Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals continue to be on a serious roll.
The cuddly Ovi scored a goal and assisted on three others, center Nicklas Backstrom scored his first goal in 22 games and added two helpers, and top line Tom Wilson was a human wrecking ball notching the first four point night (two goals, two assists) of his career in a 6-2 rout of the Chicago Blackhawks at Capital One Arena.
Braden Holtby did his part in this win, as well, stopping 37 of 39 shots, including all 16 he faced in a Hawks assault in the middle frame.
The victory increases the Caps record to 17-11-1 (35 points) and they are just a point out of first place in the Metropolitan Division heading into Friday’s big tilt at home against the New York Rangers.
Coach Barry Trotz’ club has now won six of their last seven games and are 12-0 when they score four or more goals this season.
Let’s get right to the highlights and analysis of Washington’s third straight victory.
There’s no better place to start than with the Gr8, he was simply fabulous with his all around play against Chicago. His pass to get Backstrom off of the schneid was dynamite and then his follow up rebound goal on Wilson’s breakaway was another example of Ovi’s improved physique and speed this season. When things got testy in period two, his hammered power play shot ricocheted off of J.F. Berube’s pads and right to Brett Connolly, who potted his third goal in three games to make it 4-1 and give Washington some much needed breathing room. Alex then really closed this one out with a great fore-check and pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov in the slot that Kuzy buried to make it 5-1 and end any potential for late game Blackhawks heroics. Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals with 21 and he has 32 points in 29 games. Yeah, he’s washed up, haters.
Backstrom, despite his goalless streak, has still been playing well. Night after night Coach Trotz puts him out against the opposition’s top center and he delivers a strong two way game. Now that he’s back where he should be, with Ovechkin, because he’s the one who knows best how to get the Gr8 the puck, he’s starting to get his points again. Backy was in the right spot in the slot for the all important first goal of the game at 11:54. His offensive zone faceoff win just under three minutes later resulted in Wilson’s first goal, which made it 2-0. That was a weak tally allowed by starting goalie, Anton Forsberg. On Connolly’s goal, the whole play was made by #19 fighting for a loose puck in the slot and getting it over to the Gr8 for his howitzer.
There were some skeptics when Coach Trotz bumped Wilson up to the first line with Ovechkin and Backstrom, but that move is paying off. Remember when the Caps first line used to be Ovi, Backy, and Troy Brouwer? Well Willy is filling the Brouwer role quite nicely, if not better. His steal set the first goal up. #43 is playing the best hockey of his career, right now, and he drew the penalty on Lance Bouma that led to the Connolly marker late in period two. This was after Bouma hurt Tom on a clean check where Willy had his arm extended and it got pinched on the boards in the defensive zone. Wilson went to the locker room and things looked ominous for the Caps with T.J. Oshie out due to Jumbo Joe’s cheap shot hit on Monday and Andre Burakovksy not likely back in the lineup until Friday. Luckily Tom was okay and returned, looking no worse for the wear. Wilson is performing well because he’s shooting the puck and is an absolute beast on the fore-check. His PK skills are excellent and it was fitting that he closed the scoring out in this game with a shorthanded empty net tally. If Ryan Hartman wasn’t such a gutless coward, Willy would have had the Gordie on this night. Hartman’s late game despicable trip of Ovechkin, which could have caused a serious knee injury, really deserved an ass beating, but Ryan skated away.
Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana continue to play some excellent hockey on the second line, even without the Osh Babe on this night. Vrana is really using his speed to open up lanes and he’s been really solid in his own zone. He’s especially excelling with his pesky fore-checking that has been causing turnovers. Since the Calgary game, Kuzy has been insanely good and worthy of numerous fist bumps. He’s making the right plays all over the ice and his shoot versus pass decisions have been SPOT ON. #92 now has nine goals with seven of them coming in the last 10 games. When Washington gets the kind of one-two center play they are getting from Backstrom and Kuznetsov, they are hard to beat.
Goaltending is the strength of this Capitals team and both Holtby and Philipp Grubauer are currently delivering the big save when the team needs it. It is scary how well the Holtbeast is playing right now and there’s a serious argument to be made that he’s playing better than the last two seasons. He made several big stops when things were really dicey and the game was still in doubt. Over his last five starts, Holtby is 4-1-0 with a .932 save percentage and has stopped 69 of the last 74 shots he’s faced (h/t to the Capitals excellent PR staff).
Connolly has really taken advantage of the opportunity to fill the Oshie role on the first power play unit. Brett is doing the right things on the ice and he’s getting rewarded for it. He’s moving his feet and finding the soft spots in the defensive coverage on the ice where goals can be scored, in the slot and around the net.
Matt Niskanen probably had his best game of the season. He and Dmitry Orlov are returning to last year’s form. Nisky was +4 with an assist. Orlov continues to lead the charge on successful Capitals break outs and his long flip pass to Wilson on the third goal was just outstanding. #9 is getting better and better and his defensive zone play features some sneaky good physical play.
The Caps have done a better job at lowering the number of penalties they have been taking. On Monday they were whistled for four shorthanded situations, but two of the calls were horrendous, the board on Wilson when Gustav Forsling turned his back as #43 was about to hit him clean from the side (even the NBC announcers hated that call) and then the interference call on Ovechkin, when he stayed in his lane and didn’t move one way or the other to impede Bouma. Somehow clueless Dan O’Halloran and Jon McIsaac thought otherwise.
One thing the Capitals still have to work on is their defensive zone clears and their propensity to make offensive zone turnovers. Devante Smith-Pelly had a very soft behind the back defensive zone giveaway that led to a two on none for Chicago, but Holtby bailed DSP out. Ovechkin had a late turnover that led to a Jonathan Toews breakaway goal, but John Carlson was also to blame there for not being more responsible up four goals. Finally, Lars Eller had a bad offensive zone turnover when it was 5-1. #20 went across the blue line on a one on three and with no help coming he peeled off and tried a crazy cross ice pass that was stolen. The right play was a shot or dump of the puck behind the net. Right after that turnover, Brooks Orpik was called for hooking. If Eller makes the correct decision, there is no Chicago power play. Overall the Capitals had 22 giveaways, that is far too many and the biggest reason they have spells where they get outplayed and out shot.
I really liked the way both rookie defensemen Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos performed against a team with some high caliber players. There was one sequence where Djoos made a hit and a steal in his own end. We all know Christian is excellent in the offensive zone, but the key to his NHL tenure will be how much he improves defensively.
Overall though, this was a very impressive win with Oshie and Burakovsky out. Hopefully both will be back soon with #65 very likely for Friday’s tilt against the Blueshirts. Things are looking up for Washington, but it’s a tight division and the league is very balanced. They need to keep working hard and improving the little things in their game, especially the turnovers, if they want to move their way up the standings.
Notes: Carlson led the Caps in ice time with 25:47. Orpik was second with 22:19…the Caps lost the faceoff battle, 37-30, but Backstrom went 14-11…shots on goal were 39-25, for Chicago. Ovechkin led the Caps with six shots on goal…the Caps blocked 20 of the 68 shot attempts by the Blackhawks…the Caps were 1 for 3 on the power play and Chicago was 0 for 4.