The Washington Capitals were facing the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday night in their third game in four nights while the Wings hadn’t played since Wednesday. That’s a recipe for a tough game and likely a Caps loss, right?
Well, that was not the case on Saturday night as Washington jumped to an early lead on Troy Brouwer’s goal, expanded it to 2-0 on one of the prettiest 4 on 3 goals you’ll ever see, and closed out the victory with a strong third period to take a 3-1 decision, their fifth straight at the Verizon Center.
Braden Holtby stopped 26 of 27 shots, eight of which came in the last three minutes (five in last 1:03) when the Wings pulled their goalie, en route to his 12th win in the last 17 games. #70 is 12-1-4 over that stretch and continues to provide excellent goaltending.
Taking those late eight score effect shots out the Capitals held Detroit, one of the best teams in the league, to just 19 shots for the first 57 minutes. That’s impressive, as Matt Niskanen stated afterwards.
“I thought we were really, really hard and felt the puck tonight. Good structure. They like to come with the puck through the middle with speed, and I thought we did a good job with just keeping the entire game on the walls and making it that kind of game. Taking away their strengths of speed and puck possession, really clogging things up in the right areas. There weren’t a lot of shots for either side,” said Niskanen, who led the Caps in ice time at 22:21 but did have the giveaway that led to the Wings only tally.
Last time the Caps faced the Wings, in October, Washington jumped to a 3-1 lead and dominated puck possession. But they got careless when ahead and forced passes up the middle of the ice and critical turnovers led to a loss. That was early on before Coach Barry Trotz’ system started kicking in. Now the Capitals are playing their system and making the opponent work hard for chances. Detroit certainly didn’t get many good looks tonight and despite the shot totals, the Caps had the better scoring chances in the third period with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andrei Burakovsky not connecting on grade A opportunities.
“I think we play good with the lead. I don’t think we changed too much after we got it. I thought we kept playing hard and stuck to our game plan like we should,” said John Carlson, who had the finish on the Washington second goal. Carlson also turned 25 on Saturday so the goal and victory was a nice birthday present for him.
The Capitals, who are now 21-1-3 when scoring the first goal, continue to get better defensively and they also were successful because they only took two penalties in this tilt. Washington killed both of those shorthanded situations while tallying on the power play. As a result, Trotz was able to spread the ice time around and that was key in this third game in four nights.
“It’s much easier when you only have to kill a couple [of penalties]. It helps your overall team game, too. You don’t lose momentum or waste any energy killing extra penalties that you don’t have to. The couple that they did get, we had good structure and pressure at key moments and were able to get some clears and disrupt them if they wanted to do anything,” finished Niskanen.
So Washington is now 22-11-8 at the season’s halfway point, good for 52 points and fourth place in a tightly bunched at the top Metropolitan division. This club, despite a schedule that has been brutal at times (seven back to backs so far, five of which had the second contest on the road plus nine more back to backs to go), is much improved because of several reasons. In no particular order they are: a deep, quality blue line thanks to the additions of Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, better defensive play due to a better system and coaching, improved goaltending thanks to Holtby and goalie coach Mitch Korn, and a commitment to hockey and details that we haven’t seen from this team in recent years. That commitment, which Trotz called “culture change” in our WNST interview with him in early December, is becoming very evident.
“I’ll be coming into the room or I’ll be walking in and I am hearing the same things that I am going to say. You want the team to take ownership in every part of the game – managing the game, managing the preparation, managing their commitment, managing situations on the ice and taking ownership that way. I think they have been. There’s a lot of talk, there’s a lot of preparation that goes into every game, and I think you see it on the bench. There is no ‘What are we doing? What’s up?’ There’s none of that. We’ve got a plan for everything we do now,'” stated Trotz on the team’s focus, that I’m not sure we’ve ever seen from the Caps current core group of players.
Notes: The Caps face Colorado at home on Monday night before taking on the despised Flyers at the Verizon Center on Wednesday…the Caps lost the face off battle, 32-24. Eric Fehr was 2-13 from the dot making puck possession much more difficult to obtain…the Caps only had 17 shots on net but in the last 30 minutes they played well and fanned or missed the goal on some great chances…Wings goalie Jimmy Howard left the game with a groin injury just after Brouwer’s goal, just 1:53 into the hockey game. He was replaced by Petr Mrazek (12 saves on 14 shots).