Jeff Spicoli: Woah, you’re gonna flunk me?
Mr. Hand: Don’t worry Spicoli. You’ll probably squeak by.
On Saturday night against the young and hard working Columbus Blue Jackets, the Washington Capitals played a Jeff Spicoli-like hockey game. They squeaked by with two points, primarily due to their all world goaltender, Braden Holtby.
The Caps stormed out of the gate, against a CBus squad that had played and won the night before, thanks to some great forechecking and smart hockey. Brett Connolly and Alex Chiasson scored two markers from the slot before the game was 130 seconds old and it looked as if Coach Barry Trotz’ crew was going to lay a woodshed beating on the Blue Jackets.
That would not be the case.
Columbus outworked Washington over the last 15 minutes of the opening frame, but couldn’t dent the Holtbeast (32 saves) despite several quality chances. Coach John Tortorella’s squad carried that momentum into the middle frame and cut the deficit to one after a brutal Capitals turnover gave Artemi Panarin an easy back door tally. The Blue Jackets kept churning and the Caps kept giving the puck away, but #70 held the fort.
At about the game’s midpoint, the guys in red starting playing again and they nearly extended their lead. They looked poised to do that when they received a power play with less than five minutes to go in period two. After a face off win, John Carlson (two assists) blasted one from the point that may have been tipped by T.J. Oshie, but it hit the post. Columbus then went the other way and Mike Foligno was robbed by Holtby in a one on one sequence. Soon thereafter, Oshie made a poor pass to Nicklas Backstrom in his own end and Brandon Dubinsky gathered in the loose change and fed Matt Calvert in the slot. Calvert quickly deposited it by a screened Holtby with 3:32 left before the second intermission.
Suddenly the game was tied and Columbus had all of the momentum. Dmitry Orlov then drew a blatant holding call on Boone Jenner with 48 ticks left in period two. Washington needed just all of 10 seconds to regain the lead. Evgeny Kuznetsov made a great read and steal of a Columbus pass behind their net after a Jackets face off win and fed Backstrom on the right wing half wall. #19 moved it to #74 at the top of the point, who slid it to Alex Ovechkin in his office, and the Gr8 beat Sergei Bobrovsky (19 saves) short side for a key goal. That marker was Ovi’s 19th of the season (tied for the league lead with Nikita Kucherov of Tampa).
The Caps came out in period three and put the early pedal to the medal. Oshie had a nice zone entry and after stopping inside the blue line, he fed a charging Kuznetsov coming into the offensive zone. Carlson jumped up in the play and was heading to the net. Somehow #92 got the puck to Carlson and he tapped it back to Kuzy, who then put it into the vacant cage to make it 4-2 with 18:52 left in the contest.
With Columbus having played on Friday and then traveling to DC, one would think they’d be tired and go away, right? Not so fast. Coach Tortorella’s crew kept coming in waves into the Caps end, but somehow Braden made some amazing stops, including an all world glove save on Cam Atkinson, and then he got a great goal line clear from Jay Beagle to preserve a 4-3 victory.
The win improves Washington’s record to 15-11-1 (31 points) and puts them just four points in back of first place Columbus in the Metropolitan Division.
Here’s my thoughts and analysis of an important Caps victory.
The Holtbeast was the reason Washington won this game, plain and simple. The Capitals, while scoring four goals, were largely inept with the puck in this affair. It was turnover city in their own end and Oshie, Backstrom, Orlov, and Ovechkin were all guilty of terrible giveaways. Ovechkin (cross ice from his own end) and Oshie had especially bad ones in period three that need cleaning up going forward. For most of the game, the Caps were soft on their breakouts and the weak bump backs to the defensemen or soft chips from the winger to the center of the ice were time after time stolen by a young, hungry, well coached, and talented Columbus team. For some reason, the Capitals didn’t adjust and it resulted in numerous quality chances for the Blue Jackets. In the final frame it was all CBus as they outshot the Caps, 17-3. Tortorella’s well conditioned and youthful squad looked like the more rested club despite the actual schedule. Washington continually made poor decisions with the puck as they came across the blue line and they are lucky that Holtby flat out saved their asses.
That start, though, was totally awesome. Coach Trotz juggled his bottom six and it paid off. Connolly, who had been scratched for two games, was put back in. Tyler Graovac was sent to the press box and Nathan Walker, who only played seven games all season, was lost to Edmonton for minimal cash via the waiver wire (the Caps hoped to sneak him through to Hershey to get some playing time). Lars Eller, who had been struggling, was put with Connolly and Chandler Stephenson on the third line and they got the ball rolling early. Orlov made his best play of the night, a nice carry in to the offensive zone, enabling the Caps to set up a cycle situation. Eller received the puck on the right wing boards from Brooks Orpik and #20 found Connolly alone in the slot. With Stephenson in front of Bob, #10 one timed the biscuit home. It was a goal very reminiscent of Connolly’s tallies last season. This game was easily Brett’s best of the 2017-18 campaign. Gone were the lunging and reaching plays he’d been making most of the year and instead he was moving his feet and using his body to win puck battles. If he keeps that up, he will be successful like he was in 2016-17.
Washington’s second goal was just another case of getting pucks and bodies to the net. Matt Niskanen made a nice pinch in on the right wing boards and he fired a hard, low shot on Bobrovsky that bounced into the slot. Chiasson gathered the rebound in the high danger area and whipped it by #72 at the 2:06 mark. Those two goals were textbook smart hockey. Good things happen when you shoot and had Washington stuck to that recipe, it might have been “Just a walk in the park, Kazansky,” but the Caps reverted to bad form shortly afterwards.
On the good side, Kuznetsov continues to play well. He was Coach Trotz’s best forward in this one and since the Calgary game that’s been the case, consistently. Kuzy is not over passing and he’s shooting the puck. He’s now up to nine goals and his line, with Jakub Vrana and Oshie, is playing well. The Osh Babe needs to start shooting more, though. #13 has been using his speed to get to the net and open up lanes for his line mates. Jakub and Kuzy are a major reason the Caps have won four of their last five games. Orpik (assist, +2 in 22:40) was the Capitals best blue liner in this one, although Carlson had a good game, as well.
Many others on this club were flat out inconsistent on Saturday night. Niskanen, who has been mostly struggling all season, primarily due to missing 13 games with a hand injury, still does not look 100% healthy on the ice and the Capitals need their best blue liner from last season back in top form. Hopefully whatever is ailing him is taken care of here in the short term.
Washington has to lose the cross ice passes, especially when up two pucks in the third period. Aside from the many defensive zone blunders, there were too many times that the Capitals tried that fancy pass inside the offensive blue line instead of putting the puck on or behind the net. It was just bad hockey and you rarely see Columbus make those mistakes. They are a very impressive team and, at this point, I have to make them the favorites to win the Metro division because they are structured and play hard. Columbus certainly deserved a better fate on Saturday, but goaltending was the difference.
On Monday night the Caps will take on the San Jose Sharks, a team who routinely whips their butts. If the Caps play like they did on Saturday against Columbus, it will be another blowout by the guys in teal and black. Holtby can’t keep nearly single handedly winning games for the Caps, this team has to get back to consistently playing the right way, like they did in the three affairs sandwiched around Thanksgiving.
Sneaking by may have cut it for Spicoli at Ridgemont High and for the Caps on Saturday night against Columbus, but that method is a long term recipe for failure.
Coach Trotz’s crew needs to say “Aloha” to the turnovers and poor decisions and get back to playing hard, intelligent hockey.
Notes: Washington won the face off battle, 37-23. Beagle, who lifted Panarin’s stick to stave off the tying goal, was 10-2. Backstrom was 13-8…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 24:55, but Carlson logged 24:42…Madison Bowey, who struggled in Thursday’s bad loss to the Kings, only played 10:21. Rookie Christian Djoos only received 12:41 of time. It’s a learning process for both young blue liners…Stephenson was rocked by a Seth Jones hit in period one. He played in the first 40 minutes, but left before the 3rd period with an upper body injury and is day to day…Ovechkin and Backstrom were both -2…once again, Holtby’s glove save on Cam Atkinson late in the game was unbelievable. Braden made a ton of Ten Bell saves in this affair. All hail the Holtbeast!