Those following this blog and listening to the frequent radio bits I’ve been doing recently with Nestor Aparacio know that I’m high on this year’s Capitals team because of two primary reasons: the addition of an experienced coach in Barry Trotz and the improved blue line.
After seven games, the Capitals are now 4-1-2 after a 3-1 victory over the Calgary Flames on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday.
The reason they are off to such a great start: they are playing a structured system and they have the players on the back end to execute it.
Washington’s defensive crew was once again outstanding in the game against Calgary as the Caps dominated puck possession and kept the Flames on the perimeter for the majority of the evening.
Brooks Orpik was dynamite for the Capitals in this one doling out 10 hits and setting up the game winning goal with a super breakout pass. There are some in the fancy stats community that will put little stock in hits, citing that most of the time the club with more hits are the ones chasing the biscuit around and losing the puck possession battle. That was not the case in Calgary on Saturday, when Oprik took the body the result on several occasions was the Calgary player was removed from the puck and the Capitals went the other way in transition. Simply put, #44 brings a presence to the Capitals back end that they have not had in several years. His addition, and the super signing of Matt Niskanen, has allowed Trotz to spread the minutes out on defense (John Carlson led the club in ice time at a modest 22:52 against the Flames). That minimizes the ability of the opponents to get a matchup advantage at certain points in the game and it also allows the Capitals players to stay fresher. Mike Green is having a monster season in this system by playing roughly 20 minutes a game. #52 can play to his strengths and he was fabulous again on Saturday. You can add Karl Alzner to that list too, his feed to Nicklas Backstrom on the 3rd goal was a super stretch pass. #27 is playing his best hockey in years, as well.
Up front, Trotz tweaked his lines after the loss in Edmonton moving Eric Fehr back up with Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. That line scored the Caps 3rd goal and the Gr8 drew the penalty that led to the game’s first goal, a Joel Ward power play marker. Ward, who was shifted down to the 4th line, had his best outing of 2014-15 with the two goals to earn the game’s number one star. Ward, who had the coverage mistake on the Oilers first goal on Wednesday, was back to moving his feet and winning the puck battles.
Andre Burakovsky didn’t have a point on Saturday, but he continues to play like he’s 25 and his line dominated in the possession department. This young man has been the most pleasant surprise of the young season. Evgeny Kuznetsov, flanked by Jay Beagle and Jason Chimera, also had a strong game and looks to be adjusting to the North American rink. If Washington can get some scoring coming from multiple lines they are going to be a hard team to beat in the Metropolitan Division and in the Eastern Conference.
In net, Braden Holtby had his usual Saturday night special performance. He stopped 20 of 21 shots, with the biggest being a shorthanded breakaway late in regulation with the game at 3-1. That save effectively ended the Flames chances, which is what you want your goaltender to do, make the big save when you need it. Overall though, Braden benefitted from the strong defensive play from his teammates as Calgary was kept wide for many of their shot attempts.
So now it is on to Vancouver for a Sunday night date with the Canucks for the Caps. A win in BC would give the Capitals a nice 2-1 road trip. Back to back games are tough, especially given the long flight from Calgary to Vancouver in the early hours of Sunday morning, but because Trotz is able to spread the ice time around, the Capitals should have no major excuses in terms of fatigue.
Notes: The Caps out shot attempted the Flames, 52-46…Washington won the faceoff battle, 30-28..the Caps had 30 hits to 25 for Calgary…the penalty called on Orpik near the end of the 2nd period was ridiculous. Referees Kelly Sutherland and Paul Devorski did not have one of their better nights.