Washington Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan’s plan to upgrade the Caps bottom two lines following last spring’s bitter playoff defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins is starting to pay dividends.
On Friday night at the Verizon Center off season acquisitions Brett Connolly (goal and an assist) and Lars Eller (assist) formed a strong trio with 2016 trade deadine addition, Daniel Winnik (goal), to help lead the Capitals to a hard fought, 3-1 victory over the pesky Buffalo Sabres. Those three forwards all logged around 12 minutes of even strength ice time and at night’s end each had roughly 15 minutes overall. They were hard on the puck all evening and that line set a nice tone for the Caps, who started fast again, by outworking the Sabres and putting bodies and shots to the cage.
At just 5:08 into the contest they broke the ice for Washington when Eller came down the left wing and fired a hard shot on Anders Nilsson (29 saves), who put a juicy rebound into the slot. Connolly was cruising into the “point’s zone” and he got enough of the biscuit to push it towards the right post where a hard skating Winnik came around the net and buried it from a sharp angle.
The Caps would play a strong first period, outshooting the Sabres, 13-6, but only led 1-0, thanks to some stellar play by Nilsson in net.
At the other end of the ice, Philipp Grubauer (32 saves) was very sharp in his first home start in forever on the front end of a back to back contest situation (the Caps are in the Big Smoke on Saturday night at 7 pm to take on the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada). Buffalo had a power play just two plus minutes after Winnik’s lamp lighter to open the scoring and they have a very good one. However, Grubauer was the primary reason the Sabres weren’t able to tie the game up. For the night, the Caps backup goalie was their best penalty killer stopping seven shots in eight minutes of Buffalo man advantage time.
“I think that’s the privilege we have of having two great goalies. Either one that’s in gives us a really good chance of winning. Grubi’s played phenomenal this year so far and it’s really unfortunate that we couldn’t get him the shutout,” stated Winnik, who in honor of Movember, has grown one of the best moustaches you’ll ever see and it’s eerily reminiscent of the one Johnny had in Slap Shot. Kudos Mr. Winnik.
Marcus Johansson scored what would turn out to be the game winning goal from the slot. Jojo earned his 8th tally of the year when the Caps had a three on two rush up the ice. Justin Williams, who had several more good chances but didn’t score, came down the right wing and tried to pass cross ice to Nicklas Backstrom on the left wing side. The puck fortuitously hit the Sabres defensemen in the skate and bounced right to a streaking #90, who fired it quickly past Nilsson for a 2-0 Washington lead just three minutes and 25 seconds past the game’s midpoint.
The Caps had a 25-18 shots on goal advantage after two periods and a 49-44 edge in shot attempts, but the Sabres would have 5:32 of extra man time in the final frame. As mentioned above, Grubauer was the primary reason Buffalo would get blanked with the man advantage. They did, however, cut the deficit to a single goal with 10:02 to go when Sam Reinhart fired a shot through a Ryan O’Reilly screen and into the cage at even strength.
The Sabres then had a power play when just down a puck, but Gruabauer and the Caps penalty killers, most notably Winnik and Tom Wilson up front, prevented Buffalo from any great chances.
Then with 4:20 left and the crowd finally buzzing after “Unleash the Fury” was played on the video board, the Sabres took a too many men penalty when Washington fired the puck into the skates of a Buffalo player trying to change. At first it didn’t seem like the referees were going to call the infraction, but the crowd wisely groaned very loudly and off to the box Buffalo went. That penalty would provide the dagger for the Caps as Connolly, who earned 1st power play time at a crucial moment in the contest, buried the rebound of an Alex Ovechkin rocket to close out the scoring. #10 celebrated heavily and deservedly so. It was a big goal and he put himself in the right position to score an important tally that allowed the Caps to go 4-1 on this five game home stand that concluded on Friday. The only blemish was a zebra aided 3-2 victory for Columbus on Sunday.
Overall, the Caps put out a strong effort as a team, especially the Eller line as well as Wilson and Jay Beagle. Zach Sanford only saw 6:37 of ice time, but he nearly scored his first goal of the season on a beautiful rush move around a Sabres defensemen in the first period. Unfortunately for Zach, Nilsson made an awesome glove save on his backhand attempt.
The Caps did make some mistakes in this contest; most notably they were guilty of some bad decisions where they tried low percentage cross ice passes. Some of them were picked off and normally that would lead to odd man rushes. However, as Coach Barry Trotz pointed out afterwards, the Caps commitment level was there and that attention to detail prevented Buffalo from getting scoring chances off of those mistakes since another Capital seemed to be always in position to cover for the mishap. Connolly talked following the victory about trying to find the right balance of trying for the cross ice passes versus getting the pucks deep.
“We have so many guys here that can make really good plays. Coaches always talk about blue line turnovers and we got guys that can make plays on those blue lines. Eight times out of 10 they’re making those plays, but if we can just find the right mix of when to make those plays and when maybe to cut your losses and get it deep, then we’ll be better moving forward,” said Connolly, who was certainly one of the best Washington players on this night and is making an impact.
Connolly is absolutely correct, if there’s one criticism of this team, it’s that extra pass just inside the offensive blue line where the puck should’ve been put on or behind the net. Good things happen when you shoot is my motto, and as Coach Trotz likes to say, “The NHL is a shoot first league.”
“If we can just focus on trying to keep the puck out of our net we’ve got enough guys on the team that can score. I think that’s kind of been an area that obviously the coaches have been working with and just trying to cut our losses and not make those high risk plays, but if we’re coming back hard and we’re focused on helping the goalie out and the D out then we’re going to get chances at the other end, it’s just a matter of time and I think that once we figure that out we’ll be even better moving forward, so we’re moving in the right direction,” added Connolly.
Connolly, who MacLellan was able to bring in at a bargain price of $850,000, is right about the focus of the coaches and since Coach Trotz arrived this team has gotten monumentally better at playing away from the puck, something that has killed them in the post season in the past. The Caps have only given up 44 goals in 20 games and only the Minnesota Wild have given up fewer (38). There is the saying that “Defense Wins Championships.”
“We’re playing pretty well. We’re getting better every day. Guys are working hard in practice and we watch a lot of video and are getting better. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint. We’ve got a good group of guys here, a good team. We’re going in the right direction,” finished Connolly.
20 games in and sitting at 13-5-2 (28 points) and on pace for a 115 point season, it’s hard to argue with what one of the newest Capitals had to say following a very nice win the day after Thanksgiving.
On to Toronto.
Notes: Buffalo’s O’Reilly was the best Sabre on the ice and he had five shots on net in 23:53 of ice time (led all players on both teams). Coach Trotz raved about #90 and said he is one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Winnik said of O’Reilly, “Phenomenal player, I played with him in Colorado. Really underrated guy who finally got the credit he deserved with the World Cup nod for Canada.”…Washington lost the face off battle, 37-30. Beagle did go 11-6…Oveckhin had zero shot attempts in a rough first period for his line, but he finished with six for the game, including an assist on Connolly’s game clincher…Matt Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:09, but John Carlson played 23:00…Taylor Chorney, who was only in the line up for the third time this season, played extremely well with Brooks Orpik. I could make a case that this was his best game since he’s been a Capital. He was very good in his own end and at breaking the puck up the ice…speaking of underrated, that’s Johansson, who played 17:16 and is such a good two way player…the Holtbeast will get the start in net on Saturday against Auston Matthews and company from the Air Canada Centre. The Caps are fired up to play the Leafs and Karl Alzner remarked afterwards, “We’ve been seeing all of their highlights on tv, so it will be fun to finally play them.”