After Thursday’s debacle in Vancouver, Capitals Coach Barry Trotz talked about the Caps need to simplify their game and play smarter. They had gotten into a terrible pattern of turning pucks over in all zones and taking too many penalties.
On Saturday night in Edmonton, against the high flying Oilers, things started poorly once again for the Caps. Connor McDavid used his speed to generate a chance and Washington’s defense was exposed badly leading to a rebound tally 7:44 into the contest. Then with 2:05 left in the first frame Adam Larsson took advantage of some bad Capitals clears and beat Braden Holtby (38 saves) short side from the slot. Shortly thereafter, the Oilers nearly made it 3-0 and it was looking like the Canucks game all over again.
At that point, one had to wonder if the Caps had the resolve to fight through the adversity and turn the ship around.
Then they made a play that turned the game their way late in the period. John Carlson made a super rush up the ice beating the Edmonton defender in the neutral zone with a sweet chip off of the boards to himself and then #74 fed Devante Smith-Pelly, who was going to the net on the left wing side, with Alex Ovechkin charging down the middle of the ice drawing the Oilers D. DSP one timed Carlson’s feed past Cam Talbot and with just 18 seconds left in the period, the Caps were only down 2-1.
It was a huge momentum boost for Washington and that gave them the confidence they needed to stick to their game and grind their way back into this affair on Hockey Night in Canada.
The Capitals would score four more goals, with the fifth going into an empty net by Jay Beagle with 19 seconds left, to win, 5-2. Their record is now 5-5-1 as they head to Calgary for Sunday night’s tilt at the outdated Saddledome.
Here are 10 thoughts on this huge victory for Ovechkin and company:
- I was very critical of Evgeny Kuznetsov after his poor first period in Vancouver on Thursday night. He was not playing well in his own end and he took a very bad penalty when it was 1-0. On Saturday at Rogers Place, #92 was dominant. Centering Ovechkin and DSP, that line was really rolling and Kuzy notched the game winning goal by going to the net and deflecting home a feed from the Gr8 just 30 seconds into period three. Then with 4:04 left he made a dazzling move to split the Oilers defense and bank one in off of Talbot’s pads to seal the deal for the Caps. Kuznetsov, who has a major tendency to be a pass first, second, and third guy and become predictable, was anything but that in this affair. He had five shots on net in nine shot attempts and he nearly had a hat trick, hitting the cross bar after it was 4-2. He still needs to improve his defensive zone coverage, but that’s the Kuznetsov Brian MacLellan backed the Brinks truck up to pay long term.
- Carlson was another guy who has been playing very inconsistently and things looked to continue that way when he made a bad early offensive zone turnover that resulted in an odd man rush against. However, #74, who logged 28:51, most of it with the Capitals most reliable defensemen this season, Brooks Orpik (27:47), had arguably his best game of the campaign. He had six shot attempts and really was strong on the back end. When Carlson is paired with a defensive minded blue liner he seems to excel. Coach Trotz was smart to reunite 44-74 with Matt Niskanen out of the lineup due to his hand injury. Carlson and Orpik are still playing too many minutes, but that’s the way it has to be until #2 returns.
- Ovechkin was a big factor in this game in just 16:22 of ice time. The Gr8 had three assists, only one of which was the primary one, but his pass to Madison Bowey with the Caps on a delayed penalty advantage was simple, but very smart. Bowey, who is still learning but has the tools to be a really solid NHL professional, fed Lars Eller and #20 lasered it by Talbot to tie the game up just before the game’s halfway point. That whole sequence was set up by Tom Wilson drawing a penalty by going to the net and getting mugged. On the night, Alex was +4 and had nine shot attempts and four hits.
- Eller, outside of his penalties, turned in one of his best games as a Capital and it was really needed. He had a goal and an assist in only 13:30 of ice time. He had six shots on goal and his line (Chandler Stephenson and Wilson) put pressure on the Oilers defense allowing the Kuznetsov line to shine.
- It’s amazing what getting your best player back, Nicklas Backstrom, does to stabilize a lineup. With Nicky out on Thursday the Capitals looked like one of the worst teams in the league as Kuznetsov and Eller couldn’t step up to fill the void. With #19 back in, everyone was back in their proper slots and the Caps looked like a different squad. Backstrom had 0 points in 18:06, but he took on some of Edmonton’s top guys allowing the rest of the team to win their matchups and ultimately the game.
- This game is not won without the goaltending of the Holtbeast (38 saves). After a poor middle period in Vancouver, Braden was dialed in and made numerous big stops, which he often made look routine. Everything in hockey starts with the goalie and goes out and Washington needed a rebound performance from #70 and he delivered – big time!
- Some people got upset when Coach Trotz talked about the Capitals simplifying their game and playing smarter, but he’s right. This club does not have the talent it had the last two seasons to play a wide open game where you trade chances with the opposition. The Capitals were trying to do that too much and with some really green guys on the back end, that method was not going to work. There is nothing wrong with making the smarter plays coming out of your own end and in the neutral zone to result in getting more pucks on net and behind the other’s team’s defense. That type of hockey wears out the opponent. On Saturday the Caps, for the most part, dumped that stupid cross ice pass that had been getting them in trouble in all zones and took a more North-South approach. They stuck to their game plan and found a way not to panic after it was nearly 3-0 (a Holtby stop literally saved the game just before DSP scored). Patience paid off.
- Bowey had two assists in only 13:46 of ice time, but this kid has all of the tools to be a really strong NHL defensemen. I like the way he’s playing smart and making the simple plays, especially in his own end.
- Christian Djoos only played 13:53, but he was +2. He is very good in the offensive end, however, his defensive zone is a major work in progress. He needs to learn to not try and use the weak backhanded pass and instead hold on to the puck and take a hit along the wall. That way he isn’t putting the biscuit in a vulnerable spot and eventually he’ll get a teammate in to help him. Some of the plays he is making are why he gets called “soft,” at times. A solid blue liner knows he needs to sacrifice his body while waiting for reinforcements to arrive. Get rid of the backhand passes, eat the puck along the wall, and he’ll see better defensive results which should eventually lead to more minutes.
- The Caps had zero power plays in this game, although had Eller not scored on the delayed infraction, they would’ve gotten one. The zebras missed some calls on the Oilers, most notably a trip on Oveckhin and a too many men infraction. Edmonton went 0 for 4 with the man advantage. Washington was better at not taking bad penalties. They had two delay of game calls, an iffy interference on the Saturday recal from Hershey, Anthony Peluso, and a hold on Eller. Keeping it to three or less opponent power plays is the magic number to better success for the Capitals.
Overall, this was a well earned victory for the Caps and has to give them confidence that if they play a more structured and simple game, they have a much better chance of winning, especially with the goaltending they have and the quick strike firepower they possess in Ovechkin and company on the high end. It’s the gambling passes and penalties that have been killing this team early on. On Saturday night, they got back to the basics and scored five goals. That’s how it’s done!
Notes: Shot attempts were 76-57 for the Oilers. Shots on goal were 40-30 for Edmonton…the Caps lost the faceoff battle, 37-24, but Beagle was 9-4…Eller took three minor penalties, two of which were pucks shot over the glass.