“By the time I get to Phoenix, she’ll be rising…” – Glen Campbell
One night after Braden Holtby had me singing Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” Capitals backup goalie Pheonix Copley turned in an absolute gem of a performance making 35 saves at Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa in a Washington whitewashing of the Senators, 4-0. It was Copley’s first NHL shutout and he certainly earned it. Naturally, I now have that country smash hit by the late, great Campbell in my head as the Caps move into the Christmas break at 22-10-3 (47 points) overall and a four point lead over the second place Columbus Blue Jackets.
Coach Todd Reirden’s club has now won 14 of their last 17 games and a HUGE reason for this great run has been the stellar play of their two goalies, the Holtbeast and Copper. For the season, Holtby is 14-8-2 with a .914 save percentage and Copley is now 8-2-1 with a .912 save percentage. Pheonix’s numbers are impressive and he’s perhaps been the biggest surprise of the season for the Caps given that Washington, due to salary cap constraints, had to part ways with backup Philipp Grubauer after winning the Cup. Copley, who fittingly at this time of year hails from North Pole, Alaska, is very good at making the first save and his team has become very adept at making sure the rebound isn’t ending up in the back of their net. That was a major key to Saturday night’s triumph in Ottawa because the Senators had their share of quality chances. Capitals goaltending coach Scott Murray continues to do an outstanding job with his keepers.
On the Washington side of the ledger, the offense was humming and getting only four lamp lighters is probably a low total given the opportunities they had in this affair. Brett Connolly, whose overall game keeps rising in his third campaign with the Capitals, is having his best season ever. Conno tipped home a Jonas Seigenthaler point shot just 1:32 into the game to give Washington an early lead and a jump in their stride. Connolly is up to eight goals and 14 assists (22 points) in the first 35 games. Andre Burakovsky didn’t get an apple on Brett’s tally, but his wall work in the right wing corner against two Senators was “Oshie-like” and created the turnover that led to the goal. I’ve really liked the effort I’ve seen from Burky the last two nights and feel like if he keeps working hard and staying positive, he’ll start seeing some points pile up.
Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t have a point on Saturday night, but he was really flying, once again. The Capitals second line of Kuzy, Tom Wilson, and Jakub Vrana is really clicking right now. Vrana just keeps getting better and better and after getting stopped on a first period breakaway, it was #13 who really cemented this victory with a great stick lift of the Senators defense that led to his unassisted goal at 9:05 of period two that made it 3-0. He also received a celebratory face wash from the Capitals captain after he skated by the bench following the beautiful play. Vrana now has 11 goals and 9 helpers (20 points) in 35 games and he’s +13 overall. Like Kuzy, Willy didn’t have any points either, but he had six hits and created havoc all night for the Senators defense.
After a rough game on Friday night against Buffalo, the Capitals top line was better against Ottawa. Alex Ovechkin made a nice breakout pass to All Star Nicklas Backstrom that gave the Caps a three on two rush up the ice late in period one. Matt Niskanen joined the rush and with Nicky carrying the biscuit down the left wing boards, Nisky made a bee line for the net with his stick on the ice. Nicky then put one right on the tape of #2 and Matt tipped it home for a 2-0 Caps lead with 2:04 left in period one. That was a huge goal, and fundamental hockey, to really put the home club behind the eight ball after 20 minutes considering that both squads played on Friday and then had to travel late into the night to the capital city of the Great White North.
Coach Reirden made two lineup changes after Friday’s win inserting Travis Boyd for Devante Smith-Pelly on the fourth line and he also gave Tyler Lewington his first NHL game on the blue line. Tyler acquitted himself rather well in 13:07 of ice time going +1 while paired with Seigenthaler (16:15, 1 assist). The coaching staff, with the early lead, was able to pretty much roll the lines in this game with John Carlson being the team leader in ice time with a low total of 23:21. Carly and his defensive partner, Michal Kempny were +2 on the night. It was Kempny who put this one out of reach with 6:16 remaining in period two when his point shot ricocheted in off of a Senators player past Mike McKenna to make it 4-0. Connolly had an assist there and Burakovsky didn’t get a point again, but he made a smart play to move towards the net taking his defender with him. Kempny’s shot hit the player covering Burky and hit the twine. Good things happen when you get pucks and bodies to the net and the Capitals did that well on Saturday night.
The referees in this game, Eric Furlatt and Peter MacDougall, pretty much let the teams play. Ottawa had two power plays and the Caps had three and the officiating was very consistent, which doesn’t seem to happen a lot these days. Washington was good on the penalty kill, and that started with a great neutral zone presence that prevented Ottawa from coming into the offensive zone with speed. The Sens are a rush team with guys like Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, and Bobby Ryan, but the Capitals really didn’t let them come flying into their end at all in their two man advantage situations. The Caps power play struggled again, for the most part, although the last one late in the game showed signs of life. Kuznetsov hit the post and Backstrom missed a wide open net from the left side of the cage on a quick redirect.
Simply put, the Capitals have become a very good even strength team and they don’t have to rely on their power play to win them games these days. That’s the mark of a really good hockey team and there is no doubt the defending Stanley Cup Champions are once again among the top teams in the NHL.
The Capitals have given their fans another reason to smile this Christmas season, so everyone should enjoy the four day break!
Notes: Washington plays next on Thursday, December 27th at 7 pm at home against the Carolina Hurricanes…the Caps were creamed on faceoffs, 32-18. Lars Eller was 7-8…Ovechkin had 11 shot attempts after only five on Friday night (he had 14 against the Penguins on Wednesday)…the Capitals blocked 16 shots to just nine for Ottawa.