Coming into Wednesday’s Thanksgiving Eve contest against the Ottawa Senators, the Washington Capitals had lost three of their last four games.
Why had they been losing?
Well, it’s not rocket science; they just weren’t working hard enough to be victorious.
In a nutshell, they were playing lazy hockey which led to bad penalties and in Monday’s loss to the Flames, the poor play resulted effectively in three power play goals against in a 4-1 defeat.
Simply put, it was a bad scene and Caps fans had to wonder which Washington team was going to show up against Erik Karlsson and company. Would it be the team that dominated the Minnesota Wild on Saturday night or the soft and seemingly out to lunch club that lost by a combined 16-6 to Nashville, Colorado, and Calgary?
In attempt to get things going offensively, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz made some big changes to his forward lineup after declaring before the game that there would be no moves up front. Most notably, he reunited Nicklas Backstrom with Alex Ovechkin and he put Evgeny Kuznetsov, who has been very inconsistent with his effort level from game to game, with a surging Jakub Vrana and the always hawking the puck, T.J. Oshie. Tom Wilson was promoted to the Backstrom line while Devante Smith-Pelly, who had a terrible giveaway that turned the Calgary game for the worse, was sent to the bottom six.
Coach Trotz pretty much pulled a Reg Dunlop by saying one thing and then doing another. To quote Slap Shot, Barry pulled the old “mind <bleep>.” Ottawa was preparing for one thing and the Caps showed up with a different plan.
The moves worked wonders, but most importantly, the Capitals brought their lunch pails to this affair and worked hard on every shift. Players were going in strong on the puck on the boards and battling. There was very little reaching and as a result, they didn’t take a single penalty until late in period two.
On offense, the personnel changes clicked and Washington raced out to a 4-0 lead by the game’s midpoint and then cruised to a 5-2 win. The Caps are now 12-10-1 (25 points) and continue to occupy the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Things are very tight standings wise and it will likely remain that way all season with so much parity in the league as a result of expansion and a slower salary cap escalation in 2017-18.
That’s why the work ethic is so important.
Washington’s most consistent hard worker is none other than the Osh Babe himself and T.J. had another stellar game on Wednesday night. Oshie kept the puck inside the offensive blue line with great hustle and hands on the Caps first goal sequence beating two Senators in the process. Oshie gathered in the biscuit and fed Kuznetsov for a quality chance at the left post. Kuzy smartly shot, but Craig Anderson made a pad save, however, Vrana was there for the loose change and he deposited the disc into the cage to make it 1-0 just over 15 minutes into the game.
The Caps then extended their lead to two pucks with just five seconds left in the opening frame. Brooks Orpik made a huge defensive zone hit to separate the Ottawa player from the puck. That allowed Backstrom to gather in the biscuit in the corner and he made a sweet long zone exit pass to Alex Chiasson up the right side of the ice. Ovechkin then beat Codi Ceci down the rink and received an excellent feed from #39 to spring him on a breakaway. The Gr8 beat Anderson upstairs for a huge tally very late in the period. Ovechkin trained differently this past summer, focusing more on speed, and that goal proved that his off-season change is paying dividends. As I blogged after the Minnesota win, Alex is definitely faster this season. That goal does not happen last year.
In the middle frame, pesky Alex Burrows took a tripping penalty and Washington’s power play made the Senators pay. The Caps worked the puck around and John Carlson fired on net with both Oshie and Backstrom in front of the goal. Carlson’s shot hit Anderson in the pads and bounced into the slot. The Osh Babe beat four Senators to the disc and fed it back to Kuznetsov, who fired a laser just inside the far post to make it 3-0 at 7:41. Just over two minutes later Vrana scored his second goal of the night on a rush shot where he caught Anderson cheating and leaning to his left, which allowed #13 to beat the goalie high short side.
That was pretty much the game there and despite having to kill off a 76 second two man advantage late in period two, the outcome was never in doubt. After the Senators made it 4-2 late in period three, Chiasson closed out the scoring with a lengthy backhand shot into the empty cage with 91 seconds remaining and clinch this one for the good guys.
Overall, this was a much needed triumph for the Caps. They got big performances out of Kuznetsov (1 goal, two assists) and Backstrom, their top two centers. It’s no secret that when those two guys are good, the team typically wins, and vice versa. It is also good to see the progression from Vrana, who has gone from a healthy scratch against the Avs just six days ago to a productive spot in the top six of the forward lineup. The Vrana-Kuznetsov-Oshie line is a new combination, but it works well with #13’s speed and Oshie’s on the puck tenacity. Simply put, Oshie makes any line he’s on better.
Putting Ovi and Backy back together seemed to get #19 going, too. I’ve been calling for these two superstars to be put on the same line again and Coach Trotz delivered by reuniting the duo. They were superb on Wednesday night.
This was a stabilizing victory for Washington and they did it the Smith Barney way, they earned it!
Now they need to consistently bring the energy.
Notes: the Caps were 1 for 1 on the power play and a perfect 3 for 3 on the PK…Braden Holtby was rock solid in net (29 saves). His biggest and most important stop was on a tip by Jean-Gabriel Pageau when the game was scoreless. The Holtbeast continues to make the hard saves look routine…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time at 25:19. Dmitry Orlov played an outstanding 22:00 minutes and Orpik was dynamite in 21:54…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 30-24. Lars Eller went 10-2…next up for the Caps is the Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday at 5 pm at Capital One Arena. The Bolts are the best team in the NHL right now.