Matt Niskanen scored the game winner on an end to end, Bobby Orr-like rush in the third period and Braden Holtby was his usual self in net making 33 saves as the Capitals downed the despised Philadelphia Flyers, 3-2, on Super Bowl Sunday.
Aaahhhh, the sweet feeling of a victory over the Flyers is always so nice. The air is cleaner, the drinks are colder and go down smoother, and the food tastes so much better afterwards.
But this was not a pretty triumph for Washington. For 30+ minutes they were sloppy with their passes and looked a step slow as the Flyers won the majority of the loose puck battles.
Things appeared troubling for Washington when the Flyers, already on a power play, received a 53 second two man advantage with 8:40 remaining in the middle frame and the Caps down, 1-0. Washington made another mental blunder, as they had done most of the game in earning the too many dudes call. The Caps, however, would kill it off with Holtby, Brooks Laich, Karl Alzner, and Niskanen doing some remarkable PK work.
Shortly thereafter the Capitals seemed to wake up from their pre Super Bowl kickoff slumber and Alexander Ovechkin did what the team had not really done all game, he went to the front of the net. As a result, after a face off loss and Flyers turnover, the Gr8 deflected home a smart Alzner shot for his 30th goal of the season. That seemed to wake up everyone in red, including the crowd, and moments later Dmitry Orlov scored after a fabulous deke and top shelf snipe to make it 2-1, as this one headed to the 3rd period.
The Capitals would kill off the fifth Filthy power play of the game early in the third period, but two easy failed clearing opportunities at the end of it led to a defensive zone faceoff that the Flyers promptly won and scored on. Holtby didn’t see the shot (Nick Schultz), like the first Philly bomb that made it 1-0 (Michael Del Zotto).
But from there the Caps seemed to get stronger and Niskanen, seeing a large gap up the middle of the ice skated his way in on Steve Mason (27 saves) with the Flyers forwards and defensemen acting like Moses had ordered a parting of the Red Sea. Nisky went in, put a slick move on Mason, and buried the biscuit.
Everyone was surprised with the goal, including Niskanen.
“I don’t have any moves, it was an accident,” said the humble Caps d-men to the media afterwards (h/t to NHL.COM’s Katie Brown)
“I think the whole building was surprised, it’s a highlight, 100 percent,” added the Caps captain, the Gr8, on the game winner (h/t to Zac Boyer of the Washington Times).
That goal, just 5:24 into the final frame would hold up as Washington played a better period than they had in the first 40 minutes. The Flyers final chance to tie the game came with 7.4 seconds remaining on an offensive zone faceoff, but unlike on the second Philly goal, T.J. Oshie won the draw to the corner to kill the clock. The Capitals then celebrated while Jakub Voracek took his losing frustrations out on the Flyers bench door.
Philadelphia, who are desperate for standings points, would leave Verizon Center with the equivalent of John Blutarksy’s grade point average, while the Caps improved to 38-9-4, which is good for a staggering 80 points. Wow!
It was also Holtby’s 33rd victory of the season and he really earned it. He was outstanding in net making big stop after big stop until his club finally came out of hibernation. He had a huge save on a 3 on 1 Flyers rush when it was 1-0 and his save on Mark Streit was solid positioning and a bit of luck as #32 failed to get good lumber on the shot.
Not getting good wood on shots was a common theme as the puck was bouncing everywhere on the Wizards ice, but it’s the same for both teams, so no excuses either way.
Back to Niskanen, though, the decision by the Penguins to let him go after they overpaid Kris Letang has been a blessing for the Capitals. He led the team in ice time once again, with 24:51, and he’s routinely matched up against the opponents’ top line, with Alzner. Recently, I asked an impartial NHL scout who he would take if he had the choice on Niskanen at $5.75M or Letang at $7.25M through 2020. Without hesitation, he stated Niskanen. I could not agree more. #2 is so solid in both ends and is such a team guy. He was a big reason the Capitals were able to keep winning hockey games while John Carlson was out for 12 contests.
Additionally, he’s a hero in these parts for helping the Capitals defeat the Flyers. Philadelphia is Washington’s biggest rival going back to 1974 when the Caps entered the NHL. Game after game truckloads of drunk Flyers fans would invade the Capital Centre in the Broad Street Bullies and beyond years and go home happy after defeating the Caps. There were almost always fights in the stands, too.
Nowadays, the Flyers aren’t that good, but make no mistake about it, this is still a huge rivalry and many Filthadelphians were in attendance at the Verizon Center on Sunday.
Today, though, Caps fans can smile “broadly” as Ron Hextall’s team heads back up I-95 with a big donut hole of standings points.
Notes: Shot attempts were 68-57 for the Flyers, but the Caps won the even strength battle, 50-42, per hockeystats.ca…Philly was 0 for 5 on the power play while the Capitals were 0 for 2. Washington is in a 0 for 17 funk and it looked bad again on Sunday…the Caps lost the faceoff battle, 35-32…Burakovsky didn’t score a goal, but he and Evgeny Kuznetsov assisted on the Orlov marker…Wayne Simmonds, who received a match penalty for a sucker punch on Ryan McDonagh of the Rangers on Saturday, was allowed to play by the league and he was -2…Niskanen led the Caps with seven shots on goal. Ovechkin had five…the Caps only had 19 hits to the Flyers 21. Washington didn’t get their brand of heavy hockey going until the second half of this game.