Evgeny Kuznetsov batted home the biscuit after a diving Alex Ovechkin moved the puck to the goal line to give the Washington Capitals a wild 6-5 overtime triumph against the New York Rangers at Capital One Arena on Sunday afternoon. The win, after a “zero emotion” loss in Buffalo, as analyst Alan May called it, improves the Caps to 35-21-7 (77 points) and pulls them within two points of the Metropolitan Division leading Islanders, who have two games in hand.
This was a crazy contest with some weird bounces and there was a lot to like and dislike.
Let’s start with the bad and then finish on a high note to match how this game progressed.
Washington gave up two goals in the first 30 seconds of a period (first and third) and also allowed two goals in the last two minutes of a period (second and third). The last one was on a six on five with Henrik Lundqvist pulled and the Caps have really been struggling in those situations lately. I’m not sure if it is fatigue, but they are not getting enough pressure on their opponents to get a steal and a timely clear that would lead to an empty net clinching tally. I wouldn’t mind seeing Jakub Vrana get a look late because of his speed, which could force the offense into mistakes. He’s had an empty goal before, last year against the Penguins, so he’s certainly capable of producing in that situation.
The Caps blew leads of 3-1 and 5-3 in this affair. They have struggled all season at closing games out, for the most part. One of the issues has been getting three forwards caught deep in the offensive zone which is allowing their opponents to get odd man rushes. They’ve also been sucked into some track meets with the lead instead of going into lock down mode. It’s something that needs to be worked on because this team closed out games so successfully in the spring of 2018.
Pheonix Copley (26 saves) allowed four long range goals in this tilt. In his defense, there were screens and tips on most of them, but you’d like to see him stop at least one of those tallies, especially at least one or two of the third period markers.
On the positive side of the ledger, there were a lot of things that make you feel optimistic about the remaining 19 games of the regular season and hopefully the playoffs.
Copley didn’t have his best game, but with the score 1-0 early and the Caps still asleep at the wheel, he stopped an all alone Brendan Smith on a clear one on one with a super stick save to protect the five hole. If the puck goes in, who knows if the Capitals come back and prevail? Also, in the extra session, the Rangers had the puck for the first few minutes and Pheonix had to make a big save to keep this one going before the Russian trio pulled out the W.
Nicklas Backstrom, who had a long goal scoring drought due to matching up against the opposition’s top line so frequently because of his defensive prowess, had a big day with two goals. He also hit the cross bar and was denied on a good chance in overtime for the hat trick. Backy also stepped up on face offs on Sunday, something that has plagued a team that is great with the puck and not so good chasing it. Nicky was 15-13 on draws and the Caps were only 28-30, which is much better than the butt whipping they’ve taken from the dot so frequently, of late (Kuznetsov was still an abysmal 3-8).
Washington’s fourth line of newly acquired Carl Hagelin, Nic Dowd, and Travis Boyd had several strong shifts in this affair. Coach Todd Reirden has been searching for some chemistry on that unit all campaign and he may have finally found it. Hagelin’s speed is a real difference maker because he stretches the ice for a team that likes to employ the long pass to spread out their opponents. After the Rangers tied the game just 21 ticks into period three, the fourth line grabbed momentum back for Washington. Brooks Orpik made a nice pinch in and puck rush on the left wing wall and then behind the goal line. He then moved the disc to Boyd, who swung it to Dowd in the slot for a huge tally on Lundqvist (29 saves). Orpik was able to make that move because he trusted Hagelin with his experience and speed to cover the point for him.
Nick Jensen, who along with a fifth round pick, was acquired on defense from Detroit on Friday for Madison Bowey and a Caps second round choice, fit in nicely with Orpik on Sunday in his Caps debut. He also stepped up on the penalty kill late in regulation when Brooks was boxed on a bogus call that left the Caps a man down when it should’ve been two minors each way, but zebras gonna zebra! Jensen skates well and makes quick and decisive passes. He logged only 14:16, but he also had three shots on goal and was +1. I’d expect his ice time to go up as he learns more of the Capitals system. General Manager Brian MacLellan likes this player so much that he immediately signed him to a four year, $10M contract extension, so the Caps blue line looks solid for years ahead. (Note: I always liked Bowey’s potential, but over the last year he regressed with his skating. He did suffer a serious leg injury a couple of years ago in Hershey, so I’m not sure if that was a factor in his struggling wheels.)
There were many times in this game when the Caps looked like they were going to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The Rangers are a young and hungry team and played with nothing to lose. They are fast and just kept coming at Washington, no matter the score. However, in the end the Capitals showed resiliency and found a way to get a much needed two points. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov were not very good on Sunday, but when their team needed them most, they delivered.
Notes: John “Norris” Carlson logged a game high 28:36 and had a gorgeous assist on Backstrom’s first goal…the Caps were 1 for 3 on the power play and 3 for 4 while shorthanded. Tom Wilson notched his career high 17th goal with the man advantage…next up for the Caps are the Ottawa Senators in DC on Tuesday night at 7 pm.