Alexander Ovechkin scored his NHL leading 45th goal of the season 4:34 into period three, just 68 seconds after Jakub Vrana had tied the game, and Braden Holtby made 20 saves as the Washington Capitals won on Long Island, 3-1. The Capitals are now 37-21-7 (81 points) and are tied with New York for first place in the Metropolitan Division. The Islanders have a game in hand.
The Caps went into Nassau Coliseum for the first time since 2015, where they lost game six of that playoff series before closing out game seven at home on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s sensational tally. In this tilt, they had a schedule advantage given that the Islanders played John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night in #91’s first game back in town. Coach Barry Trotz’ crew dominated Mike Babcock’s squad in a 6-1 thrashing of the tired Leafs, who played and won on Wednesday night, then cleared customs and traveled to the USA for a thorough butt whipping at the Coliseum.
On Friday, New York was due to be fatigued and as expected, they played a tight, packed in defensive game that was geared towards limiting quality chances. Things started well for the Islanders. Just 2:43 into the contest, Tom Kuhnhackl took advantage of a terrible cross ice defensive zone pass by Dmitry Orlov and went in all alone on Holtby. The former Penguin, who hit the post in overtime of game six of last year’s Caps-Pens series before Kuzy won it on a breakaway, beat Holts on the backhand upstairs, but the replay seemed to indicate that New York was offside. The Caps chose not to challenge, however, and the Islanders protected their net well for 40 minutes to lead by a puck going into period three. That advantage could’ve been bigger if not for two hit posts by the home squad.
In period three, the Capitals stayed patient and continued to win board battles and keep the disc in the Isles end. Washington had trouble getting pucks and bodies to the net simultaneously in the first two frames, but the flood gates would open up early in the third stanza. Michal Kempny carried a puck into the lower left wing circle after his initial shot was blocked and slid it into the crease area where All Star Nicklas Backstrom had battled to the front of the cage. Nicky couldn’t get the puck on net with his stick tied up, but it hit an Islanders skate and was laying in harm’s way. Vrana was right there on the doorstep to put the biscuit in the basket for his 19th of the season and notched the Capitals first tally on Trotzy’s team in over five periods (New York shutout the Caps, 2-0, at Capital One Arena in January).
Fifty five seconds after the Vrana lamp lighter, the Islanders were called for their first penalty of the game when Anders Lee dumped Backy off of a face off and was sent to the box to feel shame for interference. It was the play of a tired forward and it put Washington in position to take the lead for the first time. Thirteen seconds later, the Caps did just that. All five Capitals on the power play touched the puck before it went into the net off of the stick of Johnny Boychuk. John Carlson fed Backstrom on the right wing half wall, who moved it to Kuzy below the goal line to the right of Thomas Greiss (26 saves). Evgeny sent it to T.J. Oshie in the slot, who one-timed it on net. Greiss made the initial save, but pushed the rebound in the air into the slot where the Gr8 got just enough of it on his baseball swing to send it wobbling over the Islanders goalie and off of Boychuk’s stick, which was above his shoulders, and into the net.
From there, the Capitals were able to clamp this one down and when the Osh Babe cleared the puck after a nice pass from Brooks Orpik, Josh Bailey mistakenly slid the puck backwards thinking he had a player behind him. In the words of one Ron White, though, he was wrong! The disc ended up going right into the open cage and Oshie was credited with his 21st tally of the season to close out the scoring.
This was never going to be a pretty game and was going to be all about which team could outwork the other and win the board battles. Washington had the big advantage there for the evening, out shot attempting the Islanders, 69-40, but it took some good stops from Holtby and the iron to keep the deficit at one before the Capitals were able to take over in the last 20 minutes. This was basically a test of wills and the Caps, who like to play a more free flowing game with their high end skill, rolled up their sleeves and gutted out a win over a team that plays its system extremely well. The Islanders are no fluke, they play very structured and make you work to score.
On Friday night, the Capitals had their work boots on and grinded out a much needed two points. On Sunday afternoon at 12:30 pm they will face a New York Rangers team that has been very competitive despite a very young roster. They lost twice this week in extra time (lost to the Caps in OT on Sunday and the Bolts in a shootout on Wednesday) before a 4-2 defeat to Montreal on Friday night at Madison Square Garden. Coach Todd Reirden’s crew will be off on Saturday, but they must come out ready to battle again when facing the Blueshirts if they want two more much needed points.
It’s that time of year where the games are much tighter checking affairs and the players that win the board battles and work hard to create ugly goals usually prevail. That was the Capitals on Friday against their old bench boss.
Notes: The Caps had a 29-21 shots on goal advantage. Ovi led the Caps with five…the Capitals won the faceoff battle, 31-24. Backstrom was 13-6 and Nic Dowd went 5-1…Carlson led the Caps and all skaters in ice time with 23:20…Andre Burakovsky (7:32) and Travis Boyd (6:36) each played less than eight minutes…the Caps were 1 for 3 on the power play (2:13) and 2 for 2 while shorthanded (four minutes).