Evgeny Kuznetsov continues to put NHL teams on notice with his ability to make sensational plays when the game seems to matter most.
In a contest where the Caps played sluggish, at times, the star in the making took over a 3-3 hockey game to deliver a goal and an assist over the last 24 minutes and allow the Caps to win their third straight tilt, 5-3, at the Verizon Center.
Kuznetsov, who had an assist on Justin Williams’ tally that opened the scoring to notch another three point night, now has 8 goals and 16 assists in 21 games to lead the Capitals in scoring with 24 points.
Dmitry Orlov had the winning tally late in period two after Kuzya circled the Winnipeg zone confusing the Jets defense. #92, after a lap and a quarter around the offensive zone, dropped the biscuit to #9 in the middle of the ice just inside the blue line and Orlov hammered another one home with Williams screening the Jets keeper, Michael Hutchinson (29 saves). That’s three goals in three games for Orlov, who was superb on this night. Kuznetsov then sealed the deal with a nice forecheck on overrated Winnipeg defensemen Dustin Byfuglien. That allowed Marcus Johansson to gather the puck and send Kuzya in all alone on Hutchinson and the Russian beat him five hole on the backhand. At that point, it would have been very appropriate for the Caps in game entertainment crew to blast the famed INXS song, “Mystify,” because that is what Kuznetsov did to the Jets on this night.
Braden Holtby (23 saves) gave up three goals, two of them were on grade A opportunities in the slot and the third he had no chance on, Mathieu Perreault’s power play tally that tied the game at three, because Blake Wheeler was standing directly in front of him. The Caps defense needed to do a better job of boxing out there or getting out and blocking that shot.
Recently the Capitals have been really strong at closing out games, a big part of which is due to their depth. Coach Barry Trotz can keep coming at you with four lines and three defensive pairs and eventually the opponent wears down. For the first seven minutes in period three it did not look like that would be the case in this one, but then Washington took over dominating the play over the last 13 minutes. In that stretch Kuznetsov provided the insurance tally and it was the Capitals relentless forecheck, cycle game, and physical play in the offensive zone that broke Winnipeg’s will. In fact, from the 13:40 mark of the third period until just 24 seconds remaining, the Jets only had TWO shots on goal. Now that is shutting a club down and displaying a killer instinct, something the Caps have been trying to build this season. They are well on their way to having that, from what I’ve seen in these first 21 games.
Overall, the Caps held the Jets to 26 shots on goal while they had 34 themselves. In shot attempts, the Capitals had the edge there too, at 62-57. Winnipeg is a big team and presented issues for Washington on this night, but ultimately Trotz’ crew got their legs moving and took over a hockey game that looked like it could go either way for about 35 minutes. I continue to like the way this team is handling the last 25 minutes of hockey games by taking control, stifling their opponents, and getting victories.
This triumph pushes the Caps to 15-5-1 (31 points) and with the Rangers losing to Montreal on Thanksgiving Eve, Washington is only three points back of first place in the Metropolitan Division, with a game in hand.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was another solid victory and now the Capitals will take on the Tampa Bay Lightning at 5 pm on Friday to close out their five game home stand. The Bolts were in the Stanley Cup Finals last spring, so I expect the Caps to be pumped up to show Steve Yzerman’s team just how good Washington is this season.
Notes: Alex Ovechkin notched his 11th goal of the season on the power play late in period one. The Caps had two different man advantage situations in that frame and the Jets received two power plays in period two. Both teams went 1 for 2 with the man advantage. I thought referees Kelly Sutherland and Chris Rooney let a few other Jet infractions go, but that’s hockey…John Carlson had two assists and led the Caps in ice time with 23:57. Byfuglien played 27:51 for Winnipeg and he ran out of gas in period three. He was -2…the Capitals lost the face off battle, 31-23. Michael Latta was 1-6…the Gr8 had 15 shot attempts (8 SOG) and five hits to go with his PPG in 22:02 of ice time…Orlov had an assist on Nicklas Backstrom’s 8th goal of the season, that made it 3-2. Nate Schmidt made a great pass across the crease to feed #19 on the doorstep for a layup…Happy Thanksgiving everyone!