After Wednesday’s OT victory against the Boston Bruins, one in which the Capitals lost a three goal lead, Washington held a post game players only meeting to clear the air and get everyone on the same page.
For the first time in several weeks, the Caps played a complete hockey game in a 4-1 victory in Buffalo that allowed the Capitals to sweep the Sabres, 3-0, this season.
Sure there were mistakes out there, the other team gets paid to play too, but Washington played a textbook road game. They were hustling and making smart decisions. They were also very positionally sound such that when someone made a mistake, there was a teammate there to make a play in support. After getting exposed by the Bruins badly after defensemen Matt Niskanen left the game on Wednesday in the first period, no one was hung out to dry against the Sabres on Friday night. In fact, they only gave up one odd man rush the entire night, a three on two late in period two.
Philipp Grubauer (27 saves) was stellar in net. He didn’t make any spectacular stops, but he was rock steady between the pipes, especially in the first 25 minutes when the game was scoreless. He and Braden Holtby have now formed the league’s best goalie tandem this season.
With Niskanen out of the lineup and day to day with an upper body injury, Taylor Chorney was put into action and paired with Nate Schmidt. Brooks Oprik and Dmitry Orlov linked up while John Carlson and Karl Alzner were the top duo. Those pairs provided balance and Orlov (2 assists in 16:52) had his best game of the season. He didn’t get out of position, he was tenacious on the puck, and he showed excellent hockey sense.
As for Carlson, well he was outstanding too and he finally broke his 25 game scoring drought with a key power play tally to make it 3-1 with 5:40 remaining and pretty much end this tilt. When Carlson and Orlov are paired with a partner who is strong defensively and knows how to support an offensive defensemen, they each are able to bring out the best side of their respective games.
The big key to this contest, once again, was getting the first goal. Jay Beagle and T.J. Oshie, who are both great at winning the one on one puck battles, each won one along the offensive boards. As a result, they were able to get the puck to an open Nicklas Backstrom (two assists, +2) at the left point and he fired it back to Beagle in the left wing corner. When both Sabres defenders converged on #83, that left Oshie all alone streaking to the net and Beags put a behind the back pass right to #77 who went skate to stick with the puck and buried it top shelf at 6:43 of period two. Washington is now 14-3-2 this season when scoring first.
With the score 1-0, the Caps earned a second period power play and then they really put a stranglehold on this contest. Evgeny Kuznetsov made a great late power play rush up the right wing boards squeezing by a Sabres defender en route. #92 then took the puck to the net instead of trying a drop pass or spinning away from any contact. As Kuzy did this, Jakub Vrana very smartly made a bee line for the paint. #13 stopped on the door step, something Comcast analyst Alan May pointed out is critical if you want to score goals, and he buried the great pass from Kuznetsov past Robin Lehner. It was Vrana’s first NHL goal and the game winning tally. Afterwards, he received a shaving cream pie in the face from Tom Wilson in celebration of his milestone.
If there was any gripe about the Capitals in this one, it came in the third period when they took three straight penalties. After holding the Sabres power play at bay on the first two, Kyle Okposo put a puck home from the doorstep with 7:57 to make this a one goal affair.
But as Oshie pointed out afterwards, the Capitals didn’t sit back and they immediately went on the forecheck, which is a real strength of this team when they put their mind and effort into it. As a result of that pressure, Brian Gionta took a bad interference penalty on Kuznetsov, which set the stage for Carlson’s first goal of the season.
Overall, the Caps effort was excellent across the board; there were mistakes, but because they were working as a unit, they minimized any damage, even when Buffalo was able to get a quality scoring chance. Grubauer was solid in net and the defense didn’t allow many second chances for the Sabres.
Coach Barry Trotz and the Capitals have to be pleased with this Friday night performance.
Notes: The win moves the Caps record to 16-7-3 (35 points)…Alex Ovechkin didn’t have any points, but he had six shots on net and four hits. He was working hard on the ice and didn’t make any mistakes or take any penalties. If he keeps playing like that, then the goals will start coming again…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:40…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 33-24. Beagle was an astounding 16-4…Marcus Johansson scored his 12th goal of the season into the empty net after Oshie (1G, 1A) won another puck battle to spring Jojo for an easy marker…the Caps were 2 for 3 on the power play and both tallies came at key junctures in the game and provided Washington with a two goal cushion…Buffalo went 1 for 5 with the man advantage…Andre Burakovsky had one shot on goal in 9:58. He was good in the first two periods, but in the final frame he made some bad plays and looked timid with the puck…next up for the Caps are the Vancouver Canucks at the Verizon Center at 5 pm on Sunday. Vancouver defeated the Lightning, 5-1, on Thursday and will visit Florida at 7 pm on Saturday and then take a late night flight to DC.