Alex Ovechkin had a goal and an assist, Nicklas Backstrom notched a goal and two assists, and Braden Holtby made 29 saves to lead the Washington Capitals to a 4-2 victory over the Calgary Flames at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night.
Kevin Shattenkirk added two assists and Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie (1 goal, 1 assist) also tallied for the Caps.
In short, Coach Barry Trotz’ star players shined on Tuesday night and that’s why Washington won.
But it wasn’t pretty and there are things that definitely need cleaning up.
The Caps came out fast in the first frame with the fourth line having a monster early shift, but Daniel Winnik’s shot in the slot hit the shaft of the stick of Flames goalie, Brian Elliott, and went over the net. Just 6:47 in, though, the Capitals would take the lead. Lars Eller forced Johnny Gaudreau to have to slow down in the neutral zone and then Andre Burakovsky flew in and picked the pocket of Johnny Hockey and went the other way. #65 then fed Kuznetsov streaking to the net all alone and Kuzy slid the puck inside the far post for an early marker.
The Caps prosperity, however, didn’t last long. At 10:06 Sean Monahan finished off a sublime feed from Gaudreau on a two on one break. Shattenkirk was doing his job pinching in on the boards on the right wing wall, but the Flames got control and went the other way. Winnik came charging back, but he and Brooks Oprik seemed to get their signals crossed and Monahan had an easy lane to the cage to get a back door goal.
The rest of the first frame was really sloppy by the Caps, but Calgary, who came in with a 12-1 record in their last 13 games, had several mishaps, as well.
In the second period, Washington really seemed to find their game, although there were some tense moments. Midway through the period, Michael Stone took a hooking penalty on Justin Williams, who was crashing the net. On the ensuing power play, a pass to Oshie in the slot was defended well and the Flames went the other way on a two on one break. Shattenkirk left his feet trying to break up the pass, and he missed badly. Mikael Backlund went in on Holtby and instead of shooting he passed across the crease to Michael Frolik, who appeared to have an open net. Somehow Braden stuck out his pad and made an incredible save to keep the game tied. If Calgary scores there, who knows what happens the rest of the way?
The Caps were clearly energized by the humongous stop and really played as well as I’ve seen them play this season in the last eight and half minutes of period two. They were skating and shooting the puck like crazy. Elliott was playing very well, but on the Washington second tally he had no chance. Backstrom, after taking a pass from Dmitry Orlov at the point on the right wing half wall, slid a diagonal pass to Ovi in the left wing circle. The Gr8 then passed it to the Osh Babe on the doorstep and he directed it home, top shelf. The goal was Oshie’s 30th of the season and the way Ovechkin described it after the game was perfect, “Ka-ching!” (h/t @jjregancsn of Comcast).
Ovi and company weren’t done, though. With 20 seconds left in the period, the Gr8 split the Calgary defesnse and drew a penalty. It took the Caps just 17 ticks to make it a two goal cushion as Shattenkirk’s shot hit Elliott and then knuckleballed behind him and slid towards the net. It looked like Backstrom nudged the puck before it crossed the line, but as of this posting just before midnight, the goal remained #22’s. (UPDATE: On Wednesday morning the goal has been changed by the NHL to be Backstrom from Shattenkirk and Oshie, so Ovechkin lost one of his two original assists).
In that middle period, the Capitals were downright dominant and that was the result of the top line just carrying the play. Coach Trotz put those guys on the ice quite a bit and the Flames had no answer.
So given how well the Caps locked down Saturday’s win in Tampa, this 3rd frame was going to be a “Walk in the park, Kazansky” right? Well, not so fast.
Calgary wasn’t going to lie down and for some reason Washington decided to revert to some very bad habits; drop passes and back passes in the offensive zone with a two goal lead instead of getting pucks on net or deep in the offensive zone. It was bad hockey and if they do stuff like that against the Penguins in the playoffs, they will likely lose. The Caps would still carry the two goal cushion into the final five minutes, but they kept trading end to end rush situations and that allowed Troy Brouwer to finish off a nice passing play with 4:56 remaining to make this a one goal game. What was even worse was just a dozen seconds later, this game was nearly tied! Mark Giordano somehow ended up with a clear lane to Holtby on a two on one break, but the Holtbeast made a huge save to preserve the lead.
Just 20 seconds later, Calgary sealed their fate when they took a delay of game penalty. Coach Trotz gambled on his top guys and kept Ovi on the left point and it paid off. The Capitals worked the puck around well tiring out the Flames defenders and when Shattenkirk faked a shot inside the blue line and fed the Gr8 nicely in the left circle, Ovechkin went top shelf to close this one out with 2:51 left in regulation.
It was fitting that Ovi got that goal because he was fantastic in this affair. His legs have been coming around in recent weeks and on this night, he played his best game of the season. He was dominant and creating all kinds of chances and havoc for Calgary. Backstrom and Oshie were superb, too and it was nice to see Shattenkirk have a big outing.
As Coach Trotz told Nestor Aparacio and I at our WNST puck talk at Greenmount Station in Hampstead on Monday night, this trade has been a big transition for #22. The Blues play a more passive system where the defense sits back further from the forwards. In Washington’s structure, however, Trotz wants the defense up in the play with good gap control and support to the centers and wingers. That’s caused quite an adjustment for Shattenkirk, but he’s starting to feel more comfortable.
Overall, this was a good win against a very hot team, and I can sum up each period for the Caps with one word:
First period – sloppy
Second period – dominant
Third period – careless
The win was important though, because the Penguins also won so they are just a point behind the Caps (47-17-8, 102 points) with 10 games to go. Columbus is two points back and their game in hand is against the Leafs on Wednesday night. The Blue Jackets then come to DC on Thursday for a first place showdown.
I still don’t like the way the Capitals played in the 3rd period and parts of the first frame. Coach Trotz also noted on Monday night at the WNST event that the Caps are first in the league in puck possession, but 16th in shots. There’s the smoking gun on over passing and some bad decision making, at times, in the offensive zone. That needs to change if Washington wants to win in the postseason.
They were fortunate that they were really playing at the top of their game in period two and also that the Holtbeast was in Vezina form in key situations. The stars made enough plays to provide a W, but that final frame leaves more to be desired in respect to Washington’s overall game.
Notes: Final shot attempts were 62-60 for the Caps. It was 52-35 after 40 minutes, so Calgary had a 25-10 advantage in the last 20 minutes. That stinks…Washington gave up far too many odd man rushes in this contest…Shots on goal were 40-31 for the Capitals…Ovechkin had 13 shot attemps, 11 of them were on goal. He was dynamite on Tuesday…John Carlson led the Caps in ice time with a low total of 22:21… the Caps lost the face off battle, 27-25, but Eller was 9-4.