Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the game winning goal 38 seconds into overtime after Lars Eller had tied this tilt up with 1:05 remaining in regulation to give the Caps a hard fought, 3-2, triumph over Henrik Lundqvist and the young and fast New York Rangers. Braden Holtby returned to the cage after missing several games due to a minor injury and stopped 35 of 37 shots to earn his 32nd victory of the season.
The rally, after the Rangers took the lead on Ryan Spooner’s goal with 9:25 left, pushes the Capitals record to 46-24-7 (99 points) and they just need four more points to clinch their third straight Metropolitan Division title.
The following are my thoughts and analysis on the Capitals ninth win in their last 10 games.
Doing the Bird – From the opening shift, Kuzy was flying in this tilt. The Rangers are a very good skating team, but all night #92 was moving around the ice with speed and precision. It took some big stops by Lundqvist (30 saves) to keep this game tied, especially in the second period when the Caps dominated the majority of the frame. Evgeny worked hard on the boards, too, and his wall work helped set up Eller’s game tying goal. That’s now 77 points in 74 games for the Russian center. The winning goal was a thing of brilliance. The Capitals caught a break with the puck hitting the linesmen in the neutral zone and Kuzy grabbed it and went the other way with Alex Ovechkin to his right. With all three guys in white expecting a pass to Ovechkin, Evgeny skated back out towards the blue line, circled, turned on the jets as he headed towards the net, and then fired a laser just inside the far post to end this affair. What a game by Kuznetsov and when he plays like that, Washington is hard to defeat. Whawk! Hallelujah! Whoa. Whawk! Hallelujah! Whoa.
Givin’ the Dog a Bone – Over the last several weeks, T.J. Oshie has looked a lot more like himself. He’s started scoring goals and putting up points, but his hustle and ability to win the loose puck and board battles is likely his best attribute. On Wednesday night against the Rags, #77 was everywhere with his will and determination. After the Rangers took a first period lead on a power play goal, a neutral zone steal by the Osh Babe, following a great step up by defensemen Brooks Orpik, led to a rush goal by Andre Burakovsky with 33 seconds left in the opening frame. Oshie corralled the puck in the neutral zone and skated down the left wing boards. He immediately noticed that he had a three on two so he alertly zipped the puck to Nicklas Backstrom (two assists) in the middle of the ice. Nicky probably should’ve shot, but he quickly passed to Burkie to his right and #65 got enough of the shot to beat King Henrik. Oshie’s tenacity and ability to dog puck after puck and come up with them is a major reason why this team had to bring him back if they wanted to contend for a Stanley Cup this season and beyond.
Boxed Too Often – The Rangers had 37 shots on net because the Capitals took five penalties. You can argue about one or two of them, and Steve Kozari and Ghislain Hebert aren’t exactly your top zebras, but the Michal Kempny four minute high stick and Jay Beagle hold were absolutely the correct calls. On those five power plays New York generated a whopping 14 shots on goal and one tally. Believe it or not, the Capitals actually did some good penalty killing work, especially Tom Wilson, who on numerous occasions, dropped down to gather in a rebound and skate the biscuit out of harm’s way. Willy logged 16:39 of ice time and 3:18 of it was on the PK. Orpik (6:28) and Matt Niskanen (6:42) were the top blue liners Coach Barry Trotz deployed to hold a very good New York power play, at bay, for the most part. Washington must stay out of the box in the postseason, especially against the Penguins and Flyers, who have deadly man advantage units.
Meet the Rookie – Nathan Gersich made his Capitals debut on Wednesday night and he handled himself quite well in 8:52 of action with three shots on goal and five total shot attempts. #63 was a puck magnet out there and he gives the Caps another forward they can throw into the mix for the bottom six. Gersich isn’t big, but he’s a good skater. In the post season things get clamped down fairly well so as impressive as he was in his first game, let’s not get carried away. He played on adrenaline in his first NHL game and that’s hard to maintain. Still, there is a lot of promise shown by this kid and that bodes well for him going forward into next season.
Return of the Holtbeast – Holtby was very good in this contest, as was his counterpart at the other end. #70 looked solid in net, despite having to cover for several defensive zone breakdowns by his teammates. Washington was too nonchalant with the puck in period one when New York fired 18 shots on goal. If not for Braden, the Caps could’ve been in a big hole after 20 minutes. He stopped 13 of 14 power play shots and the one that beat him took a fortuitous bounce. Holts was hung out to dry on the second Rangers goal. John Carlson passed up a great shot opportunity in the slot due to Lundqvistitis and New York pounced on the puck and went the other way. Kempny turned the wrong way while trying to cut off the pass on a two on one and that allowed Spooner to skate in all alone. The forward acquired in the Rick Nash trade with Boston, sniped one by Braden that he’ll likely say he should’ve had, even though it was a very high quality chance. With Philipp Grubauer now nursing a “tweak,” the Caps needed the Holtbeast to rise again and play well. He did just that on Rivalry Night.
Ovi Denied – Ovechkin had a slow start to this affair, much like the Caps. He had trouble handling the puck and getting off his lethal shot in period one, but in the middle frame he got it cranked up. With the score 1-1 in period two, the Gr8 hit the far post on the power play denying him of his 46th goal and preventing Washington from getting a lead on the young Rangers. For the game, Alex had 13 shot attempts in 20:22 of ice time. Only five of them were on goal, however. Ovi had zero points, but he did manage to be +2 since he was on the ice for the game tying and winning tallies. Alexander the Great will need five goals in his last five games to hit the Big 5-0.
A New York Minute – This was a pretty even game and it looked like the hungry Rangers were going to steal it and upset the Capitals apple cart. To quote the great Don Henley, however, “In a New York minute, everything changed.” Washington caught a break when Eller came on just before the Holtbeast left the ice as the Caps were dispensing of their keeper. The zebras chose not to penalize the Caps there and then after winning a neutral zone draw they got the puck in deep and Kuznetsov’s hard work allowed Backy to find Eller on the doorstep and tie things up late. Then less than a minute into overtime, Kuzy worked his magic to give the Capitals two more standings points. New York played hard and they are fast, but they also received stellar goaltending from Lundqvist, who always seems to give Washington fits. Wednesday was no exception and there were multiple occasions where the Caps allowed #30 to get into their heads and as a result, they passed up some good looks. There is nothing wrong with a shot, had Carlson done that midway through the 3rd period, the game stays tied. That’s a good lesson to learn for the post season.
Notes: The Caps will face Carolina on Friday at Capital One Arena before traveling to Pittsburgh to take on the Penguins on Sunday night. A Washington win against the Canes along with the Pens only getting two points total against the Devils and Canadiens, on Thursday and Saturday, respectively, would render Sunday’s affair meaningless from a seeding standpoint for the Capitals…the Caps have now won seven games in a row at home…Washington won the face off battle, 33-29. Kuzy was 11-5…Burakovsky scored his 10th goal of the season and led the Caps with three hits…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 25:03. Oshie and Backstrom were the forward leaders in that department with 21:02…Eller’s goal was his 18th of this year and it’s a career high for him…the Caps were 0 for 3 on the power play.
PROGRAMMING NOTE: Come on out to Michael’s Café in Timonium on Thursday night as WNST will be hosting Caps Coach Barry Trotz for several hours of hockey talk starting at 7:30 pm. Nestor Aparacio and yours truly will be talking hockey and other stories with the bench boss who is close to winning his third straight Metropolitan Division title. You can meet the coach, get his autograph and also get swabbed for the Bone Marrow Registry to help in the fight against cancer.