Now that looked more like the Washington Capitals team we saw dominate opponents back in December and January.
After several games with an inconsistent effort and little to no sustained pressure in the offensive zone, the Caps overcame some early miscues and displayed a vicious forecheck that they rode to an impressive 5-2 victory in Madison Square Garden against arguably the best team in the NHL, the New York Rangers.
It was a huge victory in a tough building, but more importantly, the Capitals played hard and within their system, something they’ve struggled with for the past two months.
The Rangers are a fast team, maybe the swiftest in the NHL, so in order to defeat them, you have to get them back on their heels and not let them use their own zone and the neutral zone to generate speed. If you sit back on New York, you’ll find yourself in trouble quickly.
Washington took this contest over from about the middle of period two after Alexander Ovechkin’s two tallies kept the Capitals even. During the latter stages of the second frame the Caps forechecked with a vengeance and it rattled the New York defense. The Rangers would survive period two but in the third the Caps were all over them with excellent forward pressure. Eric Fehr picked off an errant New York pass at the blue line and Brooks Laich took the puck deep to feed Jason Chimera for a plumbers type of goal from the crease to give the Caps a 3-2 lead just 4:41 into the final period.
In recent times, the Caps have chosen to sit back once they grabbed a one goal final frame advantage, but not on Sunday. Coach Barry Trotz’ crew did not change their tactics and they were relentless on the Rangers defense and forced more turnovers, which ultimately led to Chimera tallying again from alone in the slot on a sweet move and backhand past Cam Talbot.
With a two goal lead and 12 plus minutes remaining, Washington did not take their foot of the gas as they kept up the offensive and neutral zone pressure and never allowed the Rangers to generate any offensive steam. It was a thing of beauty and something the Capitals hopefully learn from. They used their size and effort to frustrate an elite hockey club. It was an effort that this Caps team needs to bring every night if they want to do damage in the post season.
There was a lot to like in this contest. Washington’s penalty kill was outstanding thwarting all five Rangers power play opportunities, including one just 28 seconds into the game. Also, the Caps did not take any penalties in the third period, which allowed Coach Trotz to roll the lines and keep the pressure on New York. A big reason why they didn’t take any infractions in the third was because they were moving their feet and working hard. It sounds simple, but this Washington club gets into penalty trouble when they stop skating and take ridiculous stick penalties (see Joel Ward’s slash in period two).
As for the Caps power play, well it clicked when needed. With Washington down 2-1, Ovechkin buried his 49th tally of the season off of a nice feed from Nicklas Backstrom with Ward tying up Dan Boyle in front and screening Talbot. That was a goal the Capitals absolutely needed from their special teams at that juncture. The power play had been a buzz kill in recent games, especially the failed five on three against Nashville on Saturday and it was a shorty that allowed the Devils to get back in the game on Thursday.
The outstanding performance improves the Caps to 41-25-10 (92 points) and pushes them closer to clinching a playoff berth with six games remaining (they are now six points up on 9th place Ottawa, who has a game in hand). It’s a win that they hopefully learn from, because the way they played is how they will have to execute down the stretch and in April if they want to compete for the Stanley Cup.
Washington proved Sunday they can play against the top squads when needed against a New York club that was 2-0 against the Caps this season. The key now for the Capitals is to consistently bring that type of effort and commitment to their system and structure game in and game out.
Notes: Brooks Oprik was +3 to lead the team in that department…John Carlson was +2 despite a bad giveaway that put New York on the board. #74 didn’t let that bug him and turned in a really strong performance after that unfortunate occurrence…Braden Holtby, who was yanked in the first period on Saturday, was strong in net stopping 23 of 25 shots…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 22:17. Tom Wilson, who had some super third period shifts, only played 9:25. All other skaters were between those totals since Trotz rolled the lines in the second half of a back to back situation…the Caps out shot New York 31-25 thanks to a 14-7 third period…shot attempts were 50-50…Fehr and Laich had two assists each as their line was stellar in period three…next up for the Capitals are the Carolina Hurricanes at 7 pm on Tuesday at the Verizon Center.