When 20 men all row the boat in the same direction, good things happen.
On Friday night at Capital One Arena the Washington Capitals played, by far, their best game of the season to knock off the two time defending Stanley Cup Champion Penguins, 4-1.
John Carlson, T.J. Oshie, Chandler Stephenson, and Jakub Vrana scored for the Caps and Braden Holtby stopped 27 of 28 shots to improve Washington to 9-7-1 (19 points).
Without further adieu, here are nine detailed thoughts and analysis on this huuuuugggggeeee victory.
- Nicklas Backstrom came into this game with a seven game scoreless streak and his linemate, T.J. Oshie, had not netted a goal in eight straight contests. In a smart attempt to shake the lines up, Coach Barry Trotz bumped Vrana down to the third line and added a player who works hard on every shift, Stephenson, to the mix. That trio was superb all evening and they spent a lot of time up against Sidney Crosby’s line. Nicky held Sid the Kid pointless and even broke his pointless drought with a great feed to Stephenson in the slot to make it 3-1 with 6:18 left. Crosby would play 18:58, have only three shot attempts, lose 14 of 22 draws, and ended up a minus two. It was a vintage two way game by Backstrom, one of the NHL’s best centers. Oshie also broke his slump with a sweet deflection of a Carlson point shot on the power play with 1:51 to go in period two. The Osh Babe also had great net presence on Carlson’s opening marker that hit Tom Kuhnackl’s stick and went in. #34 was trying to tie up Oshie and he was not successful.
- Speaking of Carlson, what a beast he was, once again! #74 had a goal and an assist in 28:43 of ice time. He has simply been sensational while Matt Niskanen has been out. The Caps have rode Carly and Brooks Orpik on the back end heavily and are 6-6 in Nisky’s absence. However, four of those six losses came on the tail end of back-to-back affairs. I attribute a lot of those losses to the lack of depth caused by the expansion draft, salary cap casualties, and key injuries. With #2 due back in the next week or so, that will alleviate a lot of pressure on Carlson and Orpik and really help get Dmitry Orlov back on track, too, since he’ll have his favorite d-pair partner again. Orlov has been very inconsistent and he tipped in the only Penguins goal in this one due to some bad defensive zone coverage.
- Sticking with the blue line, I thought this was Christian Djoos’ best game of his very young NHL career. His speed and ability to skate and move the puck provides a great match up against the Penguins and he was rock solid in 13:18 of ice time. Rookie Madison Bowey had a few giveaways in 15:44 of action, but he’s getting better and better. As I mentioned to Caps General Manager Brian MacLellan on Monday when we last chatted, the blessing in disguise of Niskanen’s injury will be the sped up development of both Djoos and Bowey. Those two kids have really improved and assistant coach Todd Reirden deserves credit for helping turn these guys into capable NHLers. Washington suddenly has more depth on the back end than they did on October 1st. I’d like to see Bowey stay up when Niskanen returns and Djoos, as well. Taylor Chorney should be the 7th defensemen and he’s been really good the last two weeks.
- The Andre Burakovksy injury (fractured thumb) was another big blow to the Capitals forward lines since he was expected to take over the production of Marcus Johansson this season. Vrana was gifted into the top six when #65 went out and he just hasn’t produced. His compete level and decision making was lacking and he deserved the demotion he received. Stephenson has taken full advantage of his opportunity and that has been a pleasant surprise. Any team could’ve had this guy right before the season for nothing and now he has five points in eight games. Washington really needed someone to step up with the Burakovsky, Brett Connolly, and Tyler Graovac injuries and he’s been one who has done that.
- After Thursday’s practice, Coach Trotz noted that with guys close to returning from injury he now has five lines of forwards and four defensive pairs practicing and he likes that because it brings competition. Well, I think it is no surprise that many players increased their compete level and were structured, strong on the walls, and won numerous one on one battles in this contest against the Penguins. When players are comfortable and aren’t pushed, they don’t do the hard work and little things necessary to win hockey games. Now that jobs are on the line, suddenly every guy with a Caps sweater on in Friday’s tilt was giving everything they had. There’s another example of socialism not working!
- I’ve been tough on Vrana and Alex Chiasson during the early part of this season. Both have had their on-ice issues and they have struggled to contribute in a substantial way. On this evening, both made a key play in an important situation that helped the Caps win. On Stephenson’s goal, Chiasson went to the net and created havoc in front of Matt Murray (27 saves). While he doesn’t have the best set of hands and his skating needs a lot of work, #39 at least knew to crash the cage there and what is likely keeping him in the lineup is his penalty killing. As for Vrana, he needs to compete harder and getting out there with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson is a good fit for him. #13 still can perform better and he needs to bury some of his chances, but his play on the empty net clincher was a combination smart decision and pure speed.
- Special teams have been a problem area for the Caps so far this season. The power play had become stagnant and the penalty kill was struggling having to kill too many opportunities. On Friday, both of those units were big reasons the Capitals were victorious. Caps assistant coach Blaine Forsythe added some new wrinkles to the power play and they connected twice in six opportunities (9:11 of man advantage time). Oshie gets a lot of credit for creating havoc in front of the net, but the passing was crisper and there was some good rotation. Alex Ovechkin (1 assist) had a great chance a couple of minutes before #77’s goal on the man advantage, but he shot wide. Perhaps the biggest story though, was the way Washington handled the Penguins power play, which is one of the deadliest in the league. The Caps did a great job of keeping the Pens on the perimeter and keeping the crease clear so that Holtby could see the puck. The Holtbeast was superb and was a major reason Pittsburgh went 0 for 4 with the man advantage.
- Liam O’Brien, who was called up a week ago, only played 4:36, but it was an important stretch. In the first period, one of the toughest guys in the league and lead agitator, Ryan Reaves, was trying to intimidate the Caps and help give the star players on the Penguins more room on the ice. Reaves was jawing at Tom Wilson from the get go in this one and he hit O’Brien on an early shift. #87, recognizing that Reaves was trying to set a tone and get Washington off of their game, took Ryan on and got beat quickly in a fight. However, he took Reaves off of the ice for five minutes and after that #75 was nowhere to be found and became a non factor in the contest. Well done, Liam, way to take one for the team.
- Finally, an immense amount of credit for the Capitals staying afloat during this early stretch with key injuries goes to Holtby. Braden is now 9-3 with a .924 save percentage this season. He’s been outstanding and the team’s MVP playing behind a much more inexperienced defense. The Holtbeast won his 200th career game on Friday and became the 2nd fastest goalie to 200 wins (319 games) since the legendary Ken Dryden did it with the Montreal Canadiens in 311 tilts (h/t Tarik El-Bashir of NBC Sports Washington).
In summary, this was a gritty and gutsy effort by the Caps on Friday night. They played structured and strong hockey and won a lot of little battles all over the ice. It was a team effort and they played the way they’ll need to in order to be successful this season.
It was their best game.
Notes: Pittsburgh is now 9-7-2 (20 points) and has a -17 goal differential. They’ve lost key depth, too, due to the salary cap and have yet to win on the tail end of back to back games, as well. They had not played since Tuesday, though, like the Capitals. Historical Cap killers Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, and Matt Cullen are no longer wearing the black and gold and Washington benefited from that…the Caps outhit the Penguins, 30-17…shot attempts were 59-56 for Pittsburgh, but the Caps got more on the cage, 31-28…the Caps won the face off battle, 34-26. Jay Beagle was 13-4 and Backstrom went 7-4…Orpik played 21:38 on the back end and had one of his best games of the season. He kept Patrick Hornqvist and company off of the Holtbeast all night long…next up for the Caps are the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday night at 7:00 pm at Capital One Arena.