After Tuesday night’s Caps loss to Vancouver, the Capitals players talked about getting off to better starts in games. Two contests later, they are two for two when scoring first, and now are 11-1-1 this season when doing so (h/t @ThePeerless).
Braden Holtby was fabulous in net stopping 33 shots and Jay Beagle scored the game winner on a “Jari Kurri” type rush and finish to lead Washington to a 4-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils in East Rutherford on Saturday night. The Caps are now 6-1-1 in the Metropolitan Division and are 12-10-4 overall (28 points), good for 3rd place in the division.
As predicted, this was a grind it out type of contest, with the team winning the individual puck battles and minimizing mistakes the likely victor. The Caps did that most of this game, outside of Karl Alzner getting walked by Danius Zubrus on the only Devils goal.
In the second frame, all four lines were contributing, which hasn’t happened much this season and that is when the Capitals broke a 1-1 tie to forge a 3-1 lead that they would nurse through the 3rd period until Brooks Laich’s empty netter sealed the deal.
After Beagle’s goal, both the first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Tom Wilson and the new second line, based on even strengh utilization, of Laich, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward pinned the Devils in their own zone and that then allowed Marcus Johansson to draw a Devils penalty on the next shift. On the ensuing power play, Adam Henrique received a clean breakaway but Holtby stopped him cold. Washington then went down and received a sweet power play goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov with Laich providing some nice traffic in front. That sequence turned out to be the difference in the game.
New Jersey had the puck most of the 3rd frame, but the Capitals did a super job of not allowing any odd man rushes and they kept the Devils mostly to the outside. There were some flurries of activity for the Devils, but Holtby was strong, once again.
This was a classic road victory as Washington kept their game very simple. The Caps limited neutral zone turnovers and they routinely got pucks in deep on the Devils to try to wear out an inexperienced defense and keep the puck away from a talented and experienced forward group.
Coach Barry Trotz rolled his forward lines most of the night, but on defense, he went heavily with the trio of John Carlson (25:22), Brooks Oprik (25:18) and Matt Niskanen (24:36). Karl Alzner, who scored Washington’s 1st goal after Wilson forced a turnover, logged 20:44 but the other two D, Nate Schmidt and Jack Hillen, played only 11:15 and 9:35, respectively. This was an important game to win so Barry shortened his bench to give his club the best probability of doing that. It worked, as it did in Carolina on Thursday.
So the Caps have a little bit of momentum right now and their goalie, Holtby, is playing well. The team is making a better effort to get net presence and it is starting to pay off. They still don’t have a bonafide second line that can score when the Ovechkin line isn’t producing, but by relying less on the old second line (MJ90, Brouwer and either Kuznetsov or Andre Burakovsky) the Caps aren’t giving up untimely goals due to bad turnovers or missed defensive assignments.
Having Laich back has been a big plus since he helps Trotz better balance his lines, plus 21’s great work ethic rubs off on the rest of the squad. The team is a still a work in progress and as reported by TSN’s Bob McKenzie earlier this week, GM Brian MacLellan is trying to improve the forward position via the trade market.
But for now, this is what Trotz has to work with and lately he’s been using an old tactic of shortening the bench to try and close out games. Holtby has also helped him do that successfully.
Now it is on to Tampa to try to avenge a tough 4-3 defeat they endured there back in November. The Bolts lead the Eastern Conference with 39 points so this will be another good barometer on where the Capitals stand.
Notes: Face offs were even at 34-34….shot attempts were 66-42 in favor of NJ but they were close to +20 in the 3rd period alone, so that can be explained mostly by score effects…the Caps were 1 for 2 on the power play and they successfully killed off both Devils power plays…That bitter loss to Tampa last month came as a result of a critical Burakovsky missed defensive coverage in the slot in the last 10 minutes. Burakovsky was scratched in NJ and I don’t expect him to play in Tampa either. He really would be best served getting some games down in Hershey to learn the center position, and more importantly, how to play defense. He’s only 19 and after all, if guys like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf played close to 20 games in the AHL at the age of 20, why wouldn’t it be a bad thing for #65 to get some work down there and rebuild his confidence?