Tom Wilson scored just 54 seconds into his first home game of the season off of a gorgeous feed from Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals built a 3-0 lead, then hung on for a 4-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks on Thanksgiving Eve. The Caps, who are 4-1 since Willy returned from his suspension, have now won three straight for the first time this campaign and improved to 11-7-3 (25 points). They trail 1st place Columbus by just a single point in the Metropolitan Division.
Since there is lots of turkey to be eaten over the next several days, let’s get right to the highlights and analysis of this triumph.
Top Line Tommy’s return has led to a perfect five for five of quality efforts from the Capitals and it’s no surprise that the team has shown a huge uptick over that span. Wilson is physical, skates incredibly well for his size, and brings energy on and off of the ice. When he’s in the lineup, every player on the Caps seems to have more confidence. Willy has six points in five games and with Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie out due to upper body injuries (they were both hit in the head in Winnipeg), Tom has had to play more minutes. His total against Chicago was 22:42, which led all Capitals forwards. Wilson is playing a key role at even strength, on the penalty kill, and now on the power play with the Osh Babe on the shelf. He’s only 24 years old, too.
Andre Burakovsky played his best game of the season on Wednesday night notching a goal and employing an incredibly strong two way game. He was rewarded with late ice time with the Blackhawks net empty and when Chicago was throwing the kitchen sink at the Caps, #65 made a really strong play on the right wing boards to get a puck out of the zone against two Chicago players to help salt this one away. Andre was skating extremely confidently all game and he was excellent with his decisions with the biscuit. As Japers Rink reporter Jason Rogers mentioned afterwards, Wilson chimed in on Burky’s post game press conference by stating that Andre just needed his big brother back. That brought a sarcastic “You take credit for everything” reply from Burky, but it was all in good fun and shows just how close this squad is on and off of the ice. The bottom line is Wilson makes everyone in the lineup better because it puts the other players in the proper slots when it comes to the lines and matchups. Willy is one of the few guys on the team who can play with Ovechkin (1 assist). Finally, Burakovsky does deserve credit for turning his season around. He has 2 goals and an assist in the five games since Wilson returned while getting just one of each in the first 16 games. The Caps need #65 playing well if they want to go deep in the playoffs, like last season (yes, we all want the game 7 vs. Tampa version of Burakovsky).
Michal Kempny was moved by Chicago to the Caps before last season’s trade deadline. At the time, Caps GM Brian MacLellan, who some felt was the village idiot during the summer of 2017 (but not this guy!), thought that #6 could slot in as the Caps fourth defensemen. He was proven to be correct during the Stanley Cup run and then Michal signed a four year contract to come back to Washington this offseason. On Wednesday night, he really stuck it to his old club scoring the third goal with a point blast that Corey Crawford never saw because of an excellent double screen by Brett Connolly and Lars Eller. More importantly, after the Capitals went to sleep a bit and let Chicago back in the game, Michal made a great step up in the neutral zone to disrupt a Blackhawks potential game tying rush and stole the puck. Kempny swung it quickly to his right where John Carlson dumped it nicely down the boards to Travis Boyd, who then made a gorgeous pass to Devante Smith-Pelly at the back door for the game clinching tally. It was a very pretty play, but also the result of proper positioning, especially by Kempny.
Braden Holtby (37 saves) was a big reason the Capitals won this contest. After Washington raced out to a 2-0 lead in goals and eight to zip in shots, the Blackhawks found their legs. They are a very fast team that likes to rush the puck up the ice. They go to the cage fairly well, too. The Holtbeast was really dialed in and with Chicago trying to go low on him pretty much all game, Braden made sure to hit the ice to stop those attempts and smother the puck to prevent rebounds. The Holtbeast made a lot of big saves in this affair and he took some contact along the way. Jonathan Toews poked Holtby well after a whistle in the third period and the keeper whacked him back in the skates. Toews didn’t like that and shoved his glove in Braden’s face, but fortunately Wilson jumped in and pushed the Chicago captain out of there. Since returning from injury on Monday, the Holtbeast has stopped 59 of the 61 shots he’s faced. He is now 7-5-2 with a .909 save percentage.
Jakub Vrana had a gem of a game in just 12:46 of ice time. His no look behind the back pass to Burakovsky on the power play made it 2-0 and then it was #13 who pounced on the loose puck on an offensive zone faceoff, skated it out of traffic on the boards, and then fed Kempny for his rocket that made it 3-0. Vrana now has 12 points (5 goals, 7 assists) in 21 games.
The biggest thing I didn’t like was the way the Capitals played for the next 20 minutes after it was 3-0. Washington became careless with the puck, especially in the offensive zone and it cost them two goals. Brandon Saad made it 3-1 late in period two when Dmitry Orlov mistakenly overcommitted himself to #20 on the perimeter, blew a tire, and fell down. Saad then beat Holtby to the far post, a goal Braden won’t like. Chicago received a bunch of odd man rushes until DSP’s tally and they were the result of too many back passes from the corners to the high slot by Washington players. When you are up multiple goals, the best thing to do is keep the puck deep in your opponents end and cycle their defense. The Blackhawks have some young guys out there on the blue line, but their forwards are fast and experienced. So why the Caps players were putting blind and careless passes back to the points boggled my mind. Caps assistant coach Blaine Forsythe didn’t like it either and commented that the reason the Capitals finally were able to make it 4-2 was because they started making smarter decisions with the puck in the offensive zone. It’s not a hard concept, but with the high end skill the Caps have, the players sometimes forget that they have to change their approach to the game when they get a big lead. The low percentage plays need to be put on the shelf and the ones that make your trailing opponents have to go 200 feet to score through a wall of Capitals players is the way to proceed. Let’s hope they learned that lesson on Wednesday night.
Overall though, the Caps are doing many of the little things right again and as a result, they are winning games. They blocked 18 shots and after it was 4-2, they kept the Blackhawks on the perimeter the rest of the way. They just need to keep cleaning up their puck management, especially when they have the lead.
Next up for the Caps is a 4:00 pm tilt with the Detroit Red Wings on Friday afternoon. The Wings started horribly, but are playing much better hockey now. Former Capital Mike Green missed several games due to an illness, but he’s back and is a big factor in the Wings record sitting at 10-9-2 following Wednesday’s OT triumph over Boston. Detroit won a wild one at Capital One Arena back in February when the Capitals were really struggling. On Wednesday night, Washington paid back Chicago for the 7-1 beating they received last February at the United Center, now it’s time for some pay back on the Wings on Friday.
Notes: Matt Niskanen, who had a great stack the shin pads shot block in period three, logged 23:47 to lead the Capitals in ice time. Nisky had 7 of the 18 blocked shots by Washington, impressive!…the Caps lost the face off battle, 28-27, but they did have the only faceoff tally (Kempny’s blast). Travis Boyd went 6-3 and Chandler Stephenson was 4-0…Dmitri Jaskin logged just 7:30 and was -1. Chicago was not a good matchup for him…Brent Seabrook had 9 of the Blackhawks 39 shots, which is indicative of a lot of perimeter play. 18 of Chicago’s 39 shots came from blue liners while just 7 of the Capitals 27 shots were from defensemen…the Caps were 1 for 3 on the power play while Chicago went 0 for 3.