The Washington Capitals first line of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Tom Wilson collected a total of seven points and Braden Holtby made 23 of 24 saves to give the Caps a 4-1 victory in game four of this best of seven series and send things back to DC knotted up at two games apiece. Game five is Saturday afternoon at 3 pm at Capital One Arena.
After winning in double overtime on a goal mouth scramble bounce in game three, the Caps continued their push to the front of Sergei Bobrovsky’s net and it paid off with some big tallies. Wilson scored first just 6:16 into this affair. John Carlson and Chandler Stephenson broke out on Ian Cole on a two on one rush thanks to a super breakout pass by Alex Chiasson. Bob made the initial save on Carlson and Thomas Vanek managed to clear the rebound before Stephenson could deposit the loose change. The problem for the Blue Jackets was that the puck went right to Kuznetsov, who put one on a tee for a fresh off of the bench Wilson, and Top Line Tommy lasered the biscuit into the twine.
Another rebound marker, this one on the power play, by T.J. Oshie just before the midpoint of the game gave Washington a two goal cushion. Carlson made a super keep in at the blue line of a failed Cam Atkinson clear and that set the whole play in motion against a fatigued Columbus PK unit. Oshie wheeled the puck behind the net and to the right wing half wall to the great Nicklas Backstrom. Nicky fed #74 at the right point and he fired on net. Bobrovsky made the initial save, but the biscuit bounced right to Ovi charging in from the left wing circle. The Gr8 shot, but Bob denied him. Kuznetsov poked at the puck, but Bob padded it up into the slot, where the Osh Babe quickly snapped it, with his amazing hands, into the goal.
In both games one and two, the Capitals had two goal leads, but they frittered each away with bad penalties, untimely offensive zone miscues that led to Blue Jacket rush goals, and some shaky goaltending. In game four, the Caps stayed disciplined, limited their offensive and neutral zone mistakes by getting pucks deep, and of course, the Holtbeast was a confident wall in the cage.
For the last 10 minutes of the second frame, the Caps played smart and made Columbus work for every inch. Washington took that 2-0 lead to the locker room after 40 minutes and they came right out in period three and played the same exact way. The Blue Jackets, who were working doubly hard to try and fight through the Capitals neutral zone trap and strong defensive blue line front, were being forced to go 200 feet to generate opportunities and fatigue started taking over.
The Caps extended their lead to three pucks just 2:49 into the final stanza. Wilson went flying through the neutral and offensive zones on the right wing boards with the puck and attempted to fire on Bob, as he should do in that situation. Willy’s shot was blocked and he and the Columbus player slid into the right wing corner with the puck. Kuzy alertly skated quickly in to retrieve the disc and he fed Ovechkin in the high slot. The Gr8 then quickly went backhand to forehand and sniped one below Sergei’s left pad to really stick a dagger in Columbus.
From there on out, the Blue Jackets tried everything they could to sneak a player behind the Washington defense and they also pinched on the walls trying to keep pucks in the offensive zone. Columbus’ only goal came off of a faceoff win, at 6:22 of period three, on a Boone Jenner deflection with tons of traffic in front. After that, the Caps exploited the Blue Jackets “cheat” for several scoring opportunities, most notably an Ovechkin breakaway that would have made it 4-1, but Bob robbed him glove side.
Over a minute after Columbus dispensed of their keeper with 3:29 remaining, Kuznetsov stole a puck in the neutral zone and hit the empty net with 2:19 left to end the scoring and even up the series.
This was one heck of a team effort by the Caps.
On Wednesday morning, I asked Coach Barry Trotz about how the team would shut down the Blue Jackets potent rush game and he stated that the key was getting numbers back and the forwards exhibiting strong back pressure on their opponents.
Boy did his team follow that game plan perfectly!
Time after time a Columbus player would appear to have some speed and a lane in the neutral zone only to be slowed by a wall of Caps defenders at the Washington blue line. Then a back checking forward would either stick lift the Columbus player to steal the puck or the Blue Jackets would force a pass into the middle of the ice where the Capitals would grab the disc and go the other way. This pattern went on for much of the third period and you could see the Blue Jackets were being forced to use the whole rink to generate opportunities, but it just wasn’t happening because of the defensive posture of Washington.
On the night, Columbus only had 24 shots on goal and failed to hit double digits in any period. When shots did get through, Holtby was dialed in and took away any hope of a victory for the home squad. The Holtbeast is now 16-4-2 as a starter against the Blue Jackets, lifetime.
A successful lineup adjustment that Coach Barry Trotz made from game three to game four was to put Stephenson back up with Backstrom and Oshie on the second unit while bumping Jakub Vrana down to line four. That move paid dividends once the Caps got the lead because #18 is a really strong two way player who can skate. Vrana is a very good skater, too, and in his limited time (6:41) he played well, but with Coach John Tortorella having the match up advantage, Trotzy had to counter with a strong two way line. By doing that, the Kuznetsov trio was able to win their match up and be the difference in the hockey game.
Overall, this was an outstanding performance and the best the Capitals have played in the post season this spring. They played a simple game and have now won six of their last seven road playoffs tilts dating back to last April. That is the good news, but the bad news is they have lost five of their last six playoff contests at home. The key to winning again wearing Red is to pretend it is a road contest and play a simple style. There is no need to be trying to impress the fans with fancy passes and pretty plays. This is the playoffs and dirty, gritty goals are what make the difference between winning and losing. The Washington fans will gladly trade pretty plays for a simple W this time of year.
On Thursday night, the Capitals played a textbook road game and left the state of Ohio with two victories, just as their captain said they would do before game 3.
Notes: Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 24:29 and was outstanding. Nisky is playing the best hockey of his season. His defensive partner, Dmitry Orlov, logged 24:10. #9 has made some mistakes in this series and has another gear he can get to, but his fellow blue liner has really stabilized things on the back end…Michal Kempny (18:14), Brooks Orpik (17:01) and Christian Djoos (12:36) all played well on defense…Washington, who got Jay Beagle back in game two after he was out due to an upper body injury, owned the face off circle going 36-20. Beags was a downright dominant, 14-3. Winning draw after draw forces the opposition, especially when trailing, to expend a lot of energy to try and get the puck back…the leader in ice time for the series, Seth Jones, played 26:22 minutes of action that included being hounded by a Caps player pretty much all night…Artemi Panarin, who was the best skater in the series in the first three games, was held in check in game four. He had only one shot on net, took two penalties, and was -1 in 20:56 of ice time…the Caps were 1 for 3 on the power play while CBus went 0 for 3.