Matt Niskanen picked the right time to finally score his first goal of the season.
The Caps defensemen tallied to give the Caps an early third period 3-2 lead after some great board work by T.J. Oshie and then he closed the deal with 1:58 remaining in regulation on a power play with his second of the night and of the campaign.
Braden Holtby made 26 saves and several of them, which were all world stops, especially the two on Josh Bailey on the door step, occurred in the third period when it was 3-2. The Holtbeast, after Niskanen, was the biggest reason Washington won their fifth straight game and exited Brooklyn with a 4-2 victory over the Islanders.
This contest didn’t start so well for Washington. In net for New York was long time nemesis Jaroslav Halak (34 saves), who recently shut them out on December 1st at the Verizon Center, 3-0, with 38 stops. The Caps, who at times get caught up in a perimeter game, did quite a bit of that in a first period. Although they outshot the Islanders, 14-12, they trailed 1-0 when Anders Lee beat Holtby on a shot in the slot where John Carlson’s stick either caused a redirection or at least threw off the ability of Braden to track the shot. Overall, though, New York had the better of the play and their forecheck gave Washington problems in their own zone.
Period two was a totally different story. The Caps came out more determined to pin the Islanders back in their own end and their forechecking game was relentless. Time and time again Washington generated scoring chances on Halak, who did all he could to keep his team in the game. The Capitals were more physical than they’ve been in recent outings and the wear on the Islanders blue line became apparent as the game progressed.
The Caps got on the board when Lars Eller blocked a shot in his own zone and it sprung he and Brett Connolly on a two on one rush against a tired Nick Leddy. Connolly, who I’ve been wanting back in the lineup for quite awhile because of his forechecking skills and willingness to go to the net, went straight to the cage and tapped his stick on the ice signaling #20 to feed him the biscuit. Eller did just that and Connolly redirected it upstairs over Halak for his third goal of the season in 16 games, which is one more than the first time scratched Andre Burakovsky has put up in 26 games (and he has 0 goals in his last 25 tilts).
Jakub Vrana assisted on that marker and he also earned an assist on the second Caps goal, which came on the power play. Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) made a nice rush behind the offensive net and fed #13 in the slot. Vrana, who has a quick and deadly shot, fired the puck at the cage and it apparently hit Justin Williams on the way in. It was Mr. Crazy Hair’s fourth goal in five games and his sixth of the season. Good things happen when you shoot and go to the net.
After a Kuznetsov giveaway and bad coverage by that Caps line, the Islanders tied it up on a Leddy shot that went through a lot of traffic. That was one of the few New York opportunities in that frame.
With the score tied 2-2, the Capitals came out and really took it to New York to get the lead on Niskanen’s early final frame tally and then midway through the period the Islanders fought back and had a great push, but the Holtbeast would not be beaten. Washington then was relentless on the puck after those five or six Holtby gems, and Daniel Winnik drew a late penalty to set up the Niskanen insurance tally.
Winnik was really flying again in this one and he, Jay Beagle, and Tom Wilson have formed a great fourth line. Eller, Vrana, and Connolly gave Coach Barry Trotz a strong outing as well and with Nicklas Backstrom, Oshie, and Marcus Johansson playing so solid at both ends, it was easy to see how the Caps led the game in shots on goal at 38-28 and in shot attempts, 67-52.
The Caps, over the last three games, have really started to play their game. When they forget about being fancy and shying away from the hard areas of the ice and focus on using their speed and size to get to the interior of their opponents, they are very hard to beat. Once guys started going to the net in the second period on, life got really difficult for Halak. To me, the key to the victory was the second frame where Washington was all over the Islanders and wore them down.
At the other end of the ice, New York is pretty good at getting bodies and pucks to the net. There were certainly stretches where they did that and it was up to Holtby to save the Caps in those instances, and he did. But for most of the last 40 minutes, Washington did a very good job at limiting shots and quality chances.
The Capitals, with this victory, improve to 18-7-3 (39 points), and are now in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division, but only two points in back of the 1st place Penguins and Rangers. The Rags were beaten by Chicago, 2-1, at MSG on Tuesday evening. In third place are the Blue Jackets. Columbus won their seventh straight over Connor McDavid and company in Edmonton, 3-1, on Tuesday. It’s pretty clear the Metro is the best division in hockey this season.
Notes: The Caps will have a team build in New York on Wednesday and will then head to Raleigh for a Thursday practice and a rematch against the Hurricanes on Friday night (The Canes crushed the Caps, 5-1, back on November 12th in the Tar Heel State). Carolina put up eight goals in an 8-6 victory over the Canucks on Tuesday night…Niskanen led the Caps in ice time with 23:00. On his second goal, Coach Trotz smartly put two defensemen on the points (Carlson) on that late power play to protect the one goal cushion and Nisky’s blast to make it 4-2 made it look even smarter…faceoffs were tied at 32 apiece, but Beagle went 13-6…the Caps had 21 hits after only having eight against the Canucks on Sunday afternoon…Oshie had 0 points but was in front of the net on both Niskanen goals. Williams had great net presence on his goal and Niskanen’s last tally, too…Alex Ovechkin only had two shots on goal, but he did have four hits…the Caps were 2 for 3 on the power play while New York was 0 for 2…Connolly only played 7:05, but he had two hits and the goal…I expect Burakovsky to sit again on Friday since #10 earned a jersey in Raleigh, once again, with his strong play.