Coming off a dud of a performance on Long Island on Monday night, a 3-1 loss to New York at the Barclay Center, the Capitals came home on Tuesday to face a team, the Colorado Avalanche, which flat out smoked them in their last meeting back on November 16th, 6-2.
The young Avs, led by Nathan MacKinnon’s five points, used their speed and desire to totally destroy the Caps in the Mile High City on that Thursday night. On Monday evening, the surging Avalanche knocked off the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins in the Steel City, 2-1, and looked to improve on their surprising 14-13-2 record at Capital One Arena.
Coach Barry Trotz’ squad, however, had other ideas and they played a smart game structurally to slow the young Colorado team down to grind out a 5-2 victory that improves the Capitals to 19-12-1 (39 points) and back into a first place tie with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who were blitzed by the Edmonton Oilers, 7-2, in CBus on Tuesday. [Note: anyone have the 10 second clip of John Tortorella’s post game presser? LOL!]
This was not a pretty win, but it was a needed one, and several players stepped up to help deliver a well deserved two points and give Washington their eighth triumph in their last 10 games.
With that let’s get right to my thoughts, highlights, and analysis of this tilt:
Braden Holtby (22 saves) continues to be the Caps MVP. The team’s biggest problem lately has been puck management as NBC Sports Washington analyst, Alan May, calls it. There are just too many poor passes and bad decisions going on out on the ice for this club right now. Case in point, in the second period in a 1-1 game, Brooks Orpik possesses the puck at his own blue line with a defender barreling down on him and #44 has no real passing option because all four of the other Capital players are on the other side of the ice, and most of them are up the rink. There’s no left wing in sight and the center is floating on the far boards. Instead of eating the puck there and waiting for help, Orpik goes cross ice with it and the result is a Colin Wilson breakaway. Fortunately for every one of the Caps out there, the Holtbeast made a right arm/body save on Wilson to keep the game tied. It was a HUGE stop at a key time in a game that the Capitals were very sloppy in up until that point. Braden made several other big saves in this contest, but none bigger than that one and once again you can point to his play as a major reason the Capitals were victorious. For the season, Holtby is now 17-7-0. His .918 save percentage is also pretty darned good considering he’s playing behind a very young defense after several key personnel losses in the off season due to the expansion draft (Nate Schmidt) and the tight salary cap (Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk). All hail the Holtbeast, once again! If you don’t think he’s playing well, then you should go watch another sport, this guy is one of the top goaltenders in the NHL and is performing better than his Vezina trophy winning season, in my opinion, as well as a couple of other guys who know their puck that cover this hockey club.
Speaking of performing really well, on the back end the Caps received superb outings from both John Carlson (1 goal and +2 in 21:10) and Dmitry Orlov (+1 in 23:39). Carlson’s hammer of a shot (3rd goal of the season) late in the second period after he came off of the bench on a change gave the Caps the 2-1 lead they would take to period three and expand on. Carly took two penalties in this affair, but overall, he’s been dominant on the back end no matter who he has been paired with this season. #74 is due a nice long term contract extension with the Caps for his play, especially since number one defensemen aren’t easy to find. As for Orlov, this guy is really playing sensational at both ends of the rink. He’s physical when needed on the boards and his breakouts are such a key to Washington’s offense. He had no points on Tuesday night, but if you go back and break his shifts down, he was a major reason that MacKinnon was nowhere to be found in this game. #9’s progression over the last 12 months has been amazing and big credit goes to Dima and assistant coach Todd Rierden.
Continuing on the back end, Madison Bowey had his second two assist game in 14:36 of ice time. His feed to Brett Connolly on a delayed penalty call on the Avalanche allowed #10 to get off his great shot, a one-timer, that he rifled into the cage for a 3-1 advantage with 14:45 remaining. #22 continues to mature at the NHL level. His game is ascending and that will be very important to the Caps in the second half of the season and hopefully into the playoffs. Christian Djoos is also on the uptick, especially in his own end. The kid played 16:25 and was +1 in this affair. #29 is a very good puck mover, but what has really impressed me lately is his defensive zone positioning. Again, credit the player and the coaching staff, who have proven that they can properly develop young defensemen.
Up front, let’s start with the grinders, the fourth line. I loved the game that Devante Smith-Pelly brought to the rink. He was physical and moving his feet. He also made smart decisions with the puck by getting it deep over and over and making Colorado struggle to get the puck out of their end. His linemates, Jay Beagle and Chandler Stephenson, also worked hard in this affair, something we saw from very few Capitals against the Islanders in Monday night’s debacle. That line all played at least 14 minutes each and it was fitting that DSP scored his fifth goal of the season into the empty net with 45 seconds left, after a nice pass from Stephenson. Beagle and Smith-Pelly combined for seven of the Capitals 27 shots on net in the victory. Those guys were skating hard and Coach Trotz rightly rewarded them with additional ice time.
Holtby, Carlson, and Orlov have been big drivers in the Caps hot streak, along with the first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson, but if Evgeny Kuznetsov (three assists) and Jakub Vrana (goal) don’t completely turn their games around after the earlier Colorado loss (Vrana was a healthy scratch) and abysmal effort against the Flames, the Capitals don’t have multiple lines that can score. The Kuznetsov and Vrana duo has been red hot and with the top line playing well on most nights (although they were just okay against the Avs), that second line needs to produce and they’ve done so, even without T.J. Oshie for the last four tilts. Vrana’s speed really opens things up on the ice, especially because he’s driving towards the net, and Kuzy continues to make the right pass versus shoot decisions, something he was not doing consistently well for the first six weeks of the season. #92’s play to set up #13 for the first goal was just pure confidence with the puck and he drew both Avs to him so that he could feed Jakub for the top shelf peanut butter shot past former Capital Semyon Varlamov (22 saves). His last helper at 16:19 of the 3rd frame to make it 4-1, to Matt Niskanen, was a thing of beauty. After Andre Burakovsky knocked Erik Johnson off of the puck in a four on four situation, Kuzy grabbed the disc and drove the net. He then froze the Avs defender by faking like he was going to pull the biscuit back and then he slid it behind the defensemen to a wide open Nisky, who buried it for his second goal of the season (and second in three games).
Finally, another thing that really helped the Capitals win this one was their penalty killing. The Caps were a perfect four for four in 6:25 of shorthanded time and they DID NOT ALLOW A SHOT ON GOAL. Those kills were huge because Colorado, on their first three power plays, either had a chance to tie the game or take the lead. Wilson was excellent with his skating on the PK as were the other three forwards, Lars Eller, Alex Chiasson, and Beagle. Orpik was also really good keeping Colorado on the perimeter in his team leading 4:35 of shorthanded time.
In summary, this was not a win with style points, there are none in hockey, but the Caps did what they needed to prevail. Their goaltender and grinding fourth line prevented Colorado from gaining any momentum until the superior skill of the Capitals took over in the third period.
Notes: Connolly’s goal was his fourth in the last six games. He is going to the right places on the rink to receive great feeds and burying the biscuit with his excellent shot. He’s up to six goals now and with Burakovsky back, he and Eller will hopefully take off like that same 3rd line did last January…Oshie skated again on Tuesday for the 3rd straight day and will likely practice on Friday (the Caps are off on Wednesday and head to Beantown to face the Bruins on Thursday night). If the Osh Babe does well out at that practice, then there is a good chance he’ll be in the lineup against the Ducks on Saturday night at 8 pm (who will be without the injured Corey Perry)….the Caps won the face-off battle, 27-24. Eller was 8-4…shot attempts were 56-55 for Colorado…the Capitals had 16 giveaways to just six for Colorado. Puck management needs to improve going forward! There are too many bad passes by Washington players, especially in their own end…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 25:05…the Caps had 24 hits and Smith-Pelly led the team with four. He was a work horse on Tuesday.