Chandler Stephenson scored twice in 47 seconds early in the middle frame to erase a two goal deficit and Braden Holtby made 27 saves to lead Washington to a 5-3 victory over the despised Flyers on Wednesday night. T.J. Oshie notched the game winning goal on the power play in the third period and the Caps improved to 30-15-5 (65 points). They lead second place Pittsburgh by six points and have two games in hand.
Fresh after the five day All Star Break, the Capitals first period could be summed up in three simple Dr. Seuss like terms: Stink. Stank. Stunk.
The team played slow and there were turnovers galore. Both Flyers tallies came on the rush and Philadelphia would have had another goal if not for a dandy glove save by #70. It was ugly hockey and Coach Barry Trotz’ crew continued their trend of starting poorly coming out of a long break.
From the beginning of the second period on, the game was mostly a different story, especially after Stephenson scored his third and fourth goals of the season. In the opening frame, the Caps were pass happy and unwilling to throw the puck on net against a career backup in Michal Neuvirth. Credit Lars Eller for changing that pattern and igniting the Caps offense. #20 outraced a Flyer to negate an icing and he then sent the puck into Neuvy’s pads from the goal line. The Czech goalie, who was coming off a stomach bug, fumbled the disc in his pads and “Johnny on the Spot” Stephenson banged the biscuit home to give his team some life. Madison Bowey caught the Flyers in a bad line change and sprung #18 for a breakaway with a super long feed. Chandler then beat the Philly netminder five hole, like a rented mule, to tie this one up just 3:01 into period two.
After that, the Flyers had a quick push back, especially with the Capitals being sloppy in their own zone on several occasions. Coach Dave Hakstol’s team should’ve had the lead if not for two great saves by Holtby in the slot after another terrible Washington turnover. The Holtbeast made the first save and then stretched out his left pad to stop goal scoring phenom, Claude Giroux, at the left post. It was, once again, clutch goaltending from the best net minder in the league.
Washington would get the next two goals on the power play, but the first tally was a not so frequent one from the second unit. Once again, it was Eller who made a smart play instead of trying to thread the needle across the high slot to Alex Ovechkin. Lars spotted Andre Burakovsky parked at the top of the crease and his pass to #65 was deflected home at 14:32 of period two. The Caps would press the play towards the end of the second stanza, but couldn’t convert again.
As expected, the Flyers came out storming the castle in period three and Washington, who must’ve been listening to Air Supply’s Greatest Hits during the intermission, were sleep skating and guilty of turning the puck over multiple times. Burakovsky had two bad giveaways that led to Philly chances, but the Holtbeast bailed him out.
Tom Wilson then drew a hooking call on rookie Nolan Patrick just past the four minute mark and the Caps top power play unit made the Flyers pay dearly. Washington worked the puck around the perimeter and then Evgeny Kuznetsov gave Oshie a sweet feed in his diamond spot between the Flyers penalty killers that T.J. buried past Neuvirth on a one timer to make it 4-2. It was a much needed goal for the Osh Babe, who notched his 12th of the season, because it was his first goal since tallying in Arizona back on December 22nd.
The Capitals refused to sit back after going up two pucks and they pressed the play. Ovechkin missed a wide open net on a one timer that would’ve made it a three goal margin, but that wasn’t troubling since shortly thereafter they earned more quality chances. They would eventually cash in when Christian Djoos took a sweet cross ice feed from Jay Beagle on an odd man rush and fired the puck on net. Devante Smith-Pelly was crashing the cage and the disc hit him and went into the twine to make it 5-2 with 10:54 remaining.
The Flyers would get a goal with 9:20 to go, but from there the Capitals clamped things down and gave Philadelphia very little chances. Holtby shut the door with the Caps doing a solid job of letting him see any remaining shots.
Overall, this was a big division victory after a really poor first frame. The Caps top line of Kuznetsov, Wilson, and Ovi were each a minus two in the game, but they did a lot of good things. Wilson drew an important penalty and they were physical. The key to the contest, though, was Eller showing the Capitals that firing the puck on a shaky goalie and then going for rebounds was the way to prevail. It’s simple hockey, but it works well in this league. Washington has some big bodies up front so it’s imperative that they use their size to get to the front of the cage and make life difficult on opposing keepers. That style, versus the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition the team tries to play too often, is one that wins playoff games and series.
At the other end of the ice, the club has plenty of work to do to clean up their zone exits and coverage as they work through a stretch of 15 games in 28 days. Fortunately on Rivalry Night on NBC their all world goalie bailed them out and held them in the contest until they found their legs.
As a result, my number one star for the tilt was once again the Holtbeast.
Notes: The Caps take on the Penguins in the Steel City on Friday night…Burakovsky had four giveaways…Matt Niskanen had a strong game, one of his best all season, and he led the Capitals in ice time with 24:03…the Capitals were 2 for 3 on the power play and 1 for 1 on the penalty kill…Alex Lyon replaced Neuvirth once this one went to a 5-2 margin in period three…the Caps lost the battle of the draws, 36-26. Nicklas Backstrom was 10-10…shots on goal were 30-25 for Philly, but shot attempts were 52-49 for Washington…the Caps were 0-1-1 against the Flyers coming into this affair…the win snapped a three game home losing streak…anytime the Capitals defeat their biggest rival since 1974-75 you can bet that the sun shines brighter, the air smells cleaner, and the food and drink taste much better. Enjoy your Thursday, Caps fans!