After giving away Thursday night’s game in Florida to the Panthers, the Washington Capitals needed a victory very badly. On Saturday night at Capital One Arena the Washington stars came out to play as the Caps rolled the Buffalo Sabres, 5-1, getting two goals from Alexander Ovechkin and four points from Evgeny Kuznetsov (one goal, three assists). Andre Burakovsky had the game winning tally with a gorgeous end to end rush goal and Philipp Grubauer made 28 saves.
The triumph, combined with the Penguins loss to the Panthers on Saturday, puts Washington back in first place in the Metropolitan Division with a 35-20-7 (77 points) record with 20 games remaining. The Pens have 19 games to play while second place Philadelphia is also at 76 points with 20 games left. This race is close now, but as we’ll discuss later in this blog, Pittsburgh made a huge trade that changes the landscape in the Eastern Conference.
Here are eight thoughts and analysis following a game the Capitals pretty much had to have against a struggling squad.
Second Fiddle – There’s an Alabama song that goes, “If you’re going to play in Texas, you have to have a fiddle in the band.” For the Washington Capitals, when Kuznetsov plays the second fiddle role well in support of top line center Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps are a hard team to beat. Kuzy’s opening salvo was a superb individual effort that was only surpassed by Burkie’s second period beautiful lamp lighter. The talent that #92 has is insane and the question often becomes, which Kuzy is going to show up each night? When Kuznetsov is skating and playing the right way, like he did on Saturday with four shots on goal, the opposing defense is in big trouble.
Catch Me If You Can – The Penguins have been on a tear lately and Geno Malkin hit goal #36 on Saturday night while both teams were simultaneously playing. For #71, that’s something like 14 goals in his last 13 games as the Pens have been on fire despite their loss in the Sunshine State. Ovechkin must have been hearing the Malkin footsteps in the goal scoring race because Ovi was in beast mode against Buffalo. The Gr8 had 11 shots on net and his two third period markers pushed him up to 38 total tallies for the season. His 37th was a sweet top shelf cheese shot on the power play and then he closed out the scoring with a great deflection of a John Carlson blast in the final two minutes. Alex is arguably playing the best hockey of his career. His skating is outstanding – he could’ve scored on several other chances in which he used his speed to generate opportunities – and he’s playing well in all three zones.
He’s Going to 11– Burakovsky, after being benched again a few weeks ago, is finally playing like the guy who dominated game six against the Penguins last spring. He’s skating the best he has all year and he’s attacking the net. Over his last seven games he’s scored four goals and has two assists. Andre’s number, 65, adds to 11, and he’s reaching that level right now. Hopefully he can keep it up because he’s a difference maker when he plays this way, along with Lars Eller, because he gives Washington a third scoring line.
Solid as a Rock – Grubauer defeated the Sabres for the second straight time this week and he’s now won three games in a row. Over his last four appearances, that include a mop up third period in the Chicago debacle last Saturday night, he’s stopped 102 of 108 shots for a .944 save percentage. #31 is now 7-7-3 with a .919 save percentage this season. The Capitals are not in first place and are likely fighting for their playoff lives if they don’t have Philipp as their backup goaltender.
How Do You Like Them Apples? – Carlson, who was burnt badly on the game tying tally in Florida on Thursday night, continues to put up the points on the back end. He made a super pass to Ovi for his power play marker that broke this one open and then he made a smart play to fire the puck on net late allowing Ovechkin to notch a sweet deflection goal. John is an unrestricted free agent this summer and he’s having a monster year offensively. If the Caps are confident they can sign him long term, then the back end is set for many years to come. If not, General Manager Brian MacLellan needs to work the phones hard to get a top return for #74 before Monday’s 3 pm trading deadline. Carlson’s offense certainly dictates a huge payday, but his defensive zone, like many blue liners on Washington, has been very lax and inconsistent since the All Star Break. That needs to improve if the Caps want to make a serious playoff run this spring.
Southbound Again – On Saturday night, the Capitals played the right way, for the most part. They were shooting the puck and playing the north-south style they will need to employ to be successful from here on out. Washington had 36 shots on goal, including 16 in a third period that saw them start the frame up two pucks. Getting pucks and bodies to the cage is how you score in the playoffs and Coach Barry Trotz’ crew did that fairly well against a weak Buffalo squad that was without both Jack Eichel (injured) and Evander Kane (scratched in advance of a trade). There was no sitting back with the lead and as a result, they won going away after a really bad shift to start period three. The Sabres needed only 14 seconds to slice the Caps 2-0 lead in half. Backstrom and the top d-pair of Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen each had defensive zone breakdowns that led to a sweet backhanded goal for Sam Reinhart. Other than that sequence and a really terrible offensive zone cross ice pass by T.J. Oshie in period three with a one goal lead, there was not a lot to be upset about for the Caps. Washington, as a team, needs to ditch that cross ice crap at the offensive blue line. #77 was better on the puck in this affair, but he needs to start shooting more often. He has a great shot, but has been falling into a Harlem Globetrotters “pretty play” mentality too often, of late.
Landscape Change – On Friday, the Pittsburgh Penguins completed a very shady deal with the Ottawa Senators and Vegas Golden Knights to get center Derrick Brassard. Caps fans remember him from his days with the Rangers and the Blue Jackets. The Pens were hurt by the offseason losses of Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen as third and fourth line centers, respectively, so this really improves their roster. PIT gave up defensemen Ian Cole (to Ottawa) and fourth line goon, Ryan Reaves (to Vegas) in a deal that sees former Capital GM George McPhee retain 40% of Brassard’s salary to prevent Derrick from going to Winnipeg and also to stick it to the franchise who fired him (and that firing should’ve been done a lot sooner). Pittsburgh also gave up their 2018 first round pick and top goalie prospect, Filip Gustavsson from Sweden. The add of Brassard clearly puts the Penguins as the front runner for their third straight Stanley Cup. For Washington to have a chance against the Pens, they’ll need to upgrade their defense by Monday’s deadline with a legit second pair blue liner to play with Carlson. A depth forward that can skate would help, as well.
Notes: Eller had an empty net goal to make it 4-1 with 2:12 remaining. That was Lars’ 14th goal of the season…shot attempts were 77-63 for Washington…the Caps were one for one on the power play and two for two on the penalty kill…the Capitals tied the faceoff battle at 31 apiece. Backstrom was 11-8 and Jay Beagle was 8-6. Ryan O’Reilly went 19-9 for the Sabres…Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov led the Caps in ice time with 23:58 and 23:50, respectively. They are the Capitals best defensive pair, but that isn’t saying a whole lately as the blueline has been struggling since the All Star Break…Michal Kempny, who was on the ice for two goals against on Thursday, played 16:59. Christian Djoos had sixth defensemen minutes, with 15:03 of ice time, but he was +2…Madison Bowey and recently acquired from Montreal, Jakub Jerabek, were the scratches on defense…Jakub Vrana rode the pine on offense as Alex Chiasson went back into the lineup on the third line…the Caps are in Columbus on Monday and then come home to take on Ottawa on Tuesday. After that, the next tilt is the Stadium Series game against Toronto on Saturday night (8 pm) at the Naval Academy stadium in Annapolis. Auston Matthews will not play for the Leafs due to a shoulder injury.