It was Evgeny Kuznetsov Bobblehead night at Capital One Arena and real life Kuzy took over a key game against the Carolina Hurricanes to lead his club to a huge victory over a very good Canes squad, 4-1. Braden Holtby was strong in net once again, stopping 26 of 27 shots, and Alex Ovechkin had the game winning tally early in the third period with a bomb to notch his 49th goal of the season.
This night, however, was all about the guy Don Cherry called “A Jerk” on Hockey Night in Canada last week because the crazy suit man doesn’t like Europeans or anyone else that draws attention to himself. Cherry is basically the pot calling the kettle black and Kuzy taunted the HNIC host with three fantastic assists. The first one was an absolute gem to give Washington a 1st period lead, a perfect backhand feed threaded through two Canes and the slot to T.J. Oshie waiting just off of the far post. The Osh Babe promptly put the biscuit in the basket for his 23rd goal of the season.
Washington would carry the play in the middle frame, and Ovi nearly had number 49 after a great dish from Top Line Tom Wilson on a two on one, but Petr Mrazek made a superb read and sliding save on the Gr8’s rocket. The Caps then took a delayed penalty and instead of working immediately to touch the puck up, they changed personnel. That move would prove costly as Carolina added the extra attacker and scored on a Dougie Hamilton shot from the blue line. Holtby didn’t save it because it nicked Oshie on the way to the cage.
That set the stage for a 20 minute battle to see who would come out on top and it was the Capitals who would seize the lead at 4:31 of the third period. Kuznetsov made a strong play in his own zone and then in the neutral zone he fed Willy up the right wing boards. As #43 entered the offensive zone Ovechkin moved to the center of the ice above the circles and that’s when Wilson fed Ovi with a pass that he blasted by Mrazek.
John “Norris” Carlson then notched his 13th goal of the season with just under nine minutes left to give the Caps a stranglehold on this affair. On the cycle in the offensive zone, Kuznetsov made a smart pass on the right wing boards back to Dmitry Orlov in the middle of the ice just inside the blue line. With Carly heading to the net as Kuzy was going back to the point to cover him, Dima fed #74 for a fairly easy wide open net deflection past Mrazek, who had lost his stick during the sequence.
The Caps closed this one out when Ovechkin made a strong play on the defensive zone right wing boards to get the puck out of the Caps end and to Nicklas Backstrom in the neutral zone. Backy skated to the red line and quickly turned his head backwards like he was looking to dish to Ovi for #50. That sly move allowed him to then slide the disc through three Canes and into the empty cage to send the DC faithful home happy.
This was an intense affair with the Caps really playing well the last 50 minutes. Carolina came out strong, but the Capitals really didn’t let Cap Killer Sebastian Aho get loose to beat them. On the evening the all star had only two shots on goal and was -1. Washington played quality defense all up and down the lineup. I thought this was one of Brooks Orpik’s best games of the season as he logged 17:54, had five hits, four blocked shots, and was +1.
In fact, the entire defense performed well and the minutes were fairly balanced. Carlson led the team with had 21:48, Orlov logged 20:55, Niskanen was at 20:43, Jensen played 19:44, and Djoos had 15:25 of ice time. Since the Capitals were never shorthanded and they only had two power plays, that allowed the coaches to keep the ice time well distributed.
This critical victory had a playoff like feel to it with the tight checking and lack of special teams’ opportunities. Zebras Garrett Rank and Kevin Pollock pretty much let the players decide the outcome, so kudos to them for not getting whistle happy.
Washington is now 45-24-8 (98 points) and with the Islanders losing to Columbus on Tuesday night, the Caps lead over both the Isles and Penguins is three points with five games remaining. The Capitals will next play three straight games on the road; Carolina on Thursday, Tampa on Saturday, and then Florida on Monday. If they pick up four points, then they can close the division out with wins at home next week against Montreal and the Islanders, regardless of what Pittsburgh does in its last five games, four of which are at home.
The Canes, who have been labeled a “Bunch of Jerks” by Cherry, are really good at home and we know Saturday’s game against the Bolts will be a war, so getting four points out of six on this trip won’t be easy. It’s important for Washington to take it one game at a time and keep improving their play. On Tuesday night they stuck to their system and didn’t become unstructured. Carolina will try to force the Caps into a free flowing game in an attempt to create odd man rush opportunities in Raleigh on Thursday. Washington must stay out of the box and back check effectively. It’s also critical to not turn pucks over at the offensive zone blue line.
The Caps did all of those things well on Tuesday and they received a stellar performance from Kuznetsov. When Kuzy decides he’s going to play, he is as good as anyone in the NHL and the Caps are extremely hard to defeat. He is Washington’s “Jerk” and a big reason why this team won the Stanley Cup last year. They’ll need #92 firing on all cylinders again this spring if they want to repeat.
But first things first, there are still five games to go and Coach Todd Reirden needs everyone pulling on the rope for this team to be successful. The win saved a Caps home stand that started 0-1-1, but ended 2-1-1.
Most importantly, the team performed better and better as it progressed. They need to iterate on that and finish strong.
Notes: Shots on goal were even at 28. Ovi led all players with five…Ovechkin and Orlov were both +3…Carlson hit the 400 point mark in this affair and continues to justify anyone who lists him 1st in the Norris Trophy balloting this season…the Capitals lost the face off battle, 35-26, but Nic Dowd was 7-2…Wilson had an assist and was +2 in 18:41 of ice time. He also had four hits…Jordan Staal was the best Cane. He was +1 and 15-7 on draws in 17:48 of ice time…On Monday, Coach Reirden announced that injured defensemen Michal Kempny will be out indefinitely. Number 6 is on crutches and there is no timetable for his return. Cedric Paquette of Tampa and Bad Zebras are to blame for his injury…the Caps toured the White House on Monday afternoon and received a hero’s welcome from President Donald Trump, who said that last year all his staff could talk about was the Capitals playoff run. Number 45 also stated he is a big hockey and Caps fan and his daughter, Ivanka, is friends with the Gr8. It was a splendid ceremony in the Oval Office and Ovechkin, Carlson, and Kuznetsov were all individually praised by the Prez, who was very gracious to Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, his son, Zach, and the entire organization that were present. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was on hand, as well, and received kudos on his work from President Trump. Before Tuesday’s game, Wilson said that the visit was a motivator for the Capitals and their play against the Canes backed that up.