When this Washington Capitals team is focused, boy they sure are good!
After the top two lines and several defensemen took Saturday night in Buffalo off (a non-spirited 4-1 defeat to the Sabres), the Caps had everybody geared up and revving against their archrivals, the New York Rangers, on Sunday evening at the Verizon Center.
In a shaky first period, in which Braden Holtby (20 saves) kept the Capitals close, Washington tied things up on Alexander Ovechkin’s 27th goal of the season on a power play. Seven minutes and eighteen seconds into the middle stanza, Marcus Johansson then tapped home a power play layup off of a sweet Nicklas Backstrom feed after T.J. Oshie did a nice job of drawing the Rangers defender to him to create the passing lane. Justin Williams would then score his first goal of the game to make it 3-1 deflecting a Taylor Chorney blast after Andre Burakovsky set it up with some nice moves and a good pass.
The Caps then stormed the castle on the Rangers for several shifts in a row, but somehow couldn’t get that 4th marker past Antti Raanta (19 saves) to gain a three goal cushion. Noted Capital-killer Chris Kreider then scored from in front late in period two and suddenly everyone got extra nervous as Holtby exited the game due to dehydration with it 3-2, Capitals.
But this Caps roster is very deep, including in net, and Philipp Grubauer came in to make two late second period stops and then he thwarted all nine shots on goal in period three. Washington stymied New York and won, 5-2, as Williams added a layup off of an amazing passing play with Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov (3 assists) just 4:51 into the final frame. “Stick” then banked one into the empty net off of a Rags skate to end the official scoring with 1:51 left.
The Rangers appeared to make it 5-3 on a power play goal, but the play was challenged by Caps Coach Barry Trotz and correctly overturned due to New York entering the zone offside. All that did was allow Holtby to keep the victory he deserved for his stellar first period. Grubauer did his part too, though.
Now comes the fun part of this blog, the game analysis as well as the Caps record.
Let’s start with their overall record. It’s now 34-8-3 for a staggering 71 points and a 17 point lead over the New York Islanders in the Metropolitan Division and 18 points over the third place Blueshirts. They have won 12 straight games at the Verizon Center, the longest such streak in the NHL this season. They lead the Eastern Conference by 14 points and own a seven point cushion over the Blackhawks for the best record in the NHL, they also have two games in hand on Chicago.
As for the analysis, the first part is simple. This team is really good, especially when they come to play and use their size, skill, and speed. They have three strong lines and with the addition of Mike Richards, now have a fourth line that can hang with opponents better lines, as evidenced by their play on Saturday night in Buffalo.
Richards, who was excellent in his debut at the First Niagara Center and the Caps first star in my book on Saturday, was really good again on Sunday. He nearly scored in the first period and it took a great stick save by Raanta to prevent that. Against the Rangers, he had 11:47 of ice time, including 3:00 of penalty killing time, was 14-6 on draws, and tied for the team lead in hits. And guess what? He’s just going to get better as he gets his hands and legs all the way back to NHL speed. To quote Count Floyd once again, “That’s Scary Stuff, Kids!”
Oshie was just an under the radar terror on the New York defense all night. He drove the Rags D-men crazy with his relentless skating and active stick on the walls. He won so many loose puck battles and even though he had no points in a very high 23:21 of ice time, he was a huge factor on both of the Caps first two goals. This guy is one heck of a hockey player and he’s a perfect fit for Ovechkin and Backstrom.
On the back end, Dmitry Orlov (1 assist) responded well after he was pretty bad against the Sabres. His ability to skate the puck out and use his adept ability to avoid the forecheck was huge against the Rangers.
Overall, the Caps really carried the play most of the last 40 minutes after New York had the edge in the first frame. The shot attempts may have favored the Blueshirts, but I thought the Capitals had the better of the quality scoring chances and deserved to win this game.
This is three wins in a row now on New York and the season series is at that number Caps fans hate in the playoffs, 3-1.
I’ve been saying all season this is the best Washington hockey team ever assembled and so far they are proving it. But it won’t matter until the spring, regardless of what I say.
However, I like the way this team is able to rebound from losses and I especially love the way they keep improving their game. The breakouts and passing are becoming cleaner and they know when to play the body and put pressure on opposing defensemen. Sure they’ll have nights like Buffalo over the last 37 games where they just don’t seem to be invested in the game, but you can bet it will be against the lesser opponents.
This team is awfully hard to beat when they are motivated. They proved that on Sunday at the Verizon Center against the despised Rangers.
Notes: Holtby has had dehydration issues in the past and Coach Trotz noted that the Holtbeast has been working with Gatorade to get things figured out. Credit #70 for not putting his team in jeopardy by staying in a contest he wasn’t 100% able to continue in. That’s unselfish and putting the team first…the Caps still don’t have John Carlson or Brooks Orpik on the backend. They could use Orpik’s size and Carlson’s overall everything because Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner, and Nate Schmidt have been logging a lot of minutes. Luckily Coach Trotz held #2 to just 25:16 on Sunday evening…Washington won the faceoff battle, 42-29, mostly thanks to Richards…the Caps are now 4-0 in their fabulous third jerseys. I love those things, it reminds me of my days working for the team in the 80’s and 90’s…next up are John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday at 7 pm in that building with that freaking cannon.