Braden Holtby made 35 saves and the Washington Capitals received second period goals from T.J. Oshie, Andre Burakovsky, and Matt Niskanen to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets, 3-2 at Nationwide Arena on Sunday Night.
The Caps victory improves their record to 52-18-8 (112 points) and it pretty much ends any chance Columbus has of winning the Metropolitan Division. They are now six points behind with four games remaining and the Pittsburgh Penguins moved into second place, five points back, with their win over Carolina on Sunday. The Pens also have just four games remaining.
After playing the worst first period of the season and getting blown out in Arizona on Friday (6-3), Coach Trotz’ club came ready to play in this affair. Washington’s Justin Williams had several good chances to score, but Sergei Bobrovsky (27 saves) was excellent early on. Both Holtby and “Bob” were on their craft in the scoreless opening frame.
In the middle stanza the Caps took over quickly. Nicklas Backstrom made a great cross ice outlet pass to Oshie on the right wing boards that #77 skated after while Alex Ovechkin was flying down the center of the ice. It looked like Oshie, after corralling the loose biscuit, was going to pass the puck, but with the Gr8 smartly going to the net, Oshie was able to skate into the slot and lift a backhander past Bobrovsky at 1:12. Ovi creating havoc in front was certainly a big factor in Oshie’s 33rd tally of the season.
Pay the Man!
Just 1:44 later the Caps increased their cushion to two. Kevin Shattenkirk fed Lars Eller in the neutral zone and the third line center carried the puck down the right boards and eventually tracked towards going behind the net. #20 then did his best Evgeny Kuznetsov imitation to spin around and pass back to Burakovsky in the right wing circle. Andre then buried his 12th goal of the season top shelf and into a very tiny window with an incredibly skillful shot.
The Capitals would continue to keep the heat on Columbus and Burakovsky, the game’s official number one star, set up Matt Niskanen all alone on Bobrovsky with a sensational pass on a two on one rush. The American defenseman skated in and quickly beat Bob to the far post for a 3-0 lead with 10:05 gone in period two.
From there things opened up since Columbus had to gamble to try and get back in the game. Washington certainly gave them their share of chances as they were caught out of position on multiple occasions, which led to several Blue Jacket odd man rushes. Fortunately the Holtbeast was dialed in and he kept it 3-0 after 40 minutes.
In the final frame, the Caps played fairly solid to preserve their three goal lead, but then at 9:22 Karl Alzner got caught in the offensive zone and Jack Johnson skated up the ice and around John Carlson and Tom Wilson to get a clean look against Holtby. #7 made no mistake about it and suddenly we had a game.
Things then became physical and heated. Josh Anderson took a run at Ovechkin at a whistle and then he hit the Gr8 in the head with a punch when everyone came to together at the Columbus blue line. It was clearly a John Tortorella type cheap shot tactic to try and bait the Caps into at least a four on four situation, but when it was all said and done, Anderson received four minutes for roughing, while Ovi only was whistled for a single minor for roughing. Wilson and Kyle Quincey also were sent to the sin bin and the Capitals received a power play with 8:39 remaining. Somehow the fact that Bobrovsky left the crease area to join the donnybrook wasn’t penalized.
Washington had a chance to close this one out, but they failed and sure enough, the Blue Jackets cut the lead to one on a Quincey point shot that Holtby didn’t see cleanly with Sam Gagner and Backstrom directly in front of him. That tally came with 4:27 left. Columbus would pull “Bob” for the extra attacker and they very nearly tied it up at the horn, but the Holtbeast stoned Seth Jones on the doorstep with three ticks left.
This was a highly intense hockey game and provides a sneak preview of how things will go next week when the playoffs begin on April 12th. The contest was very physical and there were many post whistle scrums. It will be important for the Caps to keep their discipline because given their inability to play well at four on four this season, there is no doubt in my mind that opponents will try and bait them into penalties that could create that situation.
There were several positives that came out of this win. First off, the Holtbeast was outstanding and he outplayed Bobrovsky. Washington needs #70 to be at the top of his game if they want to make it out of the Metropolitan Division playoffs (rounds one and two). Second, despite playing only 13 shifts and just over eight minutes and 20 seconds of even strength time together, the 3rd line was very good. There is no doubt that when Burakovsky, Eller, and Brett Connolly are playing their game that the Capitals are extremely tough to match up against. Third, from a standings and home ice perspective, the Caps need just three more points (either Washington points gained or Pittsburgh points missed) to clinch the Presidents’ Trophy (Chicago has 107 points and only 3 games left). Given the way Washington plays so well at home and the fact that Coach Trotz can dictate the matchups in four of the seven tilts in each series, home ice is big from a strategic standpoint.
Finally, it was important for the Caps to win a low scoring game to remind them of how to close out a win in one of those tilts that we should see quite a bit of in the spring. It wasn’t a textbook “protect a lead” performance, but being able to hold off a very desperate team in their own building was big for Holtby and the entire Capitals club. Their defensive posture took a major step in the right direction after some shaky efforts on a road trip that saw them allow 13 goals in the first three games, including nine tallies to the two worst teams in the NHL. Defense wins championship and holding Tortorella’s crew to two tallies has to build confidence.
Confidence is such an important part of hockey and Washington needs to have that going into the post season.
Notes: Washington won the faceoff battle, 34-20. Jay Beagle was 10-6 while Kuznetsov went 9-3…shots on goal were 24-20, Caps, after 40 minutes, but ended up, 37-30, for Columbus. Shot attempts were 68-46 for CBus. A lot of that is score effects, but the Capitals have to learn to get more pressure and chances on their opponents when they are leading the game without abandoning their defensive structure…both teams were 0 for 2 on the power play…Carlson led the Capitals in ice time with 23:41…the Caps next game, and final one on this five game, eight day road trip, is in Toronto on Tuesday night.