It had been over three weeks since the Washington Capitals came out and dominated a first period. Specifically, the outdoor game at the Naval Academy was the last time the Caps did that racing to a 3-1 lead en route to a 5-2 triumph over the Leafs on March 3rd.
On Monday night, the shaky start streak ended as the Capitals blitzed the rebuilding and young New York Rangers with four tallies in the first 17 minutes and then they closed things down for a 4-2 win at Madison Square Garden. The victory, the team’s fourth consecutive and the eighth in the last nine games, improves the Caps record to 45-24-7 (97 points) and they lead second place Pittsburgh by five points with six games remaining. Washington needs just three points now to clinch a playoff spot.
The Rangers and Capitals will meet again on Wednesday at 8 pm at Capital One Arena, but before that contest commences, below are my thoughts and analysis on Monday’s tilt.
Hart to Hart – Alexander Ovechkin has already won three Hart Trophies as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. A case could easily be made for him winning his fourth this season, too, but Alex is more focused on another trophy that he doesn’t have yet. The Gr8 came out with that look in his eye in this affair and he made a super play at the offensive blue line to help set up Matt Niskanen’s goal that made it 2-0 just 5:13 into the game. After the Rangers took their first penalty of the night, Ovi then notched his 45th goal of the season from his office after a super feed from John Carlson to increase the lead to three pucks before the game was even nine minutes old. On the evening, Alex had nine shots attempts, including eight on net. If not for some great glove work by goalie Ondrej Pavelec (26 stops on 27 shots), who came on in relief for Alexandar Georgiev (3 saves in 6 shots) after Ovechkin’s goal, Alex would not still need five goals in six games to hit 50 for the season. Ovi played 17:41 and now has 83 points this season. He was named the game’s number one star. MVP! MVP! MVP!
Dynamic Duo – When Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom play well, the Caps typically win. That was once again the case on Monday night. Nicky got the offense rolling with a sweet pass as he crossed the offensive blue line, when surrounded by four Ranger players, to a streaking T.J. Oshie on the right wing. The Osh Babe, who said he didn’t touch Jakub Jerabek’s shot on Saturday night and as a result had the tally taken away, rifled one just inside the far post past Georgiev for a 1-0 lead just 2:50 into the game. This was #77’s 5th goal in his last seven games and his 17th of the season. Announcer Joe Micheletti commented on NBC that the Osh Babe recently changed sticks to one with more of a stiff shaft to help his accuracy and it seems to be paying off. Back to the centers, Backstrom had the primary helper on Oshie’s tally and the second apple on Ovi’s game winning goal. As for Kuzy, he made a great pass to Niskanen for his goal and also scored a shorthanded tally when Dmitry Orlov made an alert defensive zone flip up of the puck that Alex Chiasson corralled in the offensive zone and then fed to #92 trailing the play for a layup. That’s now 75 points on the season for Kuzy and Backy is up to 63 points. Backstrom and Kuznetsov logged 19:02 and 17:36 of ice time, respectively, so that’s nearly 37 minutes of game time that the opponents have to match up against elite center ice men. About the only thing I didn’t like from Kuznetsov in this one was his lacrosse shot attempt when it was 4-0. That’s a bit of a hot dog play that can humiliate your opponents and the Rangers certainly woke up after that circus type move. Kuzy is supremely talented enough to pull that shot off, but the Capitals likely go up 5-0 if he just makes the simple pass to Backstrom waiting on the door step. The coaching staff will hopefully turn that Harlem Globetrotters unnecessary hockey into a learning opportunity for #92. Coach Barry Trotz should also probably paraphrase the old bench boss, Lou Brown, for the Indians in Major League and say, “Nice try Kuzy, but don’t ever $%@$ing do that again!”
Career Year – Philipp Grubauer manned the pipes for Washington and he notched his 14th victory of the season making 28 saves on 30 shots. #31 was stellar, once again, and he is playing with a lot of confidence. There were too many quality stops to name, but he also received a bit of a break late when Vladislav Namestnikov missed an open net in period three after the Rags had cut the deficit in half. Grubauer was out challenging there following another defensive zone breakdown by the Capitals. Grubauer is now 14-9-3 with a .923 save percentage. The restricted free agent is having a monster year and with Braden Holtby ailing, but finally able to back up again on Monday, he has taken advantage of an opening and ran with it. You need multiple good goalies in this league, as evidenced by the Penguins last two Stanley Cup runs, and it is quite fortuitous that Vegas GM George McPhee opted to not take Philipp in the expansion draft. Without his play this season, the Capitals are likely struggling to make the playoffs. Goaltending is the most important position in hockey and the performances by the Holtbeast from October until the end of January and then Grubauer since February have put the Capitals just eight points away from clinching their third straight division title.
Push Back – In hockey, many fans assume that one team should totally dominate all 60 minutes, but this is the best league in the world and the vast majority of the time, that doesn’t happen, even when one team on paper looks far inferior to the other. The Rangers are rebuilding and are looking at many of their young players, including Lias Andersson, who scored his first NHL goal in his first NHL game. Making it even more special for Lias was having his parents in attendance. The Capitals pretty much ended any chance the Rangers could win his debut with a blitzkreig of an opening 20 minutes. However, New York has players that are fighting for jobs for next season and they get paid to play, too, so you knew they’d have a push back, especially when Washington seemed to ease up a bit and get a little cocky with their decision making. New York scored two thirds of the way into period two and then in the first five minutes of the final stanza, but that was all they would get. In the second period the Rangers outshot the Caps, 16-10.
Special Sauce – Washington’s power play went 1 for 3 and generated seven shots on net, but more importantly, they were a perfect four for four on the penalty kill and also tallied shorthanded (Kuznetsov). New York only generated four shots on goal on those four man advantage situations. When Brooks Orpik was boxed for interference with 3:40 remaining, the Rangers had a chance to cut the margin to a single tally and give themselves some hope of forcing overtime. Even when pulling the goalie halfway through the power play, the Blueshirts were throttled by the Caps and really never had a good look at scoring. John Carlson, who probably wasn’t happy with himself on the two Rangers goals, was rock solid while shorthanded and had multiple good clears to close the win out for Washington.
No Sit Back – Despite the rocky second period, Washington played a very strong third period. The Rangers did score, but overall the Caps didn’t sit back and they tried to increase their lead while not risking giving up any odd man rushes, which is the right strategy. As a result, they outshot New York, 8-7, over the last 20 minutes. Washington is at its best when getting pucks towards the net or behind it with a lead. In addition, they kept the Rangers to the perimeter when defending, for the most part, and that was why they were able to earn another key two points after their super fast start.
Notes: Goalie Pheonix Copley was sent to Hershey with Holtby healthy enough to back up. The way Grubauer is going, especially against the Rangers, I’d imagine he plays again on Wednesday in the rematch…Orpik led the Capitals in hits with five and Tom Wilson had three. I’d like to see the Capitals play with more physicality on Wednesday. Too many forwards are going in for pucks by reaching. They need to put their shoulder into the scrums and win the puck battles more often…the Caps outshot the Rangers, 32-30, but shot attempts were 62-47, for New York. A lot of that is score effects…Orlov was superb on Monday and led the Caps in ice time with 24:39. Niskanen, who scored his seventh goal of the season top shelf with a beautiful shot and supreme patience, logged 22:49. That defensive pair was excellent…the Capitals won the face-off battle, 27-26. Chandler Stephenson went 5-0.