It may not have been dominant on the scoreboard, and it took Evgeny Kuznetsov’s brilliant goal with 7:18 remaining for the Caps to get the game winning tally, but that was an impressive performance by the Washington Capitals in a tough seventh game against a formidable opponent.
The Caps outshot the Islanders, 26-11, and dominated puck possession nearly the entire game to advance to the second round to face the New York Rangers.
Coach Barry Trotz’ team turned in what Brooks Orpik and Nicklas Backstrom called the team’s best game of the series by playing physical and winning the one on one battles all over the ice. Backstrom said afterwards that the team talked about playing “through the battle, instead of going around” and they did just that exhibiting a punishing physical style that wore the smaller Islanders out.
For several years I’ve blogged about my dislike for the depth of the team’s defense, but year after year former GM George McPhee would roll out his standard line of “We like our D.” Fortunately new GM Brian MacLellan and Coach Trotz understood the need to upgrade that part of the hockey team and achieved that with the additions of Orpik, Matt Niskanen, and Tim Gleason on the back end.
Also, the move to bring in Trotz gave Washington the system and foundation they needed to be a better defensive hockey club. After all, they don’t say “Defense Wins Championships” for nothing.
The result of the off season course change, which was sorely needed, was a game seven of only 11 shots allowed to one of the most prolific offenses in the NHL. Of those 11 shots, only three came from forwards (h/t @JapersRink)! John Tavares, arguably the league’s MVP, didn’t have a single shot attempt in 20:44 of ice time in the biggest game of his career. In fact, of the 49 shot attempts the Islanders generated, and 29 of them were in period three, 11 came from Johnny Boychuck, alone. That’s some team defense by the Capitals!
Simply put, this series victory validates the entire off season by the Capitals organization. They needed to become a team and they needed to upgrade their coaching and defense. They did all three of those things and the result is a position in the elite 8 of the NHL.
Following the game, the Capitals locker room was happy, but not exactly exuberant. Every player I spoke with was pleased with the win, but each one of them pointed out it is just the first step towards their ultimate goal. They clearly aren’t satisfied with a single series victory and Backstrom was quick to say this core has not been past the second round, yet.
This series was big in a lot of ways because the Capitals won without having to totally rely on Alex Ovechkin (5 points) and Backstrom (6 points) for offense. Kuznetsov (3 goals, 1 assist) stepped up and showed that he can be a second line center in crunch time with his outstanding play. He was poised and controlling with the puck and gave the Islanders defense fits. Andre Burakovsky, who played the last four games of the series, three of which were Capitals victories, showed that he can play both ends of the ice. He was strong on the wall with the puck and played wiser than your typical rookie.
As for the goaltending, Braden Holtby had a superb series despite starting it with a nasty stomach bug that forced him out of game two. Holtbeast won’t be happy with the goal he allowed to Frans Nielsen on Monday night, but he was another reason why Washington is moving on. Braden stopped 157 of 167 (94%) shots in this series.
Perhaps most important is how this Capitals team, who Coach Trotz has been saying is different than past Washington clubs, didn’t panic when they dominated the play but couldn’t score for 30+ minutes. They remained calm when Nielsen tied the game up just 3:13 into the final frame. Past squads might have panicked and deviated from the game plan, but not this crew. The Capitals just came out stronger after the tying tally until Kuznetsov scored on a play that very few others would have the patience and skill to execute.
That goal will go down in Capitals history as one of the great playoff series clinchers along with goals from Dale Hunter (1988), John Druce (1990), Joe Juneau (1998), Sergei Fedorov (2009), and Joel Ward (2012).
As for the Verizon Center crowd, well it was as good as it’s been in years. Every Capitals player spoke of the energy in the building and just before the handshake line following the victory, Coach Trotz made a point to wave and thank the fans, who played a role in this tough series triumph.
There was a lot to like on Monday night and Washington was the better team in a very close series.
Best of all, when the chips were down, they turned in their best performance in a game seven, something they have struggled to do in the playoffs since 2008.
This series win is a big step in the right direction for Capitals hockey.
Notes: Shot attempts were 60-49 for the Caps but were 47-20 through 40 minutes…Washington won the faceoff battle, 32-21. Backstrom was 16-5…Ovechkin had an assist on Joel Ward’s goal feeding Orpik with a brilliant cross ice pass…the Gr8 had seven hits and six shot attempts in 16:52 of ice time…the only penalty was curiously called on John Carlson for roughing with 2:54 remaining. It seemed very weird given everything else had been let go until that point…Niskanen logged 23:05 and Orpik 23:01 to lead Washington in ice time…Nick Leddy (26:19) and Boychuk (25:57) were the work horses for the Islanders…Tavares was 2-9 on faceoffs and looked out of gas in game seven.