Facing a very good St. Louis Blues squad that had won the night before, the Washington Capitals came out on flying on Sunday evening getting two Alexander Ovechkin tallies and a sweet rebound goal from Mikhail Grabovski to grab a 3-0 first period lead and they rode that to an impressive 4-1 victory at the Verizon Center.
Braden Holtby made 46 saves on the night, many of which came AFTER the Caps grabbed a 4-1 lead on John Carlson’s 5th goal of the season (and in the month of November) at the midway point of this contest.
With the win the Capitals are now 12-8-1 and in FIRST PLACE in the new Metropolitan Division, taking a one point lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have a game in hand and come to town on NHL rivalry night on NBC on Wednesday (8 pm start).
Granted the Blues were tired from arriving at 3 am on Sunday morning, which is life in the NHL, but nonetheless, this was an impressive victory for the Caps who were the first team in the NHL to hold St. Louis under two goals all season. The Blues are a strong team and Washington showed that they are a club on a serious rise after a 1-4 start to the season.
There were lots of good play to go around in this one but it obviously started with the Gr8 and Nicklas Backstrom. Do yourself a favor and go back and watch the Capitals goals on the night once again. Ovechkin’s rocket of a shot on the first goal was an absolute laser and his second was on a rebound in front of the net. Coach Adam Oates has been trying to get Alexander the Great to hang out in the low slot a little more to use his size and reach and it is paying off. That’s now a league leading (tied with the Blues Alexander Steen) 17 goals in just 19 games for Alex, WOW! As for Backstrom, his masterful passing helped set up both Ovechkin tallies as well as Carlson’s power play blast that effectively ended any chance the Blues had of getting back into the game. There are not enough words in the English dictionary to describe how great of a passer #19 is. The sneaky neutral zone touch pass he made to Ovechkin on the 1st goal was made to look so easy by the Swedish center, but it is a very difficult thing to do. The guy is playing at an extremely high level this season.
Oates moved Marcus Johansson back up with Ovechkin and Backstrom on Friday in Detroit in that comeback victory and it was absolutely the right thing to do. MJ90 works well in that role and he was struggling a bit at both ends as the 2nd line center. Moving Martin Erat down to the second LW spot and Brooks Laich to center again with Troy Brouwer is another good combination.
As for the third line of Grabovski, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera, they continue to be a trailblazing group. Chimera used his speed to agitate a big Blues defensive crew all evening and #84 had a sweet tally banging home the rebound of Chimera’s shot out of the air for the third first period tally, which ended Jaroslav Halak’s night (3 goals on 6 shots). That trio is playing as well as any in the league. The Caps should send Toronto coach Randy Carlyle and GM Dave Nonis some really nice holiday presents for buying that guy out, he’s been an outstanding addition for Washington.
On defense, it all starts again with Carlson and Karl Alzner. In my Saturday WNST story on Carlson, I stated my case for #74 to be on the Team USA Olympic team this February. Team USA assistant coach Peter Laviolette was in the house on Sunday scouting for Team USA (h/t @Jeff_Kryglik of WNST) and he had to take notice of how dominant Carlson is out there. He skates extremely well and has a very good stick. He used them effectively at both ends of the ice, with many of the PK clears coming from his blade. Alzner is a great partner for Carlson and they are the first duo out on all Caps penalty kills. Neither was on the ice when St. Louis got their lone marker with the man advantage in period two.
No victory is complete without good goaltending and Holtby was super, stopping any Blues early shots that could have given them momentum. St. Louis had the quantity of shots tonight but the quality ones were not in abundance, but when they had them, #70 was there to shut the door. Again, most of that quantity of shots did come after it was 4-1 (the result of score effects, as the hockey analytics community would call that scenario).
The Caps also received good performances from several others. Second defensive pair Tyson Strachan and Nate Schmidt played well again after a nice NHL debut together on Friday (they were paired in Hershey early on in the AHL with good success too). Michael Latta continues to be an added bonus to the Filip Forsberg trade doing the little things that a fourth line center needs to do, and even Tom Wilson let Ryan Reaves know that his cheap shot from behind on Backstrom would not be tolerated and #43 promptly leveled him to the Verizon Center ice.
It was a super win for Washington against a top hockey club on Sunday and they’ve earned first place in their division.
Next up, Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on Wednesday.
I can’t wait.
Notes: Mike Green missed his second consecutive game with a leg contusion but did skate this morning. There is a chance he could play on Wednesday but given the strong play of Strachan, there is no need to risk any further damage this early in the season. The Caps will need #52 big time the rest of the year and in the playoffs…Ovechkin had 14 shot attempts (5 on net) and 4 hits to go with his 2 goals…Carlson had 25:01 of ice time to lead the Caps while Team Canada defenseman Alex Pietrangelo led all skaters at 25:57.