The Washington Capitals were “Oh for” on the second half of back to back games this season, as in zero wins in four previous situations.
Alexander “Oh”vechkin made sure that streak ended on Saturday night in the Big Smoke.
The Gr8 potted two first period goals, one of which was an end to end highlight reel marker and the other was a puck pounded through Leafs goalie Curtis McElhinney with John Daly like power off of a faceoff. Then Alex sealed the deal for the Caps with an empty net goal with nine seconds remaining to secure a 4-2 victory.
Ovechkin’s brilliance gives the Caps a nice three game winning streak heading into a stretch of four days off. Washington has now hit four games over .500 for the first time this season, with a mark of 14-10-1 (29 points).
This was the third straight solid effort by the Capitals and it was their third such game in four days, so there is no doubt they are a tired, but happy bunch.
Here’s my thoughts and analysis of an entertaining hockey game:
Ovechkin now leads the NHL in goals with 18 in 25 games (pace of 59 goals) and he has 13 even strength markers counting the empty net tally he notched on Saturday. I’ve mentioned this a few times in blogs and several times on Twitter, but there is no doubt that the change he made in off season training has changed his game for the better. Ovi is much faster on the ice and he has that burst that he used to display in his earlier days. His first goal was just a thing of beauty; great skating, super puck handling, and then unbelievable hands to fake the defensemen and goalie out with a laser of a shot that would’ve only been stopped if a piece of wood was covering the entire net. It was a “Wow!” moment and at that point, everyone in attendance had their money’s worth.
Ovechkin invited 13 year old cancer survivor, Alex Luey to the game on Saturday night, because the youngster stated that the Gr8 was his favorite player. Boy did Ovi make it special for his fan on this evening with a spectacular performance. Luey was so overcome with joy after the win that he cried and hugged his parents. Our good friend, Ian Oland, over at Russian Machine Never Breaks chronicled the story. Please read it, it’ll warm your heart, something we all need these days.
In honor of his three goals, Ovechkin gets another bullet point in this blog. He was fantastic in this affair and his line was great. Coach Barry Trotz even had faith in him at the end of the game defensively by putting him on the ice with a one goal lead in the waning seconds. Ovi made his bench boss look good as he got the “Hattie” as a result of some great work on the boards by Alex and his teammates. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the Capitals are three wins and zero losses since Trotz reunited Ovechkin with long time center Nicklas Backstrom (two assists).
T.J. Oshie had a nice night, as well, with three assists. He had the big face off win on the Caps power play that led to the second goal, a howitzer from Ovechkin, and made a sweet outlet pass to Jakub Vrana for #13’s breakaway tally that gave Washington a 3-0 lead heading into the final frame. The Osh Babe was a dynamo all night, once again, and he constantly wins board battles and keeps pucks alive. He’s just a truly fantastic hockey player.
Speaking of fantastic, he didn’t get mentioned in the top three stars of the game (Ovechkin, Oshie, and Nikita Zaitsev), but in my book, after Ovi, the most outstanding player on the ice for the Capitals was defensemen Dmitry Orlov. Orlov had zero points tonight (+2), but he played one of the best games I’ve ever seen him have. He carried the Caps in their own zone and led the team in ice time at 26:25. He was physical (4 hits), great with his decision making, and just superb at breaking the puck out of the Capitals end. To top it all off, his play on the right wing boards, his offhand side, on the defensive zone faceoff before Ovi’s ENG was just sensational hard work and determination. Orlov fights off two Leafs there to get the puck to Oshie, who then got it down the ice where Osh Babe, Backy and Ovi could close the deal. I’m giving a standing ovation for the play of Orlov in Toronto on Hockey Night in Canada, well done, Dmitry! Very Impressive!
With Philipp Grubauer getting the front end of the back to back situation for the first time this season, Braden Holtby was the starter in this tilt and the Holtbeast was a big factor in the victory, as well. Some of the most important things he did in period two, other than stopping the puck from going in the net, was to halt play at key times. On a couple of occasions in that middle frame, where the Capitals defense endures a long change, Holtby froze the puck after extended shifts instead of giving up a rebound. Those stoppages were important because it allowed Coach Trotz to get fresh legs on the ice, which was especially key in the back to back games situation. Down the stretch, when it looked like the Caps might fade and give up the three goal lead, the Holtbeast made some big stops, especially when the Leafs pulled their goalie.
Both the Capitals and Leafs played in the USA on Friday and had to travel to Toronto for Saturday’s game. The Leafs were at home and are a younger team, so going in, the edge had to be for the Maple Leafs in this affair. For forty minutes, it was mostly Caps and the older team was the one skating faster and getting the better scoring chances. Washington deserved that three goal lead.
In the first 10 plus minutes of the third period, the young legs of the Leafs appeared and they dominated that part of the game. Washington didn’t help themselves either with some poor decision making. Chandler Stephenson’s ill timed back pass to noone allowed Toronto to go down and cut the score to 3-2 with 13:51 remaining. Shortly thereafter Matt Niskanen carried the puck behind the Leafs net and then tried a low percentage pass to Oshie at the right point. #77 fortunately got his boot on the disc, otherwise it was an odd man rush the other way. When you are winning in the third period, you have to make the safe play, and putting the puck back behind the net if you don’t have a clear shot or pass is always the next best thing to do.
What a change we’ve seen in Vrana in just eight days! After coming out of his healthy scratch in Colorado to the third line, where he performed well, #13 was promoted to the second line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Oshie for Wednesday’s tilt with Ottawa. Boy has this line clicked and Vrana notched his seventh goal of the campaign on a breakaway where he just blew by the Leafs defender like he was an orange road cone. With Andre Burakovsky still out another three weeks or so following hand surgery, the Capitals really needed Vrana to come alive and he’s finally doing that. His progress over the last week or so has been extremely encouraging.
Overall, things are really starting to become clearer about this hockey team. The biggest key is getting both Kuznetsov and Backstrom to play well and that’s been the case since Coach Trotz went all Reg Dunlop again and shuffled up the lines. The Capitals have talent, but they have to have a work ethic that is strong to succeed in this very balanced league. Over the last three games they’ve brought the energy and determination to win so many one on one battles. Their puck support has been excellent, as well. That strong work ethic leads to fewer penalties and on Saturday they only took one, which was very important given the back-to-back games situation. Sure they’ll be patches where they look tired, like Saturday’s first 10 minutes of the third period, but that will happen over the course of the season. The key is how the team fights through those stretches. On Saturday night, they came out on top of a very good and young Toronto team.
The Capitals are certainly moving in the right direction and this short break is much needed to recharge the batteries so that they can take advantage of an upcoming five game home stand that includes important Metropolitan Division match ups with the Blue Jackets and the Rangers.
Notes: Niskanen logged 24:14 while John Carlson played 22:38. Nisky was good in the first two periods, but he had some bad passes in the third. He’s clearly still getting his timing back from being out for 13 games…the Leafs won the face off battle, 34-25…the Caps had 37 hits. Brooks Orpik led the team with six…the Leafs outshot the Caps, 29-21. Ovechkin had four shots on goal…the Leafs outshot attempted the Capitals, 56-43…the Capitals were 1 for 3 on the power play and a perfect one for one on the PK…Washington’s next game is Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings at Capital One Arena.