Evgeny Kuznetsov scored twice, sandwiched around a Tom Wilson laser, and Philipp Grubauer made 28 saves to lead the Washington Capitals to a 3-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators at sold out Capital One Arena on Tuesday night. The Caps triumph leap frogs them over the Philadelphia Flyers and back into first place in the Metropolitan Division with a 36-21-7 (79 points) record. Philly has a game in hand on Washington. The Pittsburgh Penguins are in third position, three points behind, after losing a one goal game at home against the New Jersey Devils (3-2).
Without further adieu, here are eight thoughts and analysis on this much needed win.
Man of the Match – I’ve written the following so many times before, and it’s still true each and every time. When Kuzy wants to play the right way, the Capitals are extremely hard to beat. Evgeny and his linemates, T.J. Oshie (1 assist) and Jakub Vrana (1 assist) were flat out dominant in this hockey game. Kuznetsov’s first goal came shortly after a penalty on Matt Niskanen expired. Oshie made a great stretch pass coming out of the defensive zone to Nisky and #2 executed a super back pass off of the left wing boards to #77. The Osh Babe then cruised down the slot and found #92 skating back door. Kuzy fired quickly beating Mike Condon five hole for a 1-0 Washington lead with just under five minutes left in period one. Then, with just 11 seconds left in period two, Kuznetsov took a nice neutral zone pass from Niskanen and cruised in to the Senators zone with speed. Kuzy then went for the wraparound and buried the biscuit. According to Courtney Laughlin, that was Washington’s first wrap around goal all season. The tally gave the Caps a 3-1 lead heading into the final frame. For the evening, Evgeny had six shots on net and was +2 in 16:39 of ice time. When he is shooting the puck, he is deadly and he now has 19 goals on the campaign to go with 42 assists for 61 points in 64 games.
Best Supporting Wingers – Vrana did everything but score in this tilt. He was flying all over the ice opening up lanes for his teammates and he gave the Ottawa defense fits. Jakub led the Caps in five on five shot percentage with an amazing 21 shot attempts for and only three against. He had a breakaway in the final frame that he shot over the crossbar. If he keeps playing like that, the goals will come. As for Oshie, he was dogging pucks like crazy and seemed to finally have his legs and hands back in sync. He had a couple of quality chances, but just could not bury the biscuit. Still, the way these guys played on Tuesday is so critical to the Caps success because they can’t count on Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Top Line Tom Wilson to carry the load every night. The second line had 11 of the Capitals 22 shots on goal on Tuesday. Well done, men.
Knocking on the Door – Willy had a fight and a goal in this affair, but once again was just an apple away from getting the Gordie against the Senators. Tom notched his career high 11th of the season firing a rocket past Condon after taking a great pass from Backstrom inside the offensive blue line in period two. #43 was physical with three hits and he was in the face of the Senators all night long. He also spent 3:22 of his 16:50 of ice time killing penalties. Sooner or later Wilson is going to get the Gordie Howe Hat Trick the way he’s performing. He is a beast on the ice and the Ovi-Backy-Willy line is not only quick, but very heavy. It’s a perfect trio for post season hockey.
Back End Improvement – Niskanen had arguably his best game of the season with two great assists in 22:59 of ice time. Matt played with fire and determination. Brooks Orpik, who has struggled mightily since the All Star Break, had one of his better outings going +2 in 19:59 of work. I didn’t like the penalty he took that put Washington down two men in the middle frame and led to Mike Hoffman’s power play tally, but the high sticking call on #44 in the third stanza was complete rubbish and embellishment by Zack Smth. Orpik, who many on Caps Twitter want to be scratched, gets a sweater each night because of one primary reason; he’s a good penalty killer. Brooks logged 5:05 of PK time in this affair which saw Washington go shorthanded seven times to just two for Ottawa. If the Capitals are going to go anywhere this spring, they’ll need top performances from their defense and getting Nisky and Orpik back playing at a higher level is crucial, especially since the Caps were unable to add a high end defensemen at the trade deadline due to high prices, as GM Brian MacLellan called Monday’s madness.
Bad Zebras– Washington was called for seven penalties in this tilt and Ottawa had two lengthy five on three power plays. The Sens didn’t score on either of those, but did connect right after the first five on three went to a five on four. Dave Jackson and Kyle Rehman were the officials on Tuesday and they did not have a good night. Outside of the mistake on the Oprik high stick and the non called embellishment on Smith, the two zebras missed several other hooking and tripping infractions on the Senators while Washington was not so lucky. Jackson is usually a good referee, but on Tuesday he and his partner were out to lunch.
I’ll Be There for You – Washington was shorthanded seven times in the game and as Coach Barry Trotz said afterward, “We took some penalties, warranted or not, but we didn’t complain and we fought through it. We had each other’s backs.” The PK was just incredible on Tuesday and it started with Jay Beagle winning defensive zone faceoffs. For the night #83 was an astounding 17-3 on draws, so many of those Ottawa power plays started with 15 seconds immediately killed off while the Senators went back to their end to get the puck. On a couple of the third period power plays, the Caps didn’t even allow a shot on net. John Carlson was outstanding with his clears and he led the way in shorthanded ice time with 6:58. Power play time in this game was 11:14 to 4:00 in favor of the visitors. Your goalie often has to be your best penalty killer and #31 stopped four of five Ottawa power play shots. The one he didn’t get was one he never saw – he was totally screened on Hoffman’s blast that made it 2-1.
The Bottom Line – When it was all said and done, the Caps, who were creamed on Monday in Columbus and then had to fly home, were able to persevere and knock off a rested Ottawa squad that hadn’t played since Saturday afternoon. It was not pretty, but it was gritty and the effort was there, despite the fatigue. The Capitals have now finished a grueling stretch of 15 games in 28 days that saw them go 7-6-2. That’s not bad considering all of the breaks they had in January that prevented them from practicing and sharpening their game. It’s been a rocky February, especially for the defense, who has really hung the goaltenders out to dry too much, particularly Braden Holtby. Washington has lots of talent and when motivated can compete with any team in the league, especially when Kuznetsov and Backstrom are playing well. Their next outing is Saturday night at the Naval Academy Stadium where they’ll take on the Auston Matthews-less Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL outdoor Stadium Series game at 8 pm. You can bet that the Caps will be heavily motivated to win that one.
Notes: Defensemen Jakub Jerabek, who was acquired for a late round draft pick from Montreal last week, made his Caps debut and played 12:35. Michal Kempny logged 15:58 on defense, as well. Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey were the scratches on D…Travis Boyd was recalled from Hershey and he and Alex Chiasson didn’t dress for Ottawa…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 36-24, thanks to Beagle…Ovechkin only had four shot attempts. He notched his NHL leading 39th goal on Monday in CBus. Ovi looked tired on Tuesday and he also had to sit for long stretches due to the Capitals being shorthanded so often. He had only four shot attempts in 18:27 of ice time…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 24:01…Erik Karlsson scored Ottawa’s second goal just 3:14 into period three. It was an extreme short side tally that Grubauer wants back…Ovi is three goals short of 600 for his career.