After three straight losses and several slow starts, the Washington Capitals needed to jump out to a quick lead on Sunday night.
NHL MVP Alexander Ovechkin made sure his club would get an early cushion as he scored just 33 seconds into the contest. The Gr8 would make it 2-0 on a backhander in period two after a nice point shot from Brooks Orpik and then he added an assist on Marcus Johansson’s power play goal that increased the lead to 3-0. Joel Ward would hit the empty net and send a terrible Toronto Maple Leafs on its way out of the Verizon Center, 4-0 losers.
In goal, Braden Holtby was, to quote Billy Crystal, “Maaahhhvelous!” as he stopped 32 shots, with some quality ones to boot, en route to his seventh shutout of the season (and 30th win).
The Caps were not pretty in this victory, they still looked sloppy, at times, and weren’t totally in sync, but it was a step in the right direction after their play had really tailed off in the last week.
Tim Gleason, acquired on Saturday in a trade for Jack Hillen and a 4th round pick, made his Caps debut and was very solid in 18:34 of ice time. It’s only one game, but #6 looks like a significant upgrade on that 3rd pairing and it allows Mike Green to play more minutes. Coach Barry Trotz was able to spread his ice time around with the quality blue line and the 4-0 score helped too. Matt Niskanen was the Caps ice time leader and he only logged 20:25. Balancing ice time like that keeps players fresh and reduces the risk of injury.
Up front, well, after the first line, the Capitals still are struggling. Andre Burakovsky played up with the Gr8 and Nicklas Backstrom (1 assist) and #65 was the clear weak link. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has struggled recently, was bumped down to the fourth line, centering Brooks Laich and Tom Wilson, and they had an up and down night, but finished with a decent third period. Jason Chimera took Laich’s spot on the third line and #25, who could be being showcased for a potential trade, also received some early power play time. The second line was centered by Jay Beagle and featured Troy Brouwer and Johansson.
In addition to the players that suited up on Sunday night, General Manager Brian MacLellan traded 2nd and 3rd round picks to Calgary and acquired Curtis Glencross. Glencross, who will wear #22, is 32 years old and is a fast skater. He’s not a top six forward but he’s an upgrade over some of the other Caps bottom six forwards. With the log jam on those two lines, one has to wonder if the Caps GM is still working on a bigger deal to acquire a top six forward by the 3 pm deadline?
We’ll find out about that soon enough, but the whole team will have to be happy when that time passes since it’s been clear to me that the deadline has been a distraction to this club. They have not appeared focused and many have lacked energy, which is a clear byproduct of worrying about what the future holds.
So after this victory over the disastrous Leafs, the Caps are now 34-20-10 (78 points). With 18 games left, a .500 finish easily puts them in the playoffs. So therefore, the focus in the last 18 games has to be to get some continuity going with the forward lines. The defense is set and Holtby is playing the best hockey of his career. Trotz will also look to rest players and the team needs to focus on the matchup they desire for the first round, or perhaps more importantly, one they don’t want.
To me, the match up they don’t want is the New York Rangers, who acquired defensemen Keith Yandle on Sunday in exchange for d-man John Moore, a prospect, and some draft picks. It’s clear the Rags are all in and the Capitals play them three times over the next six weeks. New York has great speed and that’s been something the Caps have had trouble handling. Adding Glencross certainly helps and Gleason has good wheels, as well as size, too. But the Rangers have Henrik Lunqvist and two really strong lines, assuming Rick Nash is healthy for the post season, so they could be the toughest out in the East.
Plenty of time to worry about that though, the Caps need to get back to finding their game, and that starts with working hard and moving their feet so they can work up and down the ice in a five man unit. The team has lost that over the last couple of weeks and need to get back to that in order to peak their game in April and May.
Notes: Ovechkin now leads the NHL in scoring with 41 goals and 65 points….the Gr8 was named the NHL’s 3rd star for the month of February and he’s now started March out with a bang…shot attempts were 63-60 for the Leafs, but they were trailing a lot and the blind zebras gave Toronto four power plays to Washington’s two. I didn’t think the officiating was consistent at all on Sunday but Washington was good enough and the Leafs were bad enough that it just didn’t matter…Toronto won the face off battle, 32-31…next up for the Caps are the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night at 7 pm. Will Washington silence the cannon in a building they’ve struggled in for several years?