T.J. Oshie scored twice and every Capitals forward in the top nine notched at least one point as the Washington Capitals rallied from a poor start and an early 2-0 deficit to totally destroy the Ottawa Senators, 7-2, on Tuesday night at Capital One Arena. Braden Holtby made 21 saves to pick up his 22nd victory of the season as the Caps moved into a first place tie in the Metropolitan Division with the New York Islanders at 79 points.
The Isles lost at home on Tuesday to Calgary, 3-1, but they do have two games in hand on the Capitals, who are now at 36-21-7. New York will play their former captain, John Tavares, and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night at Nassau Coliseum in what will be an emotionally charged contest. The Caps will then take on Coach Barry Trotz and his team on Friday evening in an affair that will also be played on Long Island.
Back to Tuesday’s tilt, there was a very poor beginning to this contest for the Caps. Ottawa coach Guy Boucher is known for clogging the neutral zone and the entry to his defensive zone and Washington didn’t play the right way early on forcing pucks to the middle of the ice and refusing to make the smart play, which was to dump the puck down the boards and put pressure on a young Senators defense. As a result, even a depleted Ottawa roster, which lost forwards Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, and Ryan Dzingel before the trade deadline, was able to take advantage of Washington mistakes and forge an early lead.
Oscar Lindberg, who was acquired in the Stone trade with Vegas, tallied on the doorstep when Lars Eller and Michal Kempny didn’t communicate in coverage in the slot area. A Travis Boyd tripping penalty just over two minutes later put the Caps a man down and Anthony Duclair, a historical Capitals killer, tallied on the power play through a screen created by Chris Tierney and Matt Niskanen.
The Caps would go over 10 minutes before getting their first shot on net, but as the period progressed into the latter stages, you could see Washington starting to exert a lot of effort. Alex Ovechkin (2 assists) took a nice feed from Evgeny Kuznetsov (1 goal, 1 assist) to set up Tom Wilson for a layup on the door step with 3:03 to go in the opening frame to cut the deficit in half. Less than a minute later, Lars Eller took a sweet cross ice pass from Dmitry Orlov (2 assists) and buried it to even things up after 20 minutes.
Washington came out guns a blazing and put up four second period markers with the first coming on the power play, a John “Norris” Carlson bomb from the point after a nice dish from All Star Nicklas Backstrom (2 assists). The Caps needed just 38 seconds to tally in their only man advantage opportunity of the night. Before the middle stanza hit the 10 minute mark, the Caps ran the lead to 5-2 on an Oshie rebound goal of a good, hard point shot by Brooks Orpik that Anders Nilsson couldn’t handle and then Brett Connolly’s career high 16th goal on a sequence in which Andre Burakovsky made two nice plays to earn an assist. Oshie would then notch his 20th goal of the season on a rush sequence with Orlov providing another nice pass to make it 6-2 after 40 minutes.
Kuznetsov closed out the scoring just 17 seconds into period three, which was good because Evgeny had left late in period two going down the tunnel to the locker room after taking a puck in the right wrist area. Wilson, who scored his career high 18th goal to open the scoring, notched his 15th assist of the campaign and Ovi also had the primary helper on the play to give him 74 points in 63 games.
This was a sloppy game, at times, by the Caps, but when they played their system, they thoroughly dominated a team that is very inexperienced, as one would expect. Coach Todd Reirden wasn’t happy with the start, but he heavily relies on his leadership group to right the ship when necessary, and they did just that on this evening. Ovechkin had a big shift that got the team rolling and then Backstrom, Oshie, and Orpik turned in strong performances as part of the leadership core.
Oshie was especially impressive. He beat out an icing on one sequence in period two and even when the Caps were up by five goals with just over six minutes to go, he was still working his butt off. Ottawa had what appeared to a be a jailbreak, a four on one by my eyes, but the Osh Babe back checked quickly and ended up intercepting a Sens pass to the slot in front of Holtby and skated the biscuit out of harm’s way. When asked about that play following the contest, the Caps bench boss smiled big time, paused, and then praised Oshie up and down stating that is why #77 is so important to his team. Coach Rierden talked about how great a teammate T.J. is and said he tried to put him out for extra shifts a couple of times late in the game to get him a hat trick and the Osh Babe politely declined. It was pretty clear from Todd’s assessment that Oshie is all about the team at all times and the coach said that both of those clips, the icing washout and the super back check, will be shown on video to the team as they prepare for the Islanders. As I’ve said in the past, the Capitals don’t win a Stanley Cup without the Osh Babe.
Another player who continues to improve is Burakovksy. Andre, with his well deserved assist on the fifth goal, is now up to 20 points in 58 games and as his line mate Connolly noted afterwards, has really been playing with confidence over the last several weeks. On that tally, Andre made the right play to start the whole sequence by putting the puck down the right wing boards after his zone entry. The Senators had vacated that area of the ice all night and when the Caps put the puck there, they usually turned it into scoring chances and/or long offensive zone time. Ottawa had to retrieve that disc and when they tried to take it up the other wall for an exit, Burky was there to force a turnover and get the biscuit to Conno, who then skated up high in the offensive zone around Thomas Chabot and then down the right side of the slot before beating Nilsson five hole.
On the back end, Orpik and Nick Jensen had another solid effort together with Brooks getting an assist for the second straight game. The acquisition of Jensen provides stability to the blue line and in this contest, assistant coach Reid Cashman pretty much just rolled the defensive pairs as evidenced by the fairly even ice times. Niskanen led the way with a low total of 20:48, but Jensen, Orlov, Kempny, and Carlson were all above 20 minutes while #44 logged 17:46. Getting the minutes down for Carlson and Niskanen to keep them fresher going forward is important. Up front, Backstrom led the way with 16:37 and Boyd had the lowest time on ice for forwards with 12:12.
Coach Reirden, who was put in a tough spot after Coach Trotz resigned for more money and term in New York, commented afterwards that he is happy that everyone now knows what the roster is going to be going forward with Monday’s trade deadline in the rear view mirror. All of the players have clearly defined roles. Todd mentioned that he’s done a lot of research into trying to repeat, which is a very difficult thing to achieve, especially in the NHL (only the Penguins and Red Wings have done it in the last 25 years). He noted that he’s focused on trying to make sure that the club has the right energy level from here on out and he’ll adjust his schedule accordingly as things progress. The Caps have had some real stinkers this season, but that was the case in 2017-18, as well. This is an experienced group that has a lot of pride. When they show up focused, with energy, and play the system, they typically prevail. The Capitals tend to get up for big games, and after not being ready against the Islanders in December at Capital One Arena in a 2-0 blanking, I expect them to be dialed in and look more like the team that stuck it to New York in November.
Notes: Both teams were one for one on the power play…Washington lost the face off battle, 30-35. Oshie was 4-0 and Kuznetsov went 9-8…the Caps only had eight hits, but they did have the puck most of the night…shot attempts were 67-40 for the Capitals. Ottawa had 13 shots on goal in period one and just five each in the final two frames (23 total). The Caps had 37 shots on goal.