The Chicago Blackhawks came to the Verizon Center on Friday night as the top team in the Western Conference and were riding a four game winning streak.
After 20 minutes they trailed, 3-0, and were pretty much destroyed by the Washington Capitals after three periods, 6-0. Braden Holtby made 24 saves, many of which were of the ten bell variety in the middle frame when Chicago was trying to get back in the contest, while Karl Alzner went +4 in his team record 500th straight game and Jay Beagle had two goals to lead the offense.
Simply put, this was a beat down and the Capitals turned in one of their finest first periods of the season out shot attempting Coach Joel Quenneville’s squad, 30-11.
The Caps, who earned their eighth straight victory and are now 28-9-5 (61 points) overall, have steadily been improving their game and over the last 8 days it has really come together in huge wins over Columbus, Montreal, Pittsburgh and Chicago by scores of 5-0, 4-1, 5-2, and 6-0. Keep in mind that those four clubs are among the top five in the NHL (the Caps are the other). As Holtby said afterwards, the Capitals were motivated to play those teams and when they’re motivated they are a much better team.
Following last spring’s bitter defeat to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Caps Coach Barry Trotz and GM Brian MacLellan both talked about the need to play faster to keep up with “PIT,” as the Caps bench boss calls them. MacLellan traded with Montreal to add Lars Eller at center and he signed free agent wing Brett Connolly to a one year deal. Since the Caps brass has decided to stop experimenting with some of the younger guys from Hershey and gone with the best 12 skaters, this team has taken off. A big part of that has been the emergence of the Connolly-Eller-Andre Burakovsky unit as a fast and dangerous third line. In addition, Evgeny Kuzentsov has elevated his play significantly.
On the backend, rearranging the defensive pairs has given Coach Trotz what he calls a balanced group of six versus focusing on having a top four and that strategy, along with rolling all four lines, has paid off. The Caps are fresher and as a result the coach states that his club has extra energy to back check more effectively. This club is doing that part of the game significantly better than it ever has in the Alex Ovechkin era. They are turning good defense into offense and on Friday night it paid off with five tallies off of the rush. Speed kills in the NHL and the Capitals are starting to really find that part of their game.
When they do have breakdowns, and believe me against a quality team like Chicago there were several of those – especially in period two, the Holtbeast has been downright stellar in net and he’s had 3 shutouts in his last five starts. In fact, you have to go back to the Toronto game on Tuesday, January 3rd to find an instance where he allowed an even strength marker to his opponents. Holtby is dialed in and as I tweeted during period two, in that frame, on a scale of 1 to 10, the Holtbeast was an 11.
There was a lot to like in this game, the Beagle line, which struggled at times against the Penguins, was just dynamite on Friday. Tom Wilson had one of his best outings and on the score sheet it resulted in a goal and two assists. #43 continues to play superbly on the penalty kill and #83 was such a hound dog on the two Chicago power plays that after one of those shorthanded shifts the crowd gave him a well deserved ovation. Beagle had a game high eight shots on goal in 13:24 of action.
Washington’s top line had another quality game and pumped in two goals. Ovechkin made a slick pass to T.J. Oshie who subsequently fed Nicklas Backstrom for an easy lamp lighter just 13 seconds after the Caps opened the scoring. That goal was a thing of beauty and deflated the Hawks. The Caps then showed killer instinct and Burakovksy’s great hit and steal on the right wing end boards allowed him to feed Eller for an in close shot. Corey Crawford (5 goals allowed on 30 shots) made the initial stop, but Connolly, who is such a smart hockey player, was right there at the far post for the rebound to put the Blackhawks three pucks down and in serious trouble.
Chicago threw the kitchen sink at the Caps early in period two and they did score, but the tally was correctly wiped out when Coach Trotz successfully challenged for goaltender interference. The replay clearly shows Marian Hossa hitting Holtby’s blocker, which prevented #70 from sliding over to stop the back door shot. Washington would survive that onslaught, thanks primarily to Holtby and then after killing a Nate Schmidt holding penalty, the Caps went the other way and scored. Eller made a great bank pass off of the right wing boards to #88 in the neutral zone. As Schmidty was halfway into the offensive zone, he lost an edge and started falling backwards. Nate then alertly fired the puck towards the slot and it nicked Brian Campbell’s stick on the way over and ended up on Wilson’s twig. Willy buried it to make it 4-0 with 2:59 remaining in the middle stanza.
At that point, it was pretty much game over and Oshie and Beagle added third period tallies to close out the scoring, with the last goal by #83 coming against Scott Darling (3 saves).
This run by the Capitals has been super impressive, but again, we are still in January; the playoffs are three months out. But what’s different from last season is that this club is deeper. They have four lines and an experienced group of defensemen that allows Coach Trotz to manage ice time and reduce the chance for injuries. In addition, there should be plenty in the tank for Ovechkin and Backstrom come April given the reduced average ice time they’ve been receiving.
Things are certainly looking up in Caps land. Now they just need to stay healthy and keep working on the details and habits, as Connolly calls them, in their system.
Notes: Washington crushed Chicago in face offs, 31-12. Backstrom was 9-2 and Eller was 9-1…Ovi only played 16:09 and Backstrom just 14:59…the Kuznetsov line was the only one to not score, but they had 7 shots on net out of 34 total for Washington..Final shot attempts were 60-55, for the Caps…15 of the 18 Capitals skaters were at least +1 (Marcus Johansson, Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams were not on for a goal)…the Capitals had 0 power plays on Friday night and in two games against the Blackhawks, have had no man advantage situations….Chicago was 0 for 2 on the power play…that’s 8 straight games where the opposition has had more PPs than the Caps…next up for the Caps are the Flyers at 1 pm on Sunday afternoon. The game will be televised on NBC…Washington is still in second in the Metro Division and in the NHL since Columbus defeated Tampa, 3-1, on Friday night.