The Washington Capitals followed up their 6-2 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Saturday afternoon, which was one of their better efforts in recent weeks, with another strong outing against the speedy Senators on Sunday night at the Phone Booth.
Ottawa, who currently sit in 2nd place in the Atlantic Divisions and were in DC resting while the Caps came back from New Jersey early Saturday evening, brought a tenacious energy and gave the Capitals all they could handle.
Washington, however, after trailing 1-0 on a Kyle Turris goal at 12:41 of the second period, found a way to claw back and pull out a 2-1 victory behind 23 saves from Braden Holtby.
It was far from easy and the Caps had to overcome some penalties, but their stellar PK, which went nine for nine on Saturday at The Rock, was four for four at the Verizon Center on Sunday night, including killing off a full two minute five on three advantage midway through the final frame. Brooks Oprik (1 assist) was jailed on a questionable tripping call on Bobby Ryan along the right wing boards and then Evgeny Kuznetsov compounded the situation with a pretty clear slash during the delayed penalty sequence. The Senators power play, which has some serious firepower, including Norris Trophy winning defensemen Erik Karlsson, was held in check by some great work by Jay Beagle and Nicklas Backstrom up front and superb defensive play from Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Taylor Chorney down low. Beagle was out there for 1:28 of the two minutes and continues to do whatever it takes to win, including sacrificing his body to block three Senators shots. Last, but not least, if not for a big save by the Holtbeast on Mike Hoffman, this game likely heads to overtime.
The penalty killing also played a huge role in the Caps tying this game up late in period two. Ottawa received their second man advantage of the contest when Backstrom was whistled for holding. With the score 1-0 and the Senators really pushing the play, it was a critical juncture for the Capitals. But the unit coached by Lane Lambert was aggressive and outstanding and Justin Williams received a breakaway right after the penalty to #19 expired. “Stick” went in alone on Mike Condon (26 saves) and was denied, but Mr. Hustle, T.J. Oshie, came in and collected the rebound. #77 then skated around the back of the net and spotted King Karl coming down the left wing boards. Oshie then placed it perfectly on a tee for Alzner to blast the biscuit into the cage with 20 seconds left in period two.
It was a huge momentum swing for the Capitals and they built on it early in the third period when Chorney scored his first goal of the season on a point shot that Condon never saw, thanks to a superb screen by Tom Wilson. Beagle was also in front as the Caps continued to put an emphasis on getting traffic on the opposing goaltender, like they did so successfully in Saturday’s blowout triumph over the Devils.
Ottawa, coached by former Tampa Bay Lightning bench boss Guy Boucher, plays a 1-3-1 scheme that forces opponents to focus on putting pucks behind the Senators defenders or risk turnovers and odd man rushes against. Washington was fairly disciplined on Sunday night and pretty much took what was given to them. The Capitals received another excellent outing from the third line of Brett Connolly, Lars Eller, and Andre Burakovsky. Since being recently scratched for three games, Burakovsky has returned to the lineup with a vengeance and has looked like a completely different player. Gone is the hesitation and poor decision making from his game. He is playing faster and bigger and paying the price to make the right play. On one sequence in period one he had the puck in the neutral zone in front of the Ottawa bench and two Senators were closing in on him. Instead of peeling off or making the soft play and turning the puck over, #65 knew he was going to get hit and he put the puck in along the right wing boards before getting crunched. That play led to a Washington scoring chance and is an example of competing the right way. Coach Trotz was certainly pleased with how “Burky” handled that situation and the way he’s upped his game since returning to the lineup.
After the contest, Connolly spoke about the way his line is going.
“It’s fun…I feel like when me and Lars played together [earlier in the year] we were good. It’s just one of those things and I think now we are solidifying a little bit of an identity there with me and Burky. I think we’ve been good every night and tonight I thought we were good again, we had some chances. We’re playing good defensively, playing for each other, so if we can keep doing that we’re going to get some goals, we’re going to help out defensively, there’s no question we’re getting chances every night, we’ll have one game where if we keep playing the way we’re playing we’ll break out and go from there, but it’s fun.”
With the third line looking like a keeper and the solid play of the fourth line of Wilson, Beagle, and Daniel Winnik, it’s up to the Caps top two lines to carry this club over the top. On Sunday, the first line of Backstrom, Oshie, and Alex Ovechkin was good despite not scoring any goals. The Gr8 drew a key late penalty on the Senators when he outhustled the Ottawa defensemen and that forced Mark Stone to hold him as he was getting a scoring chance. Washington would not score on the ensuing power play, but they took a valuable two minutes off of the clock.
As for the second line of Marcus Johansson, Kuznetsov, and Williams, they were okay. Kuzy did have three shots on goal, but there were some other instances where he should have put the puck to the net and instead tried a low risk pass that caused issues. On one occasion in the third period, he incorrectly chose not to throw the puck on goal while at the side of the net and his attempted pass then missed the Washington point man. If Holtby doesn’t alertly come out to play the puck there, Ottawa has a breakaway. #92, who has only four goals in his last 68 games, has to stop being so pass focused. This is a shoot first league and if he wants the ice to open up for him again, he has to fire more often and also go to the more populated areas of the ice instead of peeling away from traffic and slipping into the softer areas of the rink. Coach Barry Trotz needs him to get back to producing goals and if he doesn’t do that, Washington’s chances of going far in the playoffs greatly diminish. There are still 46 games remaining, but it would be nice if Kuznetsov started playing the right way, more often.
With the victory, the Caps improve to 22-9-5 (49 points) and they will take on the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night at 7 pm. The Leafs beat them badly on a difficult travel weekend for Washington back in November. That was the night the Holtbeast voiced his displeasure with his squads effort following the defeat.
On Sunday night, just like Saturday afternoon, the Capitals effort couldn’t be questioned and they found a way to get two big victories and four standings points. They played the right way over the weekend, and as a result they were successful. Now they need to carry that process going forward.
“I wasn’t here last year, but I think it was really easy for the guys here last year. This year we’re getting teams best games every night, they’re not going to let up on us based on the big year we had last year and the players we have here. We just have to find our game at the right time of the year, we have to keep working on things, it’s not going to be perfect every night, and we’re going to lose some games, for sure, its hockey, it’s a weird sport. But we’ll correct some things, we’ve got some good leaders in here, it just comes down to habits with this team. I think if we can find our habits, we can be a winning team. I think that’s the one thing we need is to have our habits every night, we have to be doing the little things, we can’t be turning away from pucks, we’ve got to come back to our own end, play in our own end, play hard for Holts, if we can do that we can be fine, but that’s what we’ve got to focus on, our habits,” summarized Connolly on the key to success for Washington.
Notes: the Caps lost the faceoff battle, 33-21. Beagle noted that the Senators had a lot of righty centers so that made things tough for the Capitals, who have three left handed pivot men…shot attempts were 63-57 for Ottawa. The Caps blocked 23 shots with a committed effort. Beagle, Winnik, and Alzner led the team with three blocks each. Connolly noted “We’re getting a lot of big blocks from those guys” on the PK…Orpik led the Caps with seven hits, including burying Curtis Lazar in the second period…Ottawa’s fourth line barely played. Chris Neil logged 6:35, Lazar played just 5:57, and Casey Bailey only saw 4:41 of ice time. One would have to think the fact that the Caps roll four lines helped them in the final frame when they played their best period…Chorney played 13:45 and in addition to his goal, made a super play in period one where he broke up a Senators four on two rush with a great stand up at the Capitals blue line…Eller led the Caps with four shots on goal…the Caps forechecked well and also didn’t get frustrated with the way the game was called, which was a big reason they won.