Braden Holtby made 30 saves and Jakub Vrana had the game winning tally as well as an assist as the Washington Capitals knocked off the Vancouver Canucks, 3-2, at Capital One Arena on Tuesday night. Evgeny Kuznetsov added two helpers and T.J. Oshie notched his 16th goal of the season in the triumph, which coupled with the Islanders 3-1 loss in Boston, moves the Caps just two points behind first place New York in the Metropolitan Division. Coach Barry Trotz’ squad still has a game in hand.
Below are my thoughts and analysis of an up and down affair for Washington that improves their record to 29-18-6 (64 points) and puts them in sole possession of second place in the Metro.
It was the return of Jay Beagle night. The Caps put together a video that afterwards Jay called “First class” and also caused him to have trouble playing the rest of that period. The Washington faithful showed their appreciation for the hardest working player on the Caps from 2008 to 2018, which culminated with a Stanley Cup triumph last June, with a long and well deserved ovation. Beags received an amazing four year, $12M contract from the Canucks in the offseason. At the first television timeout the team unleashed the Beagle video and it was incredible. After it ended and during the standing ovation from the crowd, Alex Ovechkin came over and gave Jay a hug, which represented a “thank you for being a huge part of the Capitals organization for so many years, including the Stanley Cup run.” Beagle is one that fought long odds to make the NHL, but his work ethic always took his game to a higher level and he is still the only player in history to win a championship at the ECHL, AHL, and NHL levels. I’ve followed Jay’s career since 2008 and was fortunate to cover him when he won those two Calder Cups in Hershey in 2009 and 2010. There aren’t many classier people in hockey than #83 and it was great to spend a few minutes with him after the game. He is definitely missed by the Caps organization, but the business side was the sole reason for the team change.
The Caps came out flying in this affair and Oshie stole the puck in the offensive zone on a great effort to start the sequence that led to the game’s first tally. Ovechkin took the puck from #77 and skated around the Canucks net and found a streaking Nicklas Backstrom in the slot. All star Nicky fired on net, but Jacob Markstrom (28 saves) made the stop. The rebound, however, bounced into the slot and the Osh Babe buried it for his 16th goal of the campaign just three minutes into the contest. For the rest of the period the Capitals went all Princess Bride storming the castle, but they were unable to get another marker. For the frame, Washington outshot the Canucks 18-5 and shot attempts were 26-10.
In the middle stanza, the game totally flipped. It was Vancouver who was all over the Caps out shot attempting them 24-8, including 13-4 in shots on goal. Michal Kempny took an early hooking penalty at 3:45 and if not for Holtby, they would’ve tied the game. Midway through the period, with both clubs at even strength, Tyler Motte and Beagle had quality chances just eight seconds apart that #70 denied with some sparkling saves. The Canucks could’ve easily had three or four goals in period two if not for the Holtbeast. Following the contest, Beagle said “that’s what Holts does,” then added, “he said sorry to me for making that big save.” At 12:53, Jonas Siegenthaler, who had a rough night paired with Brooks Orpik (-2), hooked Bo Horvat and the referees correctly signaled for a penalty shot. Horvat came flying in, but he was denied by Holtby, who was dialed in all evening. The stellar goaltending allowed Washington to take a 1-0 lead into period three.
The Caps were better in the last 20 minutes and extended their lead to 2-0 when Vrana used his speed to open up space in the offensive zone. Jakub passed the disc to Kuznetsov inside the blueline. Kuzy then drove to the net and tried to slide a pass across the top of the crease to Vrana on the back door, but it hit a Canucks stick and Brett Connolly came in crashing the cage to bury the biscuit for his 10th goal of the season. That tally came 5:47 into period three, but the Canucks cut the deficit in half when Antoine Roussel went around Siegenthaler and then fed Markus Granlund behind Orpik and Backstrom at 8:02. With 7:47 remaining, the Capitals earned an insurance marker on Vrana’s goal from behind the net that he banked in off of Markstrom while Kuznetsov unsuccessfully played Cal Ripken trying to bat the disc into the cage. Had Kuzy touched the puck, a goal would not have counted, but fortunately #92 did his best Chris Davis imitation (a swing and a miss!). Tom Wilson, who earned an assist on that goal, had a chance to close this one out with the empty net, but with 2:21 to go, he shot wide of the cage from just inside the red line. Vancouver would continue pressing and when Orpik knocked Horvat into Holtby, Elias Petterson shot the puck into the open net with six seconds remaining to end the scoring.
On the penalty front, the Caps took three infractions which led to two power plays and a penalty shot. The defensive zone penalty on Kuznetsov was a weak call, but the other two were instances when a defensemen was beaten badly in a one on one situation. That is happening far too often and the coaching staff needs to address it. Washington’s penalty killing unit did go a perfect two for two.
Speaking of defense, Dmitry Orlov had one of his stronger outings in recent months logging 20:46 and not being on the ice for any goals against. On the downside, the Orpik-Seigenthaler duo had issues and while I’m a big fan of how far #34 has progressed in a year, he appears to be hitting a wall at the NHL level, but that’s totally understandable. The Capitals really need Christian Djoos, who is in Hershey on a long term conditioning assignment, to come back soon.
Lars Eller returned to the lineup after tweaking a muscle and missing the Boston game on Sunday. Lars played 16:44 on Tuesday and was a very impressive 11-2 on faceoffs. Eller has not had a strong season so far and the Caps will need some serious production and consistency from him over the last 29 games and into the postseason.
Kuznetsov was engaged on Tuesday and was a big reason the Caps won the game. When he plays well, the team tends to come out on top. Consistency is what Coach Todd Reirden needs out of #92 going forward.
Vrana, who might be the team’s hardest working player now that Beagle has moved on, was outstanding using his speed to generate chances. He’s having a very consistent and terrific season (31 points in 53 games).
Overall, this was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde game for Washington, who isn’t making things easy for themselves these days. Things seem to change shift to shift and some of the decisions with the disc are baffling. When they play the proper way with pucks going towards the cage or behind it and not forced into the high slot, they do well. When they try to play fancy hockey, that’s when they get in trouble.
At the end of the night the Capitals picked up two points, however, the main reason the Caps won the hockey game was because of their goalie. Long Live the Holtbeast!
Notes: John Carlson was +2 and led the Caps in ice time with 25:19…the Capitals won the faceoff battle, 28-25, but Beagle was 9-2 for Vancouver…final shot attempts were 57-54, for Washington…the Caps had one power play and both units did well, but couldn’t close the deal…next up for the Caps are the Colorado Avalanche at Capital One Arena on Thursday at 7 pm.