Evgeny Kuznetsov scored on the power play with 57 seconds left in regulation after Nicklas Backstrom drew a holding penalty on Mikael Backlund with 1:58 remaining to propel the Washington Capitals to a 4-3 victory over the Western Conference leading Calgary Flames and end the Caps seven game losing streak. The triumph improves the Capitals to 28-17-6 (62 points) and they are tied for second place with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have an identical record, just two points behind the first place New York Islanders in the Metropolitan Division.
What follows are my thoughts and analysis of a much needed win for the Capitals.
Alexander Ovechkin, who leads the NHL in goals with 37, was suspended for this tilt because he chose to skip the NHL All Star Game in San Jose to get some much needed rest. Washington as a whole needed the All Star break and subsequent bye week to get away from the game and recharge because they looked gassed during the latter stages of their losing streak. The Caps were playing bad hockey, hopefully just caused by fatigue, by forcing pucks to the middle of the ice at the offensive blue line and that was leading to numerous odd man rushes and scoring chances for their opponents. In addition, their defensive zone coverage and overall play was suspect and lacked energy. That made things difficult for the goaltenders, which suddenly lost the roll they were on when the Capitals won 16 of 19 games before the slide.
Prior to Friday’s tilt against the fast and talented Flames, Washington Capitals Coach Todd Reirden emphasized that the team needed to return to a more structured game. What he meant was smarter decisions with the puck – specifically getting the biscuit deep in the offensive zone, either on net or below the goal line, and then working the opposition to create scoring opportunities. He also wanted a more committed effort in the neutral and defensive zones to limit opposing scoring chances. He received a lot of that against Calgary. The Capitals didn’t yield many odd man rushes in this affair and the Flames had to really work to generate shots. They are a very good team, so naturally they had their looks, but much like they did last spring, Washington blocked a lot of shots, 27 in total!
When you get 40 shots on goal, you are making smarter decisions with the biscuit, and the Caps did just that in this affair. The Flames Mike Smith (36 saves) used his size to make some big stops, especially in period two when Washington failed to increase their 3-2 lead on three consecutive power plays. What was impressive about the Capitals offense was that they just kept firing the puck and put bodies to the cage. They didn’t get frustrated and resort to trying to make the perfect play. It takes energy to fight to the front of the net and get some ugly goals, but the Caps did that. Nic Dowd opened the scoring tipping home Norris Trophy candidate John Carlson’s point blast with Devante Smith-Pelly also providing net presence on the play. The Capitals second goal was a sequence where they won the puck down low, Brett Connolly then made a super pass to Brooks Orpik at the left point, and #44’s shot was right on the cage and hard to handle for Smith. Lars Eller kept the puck alive and then Dmitrij Jaskin potted the rebound to make it 2-1 late in period one.
Washington’s special teams have been much maligned of late with the power play falling to 10th in the NHL and the penalty killing in the bottom fourth of the league (25th at 77.7% overall). Against Calgary, the Caps didn’t score on their first three man advantage situations, although T.J. Oshie, who played from the Ovi spot, hit the post. However, Kuzy saved the unit and the game with his rush goal with the man advantage late in regulation. The Caps did a better job of staying out of the box, although I hated Dmitry Orlov’s lazy offensive zone holding penalty in the third period, so they only had to kill two Flames power plays. They were fortunately successful, although James Neal had a couple of great chances that, like in game four of the Stanley Cup Final, he did not bury.
In the sixth loss of the streak the Caps gave up a goal with one second left against San Jose and then lost in overtime. The defensive pair at the time of the tying tally was Matt Niskanen and Michal Kempny. For some reason, Orpik, who was +3 in that game in only 12 minutes of ice time, didn’t see the surface over the last 3:52. It’s possible he was banged up, because he didn’t play in Toronto the next night, but given the way he historically has been deployed – he’s usually on the ice at the end when the Caps are holding a one goal lead; it was head scratching that he wasn’t out there and if he would’ve been, the Capitals would’ve won. Against the Flames, Orpik was on the ice at the end of the game as Calgary tried to tie things up with Smith pulled for the extra attacker. Brooks cleaned house in front of the net, along with Backstrom, who put Johnny Gaudreau into the boards, and Washington never gave up a quality scoring chance as the clock expired. It was nice to see the coaches get the proper players on the ice in a key situation there. Orpik also got into it with pesky Matthew Tkachuk after the horn with each getting five for fighting.
Braden Holtby, who was stellar in the All Star Game, especially in the match up versus the Atlantic Division team when he stopped about six straight odd man rush chances, had a strong game. The three goals he allowed on 30 shots were a breakaway where Jonas Siegenthaler was badly beaten one on one by Backlund and then two deflection tallies. Holts’ biggest stop of the evening was on Neal at the left post. When Washington plays strong defense, it is much easier for the Holtbeast to know where the shots are coming from. The Caps still have work to do to get their game going full throttle, but Friday’s play was a strong step in the right direction.
Notes: The Caps, who were dead last in the NHL in face-offs at 46.2% coming into the game, were 33-41 (45%) against Calgary. Dowd was 7-4, Kuznetsov went 5-15, and Backstrom was 12-19…the Caps might need to look at adding a faceoff/PK specialist for the stretch run and playoffs (Brian Boyle anyone?)…Kuznetsov (1 goal, 1 assist) and Tom Wilson (14th goal of the season) led the team with six shots on net…Willy had six hits in 20:31 of ice time. He is a beast and such an important part of this team…Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 27:37. He should win the Norris Trophy this season, if I had my way….next up for the Caps are the Boston Bruins on Sunday at 12:30 pm from Capital One Arena in the annual Super Bowl Matinee.