John Carlson rifled a puck past Kari Lehtonen with 4:59 remaining in regulation to give the Washington Capitals a huge 4-3 victory over the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night at Capital One Arena. Alexander Ovechkin scored his league leading 44th goal in the middle frame and Braden Holtby stopped 24 of 27 pucks in the triumph.
The win improves Washington’s record to 42-24-7 (91 points) and puts them four points clear of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who lost to the Islanders on Tuesday, for first place in the Metropolitan Division with nine games remaining in the regular season. Columbus has tied the Pens in points at 87 by virtue of their 5-3 defeat of the Rangers, but Coach John Tortorella’s streaking squad only has eight games left to play.
For the Caps, this was their first triumph over the Stars in DC since November 30, 2006 (h/t to the great Mike Vogel). In addition, Lehtonen had pretty much owned the Capitals in his career coming into this tilt with a 18-6-3 record and a .921 save percentage in 27 career appearances (thanks again, @VogsCaps).
On a snowy and icy night in DC, Washington finally turned the tables on the Stars.
How did they do it?
First off, at even strength, the Capitals outplayed Dallas and out shot them, 26-18. The Caps were missing star center Evgeny Kuznetsov for the second straight game due to an upper body injury, but they still generated the majority of the chances. T.J. Oshie scored his 16th goal of the season, and his fourth tally in his last four games, on a rebound to tie this affair at one early in period two. Just over a minute later, Matt Niskanen notched his sixth marker of the year on a point shot that hit a Dallas stick on the way in. Brett Connolly provided some good traffic in the high slot on that one.
Next, with the game tied at two just past the midpoint of the contest, Oshie won a faceoff cleanly back to Carlson, who then put the disc on a tee for the Gr8 and he rocketed the biscuit by Lehtonen (28 saves) on the power play to give the Caps a 3-2 lead.
Around those three Washington tallies, the Stars scored a trio of goals. The first two were directly attributable to Capitals penalties. Nicklas Backstrom took a bad offensive zone tripping infraction that led to Tyler Seguin’s 39th of the season in the first frame and then just five seconds after Michal Kempny came out of the box following an offensive blue line interference penalty, Alexander Radulov tipped home a John Klingberg shot from the point to tie the game at two.
After Ovechkin’s laser to reclaim the lead on the power play, the Gr8 nearly had his 45th of the season after a fine play by top line Tom Wilson. Willy fired on net, got his own rebound, went around the cage, and fed a wide open Ovi at the top of the paint, but Alex was unable to lift the puck past Lehtonen. That inability to finish would prove costly when Jamie Benn skated past Dmitry Orlov to beat Holtby with 1:45 left in the middle frame. Benn never sees that one on one rush, where he had initial speed on his side, if Lars Eller makes a smarter play in the neutral zone and gets the puck deep. Instead #20 tried a play that will be a recipe for death in the playoffs, he slowed down and tried to cut to the middle of the ice before the offensive blue line and Benn stripped him clean like he was working the streets as a pick-pocket specialist back in the day on the south side of Chicago.
With the game tied at three heading into period three, things were very tight and the Stars really needed this one to keep pace in the Western Conference playoff race. The Capitals, however, are in a tight race of their own and they more than matched the Stars desperation and found a way to nudge ahead in a four on four situation. Brooks Orpik, who missed Sunday’s debacle in Filthy against the Flyers along with #92, returned to the lineup after a lower body injury and brought the physicality needed on the back end to keep the paint clear for the Holtbeast. While doing that job in the final frame, Radek Faska thought it would be cute if he poked at #70 after he covered the puck. The man called “Batya” (father) by his teammates then put Radek in a headlock as the duo wrestled to the ice. Both were sent to the box for two minutes to feel shame. This put the game in a four on four speed situation with 6:12 remaining.
73 seconds later, Coach Barry Trotz’ team took the lead for the final time shortly after Carlson smartly fired the puck on net from center ice to start the goal sequence. Rookie blue liner Christian Djoos won a race to the puck in the left wing corner and fed Eller for a great chance in front. Lars hit the post and then had another shot blocked. Ovechkin won a battle, then Eller passed the disc back to #74 at the right point and with Ovi causing havoc in front of Lehtonen, Carlson’s shot hit the twine for the game winning goal.
Overall, this was a solid victory for the Capitals. They made some bad decisions with the puck, at times, and the four power plays they allowed before the game was 30 minutes old is something that can’t happen in April and beyond. However, they played well, especially at even strength, to outwork and earn two very important points against a team that had everything to lose. Washington overcame their early penalty problems and finally found a way to knock off the team from the Lone Star State in the Nation’s Capital. This contest didn’t set up well for the Caps, especially with Kuzy out, but they found a way to get it done and the Metropolitan Division title is within their grasp as we head into the home stretch.
Notes: Kuznetsov skated on Monday and is traveling to Detroit (Thursday), Montreal (Saturday), and Madison Square Garden (vs. Rangers on Monday) for the Caps upcoming three game road trip…the Caps have won five of their last six games. The loss to Philadelphia on Sunday was a real poor effort and with #44 out of the lineup, the Flyers crashed the cage relentlessly with no fear of real retaliation. The Caps have won five in a row with Orpik in the lineup (but, Corsi!)…the Capitals won the faceoff battle, 35-26. Jay Beagle was 13-4…shots on goal were 32-27 for the Caps. The Stars had eight shots on goal on their four power plays…Wilson was dominant in this one and he really hit Dallas’ D all night (9 total hits!). #43 is skating well and he was back to carrying the play after having a few tough games after suffering a broken nose in California. Willy had six shots on net in 21:06 of ice time…Ovi had eight shot attempts and a goal and two assists in 22:13. He now has 81 points on the season (44 goals, 37 assists). 12 of Washington’s 32 shots came from their two power forwards, Ovi and Willy…Holtby looked good in net. He made some key saves when the game was in doubt, especially when Dallas had the man advantage due to bad penalties by the Caps.