Evgeny Kuznetsov tallied twice, Alex Ovechkin assisted on goals by Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, and Braden Holtby made 33 saves as the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers, 4-1, at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday on NBC Rivarly Night.
Ahhhhh, victory over the Flyers is always so extra special and nice!
The Broad Street Bullies are the Caps oldest rivals dating back to 1974-75, so long time Capitals fans always have a little extra “mojo” in their stride after a win over the despised Flyers, who often try to take hockey back to the Neanderthal Era.
Despite the three goal margin this was not an easy triumph, and if not for an early video review, the Flyers are up 1-0. Holtby fumbled the rebound of a Radko “Stiff” Gudas shot just 21 seconds in and the puck squirted into the slot. Philadelphia then put the biscuit in the basket, but on replay, you could clearly see forward Dale Weise pushing the Holtbeast to his right, which took #70 out of position to stop the shot. That’s a no-no and the NHL officials called it correctly, no goal.
After what appeared to be another horror show start, the Capitals might have been looking at a three game losing streak (the Caps were terrible in weekend tilts in Detroit and New York in the opening frame), but they righted the ship quickly. Ovechkin, who didn’t get many shot attempts in this one, made a big hit on Brandon Manning, who was battling for the puck along the right wing boards with Oshie, and it jarred the puck loose to #77, who then fed Backstrom in a prime scoring position. #19 then wasted no time and fired it on net. The puck hit Gudas in the leg and deflected past Michal Neuvirth (25 saves) to give Washington the lead just 6:33 into the contest.
The Caps and Flyers would trade more chances in the opening frame, but then the opportunistic Capitals increased their lead to two pucks when Kuznetsov buried one top shelf on Neuvy on the power play with 3:32 left in period one. Washington would go to the dressing room up 2-0, but it certainly felt like a much closer game, with the Holtbeast once again being a difference maker in goal for the Caps.
The Flyers, who are battling for their playoff lives, then threw the kitchen sink at the Caps in the middle frame. At the 6:54 mark, they cut the deficit to 2-1 on a Brayden Schenn deflection after Gudas took out Matt Niskanen’s knee, with a little help from Wayne Simmonds from behind, in the right wing circle. #2 would leave the bench and head to the locker room for further evaluation. He returned and played a penalty killing shift late in the second period, but then the Caps announced he would be done for the night with a lower body injury that will be evaluated further on Thursday by team doctors. Uh oh, if Niskanen is out long term, then this is trouble for the Caps. GM Brian MacLellan smartly traded a conditional draft pick for right handed shooting Tom Gilbert from the Kings during the bye week for blue line depth, so the Capitals have some insurance there. However, if Nisky is going to be out long term, then BMac might need to swing a bigger deal by the NHL trade deadline (Wednesday, March 1st).
But injuries are a part of the game and the show must go on. In Niskanen’s absence, John Carlson stepped up and logged 27:37 of ice time and he was rock solid going +2 with nine shot attempts (five on net) and an assist. Dmitry Orlov (20:37) and Karl Alzner (25:40) also took on bigger roles and got the job done.
Speaking of getting the job done, the Washington fourth line of Tom Wilson, Jay Beagle, and Daniel Winnik didn’t score any points, but those guys, along with Lars Eller, killed off two penalties and wore down their opponents all evening. Winnik has been especially good in February at even strength and on the PK.
Still this was a one goal game until late in the second period and that’s when Washington’s quick strike capability came through, again. Taylor Chorney, who received a sweater for the first time since January, made a great breakout pass that sprung the second line on a three on two rush. Justin Williams entered the offensive zone with speed that backed the Flyers defense up and he made a sweet cross ice feed back to Kuznetsov coming down the left side of the ice. #92 then tried to hit Marcus Johansson going to the net on his right, but the puck fortuitously hit Gudas’ twig and went through the five hole of Neuvirth to make it 3-1 with 2:01 left in period two. That was a crusher of a goal to the Flyers.
In the third period, with just five defensemen, the Capitals then did a super job of managing the game. They kept the Flyers to the perimeter and rarely gave up quality chances. Ovechkin, who still needs to work on his defensive posture, took a bad slashing penalty on Gudas with 13:46 remaining, but the Capitals killed that off fairly easily.
Philadelphia had the puck quite a bit in the last 20 minutes, but again, they were not getting good looks, just perimeter shots. The Caps opportunistic offense then sealed the Flyers fate with a sweet goal from the top line. Ovechkin made a great rush with the puck out of the defensive zone and he fed cross ice to Nicklas Backstrom on the left wing side of the rink. #19 carried the puck across the offensive blue line and with the Gr8 streaking to the net, Nicky put it right on Ovi’s tape. Ovechkin then went to the backhand, then Neuvirth got his stick on the puck, but Oshie beat Manning to the puck in the paint and slammed it home.
Washington’s offense was back in this one because they were working hard to get to the net and also shooting the puck or putting it towards the cage. All four Caps goals came from the prime scoring area. The Capitals, as they had done consistently from New Year’s Eve until the start of their bye week, won the battle in terms of quality scoring chances. Sure the Flyers had puck possession for extended stretches of this tilt, but it was Washington who found a way to get the really golden opportunities and bury them. That’s the name of the game and it’s why the Caps shooting percentage had been so high. Also, their save percentage has been stellar because they prevent their opponents from getting lots of great scoring chances.
Overall, the Capitals looked more like the dominant team we saw in January and early February on Wednesday. They still have things to clean up in their game and the loss of Niskanen, if long term, will hurt and have to be mitigated. The bye week is done and the ugly first periods to the Red Wings and Rangers are hopefully but a memory now. Washington has a lot of work to do if they want to be the team they believe they can be, so the next six to seven weeks are important to set the table for the playoffs.
Speaking of the playoff battle, this victory over the Flyers gives them a 40-12-7 record (87 points) and they lead the Penguins by five points, the Blue Jackets by eight, and the Rangers by nine points in the Metropolitan Division with 23 games remaining (Columbus has a game in hand). Washington also leads the Minnesota Wild by three points in the Presidents’ Trophy race.
But that’s not the trophy the Capitals want so they have to continue to hone their game.
On Thursday, though, the air will smell cleaner, the food will taste better, and the drinks will go down smoother for Capitals fans because of this big win over their arch rivals from Filthy.
Notes: The Flyers creamed the Caps from the dot, 43-22…the Capitals blocked 23 shots (Alzner led the way with five)…Travis Boyd was recalled from Hershey as the 13th forward and was scratched with Nate Schmidt…the Caps play the super FAST Edmonton Oilers on Friday at the Verizon Center at 7 pm. The Oilers beat the Capitals handily in Alberta back in October…all eyes and ears will be on Niskanen’s status on Thursday.