It was playoff intensity level hockey at Capital One Arena on Thursday night as the desperate Montreal Canadiens threw everything they had at Braden Holtby and the Washington Capitals, only to come up short, by a 2-1 score. The victory for the Caps clinches their fourth straight Metropolitan Division title and they will host either Carolina, Pittsburgh, or Columbus in round one of the Stanley Cup playoffs beginning next week.
Montreal is now tied with the Blue Jackets for the eighth and final playoff spot, but CBus has two games to play, against the Rangers and Ottawa, so things look bleak for the Habs.
This was another classic Carey Price (29 saves) vs. Holtby (33 saves) battle with the Stanley Cup Champion goaltender coming out on top, once again, like he’s done so many times in his career against Montreal. The Holtbeast made some huge stops early when the Habs were carrying the play, but as the game went on, it was Washington and their suffocating structure that had the better of the chances. In the final frame, the Capitals could’ve salted this one away earlier if not for some outstanding goaltending from Price.
Washington was really good in this game at gap control and that prevented Montreal from using their speed to their advantage. It was actually the Caps speed, and that of Carl Hagelin, that started the scoring late in period one. The man who was acquired from the Kings and partially paid for by Los Angeles and the Penguins put on a vicious forecheck in the right wing corner. The Habs defensemen coughed the puck up to Brett Connolly and he found Lars Eller wide open in front. “Tiger” deftly went to his backhand and beat Price for a hard working tally.
Nicklas Backstrom then took a high sticking penalty and Shea Weber tied things up on the power play, just 56 seconds after the Eller goal and with 28 ticks left in the opening frame.
The Caps would seize the lead for good early in period two using their speed, once again. Andre Burakovsky went flying down the right wing boards to steal a puck from the Habs blue liner and he fed Nic Dowd in the slot. Travis Boyd read the play perfectly and went to the net creating a screen on Price and Dowd tallied top shelf for his career high eighth goal of the season.
Both goals for the Caps were created by their bottom six forwards and were the result of a vicious forecheck. This is exactly how the Capitals need to play in the post season and the addition of Hagelin, which pushed Burakovsky to the fourth line, has given Coach Todd Reirden four strong lines. Washington boasts speed and skill up front, as well as size.
Defensively, the Capitals will need to overcome the loss of Michal Kempny, who suffered a torn hamstring in the dust up with Tampa’s Cedric Paquette. Kempny will miss four to six months, so the coaching staff has to figure out how they will play a defense that is now super strong in right handed shooting John “Norris” Carlson, Matt Niskanen, and Nick Jensen. Dmitry Orlov is the top lefthander while Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos will have to step up to cover Kempny’s minutes. Djoos had major surgery back in December, but hopefully the time off he had has allowed him to build his strength up for another long playoff run.
Everything, however, starts in net and the Holtbeast is in fine form as we head into the post season. Washington went 13-4-1 down the stretch against one of, if not the toughest schedules in the NHL to capture the division title and a big factor was the play of their goaltender. When Braden is on, the Caps are hard to defeat.
Also encouraging is the way Washington manhandled Tampa in the last two confrontations. The Caps lost at home in overtime, but the Bolts won that one on special teams. Coach Rierden’s crew has dominated the Lightning at even strength like they did in last spring’s Eastern Conference Finals. They also beat the crap out of the Bolts in the fights last Saturday night. When are teams going to learn that challenging Tom Wilson to a fight is a lost cause? There aren’t many guys in the league, outside of Ryan Reaves, who are able to handle Willy.
The post season, however, is about structure and attention to detail and not fighting. Physicality matters, too. Washington has shown over the last 18 games that they are getting closer to that level they had on their Cup run. Now it’s time for them to take it up a notch.
The first round is always the hardest to win, so no matter who the Capitals play will be a tough out.
Notes: Djoos and Orpik were +2 on Thursday…Alex Ovechkin had eight shot attempts, but couldn’t increase his goal total (He currently has 51). Price made some quality saves on him and Ovi also shot some good chances wide…the Caps blocked 19 shots, seven of which came from Niskanen…Wilson had seven hits and Orpik had six as Washington outhit Montreal, 37-22. The Caps were physical in all zones and that seemed to wear the Canadiens out by the end of the game…the Capitals will face the Islanders on Saturday night in a meaningless game for Washington. The Isles need a point to clinch second place over the Penguins.