When the Washington Capitals are focused and rested, they are a very good hockey team, it’s that simple.
On Saturday night, at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium, the Caps came out fast and determined and they smoked the Auston Matthews-less Leafs, 5-2.
Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and John Carlson each had three points and Braden Holtby stopped 27 of 29 shots as Washington moved to 37-21-7 (81 points) on the season and they lead the Filthadelphia Flyers by two points and the Pittsburgh Penguins by three points in the Metropolitan Division with 17 games remaining in the regular season. The Pens only have 16 games left to play.
Alex Ovechkin notched his NHL leading 40th goal of the season in the opening frame, and the 598th tally of his career, as the Caps raced to a 3-1 first period lead.
From there, the Capitals played solid hockey and really gave Toronto little chance of winning this outdoor affair in front of a crowd just under 30,000 (less than capacity).
Washington is a difficult team to beat when both Backstrom and Kuznetsov are on and that was the case on Saturday night. The Caps were hard on pucks all night and played a crash the net style that is conducive to playoff hockey. Kuzy scored the first goal just 3:50 in snapping home the rebound of a Backstrom shot on the power play. After the Leafs tied it on a shot tapped home by Jake Hyman in front, the cuddly Ovi notched a top shelf marker after top line Tom Wilson outworked two Leafs behind the net and fed a sweet pass into the slot that the Gr8 buried.
With 3:40 left in period one, Kuznetsov made a super attack up the ice on the power play and then left a back pass into the slot that Backstrom converted to make it 3-1. It was a great power play rush goal and really set the Caps up for the last 40 minutes of this tilt.
After Toronto cut the margin to 3-2 on a goal that the Holtbeast had a hard time tracking and probably wants back, Carlson finished off a great shift by the fourth line just 43 seconds later to restore the two goal Caps lead. Chandler Stephenson and Jay Beagle did some great work to create #74’s 12th goal of the season. At that point, with just under 32 minutes of hockey remaining, the Capitals really stymied Toronto and locked this contest down.
Jakub Vrana, who hadn’t scored since mid December, but has really been playing well in recent outings, received a great pass from Kuznetsov while the Leafs were caught in a bad line change, and beat Frederik Andersen on a breakaway for his 11th goal of the season. It was a huge goal for #13, because he’s been generating lots of chances without being rewarded with a lamp lighter, and it pretty much sealed the Leafs fate on this windy and brisk night in Annapolis.
The third period would be scoreless and the Caps would go on to their third victory in three outdoor events.
Overall, this was a pretty basic and solid win by Washington. They outworked Toronto and the scoreboard reflected that. The Caps top two centers were on their game and the Leafs, without Matthews, really had no answer for it. T.J. Oshie, Vrana, and several others had solid outings in the Caps triumph. Again, the key to the hockey game is the play of Backstrom and Kuznetsov. Those guys are elite players and when they bring a high effort, the Caps are a very hard team to beat. In addition, Wilson’s hustle and physicality was a huge factor in this game. He was a beast on the ice and continues to progress as a player.
Holtby halted a six game losing streak with a solid effort. He struggled a bit early, and I put a lot of that on his distrust of the skaters in front of him, but as the night went on you could see him returning to form. When the Holtbeast can see the shots, he is one of, if not the best, goalies in the league.
Overall, this was a dominant win and as Coach Barry Trotz likes to say, “there were no passengers, tonight.” Washington wanted this game and they were rested and ready after two straight practices. Their all world goalie also seemed to regain his form, which is something they’ll need as they head to California for three contests this upcoming week.
Simply put, despite all of the whining on Caps Twitter about the team and the coach, Washington is still a very good hockey team and on a pace to hit between 100 and 105 points as I predicted before the season. That should happen despite having four rookies in the lineup most of the year, including two on defense.
Notes: The Caps were 2-2 on the power play and penalty kill in a very well officiated contest…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 38-29. Beagle was 13-1 and Backstrom was 16-9…Wilson had five hits, one less than team leader, Matt Niskanen (6)…Nisky led the Caps in ice time with 24:05. #2 is playing the best of hockey of his season, right now, which is much needed…the Caps had 34 shots on goal to just 29 for Toronto.