Braden Holtby made 28 saves and T.J. Oshie’s second period power play marker held up as the game winning goal as the Washington Capitals knocked off the Carolina Hurricanes, 3-1, on Thursday night at Capital One Arena. The victory improves the Caps to 23-10-3 (49 points) on the season and they lead the second place Columbus Blue Jackets by two points, but Washington has a game in hand.
Here are 10 thoughts, highlights, and analysis of the first game out of the 2018 NHL Christmas break.
Petr Mrazek has a history of playing very well against Washington going back to his Detroit days and he turned in a gem on Thursday night. The Czech goalie made 30 saves and kept his team in it late into the third period. The Caps should’ve been up by more than two pucks, but he was stellar in net.
Washington’s power play has been struggling over the last 10 games and were in a 3 for 31 funk when the Osh Babe deflected home John Carlson’s point blast to make it 2-0 late in period two. That was the Caps fourth man advantage of the night and they were struggling to score. The Ovi spot has been walled off lately by the opponents and the Capitals have been a little too stagnant with the extra player, but they finally got smart and simplified things with bodies and pucks to the net. Good things happen when you do that, and it paid off there. If Washington can get those type of goals off of traffic, then the opponents will have to pull their defensive players back down tighter to the net, which will open things up in Alex’s office, once again.
Chandler Stephenson put the Capitals up 1-0 in period two when the fourth line was all over the Canes with a vicious forecheck. Devante Smith-Pelly forced Calvin De Haan to cough the puck up the middle of the ice and #18 jumped on it in the slot and snapped one over Mrazek to start the scoring. That fourth line of Stephenson, Travis Boyd, and DSP was pretty good all game.
DSP had a strong outing and he was a big reason the Capitals penalty killing went 4 for 4. Carolina really didn’t have a whole lot of chances until their last power play, when they nearly tied the game. Washington is doing an excellent job of keeping the opposing power plays on the perimeter and allowing their goalies to see any shots.
With 8:21 the play that changed the game, but fortunately, not the outcome, occurred. Matt Niskanen was heading back into his own right wing boards when Justin Williams hit him well before Nisky could get to the puck. That’s interference, especially considering some of the other ticky tacky calls made by the zebras on this night. The hit by Stick knocked Niskanen to his right and then Clark Bishop came barreling in and shoved Nisky in the back slamming him into the boards with an extra push. That’s boarding. The very experienced Capitals TV play by play man, Joe Beninati, reacted immediately to the bad hit with concern. Fortunately, Matt was able to avoid direct head contact with the boards and after staying down for a minute or so, Niskanen was able to get up and skate to the locker room on his own power. Coach Todd Reirden did not have a post game update on Nisky, so his status for Saturday’s game in Ottawa remains unclear.
Following the injury, the Capitals looked stunned because one of their leaders was out on a weird play and they didn’t get the power play they thought they rightfully deserved. Compounding the matter, shortly thereafter Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Carlson all were a little careless with the biscuit in the offensive zone and that led to a Michal Ferland breakaway. The Holtbeast, who has been outstanding in those situations this season thanks to the work he’s been putting in with goalie coach Scott Murray, stopped the one on one opportunity once again, but his teammates didn’t get back and Sebastian “I own the Caps” Aho fired the rebound into the empty cage with 7:35 left in the game. Suddenly a sure triumph was in doubt for the Caps.
The officiating by Jon McIsaac and Ghislain “Send Him Back to Quebec” Hebert was head scratching at times, and none more so than on that play where Niskanen was injured, but the linesmen then made a major blunder that nearly cost Washington the lead. The Canes dumped the puck directly into the Caps zone from behind the red line and Michal Kempny was way ahead of any Carolina player, but somehow the linesmen wiped out icing. A few seconds later Kempny was jailed for high sticking and with 3:48 to go the Canes had a man advantage situation to potentially tie up what was once a near blowout. Again, the Capitals PK came through, but the guys in stripes certainly were doing their best to give Rod Brind’Amour’s team a chance to even the numbers on the scoreboard.
Holtby was very good once again, he didn’t have to make a lot of quality saves, but the ones he had to deny were of the ten bell variety. He continues to be stellar on breakaways and the only goal he allowed was because the five skaters on the ice hung him out to dry.
With the NHL shut down for three days for Christmas, Carolina had to travel from Raleigh on Thursday morning for this tilt. That was an advantage for the Caps and again, they dominated this game, but Mrazek kept it close. Fortunately All Star Nicklas Backstrom won a neutral zone faceoff directly back to Carlson with just under a minute to go and #74 rifled it from inside his own blue line into the empty cage to seal the deal for Washington. Brind’Amour gambled with the neutral zone draw by keeping Mrazek on the bench for the sixth attacker and he rolled snake eyes there.
The Capitals lead the Metropolitan Division by two points over Columbus and they have a game in hand on John Tortorella’s team. Pittsburgh is five points back and Washington has a game in hand on the Pens, as well. In fourth place are the Islanders at 40 points, so the Caps are nine points clear of a playoff spot here in late December. I expect the top three teams in the Metro to pull away from the pack and the question remains if Coach Barry Trotz’ crew can beat out Montreal or perhaps Boston for the last playoff position. Bottom line, barring any crazy injuries, the Eastern Conference playoff race is turning into a nine teams for eight spots race with the top six (Tampa, Toronto, Washington, Columbus, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh) looking solid. There are still 46 games left for the Caps, though, so let’s not count the chickens before they hatch, although it is very tempting to do so.
Notes: The Corsi Canes out shot attempted the Caps, 57-56, but the quality chances were clearly in Washington’s favor, by a good margin…Carlson led the Capitals in ice time with 25:05. Niskanen left after logging 16:54. With Kempny in the box late, Madison Bowey and Jonas Siegenthaler had to kill off part of the penalty and they did so in fine fashion. That is encouraging for the Caps as they build defensive depth. Brooks Orpik is expected back in the lineup very soon, perhaps as early as Saturday in Ottawa, and that’s a welcome sign, especially if Niskanen is out for any length of time. Tyler Lewington was recalled as the 7th defensemen for Thursday’s game after being sent down following last Saturday’s shutout victory in Ottawa to save some salary cap room…the Caps won the faceoff battle, 33-27. Backstrom was 12-4.