup, they had to overcome more adversity with the officiating. Mark Joannette has historically been a terrible referee and on Friday night, there was no exception. He missed a blatant high stick by Mikko Rantanen on Dmitry Orlov with six minutes remaining that would’ve given the Capitals a four minute power play when they were up a puck. As luck would have it, Colin Wilson would tie the game up with just less than three minutes to go when a Washington power play lamp lighter could’ve closed the game out. To make matters worse, the game tying goal could have easily been called goalie interference on Matt Calvert for bumping Pheonix Copley in the crease on the initial shot. Capitals Coach Todd Reirden rightly challenged the play and was livid with Joannette, Ghislain Hebert, and the crew in Toronto for not overturning the call on the ice. That challenge though, did buy him some time to get his team refocused and recharged.
The Caps would get their third power play of the evening, all called by Hebert, when Devante Smith-Pelly hustled up the ice and drew an obvious hold on Ian Cole with 1:09 remaining. Washington didn’t score in regulation and with the power play sputtering at five on four lately, the four on three overtime configuration turned out to be a good thing. After the Caps won the faceoff, Carlson made a nice rush into the zone and then top line Tommy won the puck on the wall to set up the winning goal sequence.
Copley was excellent once again in the cage and any off season questions about the backup goalie situation sure look to be of little concern, at this point. Pheonix is a big man (6’ 4”) and takes up a lot of net. He’s doing a super job of stopping the first shot and his teammates are helping him with the rebounds that he’s allowing. After the Avalanche went up 1-0 on a blown defensive assignment by a forward just 68 seconds into the game, Copley stopped one of the top goal scorers in the league, Nathan MacKinnon, on a clean breakaway. If that shot goes in, it’s 2-0 and who knows what happens the rest of the night? That was a timely save right there and he made several of those on this road trip. In the three games in the Midwest he only allowed two pucks against in each contest, so he really stepped up in light of Holtby’s injury situation. Copley has now won four of his last five games.
Hockey is all about intensity, hard work, and attention to detail. For 16 games, the Capitals really didn’t have that on a consistent basis. In the three tilts on this road trip, however, the Caps have brought a steady effort. That effort has resulted in a more structured defensive posture. I don’t think there is any coincidence to the fact that this team, after playing one of the most listless games I’ve ever seen from them on Sunday evening against Arizona, found new energy with the return of Wilson from suspension. That guy brings it every night and is a true professional. Willy was super on Friday night with two assists in a team leading 24:24 of ice time (usually time on ice is led by one of the teams’ defensemen, so this is a pretty significant stat). Anyone who complains about the contract he received over the summer should be dismissed as a person who just doesn’t understand the NHL.
Smith-Pelly not only drew the penalty that led to the game winner, but he scored the first goal for Washington finishing off a pretty passing play between DSP, Chandler Stephenson, and Travis Boyd. Afterwards, Smith-Pelly was happy about drawing the key holding penalty because he wasn’t pleased about being on the ice for the Avalanche tying tally.
Ovechkin had a very good game (goal, 14 shot attempts, 7 SOG, two hits in 23:55) and if not for the zebra mistakes, he might’ve had the game winning goal late in period two. Reirden has had a tendency to put together a “load up” line late in frames and this was at least the second time it has worked. An Oshie goal occurred on the home stand in a similar situation and on Friday night, Ovechkin-Backstrom-Wilson delivered on the rush with 1:31 left in period two.
In the final frame, Washington went to their 1-2-2 neutral zone configuration and also walled off the front of their net. Colorado had only eight shots on goal and two of them came on the game tying sequence. This was a smart strategy given the fatigue level of the Caps and the speed that the Avalanche possesses. Colorado generates a lot of scoring opportunities on the rush and the Capitals did not let them do that in this affair.
This win at the Pepsi Center reminded me a bit of game six in Pittsburgh last spring because of the patched together lineup. All 20 healthy bodies available dressed (including Ilya Samsonov, who was summoned from Hershey to backup Copley) and Reirden did a very good job of avoiding bad matchups with Colorado having last change of personnel. In that huge victory over the Pens, the team stuck to their game plan to pull off an upset when on paper it didn’t seem possible. On Friday night, a win for Washington in their third tilt on the road in four nights with several stars out, plus Joannette in stripes, looked like a daunting task. But they found a way.
As for Kuznetsov, Oshie, and Holtby, they are all day to day. Kuzy was elbowed in the head by Brandon Tanev in period one on Wednesday and the Osh Babe was body slammed to the ice by Josh Morrissey, after an initial clean hit, in the last two minutes in Winnipeg. Morrissey was fined the maximum amount allowed by the league for the interference and unsportsmanlike conduct, but not suspended. What stinks is that the officials, which included the incompetent Kyle Rehman, were looking right at the play and didn’t call a penalty. As a result, the Jets didn’t have to face a six on four situation and they easily hit the empty net when Oshie could barely skate after being WWE’d to the ice. It was very frustrating to see and you can bet that when Winnipeg comes to town on March 10th, Morrissey will have to answer for that dirty hit with his fists.
Overall though, this was a very successful trip to the Midwest of North America by the Capitals. They went 2-1 and played with a much better and consistent compete level. If they keep that up and get some of their injured stars back soon, they have the potential to put a nice little winning streak together.
Notes: Carlson (1 assist) led the defensemen in ice time with 24:03…Backstrom played 20:59…the Caps killed off both Avalanche power plays…the Capitals blocked 18 shots, led by Carlson’s five…the faceoff battle went to Colorado, 34-31, but it was 15-5 for the Avs after 20 minutes. Backstrom was 14-10…Washington’s next game is in Montreal on Monday night at 7:30 pm…Brooks Orpik is eligible to return from long term injured reserve on Wednesday night.